By Amanda Chan
I don’t inspire a lot of people. And I’m not particularly fond of wasting my time on “converting” people to feminism, despite my outward and public embracement of the label. But my naive and rebellious feminist-ish attitude and my dress-code defiant short shorts of my high school days kindled a feminist-ish inclination into one of my friends, though now she is a former friend. Let’s call her Holly.
Scroll through Holly’s Twitter feed, and you’ll find quirky quotes from Mean Girls, call-outs of rape apologists, sharp pokes at the behavior of boys, and other typical Tumblr-originated feminist rhetoric. A second look, however, reveals Holly’s more questionable viewpoints, such as retweeting one guy who put Caitlyn Jenner’s name in quotation marks and lamented how undeserving she is of a well-known award for athletes. There’s also appropriation of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and scattered body-shaming.
Most recently, Holly posted a Snapchat story of her friend doing an impression of a Chinese person. Complete with the obnoxious and shameless chanting of “ching chong ching chang” and the “ni hao ni hao,” this post deeply hurt me, because Holly either didn’t consider that I might take offense to a caricature of my heritage or she simply didn’t care.
Although I only use Holly as an example because her actions scarred me more than the casual racism I face from strangers, she is emblematic of a larger ailment within the feminist movement – she’s a white feminist. More specifically, her version of feminism only respectfully addresses the issues of white, middle-class, able-bodied, thin, cisgender women, and for those who don’t meet every single one of these criteria, Holly is not really looking out for your rights, no matter how much she loves the movie Mean Girls. In other words, there’s a disconcerting amount of racism, transphobia, fatphobia and more within feminism.
But Holly still calls herself a “feminist,” and it’s people like Holly who make the feminism train crowded and unaccomodating, either refusing marginalized groups entry or sending them to the room next to the toilet. And Holly isn’t alone; in fact, mainstream feminism in the United States, as well as most of the Western world, was founded on the uplifting of white, able-bodied, cisgender white women and nobody else.
The suffragettes, for example, were shameless racists. Susan B. Anthony stated that white women had it worse than black men, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that allowing black men suffrage would be allotting them too much power within society. In the second wave of feminism, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique became iconic of the women’s movement in suburban America, and some still laud it as so today. Unfortunately, Friedan’s vision of feminism – pushing white women into the workforce – snubbed the experiences of the many lower class women and women of color who were already in the workforce and dreamed of becoming a housewife. Furthermore, Friedan ignored the consequences of white women joining the professions of white men, namely that household work would be done by hired women of color, as noted by bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.
And this disease of white-centricity continues today. Emma Watson, current representative of global feminism for UN Women and token-feminist-media-darling, is ignorant to the larger picture of intersectional feminism, where agency and lived realities are galaxies away from the cushy movie set of Harry Potter. Token-feminist-media-darling-number-two, Taylor Swift, rides upon the trendiness of male-catered feminism, effectively erasing all the works and efforts of nonwhite and otherwise marginalized feminists in history. As white, cis, able-bodied women continue to climb the ladder of power provided by the “women’s movement,” they leave their nonwhite, differently-abled, non-cisgender counterparts behind. And when they’re called out on it, it becomes a game of “solidarity.”
Fortunately, for the sake of the feminist movement and for the empowerment of all women, feminists of different genders, colors, races, religions, and abilities have been producing groundbreaking work for a long time. Kimberle Crenshaw, a black woman law professor at UCLA, coined the term “intersectionality.” in regards to feminism. This concept is based on the works of early black feminist groups such as the Combahee River Collective, a group for black women in the late 1970s. Feminist thinker Uma Narayan theorized the “death by culture” narrative, which allows feminists of color to dissect the Western discourse of foreign cultures and to enhance the understanding of how the West continues white supremacy through discourse. Unfortunately, many of these works are buried in a conversation dominated by white feminists who acquire platform and power through privilege. Even if well-intentioned, the interests of the elite are the ones catered to.
And as feminism becomes a bigger and bigger talking point, the word “feminism” becomes more and more difficult to separate from the regrettable and mediocre images of Emma Watson’s ignorance, Taylor Swift’s parody of black women in hip hop, Susan B. Anthony’s racism, feminists refusing to accept trans women as “real women,” bloggers who steal the online work of feminists of color, Miley Cyrus’s twerking appropriation and the white feminist in your sociology class who doesn’t want to “make it about race.”
This pattern of white supremacy and elitism in mainstream feminism is poisonous and alienating to many, which is why many people with intersectional, marginalized identities are apprehensive to brand themselves “feminist.” And why would they, if doing so would only summon images of racial appropriation and transphobia instead of actual empowerment? Thus, the feminist movement must first contort itself into better including the most marginalized of society. These improvements must be reached first, before any feminist could ever honestly recruit others to be “feminists.” Convincing others to embrace themselves as “feminists” should be last on the agenda when there’s much racism, ableism, transphobia, queerphobia and more to work on in the movement itself.
Amanda is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying sociology, international and area studies, and gender studies. See more from this month’s issue here.