Recognizing Privilege and Rejecting White Feminism as a Young White Woman

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My feminism class after we finished our “mic drop” International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women assembly, 2017 (Photo credit: Jonathan Hodge)

After the assembly my high school feminism class presented to mark the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I had a strong feeling of empowerment. As I walked out of our school’s auditorium, I was met with compliments from my peers and administrators, but when I met my friends I was surprised. I expected the typical “great job Loulou,” but instead, I was met with attitude and annoyance.

I had already known my friends were not thrilled about our assembly as they had expressed to me that these types of assemblies are almost always a waste of time. They believed that they were listening to feminist theories they already knew. I was incredibly disappointed that they seemed upset and annoyed. They even giggled and laughed and told me they had counted how many times our class had said the word “intersectionality” in the assembly.

Our assembly was titled, “Why Aren’t You a Feminist,” and throughout the hour we made a point of calling out and calling in the white feminism that is the norm at LREI. When we had finished, I felt a sense of accomplishment, like ‘hey, we might have actually changed something or someone,’ but when I walked into the room with my friends, it was like walking into a brick wall.

I realized that all this hard work my peers and I had put into this “mic-drop” assembly made no difference to them.

I was angry that they felt comfortable sitting in their own white privilege, because for me, my white privilege and my “white-guilt” made me make a change. It made me take Ileana Jiménez’s famous feminism class and it made me want to become a better, more intersectional feminist.

So what is that made my friends so comfortable sitting in their white privilege? What is the reason they consider themselves feminists when they criticize the use of intersectionality? What kind of world do we live in that lets white feminists feel comfortable with their feminism? And how do we get white women and girls to understand the faults of white feminism and begin their own intersectional feminist journey?

I accepted that although my friends and I are very similar and we have very similar values, we had one key value missing; I wanted to reach into my discomfort of being white, of being privileged, of being an oppressor, of being dominant, and use that to become an intersectional feminist and a better feminist. But they chose to disregard their privilege, to continue to live in ignorance, and to not further educate themselves.

I began my research reflecting on my own journey of becoming a more intersectional feminist. I started at a pivotal moment in my feminist journey, which was the student walkout against Trump in November 2016.

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A photo from NYMagazine’s “Even Our Protestors are Precocious” (Photo credit: Andres Kudacki)

That day, I had the similar feeling of empowerment as I did after the assembly. We had left LREI and made our way to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The barricades that were set up by the NYPD had quickly been filled and the students rushed onto Fifth Avenue. I felt so motivated and accomplished. I had this feeling that nothing could stop me and the students of New York City.

It would soon be revealed to me that this walkout was extremely hurtful to many of peers at LREI. Two members of the then current student government, both young women of color, asked me and two of my peers to have a conversation with them about why they did not feel included in this protest.

We were being accused of “whitewashing.” I felt so hurt and humiliated. My intention was never to exclude, harm, or further hurt anyone. I felt defensive, I felt angry, but I sat there and I listened to their criticism not because I wanted to, because believe me I did not want to hear it, but because somewhere deep inside my angry body I wanted to be a better activist.

After this entire experience with the walkout, I was deeply embarrassed. I got ashamed and uncomfortable whenever it was brought up in conversation. I was afraid speak about it. I was afraid to continue to be an activist because I thought I would be a horrible one. It took me time to do more inner work.

I took a step down to listen, to learn, and educate myself and that’s when I decided to take Ileana’s feminism class. I wanted a feminist education, but I was petrified. I was worried I would continue to offend people and continue to be a bad activist, but I persisted. I wanted to be an intersectional feminist. I decided to use that walkout as a learning experience because I did not want to be the notorious “white feminist.” I wanted to be a girl who listened and learned from her mistakes.

This class has given me all the tools or as our feminist teacher, Ileana, would say, “our feminist vitamins” to become an intersectional feminist. Throughout this course, we have learned women of color feminisms and have learned about the genealogy of intersectionality. As a result, my understanding has quickly deepened.

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Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, and Hattie Gossett (left to right,) 1981

As part of the class, we read “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective, which was written by Black feminist lesbians, such as Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith, who introduced the concept that “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since [their] freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” This idea can be expanded to today’s, which would include Black trans women and all trans-bodies. This idea of freedom being connected to the liberation of all Black women’s bodies is one that white feminists need to understand to make the transition into being an intersectional feminist. While white feminism only focuses on issues that affect white, cisgender, mostly straight, middle-upper class, women who disregard their own privilege, the Combahee River Collective suggests that focusing on freeing all Black women, would be freeing all people from all systems of oppression while focusing on only freeing white women from systems of dominance would further oppress women of color.

A key part of overcoming white feminism is accepting and recognizing white privilege and the guilt that comes along with that. In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that people of other races do not have access to.

