Ally's Story: Getting Uncomfortable With White Feminism

Matti laid out intersectionality excellently in her blog post.

I especially loved her line: “Just like you can’t control your oppression, you can’t control your privilege. You don’t have to be ashamed of your privilege, or apologize for having it. You do, however, have a responsibility to be conscious of it as you go through life, and you must be intentional in your attempts to uplift others who may not share the same privileges as you”.

I think this ties into a goal that I have made in the past year; getting uncomfortable with White Feminism.

I am a white girl from a small town that has been participating in local feminist initiatives since I was young. I remember going from my small town into the city for feminist workshops through middle school, and noticing the diversity in the city compared to just twenty minutes away in my small town.

This is where I first learned about White Feminism, a topic that has been shoved to the sidelines up until a few years ago.

There’s an important distinction to make here between White Feminists and feminists that are white. White Feminism refers to feminism that uplifts white womxn while failing to acknowledge issues addressed by minority groups. It doesn’t mean that all white womxn identifying as feminists are automatically horrible people - instead, it means that as white womxn we need to actively be aware of our privilege in the feminist sphere, and we need to get uncomfortable with it.

As a history buff, I have been studying the progression of the feminist waves, and I’m so grateful to be alive in a time when mainstream White Feminism is finally beginning to acknowledge the importance of intersectionality. Although the mainstream European & North American White Feminist movement gained popularity over 150 years ago, this movement has consistently been one of unacknowledged privilege.

Too often, White Feminists are focused on the ways we have been oppressed and have not taken the time to look at the ways in which womxn of colour have suffered as well.

I remember idolizing Nellie McClung and the Famous Five (Canada’s primary suffragettes of the 1920s) when I was younger, but recently when I was researching them further, I discovered Nellie McClung’s role in the Canadian eugenics movement. I learned that she advocated for the forced sterilization of working-class, Indigenous, and “feeble-minded” womxn, and I struggled with my opinion of her as this iconic feminist figure in Canadian history.

That day, I learned that history is less black-and-white (pun intended) than I had thought. Nellie McClung was no saint in modern perspective, and I had difficulty making peace with that. Today, I do not idolize her as I did in the past.

There will always be positives and negatives to our idols, and it is important to acknowledge both sides.

White Feminists are often either ignorant of our position of privilege or uncomfortable with acknowledging this privilege. Too often, White Feminists are only feminists when we are comfortable, when it conforms to our identity, and when it benefits us.

We need to work on being better intersectional feminists. It’s uncomfortable to talk about how we as white people have benefitted from racism. Our identity in feminism has been steeped in the images of white Suffragettes, womxn who literally made Black feminists march at the back of their protests.

We need to acknowledge that White Feminism has benefited us by creating a space with us at the centre.

I saw a really clear example of this when I attended a Feminist conference a couple months ago. There was a presentation featuring various keynote speakers, and there was a striking contrast shown between two specific presenters. The first was a young poet who is a woman of colour who spoke to us about the importance of intersectionality in digital marketing, and the second speaker was a white woman in her late 40s talking about career disruption.

I was struck by the contrast between their two messages and how out-of-touch it seemed that the older presenter was with intersectionality. She talked about how she had struggled with being demoted from one level of business leadership to another lower level of business leadership. She did not acknowledge her privilege once in her entire presentation, and I left the conference thinking about that presentation specifically.

How would her story have changed if she had lived her life as a woman of colour? As a low-income woman? As an immigrant woman?

These questions I pose are not intended to invalidate her experience at all - her struggle is valid. However, I feel that by not acknowledging her privilege she carries as an upper-middle class, white, English-speaking woman, she appeared out-of-touch in comparison with the younger woman of colour.

She was comfortable with White Feminism, and it had served her in her career.

I think White Feminism plays a huge role in the feminist movement on social media. Digitally, it is so easy to comfortably say that we are intersectional feminists, without taking any concrete action.

With a few clicks on our screen, we put “intersectional feminist” in our bios on social media, but what are we actively doing to live up to that title?

We need to ask ourselves questions like:

  • Where are the voices of white feminists when there are atrocities (eg. the murder of Breonna Taylor) happening all over the world right now?

  • Is our outrage against the racism faced by womxn of colour fed only by viewing acts of racially-motivated sexism?

  • Are we taking actions to improve the lives of womxn of colour, or are we just taking actions to “average” the deaths of womxn of colour, specifically LGBTQ+ womxn of colour that we see online?

  • What anti-racist actions have we taken in the past month that are not on social media or visible to others?

These are all important questions we need to ask in order to get uncomfortable with White Feminism. This is not a situation in which we can stand idly by, waiting for another white woman to step up and talk about our privilege.

In this case, if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.

In a video on HuffPost about White Feminism, senior editor Emma Gray provides a quote that I feel really sums up what White Feminists’ next steps need to be;

“The most important thing any White Feminist can do is educate herself and listen and engage with the experiences of womxn of colour without silencing them. Because sometimes as white ladies, we just need to shut the f*ck up.”

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