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Five rules for white feminists

Five rules for white feminists March 7, 20142 Comments

With International Women’s Day on Saturday 8 March, it’s a time to acknowledge the work and struggles of women worldwide. In this context I wondered what white women could do to improve their relationship with women of other races and ethnicities.

Take a look at the #intersectionality hashtag on Twitter and you will find that white women have provoked quite a reaction with their responses to this theory, which was first named by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It examines the interrelation of sexism and racism, transphobia, homophobia and class privilege, suggesting they don’t operate independently, but are interconnected.

At times the debate on Twitter and elsewhere online has been more thoughtful and instructive; at others it has been increasingly polarised and entrenched. When The Spectator weighed in with a Julie Burchill article titled Don’t you dare tell me to check my privilege, it suggested that, in the mainstream media at least, it was fast becoming farcical.

But when journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, who will feature in our Blind Spot section, wrote on her blog that she would no longer talk to women about race, it seemed that some white women, by their reactions, were doing a lot of damage.

So here are my five rules to help white women (myself included) think about how we engage and contribute in ways that are more constructive.

1. White women have to start admitting that they are – white women.

For lots of reasons to do with Western history, whiteness and therefore “white woman” is rarely acknowledged as a standpoint.

We’re part of a hierarchy that views humanity as primarily white and while maleness dominates, being a white woman gives us privilege in that order – including that we get to say “women” and assume our experiences are universal.

Acknowledging that you are a white woman might lead to some personal discomfort – we might feel it doesn’t sum us up. But overcoming this strange invisibility of being a white woman might help us become sensitive to the fact that few women would feel that black woman or Asian woman encapsulates their identity either.

The fact is people of other races and ethnicities do see whiteness. They’re the ones on the receiving end of it. So it doesn’t really work to try and ignore it, or expect others to, based on the notion that feminism should be colour blind.

2. It’s not really on to say that you don’t believe/accept the ideas or terminology that other people use to define their experience.

Of course there’s a need for critique, but when it comes to discussing ideas such as intersectionality, for instance, we need to be aware that it’s not really about us. I found it hurtful when the fiery socialist grandfather I loved dismissed the fancy ideas I had about feminism which I came home from university with.

The books I read back then blew my mind and helped me make sense of my life and experiences, so it was tough hearing from him that my ideas were pointless, meaningless, or worse, “lah di dah” and irrelevant in the “real world”.

You might not agree with everything you hear about intersectionality, but it’s not your theory – it was a term used to make sense of how both racism and sexism impacted the lives of black women. So it’s perhaps best to try and listen before weighing in with any analysis, or worse, caricature and belittle it.

I’m not saying this from a holier than thou perspective – I know I’ve made friends angry when I’ve reacted and dismissed ideas that didn’t stack up with my perspective, priorities or understanding of the world. But it’s something I really want to learn not to do.

3. Don’t take things too personally.

As people who don’t say overtly racist things, it’s tempting to fight tooth and nail to prove that we, as white feminists, are not racist, or particularly privileged, for that matter.

But it’s really not about whether we’re nice people, or about if we face struggles in our lives too. Try to avoid turning accusations about racism or privilege into discussions about you. (Think men who talk about how they are being disempowered by feminists.)

I think this is a really tough one, because not all of us always feel great about ourselves, and don’t feel particularly powerful. It’s really not the time to cave in to those feelings.

Try to listen more and try to justify less. It may be upsetting, but it’s probably best that you deal with these issues elsewhere – just make sure protective friends don’t lead you too far down the path of feeling wronged.

Unless we can find the courage or maturity to accept criticism of the system and structures that we’re part of – and try and integrate it into the way we operate – it’s unlikely that the debate can move on.

4. It’s not all about us.

There seems to be an expectation that women of colour should help us through this, understand our pain and help us understand where we are going wrong. Perhaps it’s time to stand up, be a bit more upright and do the work ourselves.

We need to find ways of examining ourselves and the structures we operate in and allow that to shape our feminism. Do we simply want to ensure that women have access to the current structures of power and – let’s face it – as white women we have first dibs? Or do we want to challenge the actual structures of power?

If we were to own being white women, acknowledge it as a particular standpoint, then we could think critically about what kind of world we want to help create, and how we want to work with other women – not just expect them to join in with our projects.

5. The Caribbean-American writer Audre Lorde said: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

I won’t pretend to be hugely familiar with her work, but her words seem a good starting point for thinking about white feminism and being sensitive to the struggles of other women. It’s a plea for a more robust, engaged – and loving – feminism.

But it’s also important that we recognise and accept that we’re not the saviours in this story. We need to avoid the trap of assuming a superior position that positions other women as victims who need rescuing by us. That means we might have to rethink how we approach projects, particularly global movements. The focus should be on connecting and supporting, not expecting everyone to join our project or support our vision.

Digital media is an incredible tool for exploring all of the initiatives, campaigns and activism that women are involved in around the world. It’s unleashed massive potential for us to work together, but as white women we can’t always expect to run the show.

Image credit: Soirart.Tumblr

Julie Tomlin is the co-founder of Digital Women UK

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