Lean Back: Unchaining Myself from White Feminism​


Photo Source: Leanin.org

Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In, is the perfect archetype of mainstream white feminism. Lean In specifically focuses on how white women experience sexism, and sexism only, in a male-dominated workplace. She shares her solutions on how to succeed and pave the way for other white women in the corporate world.


While I was reading her book, these lines stood out to me right away:

“Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” 

Sandberg goes on to say that “this is the only solution” to eliminate sexism altogether. But how can sexism be eliminated for everyone when these leadership roles are only held by privileged white women? When you boil this extremely broad solution down, the message is clear, if privileged white women are empowered in their workplaces, it will eventually trickle down to low-income women and women of color. This is exactly how systems of dominance and internalized sexism and racism are perpetuated towards other women who are not white and upper middle class.

Sandberg’s target audience for her book is displayed in her choice to only mention women of color once in the entire book. She clearly ignores women of color in the corporate world and frankly, in America.  She addresses this issue purely because of some backlash from critics, by mentioning that her:

“intention is simply to offer advice that is useful” and that “the book will resonate with women in a broad range of circumstances.” 

But how can the book be useful for women of color if it doesn’t recognize their existence in a majority white male corporate world?  Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, states in her now-famous essay, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color,” that “ignoring differences within groups frequently contributes to tension among groups.” This creates an environment where women of color feel like they have to only identify as a woman and not also their race. 

Sandberg’s vision of what true equality looks like is the following: 

“A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”

In this example, she’s technically correct in using the term equality. But equality is not the ultimate goal of feminism. Justice is the goal. Even if we reached 50/50 equality in the workplace and home, it wouldn’t mean that women are no longer oppressed, especially women of color, queer women, undocumented women, poor women, etc. I agree with Black feminist theorist, bell hooks, when she writes that “feminism is more than equality, it’s liberation from all oppressions.” 

In her article, “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In,” hooks specifically criticizes the sexist and racist messages embedded within Sandberg’s lean in theory. She writes: 

“Sandberg offers readers no understanding of what men must do to unlearn sexist thinking. At no point in Lean In does she let readers know what would motivate patriarchal white males in a corporate environment to change their belief system or the structures that support gender inequality.”

What hooks points out is that from Sandberg’s perspective, there is no need for women to challenge structures of oppression and that somehow they will magically overcome them. She makes it seem as if privileged white men will automatically see you try to “lean in” or “close the leadership ambition gap.”. In other words, Sandberg suggests that you will be welcomed with open arms only if you are a privileged white woman. In her book, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, hooks explains, “Patriarchy has no gender.” With her book, Sandberg seems to embody how she has bought into the patriarchy. She lean-in theory is actually a form of internalized sexism as well as racism against other women who are not white and wealthy.

Another theme that I noticed in Lean In is Sandberg’s constant attempt of being inclusive of women of color by saying she is being “broad,” despite the fact that being inclusive and intersectional is different from being broad and vague, and frankly, racist. I have come to these conclusions because in my high school feminism class, we began studying women of color feminisms by looking at definitions of intersectionality and intersectional feminism.

For example, Black feminist activist, Barbara Smith, once defined feminism as “the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women- as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely self-aggrandizement,” in her 1979 piece, “Racism and Women’s Studies.”

This year, my feminism class had the honor of Skyping with Barbara Smith and she said,

“People who oppose others peoples rights but fight for their own reduces the way of understanding freedom and justice.”

This allowed me to further deepen my understanding of racism in the women’s movement.

Skyping with Black feminist Barbara Smith, co-founder of the Combahee River Collective, in my high school feminism class with Ileana Jiménez (photo Credit: Nubia Celis-Etienne)


This highlighting of multiple identities and recognizing the systemic violence that women of color face along lines of race and gender creates an awareness of injustice, which Lean In does not do. Since women of color live daily at the intersections of racism and sexism, which are “simultaneous oppressions,” as The Combahee River Collective points out in their Black Feminist Statement of 1977. Crenshaw relied on the Black feminists who came before her as the foundation for creating the term intersectionality.

I think the moment I truly understood intersectionality was when our feminism class attended the Invisible No More conference at Barnard. It was an event that highlighted the ongoing resistance to police violence that women of color and trans women of color experience. Panelists included feminist legends such as Barbara Smith, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Reina Gossett, and Mariame Kaba.

After the panel, one Barnard student asked something along the lines of, “how do we talk about these issues with fake progressives?” The term, “fake progressive” was the final puzzle piece for me to link “self-aggrandizement” and white feminism together. I could then envision what makes up a white feminist besides ignorance. After that, I finally understood what the Combahee River Collective and bell hooks were talking about.


My high school feminism class at Barnard’s Invisible No More conference on police brutality and #SayHerName (photo source: @feministteacher on Twitter)


While I was reading Lean In, the same thought constantly popped up into my head, “Ninth grade me would have loved this.” Before I took this class, I’m sure Lean In would have suited me because I was already exposed to white feminism through my upbringing in a predominantly white female community.

Now after taking this course that focuses on the history and theory of women of color feminisms and literature, Lean-In feels like a huge letdown. The lack of intersectionality and strong internalized sexism presented in the book makes it uncomfortable to read. I don’t think I was able to even clearly focus on anything because the blatant whitewashing of the workplace was insanely distracting.

For people like my mother, who has read Lean In, I don’t think any of this would even stand out to her. My mom is a Jewish single mother who works in a high role at her corporate company and as much as I don’t want to admit it, she is practically a Sheryl Sandberg doppleganger. This book was made for women like her. When I asked my mom about the book she said, “I felt like it understood me.”

No surprises there.

Then I went on to ask her if she thought the book applied to women of color as much as it did for her. As she paused for a long time to think of a response, I worried that after all of our dinner discussions on intersectionality, that she had all forgotten about what I had shared with her what I learned in my class. I feared that she had fallen into the mindset of white feminism, similar to where I had been in ninth grade.

She hesitantly answered, “yes, but not where I work.” It made my heart sink to hear my mom try to separate herself from the fact that she plays a role in spreading sexism and racism as a white woman.

The moment I understood my role as a white woman in the feminist movement I wanted to challenge myself in taking on a new role to bring an intersectional lens to my work. I’m starting to break down and reconstruct definitions of feminism in my own household.

My teacher, Ileana Jiménez, likes to say that what we are reading in class are feminist vitamins. I have taken my vitamins and I’ll take them every day with a glass of water and a side of intersectional feminist literature which now sits on my mom’s bedside table where Lean In once was.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s