Whose feminism? What waves?

'Other kinds of dreams': Black women's organisations and the politics of transformation, by Julia Sudbury

‘Other kinds of dreams’: Black women’s organisations and the politics of transformation

Writing in the early twenty-first century, in an article exploring the possibilities of a third wave black feminism, Kimberly Springer outlined how the “wave model” in its dominant form drowns out the activism of black women. Writing about the US context, Springer pointed out how the dominant understandings of the 1st wave (suffrage movement), 2nd wave (women’s liberation/women’s rights movements in 60s-70s) and 3rd wave (contemporary feminism) “disregard[ed] the race-based movements before them that served as precursors, or windows of political opportunity, for gender activism” (Springer 2002: 1061). For example, the dominant third wave narrative, she pointed out, tends to dismiss the role of black women in the development of the term itself – noting that Kitchen Table Women of Color Press had plans to publish a book in the late 1980s called ‘The Third Wave’. The book, which unfortunately never came to fruition, “was to describe an antiracist, women-of-color-led feminism for the coming decade” (Springer 1063).

Springer’s critique of the wave model is relevant for thinking also about feminism in Britain. Although following its own unique trajectory, located in a different social and historical context, the wave story here is often told in similar terms: First wave = movements for suffrage, including the suffragettes; second wave = the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 70s. What exactly constitutes the third – and potentially a fourth – wave is perhaps the most disputed. But whatever the definitions, similar to the US version, the wave story seldom accounts for black women’s theory and activism.

I was reminded of Springer’s article this week apropos the New Stateman’s “Rereading the second wave”, a series of posts on so-called ‘second wave’ feminists and their work. Ten out of eleven of the feminists in question are/were white, with only one post about a feminist of colour (Audre Lorde). Now my post is not so much about the NS series in itself. It is after all a rather idiosynchratic list chosen by a group of feminists assembled by the NS and, as the introductory post states, it’s not meant to be definitive – although note the regularity with which this claim is used as a get-out clause when systemic exclusions are pointed out. Aside from the lack of feminists of colour, what stands out to me most is that eight of the so-called ‘second wave’ feminists are/were American (none British). I also wonder how Judith Butler feels about being described as ‘second wave’, but whatever.

What I am interested in is how stories of feminism get told – both within the liberal (in some senses) ‘pro-feminist’ media such as the New Statesman and the Guardian, as well as among contemporary feminists themselves (and these of course overlap) – and how those stories are inflected and defined by white supremacy. I mean, considering the NS list is so idiosynchratic, then why is it still so white? Of course there is a straight-forward, predictable answer to this: most of the contributors to the series are white. But leaving that to one side for a moment – although it is of course part of the problem – is there something inherent in the ‘second wave’ terminology that denotes whiteness? As Springer observed, “The wave model perpetuates the exclusion of women of color from women’s movement history and feminist theorizing” (1063) and this certainly is the overwhelming case when looking at invocations of the “second wave” within many British feminist spaces. It seems to limit the imagination of what histories of women’s activism look like, because the dominant image associated with “second wave” activism is that of white women’s liberationists.

Charting the Journey

Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women

Although she is critical of the ‘wave model’, Springer argues that because it is so embedded within our understandings of feminism, it is still worth working with this model – critiquing it from within and expanding it to include women of colour’s activism (the bulk of her article focuses on the possibilities of a third wave black feminism and how it might engage with more young black women). But others write without using the wave metaphor. Julia Sudbury, for example, in her book on (politically) black women’s activism in post-war Britain does not refer to waves at all – the stories simply don’t fit that way. Neither is her research framed exclusively around the term feminism (Sudbury locates herself as writing from a Womanist perspective).  The fact that many black women have organised for rights and justice without taking on the label ‘feminist’ also needs to be recognised as part of the complexity of women’s activist & feminist histories.

But the wave metaphor is very pervasive within Anglo-American feminist storytelling. Personally, I’m quite averse to using it in my own writing, yet find it difficult to get completely away from doing so. So is Springer right? Is it better to try and work with the wave model, but to critique it and expand it? Or is “second wave” irrevocably bound to the image of a white women? (and this is a two-way process – I often see and hear ‘second wave’ used as derogatory short-hand for white feminism).

Either way, what is undoubtedly urgent is the need to destabilize the hegemonic whiteness of stories of the feminist past as they are told and re-told within contemporary feminist spaces.

I started writing a whole other part to this post about structural racism, capitalism and publishing, which of course plays a huge role in who gets to write books and become canonised. But I’ll leave that for now, because it’s a somewhat separate point. After all, women of colour did publish extensively in the 1970s and 80s (often collectively through anthologies). Their continued marginalisation from the dominant feminist canon of this time period is not because they weren’t writing, but because of white supremacy.

