Piercing the whitening silence

Terese Jonsson calls for all white feminists (herself included) to step up to the plate on racism and white privilege

Terese Jonsson, 16 March 2009

A couple of months ago, Annika Spalding challenged F-Word readers with the question 'Whose feminism is it?' Disappointed with her experience of feeling like she "stood out a bit" and had been "overlooked" at a major feminist conference, she asked:

Is feminism reaching women who are living in poverty? Women who have come over to this country on a marriage visa and can't speak any English? Is feminism reaching young teenage mums? Is feminism reaching women who didn't attend university? Is feminism reaching women who choose not to work, regardless of whether or not they have children? Is feminism reaching women who do not have access to the internet? Is feminism reaching mums? Is feminism reaching women of colour? Really?

Her words echoed those of many frustrated women before her, and led me to wonder, once again, when are we going to stop going around in these circles? When are the white, privileged, cis-gendered, university-educated, able-bodied women who too often insist on dominating feminist conversations going to actually start listening? And following on from that, when are we going to start changing? Annika addressed many different issues in her article, all important and inter-connected, but right here and now I want to focus on one strand in particular; namely, the ongoing racism and unchecked white privilege in many feminist communities in the UK.

I should mention at this point that I am a white, middle-class feminist. I'm not saying I have all the answers or that I occupy any moral high-ground on this matter, but I am saying that if we are to build real feminist movements in the UK, if this recent "upsurge in feminist activity" oft-cited in Guardian lifestyle columns is going to mean anything to the women Annika wrote about in her article, white feminists have some serious shit to sort out.

But first, let's be clear that this is not a new discussion. Here's a letter from black feminist Jan McKenley, printed in an issue of the women's liberation magazine Spare Rib in 1980:

I'm beginning to feel invisible again within the WLM [Women's Liberation Movement], having to work myself up to making 'heavy' statements that will embarrass sisters in meetings - I can see the eyebrows going up already - "Not racism - that old chestnut again - it's so boring." Well, if it's boring for you, white sister.... I've got no monopoly on dealing with racism - it's your problem too.

This letter was published in the context of a changing women's liberation movement, marking a time when white feminists in the UK were being seriously challenged by Black women (I use 'Black' here in the political sense it was often used by anti-racist activists at this time, as inclusive of all non-white people), calling them out on their racism and role in perpetuation of a white supremacist society.

Although, as is obvious from the letter above, this was not the first time Black feminists had tried to initiate these conversations, the rise of an autonomous black women's movement at this time made it harder for white women to ignore black women's voices. Black women pointed out that white feminists in fact often contributed to other women's oppression by prioritising only their own needs in their activism, without considering how they may be at odds with the needs of women of colour.

Throughout the early '80s, a multitude of intense discussions and arguments took place, leading to both irrevocable splits as well as successful coalitions between women of different ethnicities. Reviewing the situation in 1985, Kum-Kum Bhavnani, while acknowledging that some white women were starting to change their behaviour, expressed her anger:

at the lack of support we [Black feminists] received for our political work which did not explicitly include the seven demands of the Women's Movement, and ... at the paralysing guilt of white women which serves to make us feel 'bad' for criticising them, rather than make them realise that their political work has to adopt an anti-imperialist and anti-racist perspective.

Fast forward 24 years (almost a quarter of a century!), and surely at the start of 2009, we are beyond racism in feminism, right? Well no actually, far from it. And what's even more depressing is how little the content of the debate has changed.

Yes sure, as mainstream society has changed in its attitude to racism, so has white feminism. Most white feminists these days know how to adopt a superficial language of anti-racism. But that is far from enough. As Humaira Saeed questioned in Race Revolt, a zine which focuses on "race, ethnicity and identity within queer, feminist and diy-punk communities":

I wonder why so many feminist events use the words 'diversity' and 'inclusion' without ever considering the implications of these words. As though throwing them into the mission statement will make them real.

Feminist conferences, demos, Ladyfests, discussion groups, mailing lists... they all-too-often pay lip service to being inclusive. But saying that you provide a welcoming and safe space for all women is not the same as making it so. Like Annika noted, when filling in the monitoring form at the feminist conference, "There wasn't even a box for me to tick!"

