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Women's Outreach and Resource Collective | A collaborative community for advocates of gender equity and social justice


Dealing with my White Girl Feminism

By: Missy DeVelvis

I am white. I am educated, relatively well-spoken, and middle class. I am a feminist, but in many, many ways I adhere to what is called “white feminism.”

What is white feminism? In this amazing blog post, BattyMamzelle blogger Cate Young describes it as “a specific set of single-issue, non-intersectional, superficial feminist practices….the feminism obsessed with body hair, and high heels and makeup, and changing your married name. It is the feminism you probably first learned.”

I don’t believe Cate is saying that talking about these topics is necessarily a bad thing. They are introductory conversations about feminism and equality and standards that most Western women struggle against.

But what this feminism doesn’t understand, according to Young, is “western privilege, or cultural context. It is the feminism that doesn’t consider race as a factor in the struggle for equality.” White feminism is the feminism that believes we must liberate all women who wear hijabs and burqas, and that cultures where women follow traditional gender roles are intrinsically wrong.

I am overwhelmingly aware of my white feminism and am trying to do whatever I can to be more inclusive, but sometimes, the best way to do that is to butt out.

BattyMamzelle’s White Feminism Venn Diagram

There’s a reason I write about women in history (usually, unfortunately, white women due to my research focus) and pop culture. These are feminist topics that apply to me, and they are things that I know about and feel comfortable writing about. I feel like I’m the wrong person to write about the struggles African-American women face, for example, because I am not qualified to make any statements as this is not my struggle. I am an impostor on this front.

In last semester’s Native American Women Writers class with the amazing Dr. Romero (seriously, take her classes), I learned the hard lesson of how my feminism holds up to other cultures. I couldn’t help but feel angry reading about these native women in roles I felt “subjugated” them, and I expressed my frustrations in class. Dr. Romero patiently taught me that this was a culture I did not completely understand, and many women actively embraced these roles that my modern White Feminism railed against. Later we would read books by native women struggling against these roles to different degrees, battling modernity and culture, trying to make the two peacefully coexist. This was their own struggle, not mine. I have no say in which parts of their culture these women should embrace.

So what can we do, as feminists who are white, to be open to all kinds of feminism without making statements we aren’t qualified to make?

The first thing I try to do is listen. I hear their trials and I try my absolute best not to make it about me. As humans, we like to empathize; we like to make connections to our own lives and experiences in order to better understand others. I will never completely understand what women who differ from me are going through, whether it be race, sexuality, or religion, but I can hear them out and see how I can help, if help is even wanted.

How do I show these women that I support them without speaking out on something I am not qualified to discuss? I try to share their stories, share their words without making them my own. Social media is a huge part of modern feminism, so instead of making posts yourself, try sharing the tweets, posts, blogs of feminist writers of different ethnicities and sexualities than your own.  Let their voices be heard, spread their words, without feeling the need to contribute your two cents.

If there are fundraisers, donate! Attend if you are welcome! Ask how you can help and what you can do, and if the answer is nothing don’t be self-righteous and offended. Again, be willing to listen. This feels counter-productive in a society where we feel the need to spread the word and let our voices be heard. Sometimes, it needs to be the voices of those that are oppressed, not just their White Knight champions.

Finally, expand your readership of feminist authors. Check the races and social status of your current authors. Are they predominantly white women? Can you add diversity to your reading? This is the same with public figures. Do you applaud Lena Dunham and Tina Fey, only to doubt Nicki Minaj and Beyonce’s statuses as role model women?

We all have flaws. My feminism is flawed, but I have to be open and able to change and adapt. I hope my friends will hold me accountable when I’m focusing too much on a feminism that only helps people like myself. Most importantly, I have to be willing to shut up and let others speak instead.

white feminism

worcuga • March 23, 2015

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  1. Leslie March 23, 2015 - 5:04 pm Reply

    Missy!!! I like your thoughts and being able to pick your brain through WORC UGA, especially since I’m nowhere near you.
    Anyway, I think you’re right to speak about letting people advocate for themselves. It gives an argument authority and a very true perspective. However, (and I am not trying to say I as a white woman who is a feminist have words that hold more weight) sometimes people only listen to the “White Knight.” That’s, in my opinion, why the He for She campaign is so important–sometimes people will only listen to a certain group. I like how you tell us to listen (SO IMPORTANT; PEOPLE DON’T DO THIS ENOUGH), but I think it is also important to research yourself. Educate yourself in all the ways you can.
    Creating divisions within a movement can be dangerous and can undermine the ultimate goal–equality for women of all races, cultures, etc to men. Women from some different backgrounds may find a different feminist outlook on different issues (i.e. women who find empowerment through wearing a hijab or a burka). However, the option or possibility should be there for a woman to do what she wants, like a man (i.e. she chooses to wear a burka rather than is forced to wear it). Sorry, I’m getting into the rabbit hole of my own thoughts…. I think we should celebrate and understand our differences as women from different backgrounds, but we should also stand in solidarity and not pit “white feminist” against “black feminist” against “Arab feminist.” We shouldn’t shame a group (which isn’t what you’re doing), we should try to educate them to make them more aware (as you are doing).
    Finally, I find it unfair to call the group you’re talking about “white feminists” (and I understand that this is not a term you coined). It, in itself, is ignorant and a generalization and crappy semantics. I am white, and I am a feminist, but my feminism goes beyond the superficial issues Cate Young writes about. And I would never speak for someone else unless they 1. asked me to or 2. I was educated enough to have an intelligent conversation on a topic that concerns them. But again, I think it is counterproductive to a cause to divide us up according to our differences instead of focusing what we have in common (again, I know you’re advocating for us to understand each other rather than divvy us up).
    I’m currently at work and have lots of thoughts if you want to discuss any of this with me…. My brain is all sorts of jumbled, so I’m sorry if this post is also. Anyway, that’s about it.
    Good article and things to think about! <3

  2. Missy March 23, 2015 - 10:14 pm Reply

    LESLIEEE it is always good to resume our life talks, even if distance forces it to be via interwebs!
    I do agree that the “White Feminism” label can be tricky here. Though it does help with one of my underlying themes, (that it is often white women who fail to see how much farther feminism has to go once it finishes tackling their personal issues). I do love Battymamzelle’s definition of White Feminism, regardless of name. Perhaps we could dub it Western Feminism? Middle-Class/Beginner Feminism? While you’re right, I definitely do not want to put my feminists in groups as the Venn Diagram can be accused of doing, I think it’s very important for us to note that even within the “women make .77 cents to a man’s dollar” example, when you take out black/Latina women those cents to a dollar get even lower.

    I think the biggest point I am trying to make is that if there is an issue that only certain sections of women/feminists are suffering from, I can still give them a voice by sharing an article about it and putting it on my page. That doesn’t mean that I have to rewrite an article or tweet just to express the same thing. THIS is something that, perhaps, Emma Watson can do. She can still use the same platform but perhaps share the work that others are doing? I also don’t feel, for example, that I am in the right place to write about how I stand with women struggling to escape judgment for their natural hair, for instance. I don’t have the experience to talk about it, but by sharing their words or just saying “I support you, I hear you” I feel like I can still accomplish the same things without pretending my word has authority over an issue I can’t possibly cover.

    A quick word about He for She–while I feel it is important, I have been a bit disappointed with Emma Watson’s more recent speeches. She’s trying, but when people asked things like “this is awesome, how can we help these women in these groups XYZ” she didn’t seem to know what else to do, really floundered in the interview, and just kept talking about her supportive brothers. So I can’t wait to see if she can live up to the potential of He for She.

    I completely agree with your point about women being able to do anything a man to do, or knowing she has the possibility. I wish I could’ve expressed that enough! However, I have run in to a lot of fellow feminists (that are almost always white) who immediately pity Muslim women and assume that all are oppressed. Now, a lot of women in say, Saudi Arabia, are both Muslim AND oppressed. I just don’t think all of my conversation partners seem to realize that it’s possible for women to revere their religious tradition, know they could dress/act otherwise otherwise, but still actively embrace something that White/Western/U.S. Middle Class feminists immediately condemn as oppressive.

    Did that make sense? Probably not. As always, I am so grateful for your friendship and conversation and your ability to challenge my statements love you like xo

  3. Bette July 26, 2015 - 4:57 pm Reply

    “white privilege” is one thing. But it is not cool to paint “white feminists” with a broad brush of hate.

    But as a young white woman, I am over painting all “white feminists” as guilty before charged. By definition if you are white and feminist, you have “white feminism.” Letting it be defined as what you are and what you will be in the movement as a negative is hate. If you cannot use your own race and the word “feminist” and not have it be perceived as a curse word, then there is a problem. A problem that women haters applaud.

    Like the patriarchy, everyone defines what white feminism is …as a negative. And produces a list of things for white feminists to do. If you do a Google search on “white feminism” all you get are titles of hate, mocking, and lists and directions of things for them to do.

    You don’t get any positive use of the term “white feminist.”

    If you mean “white privilege” use those words. Do not paint all white feminists as a slag. As a silencer. The best thing to do is not to silence yourself or make yourself smaller. That is white girl cutting syndrome not equality, not strength, and not even respect. Tell your own story. Listen to others. But do not silence yourself. That is not necessary to value everyone.

    Funny, there are articles in the femo-blogs defending against “slut shaming” and seeing all black women as the same negative stereotype. Then it goes to celebrate “white feminist” negative stereotypes.

    It’s funny that a lot of liberals would defend against the use of the term Muslim as an all negative “you know what I mean” term. They even defend “pro-life” as not all a negative “you know what I mean” term. We are supposed to say the actions of one doesn’t represent a whole religion. But apparently, this care only extends to groups not of white women. We are allowed to paint them with a broad brush and never ever consider the good in them.

    Much like any racism.

    But “white feminists?” Ok to slag. Because of that white woman who wrote something in the fifties who is dead now.

    There are white women. White women who are feminists. Why does anyone defend the use of a term that has a “wink, wink, ya know what I mean — they are the curse word”?

    I wonder what the author of the defense of slagging on “white feminism” – which has to exist if there are white women who are feminists – would say about the “ok” white feminists? Would she say “she is one of the good ones” like racists once said about that one articulate black man? Because by definition “white feminist” should never be used without a negative spin!

    Would anyone tolerate the term “black feminism” to mean angry hate?

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