on white feminism as an ideology
October 9, 2016
I truly have no idea why I’ve been thinking so much about white feminism over the past few days. I don’t even like feminism in general, much less white feminism in particular. I guess it’s been on my mind since it occurred to me why ‘white feminism’ as a concept or an ideology is so important. Why its necessary. I did some (very cursory) searching yesterday into how white feminism has been discussed recently. There are many good discussions as to what it is and why its important to talk about… but it always feels to me that white feminism, as usually discussed, allows white women – in particular – to distance themselves from it. Much like how white people tend to do with racism, even the ‘good’ white people. Racism is always something other whites are doing, not them. I want to talk about how white feminism isn’t really something that cishet white women can opt out of.
White feminism tends to come up as a way to describe the way that Feminism has failed women of colour, disabled women, poor women, queer women, and so on. ‘White feminism’ as a concept, a term, appears to primarily exist as a method of critiquing mainstream feminism. Which, for me, is the chief source of disconnect. I say this because mainstream feminism is white feminism. This is why the label ‘white feminism’ is so important. It dislocates the hegemonic feminism we call ‘mainstream’ as mainstream. White feminism then becomes simply one variant of many feminisms, rather than being The Feminism.
I am not the first person to point out that ‘feminism’ as a singular, monolithic ideology doesn’t exist, rather that there are many feminisms. Some feminisms are mutually incompatible (like trans feminism and radical feminism). Some feminisms are complementary. But the one thing there isn’t is a singular feminism that unifies all variants. What is normally called ‘feminism’, the plain and unmodified noun, isn’t considered The Feminism because it is somehow different than any other variant but rather because of the relative power of its constituents and their hegemony over the ‘movement’.
The usual historical narrative of feminism primarily features white women. Anytime that Black women, or other women of colour, or poor women are brought up, its always in opposition to this hegemonic feminism. In other words, Black feminism – in most narratives – appears to be incoherent if not discussed in relation to Feminism. Black feminism exists because Feminism excluded Black women, rather than as a result of the social condition of Black women. Rather than arising because within the Black community, a need for feminism arose. In other words, Black women are not historical agents in and of themselves, rather they are reactors whose coherence requires white women to be at the centre of their own discourse.
What I’m saying here shouldn’t be terribly shocking. All it amounts to is stating that The Feminism often understood as a universal or generic is really just white feminism. In much the same way we’ve come to understand that one of the primary problems with white feminism is that it treats white women as the universal and generic Woman. All I’m saying is that feminism which represents white womanhood as the default, universal standard is white feminism. Which is also what we know of as ‘mainstream’ feminism. The feminism denoted by the bare, unmodified ‘feminism’.
But I also want to go further than this. Since mainstream feminism doesn’t represent the totality of white feminism. In other words, the argument I’m making is that rather than white feminism representing some kind of unpleasant subset within a larger mainstream Feminism, but instead mainstream Feminism is a more palatable subset of a larger white feminism. Of course partially what I have in mind is every trans woman’s bogey man, the radical feminist. Whatever we can say about radical feminism, it is pretty clear that it isn’t ‘mainstream’ by anyone’s definition of the word. However, it shares with mainstream (what radfems like to call ‘liberal’) Feminism a centering, a universalization of white womanhood.
When we look at white feminism from this lens, we are suddenly able to free ourselves from the rather spurious generational division of feminism into waves. Rather than there being a first, second, third, (and sometimes) fourth wave, there is simply the history of white feminism. And in so doing we can then view the ‘marginal’ feminisms as having their own histories distinct and non-dependent on white feminism for coherence.
To return to an earlier point, one of the articles I read in preparation for this post was very careful to say “‘White Feminism’ is feminism for white people, and never exclusively feminism by white people” this is only somewhat true. While it is most certainly true that any given woman of colour can, via internalized racism, be an active contributor to the ideology known as ‘white feminism’, what this statement leaves out is that white feminism is also the feminism by white women/people. The statement basically says that the essential element of white feminism is that it is ‘for’ white women. Which isn’t the whole truth.
