On the Literature of White Feminism
In a famous speech from 1851, the activist and writer Sojourner Truth said
I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Black women have traditionally been treated differently from white women, who are treated with less respect than white men but are yet treated with the greatest reverence. Faced with a fragmented and superficial white feminism, Sojourner Truth’s early call to pay attention to Black women’s issues has never been more essential.
The term “white feminism” is closely associated with social media and related hashtags like #FeminismSoWhite and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. It appears in book titles such as Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism and Koa Beck’s White Feminism, in addition to Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, Hannah L. Drake’s Dear White Women, It’s Not You. It’s Me. I’m Breaking Up With You!, Noelle Chaddock’s Antagonizing White Feminism, Aileen Moreton’s Talking Robinson’s Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism, Unlearning White Feminism by Aubrey Young and Jihan Bazile, among many many others.
Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism and Koa Beck’s White Feminism both focus on exposing white feminism. Zakaria argues that mainstream Western feminism is and has always been primarily concerned with white women. Her book’s first few paragraphs define who she’s talking to when she refers to white feminists: “someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it has played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns.” For Zakaria, and many other writers in this genre, “white feminism” is a shorthand for an exclusionary strain of feminism that centers the lives of affluent, white, cisgender, heterosexual women. Similarly, Koa Beck claims in her book that white feminism refers to “a belief system … a specific way of viewing gender equality that is anchored in the accumulation of individual power.” She talks a lot about her experiences with corporate feminism in the media world. For Beck, personal liberty, money, self-optimization, and seeking power are markers of white feminism.
These books are important and necessary, but I believe what is missing from the discourse is a discussion of how whiteness, class, and liberalism are inextricably linked. When these authors criticize white feminism, they are also criticizing liberalism, which is an intrinsically white-supremacist ideology. Both books, for example, acknowledge right away that women of color can be “white feminists,” because anyone can be an agent of white supremacy. Why refer to feminism’s issues in terms of its whiteness? What role has white supremacy played in distorting the feminist movement? And why is whiteness a useful shorthand for liberal mainstream feminism’s failures to include race and class?
A breakdown of the interconnectedness of white supremacy, liberalism, and capitalism is also needed to understand the true perniciousness of white feminism. Loretta Ross defines white supremacy as an “interlocking system of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and religious fundamentalism that creates a complex matrix of oppressions faced by people of color in the United States.” White supremacy, according to Abby Ferber, is frequently portrayed as the racist fringe in contrast to an imagined non-racist majority. However, this perspective absolves “the mainstream population of its racism.” The majority of individuals are unaware of how race affects their lives, government policies, and laws. Others view whiteness as a set of privileges or racial illiteracy on the part of well-meaning but sometimes opportunistic careerist feminists (Not Koa Beck’s book). Racism, whether structural or institutionalized, is the result of centuries of subjugation and objectification, not just individual faux pas.
Furthermore, some texts on white feminism are intellectually hazy and politically ambiguous. I do still believe the phrase has utility but there’s a problematic lack of tangible and structural collective politics in these texts I read. These books mention collective action and the need for inter-racial solidarity among women, but they don’t go into detail about the specific political terms of solidarity. This is where a clear class analysis or, better yet, a direct call to join the socialist movement, which seeks to eliminate all forms of oppression, something which these authors also state as their goal, could have come into play. The other dilemma with the popularity of these types of books is that they might be perceived as substitutes for praxis, which is obviously insufficient, but reading them is not a terrible place to start.
Zakaria claims that many of the modern behaviors of white feminists have deep origins in the colonial era. The “white feminist savior complex,” for example, originated during the colonial era and is profoundly rooted in epistemology and history. She demonstrates how British feminists center themselves when addressing suffrage movements in the Middle East and South Asia, in a way that is identical to white women working in war zones now. She illustrates how feminists used to advocate for peace and nonviolence but are now utilized by women to demonstrate their hawkishness. Other feminisms have been purposely suppressed or utilized to terrible ends as a consequence of colonialism, white ignorance, and past and current white privilege.
Zakaria’s main prescription is that white women need to “cede space to the feminists of color who have been ignored, erased, or excluded from the feminist movement.” For example, in her first chapter, Zakaria is the only woman of color amid a group of white women, uncomfortable at their intrusive questions while trying to avoid telling her own story. Zakaria, a victim of domestic violence, was seventeen when she was forced into an arranged marriage with a Pakistani doctor residing in the United States.
