This article is part of a series of articles entitled The Triple Consciousness of Black Womanhood: A History and Analysis of Black Feminism, The Importance of Intersectionality, & The Trials of Black Girlhood. To read Part 1, click here. For the announcement post and (upcoming) list of works cited throughout the article series, click here.
II. Feminism: A White Woman’s World?
Feminism rose in an effort to bring attention to and fight the inequalities that women face as a result of men being deemed the superior gender. Modern day feminism is focused on body positivity, women in the work place, women’s sexual freedom, and women’s right to participate in activities deemed masculine, as well as legal and economic freedom. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a black African writer and feminist scholar, highlights the definition of feminism as the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. While Adiche is not the first person to define feminism, her speech text from her TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminist” that features this definition was made popular when international superstar Beyoncé used the audio clip in her song ***Flawless. This clip was immediately accepted as an updated and broad definition that allows for an easy and concise explanation of modern feminism. This can be seen as happening because of the broad nature that Adichie allows feminism. While, historically, feminism is taught as only focusing on feminism as a means to achieve political and economic equality, the definition Adiche’s provides adds in the much-needed social aspect. Social equality strives to level the playing field of how women and femme-presenting people are perceived in comparison to men, and how these perceptions aid in the inequality present between the genders in political and economic terms. For example, society perceives women as unable to bring the same longterm commitments and benefits to a job that men can because of the perceived expectations of a possible impending pregnancy or marriage that might take them away from their career, either completely or for a period of time. This leads to traditional companies being apprehensive of hiring women, which can then lead to women being hired less. In an article published in 2014 by The Guardian, it was reported that in a study directed towards hiring managers, 40% of managers attempt to avoid hiring women within child-bearing ages in an attempt to skirt the possibility of maternity leave. This is just one small example of how society’s sexist and unequal expectations of women versus men directly impacts economic equality, where women of a certain age are looked over because of a biological possibility.
Feminism, at its core, is supposed to cover all people who are disadvantaged in a patriarchal society. In theory, feminism should extend to all women and femme-presenting people; in practice, however, a culture plagued with racist and white supremacist history has led to feminism in Western culture being dominated by the stories and ideas of the average white woman’s experience. An idea and movement that is meant for all people then ends up focusing on those who have always been given an advantage. Because of this legacy, white women are made to be the default beneficiaries of feminism. It is because of their whiteness and inherited higher ranking in a white supremacist society that white women and white womanhood have become the idea of what is the typical experience of womanhood. In her memoir This Will Be My Undoing: Living At The Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jerkins describes the cause of differing experiences between women of color, specifically black women, and white women. She postulates that:
In our patriarchal culture, both white and black women have to fight for the reclamation of their bodies. But we cannot group all women together under the patriarchy without considering race, which further stigmatizes us as black women but provides a buffer for white women. Their womanhood does not eliminate their whiteness. We as black women are doubly disenfranchised in the throes of two spaces, race and gender, and there is no solace. Toni Morrison once said that ‘the black woman has nothing to fall back on: not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality, she may very well have invented herself’ (Jerkins, 49).
By claiming, whether consciously or subconsciously, and not fighting against the presumption that they are the representation of womanhood, white women have created a type of feminism that actively erases any other type of woman who exist. This particular brand of feminism has been coined by feminists of color as ‘White Feminism,’ as a means to critique mainstream feminism’s lack of awareness. Even within White Feminism, however, not all white women are deemed equal. White Feminism has an inherent hierarchy that typically places cis-, straight, able-bodied, and economically advantaged white women as the face of white womanhood and, in turn, all womanhood.
Perhaps a more comprehensive method of describing non-inclusive feminism that excludes women and femmes of color and centers white women would be to call it White (Supremacist) Feminism. The more basic variation ‘White Feminism’ is not as simplistic as a person being white while identifying as a feminist. As Eve Ewing explains, White Feminism is:
…an ideology that professes to be ‘feminism’ but intersects w/ white supremacy* such that it privileges the concerns, identities, and perspectives exclusively of white women + represents them as universal (Ewing, Tweet).
It is within the context of White (Supremacist) Feminism that allows white women to be seen as untouchable and above reproach and:
…demands that women of color withhold critiques of white women, especially in positions of power, even when those women are engaging in acts of violence, harm, and racism against us (Ewing, Tweet).
