A White Feminist, by definition, is a white person whose focus is on only the issues that primarily affect them. They may sometimes focus on issues that also affect women of color but they do not understand the ways in which that issue affects people of color differently than it affects them. White Feminists proceed as though all women are fighting the same fight and are on an equal playing field. They neglect to consider that white voices are always the loudest while people of color are silenced. White Feminists don’t realize that when they use their voices to speak to an issue that affects “women”, that they are offering solely a white perspective and that their lack of inclusivity is a way of further silencing the marginalized.
White Feminists are often celebrated for bringing attention to any issue that affects women even if their advocacy for that issue completely excludes the perspective of people of color or trans women or other marginalized people. White Feminists get all the cookies, all the time, for simply correctly identifying a problem.
White Feminism Kinda Doesn’t Exist
Gloria Steinem has said: “There is no such thing as white feminism. Because if it’s white, it’s not feminism. It’s either talking about all women, or it’s not.” While I agree with that, I disagree that we shouldn’t use the term. We need terms to help us readily identify problems. “White Feminism” is the term we’ve come up with to essentially describe non-intersectional feminism. But her argument stands because TERF is not a thing either. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism is an oxymoron. It’s not feminism if you’re excluding trans people but we need the term TERF so we can talk about this very real and disturbing perversion of actual feminism. What White Feminism is at it’s core is racism masquerading as feminism and TERF is transphobia masquerading as feminism.
Why is White Feminism racism?
White people have been so conditioned to think of themselves as the default because of systemic racism that many white folks don’t stop and think about how an issue would affect people who don’t look like them. The average white woman concerned about the wage gap does not immediately think about the fact that women of color make far less than white women. While neglecting to consider the perspectives of people of color isn’t exactly racist, the very fact that white folks tend to default to their own experiences is a result of systemic racism. Ergo White Feminism, with its laser focus on the experiences of white women, is an extension of systemic racism. Racism is so ingrained in our society that even the social movements we have designed to fight against it are riddled with racist undertones.
But there’s hope. There’s intersectional feminism! White Intersectional Feminists are different than White Feminists because they have done the work to learn how to think more inclusively and when they speak about an issue that affects a group, they are careful to consider how that issue affects the marginalized differently. They listen to people of color and understand them alone to be experts on what it’s like to be a person of color. White Intersectional Feminists recognize their own racism and biases because you cannot live in a racist world and not be affected by it. They know that they may make mistakes and if they do, they hear the concerns of others and seek to do better next time. Intersectional feminism puts responsibility on white people to learn what they need to learn to be good allies and partners in ending inequality. It doesn’t erase marginalized people and it doesn’t pretend that we’re all engaged in the same fight on an equal playing field.
Now here are some ways that White Feminism is actively threatening Intersectional Feminism today as more and more famous women are being called out for their statements and behaviors.
Intention Versus Impact
A White Feminist struggles to take responsibility. When they are called out for their behaviors, there tends to be either a SorryNotSorry apology or the Good Intentions Defense. For example, when Katy Perry defended her Geisha performance at an awards show:
Even in my intention to appreciate Japanese culture, I did wrong with a performance. And I didn’t know that I did it wrong until I heard people saying I did it wrong.
Perry’s explanation is simply “I didn’t mean it like that” but it doesn’t matter what your intention was. It only matters what the impact is on others. Cultural appropriation is a huge issue in Hollywood. Although Katy Perry is often considered the most frequent offender, other famous white women such as Amy Schumer and Miley Cyrus have been accused of it. An Intersectionally Feminist way to handle this would have been for Perry to issue a genuine apology, educate herself, and then to not appropriate again (which she has continued to do by appropriating black hair styles in music videos).
With Fame Comes Great Responsibility
It’s not fair to expect every famous woman to be the voice of all women and to speak to “women’s issues” but if you choose to use your platform to speak to an issue that you say affects “all women”, make sure you’re actually talking about ALL women. If you can’t speak about a “women’s issue” in a fully informed way, then don’t speak to it at all because your famous white lady voice is loud and people will listen to you.
For example, Rose McGowan has been hit with so many allegations of White Feminism, it’s unbelievable. No matter how many times it happens, it seems that she learns nothing and does it again. There was the time that she posted a sexist video and called on people to replace the word “woman” with the word “nigger” as though she forgot that there are black women who are subject to racism and sexism.
Recently Ellen DeGeneres tweeted about the treatment of gay and trans folks in Mississippi which prompted McGowan, who this time had forgotten that not all women are straight, to respond in this way to DeGeneres:
McGowan is only capable of offering a white cisgender hetero perspective on issues and actually tried to speak over a gay woman who was trying to make a point about LGBT issues.
McGowan is one of the loudest voices right now even though women of color have been making the same complaints that she is currently making for years and it hasn’t received much attention. Voices like hers have an effect on the collective unconscious. With people finally able to hear the truth about the prevalence of sexual assault (because rich white ladies are bringing attention to it), shouldn’t we be concerned about the missing pieces? Sure, people are realizing just how common sexual assault is but do they understand how much worse it is for women of color or transwomen? Probably not because this present consciousness-raising effort is being led by White Feminists.
White Feminism Affects Activist Movements
There are certain White Feminists who literally refuse to engage in a meaningful dialogue about how their behavior harms others. Tina Fey, for example. She has literally “opted out” of taking responsibility for her statements and actions:
“We did an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode and the internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist’, but my new goal is not to explain jokes…I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”
When you’ve decided that you don’t have to take any responsibility for what you say because you were joking, it allows you to get away with anything you want. When I watched that episode of SNL where Fey went on Weekend Update and actually advocated for eating cake instead of protesting, I knew she would never take any responsibility for that. #SheetCaking actually became a thing after that with people advocating for drowning their sorrows about the horrible state of our country in a sheet cake.
Whether it was sarcastic or not, it was tone deaf following the events of Charlottesville. What an obnoxiously privileged position to be in– to feel comfortable enough to make a joke that you can just sit back and shove a cake down your throat instead of fighting against actual nazis.
White Feminists Spawn More White Feminists
There is a deep schism within feminism with women of color not feeling included because of White Feminists. We don’t want to create more White Feminists because we will continue alienating people of color. I say that as an intersectional feminist and a Latina who hasn’t always felt included by feminism. We need to stop White Feminism from becoming the legacy of the third wave.
White Intersectional Feminists need to call out White Feminists. It is not the the responsibility of people of color to fix White Feminists any more than it is the responsibility of trans people to fix TERFs.
People listen to folks like McGowan and Fey because when you haven’t developed your sense of feminism and social justice fully, you rely on the perspectives of others as part of your learning process. I looked at #SheetCaking on Twitter and every time I saw a young woman post something about it, I thought “there goes another one”. Every time a young woman said #MeToo and credited Alyssa Milano, I thought “we’re losing them to White Feminism”.
We need to stop racism from masquerading as feminism. We need to either get these women woke or stop them from being the voice of feminism. Because, as Steinem said, it’s not feminism if it’s white.