The Blinding Whiteness of “Women’s Rights”

By Ariana Javidi, Age 19

Today, in the midst of the third wave of feminism, white feminists like to say that the women’s rights movement is more “inclusive” and more “diverse” than ever, continuing the legacy of anti-racist activism their predecessors carried on before them. Yet feminist movements have been built on racist foundations from the beginning, from Susan B. Anthony and the starting suffragettes of the 19th century – when Anthony, one of the prominent founders of American organized feminism, asked her good friend black abolitionist Frederick Douglass to abstain from coming to the National Suffragette conference in order to woo southern white women to join the movement – to present day, where the voices of women of color are still being marginalized and oppressed in an ideology dominated and defined by the opinions of white women. In every one of these movements, the leaders and decision makers have been white, upper middle class women who have dictated the needs and priorities for “all women”. And, overwhelmingly, the legal, political, and economic gains of the mainstream feminism movement over the ages have translated into improvements in the standing, agency, and mobility of white women. 

White feminism’s equation of the white woman to the American woman has systemically erased the identities of women of color in an absolutely destructive lack of awareness for the unique role of race in determining individual experiences and opportunities. To preserve their innocent image of victimization by white men, white feminists advocate for an overly simplistic understanding of the social intersections of race and gender in their superficial analysis that all women are first and foremost oppressed because of their gender, and for their refusal to acknowledge their role as racist oppressors of women of color. Yet in the United States, a country founded on the backs of an enslaved black labor force which remains shackled and marginalized by an entrenched hierarchy of racial inequality that persists to this day, sexual oppression will never be more powerful than racial oppression – as is clear from the historical evidence of white women directly benefiting from the repression of women of color through history.

White feminism tends to see the world in black and white, divided into Women and Men. Men are the instruments of the Enemy – the Patriarchy, and are socialized and conditioned to believe in the misogynistic Patriarchal ideology that Oppresses All Women. Women are good, the victims of centuries of Patriarchal marginalization, and all Women should be Sisters in the fight to Overthrow the Patriarchy, which is the true Enemy to the liberation of Women everywhere. Yet with closer analysis, it becomes apparent that when saying “Men”, white feminists do not mean allmen, they mean white men; and when saying “Women”, they do not mean all women, they mean white women. All those who do not fit into these categories, are, in the words of bell hooks, “Others”; women of color are thus either ignored, dehumanized, or objectified with the use of condescending and racist stereotypes. Most white feminists cannot conceptualize race as a basis for oppression except as an afterthought, a marginally important characteristic of individual identity that is inferior in the context of the critical effects of gender on individual oppression. Time and time again, when women of color have tried to approach white feminists about the problematic, blindingly white discourse of their movement, white feminists have lashed back and attacked them for refusing to be part of the “Sisterhood”.

But what does this mean for the complex and often confusing power dynamics that define the lives of women of color, who must navigate the devastating racism outside of their own communities while struggling to combat violent and often destructive misogyny within their families? What manifestations of Patriarchy do, for example, black women face, who are not only oppressed by the combined racism and misogyny of white men, but by the misogyny of black men as well? Do they struggle with multiple patriarchies? What about the role of class, and how women of color are statistically more likely to live in poverty than white women, and thereby unable to access the same wealth, resources, and financial institutions – having profound consequences on their health and life trajectory? What about the very idea of gender itself, defined by western ideology as strictly binary, with a toxic and hegemonic gendered framework of masculinity and femininity propagated and enforced onto the psyches of people of color by western imperialism?

When we start to consider these questions, we begin to see how inadequate the analytical framework mainstream feminism provides us with to dissect power relations within our society – and the danger of an elite, white minority solely determining the experiences and challenges of an entire movement of people. Feminists of color like bell hooks and Hazel Carby have repeatedly underscored the enormous differences in privilege between white women and women of color, exemplified best by the central driving force behind the mainstream feminism movement for white women to gain full access to the opportunities of the capitalist market system as opposed to dismantling the racist, capitalist, and imperialist institutions that imprison women of color from achieving full justice and equality. To truly advocate for the rights of women of color, white women need to center feminism around the experiences and singular oppression of women of color. So, as black feminist Hazel Carby poses at the end of her essay “White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood”, “In other words, of white feminists we must ask, what exactly do you mean when you say ‘we’?”

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