Originally published: 14.11.16
A brief foreword: this is the conclusion to my series of essays on race and the feminist movement. Parts 1, 2, and 3 can all be accessed here. The following knowledge was acquired at great personal expense. Use it how you will. Dedicated to every woman – Black, brown, and white – who has sustained me through sisterhood.
Whenever I discuss racism in the feminist movement, this question is invariably asked as a result: white women wonder “what, specifically, can I do about racism? How can I create solidarity with women of colour?” It’s a complicated question, which I have been considering closely for over a year now, and there is no one simple answer. Instead, there are many answers, of which none are static and all of which are liable to shift in relation to context. The reality of the situation is that there is no quick fix solution for the hundreds of years’ worth of racism – racism upon which our society was built, its hierarchies of wealth and power established – that shape the dynamic between women of colour and white women. That imbalance of power and privilege colours personal interactions. It creates the layers of justifiable mistrust that women of colour feel towards white women – even (perhaps especially) in a feminist context.
Altering that dynamic in which race exists only as a hierarchy, building sustainable forms of solidarity between women, is going to require persistent self-reflection, effort, and a willingness on the part of white women to change their approach. Here is my perspective on the practical steps white women can take to challenge their own racism, held consciously and subconsciously, in the hope that it will create the potential for them to offer real sisterhood to women of colour.
“The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.”
– Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend
Acknowledge the differences brought about by race. Do not define women of colour by our respective ethnicities. Equally, do not pretend our lives are the same as yours. Not seeing race means not seeing racism. Not seeing racism means allowing it to flourish, unchecked. Start by recognising our humanity, seeing women of colour as self-actualised people with insight, powers of critical thought, and – that which is most often neglected in this conversation – feelings. Begin with examining how you think about women of colour, and build from there.
Gatekeeping and Authority
Many problems are perpetuated by white women positioning themselves as gatekeepers of feminist discourse, authorities uniquely qualified to determine what is and is not Proper Feminism. It is no coincidence that women of colour’s contributions, in particular commentaries addressing racism or white privilege, are frequently dismissed as a distraction from the main feminist concern, i.e. issues which have a directly negative impact upon white women.
The tacit assumption that a white woman’s perspective is more legitimate than ours, more informed, that if women of colour simply learned more about a particular issue then our outlook too would become nuanced, is persistent. Underpinning that assumption is the belief that white women are the guiding experts of the feminist movement, women of colour in a position of subservience. The same situation unfolds in the context of class politics, with working class women dismissed as uninformed when their feminist perspectives do not align with those of middle class women. Reinforcing these hierarchies is the greatest hindrance to solidarity between women.
White women have a habit of arbitrating what is and is not feminist in a way that centres white womanhood, positions it as the normative standard against which female experience is measured. If white womanhood is standard, Black and brown womanhood become deviant forms by definition – a paradigm which contributes to women of colour being Othered.
Feminism is a political movement devoted to the liberation of women from oppression. Some of that oppression is gendered. Some of it is racialised. Some of it is class-based. Some of it relates to sexuality. Some of it concerns disability. And within these categories, there is always the potential for overlap. A failure to acknowledge the intersection of identities ensures that the most marginalised women will continue to be oppressed – not a feminist objective by any set of standards. Responding with “this isn’t your moment, guys” when women of colour address racism is a direct contradiction of feminist principles. Expecting women of colour to remain silent for the greater good, i.e. for the benefit of white women, is not an inherently feminist act. The idea that there is a time and place for acknowledging a form of oppression experienced by women undermined the principles upon which the feminist movement is built. White women need to stop derailing critiques of racism and instead listen to what women of colour have to say on the subject.
There is an unfortunate pattern of white women framing themselves as the enlightened saviours, men of colour as savage oppressors, and women of colour as passive victims of an oppression stemming purely from men falling within our own ethnic group. This model acknowledges that women of colour experience gendered violence whilst simultaneously erasing the racialised oppression to which we are subject. Furthermore, it denies the reality of white women belonging to an oppressor class – a deft and disingenuous manoeuvre that absolves white women of their role in maintaining systematic racism. If the problem of racism does not exist, it need not be discussed. If racism is not discussed, white women may continue to benefit from it unimpeded.
For inter-racial solidarity to exist within the feminist movement, the question of ownership must be addressed. Time and time again, white women behave as though the feminist movement is their exclusive property, something with which women of colour may join in but never lead in establishing discourse or action. This approach not only erases the crucial role women of colour have historically played in the feminist movement, but denies the possibility for future collaborative efforts to occur on an equal footing.