Zakaria’s historical work is framed by a sequence of interactions with rude white women, which leads to a slight overemphasis on the interpersonal over the structural. She describes inadvertently attending a very insulting “global bazaar,” where “natives” from various countries were asked to raise money for various causes. She is invited to the Indiana General Assembly’s Women’s Caucus luncheon to give an address, but faces uncomfortable, pro-imperialist questions from an audience looking for a simplistic good versus evil narrative. Her stories are good and many lead to important conclusions. For example, her experience as a brown Pakistani Muslim woman from a “less sexually liberated place,” feeling uneasy in a college class that sexual liberation sexuality is essential to feminism, arguing that such a position is “limited and immature.” Other examples, such as her friend who works as a start-up being asked to use a nickname, almost seem to be a call for white women to be more polite.
According to Zakaria, who has written for such left-wing publications as Dissent, The Baffler, and The New Republic, “we must unite behind specific political claims, and perhaps the most important of those claims is that capitalism’s dominance is bad for all women, even white women.” She does not, however, go into depth regarding the particular ideological terms of solidarity and only refers to class politics in passing. Zakaria does end with a solid prescription for undoing white feminism. She writes that: “This is an individual and collective challenge, and we must start from the understanding that this challenge is one that women of color have been undertaking for centuries … It is time now for white women to meet them in this work and share the burden.”
Sadly, Zakaria leaves out Black feminists’ more radical critiques of white feminism. When Black feminists criticize white feminism, they often adopt a materialist perspective. Consider the Combahee River Collective, whose 1977 socialist feminism manifesto pledged to fight racism, sexism, economic injustice, and homophobia. It claims that these are interconnected factors that “create the conditions of our lives.” They were socialists who believed workers should have control over their workplaces. This is in line with the socialist goal of destroying the current power structure and eradicating all forms of oppression. Such additions would have greatly strengthened the book while providing an essential history to her presumably white audience.
Koa Beck claims that white feminism is an ideology that can be traced from the early women’s suffragettes to their modern-day counterparts in the professional-managerial-class woman. Beck uses suffragettes as examples throughout the book to remind readers that white feminism assesses freedom in terms of the rights and advantages of well-off white men, rather than in solidarity with the disenfranchisement and oppression that shape the lives of working-class and non-white women. Beck, who is half-Black, devotes an entire chapter to Black feminism and capitalism, in which she elaborates on Black feminist critiques of mainstream feminism and directly engages with the Combahee River Collective statement.
The existence of a conflict between white women and Black abolitionists is critical to comprehending the racialized character of white, liberal feminism. Beck shows how the racism that fragmented the late-nineteenth-century suffrage groups has had lasting implications for modern feminism. White feminism, according to Beck, is predicated on liberal-individualist concepts of “advancement,” with common terms like “leaning in’’ and “cracking the glass ceiling.” All these goals simply amount to liberalizing capitalism. In the recurring figure of the elite white women who built the first wave of American feminism, Beck illustrates a crucial relationship between liberalism and white supremacy.
Her argument is important because it demonstrates how white, upper-middle-class suffragettes were not only racist in their attempts to discourage African American women from voting, they were also doing so in liberal terms. In liberal debates about rights, inclusiveness, and equality, racism is rarely discussed, as shown in the work of Black radical liberal Charles Mills. Liberal ideology has always been used to conceal an “across-the-board pattern of unjust systemic white advantage” throughout the history of liberal nations, Mills argues. He contends that white supremacy is the foundation of liberalism.
There is an exclusive “sexual contract” among white men, according to Carole Pateman’s 1988 book The Sexual Contract. A racial contract, like a sexual contract, reproduces white dominance, says Mills. By ignoring racial inequality while blindly supporting Enlightenment principles, the liberal tradition has always disguised the history of racism and white supremacy, as Mills posits—a point Beck could have explored more deeply. In Mill’s work, for example, the white male subject is transformed into a raceless and genderless subject, allowing white males to become humanity’s universal subject. White feminism is a project to incorporate white women in the universal theme of liberalism. It is crucial to understand the interplay of liberalism and feminism to combat the obfuscation of gender and racial exclusion in “liberal” political regimes. Liberal feminism lacks radicality and, as a result, is bound to be hindered by liberalism’s limits.
Beck emphasizes the importance of ceding power: “Ceding power not only means welcoming brown and black people to your meetings—it inherently asks you to give up something too.” Later, Beck almost alludes to the concept of whiteness as property, she writes: “The whole concept of ‘private,’ ‘exclusive,’ and ‘respectable’ is that you keep some people out—a thread you can trace through suffragettes … to my private women’s college to The Wing. And it’s this fear—of being decentralized through policy and admissions and of suddenly not being ‘elite’—that feeds the fire of white feminism.”
Beck recognizes that the fear white women have over white feminism is a fear that they will lose something valuable. In “Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl Harris argues that we can think of whiteness as a form of property made up of white privilege and power. Since Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, whiteness has been physically monetized to produce value in categories ranging from good name to property investment. The white racial identity can be seen as having a positive social and economic value.
