“Woman” was the test, but not every woman seemed to qualify. Black women, of course, were virtually invisible within the protracted campaign for woman suffrage. – Angela Davis
There has been another international furore over racist statements by “white feminists”. This time, it was the entirely untalented Lena Dunham who provoked online outrage. Previously, it was the equally untalented Taylor Swift who raised hackles on social media. But despite the many cogent critiques of specifically white forms of feminism there are still many who just don’t seem willing or able to understand the problem.
Earlier this week, I came across a Facebook post by Rebecca Davis on this issue. Davis writes that the “enemy of women is patriarchy, and not white feminism. And I’m worried that the project of feminism as a whole is being undermined by the casual derision with which it’s now possible to dismiss white feminism.” She concludes with this question: “Am I just being sensitive because I’m a white feminist?”
It should go without saying that it is vital that we are uncompromisingly critical of the kinds of deeply reactionary and inherently masculinist forms of nationalism and anti-racism that (fallaciously) spurn all forms of feminism as inherently white. It should also go without saying that there are white women whose feminist commitments have aspired to be for all women, not just for white women. There are, for instance, many young black women who have found the work of a feminist theorist and historian like Silvia Federici to be extraordinarily useful. We need to draw a clear conceptual distinction between specifically white forms of feminism and feminists who happen to be raced as white.
But none of this means that, as Davis suggests, the feminist project “as a whole” will be set back by the derision that is sometimes expressed towards specifically white forms of feminism. On the contrary, there are many cases where specifically white forms of feminism have seriously compromised the interests of black people – including black women.
The always historically astute Jamaican theorist Sylvia Wynter argues that “at the beginning of the modern world, the only women [in the dominant imagination] were white and Western”. She shows that from the beginning of the modern world, which was first forged in the Caribbean, “there were never simply ‘men’ and ‘women’” but that only white women fully inhabited the category of ‘women’ – “you had true women on one side, the women of the settler population, and on the other you had Indianwomen and Negrowomen”.
If we take this observation seriously it is no surprise that, from the start, specifically white forms of feminism have tended to conflate the category of women with white women and, also, to be deeply implicated in the global oppression of black people. When Davis states that the enemy of women is “patriarchy and not white feminism”, what she is missing is that specifically white feminism is not incidental to white domination – itself a largely patriarchal project. On the contrary since the 1800s it has frequently been allied, sometimes implicitly but often explicitly, to white domination. This is not some kind of historical anomaly. In recent years particular forms of feminism have, for instance, been mobilised to legitimate catastrophic American military aggression in the Middle East, the oppression of Palestinians and escalating racism in France.
In her groundbreaking 1981 book, Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis, convincingly demonstrates, through a close reading of the 19th century archive, that racist ideas about black men and women were at the heart of arguments about white women’s rights. Shortly after the American Civil War, and more than half a century after the first publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Right of Women, the demand for women’s suffrage was taking off, not just in the United States, but also in England. Despite prominent African Americans, like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, playing leading roles in the suffrage movement, many white women did not extend the same solidarity to black activists. In the United States, the perception that black men were on the brink of receiving the full rights of citizenship perturbed many whites, both men and women. There was often outright racism. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a suffragist and leading figure in the women’s movement, was asked at the 1867 Equal Right Convention if she supported the enfranchisement of blacks she answered: “I say no; I would not trust him with my rights; degraded, oppressed, himself, he would be more despotic … than ever our Saxon rulers are…”.
It is not just Angela Davis who has retrospectively explored the racism of specifically white forms of feminism. From the very beginning, black suffragist/feminists were taking on the racism at the heart of the fight for white women’s rights. Famed 19th century African American journalist, feminist, sociologist, anti-lynching activist and early civil rights leader, Ida B. Wells wrote and campaigned about the racism prevalent among white women’s rights activists. On her tour of England, she famously took on Frances Willard, of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Wells reminded the English crowd, who were hailing Willard at the “Uncrowned Queen of American Democracy”, about her racism. This included running segregated chapters of the WCTU as well as constant claims by Willard, which, as we know all too well, continue to be present today in some currents of specifically white feminism, that black men are prone to rape.
