Looking at the World Through White-Colored Glasses
(This piece was written in collaboration with Dacia Mitchell)
Last week’s post, “White Feminists: Step Your Game Up,” launched a broader conversation about the state of feminism in mainstream and digital media. In pointing out the whiteness of Amanda Marcotte’s Netroots Nation talk, the goal was to create broader discussions about the privilege-induced blindness of many white feminists. It should be noted: Marcotte herself is not the problem, her talk, however, encapsulates feminism’s main weakness: white feminism is outright resistant to intersectionality. Not to be confused with white feminists themselves, white feminism is an ideology that constructs “true” feminism in a very limited way and has created an entitlement culture within feminism that excludes most women. It’s fairly clear that oppression operates differently based on gender identity, class, race, partner preference, parenthood, geography, age, ability, and so on. Leading us to ask: what’s so threatening to white feminism in acknowledging this fact?
Marcotte bears responsibility for her choices, certainly. But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that her talk represents larger social processes of privilege and erasure which demand a thorough critique. In the feminist fight for gender equality, the movement often fails to critically engage race and thereby replicates racial oppression. Similarly, anti-racism movements must recognize the injustice experienced by women of color, lest it reinscribe the subordination of women. Both movements frequently fall short, leaving women of color abandoned in the “mutual elisions” of both movements, undermining the potential for “the development of a political discourse that more fully empowers women of color” (Crenshaw, 1995).
The central argument of Marcotte’s talk was that online feminism has led to increased attention by mainstream media spaces to feminist issues and discussions. You could argue she chose to omit non-mainstream sites by people of color, thinking they would have been out of place. And you could also argue the stock photo “African-American woman with car keys” wasn’t that problematic, since she used a number of stock images in her presentation. But, both the omissions and the stock photo are emblematic of a greater overarching problem – the images selected to represent feminism emerge from a troubling history of defining feminism as white, heteronormative, and cissexist.
As Marcotte lauded the impact of “online feminism,” the accompanying images depicted the white middle-class tradition of second-wave feminism that has often alienated women of color, queer women, and trans women. From the Time magazine cover featuring Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem to the image of first-wave feminists that accompanied Marcotte’s assertions of the Democratic Party’s embrace of feminism, the visual representations of feminism used throughout established a vision of feminism as comprised of (largely middle- and upper-class) straight cis white women and thereby only focused on their concerns. This problematic representation of feminism continued as Marcotte supported her argument for the increased influence of online feminism by presenting a number of “women’s sections” from online magazines and highlighting their inclusion of “discussions of feminism.” For example, in her analysis of New York Magazine‘s feminist blog The Cut, Marcotte chose an image of an article about Gloria Steinem — who seemed to stand as an avatar for feminism in general — and Katie Holmes.
Marcotte’s placement of the stock images in her presentation further solidified a limited feminism. Marcotte’s first mention of feminist bloggers, for example, was accompanied by a stock photo of three young white women crowded around a computer. The image of “African-American woman with car keys” accompanied Marcotte’s statement “feminists are beginning to drive the conversation.” While the image of women at a computer seems like a logical visual extension of the idea of women blogging, the image of a woman holding car keys has no connection to the talk beyond Marcotte’s use of the verb “drive.” Consequently, the stock photo of the Black woman reads as tokenism, rather than meaningful inclusion.
The representation of Black women only via this seemingly superfluous stock photo is not just a problem within Marcotte’s talk; It is a symptom of white feminism’s larger disease. Not only are Black women included as an afterthought, but they are treated as interchangeable, while white women have unique identities in the movement (e.g., Gloria Steinem and Katie Holmes). In the case of Marcotte’s presentation, the stock photo is a generic image literally purchased to do the work of visually driving diversity. The treatment of the Black body as a commodity to serve the needs of elite white power points to the primary issue of white feminism – cherry-picking issues that propel a very limited idea of womanhood. This reduces women of color to laboring bodies in service of white feminism.
This idea is most clearly illustrated in Marcotte’s use of SlutWalk as the exemplar of the “power” of 21st century digital feminism. In 2011, when SlutWalk was in full swing, dozens of Black women, activists, scholars, organizational and spiritual leaders, signed “An Open Letter from Black Women to SlutWalk.” They bluntly stated that as Black women who have historically been hypersexualized and thereby culturally sanctioned targets of sexual assault, they “find no space in SlutWalk.” They asserted that playing with and organizing around the term “slut” is a strategy available only to women who possess the racial privilege of whiteness. Using this movement, which alienates a large number of women of color, as the prime illustration of the power of 21st century feminism sends a strong message that there is no space for women of color in that feminism.
Marcotte concludes her celebration of digital feminism by pointing to SlutWalks that took place outside of the U.S. and that have, in her words, “started to build on the SlutWalk momentum.” Marcotte draws a direct line from the white online feminism at the heart of her talk to the protests against sexual violence by women in India, erasing the organizing and activism that Indian women have been doing for decades and instead attributing Indian women’s activism to the Internet and the “momentum” of SlutWalk. This assertion again subsumes both the labor and the bodies of women of color in the service of white feminism and serves as yet another form of Western colonization by disconnecting SlutWalk India from the long tradition of Indian feminism.
Further, Marcotte’s representation aligns problematic discourses of white feminism with troubling Western ideologies about technology, allowing these ideologies ultimately to reinforce one another. Marcotte’s brand of online feminism does somewhat disrupt the coding of technology as masculine that is common in the west. But it merely layers the whiteness of third-wave feminism onto the presumed whiteness of the Internet, further excluding and erasing people of color in digital spaces. And the attribution of SlutWalk India to Western white digital feminism confuses the use of Western tools for Western origins of the movement. It reproduces assumptions that Western technologies are central to international political struggles, allowing Westerners to simultaneously claim credit for those struggles while absolving themselves from having to build meaningful forms of solidarity with those movements (Morozov, 2011). Marcotte’s mapping of feminism into the digital sphere merely layers the historic white privilege and Western-centrism of white feminism onto the similar discourses associated with technology, reinforcing the exclusionary thinking of both.
So, we’d like to ask the following of limited feminisms:
- What if they centered the voices of marginalized women and made the experiences of women of color, queer women, trans women, and women in the developing world the core of their activism, rather than a side note?
- What might we accomplish if even the most privileged of feminists, especially those in the media spotlight, kept issues of difference the core of their critiques and activism?
Feminist Scholar Chandra Mohanty explains possibilities of such activism: “If we pay attention to and think from the space of some of the most disenfranchised communities of women in the world, we are most likely to envision a just and democratic society capable of treating all its citizens fairly” (Mohanty, 2002).
Crenshaw, K. (1991). “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.
Mohanty, C. T. (2002). “Under Western Eyes Revisited: Feminist Solidarity Through Anticapitalist Struggles.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(1), 499-535.
Morozov, E. (2011). The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: Public Affairs.
(Photo Courtesy of Flickr User Kara Hartley)