One example of White (Supremacist) Feminism pervasively at work would be the famous feud between rapper Kanye West and country/pop singer Taylor Swift, that was a years-long feud that ultimately led to Swift claiming victimhood at the hands of West. After the incident that occurred between West and Swift** at the 2009 VMAs, West, a black male rapper, has been painted as the aggressive bully towards Swift, a young, white woman. In February of 2016, Swift responds to West’s song Famous, feigning shock, ignorance, and victimhood because of the lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous” (West, Famous). Because West’s language is perhaps crude and unwarranted, it was easy for the general public, led by white women proclaiming feminism, to take up arms against West and once again accuse him of bullying Swift. It is later revealed, however, that there is a video-recording that acts as proof that a phone call between Swift and West occurred, where Swift approved West’s lyric and gave him permission to include it in the song Famous.*** What Swift did in reaction to the song and video — lying about approving the lyric and playing the victim by painting West, once again, as the villain — was Swift tapping into her white privilege and weaponizing her white womanhood, which is an action afforded to her because of white supremacy. By invoking (probably subconsciously) the “black male beast” stereotype that was made popular by the original Birth of a Nation film, Swift absolved herself of any responsibility and feigned having any agency in the situation.**** Because Swift is a white woman who claims feminism and therefore, her innocence is seen as automatic, the general public attacked West, a black man, for what seemed like a relentless history of bullying until his wife, another white (passing) woman, was able to expose Swift’s deception without any of the same backlash that West received. It is also important to recognize that Kim Kardashian has Middle Eastern (Armenian) roots. Regardless of this, she was easily able to co-opt and operate within white privilege and wield its power to her liking against another white woman and have it protect her. Black feminists were quick to point out how easily the general white public were willing to accept the black-male-beast vs. fragile-white-woman narrative that Swift was creating and had started in 2009. While this example may seem trivial or shallow, it speaks to a larger history of white women weaponizing their white womanhood at the expense of black people. It is accepted that Swift be socially protected because of her whiteness and womanhood, and how these two identities intersect for her. A White (Supremacist) Feminist take of this years-long situation frames Swift as the victim and victor, while framing Kanye West as an aggressor, even though Swift lied and manipulated public favor. Because of Swift’s whiteness, she is automatically given the benefit of the doubt, and her specific brand of being a white woman allows her to easily access and reclaim the long history of white women as victims of blackness and black manhood.
This is how non-inclusive, White (Supremacist) Feminism operates: it centers white women and their unique experiences that are devoid of other factors, such as race, and frames these white experiences of womanhood as being the end-all-be-all experience without context and allows white women to decide which stories are important and how these ‘important’ stories are portrayed. White (Supremacist) Feminism allows Taylor Swift to consistently build her career off of proclaimed victimhood at the expense of a black man; inclusive, non-White Feminism offers a more nuanced view of this situation that looks at how race and racism played into the West-Swift feud. White (Supremacist) Feminism allows the writers room for the Netflix original show Orange Is The New Black to be mostly white women and claim diversity, even though most of the show’s characters are women of color; inclusive, non-White Feminism looks at this situation and how it was able to happen that gender diversity automatically translates to having more white women present, as opposed to having more women present from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. White (Supremacist) Feminism allows 53% of white women to vote Donald Trump (a misogynist, xenophobic, and racist presidential candidate) into the Presidential office of the United States of America, and then gather the day of his inauguration for the Women’s March without acknowledging the distinct role white women had in allowing him to be elected; inclusive, non-White Feminism allows for an analysis of this fact that incorporates how white fear and white supremacy operated (Lett, White Women Voted for Trump. Now What?). White (Supremacist) Feminism is not an indestructible force that cannot be reckoned with, however, as there is something that seeks to dismantle its inherent ignorance and blindness: intersectionality.
III. Intersectionality as the Cure for White Feminism
The disingenuous outlook of feminism that White (Supremacist) Feminism is famous for ignores the myriad of women and identities that exist in the world and further adds to the historical pattern of non-white women (and people) being ignored by mainstream media and theories. It was in 1989 that Kimberle Crenshaw, a black woman scholar and feminist, coined the term ‘intersectionality.’ This concept brings light to the intersecting realities and identities of many groups of women, but it must be noted that the group of people whom Crenshaw used to explore this ideology was black women. In an effort to explain how intersectionality functions and is important, Crenshaw uses the metaphor of a traffic intersection:
Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination…I am suggesting that Black women can experience discrimination in ways that are both similar to and different from those experienced by white women and Black men. Black women sometimes experience discrimination in ways similar to white women’s experiences; sometimes they share very similar experiences from Black men. Yet often they experience double-discrimination—the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basic of sex. And sometimes, they experience discrimination as Black women—not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women (Crenshaw, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex, 149).