How is this progress? The lack of a box on a monitoring form may not seem like a big deal, but the problem is such 'oversights' reveal so much more. They reveal a lack of a meaningful anti-racist perspective which takes the intersection of oppressions such as racism and sexism as it's starting point. They expose white feminists' inability, or more correctly unwillingness, to put anyone other than ourselves at the centre of our organising.

I was called out on some silencing behaviour myself recently. I had failed to address the white-centricity of an event that I had been part of organising. The most infuriating realisation for me was that I already knew 'better', but had still let the sense of security and safety afforded to me by my whiteness (as well as a feeling of the inevitability of it ending up this way) lull me into complacency, taking the least challenging route.

Based on my own experience, I don't think that most white feminists today deliberately set out to be racist. But whichever way you look at it, white-dominated feminist spaces are littered with casual racism and marginalising tendencies. Because actually challenging racism, on both a personal and community level, working in coalition, developing accountable and sustainable anti-racist feminist politics, is hard work, and it is challenging to the core. And when it comes down to it, how many of us who were born white can truly say that we are ready to give up (as far as this is possible in a racist society) the privileges that whiteness gives us? I mean truly ready? Because we're basically talking about turning dominant contemporary UK feminism on its head.

We need to examine our goals and priorities, address our processes of organising, our relationships, our use and sharing of resources. We need to unlearn what we know, and then learn again, differently.

So I'm dedicating the rest of this article to thinking about some real basic suggestions for ways forward. I want to be clear I did not come up with these ideas myself; I owe everything I have learnt about anti-racist feminism from radical women of colour and Black feminists. Writers and activists such as Chandra Mohanty, Amrit Wilson, the women of Southall Black Sisters, Hazel Carby, bell hooks, Angela Davis and many, many more, are the women who have inspired me with their visions of what truly democratic and non-oppressive feminist politics could look like.

Decolonise feminism (because it isn't yours to own)
There's a popular misconception, happily reinforced by the corporate media, that white women invented feminism, and remain the true leaders and visionaries in the project to liberate women. For example, on the 80th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act, Rachel Cooke, lamenting the backlash against feminist gains in The Observer, managed to quote only white women on the state and priorities of feminism today. Even more disturbing, she ended her article with this anecdote:

Near my home is a shop that sells jewellery and rugs from Afghanistan. In its window at the moment is a pale blue burqa. It is displayed very cleverly on two crossed poles, so that it looks like some wonderful exotic bird. The other night, stepping off the bus, I walked towards it, thinking how beautiful it was, the street light falling on it so softly, its tiny pleats collapsing so elegantly. For a few moments, I could not take my eyes off it. Then I remembered what it was, and I walked on, briskly.

After rendering non-white women completely invisible throughout her piece, she brings them forcefully into the limelight at the end, in the form of a burqa (there's not even a real woman wearing it!). What is this meant to achieve, except to reinforce the patronising notion that white women (supposedly so much more liberated than Muslim women of colour) need to lead the good feminist fight to save our Muslim sisters, the ultimate (voiceless) victims of patriarchy? Need I mention the pseudo-feminist pronouncements of the George Bush/Tony Blair administrations about saving the oppressed Afghan women to justify invasion in 2001, to prove the point that such faulty arguments are dangerous?

Anxious Black Woman, a US-based blogger, addresses the heart of how we begin to decolonise feminism:

We do this by first decolonizing our minds and looking at women around the globe as our equals who are doing their own feminist theorising and practices from which we can both benefit if we shared equally in our knowledge on how best to address gender oppression – especially in its intersections with race, class, sexuality, nationality and imperialism.
She has also written a series of posts highlighting some of the rich history of early feminist pioneers of colour, including Claudia Jones, a Marxist-feminist and one of the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival. Her work showcasing these feminist trailblazers, often completely erased from white-washed accounts of feminist history, along with her highlighting the feminist activism thriving in all corners of the world, completely debunks the myth that feminism belongs to white women. As she puts it, "I will not disavow the 'feminist' label because I didn't get it coming through the back door" (although many other women of colour have disavowed that label, not because they're not interested in women's rights, but because of the bad name white feminists have given it).