It is also important to understand that it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors how not to be oppressive. It is my responsibility as a white, cisgender, able-bodied, economically stable woman to seek out the education I need to be an intersectional feminist. I had to get over feeling ‘hurt’ for hurting someone else and accept faults as a white woman because as Audre Lorde says “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Whether you have skin privilege, gender privilege, class privilege, etc. it is important to use that privilege to advocate for those with less privilege than you. Moreover it is absolutely critical to understand the balance between using privilege to support and using privilege to take over movements and to further silence and invisibilize marginalized groups. 

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Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In (photo credit: leanin.org)

Although I have been exposed to my unintentional wrong doings as a white woman, many women in today’s media spotlight promote the idea of white feminism. Sheryl Sandberg wrote a book called Lean In, where she discusses the concept of “lean-in feminism,” which is feminism that focuses on primarily making the workplace a more accessible place for women, but Sandberg only discusses this issue as it applies to upper-middle class, educated, white women. Disregarding intersectionality and only focusing on white women issues, clearly demonstrates what white feminism is.

Lean-in feminism enables white women to feel comfortable in their white privilege by introducing the idea that they are fighting for the rights of women. However, lean-in feminism is selfish, as it relies on what Barbara Smith would call “self-aggrandizement” to be successful. It grants white women the opportunity to act as though they are helping the feminist cause, when in fact the change they are fighting for only applies to them and in turn, further hurts and oppresses women of color and all marginalized groups.

This concept of white women further oppressing women of color is not only a concept derived from lean-in feminism. It was also very apparent in last year’s presidential election when it was revealed that 53% of white women voted for Trump. This statistic, as well as the election as a whole, reveal that these white women feel similarly as my friends, as sad as that may be. The 53% of white women who voted for Trump were unable to rise above their discomfort as white women in America and advocate for the rights of all people of color, trans people, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, women, differently abled folks, and so many more.

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Women supporting Trump at a rally in Mobile, Alabama (photo credit: Jeff Haller)

At a conference I attended at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, Kimberlé Crenshaw talked about the idea of shock and how being shocked is a way of relinquishing the responsibility of fixing the problem that made them feel shocked about white privilege and supremacy. By saying ‘Oh wow! I am so shocked America is so racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, ableist (and more) that we would elect someone like Donald Trump,’ it allows white women to let go of their guilt, feel comfortable with their privilege, and feel as though they are feminist activists, but all they have done is expressed the very same emotions that many Black women and all people of color have been aware of and experiencing for centuries.

Peggy McIntosh writes, “disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them,” confirming Crenshaw’s earlier point that expressing discontent is actually not the act of creating change. Instead, it is an attempt to feel as though you have helped women but you have actually remained silent. You are actually perpetuating systems of dominance. And it is self-aggrandizement because you are centering yourself rather than those who are most marginalized. 

Part of what really struck me about my friends’ reaction to the assembly was this attitude that they felt they already knew the information, the feminist theory, the genealogy we introduced and further explained. I was upset because I had accepted my faults and my gasps in feminist knowledge as well as my white privilege, but they had not.

There is a culture created here at LREI that because we are a social justice school, discuss intersectionality, and have assemblies on prevalent social justice issues that everyone in the school is so “woke” and are “perfect” little activists, but when we examine this closely, we can see that that is not the case. LREI creates too comfortable of an environment for white feminism to thrive. It needs to create an environment that challenges students and faculty to accept and face their privilege. There needs to be training on how to see yourself as an oppressor to begin to understand how not to further perpetuate systems of dominance.

Not being a white feminist is hard. It is not simple, it is not easy and it is not quick, but by fighting for the rights of only white women you are further perpetuating oppression of women of color and more marginalized groups. You are further preserving the systems of dominance you believe you are trying to destroy. Phoebe Lett, a New York Times journalist, writes:

It is time white women start making change within their own circles. White women must talk to their sisters, mothers, colleagues and friends about racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia and ableism. Prejudice must be called out, even in friends.

It is not the job of the oppressed to teach their oppressors how not to oppress them. It is the responsibility of all white women to seek out the education they need and to call out prejudice in themselves as well as in their peers.

In Audre Lorde’s, “There is No Hierarchy of Oppression,” she writes that “any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black,” illuminating the importance of intersectionality, something white feminism lacks, when fighting for justice. 

White women need to take a step back to stop and listen. Listen to the voices of women of color, trans women, the differently abled, LGBTQ people, and let them be heard. We must begin to accept privilege, to reach into our discomfort as Lorde says and get over it, step back when it is time to step back, and step up when it is time to step up.

We can start by creating a culture here at LREI where we all acknowledge and accept our privilege and where ignorance and prejudice are not tolerated.

 

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