Originally published: 18.04.16
A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of blog posts on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is not a feel-good piece. Equally, it is not a reprimand. It is a wake-up call – one which I hope will be answered. Part two of the series The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement is available here
Solidarity between women is vital for liberation. If the feminist movement is to succeed, feminist principles must be applied in deed as well as in word. Although intersectionality is used as a buzzword in contemporary activism, in many ways we have deviated from Crenshaw’s intended purpose: bringing marginalised voices from the periphery to the centre of the feminist movement by highlighting the coexistence of oppressions. White women with liberal politics routinely describe themselves as being intersectional feminists before proceeding to speak over and disregard those women negotiating marginalised identities of race, class, and sexuality in addition to sex. Intersectionality as virtue-signalling is diametrically opposed to intersectional praxis. The theory did not emerge in order to aid white women in their search for cookies – it was developed predominantly by Black feminists with a view to giving women of colour voice.
White feminists of all stripes are falling down at the intersection of race. Liberal feminists frequently fail to consider racism in terms of structural power. Radical feminists are often unwilling to apply the same principles of structural analysis to oppression rooted in race as in sex.
White women who are self-proclaimed feminists have a habit of expecting women of colour to choose between identities of race and sex, to prioritise challenging misogyny over opposing racism, in the name of sisterhood. Classic Black feminist texts dating from the early 1970s onwards detail this phenomenon, and precious little about interracial dynamics between women have changed since their publication. What white women often fail to consider is that, for women of colour, race and sex are inextricably linked in how we experience the world, how we are situated within structures of power. Yet discussion of race is often treated like a derailment from the Real Feminist Issues (i.e. those relating directly to white women), the implication being that women of colour are at most a sub-group within the movement.
Regardless of how their feminist politics manifest, the question of race is one that is not so easily answered, or even acknowledged, by many white women. Through both feminist theory and activism, women develop a structural understanding of the patriarchal hierarchy and where we are positioned within that system. Techniques such as consciousness raising and collective organisation have enabled women to connect the personal with the political – and it is deeply personal. Within feminism, women become fully aware of how we are marginalised by patriarchy. White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed class in terms of sex. Being aware of the implications carried by belonging to the dominant class, white women are therefore discomfited by the notion of being the oppressing party in the hierarchy of race (hooks, 2000). This brings us to our first fallacy:
‘Making it about race divides women.’
Time and time again, this line is used by white women to circumnavigate any meaningful discussion of race, to avoid the discomfiting possibility of having to confront the spectre of their own racism. This argument suggests that the effort of feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression at the exclusion of all other manifestations of prejudice. In adopting such a narrow approach to activism, such women preclude the possibility of tacking misogyny’s root cause: white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984). Sole focus on misogyny is, ultimately, ineffective. Selective structural analysis will only take us so far. Racism and classism, like misogyny, are pillars of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, upholding and perpetuating dominant power structures. Patriarchy cannot be dismantled whilst the other vectors in the matrix of domination (Hill Collins) remain in place. Such laissez-faire politics and activism lack the depth, rigour, and ethical consistency required to drive a cultural shift towards liberation. They also beg the question: what sort of feminism looks on, indifferent, when injustice thrives?
No, talking about race does not divide women. It is racism that does that – specifically, the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, makes mutual trust impossible.
‘But white women don’t benefit from white supremacy.’
To argue that misogyny is the primary agent in all women’s oppression is to assume that the category of ‘woman’ overlaps entirely with ‘white’ and ‘middle class’, which plainly isn’t the case. The hierarchy of race has as much bearing on the lived experiences of women of colour as the hierarchy of gender. When roughly 70% of British people in jobs paying the national minimum wage are women, it is evident that class plays a pivotal role in the lives of working class women.
Frequently white women complain about brocialism – the tendency of leftist men to remain mysteriously incapable of noticing how the hierarchy of social class is mirrored by that of gender. This is a valid critique, a necessary critique. It is also a critique that is entirely applicable to white, self-proclaimed feminist women unwilling to engage with anti-racist politics. Even as they experience classism and/or lesbophobia, white women continue to benefit from their whiteness.
According to the Fawcett Society, the gender pay gap for full-time employees sits at 13.9%. BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people with GCSEs are paid 11% less than our white counterparts, a deficit that rises to 23% among graduates. In addition, BAME graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than white graduates. Women of colour face a double jeopardy of sorts, our labour undervalued both on grounds of race and sex. Zora Neale Hurston once described Black women as the “mule uh de world”, an observation that is spot on when applied to the wage gap. BAME women are also more likely to be asked about our plans relating to marriage and pregnancy by prospective employers than white women. White women are objectified by men, the result of misogyny. Women of colour are objectified, Othered, fetishised, and treated like hypersexual savages by men, the result of misogyny and racism. BAME and migrant women also “experience a disproportionate rate of domestic homicide.”
Even if you are not prepared to listen to what women of colourhave to say about racism, the facts and figures bear out.
‘Women are stronger when we all stand together.’
Yes. Sisterhood is a powerful, sustaining force. But expecting women of colour to remain silent on the subject of race for the sake of white comfort is not sisterhood – quite the opposite. Sisterhood cannot exist so long as white women continue to ignore the hierarchy of race whilst simultaneously expecting women of colour to devote our energies solely to helping them gain equality with white men.This paradigm is exploitative, a toxic manifestation of white entitlement within the feminist movement.
For sisterhood to exist between women of colour and white women, we must have an honest conversation about race within the feminist movement. White privilege must be acknowledged and opposed by white women. Whiteness must cease to be treated as the normative standard of womanhood within feminist politics. The same logic that is applied to critiquing misogyny must be applied to unlearning racism. Issues facing women of colour must be considered a priority, not a distraction to be dealt with after the revolution. Women of colour must cease to be treated like a box-ticking exercise and instead acknowledged for what we are, what we have always been: essential to the feminist movement.
All this is imperative if we are to achieve true solidarity – and that is possible. As things stand, the onus is on white women to reach out and repair any rift that occurs on the basis of race. Ultimately, it will bring us all closer to liberation.
Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.
Grewal, Shabnam, ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women.
Hill Collins, Patricia. (1990). Black Feminist Thought.
hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.
hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.
Lorde, Audre. (1984). Sister Outsider.
Wallace, Michele. (1978). Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman.
Sister Outrider: Sister Outrider offers a Black Radical Feminist perspective on feminism, gender, politics, popular culture, and media representation.