The Problem with White Feminism

By: Elizabeth Klein

I’ve been a feminist all my life.  When I was younger, I didn’t have a label for my feelings; I simply knew that I wanted to be treated the same as all the boys in my life.  I was upset when my kindergarten teacher told me that girls don’t play with cars.  I felt angry when the boys in my class wouldn’t let me play soccer with them because I was a girl.  When my mother talked to me about how I needed to be careful when I was out by myself, I wondered if boys had that same discussion; yet, the moment when I truly found feminism was in the eighth grade when I wanted to cut my hair.

I’d been wanting to do it for a while.  After seeing my role models like Emma Watson and Shailene Woodley opt for a pixie cut, I became obsessed with the idea.  I went online and found hundreds of images of haircuts for inspiration.  I knew this was no small choice; it would take years for me to grow it back to my original chest-length style.  But after months of deliberate thought, I came to a decision.  I was going to cut my hair.

I was ecstatic.  I was going for shock-value, so I only told my parents and closest friends.  But, after telling my friend the news a little too loudly one day in class, a boy who had been listening in turned to me and said, “Boys don’t like girls with short hair.”

I called my hairstylist that night to schedule an appointment ASAP.  I walked into school the next week missing 12 inches of hair.  

I never once regretted my decision.  I didn’t do it out of spite, either.  The boy’s comment helped me understand why I was having so much trouble making a decision; I was worried about what people would think of me.  After hearing his sexist argument about something that was absolutely none of his business, I was reminded that I don’t exist for anyone’s happiness but my own.  I wanted a haircut, so I got one.  It made me happy.

After that experience, I became involved with feminism in a way I hadn’t before.  I noticed constantly the areas of society where sexism played a role, and I was angry.  I wrote about it, I sang about it, I preached about it to anyone who would listen.  As I learned, my feminism changed.  My initial definition was the idea that men and women should be equal, but I’ve since seen the bigger picture.  Feminism is about equality of the genders, but it’s also about recognizing how different women experience different sexism.  As a white, cisgender, able-bodied woman, I have more privilege than women of different marginalized groups.  Part of feminism is recognizing this fact, and working not just for women as a general whole, but individually based on the different identities a woman has.  Unfortunately, many feminists fail to comprehend the importance of this.  From this, a non-inclusive feminism stems, and it’s toxic.

White Feminism is defined by Urban Dictionary as “a brand of feminism centered around the ideals and struggles of primarily white women.”  Essentially, it is feminism that ignores the struggles of women* of minority groups.  Where White Feminists fight the surface-level problems of issues like the wage gap, rape culture, and domestic violence, they often neglect the fact that women of marginalized groups experience these issues to a much greater extent.  This is because their experiences are shaped by a number of identities, which are not limited to just being a feminist.  This combination of identities is theorized by law professor and civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw as “intersectionality,” or the idea that a woman’s various identities overlap to form a whole that cannot be analyzed through separating its parts.

 

Intersectionality’s main function is to stress that true feminism is not simple.  It’s not just defined by the experiences of privileged women, and it’s not just one blanket struggle against the patriarchy.  True feminism has overlaps; it means that the sexism one woman experiences is different from that experienced by another.  White Feminism attempts to lump all the issues that women face under one broad category, but that’s not how sexism works in real life.  If a white woman makes 77 cents to a man’s dollar, then a Black woman makes 64 and a hispanic woman makes only 54.  While white women do have to deal with the pressure to conform to beauty standards, women of color must deal with even more.  When “women” got the vote in 1920, white women were the only females who gained true suffrage–poll taxes and literacy tests kept Black voters out of the polls until 1965.  White feminism erases the struggles of marginalized women by lumping them into the same category.  Sexism doesn’t distinguish between race, class, body type, sexuality, etc.  Yes, we may all be women, but our differences define our discrimination.  Marginalized women with overlapping identities experience compounded sexism for the combination of those identities.  True feminism–intersectional feminism–recognizes this concept.  When faced with sexism, it considers the prejudice felt by women who are disenfranchised.  A truly just society is one without oppression, which can only be eliminated when the privileged understand the perspective of those oppressed.  That’s what intersectional feminism is for–feminism isn’t so easily defined as the strive for equality between men and women.  It’s individualized, it’s specific; it’s intersectional.

I learn a little more each day about intersectional feminism.  That’s what I’m supposed to do–as a white person, I’m in no position to deem certain topics offensive or not to people of color.  I’m here to listen and learn.  However, that’s not all I can do.  I can understand that feminism is not “one size fits all.”  I can correct my white friends when they express concepts exclusive to White Feminism.  I can write this article, and hope to persuade people in my position to do just what I’m doing: becoming educated.  My feminism is intersectional–the only way it should be.

*The word “woman” is used often in this article.  Any use of the word refers not just to the sex listed on one’s birth certificate, but to all who identify as women.

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