It is only white (middle-class, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered...) women who have the privilege to separate out gender as a single axis of oppression, to only look at an issue from the 'gender angle'

If you find yourself using arguments such as "white middle class women have always led feminism because they have the time/education/resources/focus that Black/working class/Third World women don't", then you are using a colonised and revisionist version of feminist history. You only need to look back to the '80s to find that, in the UK, some of the most progressive, creative and challenging feminist politics was coming out of women of colour led projects, the anti-imperialist feminist newspaper Outwrite being one.

Take off the single-issue blinkers
Talking of imperialism, there is no way of being an anti-racist feminist in modern Britain without understanding this country's complex and ongoing legacy of colonialism. The erasure of Britain's violent imperial history from public consciousness, the arguments that we are all equal now and that racism is a thing of the past (and the myth that colonialism was only ever a benevolent project to spread civilization and good manners in the first place) are constantly perpetuated by the media, education system and government. When white feminists accept this ahistorical view of a post-racial society (where racism only happens as isolated incidents rather than as continued, institutionalised injustice and violence), we espouse a feminism which can only ever be relevant to white women.

It is only white (middle-class, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered...) women who have the privilege to separate out gender as a single axis of oppression, to only look at an issue from the 'gender angle'. So if you're serious about not wanting to exclude women of colour from your feminist analysis, forget about keeping your feminism 'pure'; (I think Latoya Peterson said it best in a guest post at Feministe, titled 'Ewwww, You got your other issues in my feminism!'). US feminist Jessica Hoffman wrote a powerful open letter to white feminists last year, in which she addressed exactly how a gender-only approach to feminist issues such as violence against women can be oppressive to communities of colour, as well as dismissive of the radical anti-violence work being done by organisations such as Incite!. We need to be having these same conversations here.

A good starting point is to accept that all white people in Western society are racist to some extent - it has been ingrained in us since birth

In Britain in 2009, when we talk about women's rights, we need to be talking about the anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence against asylum seekers committed by the British state, about militarist and cultural imperialism, about capitalism and the criminal justice system. In the current climate of xenophobia and racism, a white feminism which does not engage with these issues, leaves itself vulnerable to being co-opted by neo-colonialist and racist agendas and will continue to fail non-white women, in being not only irrelevant, but actually harmful.

So if you are wondering why there aren't any women of colour joining your feminist group, it probably isn't because they're not interested in women's rights, but because what you have defined as your feminist issues don't have much relevance beyond your own white body. When you talk or write about 'women' or how a particular issue affects women, ask yourself, which women are you talking about? How would it affect a woman who is not like you? Do you think that dealing with racism is a 'distraction' from dealing with sexism? Why?

Listen to women of colour
This one seems pretty straight forward, right? It's pretty damn fundamental, but is it happening?

Take Exhibit A, the feminist blogosphere. As Renee at Womanist Musings explains it, in a post titled 'WOC and the table scraps of feminism':

What I cannot fail to notice is that, despite the fact that women of colour definitely have something to say, our blogs are not counted as major voice in feminism online. It is like we are some sort of "special interest group" who have completely divergent needs. That's right I'm saying it, white women are "the women" and we are just a side group looking for scraps.
This notion of women of colour being a 'special interest' rather than just 'women' or 'feminists' is one I have heard and read white feminists perpetuate. An overwhelming number of white feminists seem to think that Black feminist theory is only for Black feminists, race-focused blogs only for non-white people, etc. But by that same token would they argue that the blogs, groups and theory by white women is only for white women?

So some questions to ask yourself: which groups or organisations are you involved with or support? How do you interact with women who are not white in your organising? How do you value their voices? If you read blogs, do you follow blogs written by people of colour? If you read feminist books, what ethnicity are the authors of the books you read? What ethnicity are your feminist role models? Why?

