To My Fellow Privileged Feminists: It’s Time for Our Movement to Become Intersectional
I have identified as a feminist since I was a teenager, and felt the appeal of girl power for as long as I can remember. These beliefs have evolved over time, as my scope of women’s issues expanded from my original single-issue platform that girl’s toys at McDonalds should be as cool as boy’s toys. I can’t remember the first time I proudly referred to myself as a feminist, but I have been one all my life.
I grew up in a conservative, predominantly white town, and always felt proud that I was in the minority of people who had bothered to look up the definition of feminism and understand that it was a movement based on equality and choice, not oppressing men and shaming mothers. Even today, women I graduated from high school with continue to circulate tired editorials claiming that feminism is wrong because God expects women to be submissive to their men. Compared to that, I fancied myself to be a wise expert on women’s issues.
Then Came College
Since that wildly problematic and unsound argument was the primary opposition to feminism that I dealt with growing up, I never felt challenged to explore women’s issues on a deeper level until I started college. Once there, I discovered diversity for the first time with a set of women who did not fit into the homogeneous community of white, middle-class, heterosexual and cisgender women I was accustomed to. I no longer felt particularly wise in regards to feminism, and for the first time in my life, I felt my privilege.
For the most part, it was a rewarding experience to meet different women and learn about how their conditions had impacted their lives. Listening to the stories of women of color, of low-economic classes, and of different sexualities and identities, gave me a better understanding of why I believed what I did, and helped my feminism expand beyond myself and women of similar demographics.
In other ways, it could be uncomfortable being forced to acknowledge the prejudices that had been instilled in me as a consequence of being raised in a system that automatically favored me based on my skin and sexuality, among other factors. Although I understood its importance, I felt very small as I sat in a lecture hall and learned the word “intersectionality” for the first time.
All my life, I had been hyper-aware of how I was treated differently as a woman, but once I began to consider overlapping identities and how they contribute to oppression, I was forced to accept that I was only slightly worse off than the “straight white men” I liked to poke fun at.
I remained a steadfast feminist, and certainly became better at acknowledging issues facing women with less privilege than I, but even then, I was a “white feminist”, and the issues I frequently thought about were ones that pertained to western women. I saw feminism as a very general movement for female empowerment everywhere, and I knew that, as a woman with substantial privilege, I could never completely understand the roadblocks society has put in place for marginalized groups, so I elected to focus on broad issues that I could relate to, and that I was qualified to speak out about.
I dismissed most criticisms of feminism, which frequently but not always came from straight white men on Facebook and Fox News. I rolled my eyes at comments which suggested that while the first two waves of feminism were meaningful, the current one had no point. I ignored critiques of the Women’s March which accused white women of using the opportunity for photo ops where they could showcase their sassy signs and pussy hats, which were viewed by some as exclusionary to transgender women. While I knew that some privileged women had done that, it wasn’t me, right? After all, I hadn’t even had a hat or a sign, and I was a feminist full-time, not just when it was fashionable.
The Indian American Woman Who Told Me What I Needed To Hear
Shortly after the March, I became acquainted with an Indian American woman. She was not against feminism, but she had not attended the March because for her, the issue of female equality was incomparable to the fear and prejudice that she and her family faced daily on account of their skin color. She talked about her annoyance with white women who adopted feminism because it was trendy, and told me first-hand accounts of her experiences with feminist white women who appeared interested in her culture and in equality, only when a camera was on. She told me that she could not become invested in feminism while living in a country that mistreats and antagonizes people of color.
White upper-class women have long been the frontrunners of the feminist movement and have constantly pushed minority voices to the back. It’s time we passed them the microphone and actually listened to what they have to say.
She was careful with her words, and didn’t call me out specifically, but I realized that I was part of the problem she was describing. I had to admit to myself that the only reason I didn’t have a sign at the Women’s March was because I had left mine at a friend’s house, and I didn’t have a pussy hat because I don’t know how to knit. I had supported the women of color who spoke at my March, but now I started to wonder if I was really listening and trying to understand their struggles, or if I was just clapping along to feed my guilty liberal conscience.
As a white and privileged person, I can never completely understand and empathize with the problems described by other marginalized women. I can’t lead a movement in their honor, speaking out about these issues for them, and that’s okay. White upper-class women have long been the frontrunners of the feminist movement and have constantly pushed minority voices to the back. It’s time we passed them the microphone and actually listened to what they have to say.
As much as I enjoyed myself and truly valued what I felt as a passionate display of love and equality at the Women’s March, I can’t deny that valid criticisms of the rally exist. It’s interesting that, while I read a plethora of articles explaining why many marginalized women felt unwelcome there, I heard only radio silence from white women in response, and didn’t have a single discussion with other privileged women on what we thought of these criticisms or how we could improve. I wonder if we collectively decided, as I certainly did, that we weren’t the problem, passing the blame to someone else in order to keep preaching feminism without admitting to having any flaws. I wonder if, instead of actually listening and learning from criticisms, we simply point fingers at one another, starting witch hunts in search of the “white feminists” so that we can pat ourselves on the back for being slightly more “woke” than them?
White privileged women, myself included, need to realize that we have a place in the movement, it’s just no longer the front of the crowd.
Too frequently, feminists like myself condemn one another for mistakes without acknowledging our own shortcomings. At the end of the day, every white person who is a feminist, is a white feminist. While we can expand our views and grow our understanding of the problems that minority women face, we are not automatically absolved of our prejudice and our privileged view of the world, simply because we accept that we were raised in a system that favors us. We need to start acknowledging that we are all guilty of white feminism, not to excuse ourselves when we ignore the voices of minorities, but as a reminder that we need to constantly be checking ourselves, listening to criticisms from less-privileged women, and recognizing that there is always more we can do to improve our feminism.
If feminism is about achieving political, economic and social equality for all individuals, we need to link it to all issues of oppression. Women, as a whole, can never be equal to men until we ensure that minorities are being treated equally as well. Even issues that resonate with all women, such as the war on reproductive rights, the wage gap, and high rates of sexual violence against women, often affect us differently based on factors such as race and identity . In order to truly address these disparities, we need to become more intersectional with our feminism.
White women like myself have paraded our feminism around without giving minority women room to make criticisms of the movement, or speak on it for themselves for too long, but in order to advocate for women in a new and effective way, intersectionality must become the primary principle of third-wave feminism, the heart of its goals, and the component that makes it stand out.
If we truly believe that feminism is about achieving equality for all, we need to give minority women room to speak, and we need to take moments to judge ourselves and search for ways we can become better allies. If we continue to make the movement about ourselves, minorities will only feel silenced and excluded, and our attempts at making all women feel equal will have failed.
Third-wave feminism needs to include people of color and other marginalized groups, and if we continue to ignore their voices, their ideas, and their criticisms, they will never feel welcomed or supported by feminists as a whole. We cannot speak over them or pretend that equality can be achieved without acknowledging the problems minorities face. White privileged women, myself included, need to realize that we have a place in the movement, it’s just no longer the front of the crowd.