When first entering into the world of feminism, it seems like such a simple concept. I believe in equal rights for men and women, so I am a feminist and that is all there is to it, right? So I can just tell all those nasty people, who want me to have fewer rights, that I am in fact a human being and deserve to be treated as such and I can spread the word to those who are less enlightened and we will all just live and love in feminist wonderland and everything will just be peachy. Job done, of course.
But four years after entering what seemed like such a simple world it is clear that believing in equal rights and actually living up to the reality of what that entails are separated by a chasm of questions and mistakes, of ignorance and learning curves, of confusion and clarity finally reaching the understanding that there is no such thing as the perfect feminist. Getting involved in feminism teaches us not only about the ongoing oppression of women and how to react when somebody tries to deny the existence of this oppression, an art which I am still perfecting, but it also teaches us how to tackle our own prejudices and realise why some people do not want to connect with mainstream feminism.
I am not talking about those who churn out the same lines over and over, crying ‘but women and men are equal now,’ ‘but the law means we are equal,’ ‘I am a woman and I don’t need feminism, proof that it is not necessary,’ as though one woman is somehow representative of all womankind. Rather, after reading this I realised that those who turn their back on the feminism that I know do not do so out of ignorance on their part but on the continuing lack of effort on the part of those subscribing to ‘white feminism’ to take the world around them into account and to improve on the faults of those who we perceive to be the founders of mainstream feminism.
We still give priority to ‘white’ issues, we still fetishise and use other cultures and non white bodies and construe them as the ‘other’ and we centre our idea of progression and equality around what we know, not around what we could learn from others. Some men coming into feminism who then proceed to centre arguments around themselves and claiming that people would take women’s rights seriously if only they packaged them in a more pleasing way are met with exasperated sighs and yet many of us turn around and do the very same thing when somebody tries to detract attention from our own issues. Then many of us, and I use the term ‘us’ for lack of an all encompassing pronoun and to refer to feminists, not necessarily white, who focus mostly on ‘white centred’ issues, wonder why many Muslims, people of colour, women from migrant backgrounds and those from a variety of different cultures do not want to get involved with our version of feminism. We rue the underrepresentation of minority groups in feminism but what do we do about it?
When first hearing the term ‘white feminism’ one can get defensive. ‘That’s racist!’ we cry. ‘But I don’t discriminate!’ we insist. ‘But I care about the issues of other groups, after all I am a fully paid up member of the intersectional club,’ we say, before thinking again how we should have responded to that ‘get your tits out’ this morning. But before passing this off as something just concocted by somebody who has an issue with white people in general, we should consider how much we ourselves centre the majority of conversations around our own problems and consider that rather than getting defensive at an ‘attack’ on the own lovely bubble which we have created for ourselves, we could face some constructive criticism. Because at the end of the day, priviledge extends to more than just being male.
That is not to belittle the problems which somebody like me faces. That guy catcalling is still an idiot. I can still feel resentful when my employer is hesitant to promote me for fear I will just get pregnant and leave. I am within my rights to walk off when somebody just looks at my chest while I am speaking. Foregoeing the itch-inducing razor in the morning and thinking hey, maybe people can actually put up with the fact that women have hair too today and deal with the stubble is an acceptable attitude. And I am allowed to sigh in exasperation when I see yet another advert convincing little girls to be princesses. There is an abundance of ways in which women, including white women, are picked apart, objectified, used, put down, shamed and robbed of their autonomy and it is right to speak about and try and change this.
However, we need to be more aware of the way in which we interact with others. When we first learn about the importance of intersectionality we go through a few various phases. First is the ‘what is this’ phase, where we perhaps pass it off as another label to understand, another standard to live up to. Then comes the ‘oh it’s actually pretty important’ process. Followed by ‘oh my goodness I just want to save the world’ and ‘look, various minorities, I really do care about your problems, look at all my knowledge on the matter!’ And we continue to dominate the conversation, either by getting defensive at a challenge to our seemingly benevolent alturistic intentions or by ensuring others that we really should ‘save’ these poor people. Then comes the realisation that we need to just shut up a second and remember not to continue the imperalist tradition of thinking we can ‘save’ others, when we are completely ignorant to their issues. Shortly after comes the revelation that ‘white’ problems get a huge amount of press, whilst the discrimination faced by other groups is swept under the carpet.
At some point amongst all of this one can finally appreciate the full complexity of striving for equality between the genders. It isn’t something which can be solved by a narrow way of thinking, but which requires opening oneself to new concepts, appreciating the fact that we cannot understand everything, taking criticism and combatting ignorance. It comes from not just pointing out the priviledge of others, but taking one’s own priviledge into account as well.