Solidarity Is Still for White Women
As debates over last names, body hair, and the best way to be a CEO have taken center stage in the discourse surrounding modern feminism, it's not difficult to see why some would be questioning the legitimacy of a women's movement that serves only the narrow interests of middle- and upper-class white women. While the problems facing marginalized women have only increased in intensity, somehow food insecurity, education, and health care-beyond the most basic of reproductive needs-are rarely touted as feminist issues. It is past time to make the conversation a nuanced, inclusive, and intersectional one that reflects the concerns of all women, not just a privileged few.
In 2013, when I started #solidarityisforwhitewomen, by which I meant mainstream feminist calls for solidarity centered on not only the concerns but the comfort of white middle-class women at the expense of other women, many white feminists claimed it was divisive and called it infighting, instead of recognizing that the problem was real and could not solve itself. They argued that the way to fix feminism wasn't by airing its proverbial dirty laundry in public. Yet, since its inception, mainstream feminism has been insisting that some women have to wait longer for equality, that once one group (usually white women) achieves equality then that opens the way for all other women. But when it comes right down to it, mainstream white feminism often fails to show up for women of color. While white feminism can lean in, can prioritize the CEO level at work, it fails to show up when Black women are not being hired because of their names or fired for hairstyles. It's silent when schools discriminate against girls of color. Whether it is the centering of white women even when women of color are most likely to be at risk, or the complete erasure of issues most likely to impact those who are not white, white feminism tends to forget that a movement that claims to be for all women has to engage with the obstacles women who are not white face.
Trans women are often derided or erased, while prominent feminist voices parrot the words of conservative bigots, framing womanhood as biological and determined at birth instead of as a fluid and often arbitrary social construct. Trans women of color, who are among the most likely targets of violence, see statistics that reflect their reality co-opted to bolster the idea that all women are facing the same level of danger. Yet support from mainstream white feminists for the issues that directly impact trans women has been at best minimal, and often nonexistent. From things as basic as access to public bathrooms to job protection, there's a dearth of mainstream white feminist voices speaking out against trans-exclusionary policies and laws. A one-size-fits-all approach to feminism is damaging, because it alienates the very people it is supposed to serve, without ever managing to support them. For women of color, the expectation that we prioritize gender over race, that we treat the patriarchy as something that gives all men the same power, leaves many of us feeling isolated.
When the obstacles you face vary by race and class, then so too do your priorities. After all, for women who are struggling to keep themselves housed, fed, and clothed, it's not a question of working hard enough. They are leaning in, but not in search of equal pay or "having it all"; their quest for equal pay starts with equal access to education and opportunity. They need feminism to recognize that everything that affects women is a feminist issue, whether it be food insecurity or access to transit, schools, or a living wage. Does that mean that every feminist has to be at every event, know every detail of every struggle? No.
It does, however, mean that the language surrounding whatever issues feminists choose to focus on should reflect an understanding of how the issue's impact varies for women in different socioeconomic positions. The conversation around work, for instance, should recognize that for many people, needing to work to survive is a fact of life. We can't let respectability politics (that is, an attempt by marginalized groups to internally police members so that they fall in line with the dominant culture's norms) create an idea that only some women are worthy of respect or protection. Respectability narratives discourage us from addressing the needs of sex workers, incarcerated women, or anyone else who has had to face hard life choices. No woman has to be respectable to be valuable. We can't demand that people work in order to live, then demand that they respected only be if they do work that doesn't challenge outdated ideas around women's right to control their bodies. Too often mainstream feminism embraces an idea that women must follow a work path prescribed by cisgender white men in order for their labor to matter. But everyone, from a person who needs care to a stay-at-home parent to a sex worker, matters and deserves to be respected whether they are in their home or in an office.
This tendency to assume that all women are experiencing the same struggles has led us to a place where reproductive health imagery centers on cisgender able-bodied women to the exclusion of those who are trans, intersex, or otherwise inhabiting bodies that don't fit the narrow idea that genitalia dictates gender. You can have no uterus and still be a woman, after all. Employment equality statistics project the idea that all women make seventy-seven cents to a man's dollar when the reality is that white women make that much, and women of color make less than white women. Affirmative action complaints (including those filed by white women) hinge on the idea that people of color are getting the most benefit when the reality is that white women benefit the most from affirmative action policies. The sad reality is that while white women are an oppressed group, they still wield more power than any other group of women-including the power to oppress both men and women of color.
The myth of the Strong Black Woman has made it so that white women can tell themselves that it is okay to expect us to wait to be equal with them, because they need it more. The fact that Black women are supposedly tougher than white women means that we are built to face abuse and ignorance, and that our need for care or concern is less pressing.
In general, white women are taught to think of whiteness as default, of race as something to ignore. Their failure to appreciate the way that race and other marginalization can impact someone is often borne out in popular media. Consider the ham-fisted misstep of Lena Dunham's HBO show Girls, which featured an all-white cast of twentysomething women and men living in Brooklyn, New York, being heralded as a show for all young women despite its complete exclusion of women of color. Or, more recently, Dunham and Amy Schumer's cringe-inducing conversation about whether Odell Beckham Jr. was in the wrong for not expressing any interest, sexual or otherwise, in Dunham while they were seated at the same table at the Met Gala.
