What is White Feminism?

Leila Kalliel //

With an influx of information and a new attention to intersectionality in general education, many people have heard a relatively new term encompassing a phenomenon known as “white feminism”. But what is it, and what does it really mean? 

Wikipedia defines White Feminism as, “a form of feminism that focuses on the struggles of white women while failing to address distinct forms of oppression faced by ethnic minority women and women lacking other privileges.” Essentially, it is the form of feminism that has remained mainstream until relatively recently; one that was designed by and for white women. 

When remembering the beginnings of the feminist movement, names like Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton may come to mind. And although these women made significant contributions to the (white) feminist movement, their focus was mainly on implicating legal standards for women that could not be necessarily applied to women of color; thus, excluding them from the cause. These first-wave-feminists were also temporarily part of an organization called the AERA (American Equal Rights Association), but this group was later dissolved due to conflicting priorities on the conversation of suffrage. 

Susan B. Anthony, a woman remembered often as a hero in the women’s suffrage movement, actually opposed early drafts of the 15th amendment, which would grant black men the right to vote, on the basis that, “[The amendment] creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.” Her statement in this instance is loaded with racial implications, not only pertaining to the ability of black men to form an educated vote, but also suggesting that only ‘educated’ and ‘refined’ women deserve the right to vote. It is quite clear from her tone that Susan B. Anthony did not advocate for suffrage for all, but prioritized suffrage for wealthy white women most. So, the question stands, was she really even a feminist, or is that a label that white society has falsely attributed to her? 

This historical context should provide some understanding as to the origins of white feminism. However, this version of feminism has extended itself into the modern world, and has seeped its way into many areas of life today. I conducted an anonymous survey in an attempt to gain some insight as to the pressing issues in the minds of women of color today. I’ll now go over some of the responses I received. 

Of the 6 women who responded to my survey, 4 answered that they feel they’ve experienced amplified discrimination due to their being a woman of color. Many people would like to pretend that race is not linked to other parts of the self, like gender or sexuality, but they are, because all of these identities exist simultaneously inside of a person regardless of whether other people choose to recognize all of them. This is why white feminism can be so dangerous—some people would argue that racial justice and feminism are two separate subjects, but the two are deeper intertwined than we may often feel comfortable articulating. 

One person responded to my survey saying that an issue they feel is unique to women of color’s experience is the enforcement of, and continued expectation of western beauty standards in the media and society as a whole. And I have to say, even as a white woman I have often heard snippets of conversations in which women of color are told that they are beautiful/not beautiful based on how their features compare to european features! This is a deep rooted issue in American culture; a culture that has decided that beauty looks like ethnic women with white features. But beauty has so many shapes and forms, that it is impossible to say that one version is better than the other. This is sadly just one of many issues that women of color face today.

Another topic mentioned on my survey was the constant fetishization that women of color are subjected to. 

One woman even noted how white people have been shocked by her intelligence, because of the violent stereotypes projected on the black community proposing a link between race and education.     

But overall, the most mentioned subject on the survey was how often, feminism means something different to people of color than it does to non-people of color, because people of color face institutionalized problems that cannot be solved easily by idealistic slogans like, ‘amplify women of color’s voices,’ for example. Many, if not most American institutions have been designed to limit the participation of people of color, from American territories not being able to vote in elections, to the invasive inspection of marriages between immigrants and American citizens to ensure they are being completed ‘in good faith.’ 

White feminism is therefore extremely harmful when considered under the lens of racist American social institutions, because white women do have an advantage over women of color, which is why the names of feminists we generally know the best are those of white women from the first waves of feminism. I often wonder if the reason we do not know the names of women of color from the beginnings of the feminist movement is because they simply didn’t exist, or because history has written them off as ‘aggressive progressivists’ like Malcolm X has been in the American educational system for being ‘too radical.’ 

So with all of this information in mind, I suppose the question becomes, what can we do to stop the exclusion of women of color from the feminist movement? There is not just one answer.

There are of course idealistic slogans which should still be practiced, like amplifying POC voices and supporting POC businesses. But I would like to suggest a few other answers based on the thoughts I received in my survey. 

  1. Practicing solidarity. So many of the institutionalized issues that people of color face could be changed if white people were to advocate as fiercely and frequently for them as people of color do. It can be easy to think that somebody else will handle these issues, or that somebody else will spread the word, but the sad reality is that when everybody has that mentality, nobody takes it upon themselves. It is a constant effort, but if it seems exhausting, remind yourself how exhausted the people actually being affected by these injustices in their daily lives must feel. 
  2. LISTEN. This is a hard one to get across. So often people become immediately defensive when they are confronted with their privilege, because they feel that this is an attempt to discount the unique struggles that they have faced in their lives as well. But that is rarely the aim of these discussions. Nobody is claiming that every white woman has never faced discrimination in their lives, or that they have had it easy all the time. However, it is likely true that as a white woman, you have never faced discrimination related to your race. This is an experience unique to people of color, and it requires effort for anybody not part of a marginalized group to relate to those struggles, which is why it has been ignored in our society for so long. As feminists, it is so important for us to listen to each other’s unique, sometimes conflicting opinions. That is what feminism is all about.   
  3. We as a society should stop focusing solely on the struggles and traumas that women of color face. This is a method of victimization that ignores all the beauty and love existing in different cultures, that has a place in American society, too. There is so much worth  knowing about non-white cultures besides the trauma that they have faced, and although educating oneself on these sorts of issues is important, it is also essential that we go beyond just accepting others as they are, to loving them wholly without judgement or eurocentric expectations.

I hope that this article has done some justice to the vast topic that is intersectional feminism. As a white woman myself, it can feel uncomfortable to recognize your role in the perpetuation of racist institutions like white feminism. However, I believe that by speaking openly about these subjects, we can wear away the awkwardness, and have open conversations about topics that truly need to be discussed. Thank you for reading!

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