Crenshaw’s analogy draws a parallel between black women’s experiences with racism and sexism. The different traffics that Crenshaw refers to are metaphors for the varying different types of oppressive systems that can affect a black woman’s life. If a black woman stands in one particular street (her blackness), she runs the possibility of being struck and injured by the cars (I.e. racist instances) in that particular street (I.e. racism). If a black woman stands in another street (her womanhood), she runs the possibility of being struck and injured by the vehicles (interactions with sexism and misogyny) in that second street (I.e. sexism). If a black woman, however, stands at the corner or crosswalk of an intersection where the two aforementioned streets converge, she runs the risk of being hit by vehicles going in either both directions or by one vehicle turning from one street to the other street. By her standing in the intersection, she runs a higher risk of being injured and her injury is of a different caliber and type than if she were to just stand in one street. Black women’s oppression is a unique form of oppression because sometimes it operates as a product of either racism or sexism, but usually it is a product of the combined two, or misogynoir.
Intersectional Feminism attempts to avoid the oversight that White (Supremacist) Feminism has usually operated within. It is a type of feminism that acknowledges that women of different (specifically, racial) backgrounds experience the world in different ways than white women, meaning that when talking about issues that are inherent to and about the discrimination against women and femme-presenting people, multiple viewpoints must be included and discussed. The lack of intersectionality in mainstream feminism is a dangerous practice. Ignoring how a person’s varying marginalized identities contributes to their oppression within a patriarchal society is dangerous and exclusionary. While it is white feminists who perpetuate the lack of intersectionality in mainstream feminism that allows for White (Supremacist) Feminism to thrive, it is not merely an oversight on the part of white feminists, but a direct descendant of white supremacy. It was Patricia Hill Collins, a black feminist scholar, who explains that suppressing knowledge, ideologies, and theories produced by marginalized groups allows “dominant groups to rule because the seeming absence of dissent suggests that subordinate groups willingly collaborate in their own victimization” (Collins, Black Feminist Though, 5). If the voices and stories of the marginalized are ignored, and subsequently erased, then a white supremacist society can continue to function and maintain white superiority. Western society thrives on white supremacy, which works systemically to keep white people in power. Historically, this transfers over into social and civil movements that seek to fight for marginalized groups of people, such as the women’s rights and the LGBTQ+ rights movements, where both black suffragettes and queer individuals were left out and their contributions erased from the movements.
White (Supremacist) Feminism is threatened by Intersectional Feminism because it seeks to shift the power dynamic between white women and non-white women that White (Supremacist) Feminism has fought to uphold. The rise and implementation of Intersectional Feminism means removing white women’s place at the top of the hierarchy and creating an equal playing field. It then makes sense why White (Supremacist) Feminism and Intersectional Feminism are directly at odds, as the success of the latter means the destruction of the former’s power. Intersectional Feminism, by nature, lifts and highlights the voices of all women, especially marginalized women, which is a direct threat to the goal and job of White (Supremacist) Feminism, a bi-product of white supremacy. As long as one thrives, the other cannot.
To Be Continued…
Part 4 of of this article series, entitled Black Feminism Defined, will be released on June 11th.
* “White supremacy, beliefs and ideas purporting natural superiority of the lighter-skinned, or “white,” human races over other racial groups. In contemporary usage, the term white supremacist has been used to describe some groups espousing ultranationalist, racist, or fascist doctrines. White supremacist groups have often relied on violence to achieve their goals… [Modern-day white supremacist] disavow racism but celebrated “white” identity and lamented the alleged erosion of white political and economic power and the decline of white culture in the face of nonwhite immigration and multiculturalism.” (Jenkins, White Supremacy)
** At the 2009 Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift won the Best Female Video for her video for “You Belong With Me” over Beyoncé’s music video for “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” Swift accepted her award and was in the midst of an acceptance speech when Kanye West came on stage and interrupted her speech proclaimed: “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” (Kreps, Kanye West Storms the VMAs Stage During Taylor Swift’s Speech)
*** On Season 12, Episode 11 of Keeping Up With The Kardashians aired that showed a frustrated Kim Kardashian with how the media perceived her husband Kanye West and vilified him, in her opinion, unjustly in regards to the situation with Taylor Swift. After the episode aired, Kardashian posted an old video to her Snapchat that showed a phone conversation between Swift and West, where West raps the lyrics regarding Swift and Swift approves the lyrics. (Cosmopolitan)
**** Birth of a Nation is a “controversial, explicitly racist…domestic melodrama/epic [that] originally premiered with the title The Clansman in February, 1915 in Los Angeles, California, but three months later was retitled with the present title at its world premiere in New York, to emphasize the birthing process of the US. The film was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s anti-black, 1905 bigoted melodramatic staged play, The Clansman” (Filmsite). In the movie, a white woman protagonist is displayed running from a highly caricature-like black man character who rapes her and then proceeds to throw her off a cliff. Throughout the movie, the black man is hunted, captured, and then killed by Klu Klux Klan members. The movie was used as propaganda to justify the hunting and lynching of black men under the guise that black men were salacious predators who would and were raping white women. This led to and fed the narrative of the black male beast character going after the innocent and pure white woman.