Feminism Must Be Anti-Racist

Recently, an acquaintance on Facebook upset several mutual friends with a post that started with an admission that every time someone says the phrase ‘white privilege,’ she laughs out loud. She went on to detail how, while she was a white woman, she has experienced a number of specific oppressions in her life and felt it was unfair to conflate her with white male bankers. She identifies vociferously as a feminist.

Also this week, I was pulled over for speeding (oopsie!) and waited in frustration as the officer spent seemingly forever in his car with my registration and license. When he came back, he gave me a warning and let me go. I’ll admit; I was a little frazzled. Earlier that day my daughter had fallen and hurt herself at school, and waiting in my car for the police officer meant I was getting more and more late to pick her up. I told him so, and he left me with a genuine expression of concern. His last words were, “have a better day.”

This, when women like Sandra Bland wind up dead in jail after a routine traffic stop. When some white people continue to defend the Confederate flag after the terrorist murders in Charleston. When people I know sully the ‘feminist’ movement with open hostility toward intersectionality and a self-aggrandizing desire to shout over the lived experiences of others.

I cried as I drove away.

White privilege is an institution that is scary for whites to acknowledge. Hardly anyone wants to be called racist, and just about everyone, white people included, can cook up some stories of how they overcame hardships and got where they are by dint of hard work. The institution of white privilege does not mean that every white person is inherently bad, nor that every white person lives a dandy oppression-free life, but it does mean that every white person doesn’t have to deal with the race-based economic, political, and social inequality people of color have to deal with every day. It also means that white people have a responsibility to listen, learn, and advocate for change.

To deny that at this moment of crisis — when we keep seeing new videos and learning new names of Black people who die in police custody, when activists from the Black Lives Matter movement are tugging the strings of the nation’s conscience and doing the hard work to redistribute power where it belongs — to deny that automatically lands you on a continuum somewhere between ignorant and asshole.

Many of the best feminist activists, organizers, theorists, thinkers, and writers I know are women of color. For that matter, many of the best feminists I know who have told me they most struggle with the term “feminist” are women of color.

Because there is this baggage of white feminists who declare all women are the same, when we are most clearly not. Or things like Patricia Arquette’s exclusionary speech for ‘women’s rights’ at the Oscars.

What we don’t need is ‘unity,’ a phrase that is often deployed as a way for women with more power to get their way.

What we frankly need is to educate these women, or else.

I know many feminists who will rise up to defend why you need to support abortion rights in order to identify as a feminist. The same thing needs to happen with racial justice — if you are not willing to listen to others with different experiences and identities without putting yourself first, if you are not willing to look racism in the face, you really need to get the fuck out of the tent.

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Long-Term, What Should We Take Away From L’Affaire Arquette?

For a second, it seemed like Patricia Arquette might be the new hero of the feminist movement.

After using her Oscar acceptance speech to call for equal rights for women, later that evening she expanded on her remarks backstage. “It’s time for all … the gay people and people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now,” she said.

Look, the initial acceptance speech was not perfect — not all women give birth, citizenship is a privilege that many people don’t get to have, and “we” have not all fought for “everybody’s equal rights” that are currently being exercised and enjoyed — but it was an exciting moment for feminism anyway. The wage gap and equality for women should be mainstream issues.

That Arquette used her Oscar acceptance speech to call for political and social equality for women does not negate the harm of what she said backstage. By drawing lines around who is considered a woman (ostensibly, not gay, of color, or both) and insinuating that LGBT people and people of color (again, not mutually exclusive groups) owe something to those women who are white and straight and getting paid unfairly, Arquette set feminism back.

There are feminists and others who vehemently disagree with me on this; they think I am being too hard on Arquette or that I am demanding perfection of women who step out for feminism. Briefly, I understand it is difficult for celebrities to step out as feminists, and as, I have written before, I believe Celebrity Feminism Is A Good Thing. Nor do I think women and in particular feminists all need to be perfect. I’m not perfect and I’m not going to let that stop me from trying to advance equality for women and girls. These issues are not what’s at stake.

As a broader movement, feminism has a massive white privilege problem and exclusion problem. This is nothing new (racism has always been present in the women’s movement, with racist suffragists posing strong historical examples, and likewise Betty Friedan warned of the “lavender menace,” or the ridiculous idea that lesbians pose a threat to the women’s movement, in the 1960s), but Arquette tapped into it and reinforced it in a very public way.

If you think I am being “divisive” and ignoring that Arquette “meant well” and at this point wish to hit me over the head with a frying pan, I urge you to read Imani Gandy’s The Road to Structural Erasure Is Paved With Well-Intentioned White Ladies. (Seriously, though, if you hit her over the head with a frying pan I’m coming to get you.)

So now that all this has happened, what should we take away from this moment?

Here are my primary three suggestions:

1. Embrace fearlessness, rather than unity, as the rally cry for feminism. 

Women are not all the same and, as I’ve written before, it’s not helpful to speak for all women. Many of the people standing on Arquette’s side in this affair believe that women need to “stand together,” or strive for “unity.” The problem with this logic is that inevitably “unity” means quieting the softer voices in the room, or the people with less power. Calls for unity can be oppressive because, by drawing upon and reinforcing existing power dynamics, they can come to operate as calls to resist the inclusion of marginalized people.

Feminism is at its strongest when we embrace the reality that not all women are the same, and that women experience different oppressions on the basis of a wide range of identities and privileges. 

Imagine how strong the women’s movements could be if we embraced fearlessness rather than unity as the rally cry for our feminisms.

Let’s fearlessly examine how racism impacts life in America. Let’s fearlessly engage in difficult conversations with others. Let’s fearlessly remain open to changing our own views, and learning from others committed to human rights and social justice but with different perspectives. Let’s fearlessly speak up for the rights of all people — starting with but not exclusive to women. Let’s fearlessly embrace different people sharing diverse explanations of what conditions are required to thrive.

2. Criticism does not mean someone should go away, but Arquette should apologize.

It would be great if Arquette would apologize publicly for what she said, and such an apology would not be an admission of weakness but rather a representation of strength. The most feminist thing Arquette could do would be make an apology and commit publicly to growth. (While she has subsequently tweeted about the way the wage gap disproportionately impacts people of color, that is not a genuine “I’m sorry for what I said, and I will work to be more inclusive in my feminism in the future.”

As I wrote previously in Getting To Sorry: Why Apologies Matter When Someone Says Something Bigoted:

Feminism, as a practice, is not about gotcha and declaring some people good and other people bad. It is about eliminating bigotry from our lives — something all of us will have to work at — and moving forward in new ways that honor the full potential and human rights of everyone. So getting to sorry is a big deal, because it is that first step toward honoring people and making change.”

To be super clear, Arquette should not leave feminism, and her harmful words should not be used as an excuse for why others should not enter feminism. Should Arquette choose to handle the controversy with an apology, a little vulnerability, and an open commitment to expanding her practice of feminism to make it more intersectional, she could in fact give feminism a great gift.

Because lots of people will step in it. No one person can escape the thinking that underlies systems of oppression, even people who are committed to ending them in whole or in part. Social change agents will not succeed if they are not willing to change themselves.

3. Feminism must also mean listening to and elevating the experiences of women of color. 

Please stop reading my blog right now and read Jasmine Burnett on Navigating a ‘Crooked Room’: Reflections From Black Women on Their Experiences in Progressive Spaces. It is a disturbing, important, vital piece.