Somehow the fact that Beckham was absorbed in his phone meant that he was passing judgment on Dunham's attractiveness, and not that his mind was simply elsewhere. Despite the fact that he never said a negative word, he was dragged into their personal narrative in part because of the unspoken assumption that he owed a white woman who wanted it his attention. Now, I don't expect Dunham or Schumer or feminists like them to listen to Black women or other WOC. It's not an innate skill for white people, and for white feminists who are used to shutting out the voices of men, it can be especially difficult to hear that they have the power to oppress a man. But that doesn't change the history of Black men being demonized or killed for expressing an interest in white women. Nor does it change the negative impact that a white woman's tears can still have not only on a Black man's career, but on his life. The fact that Dunham apologized and that she didn't mean to do harm is pretty much meaningless. The harm was done, and her casual racist assumptions still meant Beckham spent days in the news cycle for imaginary body shaming.
When white feminism ignores history, ignores that the tears of white women have the power to get Black people killed while insisting that all women are on the same side, it doesn't solve anything. Look at Carolyn Bryant, who lied about Emmett Till whistling at her in 1955. Despite knowing who had killed him, and that he was innocent of even the casual disrespect she had claimed, she carried on with the lie for another fifty years after his lynching and death. Though her family says she regretted it for the rest of her life, she still sat on the truth for decades and helped his murderers walk free. How does feminism reconcile itself to that kind of wound between groups without addressing the racism that caused it?
There's nothing feminist about having so many resources at your fingertips and choosing to be ignorant. Nothing empowering or enlightening in deciding that intent trumps impact. Especially when the consequences aren't going to be experienced by you, but will instead be experienced by someone from a marginalized community.
It's not at all helpful for some white feminists to make demands of women of color out of a one-sided idea of sisterhood and call that solidarity. Sisterhood is a mutual relationship between equals. And as anyone with sisters can tell you, it's not uncommon for sisters to fight or to hurt each other's feelings. Family (whether biological or not) is supposed to support you. But that doesn't mean no one can ever tell you that you're wrong. Or that any form of critique is an attack. And yes, sometimes the words involved are harsh. But as adults, as people who are doing hard work, you cannot expect your feelings to be the center of someone else's struggle. In fact, the most realistic approach to solidarity is one that assumes that sometimes it simply isn't your turn to be the focus of the conversation.
When feminist rhetoric is rooted in biases like racism, ableism, transmisogyny, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, it automatically works against marginalized women and against any concept of solidarity. It's not enough to know that other women with different experiences exist; you must also understand that they have their own feminism formed by that experience. Whether it's an argument that women who wear the hijab must be "saved" from it, or reproductive-justice arguments that paint having a disabled baby as the worst possible outcome, the reality is that feminism can be marginalizing. If a liberation movement's own representatives are engaging with each other oppressively, then what progress can the movement make without fixing that internal problem?
Feminism cannot be about pitying women who didn't have access to the right schools or the same opportunities, or making them projects to be studied, or requiring them to be more respectable in order for them to be full participants in the movement. Respectability has not saved women of color from racism; it won't save any woman from sexism or outright misogyny. Yet mainstream white feminists ignore their own harmful behavior in favor of focusing on an external enemy. However, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" only works as clichd shorthand; in reality the enemy of my enemy may be my enemy as well. Being caught between groups that hate you for different aspects of your identity means none of you are safe.
So how do we address that much more complex reality without getting bogged down? Well, for starters, feminists of all backgrounds have to address would-be allies about the things that we want. And when we act as allies, feminists have to be willing to listen to and respect those we want to help. When building solidarity, there is no room for savior myths. Solidarity is not for everyone-it cannot realistically include everyone-so perhaps the answer is to establish common goals and work in partnerships. As equal partners, there is room for negotiation, compromise, and sometimes even genuine friendship. Building those connections takes time, effort, and a willingness to accept that some places are not for you.
Although the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen rose out of a particular problem within the online feminist community at that moment, it addresses the much larger problem of what it means to stand in solidarity as a movement meant to encompass all women when there is the distinct likelihood that some women are oppressing others. It's rhetorical shorthand for the reality that white women can oppress women of color, straight women can oppress lesbian women, cis women can oppress trans women, and so on. And those identities are not discrete; they often can and do overlap. So too do the ways in which women can help or harm each other under the guise of feminism.
There is a tendency to debate who is a "real" feminist based on political leanings, background, actions, or even the kinds of media created and consumed. It's the kind of debate that blasts Beyonc and Nicki Minaj for their attire and stage shows not being feminist enough, while celebrating Katy Perry for being empowering-via the fetishization and appropriation of cultures and bodies of color. Real feminism (if such a thing can be defined) isn't going to be found in replicating racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, or classist norms. But we are all human, all flawed in our ways, and perhaps most important, none of us are immune to the environment that surrounds us. We are part of the society that we are fighting to change, and we cannot absolve ourselves of our role in it.
Liberation rhetoric cannot be lubrication for the advancement of one group of women at the expense of others. White privilege knows no gender. And while it makes no promises of a perfect life free from any hard work or strife, it does makes some things easier in a society where race has always mattered. The anger now bubbling up in hashtags, blog posts, and meetings is shorthand for women of color declaring to white women, "I'm not here to clean up your mess, carry your spear, hold your hand, or cheer you on while I suffer in silence. I'm not here to raise your children, assuage your guilt, build your platforms, or fight your battles. I'm here for my community because no one else will stand up for us but us."
And if white women's response to that is, as it has been, more whining about how we're not making activism easier for them? We don't care. We're not going to care. We can't afford to, because while Patricia Arquette was being lauded for a speech on equal pay that she delivered at the 2015 Academy Awards, one that called for "all the gay people and people of color that we've all fought for" to "fight for us now," untold numbers of women of color were and are still fighting to get paid at all. That demand for solidarity, beyond being utterly tone-deaf, was more of the same one-way expectation.
Copyright © 2020 by Mikki Kendall. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.