White women who want trust and solidarity with women of colour must first consider how they position women of colour in their minds, how they conceptualise us – do you see us as sisters, or someone to whom you pay lip service without ever properly listening to? Are we a central part of feminist struggle, or a box-ticking exercise? Honest inward reflection is essential. Analyse how you think of us, critically explore why that might be, and work from there.
Are you planning a group for women? Creating a feminist event or space? Building a feminist network? Every gathering of women creates new possibilities for the feminist movement, one of which happens to be an opportunity to improve upon the dynamic of race in a feminist context. With collective organisation, there is a question which white women must ask themselves: are there women of colour in this group? If not, there is a reason. It is all very well talking about how women come together as friends or a set of activists sharing a particular goal, but the way in which that group was formed did not take place inside a social vacuum. It happened in a society where women of colour are racialised and Othered to the point our womanhood is perceived as fundamentally lesser. As a result, our grasp of women’s political issues and therefore feminism is perceived as inferior.
For example, the stronger my commitment to Black politics, the more my feminist credentials are policed by white women caught up in two fallacies: first, that it is impossible to care about multiple issues simultaneously, second, that the politics of liberation can be neatly divided because no overlap of identities need ever be taken into account. The perception that my support for Black liberation must come at the expense of my support for women’s liberation, diluting my feminist politics, misunderstands the essence of how both sets of politics were established and the fact that they are inherently connected through Black women’s lives.
If there are no women of colour involved in your feminist set, consider how that came about and subsequently how it can be addressed. What about your way of organising, your content, your feminist praxis, could be alienating? Critical self-reflection is by no means a comfortable process, but it is a necessary one for solidarity to be possible. A key element of this subject is the way in which white women behave towards women of colour.
Treating women of colour as an exercise in diversity as opposed to authentic members of the team betrays a form of racism in how we are conceptualised. Our skills, knowledge, and commitment to women are not considered the natural state of affairs in a feminist setting in the same way that white women’s contributions to the group are. The assumption that we can only ever be present as a means of filling quotas conveys an obliviousness to our humanity. Set aside that line of thought. Look for our value as individuals in the same way you are automatically inclined to look for it in a white woman, and you will grow accustomed to seeing it. Unpick your racism with the same vigour you unpick internalised misogyny.
It is important that there are women of colour involved at an organisational level, as part of the team designing your events and campaigns. Let go of the paternalism that assures you, as white women, you are in a position to speak for all women.
The most obvious point: do not be racist, in word or in deed. One way or another, it will come to light. If you are saying something about women of colour in a private context that you would not voice in a public context, consider why it is that you differentiate between the two settings – the answer usually relates to white women not wishing to appear racist. Appearing racist has, paradoxically, become more taboo than racism in itself.
And if your racism is addressed, do not treat this as a personal attack. Do not be the white women who makes it about her own hurt, the white woman who cries her way out of accountability for her actions. Reflect instead upon the magnitude of the hurt dealt to the women of colour subject to that racism – I guarantee it is so painful that your own discomfort is small by comparison. Give women of colour experiencing racism the empathy you would extend to a white woman experiencing misogyny.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Do not remain silent when your friends are racist. Do not look the other way. Do not pretend that nothing has happened. Your silence makes you complicit in that racism. Your silence normalises that racism, is part of what legitimises that racism in a mainstream context. It’s not easy to confront someone with whom you are close, someone with greater power or influence than your own. But the right thing isn’t always easy to do.
Lastly, do not grow complacent. In a recent interview with Feminist Current, Sheila Jeffreys lamented the rise of identity politics, which she conflated with intersectional praxis, claiming that because men never got caught up in being expected to do everything, women shouldn’t either. This attitude is not atypical among white feminist women. However, Jeffreys’ perspective begs the question: since when did radical lesbian feminism model itself after the behaviour of men? Feminism is not a race to the bottom, it is a radical political movement. And that involves some intensive critical thought – a consistent of challenging of structural oppression that is not selective, but thorough.
It will not be comfortable. It will not be easy. But it opens up whole new avenues of support and sisterhood between women. Solidarity that will sustain and nourish all women as we work towards liberation.
Bilge, Sirma, & Hill Collins, Patricia. (2016). Intersectionality.
Grewal, Shabnam. ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women.
King, Martin Luther. (1968). The Trumpet of Conscience.
Parker, Pat. (1978). Movement in Black.
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