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Against White Feminism, by Rafia Zakaria
I Ain’t the Right Kind of Feminist
by Cheryl West, 1983
First Off I’m too confused
Secondly you know my blackness envelops me
Thirdly my articulateness fails me
When the marching feminists come by
I walk with them for a while
And then I trip over pebbles I didn’t see
My sexist heels are probably too high
I’m stuck in the sidewalk cracks
Oh where Oh where has my feminism gone
Don’t you know it’s chasing after my
Somewhere in the white sea
Once again, your boomer generation white guy diarist is diving into a book he hopes will push his boundaries and expand his point of view, and I thank you for joining me. Now available in paperback, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, by Rafia Zakaria, is a deep, passionate and learned demand for intersectionality, for the voices and the experiences of women of color to take center stage against a feminism that for too long has been dominated by the viewpoints of white, usually well-to-do women.
Did the book push my boundaries? Surprisingly, not to the extent I expected. While totally informative, very well-researched and passionate in its advocacy, it at times feels like a survey of the literature for an audience of white feminists. Throughout the book, Zakaria offers personal examples of being dismissed by those white feminists, as in an uncomfortable meeting at a Manhattan wine bar, or at a conference where she had believed she was invited to give a lecture on feminism in Pakistan, but instead was directed to dress in native garb and hawk trinkets representing her culture.
These lived experiences were, on the one hand, appalling examples of microaggressions and overt disdain white feminists exhibit towards women of color, and yet they felt somehow out of place within the greater scholarly survey in which they were embedded. They seemed intended to get the readers’ attention: ‘Hey! See how you treat us? Now, it’s your turn to listen to us.’ But this is a minor complaint, so bear with me.
I consider myself to be extremely lucky in my ‘feminist education’, if I may be so bold to use that phrase. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, under the influence of my girlfriend at time, I did a lot of reading. I started out with some of the classics of white feminism, all of which Zakaria discusses in depth: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. From there I dabbled a bit in some of the radical writers like Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly, but more importantly, I found myself more drawn to an international focus and the voices of women of color. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa (1981) was one of those influential books.
My copy of This Bridge has gone astray in the ensuing years, but my bookshelves still hold many other books I read in those years: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, edited by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres (1991); Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, edited by Pam McCallister (1982); Third World Women Speak Out, edited by Perdita Huston (1979); Sisterhood is Global, edited by Robin Morgan (1984).
In short, I benefited from some exposure to the ideas presented in Against White Feminism decades ago, and they have been percolating through my worldview ever since. As I read Zakaria’s book, I found myself nodding in agreement as often as I surprised by its content. Yet it is the very fact that these voices of global women of color have in fact been percolating through the literature for decades and yet continue to be ignored, abused, discounted or co-opted by the gatekeepers of mainstream feminism that makes Zakaria’s book so enlightening and necessary.
My mild critique above about Zakaria’s occasional personal anecdotes that seemed to lack the weight of the surrounding argument is exactly that: a minor quibble. The truth is, the author’s overall personal experience is central to the thesis: born in Pakistan, she agreed to an arranged marriage at age 17 to a Pakistani-American doctor thirteen years older than her, hanging her hopes on his promise that he would ‘allow’ her to go to college in America, something her conservative family would not have permitted (or been able to afford.) In the U.S., her husband did enroll her in very conservative Southern Baptist college, making her take out student loans to pay for it, and subsequently refused her plea to continue on to law school. She suffered for another seven years in a stifling and abusive marriage, before fleeing with her child, a few belongings and no money to a domestic violence shelter. She writes:
I wish I could have written all this for my graduate seminar. I had broken every gender norm I had been raised with, had chosen education and independence—and all the struggles that came with it—with little support. [The graduate seminar on feminist theory she was taking] seemed so disconnected from the feminism that I was trying so hard to model for my daughter. If I only could have known I was not alone, had been able to hear the voices of Muslims and other feminists of color like myself waging front-line struggles against terror, against religious obscurantism, and against patriarchal domination, but yet excluded from white feminist discourse.
