A call for intersectionality in the feminist debate

Quite early in my life I felt and spoke out like a feminist. I didn’t know what a feminist was, let alone know that this feeling and way of being was in fact called feminism.

It was in my final year of high school I learnt the term feminist and about the feminist movement. Suddenly, I had a name for my constant behaviour of speaking out on injustices against women, minorities and what I perceived to be injustices in my society. As I became more immersed in this new identity and new group of like-minded people, I realised my references were very white and that there were several areas of conflict with my culture and heritage.

I was a white feminist in a black woman’s body.

I had little understanding of the concept of intersectionality of race and always argued women’s rights and topical debates from my white feminism vantage point. I have since learnt that one can’t talk about feminism, particularly of women’s rights, outside of race and class. Black women and by extension, black feminism, is significantly and fundamentally different to white feminism. White feminism claims to be a transformative movement, mainly led by white women, who themselves are silent beneficiaries of white privilege and patriarchy. The everyday sexism, structural barriers and misogyny white feminists rise against manifests itself in substantially different ways than it does for black women (and for people of colour in general). White feminism has often pictured perpetrators of misogyny, sexism and oppression in race-laden terms, e.g. we have learnt to associate ‘black men’ as violent perpetrators of injustices that “we feminists” rise against.

Model: Lien Thipa, Photographer: Ricardo

White feminism is not malleable to change, cultural nuances nor inclusive of the multifaceted African culture and contexts. A recent example is the twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen that went viral on Monday 12th August. While the tag was meant as a debate starter to include white women who felt marginalised by the feminist debates, global responses and tweets provided insight into the biased nature of mainstream feminism.

In my view, black feminism broadly looks at systemic oppression and acts on these injustices (like white feminism does), but also deals with smashing and challenging racial/cultural stereotypes that are hegemonic in the main discourse of race and gender. As black feminists, we need a gender mainstreaming movement and by extension a feminism that takes into consideration and is aware of the intersections of race, class and gender. This intersectionality in our work is critical for black women’s and girls’ rights movements and should inform points of departure with our white allies in the dominant schools of feminism. Black feminism needs allies that are not only conscious of, but act upon the subtle nuances of racism and white privilege, that further compound and impede black women and girls participation in all levels of society.

As black women and feminists (of all genders), we need to document our dissent, speak up and be louder about our struggles so we become part of the main discourse of feminism.

Panel discussion on Race, Feminism and Activism - by BarrowCadburyTrust on Flickr
Panel discussion on Race, Feminism and Activism – by BarrowCadburyTrust on Flickr

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen Calls for Solidarity of ALL Women

The Twittersphere has recently undergone a feminist backlash against former “male feminist” and Pasadena City College professor Hugo Schwyzer after his hour-long Twitter meltdown approximately one week ago. While Schwyzer’s uncensored tweets have inevitably ruined his reputation as a male advocate for women’s empowerment, his bluntness has more importantly initiated a renewed conversation centered on the feminist movement and its tendencies to alienate women of color.

While Feministe blogger Jill Filipovic sympathized with Schwyzer, blogger Mikki Kendall fiercly tweeted in response:

“I feel a moment coming on. Because this has been a banner damned month for white feminists. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen”.

The #SolidaryIsForWhiteWomen hashtag has since been used as a means of “tweeting catharsis” for many. Frustration over double standards held against women of color have been cited by many impassioned tweeters. Many of whom have recalled past and present instances of feminism’s inability to recognize and acknowledge its ignorance and exclusivity of people of color.

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According to The Washington Post’s “She the People” news platform, the battle of gender versus race has been rampant throughout the feminist movement since its beginnings from “the early days of the suffrage movement through the civil rights movement and, most recently, in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, which pitted Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama.”

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen has allowed me to contemplate what labeling myself as a “feminist” actually entails. More importantly, the hashtag conversation has made me think of what others perceive to be my values as a self-proclaimed “feminist”.

I have realized two things about the complexity of labeling myself as a feminist:

  1. I am part of a movement that inextricably intersects with other social movements.

  2. I am part of a movement that must be inclusive of all in its discussion in order for its goals to succeed.

As a feminist, I recognize that the empowerment of women cannot be achieved on the same grounds for all. I realize the complexity of how gender impacts lived experiences, but also, that it cannot be seen as separate from race.  The separation of the two is, however, the way history has delineated it for us and how society today perceives it as a result. The history of oppression and discrimination of black women is much different from that of white women, yet both are forms of discrimination nonetheless. In order for all women to succeed, different histories must be acknowledged to comprehend the status of how each is perceived in the present. From this understanding, we will then realize that the path towards “empowerment” is different for all women depending on our personal circumstances. The unique path to a woman’s empowerment is dependent on the solidarity of ALL women.

“Women’s issues” are not merely issues that solely affect women. For example, while domestic violence affects 1 in 4 women in her lifetime, I acknowledge the inarguable reality that domestic violence occurs to men as well. I am a hypocrite if I fail to acknowledge the broader implications of “women’s issues”. Why? Because the feminist movement itself evolved from society’s failure to recognize the broader inclusion of women; therefore, I must do what society has not done for me. Feminism must focus not only on personal gains for women, but on the broader positive impacts for society as a whole.

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen has made its message loud and clear: Empowerment for women isn’t as simple as it may seem because we all come from varying circumstances and histories that forcefully restrict us differently. While a one-size-fits-all solution is never clear, the first step is realizing the complexity of feminism in spite of a past and present that wrongly views it simply.