Understanding My White Identity and Activism Through Intersectional Feminism

(photo credit: David Fenton) 

The Combahee River Collective’sBlack Feminist Statement” of 1977, written by Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith, emphasizes the experiences of black women in the struggle for black liberation. The authors of the Black Feminist Statement shaped their vision for liberation based on racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia they faced daily as black queer women.

After reading the Black Feminist Statement in  Ileana Jiménez’s high school feminism class, I realized that my thinking around feminist identity needs to come from within. This class has prompted two important questions: how is my identity connected to feminism? And, how is this view reflected in my activist work?

In the fall of my sophomore year in high school, after the 2016 presidential election, I participated in a school walkout against Trump. As I marched down Fifth Avenue with my classmates, we chanted “pussy grabs back,” “my body, my choice,” and “build bridges, not walls.” This moment was an empowering one. Students across Manhattan joined the fight against Trump’s policies. I viewed the walkout as the pinnacle of my activist work because we advocated for the rights of women, immigrants, and other minority groups. However, when I joined Ileana’s feminism class, I realized the walkout resembled white feminism.

At first, I viewed the walkout as intersectional because white students protested alongside students of color. However, intersectional activism is not inherent in a diverse environment. We needed to represent the experiences of marginalized groups as we protested Trump’s policies. But as we gathered in Washington Square Park, mainly white girls spoke in front of the crowd. The speakers encouraged students to vote in the next election and advocate for the issues affecting us. Following the walkout, news reporters interviewed the predominately white speakers, representing the walkout through the perspective of white women. 

2018 Women’s March in Washington DC
(photo credit: Damon Winter)

When white women and girls are at the forefront of protests, the movement embodies the issues impacting white women. This not only neglects the oppression of women of color and nonbinary people but also suggests all women have the same experience.

Angela Davis at a news conference in Los Angeles, 1969 
(photo credit: David F. Smith) 

Reading Angela Davis’s essay “Difficult Dialogues” helped clarify this idea. In her lecture at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Davis says that “the most important message, which we have also learned from the work of Chandra Mohanty and Jacqui Alexander, is that we can never assume that the category of ‘women’ equally represents all women.”

In the past, I’ve separated my identity from my activist work. If feminism is the struggle to free all women, how is my identity relevant? Davis’s lecture suggests that intersectional feminism is understanding what we are freeing ourselves from. As a white cisgender woman, my identity matters because there are levels of power dynamics between men and women. In an ideal society, there are no imperialist or capitalist structures that allow men to dominate. Although all women are working towards one goal, not all women are equal. Ignoring my identity ultimately “white-washed” my activist work. Similar to the walkout, I perpetuated the gender hierarchy by fighting against the sexism I faced as a white woman. After taking Ileana’s feminism class, I now recognize the hierarchies of race and gender. In order to liberate women of color, we need to dismantle racism and sexism and understand how systems of oppression intersect. 

In addition to making me shift towards intersectional feminism thinking, Ileana’s feminism class also changed how I define feminism. At the beginning of this class, I defined feminism as the fight for equality. I viewed the “end goal” as equal rights for men and women. Working towards this goal reduced feminist issues to equal pay or gender norms. My activism only focused on issues that prevent women from gaining the opportunity men have.

bell hooks at the New School
(photo credit: Spencer Khon)

After reading bell hooks’ definition of feminism from Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, I realized that “equality” is a white feminist idea. As bell hooks says, “Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”

When feminism is rooted in equality, women are striving for what men have attained through capitalism and imperialism. Instead of freeing ourselves from oppression, we often work within the patriarchy to temporarily dismantle power dynamics. When women are equal to men, we are still not liberated from the imperialist idea that we need to “move up” the hierarchy. This idea also benefits white women. In a white supremacist society, white women often use their racial privilege to elevate their position.

This can be seen through Susan Collins, a Republican white senator from Maine, who voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. By confirming Kavanaugh, Collins excused his behavior against Christine Blasey Ford. Instead of liberating women, Collins used her position of power to protect patriarchal interests. As Julia Sharpe-Levine writes in a Rewire.News article, “Today, it is convenient for some groups of white women, especially married white women, to align themselves with the white men in their lives and, consequently, hold onto the political, economic, and social capital afforded to them by whiteness and by their proximity to white men.” 

Here I am presenting my analysis of Republican Senator Susan Collins during our annual feminism assembly at our school (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez)

Understanding how I have perpetuated systems of oppression in the past is the first step towards being an engaged with intersectional activism. I joined Ileana’s feminism class to learn more about feminist theory. I was not aware that learning also comes from within. Examining my own identity needs to be a part of my feminist work. Throughout this class, I’ve recognized how non-intersectional activism and the fight for equality perpetuates capitalism and imperialism, both systems that enable racism and sexism. This version of activism is apparent among the white women who only focus on issues white women face and is labeled as feminism because it is digestible. Incorporating this idea into my activism is an ongoing process, but understanding my white female identity has strengthened my commitment to intersectional feminism. 






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