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While watching a reality show, I noticed a group of white women explain to the non-white woman in the group that her words about her feelings on a discussion of race were too strong. The white women then explained to the non-white woman how she was supposed to respond to issues of race. The white women were very upset that the non-white woman insinuated there was a whiff of racism in the conversations. How interesting, I thought, to see the white women explain how discussions of race should happen, to a non-white woman.
After the slapping incident at the 2022 Oscars, I noticed many people discussing the event. Many women had many different things to say, of course, from all sorts of perspectives. But there were quite a few Black American women that kindly explained to white American women that, as white women, they did not fully understand the event in the same way as Black American women. Author and activist Glennon Doyle initially posted “violence is never ‘proof of love.’ That’s a deadly idea that has fueled and excused domestic (and all) violence for far too long. Think hard about that take, please.” After a wide range of comments from Black American women, including Elaine Welteroth, Doyle then wrote: “Since I posted this, many Black women I respect have told me that as a white woman – this is not my conversation to have. That there is much about tonight that I don’t understand. That I should sit this out and listen. So that is what I’m going to do. I’ve also been asked to leave this post up in order to preserve the labor of those who took the time to educate and expand the conversation in the comments.’”
Brittany Cooper, professor of women’s studies at Rutgers, wrote this: “one of the biggest challenges I have faced as a Black feminist teacher and writer has been convincing Black women that feminism is relevant to their lives. Black women’s resistance to feminist politics and ideas has never been about a resistance to gender equality. We live with the intimate and structural consequences of patriarchy every day. The biggest stumbling block in Black women’s journey to fly the flag of feminism has been white women. Somewhere a white woman is talking about how we all need to be united ‘as women,’ regardless of race or creed. And somewhere a Black woman is giving that white woman a side eye” (ix).
A side eye, indeed. Kyla Schuller, in her new book, The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism, argues that the history of feminism is full of factions, but that white, middle class and upper class versions of feminism typically get the most attention and study. According to Schuller, the white feminism ideology claims that women should fight for the full political and economic advantages that white, wealthy women enjoy; that people of color and the poor are merely resources to fuel women’s rise in status; and that women’s full participation in a white dominated society will improve women’s social position and redeem society itself, due to women’s innate moral superiority. For the past two hundred+ years, white women framed gender equality as access to positions traditionally reserved for white, middle class and wealthy men. As a result, “white feminism becomes a success for some at the expense of others” (5).
But Schuller focuses on the long and forceful alternative to white feminism. Intersectional feminism emphasizes that a fight for gender equality must happen alongside the fights for racial, economic, sexual, and disability justice, and should be led by those most affected by those systems of oppression and exploitation. Schuller traces this counter history by contrasting a traditional white feminist icon alongside an intersectional feminist icon, beginning with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frances E. W. Harper, Harriet Beacher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs, and Alice Fletcher and Zitkala-Ša to name a few. Schuller concludes that “feminists may support equality for women, but our true task is to determine what exactly equality looks like” (257). Put a different way, there are many white women who think that women should replace white men at the top of the hierarchy, and that will somehow make the hierarchy better. Intersectional feminism wants to get rid of the hierarchy.
I realize that most of us have many different ideas about the role of feminism, power, hierarchies, and systems of oppression and race. But I can’t help thinking about that subtle side eye. Perhaps we can do more listening and learning.
Kyla Schuller, The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism, (New York: Bold Type Books, 2021). Foreword by Brittany Cooper.