The problem with “white feminism”

Why our feminism must be actively anti-racist

We live in a society that oppresses women on the basis of our gender: our bodies are commodified, our labour is devalued, our sexuality is policed, our lives are often valued on our relationships to men.

The scale and form of these gendered oppressions intensify when coupled with racism. The abuse of refugee women, the dispossession of Aboriginal women, the attacks on Muslim women are all instances where sexism and racism connect to reinforce the hierarchies of capitalism.

Many of these examples are clear cut. When Somali refugee ‘Abyan’ was raped in refugee detention on Nauru, many feminists rightly denounced the role of the government in denying her safe access to an abortion.

When feminist writer Celeste Liddle was banned from Facebook (twice!) for sharing an image of an Aboriginal ceremony that included (with permission) topless elderly women, many feminists got angry. The hypocrisy of censoring the non-sexualised bodies of older Aboriginal women, while allowing the hyper sexualisation of young women on numerous pages (often without their consent) was a hot topic of discussion. That Facebook deemed traditional Aboriginal culture more offensive than examples of rape culture helped many to draw the important connection between racism and sexism.

When Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi, a Muslim woman, shared a sexist, racist tweet she had received from a Reclaim Australia supporter, thousands of people came to her defence and praised her for speaking out about the rise of racist attacks on Muslim women in Australia.   

Meanwhile, there are increasing accusations that mainstream feminist voices represent a form of “white feminism” that not only ignores the experiences of women of colour, but undermines them. So what is “white feminism”? Are all white feminists “white feminists”? What is the alternative to “white feminism”?

We all know those women (and men) who claim to be feminists but say incredibly ignorant, anti-feminist things. Their “feminism” consists of little more than the sentiment “I am a woman, I can do what I want because Feminism”. This form of “feminism” is so shallow there is little point in dissecting it.

The “white feminism” that is much more subtle and far more dangerous is what I want to address.

What many young women of colour are referring to as “white feminism” is known as “bourgeois feminism” or “liberal feminism” to socialist-feminists like myself. Liberal/”white” feminism is dominated by white, middle class women who aspire to create more inclusion for women within the existing structures of capitalism – ie. more women in government, more women in boardrooms, more women-centred content in popular culture.

These are not terrible aspirations. In fact, most women and most men would support these goals. The problem with liberal/”white” feminism is that it limits the struggle for women’s liberation to these sorts of goals, where women fight to step into roles that are currently dominated by men. This is a feminism that aims to keep the current structures of power in tact, but simply share this power across gender lines. This, by definition, largely excludes both working class women and women of colour as it accepts the logic of capitalism.

For working class women and women of colour our gender oppression is just one form of oppression that we face. Class oppression and racism are just as immediate to our lives under capitalism as sexism and misogyny are. Therefore, the idea that we can overcome our oppression by fighting for a seat alongside those currently in powerful positions on the basis of making room for women doesn’t make sense.

And so the liberal/”white” feminism that centres these goals omits working class women and women of colour. 

Some liberal/”white” feminists will argue in response: “Yes, racism/class oppression is awful, but we are focusing on women’s issues because we are feminists”. But we cannot “put aside” these aspects of our identity and our lived experience. The ability to ignore race and class to focus solely on gender is a luxury only possible for middle class white women (or the rare few women of colour wealthy enough to avoid the worst aspects of racism). Furthermore, attempting to do so is dangerous.

There are many cases in which racism (or another form of oppression) is perpetuated in the name of defending or protecting women. The victimisation of women (and children) becomes a justification for racist policies like refugee detention, welfare quarantining, child removals and forced closures, and the banning of religious headscarves. If our feminism is not consciously and relentlessly anti-racist, then feminists can find ourselves supporting actions and polices that are detrimental to women of colour.

For example, when the Australian government announced its plan to embark on a military occupation of Aboriginal communities as part of the Northern Territory Intervention, it did so in the name of defending women and children. Politicians and commentators pointed to high rates of family violence and child abuse in remote Aboriginal communities. The statistics were actually equivalent to other low-income non-Indigenous communities, but that didn’t stop the mainstream public debate turning into a paternalistic, racist denunciation of Aboriginal people and the failure of “self-determination”.

