2nd May 2008: This post has been updated in light of the recent flare-ups in the rounds of discussion about how mainstream feminism remains inadequate in engaging with matters of race. See footnote.
There are many critics who view “feminism” (and the progressive movement generally) as focussing too much on the West, and too much on the experience and goals of the white middle-class, to the detriment of the experiences and goals of non-white women, poorer women and non-Western women.
It’s hard to deny that the most public faces and voices of the feminist movement – popularisers and academic theorists – have been and remain mostly white, middle-class Western women.
[link no longer valid]1brownfemipower describes how she first realised this as a student:
But Andy started class off with something different. She asked us to tell her everything we knew about feminism. We told her all about Seneca Falls and Susan B. Anthoney and Gloria Steinem–and some of us even told her about NOW or Feminist Majority or bell hooks or Alice Walker. One person mentioned Adrienne Rich.
She asked us what we knew about “the waves” of feminism. At least half of the class raised their hands.
Then she asked us what we thought women of color were doing during all the ‘waves’.
All of the hands went down and we all just stared at each other. One person finally said, “Well, we said Alice Walker,” to which Andy replied, What do you know about Alice Walker?
Everybody replied “The Color Purple” and then we lapsed back into silence.
Then the big question came. “Why do you only know about white women?”
Now, I’ll admit, at that point, I was feeling very very defensive. Most of the women in the class were women of color–I think there were a total of three white women in the class if I remember right. Every other person was either black, native or Latina. But in spite of this diverse class dynamic, I could tell most of us were feeling pretty defensive. We’d just been shown in the period of about 10 minutes how much we’d been completely bought into a particular definition of “feminism”–and even more so, we’d just been exposed to our vast ignorance of our own histories.
So, does this mean that the feminist movement is defined by these white, middle-class public faces? If that is the movement’s history and current “branding”, must it continue to be?
Donna Darko makes a telling point in a post about the “Third Wave” of feminism:
Then in 1995, Walker wrote To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. In 1997, Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake wrote Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. In 2000, Jennifer Baumgartner and Amy Richards wrote Manifesta. Baumgartner and Richards became the face of third wave feminism. I think what happened was people were so used to seeing white, middle-class women lead the first and second waves, they assumed white, middle-class women would lead the third wave.
Does the traditional domination of the public sphere of feminism by white, middle-class women act as a form of institutional privilege in the feminist movement, so that other women feel marginalised, invisible, and voiceless? For Western women outside the white middle class, does feminism seem hopelessly tainted by classism and unacknowledged racism? For women in post-colonial countries, does feminism seem hopelessly tainted by cultural imperialism as well as unacknowledged racism? If this is true, or even only partly true, can anything be done to overcome it?
I don’t have much in the way of answers, so I offer you links to essays discussing these criticisms:
Criticisms and Rejections:
Aaminah Hernández: Why I am Not a Feminist, or “My Anti-Feminist Manifesto”
BlackAmazon [link no longer valid]1:
Why is it OUR problem?
The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Played
Donna J: More on Full Frontal Feminism
Sylvia/M at Problem Chylde: Studying Women: A Mirrorless Act
brownfemipower [link no longer valid]1:
For Allies: How “Gender Trumps Race” Plays out in the Real World
So Katha Pollitt has decided that “American Feminists” are pretty darn cool.
Feminists discussing ally work and/or responding to criticisms:
Katie at shrub.com: Suggested Actions for White Feminist Allies from Katie
Vegankid: Qualities of an ally
Andrea Rubenstein (tekanji): An argument for feminism
Aunt B.: Become Like Us
Ilyka Damen: Which Americans? Which Feminists? Which Women?
Sylvia/M at Problem Chylde: Stretching the Knapsack Metaphor To Its Full Bent (And Then Some)
Footnote 02 May 2008
1. brownfemipower and Blackamazon have both left blogging for now, and have probably done so for good, taking down their blogs entirely (these links are to their final word on other blogs).
There are lots of posts discussing the particular fuck-ups by white feminists which led to yet another round of recriminations and not listening and some saying why can’t we just get past all this while some seethe with the pain and anger of not being heard.
WOC PhD (who does continue to identify as a feminist) has some commentary on Seal Press in particular:
Why Seal Press is OFF the Syllabus
Don’t Mess With Feminist Press
Why Seal Press is Off the Syllabus pt. 2
Celebrating Feminist and Multicultural Presses: Publishers that Rock!
Here are some discussions of the larger picture beyond just these particular most recent fuck-ups. If I remember correctly it was Blackamazon who once wrote about how the racial divide in the USA is the most dissected and analysed and Othered racial divide anywhere in the world, so obviously that is the racial divide which dominates the links in this post. I’d love to see links to feminists elsewhere discussing racial issues within feminism and beyond feminism: if you have some good ones, please leave them in comments.
NB: only some of the bloggers below have rejected the label of “feminist”.
ABW: Allies Talking
Latoya at Racialicious – The “or” versus the “and”: women of color and mainstream feminism
ABW: Standing in solidarity with my sisters
Sudy – A Question of Feminism or a “Movement?”
Sylvia/M – Don’t Hate; Reappropriate
Questioning Transphobia – In Light of Appropriation and Race
Grandpa Dinosaur – The Person You Protect
A Slant Truth – For My Peeps
PhysioProf – Intellectual Appropriation, Attribution of Credit & Privilege
Sudy: Apparently, Feminists Need Acting Coaches
Tracey at Unapologetically Female – Why we can’t “just get along”. (And why we shouldn’t.)