Five years ago I wrote a post for The F-word aimed at white feminists like myself, calling for us to challenge racism and white privilege within feminist activist communities. I wrote it at a time when I was more actively involved in such communities ‘on the ground’ than I am now. It was also written at a moment when I was just starting out my PhD and began to enter equally problematically white academic feminist spaces.
In the last five years, feminist activism in Britain has changed significantly for the better (less so feminist academia, I would say). There has been a significant increase in discussion about racism within feminism, forced on to the table by feminists of colour. I am by no means suggesting that feminists of colour were not raising these issues prior to this point because they were (& the circularity and repetitiveness of these debates is part of the pattern, upheld by white resistance to ever taking the critiques on board), but at least two significant things have happened in the last five years. One was the formalisation of the Black Feminists group in 2010 and their central role in promoting an intersectional approach to feminist organising in Britain. Secondly – and on a more global level – the explosion of social media has significantly changed the ‘rules’ of public debate. Bypassing white feminist gatekeepers, feminists of colour have built significant independent platforms from which they have been able to more effectively and consistently challenge the dominance of white feminist discourse online (although while it can be a powerful tool for social justice, social media should not be mistaken as the great equaliser of public debate).
Yet despite a much greater level of discussion about racism within feminism, and more white feminists recognising racism as a problem, this has not yet un-lodged the persistence of whiteness in continuing to structure many feminist activist and academic spaces in Britain today. I looked up my F-word piece again, because I have been thinking about what white feminists who want to end racism need to be doing in this moment and I wanted to remind myself what I thought five years ago. Although some of the things I wrote in that piece I cringe a bit at now, overall I think the points it made about what white feminists need to do still stand. Much of it centred on the need to learn about racism and anti-racist histories of feminism, as well as challenging single-issue politics and denials of racism among white feminists – nothing which was new then and nothing which is new now. But what I think is missing in that piece is an analysis of the power of white feminism as a specific form of dominant discourse and structure.
The term ‘white feminism’ has for decades been used by feminists of colour to name feminist politics which do not attend to race. One of the first texts which I read which explicitly defined the term is Razia Aziz’s 1992 article ‘Feminism and the challenge of racism: Deviance or difference?’ (reprinted in the Black British feminism reader), in which she writes:
In attempting to shift the ground of feminist discourse, the adversary has at times appeared to be white feminists but is in fact, I would venture, white feminism – by which I expressly do not mean any feminism espoused by white feminists. I refer, rather, to any feminism which comes from a white perspective, and universalizes it… I do not propose that white feminism is a clearly defined, coherent and internally consistent body of thought that feeds off conscious racist intentions. It is, rather, a way of seeing which, however inadvertent, leaves identifiable traces. It subsists through a failure to consider both the wider social and political context of power in which feminist utterances and actions take place, and the ability of feminism to influence that context.
White feminism as a descriptive term has been in wide circulation in recent discussions online. To counter the resistance to the term by many white feminists who refuse to see racism as a systemic problem within feminism, Cate Young, in a blog post titled ‘This is what I mean when I say “white feminism”’, lays out similar points to Aziz, and specifically describes white feminism as practice:
I see “white feminism” as a specific set of single-issue, non-intersectional, superficial feminist practices. It is the feminism we understand as mainstream; the feminism obsessed with body hair, and high heels and makeup, and changing your married name. It is the feminism you probably first learned. “White feminism” is the feminism that doesn’t understand western privilege, or cultural context. It is the feminism that doesn’t consider race as a factor in the struggle for equality.
White feminism is a set of beliefs that allows for the exclusion of issues that specifically affect women of colour. It is “one size-fits all” feminism, where middle class white women are the mould that others must fit. It is a method of practicing feminism, not an indictment of every individual white feminist, everywhere, always.
In ‘A word to white women’, Reni Eddo-Lodge, building on Young’s piece, brings to the fore the society-wide structural inequality which enables the dominance of white feminism. She suggests white feminism can be “conceptualised as the feminist wing” of the “political consensus” of whiteness and white supremacy, describing white supremacy as “a political structure that is concerned with maintaining power though domination and exclusion”.
Aziz’s, Young’s and Eddo-Lodge’s descriptions of white feminism all coalesce around the point that white feminism is a discourse upheld through political structures. Its legitimacy and power is enabled through its collusion with white supremacy and it has harmful effects, whatever the intent behind it.
Another point which all three writers emphasise is the distinction between white feminism as discourse/structure and individual white feminists. This distinction is unquestionably important – as otherwise white feminism can never be undone – but I do have concerns about how this distinction is sometimes used by individual white feminists – specifically those of us who do have an anti-racist awareness. Because I think it can provide a convenient distancing mechanism from those other ‘bad’ white racist feminists *over there*. If we are not (or claim not to be) articulating a white feminist approach to gender oppression, and critique those that do, then we can claim to situate ourselves outside of white feminism. But what does this distancing do? I don’t think it does very much to end racism within feminism. It reminds me of Sara Ahmed’s work on the “non-performativity of anti-racism”: White people do not challenge racist structures just by saying we are anti-racist.
If we understand white feminism as a discourse supported by structures – and vice versa – it becomes clear that it is not going to be undone by individual white feminists renouncing it. In fact, white feminists who are committed to ending racism, would do well to not distance ourselves from white feminism but rather to understand how we are implicated within it – to draw on a recent blog post by Ahmed, to see our complicity as a starting point. What are the structures of white feminism and what is our (as individual white feminists) stake in them?
In Britain in 2013, structures which support the dominance of white feminist discourse include the institutionalisation of feminism within sections of the liberal media, white-led feminist organisations and groups which operate a ‘politics of inclusion’ without redistribution of power, white-dominated academic feminist networks, journals and conferences which incessantly tout ‘intersectionality’ without addressing institutional racism within (feminist) academia, left-wing and academic publishers that promote the idea that only white women can speak for feminism. These are just some examples which come to mind. Individual white feminists will have a variety of investments and access within these structures. Each of us needs to figure out what our roles can be in disrupting them.
‘Feminist structures’ can of course not be separated from larger societal structures, which makes Eddo-Lodge’s description of white feminism as the ‘feminist wing’ of white supremacy particularly apt. White feminism cannot be dismantled in separation from white supremacist society. So on a wider level, white feminists need to ask ourselves what and who our whiteness gives us access to – whether it’s resources, institutions, people and/or platforms.
I mean this in both ‘big’ and ‘small’ ways. For those of us who have class privilege and/or various forms of institutional access it will involve leveraging power and redistributing resources towards people of colour-led anti-racist work. But it is also about how whiteness affords us access, trust and credibility in everyday ways. Whiteness, as Eddo-Lodge addresses, is that which is invisible to white people – its power comes (partly) from the fact that white society doesn’t recognise its existence and sees white people as just ‘people’. Whiteness gives us access to this world of ‘just people’ in ways which people of colour don’t have. Our whiteness means we are likely to know more white people intimately in all areas of our lives, and our whiteness means people see us as more ‘objective’. Part of challenging this white solidarity involves committing to ongoing – difficult – conversations about whiteness and racism within our communities – our white friends, family members, colleagues and local communities as much as our feminist and activist networks.
For white feminists who want to end racism, dismantling white feminism requires more from us than calling out Caitlin Moran on Twitter. It requires us to take an active role in restructuring the systems of white supremacy. As we will always have a proximity to white power whether we like it or not, the question is what we do with it.