Almost 10 years on and Aboriginal women are worse off due to these polices. Also, initiatives tested on Aboriginal people, like welfare quarantining, have now spread to non-Indigenous communities and disproportionally affect women, especially single mothers on welfare payments. Had feminists recognised the racist, anti-women nature of the initial Intervention we may have been able to collectively undermine the government justification for these policies.

This false narrative of military intervention to defend women has been used not only in our backyard but globally as well. The ‘War on Terror’ and the war in Iraq was pitched as a battle between the civilised democracy of the West versus the uncivilised dictatorships of the East. Central to this argument was the idea of coalition forces “liberating” Afghan and Iraqi women.

The view that only women outside of the West face misogyny infantilises women in the third world and erases their own struggle against oppression, while also diminishing the oppression faced by women in the West.

Women in the Middle East, just like all women around the globe, need liberation. But this will not come through an invading army, as the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us. The reality of war saw these women killed, raped and forced to flee societies that have all but collapsed following these foreign occupations.

The absence of a clear feminist response to imperialist war is seen also in the devastating situation facing refugees fleeing those wars. Women refugees have fled violence and shocking sexual violence, only to be locked up by the Australia government to be raped and abused in offshore detention. This same government has been praised by liberal/”white” feminists for talking about violence against women in Australia. This praise is only possible if you ignore the experience of refugee women.

Capitalism, as a system, requires a myriad of different forms of oppression in order to maintain itself. These different forms of oppression create unique and specific histories and experiences. All women face oppression, but not all women face exactly the same forms of oppression. The complexity of capitalism’s intricate power structures makes it harder for us to form solidarity and unite in struggle.

This is why it is important for us to have a clear analysis of how capitalism perpetuates oppression. Only by understanding the close connection between sexism and racism can we begin to unravel both. This is why our feminism must be consciously anti-racist both in theory and in day-to-day action.

So, to answer the questions posed earlier: “white feminism” is a liberal feminism that refuses to recognise gender oppression as one of many interconnected forms of oppression in capitalist society. Not all white feminists are “white feminists” – it is a political ideology, not a racial identifier. The opposite to “white feminism” is socialist-feminism, an ideology focused on unifying working class women and men to dismantle all of the structures of oppression under capitalism – including racism and class oppression.

By Aish Ramji

3 Comments

  1. Firstly I would like to say that the ‘white feminism’ you describe is not feminism. Feminism recognises all forms of oppression against others, which includes race and class. What feminism recognises is that male domination/supremacy is at the core of all forms of oppression – capitalism, imperialism, racism and classism – that until we dispense with male domination/supremacy then we will not deal with the myriad of oppressions against humans. Also it seems that at least some of the examples of oppressive and racist behaviour you give show that it is not feminism which did this oppressing. Many feminists have challenged the NT intervention – it was male capitalist system which enacted this. It was not feminists who are locking up refugees – and there are feminist groups challenging this as well. I agree that we need to acknowledge that there are differences in how women experience male domination/supremacy but lets be careful about where we lay blame here.

  2. ‘White feminism’ is a problematic term, it should be referred to as liberal or bourgeoise yes, but white is inconsistent it divides us based on the colour of our skin not our ideas and experiences, yes clearly women of colour are more likely to experience a greater oppression in the west. However it dismisses the experiences of women that have as great a struggle like Irish, the Eastern Europeans and many women living in poverty and being murdered for their religion it ethnicity in the global north. As a socialist I find the endorsement/explanation of the term surprising, it has not basis in materialist analysis and will only serve to in division over the unification of the women’s struggle.

    • The Socialist says:

      Did you even read the article? It explains that what many young women of colour are calling “white feminism” has been theorised before as liberal or bourgeois feminism. It explicitly says that. Critiquing the language used by those entering struggle is far less important than helping develop their views along socialist lines.

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