We live in exciting times. Intersectionality continues to gain traction, despite the best efforts of some disgruntled commentators who wish to cast it out into the sea. With this traction comes a catch all phrase to describe feminists politics that rejects intersectional values. That catch all phrase is ‘white feminism’.
This phrase, used as a derogatory term, has got some feminists who are white somewhat agitated. But this knee jerk reaction – to what is more often than not rigorous critique of the consequences of structural racism – is undoubtedly born from an entitled need to defend whiteness rather than any yearning to reflect on its meaning.
In an excellent recent post, Cate Young describes white feminism as a set of exclusive values. It’s useful here to understand whiteness as a political structure in the same way you would conceptualise patriarchy. Our most recognised political structures and consensus are white dominated. In that white domination, there’s a plethora of diversity of opinion. White supremacy unites people from across the political spectrum.
The one thing that unites these differing political perspectives is the reluctance to or complete lack of challenging a white hegemony. It’s the complete obliviousness to common behaviours that keep structural racism thriving- such as unconscious biases.
Whiteness and white supremacy is a politics that engages itself with myths such as ‘I don’t see race’. It is a politics that insists that talking about race fuels racism – thereby denying people of colour the words to articulate our existence. It’s a politics that expects people of colour to quietly assimilate into institutionally racist structures without kicking up a fuss. It’s a politics where people of colour are never setting the agenda- instead; we’re constantly reacting to things or frantically playing catch up. A white dominated political consensus allows people of colour a place at the table if we’re willing to settle for tokenism, but it clamps down if we attempt to create accountability for said consensus- let alone any structural change.
Whiteness is a ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent invisibility. It positions itself as the norm. It refuses to recognise itself for what it is. It’s so called ‘objectivity’ and ‘reason’ is its most potent and insidious tool for maintaining power.
White feminism can be conceptualised as the feminist wing of said political consensus. It’s a set of white centred feminist values and beliefs that some women like to buy into. Other contributing factors, such as class and socio economic status, play a huge part in this. White feminism in itself isn’t particularly threatening. It becomes a problem when its ideas dominate – presented as the universal, to be applied to all women. It enforces its position when those who challenge the consensus are seen as trouble makers.
In her post, Cate points out high profile examples of incidents in which white feminism has revealed itself in recent months. She says:
‘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.’
When women of colour talk about white feminism, we’re not reducing white women to the colour of their skin. Even if we were judging based solely on the colour of their skin, it’s inaccurate and absurd to describe that as ‘racism’, because racism does not go both ways. Racism is prejudice plus power. We are nowhere near the stage where black women occupy a disproportionate number of positions of power in order enact this prejudice on you and seriously affect your life chances.
After hundreds of years of imperialism and colonialism, white supremacist thought transcends the colour of anyone’s skin. It is a political structure of that is concerned with maintaining power though domination and exclusion. It repeatedly enacts itself, in overt and covert ways. And anyone can buy into it, just like anyone can choose to challenge it.
So, white women – the phrase white feminism is everything and nothing to do with you. It’s not about women, who are feminists, who are white. It’s about women espousing feminist politics whilst buying into that white supremacist rhetoric – which at its core is exclusionary, discriminatory and structurally racist.
If you identify as feminist but you’ve never questioned what it means to be white in terms of power structures before, then it’s likely the phrase white feminism applies to you. If you perceive every critique of white dominated politics to be an attack on you, you’re probably part of the problem.
But really it’s not about you, your personal feelings about or your personal offence at the phrase. It’s much bigger than that.