White feminist stories in The Guardian

Last week, my first journal article was published, titled “White feminist stories: Locating race in representations of feminism in The Guardian” (Feminist Media Studies 2014).

One chapter of my PhD analyses several dozen Guardian and Observer articles about feminism over a number of years, paying close attention to how these articles construct stories of British feminism past and present. Who – in terms of ethnicity and race – is constructed as central or significant within these stories and who is marginal or erased? Where is race and racism located within these narratives?

In this article, I present a close reading of three such Guardian articles about feminist activism from recent years, unpicking the underlying assumptions about British feminism which they rest upon. I focus in particular on three narrative logics which are dominant within this discourse, which present contemporary feminist activism as: 1) a continuation of a white feminist legacy, 2) a unified movement of “like-minded” individuals, and 3) as “diverse” and “happy”.

These narratives erase power differences between women, as well as a multitude of feminist organising in Britain, including Black British feminism. Although the Guardian (as a result of persistent challenge by black and anti-racist feminists) is increasingly representing contemporary feminist activism as diverse and intersectional, the dominant story that it constructs of British feminist history is an overwhelmingly white one, as if feminists of colour have only recently started to exist and organise. The insistence on presenting feminism as an “innocent” movement also leads to a lack of acknowledgement of white feminist racism within British feminist movements.

Although, as I write in the article, challenges to the whiteness of Guardian feminism are continuously made, the resistance to change highlights the continued unequal power relations between white feminists and feminists of colour, and the persistence of whiteness in defining feminism within mainstream liberal media.

You can read the accepted version of the paper here. This is the final version submitted to the publisher, so is more or less the same as the published version, minus copyediting changes and typesetting. The published version of the article is available – behind a paywall – on the Feminist Media Studies website.

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6 thoughts on “White feminist stories in The Guardian

  1. I’ve read your paper & I agree that many of the critiques in it are extremely important; I have a particular bugbear with “diversity pride”. Unfortunately trying to avoid what I think of as “performing diversity” creates problems: for example, you don’t mention in your piece that at the time that Norris was writing the Guardian piece you critique, her colleague in coordinating BFN was a woman of colour.

    Because BFN as an organisation never exploited that fact to get “diversity points”, this woman’s work is effectively erased by critiques such as yours. It seems like a Catch-22 and if I’m honest I don’t see any way out of it, other than making sure we never make any assumptions about our fellow organisers.

  2. I wanted to leave a comment as one of the writers critiqued in your paper. First of all, I want to say how much I agree with the premise of your paper. The continued invisibility of black feminist’s activism in the mainstream media portrayal of the feminist movement is problematic and seems to not be shifting. I too was incredibly critical of the Topping article when it was published, precisely because it seemed to prioritise the contribution of white men to feminism, whilst ignoring organisations like Black Feminists UK, Southall Black Sister etc.

    Reading back my 2008 article I do recognise where it was problematic in its portrayal of the feminist movement at that point. However, as the commenter above mentioned, I am troubled how your portrayal of BFN ignores the contribution of black feminist women to the organisation. For example, the BFN co-ordinator with me at the time was a woman of colour, and her work has been effectively erased by your description of BFN. You depict issues around representation as ‘white feminist issues’ when a look at the Reps website would reveal that one of the many interesting presentations that made up the project was on the representation of black women in the media. Your dismissal of BFN’s work on reproductive rights and VAWG also ignores how that included activism on FGM, VAW in conflict and forced marriage. I also find it confusing how issues around reproductive rights and VAWG are framed as ‘white feminist’ issues when they impact on all women, and the intersection of race and gender can intensify the oppression experienced by women who are coping with reproductive, physical, sexual and emotional violence.

    BFN was far from perfect, particularly in 2008 when we had only been going a year. We had a lot of work to do to become a more intersectional organisation and I don’t know how far we succeeded. But I am proud of the work we did over the six years I co-ran it.

    As I say, I am in complete agreement that the mainstream media portrayal of feminism is problematic and needs to be challenged. I find it incredibly frustrating at the slow rate of change and the lack of recognition afforded to black feminist activists and the intersecting oppressions of race and gender. However I do also feel I have the right to clarify some of the assumptions made about BFN which ignored and undermined the activism of some truly inspirational and fantastic women.

  3. Hi Rachel and Sian,
    Thank you both for commenting. You both raise an important point about the need to be careful when talking about whiteness within feminism to not erase feminists of colour who do of course work in white-dominated feminist communities. It is something I think about often (which is why I use the phrase ‘white dominated’ – I never assume that groups are entirely white), but I accept I could have been even more explicit about that in my article.

    I would reiterate though (as I said in the article) my article is not a critique of individual journalists (if referencing conventions would allow, I would leave author names out altogether). It is an analysis of the stories about feminism which are constructed in a national newspaper, which shape popular understandings of feminism in the (liberal) public sphere. What I didn’t say explicitly, because I assumed that was clear, is that neither is the article a critique of any of the the groups mentioned in the articles. I have absolutely no doubt that BFN have done a lot of great work over the years – that is not under question. And I don’t think I dismiss BFN’s work in any way – I was analysing what was in the article (and there is no mention of ‘reproductive rights’ in the article – only abortion rights, which I do note – nor of FGM, VAW in conflict or forced marriage). Neither did I say that reproductive rights or VAWG are ‘white feminist’ – I said that the framing of the issues in the article signaled a gender-only focus (again this is my analysis of the article – not of the actual work that BFN does).

    What concerns me is media representation and narratives and their relationship to structures and discourses of white supremacy. Because, as you both also recognise, a persistent whiteness continues to structure the overarching narrative of feminism in the Guardian (and beyond!), with continued harmful effects. So my research involves burrowing down into the details of the texts – to pinpoint moments where such narratives are constructed and legitimated. But this is not done to point a finger at individual journalists, groups or activists – many of us are implicated in this process. Rather than placing blame, I am interested in working out how we can disrupt it.

  4. In that case you error was conceptual as well as methodological; not everyone who writes something for a newspaper is a journalist. Sian was writing as an individual activist, & while I don’t know the details of the other pieces, I would imagine that might have been the case for those, as well. If you want to critique the Guardian’s editorial policy, or make any kind of argument about how feminism gets represented in the media that is both coherent and able to be acted upon, then the thing to do is aim the lens of research at pieces that were published by staffers of whichever publication you are looking at.

  5. I don’t agree. Articles published in the Guardian go through an editorial process – it is not the product of just one writer. It needs to adhere to (explicit and implicit) rules and conventions, which mold what it is possible for the writer to say. The paper wouldn’t publish it otherwise. Also, there was no evidence in the article that Sian was a member of BFN – only those of us involved in feminist communities might have known that. It was presented as a journalistic report, not an insider’s perspective, so whether it was written by an activist or a staff writer does not make any difference to how it will be received by the majority of the readers.

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