In addition to her constant attempts to encourage fear of black male sexuality, Willard also stated that: “The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt” and “the grog shop is its center of power… The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities”. Wells’ exposure of the racism at the heart of a so-called liberatory movement did not go down well with (white) elites. She was defamed in the press on both sides of the Atlantic – with the New York Times describing her as a “slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress”.
It is not just in this particular historical juncture where black people and white women were both struggling for the rights of citizenship that many white women threw black people – men and women – under the bus. We all know that white attacks on black people after the end of slavery – including lynching – were frequently justified in the name of the safety and standing of white women. In Empire and Sexuality: the British Experience, Ronald Hyam shows how the fantastical notion of the black peril (black men attacking white women) was used to legitimate repressive colonial legislation across Southern Africa at the turn of the 20th century.
The colonial project also consistently legitimated its project of oppression in the name of white men liberating black women from black men. Thinkers like Gayatri Spivak and Frantz Fanon have offered famous expositions of this in the context of India and Algeria. While a French feminist like Simone de Beauvoir was willing to offer support to the Algerian struggle, many specifically white forms of feminism allied themselves to colonial projects, and their civilising fantasies, rather than seeking to forge solidarity with black women engaged in anti-colonial struggles.
By the mid-20th century, white women in South Africa managed to win their own gains – but these came on the backs of black South Africans. The National Party gave white women suffrage on condition that the vote enjoyed by a few black men in the Cape would be repealed. There was a direct link between white women winning the vote and black men losing the vote. White women did experience patriarchy under apartheid but, at the same time, they were placed in a structurally superior position to black people.
While there have certainly been white women who confronted racism and patriarchy together, white feminism as an international movement has generally not taken black women’s lives and struggles seriously. Davis’s conceptualisation of “the project of feminism as whole” is a myth – a convenient myth. There is no project of feminism “as a whole”. There are, as thinkers like Angela Davis and Sylvia Wynter have observed, multiple feminisms.
The type of feminism that radical black feminist struggles have historically promoted has taken race, colonialism, the post-colonial condition and the oppressive power of capital very seriously. Specifically white forms of feminism, on the other hand, have largely been concerned with the advancement of white women – and in some cases only professional or middle class white women, within broader systems of white domination.
These debates are not solely historical or abstract. Today, Americans are asked to vote for Hillary Clinton as a feminist candidate. Yet Clinton is a candidate who has not opposed the mass incarceration of African, Native and Hispanic Americans or taken serious positions against the ongoing impunity for racialised police murder. She actively supports the oppression of people, men and women, in Iraq, Palestine and Haiti. She is emphatically not on the side of all women. She is, at best, on the side of certain women. Clinton is a typical example of a feminist whose commitment to the advancement of some women is willing to be actively complicit with the oppression of other women. It would not be mistaken to describe her, and to deride her, as a white feminist.
Closer to home, I have come to the conclusion that a key reason for the failure of transformation at the University Currently Known as Rhodes is that, at the outset of the transformation project, an equivalence was asserted between the oppression of “blacks and women” with the result that white women have consistently been the primary beneficiaries of transformation. This has functioned to shore up white domination in numerical terms and to legitimate it in political terms. I am not the only black staff member at this institution for whom the most consistent and direct experience of racism has come from white women identifying as feminists.
Some black women, like Alice Walker, have concluded that feminism, as a project, is so entangled with whiteness that it is better to step away from it and assert a womanist politics. Others have argued that feminism should be seen as a contested space and that black women should not give it up. But we cannot contest feminism if we are not able to draw clear conceptual and political distinctions between different kinds of feminism. Forms of feminism that are organised around specific (albeit sometimes implicit) commitments to white women (or professional women, middle class women, secular women etc.) need to be clearly distinguished from forms of feminism that are committed to the equality and advancement of all women.
As thinkers like Fanon and Spivak have insisted, the body that a person inhabits ultimately tells us nothing about their politics. Crude attempts to impose a politics onto people on the basis of how they happen to look – their skin tone and anatomy – rather than to take seriously the politics that they choose are not helpful. We only have to look at the ANC Women’s League to see just how reactionary – and invested in patriarchy – black women can be. But, at the same time, particularly white forms of feminism have consistently been complicit with racism and imperialism and it is, therefore, vital that critique is elaborated within feminism as well as against patriarchy.