In her conclusion, Beck emphasizes the significance of collective action. Like Zakaria, she never mentions socialism as a prescription, but she says that we should create our own movements, which is already taking place under the status quo but in a decentralized and fragmented way. She writes “a hallmark of many grassroots movements shunned by white feminism, across multiple and intersecting identities, is that they put forward collective rights before an individual’s progress.” Prioritizing collective rights over the individual is almost the definition of socialism.
These issues with white feminism are not the authors’ fault. Feminists may unintentionally perpetuate the problematic dynamic of white feminism, which prioritizes individual advancement over collective struggle and refuses to acknowledge or fight the broader system founded on the exploitation of the vast majority of women globally. Consider a 2020 Medium post that calls white women cheering Kamala Harris’s election to the vice presidency “the pinnacle of white feminism.” The author believes saying “every woman” understands Kamala’s experience is offensive because it was “a gender moment rather than a gender and race moment.’’ She says white women who take Harris’s success as their own are ignorant and unacceptable. This is the same Kamala Harris who courted Wall Street and the Blue Lives Matter movement, and used accusations of sexism and racism to deflect criticism of her prosecutorial record. Harris herself is the pinnacle of white feminism.
Neither of these books is about the creation of race, as Racecraft by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields is, nor do they aim to connect feminism to class struggle, as Feminism for the 99 Percent: A Manifesto by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser does. White feminist literature, on the other hand, is part of a wider movement of anti-racist literature for white liberals. These books sell well because many of their readers are willing to spend money on books because they believe reading is a substitute for praxis. The fact that the bourgeois literary press loves to publish many of these works every year is proof enough. Melissa Phruksachart argues in “The Literature of White Liberalism” that, while the new generation of anti-racist nonfiction has an advantage in adopting anti-racist language (some of it valuable, such as white fragility), the belief that reading can replace real struggle and doing actual work is widespread.
Phruksachart contends that contemporary nonfiction teaches “emotional literacy” rather than racial literacy to white readers. Colorblind readers will be less likely to respond to racism by activating their fight-or-flight mode (also known as white fragility), which “too often materializes as denial, anger, silence, or white women’s tears,” according to Phruksachart. Understanding how one reacts emotionally and physically to their biases may help us eradicate racism, but Phruksachart raises an important question: “Is white supremacy really a knowledge problem?” Does acknowledging the history of racism motivate white people to improve the living conditions of people of color? Or does it simply make them alter their own behavior or demeanor around women of color?
According to Phruksachart, contemporary anti-racist writing soothes white liberal readers, but it cannot help them understand the underlying causes of systemic inequality. So, now what? If we want to combat increasing inequality, we must address decades of liberal institutional failures. Despite significant victories, liberal thought has consistently failed the poor and people of color. And to overthrow this system, white people must join the struggle. But before that can happen some sort of anti-racist education is needed.
“White feminism” evokes conflicting emotions in me. I’ve always been wary of referring to feminism’s challenges as “whiteness” for fear of placing race over class. In part, due to the recent tendency of liberal cynics exploiting anti-racism to downplay the importance of class interests. Consider the 2016 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, in which Bernie Sanders was characterized as a politician primarily concerned with Wall Street excess, not improving American lives or fighting bigotry. At campaign rallies, Clinton began asking, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” However, the 2008 financial crisis disproportionately harmed the poor and people of color, a fact most Americans overlook. Goldman Sachs used this ruse to disguise the $675K she made for giving three private addresses to Goldman Sachs. Politicians who oppose major economic interests like healthcare, financial regulation, or clean energy get to use their concerns over anti-racism to reject such measures as unimportant to ending racism, when in truth, race and class cannot be separated.
Both books on white feminism I read were perfectly intersectional, class conscious (to a point), and adequate for newcomers to feminism. Still, one wonders why these authors do not explicitly invite women to join the socialist movement, which, in the United States, remains the closest thing to a movement attempting to accomplish many of the prescriptions outlined in this literature.
Following the 2018 midterm elections, two socialist women were sworn into Congress: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx. This was the result of grassroots socialist feminist organizing. AOC was the first US politician to respond to climate change with anything approximating the seriousness it requires–and in a substantially redistributive fashion, proposing a Green New Deal.
Despite this, the research on white feminism suggests that the number of women who identify as feminists and advocate for change is increasing. Most of the authors of these works identify as feminists of color, who refused to yield the label to the movement’s bourgeois white women. Women, as well as anybody who has experienced gender discrimination, becoming more conscious of “white feminism” is always a positive step forward, and knowledge, however imperfect, is the first step toward disciplined practice in the fight against gender discrimination.