Through its chapters, Against White Feminism shows how feminism has always been framed from the perspective of white privilege, while the experiences of women of color in the U.S. and around the world are at diminished, denied or seen as some ‘native’ aberration that must be pitied and then cured by Western wisdom.
In the gender-only narrative that has dominated mainstream feminism, all women are pitted against all men, against whom they seek parity. In this struggle, however, white women have taken for themselves the right to speak for all women….But the assumption that women of color and white women all stand at the same disadvantages against men is flawed. All white women enjoy white racial privilege. Women of color are affected not simply by gender inequality but also by racial inequality. A colorblind feminism thus imposes an identity cost on women of color, erasing a central part of their lived experience and their political reality….
In the value system of white feminism, it is rebellion, rather than resilience, that is seen as the ultimate feminist virtue; my maternal forbears’ endurance is labeled thus a pre-feminist impulse, misguided, unenlightened, and unable to deliver change….The truth that resilience may be just as much a feminist quality as rebellion is lost in the story of feminism written and populated entirely by white women.
The book covers historical examples of the roots of this attitude. The renowned 19th Century British traveler Gertrude Bell is admired for the courage she showed in her travels through the Middle East, but her declarations of how liberating it felt were were predicated on the privilege she had as a white woman in a darker-skinned land, and the imperialist superiority she felt over the local women. Susan B. Anthony rebuked W.E.B. DuBois for placing voting rights for Blacks on an equal par with suffrage for women, and Sojourner Truth was equally put down for bringing up racial inequality at a women’s rights conference, to which she responded with her famous retort “Ain’t I a woman”? Black anti-rape women activists testified before Congress in 1866 about being gang-raped during the Memphis riots, to no avail, but modern feminism seems to view anti-rape activism as originating in the 1970s with white feminists.
In India in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, women were creating thousands of schools and fighting for independence from Britain, linking their fight for suffrage directly to the right to live in a free land. White British suffragists gave some support to the vote, but would not support independence. Equality in the vote was a white feminist cause, but the daily lives faced by women in India were an aberration to be dealt with. The book also looks at the differing penalties for infanticide administered by colonial Britain in India, where the problem was seen as a disgraceful example of women’s backwardness and promiscuity and punished with death, and in the home country, where the reality was explained away as ‘concealment of birth’ by devoted wives and punished leniently.
This historic dismissive view of women of color in matters of feminism has become even more complicated in recent decades. As white feminism in the 1960s embraced sexual politics and equality as a goal, and in more recent decades as ‘choice feminism’ has come to dominate, the goals of the movement have come to define success as achieving parity with men within the status quo. Pay parity, ‘securo-feminism’ of women gaining equal opportunity in the military, the ‘Lean In’ philosophy of success increasingly demote the idea that it is the capitalist, white and patriarchal structure that is defining the goals for success, and therefore giving less emphasis to the need to challenge that structure. For women of color around the world, there is not so simple a solution as a ‘choice’ to fight for parity. It is the racist barriers to the opportunity to choose created by that structure that are the main concern. The rise of the concept of intersectionality, especially dating from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work 30 years ago, has made only limited headway against such attitudes.
As you read this book, be prepared to find many people you may admire be shown in a less flattering light, from playwright Eve Ensler to photojournalist Lyndsay Addario to Alyssa Milano (though I must say that Milano in her recent book repeatedly emphasizes the need to stop assuming your experiences are analogous to those of different races, and to just listen and learn.) A lot of international organizations are shown to be a part of the problem as well. Her takes on honor killing and female genital mutilation are challenging as well.
In the colonial era, European countries were castigating the inferior backwardness of countries where brown and black lived, while at the same time being perfectly okay with their own practices of burning women at the stake for presumed offenses. Today, honor killings are treated as a horrific aberration among those brown and black cultures, while the plague sexual violence and murder against women by white males is perceived as a different sort of problem.
Against White Feminism piles on hundreds of examples of how feminism is defined by white privilege. No matter how much exposure you’ve had to these ideas in the past, Zakaria will open your eyes to even more. I recommend you read it.