This is the first of a two-part reflection on the global Women’s March that occurred on 21 January 2017. This discussion expands on a post first published on 10 January, eleven days prior to the global protests. It reflects the tensions between the initial goal of the Women’s March in Washington, which aimed to be inclusive of intersectionality, and the White women who wanted to attend the March, but objected to this aim.
Despite many positive outcomes, the issues discussed here that centre on Whiteness continued to affect the attendance, experience and discussions of the marches after the event. This post examines the attitudes of White women as discussed in an article by The New York Times, which reflect the broader dissent expressed by White women who continue to oppose intersectional conversations about the Women’s March.
The issues here remain relevant not simply as women around the world reflect on the racism and exclusion they faced at the marches, but also because one of the co-organisers, Linda Sarsour, is currently facing racist backlash only days after the event.
The second part to this discussion is forthcoming and it will be a visual reflection of my attendance at the Sydney March.
Actress Natalie Portman is the latest White woman celebrity to talk about the gender pay gap in ways that demonstrate tunnel vision on the intersections between racism and gender inequity. From Patricia Arquette’s highly misguided attempt to discuss the wage disparity during her 2015 Oscars speech, to Jennifer Lawrence’s essay calling for equal pay, White actresses have a very skewed view of the inequities faced by “women” in the entertainment industry and in everyday life.
What does the gender pay gap look like when viewed through the intersections of gender, race and other social categories? What do we learn about mainstream feminism’s vision for equal pay, when we become more conscious of Whiteness and White privilege?
White Feminism Wants Equality. Black Feminism Demands Justice
American gender studies Professor Brittney Cooper has written an exceptional analysis comparing mainstream feminism, which centres on the needs and values of White women, and Black feminism, which embraces the complex realities of minority women of colour. Writing for Salon, Cooper (AKA Professor Crunk) makes the point that many types of feminism exist, but the vision for the future of feminism in the mainstream is still governed by White women’s interests. This vision is still largely oblivious to the true struggles faced by women of colour.
Cooper notes that even in well-meaning social justice movements, such as in grassroots efforts to protest against police violence in Ferguson, Black women face sexual harassment and marginalisation. Cooper notes how the media and many feminists do not concern themselves with the ongoing racism and violence that Black women live with daily. Younger women of colour have a strong following on social media, such as by leading important feminist conversations on Twitter, and yet they too face racism and sexism, as well as additional critique by White feminists, who tone police how women of colour frame their arguments. Women of colour are told by White feminists that they’re too “toxic;” that is, too aggressive, in their language and the themes they discuss. To be clear: these young women are not being rude, and they are not going out attacking particular White feminists. They are simply speaking out about White privilege in general. The thing is that racism is not pretty. There’s no polite way to talk about how White privilege and racism protect White women from the additional pressures and abuse that women of colour are forced to battle on their own.
What White feminists are really saying is that they don’t like having to confront how they benefit from the current gender system, even as they lack equal opportunities relative to men.
Cooper notes that White feminisms focus on equality. This is important, but it glosses over what this might mean for minorities. It’s not just jobs that we need; we need good jobs. Women of colour can’t just “lean in” and ask for help when interlocking systems of power keep us out of multiple opportunities in education, economics, leadership opportunities, and so on. Whatever hurdles White women face, which are considerable, women of colour face this plus racism, racialised sexism and other modes of violence and discrimination.
While feminism in general faces huge social backlash, a truly inclusive feminism is not possible until White feminists understand and address the problems with the way they envision gender and social change. Cooper argues:
“White women’s feminisms still centre around equality… Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference. One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognises the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.”