How white feminism is exclusionary and why white women need to take accountability
By Lauren Kaminski
I never used to understand my privilege when calling myself a feminist.
The modern wave of feminism I based my views around was extremely secular; focused on body shaming, rape culture and pay gaps. For 14-year-old me, these were immediate or near-future issues I saw myself facing. I’d been catcalled wearing my Catholic high school’s kilt. I compared myself to models from the magazine Seventeen and did 100 crunches a day to fit some ideal deemed by society. This made sense — I felt like I was a part of something bigger by calling myself a feminist.
While covering a panel on racism in school systems by the Ryerson Social Work Students' Union in February 2018, I saw myself and what I had deemed my “feminism” in a different light. Ritu Bhasin, author and inclusion specialist, spoke about “allyship,” something I was growing to understand as I explored what being a feminist really meant.
“Allyship is a recognition of white supremacy,” said Bhasin at the panel. “It’s moving over and giving up the opportunities that you have attained based on your unearned advantages to make room for people that have been left out.”
Now, that stuck.
My lack of knowledge was quickly transformed into a new perspective when I started my first year of university in downtown Toronto. My daily life looked different than the ever-so-white suburb I grew up in.
To give myself credit, I was not oblivious to the struggles faced in the world. Being white, I knew I didn’t experience oppression because of my skin colour. But what I needed to grasp, like many white women who claim to be feminists, is the level that one is at risk. There are vast differences in the way a white woman is treated in comparison to, say, a transgender Black woman.
Most importantly, white women claiming to be feminists cannot give themselves that title while failing to address all intersections of oppressions, such as excluding women of colour and those within the LGBTQ2+ from their activism.
The issue with women’s marches
Pink hats with cat ears — called “pussyhats” — filled the streets of Washington, D.C. for the 2017 women's march in reaction to the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” line by Donald Trump. This became the unofficial symbol of the march, placing major emphasis on female genitalia and the notion of “pussy power” in connection to women and feminism as a whole. I find this extremely trans-exclusionary, as some women may not be transitioned or even want or plan to, but they are still women regardless of their genitalia. The hat’s creator also faced criticism, since they were not fully inclusive of women of colour through its design, as not all genitals are the same pink colour.
Women’s marches take place in various cities across the globe yearly, with participants making signs and chanting with the backing of a simple idea — equality. But how far does the “activism” for equality reach in women’s marches? Some have accused the march of divisiveness and only catering to the issues of cisgender white women while ignoring the issues faced by women belonging to marginalized communities.
The hats are not the only problem within the marches — in fact, it barely scratches the surface — but it is a key example of white feminism being a major aspect of an influential “feminist” event.
Defining white feminism
Today, violence against the transgender community is at an all-time high. According to the USA Human Rights Campaign, 22 transgender or non-binary people have already been murdered in the U.S. by violent means in 2019, and the year’s not even over yet. This number is just behind the 26 individuals in 2018, meaning there has been no significant decline in fatal violence harming the transgender community. These are deliberate attacks on transgender people, including women, but some feminists seem to worry more about advocating against period stigma.
Now, I’m not saying that things like period stigma aren’t valid, but there are deeper issues women in marginalized communities face that white women don’t. The problem resides in white feminists choosing to solely be activists for the problems they face and ignoring major issues that affect those outside of their own identities.
There is racial discrimination that white women will never have to endure. As a white woman, I will never have to know what it’s like to be racially profiled: I will never be followed in a store or be pulled over by the police because of my skin colour. In most cases, being white would benefit me in these situations. I will never have to battle with what femininity is or have to experience transphobia. I’ve learned that a true feminist is acting for all women and those who are marginalized against because of patriarchy and many other systemic issues, not just white women who don’ share those experiences.
The value of allyship
The most important thing I’ve learned in working toward being an inclusive feminist and using an intersectional lens is the value of proactive allyship. An ally is one that understands privilege, recognizes it and educates themselves by listening to the problems faced by marginalized people and communities. The key is listening to rather than speaking for these communities.
If you are speaking, it must be speaking up for others rather than over. This might mean using your privileged position, but the value is in providing a platform for those who face marginalization to tell their stories. White women must constantly be proactive in their allyship and educating themselves on issues they cannot even begin to comprehend. We must take accountability when we make mistakes. We must constantly try to be better feminists and to be better allies.
To work toward being a better feminist, I remind this to myself: always lift someone up without wondering where that leaves you.