Embracing the Power of Intersectionality: How White Feminism Oppresses Black Women

The 2017 Women’s March was meant to be a demonstration for social equality and justice, but as many critics pointed out, it blatantly disregarded the issues affecting Black women and other women of color. The march was deemed a setback for intersectionality—a term coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics overlap with one another. While the conversation about intersectionality and the perils of “white feminism” isn’t new, the march resurfaced the issue for many women of color who felt underrepresented by it. 

Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender and often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, Black and brown women have to routinely put their own politics aside in the name of unity. In ways both obvious and subtle, Black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized in ways that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality.

Decades ago, activist and writer Alice Walker coined the term womanism to fill a need that mainstream feminism created by shutting Black women out. It was a way to prioritize Black women’s experiences when developing a framework for activism. Today, the prevalence of white feminism continues to exclude women of color and other marginalized groups, which begs the larger question: how does white feminism manifest in our daily lives, and to what effect does it have on society as a whole?

WHY WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT WHITE FEMINISM

If you are a feminist who is white, that does not necessarily mean you practice white feminism. If your approach to feminism actively respects, reflects, and advocates for the lived experiences of all women—across race, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so on—then congrats, your feminism is intersectional

White feminism, on the other hand, refers to a set of beliefs that allows for the exclusion of issues that specifically affect women of color. It is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ feminism, where upper-middle-class white women are the mold that others must fit. White feminist ideology preaches equality, but in practice actually promotes the marginalization and oppression of women of color. It’s a narrow view of the world that is detrimental to liberation movements as a whole—leaving out a huge population of those it vows to protect—something American feminism has a long history of doing.

TAKING A CRITICAL LOOK AT THE RISE OF THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT IN AMERICA

Many Americans know the names Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but the fight for women’s suffrage encompassed a much more diverse range of women than what might have been taught to us in history class. It is imperative that we re-evaluate the emergence of the feminist movement in America and pay homage to the many ways in which non-white women helped shape the feminist dialogue. 

Historically, Black women have been no strangers to the quest for social change, but they have often been overshadowed. During the suffrage movement, white suffragettes often dismissed the voices of Black women—relegating them to the rear during marches and putting their own rights first. Many white suffragettes responded to the systemic sexism they were fighting against by adopting anti-black arguments for women’s suffrage. For instance, the ratification of the 15th Amendment was a very divisive event for the suffrage movement as it granted voting rights for Black men, but not women. Many white suffragettes were not in support of Black men gaining the right to vote before them and publicly denounced Black male suffrage. In contrast, the majority of Black women viewed Black male suffrage as an important component of their suffrage goals and saw it as a significant step forward. The lack of solidarity and profound racism that many Black women faced during the fight for suffrage alienated them from the mainstream feminist movement that was starting to materialize—this cycle of exclusion persists throughout the waves of feminism.

It’s important that we remember the countless accomplishments of women of color who furthered women’s rights and helped overhaul discriminatory political policies in the U.S. Here are only a fraction of the contributions made by women of color during the suffrage movement:

  • A former slave, Sojourner Truth became an outspoken advocate for abolition, temperance, and civil and women’s rights in the nineteenth century. In 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. In it, she challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality.
  • Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Margaret Murray Washington, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Charlotte Forten Grimké, and former slave Harriet Tubman formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 to uplift women of color and champion for social change. 
  • The Rollin sisters were involved in Civil Rights activism, as fierce lobbyists and political brokers, and are known as pioneers in the fight for women’s equality in South Carolina.  
  • Anna Julia Cooper and Mary McLeod Bethune made great strides advocating for college preparatory schools for Black students.
  • Zitkála-Šá and Susette LaFlesche Tibbles were Native American women leaders whose activism for voting rights ultimately helped to achieve the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States.
  • Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Diane Nash fought for voting rights for all, culminating in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

HOW WHITE FEMINISM MISSES THE MARK

White feminism may be tricky to recognize at times, because it’s an ingrained thought process that is part of a systemic problem. In order for feminism to successfully achieve its mission to transcend socio-cultural limitations on all women, feminists need to expand their understanding of womanhood beyond the realm of gender. Here are some of the ways white feminism currently does not serve Black women and other marginalized groups.  

IT NEGLECTS MISSING, ABUSED, AND MURDERED WOMEN OF COLOR

White feminism doesn’t call out and advocate for missing, abused, and murdered women of color in the same way it does white women. The lack of outcry and initiative when it comes to addressing violence toward women of color should be at the forefront of feminsit overhaul. 

