This month I got to go out and cast my vote in the Canadian federal election. I owe this privilege to women who came before me. Women who sacrificed their time, energy, and sometimes their lives because they believed that we deserved the same privileges as men. Because I’m thankful for the sacrifices those women made, I’m ecstatic to see a film coming out this month that celebrates those women and explores what they went through in order to win us the freedoms we have today.
However, if you have been paying attention to the way the film has been publicized, you may have heard about the controversy surrounding one of its marketing campaigns:
By wearing this particular quote on their shirts, these successful white actresses have demonstrated another instance of what many activists and bloggers have begun to call “white feminism”. In her article, “This is What I Mean When I Say ‘White Feminism'”, Cate Young explains that
“White feminism is a set of beliefs that allows for the exclusion of issues that specifically affect women of colour. It is “one size-fits all” feminism, where middle class white women are the mould that others must fit. It is a method of practicing feminism, not an indictment of every individual white feminist, everywhere, always.”
We have seen several recent examples of white feminism play out in our pop culture, like the recent “feud” between Taylor Swift and Nicky Minaj or Patricia Arquette’s Oscar acceptance speech. However, white feminism has negatively affected the lives of women of colour in more than just the pop culture arena. Consider our right to vote, for example.
Here in Canada white women have had the right to vote since 1921 while most women of colour couldn’t vote until the 1940s. First Nations women had to wait another 20 years before they could finally vote in 1960. In the U.S.A. the 19th Amendment technically enfranchised all American women in 1920. Unfortunately, “state laws and vigilante practices” ensured that black women were prevented from actually casting their vote until after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Black women were even discouraged from joining the public suffrage associations, lest they slow political advances for white women.
Just by examining our own voting history, we can see how different kinds of oppression form layers, making it harder for some oppressed individuals to access opportunities than others. It’s impossible to talk about layers of oppression without also talking about intersectionality, a concept Evan introduced in his last post.It’s usually quite difficult to talk about concepts like “oppression” or “privilege” at all in a society like ours. Our cultural identity is built upon individualism, or the idea that we are solely the product of our own personal choices. This can make us blind to systemic oppression, or the ways our social institutions were designed to favour certain genders/races/classes/sexual orientations/etc over others.
Feminists, however, already know that our individual choices aren’t the only things that impact the trajectory of our lives. We know that most of our social institutions, from the legal system to the family unit, were designed with maleness as the norm. We know that history centres around men and that, historically, “good” women were either supportive or invisible. We also acknowledge that because our current social institutions were built upon deeply gendered ones, an innate bias continues to exist today.
So why do white feminists continue to ignore these systems of oppression when they subjugate someone else?
I think it comes down to the same reason everyone else ignores systemic oppression: it’s really hard to accept that you are privileged.
White feminists, just like everyone else, are surrounded by the discourse of individualism. When we make white women the face of feminism, or we only celebrate the life and work of white suffragettes, we embed the individualistic idea that white women somehow earned that privilege.
Sure, the women that are celebrated in Suffragette worked hard to win the vote. But women of colour had to work twice as hard. They had to win their right to vote first as women, then they had to win their right to vote as people of colour.
So go ahead, watch Suffragette. I hope you sit there and cry (like I probably will) when you think about the terrible things (white) women had to suffer, just to win a right that (white) men took for granted. But I hope it also makes you think about how much harder women of colour had to work to get their right to vote, and how much harder they still have to work just to have their stories told. Heck, I haven’t even touched on the many LGBT and disabled individuals who were denied their right to vote because they were locked away in an institution.
If white feminists really want to create a more just society then we must look beyond ourselves. Any gains made by feminists are futile if we continue to exclude people of colour from the face of the movement.