So if you are unfamiliar with the histories of scholarship by women of colour and black feminists in the 70s, 80s and 90s, here are a few of my suggestions (with a focus on Britain) of writings to seek out:

‘Other kinds of dreams’: Black women’s organisations and the politics of transformation, by Julia Sudbury (Routledge 1998). Sudbury’s PhD thesis on which this book is based on is available open access from Warwick University’s online repository.

Black British Feminism: A Reader, edited by Heidi Safia Mirza (Routledge 1997).

Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, edited by Shabnam Grewal, Jackie Kay, Liliane Landor, Gail Lewis and Pratibha Parmar (Sheba Feminist Press 1988). Also: Listen to Gail Lewis talking about how this book was marginalised within British Women’s Studies programmes on the Sisterhood and After online archive.

Feminist Review issue 17

Feminist Review issue 17: Many Voices, One Chant

Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain, by Amrit Wilson (Virago Press 1978). You can listen to Amrit Wilson talking about researching this book on the Sisterhood and After online archive. See also Wilson’s more recent Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain (Pluto Press 2006).

Cartographies of Diaspora; Contesting Identities, by Avtar Brah (Routledge 1996).

Feminist Review issue 17: ‘Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives’ (1984). This might be tricky to get hold of outside of academic libraries (there are also copies in the Feminist Library in London), but you can read Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar’s influential essay “Challenging imperial feminism” online [PDF link].


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.

White feminists vs white feminism

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.

Why critique?

Last week I presented a paper at the Forthcoming Feminisms conference, in which I talked about two books about contemporary feminism which I have been analysing in my research. This included some critical comments about how these particular texts construct feminist politics in relation to ‘race’.

In the discussion which followed, I was asked whether I think it’s fair to critique feminist writers in this way. My answer was ‘yes’: I think it is definitely fair to present critiques of published material. This is common practice within academic scholarship, surely – we engage with what others have written, building on their work, which may also involve disagreeing with their analysis and presenting a critique.

But I want to write this out a bit more, because I think there are several things going on here, and which I have been coming back to every so often as I’ve been working on this project.

First off – yes, it is true that one of the major aspects of my research involves analysing a range of feminist texts and asking specific questions related to ‘race’, racism and whiteness. This means I end up critiquing quite a number of texts on the basis of what I consider to be a marginalisation of discussions of racism, and also often the marginalisation of scholarship by feminists of colour.

I am well aware that as I start to (hopefully) publish my work and speak more publically about it, I am potentially going to get some people’s backs up and be seen as being critical and ‘mean’. And yes, I am quite nervous about that. But there are a few points I think it is useful to unravel here, about why I see critique as important and relevant:

  • Critique is not about individuals; it’s about questioning particular formulations of ideas and theories. These ideas and theories are not created in a vacuum, but are formulated within the context of a wider discourse. In her analysis of the ‘political grammar’ of feminist stories presented within feminist journal articles, Clare Hemmings emphasises how narratives are constructed within an institutional context, involving collective processes (including not only the author of an article, but also editors, peer reviewers and the wider academic feminist community). Similarly, I want to argue that problematic discourses on ‘race’ and the privileging of whiteness is institutionalised within mainstream feminism: it is the collective responsibility of white feminists, and bigger than any one individual – although each individual has a role to play. And related to this: I do not see myself as outside of this discourse – but rather as working from within it to destabilise and trouble it. And I know I may well get something wrong and my work critiqued in turn. But that’s how we move forwards, right?
  • I think there is a particular anxiety around race-related critiques – a greater fear on the part of (“well-meaning”) white people associated with being seen as racist – which is more acute than with other topics. Would I have been asked the question above if I was critiquing the texts on other grounds? We need to reflect on the role white anxiety plays in deflecting attention away from challenging white privilege and racism.
  • Anti-racist critique within feminist spaces has too often been left to women of colour. This is often difficult and emotionally fraught work. Sara Ahmed writes about the black feminist being perceived as ‘killing feminist joy’ when she points out white feminist racism (and accused of being ‘angry’). I see my work as part of taking responsibility, as a white feminist, for challenging racist and white-centric theory and politics – of being accountable on the subject of white privilege and racism, and taking calls for addressing these issues seriously.

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been reminded of something a friend of mine said towards the end of a particularly difficult conversation a few years ago, and something which I think encapsulates what I’m trying to get across here: ‘We critique because we care’. In a way that says it all, really.

White feminism and predictable journalism

Feminism is not All White

I wanted to highlight this post on the Black Feminist blog, written in response to a recent Guardian article about feminist activists in Britain (‘Feminists hail explosion in new grassroots groups’).

As Adunni Adams points out, the Guardian article in question completely fails to highlight any activism by anyone else than young white and privileged women and men:

I assumed the inclusion of the phrase ‘feminists who do not fit easily into stereotypical moulds’ would lead to some mention of those organisations which do not fit into the white, middle-class heterosexual stronghold which has come to typify the feminist movement. As I continued reading, I assumed the scope of the article would include the Black, Working-Class, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender feminist organisations, most of which are not new, and most of which have so far managed to escape the attention of commentators on feminism.