For example, police brutality should be viewed as a feminist issue but because it doesn’t affect white women like it does women of color, it is often swept under the rug in mainstream white feminist groups. The police killings of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and multiple other Black women slain by police is trivialized and underrepresented. As are the continuous attacks and murders of Black trans women and the missing and murdered Native American women and girls throughout North America. This willful blind eye fosters a culture where millions protest when white women’s access to health care is threatened, but when Black maternal death rates in the United States are on par with developing countries, there is no national outrage, call for reform, or worldwide protest.

White feminists champion themselves as advocates for women and yet leave the sole responsibility of fighting for racial equality up to the women directly affected. White women who fail to see the racial implications in their detachment from non-white women and non-white issues, can not call themselves feminists. 

IT FALSELY PERPETUATES THE PREDATORY BLACK MALE NARRATIVE

White women have historically (and currently) used their sexuality to oppress and villainize Black men. In the bigoted white imagination, Black men’s insatiable sexuality is a threat to white women’s purity. Many Black men sit in prison on false rape charges or face grave consequences due to such accusations. When white women cry rape, our society mobilizes to punish the targets, guilty or not, to protect white women’s virtue. The tragic case of Emmett Till, the Central Park Five, and the Tulsa Oklahoma Race Massacre are devastating examples of this. 

White women are able to weaponize race to further their white privilege and garner sympathy from playing the victim. When Amy Cooper threatened to call the cops on Christian Cooper, a Black man, in Central Park, the lynching script of white women feigning fear of Black men once again played out right before our eyes. It’s a classic representation of the racial and gender privilege many white women have long enjoyed—something white feminism fails to acknowledge or actively speak up against.

IT DEVALUES BLACK WOMEN’S CONTRIBUTIONS

Time and time again the contributions of non-whites are appropriated into mainstream white culture without acknowledgment of their origin. Take the #MeToo movement for example. A Black woman, Tarana Burke, began the “Me Too” crusade for women of color 10 years before it garnered mainstream attention, but many white feminists and news outlets credited a white woman with igniting the conversation. Feminists of color have been involved in building movements like this for decades, but are rarely acknowledged as leaders.

The cultural appropriation by white women of Black women’s hair, music, fashion, and more, are additional examples of white exploitation of Black culture. When white women take pieces that they like from Black culture and adopt them as their own, they are participating in a toxic norm that says Black people aren’t valuable, but their style is cool—as long as white folks are wearing it. White women taking a Black woman’s culture or achievements and accrediting it to themselves or someone within their own racial group is the epitome of whitewashing the unique experiences of women of color.

IT ASSUMES WHITE IS THE DEFAULT

White feminisim assumes that being white, middle-class, cisgender, and straight is the norm. It assumes the way white women experience misogyny is the way all women experience misogyny. Women who fret about shattering the glass ceiling, but who are indifferent to the violence, poverty and discrimination that women of color face on a daily basis are only looking out for themselves. 

For instance, white feminism aims to close the wage gap between men and women but fails to acknowledge the wage disparity for women of color. White feminism ignores the role that whiteness plays in reinforcing white, patriarchal beauty standards, while hypersexualizing Black female bodies. A white woman might exemplify white feminism when she matter-of-factly tells a Muslim woman that she’s being oppressed by her religion, or attempts to tone-police a Black woman when she is expressing her frustrations. Disparities in reproductive and sexual health care and the disproportionate number of incarcerated women of color are issues facing communities of color that are often met by deafening silence from white feminists.

True feminism goes far beyond equal pay and abortion access. The kinds of activism that ignore issues of race and class seek to protect and advance middle and upper class white women rather than promoting the well being of all women. You can’t say that you care about women, if you only care about women who look like you. 

EMBRACING INTERSECTIONALITY

Though mainstream feminism has become more inclusive and intersectional with each wave, there is still resistance to embracing the values and needs of the numerous groups and identities feminism is supposed to advocate for.

At a basic level, making feminism intersectional just makes sense—our life experiences are based on how our multiple identities intermingle. Practicing intersectional feminism can be uncomfortable, but we don’t grow or progress when we are comfortable. We grow when we are struggling or challenging ourselves to understand something new. Here are some ways to practice intersectionality and remain open to different points of view:

  • Self-reflect and investigate your own privilege and implicit biases. 
  • Make an effort to avoid centering feminism around yourself or people of privilege.
  • Educate yourself on things that don’t affect you, and pay attention when people speak to their experiences.
  • Seek to understand things that are difficult for you to relate to.
  • Empathize and get to know people who are not like you.
  • Step back when need be and let other voices be heard. 
  • Demand accountability for yourself and others.
  • Support and fight alongside ALL types of people.

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