On White Feminists and Womanism

On White Feminists and Womanism

Womanpower_logo So this is going to be a long one. Settle in, folks… specifically white cisgender feminists. Yeah, women like me. I’m talking to you now. This is partly about me, and partly about you. I’m going to tell you how I came to dislike mainstream feminism.

Let me tell you a little something about womanism, a concept first coined by author Alice Walker in 1979.

Womanism is a theory rooted in the racial and gender oppression of Black women. It extends past these problems by attempting to end oppression not just for women of color, but for all women. The self- authored spirit of activism, spirituality, and the women’s relationship with herself, other women, and nature comprises an essential part of the ideology.

Now let me tell you about the hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. It was created by Mikki Kendall and it pointed a finger right at mainstream feminism for the major crime of, effectively, leaving black women out of the conversation. In her own words:

The more I typed the more things sprang to mind because I’d been looking at a lot of major issues that just go unreported in magazines that were theoretically by women, for women. Somehow the survival, safety and security of WOC (cis and trans), of poor women, of disabled women, of undocumented women, of anyone that wasn’t a white middle class/upper middle class woman felt unimportant relative to creature comforts and makeup choices.

This should tell you why womanism is a thing, and why it’s still a thing now in the year 2013, over thirty years after Walker first described it. Read the hashtag, if you want examples. Feminism has failed, in this respect; it has failed women of color. #SolidarityisForWhiteWomen is calling out feminism for its treatment and avoidance of them.

Now, the next thing that you should know is that Feministing and Jezebel are both are guilty of this crime, of erasing women of color. (For anyone who doesn’t know – they’re a pair of major feminist sites.) They both gave a platform to Hugo Schwayzer, a white dude who bullied women of color while writing about feminism. Feministing were involved in events that sidelined Kendall and tried to co-opt the #SolidarityisForWhiteWomen hashtag. (And I was there for it. I saw that shit go down. I don’t think Feministing realize just how little their apology counts.)

So where am I going with all this? Well, it’s like this, dear readers – when women of color make their own spaces and do their own activism and talk about the things that concern them the most, white feminists have this really shitty tendency to shove themselves into the space or conversation, make it about them, appropriate the best bits (read: the bits that they can use themselves), and chuck women of color overboard while chasing this feminist ideal that only speaks to white, middle-class, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender people. And they go on believing that because they’re not overtly racist, in a cartoon KKK kind of way, that it’s all fine.

Now, let’s rewrite this a little…

When women make their own spaces and do their own activism and talk about the things that concern them the most, men have this really shitty tendency to shove themselves into the space or conversation, make it about them, appropriate the best bits (read: the bits that they can use themselves), and chuck women overboard while chasing this egalitarian ideal that only speaks to white, middle-class, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender men. And they go on believing that because they’re not overtly sexist, in a cartoon 1850’s kind of way, that it’s all fine.

Okay, it’s not exactly equivalent, but you get the idea. White feminists do the same thing to women of color that men do to them.

This blew my mind when I figured it out.

And it’s got to STOP.

I follow many of the women mentioned in these articles on Twitter. I follow Mikki Kendall and Flavia Dzodan, among others, and I hold them in the highest possible esteem, and you had better believe that when these women say that something is racist or appropriative or oppressive, then I will listen, and believe them. Part of my continuing education is to pay special attention to those who experience the kind of oppression that I can never experience.

I don’t support the work @feministing is doing to reframe #solidarityisforwhitewomen to suit white sensibilities. We clear now? –Mikki Kendall on Twitter

Rule Number 1: LISTEN to the oppressed. Rule Number 2: Don’t listen too much to people if they talk about oppression they can’t personally experience. Kendall’s opinion is worth more to me, not Feministing’s, and not Jezebel’s. If this is the face of modern feminism, this… corporate NYC feminism that talks a big game but throws some women under a bus and marginalizes activists like her… then it’s not for me. Never for me. Dzodan said once that “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” and I wanted to take that one sentence and have it tattooed on my heart so that I can’t forget it. My feminism has no caveats. My feminism is for all women. My feminism is not fucking well conditional.