The announcement that something (or anything) is happening at the grassroots level of the feminist movement – not to mention the fact that the movement has caught the attention of the mainstream media – could, and should, have reflected the true strength of the movement in its depth, dynamism and diversity at all levels.

The author of the original Guardian article, has responded in the comments section, saying she didn’t have enough time to find people, nobody put themselves forward to be interviewed, and that she didn’t have enough space to cover everything – including as part of her defense links to articles she has written about ‘BME’ women’s issues. Anyone familiar with histories of racism and anti-racist challenges within white-dominated feminist movements will know such arguments form a familiar refrain which evades accountability.

Part of my research has included looking at 50+ articles in The Guardian (and its Sunday version The Observer) on the topic of feminism, looking specifically for race. From this I can say, without doubt, that this article is not an unfortunate anomaly. White, privileged feminism is the norm within the Guardian’s coverage of feminism. Although occasional feminists of colour are included, the representation of British feminist activism past and present is overwhelmingly white.

Here’s some examples from over the years (and I could have added more) – notice the patterns?

Feminism today: While we were shopping… (2002)

University challenge (2007)

How far have we come in 80 years? (2008)

Time for a good scrap about what our feminism really is (2009)

Forty years of women’s liberation (2010)

Feminism is back and we want to finish the revolution, say activists (2011)

Interrogating feminist politics of inclusion

I revisited Ien Ang’s article ‘I’m a feminist but… “other” women and postnational feminism’ recently (originally published in 1995, but re-printed in Lewis & Mills 2003 Feminist Postcolonial Theory reader). It’s a great article and, I think, still so relevant today. Ang, writing in the context of Australian feminism, argues that the white feminist desire to make feminism ‘diverse’ and ‘multicultural’ as a way of ‘dealing with difference’ (in response to critiques by feminists of colour that the movement is exclusive and racist) is still problematic, because it relies on a politics of inclusion.

…too often the need to deal with difference is seen in the light of the greater need to save, expand and improve or enrich feminism as a political home which would ideally represent all women. In this way, the ultimate rationale of the politics of difference is cast in terms of an overall politics of inclusion: the desire for an overarching feminism to construct a pluralist sisterhood which can accommodate all differences and inequalities between women. (203)

I have for a long time been wary of inclusion politics, because such a stance is always premised on someone (in this case white feminists) being in the position of inviting ‘others’ in. Ang uses a great quote from Elizabeth Spelman, which crystallizes why this actually does nothing to shift power imbalances:

Welcoming someone into one’s own home doesn’t represent an attempt to undermine privilege, it expresses it (Spelman, Inessential Women: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought, 1988: 163)

Many of the texts which I am analysing (leaving this deliberately vague at the moment) for my research are premised on a politics of inclusion. White feminist activists and writers are aware of the critiques of white-dominated feminist communities and want to rectify this by making feminist politics inclusive and representative of all women.

But what is usually missing is any reflection on why feminism needs to be the all-encompassing solution: this is simply taken as self-evident. This immediately places limits on what feminism is and can be – and prioritises the maintenance of feminism as a definable movement, identity-based community and a political home. This will only reinforce the privilege of those positioned at the centre, and is not an effective way of ending oppression. Ang argues instead for a politics of partiality:

Feminism must stop conceiving itself as a nation, a ‘natural’ political designation for all women, no matter how multicultural. Rather than adopting a politics of inclusion (which is always ultimately based on a notion of commonality and community), it will have to develop  a self-conscious politics of partiality, and imagine itself as a limited political home, which does not absorb difference within a pre-given and predefined space but leaves room for ambivalence and ambiguity. (191)

I am thinking how I can apply this argument in my analysis – beyond simply citing it as an alternative, but really thinking through what this looks like in terms of how I frame my own feminist politics through my writing.

Re-reading Ang reminded me also of Andrea Smith’s article ‘Without bureaucracy, beyond inclusion: Re-centring feminism’ (2006), which highlights so clearly why white feminists’ politics of inclusion are detrimental to the development of alternative political visions: as feminists of colour become drawn into positions where they are constantly having to respond to white feminists:

Our work then becomes focused on yelling at white women for being racist. And if we become very good at this task, white women start paying us to yell at them. This approach can be lucrative for some individual women of color, but does not actually impact the political direction of these bureaucratic organizations. More significantly, this work does not help women of color organizing build its own power. (read whole article)

Any feminist politics, however ‘diverse’ and ‘multicultural’, where white feminists still set the agenda, are not fundamentally challenging the power imbalances between different women. They minimise differences rather than working out how to work with and across them in accountable ways.In many ways, they echo institutional and government discourses on ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’, which should probably ring alarm bells in itself!

Am looking forward to reading Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) on the subject as well.