Op-Ed: Surviving white feminism as a “minority”
When I signed up for my first women and gender studies class I was ecstatic. You can imagine the joy of a blossoming activist, receiving what is promoted to be a professional education. However, unveiling the syllabus left me with the utmost disappointment.
There were no sections covering women of color; there were barely sections delving into feminism outside of the western uprising of burning bras, wearing pants, and showing ankles. It disheartened me, but it was to be expected. No one teaches that feminism wasn’t historically inclusive, and that is the biggest issue within itself because it’s an open refusal to acknowledge its racist and heteronormative oriented history.
Westernized outlines of feminism usually only outline the industrial world and its majority demographic issues. This is under-representative of those who suffered the most severely, the most often, and those who spearheaded conversations but didn’t receive credit for their voices.
Women such as Marsha P. Johnson are not commonly recognized as influential despite her prominent voice and presence in the historic Stonewall riots. American feminism is often treated as a one dimensional conversation where only activists that fought for “women’s suffrage” are taken into account. However, women’s rights were exclusive to white women at this time.
Until 1973, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer + (LBGTQ+) community were seen as mentally ill and legally receiving shock conversion therapy. Inclusivity wasn’t a conversation, and often times those who do not lie on the intersections of marginalization do not cultivate these conversations within their activism today.
The phrase that frustrates me the most is “women received the right to vote.” This is usually said as a full sentence with confidence. There is usually no clarification, no follow-up, no correction. Native American women didn’t officially receive the right to vote in America until 1924 under the Indian Citizenship Act, and until 1957 certain states still had laws in place restricting this right. Black women didn’t receive the right to vote until 1965 under the Voting Rights Act.
There is a large portion of history when the words such as citizens, men, women, people, were only inclusive of certain demographics. It is important to recognize throughout history there has been a standard surrounding who qualifies as human that is not representative of people from “minority” backgrounds.
One recent situation that can serve as a clear example of white feminism is the actress Rose McGowan’s transphobic exchange early this year. McGowan is the prime example of a white feminist.
A white feminist is someone who addresses feminism without the consideration or acknowledgment of the roles race and gender play in the marginalization of other demographics of women. These kinds of feminists are usually highly praised for their pussy hats and freshly shaved heads. They align with the activist label with no serious activism under their belt other than voicing in the name of white cis women.
In July of 2017 McGowan made a comment on RuPaul’s podcast “What’s the Tee” stating the following: “I talk to my trans friends and I say you’ve never asked me what it’s like to be a woman. You’ve never once asked me what it was like to grow up as a woman, what’s it like to get a period, what’s it like when you grow breasts and people are suddenly screaming at you on the streets … because they assume, because they felt like a woman on the inside. That’s not developing as a woman. That’s not growing as a woman. That’s not living in this world as a woman.”
RuPaul is a well-known drag queen, songwriter, author, artist and the producer of the television series “Drag Race”. “Drag Race” provides an outlet for members of the LGBTQ+ community to indulge in self expression through drag while competing.
During her recent talk discussing her novel, “Brave”, at Barnes & Noble, McGowan’s activism was called into question by another woman regarding this comment. She confronted McGowan stating, “I have a suggestion. Talk about what you said on RuPaul. Trans women are dying and you said that we, as trans women, are not like regular women. We get raped more often. We go through domestic violence more often. There was a trans woman killed here a few blocks away. I have been followed home –.”
McGowan interrupted her “We are the same. My point was, we are the same. There’s an entire show called ID channel, a network dedicated to women getting abused, murdered, sexualized, violated, and you’re a part of that, too, sister. It’s the same.”
The issue with McGowan’s retort is that she, like most feminists from privileged demographics, refuse to acknowledge that there is someone suffering more. There is a substantially different experience due to differences in levels in oppression in terms of race and gender. Those levels of calamity cannot be thrown in to a women’s suffrage cauldron because all experiences are not the same. The voices of those persons who do suffer more frequently and severely should be supported and uplifted rather than alienated.
Empathy is lacking among todays self-proclaimed feminists. When an experience is foreign to them they attempt to place themselves into the shoes of the oppressed rather than amplifying our stories. “I know how you feel” is a very different statement than “I do not know how you feel but I can empathize and support you.” You don’t need to understand our experiences in order to be humane. Relatability and drawing parallels should not be your first goal when you hear someone else’s trauma.
Surviving white feminism as a minority doesn’t take patience. It isn’t your job to be calm, considerate, or make room for those with the privilege to be ignorant in your activism. It also isn’t your job to educate. It isn’t the job of the severely oppressed to create soft, comfortable, safe spaces for those from privileged demographics. It isn’t your job to change your tone, voice, or posture. It is the job of the privileged to start listening.