White Feminists: Step Your Game Up
This past week, I was lucky enough hang out with Team Blackness at Netroots Nation 13. There is a lot that can be said about Netroots and its marginalization of people of color (see Jenifer Daniels’ posts on TWiB! for example). But, as a straight, cis, white feminist, I found one particular moment profoundly disturbing — Amanda Marcotte’s Ignite talk at the closing keynote. Because my position shares so much with Marcotte’s, I feel compelled to take this opportunity to say: white feminists, step your game up.
When Marcotte took the stage, I did what I always do when listening to my fellow white feminists. I crossed my fingers and started playing Press Your Luck in my head. “Come ooooon … No privilege! No privilege! No privilege! No privilege! No privilege …!” But it quickly became readily apparent that the privilege whammy was inevitable (*trombone slide*). As Marcotte’s talk about the impact of “online feminism” unfolded, it became clear that when she said “feminism” what she meant was “white feminism.”
Marcotte argued that the Internet has allowed feminism to become a more significant force in mainstream public and popular discourse. She cited the blog Jezebel, for which she writes, and a handful of other spaces in the popular press. Notably absent were any reference to the many women of color writing feminist blogs and analysis online like Racialicious, The Crunk Feminist Collective, Trans Griot, or Post Bougie just to name a few. Marcotte’s visual aids included images of white feminists such as Gloria Steinem and, of course, the renowned black feminist icon “African American woman holding car keys” from masterfile.com. I guess if you are only going to include one woman of color, the remarkable contributions of “African American woman holding car keys” trumps those of Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, or bell hooks.
Marcotte, frankly, should have known better. Over the years she’s been at the receiving end of a good deal of criticism from feminists of color. In 2008, Marcotte was criticized (rightfully, in my opinion) for appropriating the work of a woman of color who blogged under the name Brownfemipower and who had been writing and speaking about the intersection of race and gender that often results in violence for immigrant women (there is a summary of the entire incident here). The resulting conflict led Brownfemipower, who has been referred to by many as one of the most important feminist bloggers in the history of the web, to respond with a letter declaring:
“Feminists” … are not movement building, they are actively destroying women and blaming those women for the destruction. . . .
And so I withdraw myself from this “movement”. . . .
And I reject and rebel at the label “feminist.” . . .
I realize now that “feminism” and I stand in direct opposition to each other—that the feminists who aren’t actively working against me and my community are . . . few and far between (full text available here).
Brownfemipower has since taken down her blog, and her digital voice (at least under this name) has been lost. Shortly after this incident, Marcotte was at the center of more controversy due to the racially problematic imagery of her book cover. Just a few short months before Netroots Nation, Tara L. Conley published an open letter to Marcotte. The letter addressed a tweet Marcotte wrote in which she thanked five women, all of whom are white except one (@desifeminista), for “creating online feminism.” Conley encapsulates the problem with both Marcotte’s tweet and her career as a whole: “the underlying issue concerning these controversies essentially has to do with the ways in which your privilege as a feminist with a platform implicitly asserts ownership of online feminism.”
And, it turns out, Conley’s letter was remarkably prescient, given that Marcotte’s Ignite talk was predicated on the conflation of “online feminism” with the work of white, middle-class, formally educated feminists online.
My goal here isn’t to pillory Marcotte. Her talk was problematic; but she is not the problem. She simply has the dubious distinction of neatly encapsulating the shortcomings of white feminism. The problem is much deeper. There is a reason why many women of color do not identify with the label “feminist.” There is a reason why feminism is seen as “a white thing.” White feminists have a long history of being blinded by our racial privilege and of silencing the voices of women of color whose experiences and perspectives are divergent from our own. We see our experiences as most representative of womanhood and therefore most worthy of attention. We substitute our voices for those of women of color–a phenomenon perfectly illustrated by the fact that Brownfemipower’s blog has been erased from the web while Amanda Marcotte’s article appropriating that work remains online.
Unfortunately, none of this is new. White feminists’ failure to recognize the contributions of people of color and our tendency to reinforce racial inequalities dates back to the days of abolition. First-wave feminists learned the rhetorical and political skills to confront their own oppression from their work with anti-slavery movements. But, despite these ideological roots, first-wave feminists, including the likes of Susan B. Anthony, forged alliances with unapologetic racists, even going so far as to argue white women’s suffrage as a means of maintaining white supremacy (White, 2001: 29-31). Second-wave feminists of the mid-twentieth century constructed a middle-class white movement that ignored intersectionality and expected black feminists to simply be “white feminis[ts] in blackface” (Lorde, 2007: 60). And now, third-wave white feminists aren’t doing much better.
We white feminists have silenced, marginalized, and, at times, even sacrificed women of color in our fight against patriarchy. Our failure to listen and our unwillingness to de-center ourselves have marred the possibilities of coalition building and made us complicit in the continued oppression of women of color. It’s inexcusable, and until we learn to check our privilege, we will continue to undermine the social justice we claim to champion.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Foreword by Cheryl Clarke. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007.
White, E. Frances. Dark Continent of our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.
UPDATE: Here’s the video: