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Why I Struggled to Call Myself a Feminist

Although my qualms about mainstream feminism had been festering internally for years, I didn’t fully become aware of them until the Women’s March in 2017. As images of women and girls boasting pink hats and bold signs circulated through my news and social media feeds, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the pride that I thought I should’ve experienced at the sight of fellow women uniting. Instead, I felt . . numb. This emptiness puzzled me as I had always been passionate about women’s issues and gender equality, but it persisted in spite of my attempts to wish it away. It wouldn’t be until I transferred to an all girls’ high school later that fall that I would discover the source of this ambivalence.

Upon walking through the front door on the first day of my sophomore year, I was almost immediately struck by the essence of “girl power” that percolated the place. The school was one of the oldest educational institutions for girls in the country, and this aspect of its legacy was abundantly clear in the dignified way that the students carried themselves and the bold manner with which they spoke. It was rather awe-inspiring, as I noted in my salutatorian speech, to see girls my age and older dominating in all of the areas in which we’re told that we don’t belong: academics, athletics, student government, robotics clubs, and political organizations. Watching them excel made me feel like I could do anything. 

Nevertheless, there was still an uneasiness tugging at my heart--especially when I saw flyers for Girl Up plastered around the halls or when discussions centered on feminism occurred in classrooms and other public spaces. The epiphany that I had one afternoon upon walking into the practically segregated lunchroom helped me come to terms with why. I realized, as my eyes fell upon the sea of whiteness interspersed with Black and Asian islands, that I wasn’t fully able to embrace the dogma of mainstream feminism because it operated in theory under the notion of advancement and equality for all women but in practice centered the plight of middle class white women. I’ve always found this fact quite curious considering that women of color--particularly Black and indigenous women--are subjugated under more forms of oppression and should, logically, be receiving most of mainstream feminism’s attention and energy. 

This focus on middle class white women has been a tenet of mainstream feminism historically. Even at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the affair hailed today as the impetus of the feminist movement, there was only one Black person there (Frederick Douglass) out of the 200-300 attendees--clearly showing from the jump which subset of women the movement would prioritize. If the suffragist movement wasn’t exclusionary already, it became dramatically more so after the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. The incredulity that white feminist leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt at being placed second in line for voting rights after men of color was so intense that they, according to Paula Hill from PBS, “made a conscious decision to exclude BIPOC women from their movement” and “shifted their focus to single-mindedly pursuing voting rights for white women.” Thus, when the 19th Amendment was finally passed in 1920, none seemed too concerned that its provision to not infringe upon a citizen’s right to vote “on account of sex” wouldn’t protect women of color in the Jim Crow South who were still subjected to race-based tactics of disenfranchisement.

Even though feminism today is far more inclusive than it was a century ago, it has still continued the trend of relegating the concerns of women of color to the periphery. For instance, the dominant discourse about the gender pay gap has touted that women are paid $.79 for every $1 that a man makes. It fails to acknowledge, however, that these specific numbers only apply to white women and white men. The National Partnership for Women and Families reports that, when it comes to women of color, Asian American women are on average paid $.87 for every dollar that a white man earns (this figure varies substantially depending on the nationality), African American women are paid $.63, Native American women are paid $.60, and Latinas are paid $0.55.

Other examples include the lack of public discussion about racial disparities in terms of maternal mortality (Black and American Indian women are “two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women”), domestic abuse (Black women are 35% more likely to experience domestic abuse than white women and 2.5 times more likely than women of other races), and human trafficking (Black women make up 40% of sex trafficking victims even though they comprise 13% of the U.S. female population). And this, unfortunately, is by no means an exhaustive list.

Another way in which mainstream feminists today have marginalized the struggles of women of color is through selective displays of solidarity. For instance, when Donald Trump’s infamous, disgusting comments about Arianne Zucker were publicized through the Access Hollywood tape leak in October of 2016, white feminists voiced their indignation loudly on Twitter and other social media sites. When Trump was elected, hundreds of thousands of white feminists across the country took to the streets and participated in the Women’s March of 2017. When white Hollywood actresses like Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan, and Reese Witherspoon came forward with their horrific stories of sexual assault, white feminists shouted “#MeToo”, all the while ignoring that the movement was originated by Tarana Burke, a Black woman. When Rose McGowan was suspended from Twitter for being vocal about how Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted her, white feminists organized a 24-hour Twitter boycott to stand in solidarity with her. And, when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in October of 2018, white feminists were in an uproar. 

However, when Breonna Taylor, Nia Wilson, Sandra Bland, Natasha McKenna, Michelle Cusseaux, Dominique Fells, and Riah Milton were murdered in cold blood, white feminists were collectively nowhere to be found. When Black entertainers Leslie Jones and Normani Kordei were bombarded with racial epithets and pictures of their faces Photoshopped onto gorillas and lynched slaves in 2016, white feminists were collectively nowhere to be found. When immigrant children have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, white feminists have collectively been nowhere to be found. When Asian American women have been violently attacked this year and last because of the racist rhetoric surrounding the Coronavirus, white feminist have collectively been nowhere to be found. When Native American women are assaulted and kidnapped from reservations without judicial consequences, white feminists are collectively nowhere to be found. And, when Muslim women of color were brutally harassed during the Trump presidency, white feminists were collectively nowhere to be found. 

The racialized discrepancies with respect to whom white feminists fight for show that, unless “all women” means “white women,” their claims of rallying for “all women” are baseless in practice.

. . .

Just to be clear, my intention behind including the empirical data and pop culture examples is not to trivialize the very real oppression that white women face or ignore the activism of some who do, in fact, speak up on behalf of all women. What I’m attempting to do is highlight the contradiction that women of color are especially victimized in society yet routinely excluded from feminist circles. I’m additionally, and more pointedly, trying to point out the ideological inconsistencies of those who subscribe to mainstream feminism in its current state--meaning, that they assert that they’re for everyone but only champion the cause of a privileged few. I refer to these people, unsurprisingly, as white feminists.

And this brings me to where I am in regards to my relationship with feminism today.  I identify as an intersectional feminist because I strive to support all women--Black, white, indigenous, Asian, Latina, multiracial, heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, cis, transgender, wealthy, middle class, working class, poor, abled, disabled, native born, immigrant, foreign, etc.--in our fight to subvert what bell hooks calls the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” I acknowledge that I’m not perfect; sometimes I fail to be cognizant of the privileges that I carry or the blindspots that I may have due to my position as a cis, able bodied, American-born college student. However, this is the beauty of the time period in which we’re living: there are always opportunities to learn about the plights of others and to use your privileges--no matter what they are--to show up loudly for them when they need you to have their backs. This, my friends, is true sisterhood. This, my friends, is what feminism should be all about.

Mackenzie, a music lover and reality TV enthusiast, hails from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is a junior at Duke University who, after changing her major 17 times, settled on pursuing degrees in sociology, Spanish, and Portuguese. As a nerd with a huge passion for analyzing social phenomena, Mackenzie primarily aims in her writing to explore the intricate ways in which race, gender, and sexuality shape current events and pop culture.
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