This conception of what defines ‘white feminism’ from other kinds of feminism (including, I’d imagine mainstream feminism), allows some white women the option of not being white feminists. Which, interestingly to me, seems to be a notion rooted within white feminism itself. Or at least white supremacy. Again, this is about who is and isn’t the universal, default human. What I mean by this is that if I were a feminist (of any kind), I’d always and forever be a pinay feminist (or an Asian one or a woc one). Even if all of my feminist ideas were parroted from mainstream feminism, I’d still be an Asian feminist. Because as discussed by many a poc, we do not get the option of opting out of being defined by our race. Only white women get to be ‘women’ whereas the rest of us are adjectives. Always and forever adjectives. No matter ideas I espouse, no one will ever understand me as speaking for all women in the way only accessible to white women.
So, again, just as understanding white feminism to be a type of feminism with a particular history dislocates it from its hegemonic position as The Feminism, understanding all white women who are feminists as being white feminists dislocates them from being the unmarked, default Woman. This is necessary because it ensures that all white feminists (ie all white women who are feminist) can be held accountable for what is done on their behalf. This is, again, simply racism 101. Anti-racist white people do not get to, by virtue of having some commitment to anti-racism, disavow their whiteness. Nor does a commitment to anti-racism mean that they are ‘opting out’ of white supremacy and white privilege. Race isn’t something any of us gets to ‘opt out’ of, least of all white women.
This should also serve as a call to arms for white women who actually care about more than just themselves. Because rather than distancing yourself from mainstream/white feminism (by using strategies like calling yourself an ‘intersectional feminist’ or a radical feminist or a trans feminist), white feminism is your mess to clean up. I’ve said much the same in the past to those who love to say that radical feminists aren’t ‘real’ feminists. This is an accountability and responsibility dodge. If radfems aren’t ‘real’ feminists, then other cis feminists are off the hook for cleaning up that mess. Likewise a white woman calling herself an ‘intersectional’ feminist gets to distance herself from whiteness. Gets to distance herself from the many ways that white feminism – as the dominant, hegemonic feminism – benefits them. White feminism, to them, is always someone else’s problem.
And, yes, absolutely I’ve seen white trans feminists use their trans status as a way to distance themselves from mainstream/white feminism. Mainstream feminism is awful to trans women. But if white feminism is
a specific set of single-issue, non-intersectional, superficial feminist practices. It is the feminism we understand as mainstream; the feminism obsessed with body hair, and high heels and makeup, and changing your married name.
Then trans feminism is cannot be white feminism, since it necessarily involves more than one issue. So a white trans woman can look at the above definition and think to herself, “welp. i’m not a white feminist and that’s good”, even as she mobilizes her multi-issue feminism to benefit white trans women only.
Further, the very idea that ‘white feminism’ is single issue is itself a product of white supremacy and, well, white feminism. ‘White feminism’ is necessarily bringing in two issues: race and gender. And this is precisely the point I’ve been making about how calling all feminism by white women (even the non-mainstream variations) ‘white feminism’ is necessary to deconstruct the very notion that single issue feminism exists at all. Feminism by white women can never be single issue because, as is true for all women, it is inextricably tied to their race. Their whiteness permeates all aspects of their feminism, just as my Asian-ness would do so for mine.
This idea, what I’m talking about here, isn’t anything new. As I wrote that last paragraph I recalled Audre Lorde. Who said, many years ago, that there is ‘no such thing as a single-issue struggle’. And there isn’t. It only follows that there is no such thing as Feminism. A bare feminism that is about gender and gender alone. A feminism coincidentally open only to white women and never anyone else. And suddenly I’m sad that its over thirty years since Audre Lorde said this about single-issue struggles and the insight she gave us then still hasn’t had the impacts it needs to.