And I will be damned if I compromise my ideals for the sake of the larger movement, or stand with the powerful against the powerless because it’s convenient.

So this is where I walk away from it, more or less.

Back to Womanism

It goes without saying that I learn from the women of color I follow on Twitter. Every day, they astonish me. I listen to the ways that the world dehumanizes them or hurts them, and they endure it, and defy it, and rage against it, and carve out a place for their humanity. By and large, they epitomize the ideals of womanism.

And of course, they’re not a monolith – some are mothers, some are not. Some talk a lot about sex, some don’t. Some talk about random things happening in their lives, some only talk about activism. Some are tired and wish for rest, or at least a respite, and some are all fire and fight. Always interesting, always real in a way that a hundred dry articles on feminist theory can never be. They inspire me to be just as real. And every day I’m grateful that they haven’t yet chosen to just leave social media altogether, in spite of all the shit that gets thrown at them. They are the kind of friends I wish I had more of.

I don’t really talk much to them.

The concepts of womanism speak more strongly to me than anything I’ve ever read in mainstream feminism. But I can’t help being deeply, acutely aware that it was not made for me, a white woman. Womanism was created by and for women of color; womanist spaces exist for women of color; womanist discussions involve women of color. Walking into any of that, or even taking up the label, feels wrong, like a suit that doesn’t fit, like I have no right to it. Talking to women of color on Twitter is intimidating, through no fault of theirs, because I fear that one flippant, unthinking remark will make their day that much worse, or that I could be inserting myself into conversations where I’m not needed or wanted.

And now we’re back to Feministing and Jezebel. When women of color make their own spaces and do their own activism and talk about the things that concern them the most, white feminists have this really shitty tendency to shove themselves into the space or conversation, and make it about them. By the gods and all their avatars, I will not become that. So I stay quiet. I listen and retweet. I think very carefully before I say anything. I will still probably fail sometimes.

Where does that leave me? In limbo, I guess. As far as this blog is catharsis, of a sort, I have to admit this to myself: I’ve no particular allegiance to the feminist label. I will not be a womanist, because that label is not mine to take. At the moment, I’m leaning towards still calling myself a feminist, if only so that I can own every element of it that’s problematic and in need of change, but with the caveat that I’ve left the mainstream behind.

The Place of White Feminists

I’m not sure if my opinion on this is even worthwhile, but I’m not willing to stay silent on it and let it be assumed that I’m okay with it the kind of things mainstream feminism does to women of color. And it’s not as if women of color owe anything to me personally or to feminism as a whole – I expect nothing from them, not even a passing glance. I’m writing this for other white feminists, like I said, because I hope that at least some of you are also not okay with it, and maybe you’re wondering what to do now. For what it’s worth, this is the opinion of an Irish immigrant woman on where you should start.

Just… read this stuff. Read articles by women of color about how they are sick to the back teeth of how feminism is treating them and their issues. Take them seriously and believe them when they talk about their lives. Believe them over other white feminists, even if it costs you. The onus is on us to prove that we’re better than the feminists who have treated women of color so poorly, so if you want to call yourself an ally, you have to earn it, every day. And don’t talk to me about ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ or abandoning the movement or whatever – seriously, don’t even THINK of coming back to me with that, because the movement isn’t worth the mud off your boots if it does this to the women it’s supposed to be fighting for.

No one ever said this kind of thing was easy to figure out. And it isn’t, because hell, look at the roundabout way I’ve come to it and I’m still struggling with it and I’m not even sure if this makes any kind of sense. But frankly, we all made a hard choice just by being feminists and getting the hate that comes with the label from guys who think we want to cut their dicks off or take their porn away. This is just the next step. So dig in, start the fight anew, once more into the breach and all that – we are not done, not by a long shot.

Our feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit. Our feminism is for all women. Our feminism is not conditional.

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