White Feminism: How To Not Be One

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Feminism has been put under the spotlight over the last few years, but 2018 has focussed on confronting the uncomfortable reality that is ‘White Feminism’. Let’s start with a definition. I’m a feminist, white, and I was confused by the concept. Similar to Emma Watson, my initial response was:

What was the need to define me – or anyone else for that matter – as a feminist by race? What did this mean? Was I being called a racist?

White women like me are finally learning that intersectionality is a key defining feature of true feminism. What “White Feminism” boils down to is ignorance towards the privilege that white people have; it is waking up each day, looking in the mirror and not understanding that, as a white person, history has always been (and probably always will be) on your side. It is white supremacy, the idea that white people’s rights and freedoms and problems come first and then everybody else comes second.

Unfortunately, the unsettling truth is that the history of feminism has largely left out those who do not fall into the white, cisgendered, able-bodied and privileged box. Although you may hold out the hope that history can rewrite itself and bring justice to the many it has failed, the erasure of Black History by White Privilege remains a prevalent problem in the modern world, all around us in fact.

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A major signifier of White Feminist stories being trusted and thus funded was Lena Dunham’s problematic hit HBO show Girls. Dunham’s show was hailed as TV’s New Generation of authentic female story arcs. A momentous step for feminism, right? Perhaps for White Feminism, yes. But look at the cast and all you’ll see are those who fit into the aforementioned box of white privilege. Dunham has fully admitted to the whitewashing in her show, and argued that her age had a lot to do with the writing:

    “I wouldn’t do another show that starred four white girls,” Dunham said. “That being said, when I wrote the pilot I was 23. Each character was an extension of me. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Although she was writing about her own experiences and didn’t want to do the disservice of writing about lives she says she knows nothing about, she and others have to be held accountable in order for things to change; the largely white gentrification of modern day Brooklyn is only exacerbated by shows like Girls. The important thing to take away from this, is that inclusivity should be a key factor in the creation of projects that are supposed to reflect their audience. So Dunham doesn’t know anything about lives other than her own? Then she should speak to people, and use her privilege to give them the opportunity to write their own stories. The best thing we can do with our white privilege is use it to shine light on diverse experiences and stand up for people of color. White people in creative industries can work to dismantle the boundaries that so often prevent people of color from being heard, and help get underrepresented voices a platform for expressing who they are.

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So, what’s up with Emma Watson, then? Buzzfeed wrote an article called 13 Times Emma Watson Nailed the Whole Feminism Thing, celebrating all those times Watson used her platform to discuss feminism. There is no denying that Watson created waves where they were needed, such as her HeforShe campaign where she encouraged men to join the feminist movement. And yet. There it is again; the lack of acknowledgement. Although later taken from an interview, Guardian journalist Lola Okolosie wrote that Watson reflected (though this quote was later removed from the interview, in case you wanted to look for it online ):

“‘What are the ways in which I have benefitted from being white?’, and considered how she is implicated, as all white people are, in white supremacy by asking, ‘In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist?’”

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Indeed it is a shame that it has taken till 2018 to make the connection between white feminists and white privilege and the ways in which we understand them, but at least a conversation has started, thanks in part to Reni Eddo- Lodge’ recent book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race. She defines white privilege (and thus white feminism) as “an absence of the negative consequences of racism.” Collectively we must recognise the opportunities we have as a result of the absence of prejudice and oppression, and understand the ways in which we can use this privilege to try to break the current system down from the inside.

It is high time white feminists step aside in order for a diverse array of women to enter the feminist army in full force, with all their glorious backgrounds, HERstories and stories. And, if you are a feminist and you happen to be white, check yourself. Recognise your privilege and how it assists you in your life. Use your privilege to help OTHERS. Understand that, when it comes to feminism, you cannot be selfish - help others before you help yourself. And, for the love of whatever you believe in, do not be a White Feminist.

Article by VERVE Operative Helena Burton - Jones