And finally, 'listening' is not the same as putting up on a pedestal or hero-worshipping. In the above post, Renee notes this tendency as well among some white feminists who do read her blog: the reluctance to comment and thereby expose oneself to the possibility of saying something ignorant. Truly listening means engaging with, reflecting on, having a conversation, and - of course - potentially disagreeing with; taking the risk of letting what you have heard change you.

Break down the silence
Silence is the reason why we are still in the same place we are today. The quotes from Spare Rib show that conversations between white and black women about racism and whiteness in feminism have happened before. But then white women fell back into the deafening silence which perpetuates white dominance.

Us white feminists need to learn how to challenge each other more; to push ourselves to raise concerns about racism when we see it (even if the person you're challenging is your friend!)

The silence is also caused by the deep-seated fear and anxiety that most liberal white people seem to have in talking about racism in British society. The fear of saying the wrong thing, of offending or being racist, not knowing what to say or how to treat non-white people respectfully. It is the silence that is sometimes penetrated (usually in moments of crisis), but then it returns, until next time. It is the silence that we have to smash, and to keep smashing over and over. The conversations, when we have them are useful, but it's not enough to have a workshop once a year, it has to be a constant and ongoing engagement. And us white feminists should not be waiting for activists of colour to initiate the conversation.

A good starting point is to accept that all white people in Western society are racist to some extent – it has been ingrained in us since birth. Let's not pretend we're all squeaky clean, but open up our minds and hearts to honest interrogation and the possibilities of change. Yes, we probably will say something stupid and ignorant - there's a good chance I've done so somewhere in this article - but unless we are willing to expose ourselves, there will be no progress. Unlearning racism is a continuous journey, I don't think it really ever ends. Questioning our own attitudes and behaviour, as well as those around us, has to become part of our everyday thought-process.

Learn how to criticise other white feminists
This is connected to silence, but I think it deserves its own heading because I am realising more and more that this is absolutely key if we are to transform exclusionary white feminism into something which has radical and liberatory potential.

I'm not suggesting that we should forget about the achievements of these women. I'm saying, let's get real and not ignore the less flattering parts of feminist history. Let's not make historical feminists out to be saints

When a feminist group is white-dominated, the white women have the power to silence criticism by sticking together and denying (or more commonly, simply ignoring) that anything problematic has happened. Us white feminists need to learn how to challenge each other more; to push ourselves to raise concerns about racism when we see it (even if the person you're challenging is your friend!). When we organise together with other white women, we need to set up ways and time to talk constructively about race. So when we write that mission statement with those buzz words 'inclusion' and 'diversity', we need to think about what they actually mean, agree to continuously review how we are or are not achieving those aims. Otherwise there is no point including those words in the first place.

Learn from history
I've already written above about the importance of learning about the histories of activists of colour (a great place to start for recent history is the book Other kinds of dreams': Black Women's Organisations and the Politics of Transformation by Julia Sudbury). But let's also learn more about the lesser known parts of the histories of white feminists.

There is a fascinating field of historical research into white British feminists' involvement in the Empire, which includes work by historians such as Antoinette Burton, who found in her research that British feminists at the turn of the century "enlisted empire and its values so passionately and so articulately in their arguments for female emancipation" that they must be "counted among the shapers of imperial rhetoric and imperial ideologies".

I'm not suggesting that we should forget about the achievements of these women. I'm saying, let's get real and not ignore the less flattering parts of feminist history. Let's not make historical feminists out to be saints.

We also need to learn from what happened in the '70s and '80s. I wasn't around then (well not in feminist circles anyway), so I'm calling out to the women who were, in the hope that you will make that history available to us younger feminists in an honest way. The only way we can move forward in the conversation, is to learn from what's happened before and then build on that knowledge (plus document our own discussions where possible, for future reference).

To finish, I want to clarify that my aim in writing this is not to argue that 'we' white women need to 'bring more women of colour into feminism'. For one very obvious reason: they are already there. Maybe not in the white feminism as we have defined it, but as social justice, anti-racist, anti-imperialist activists, as radical women of colour and Black feminists. No, the reason I am writing this is because I want to see us white feminists make a serious commitment to transforming our politics and practices, so that we can connect up with the other women and men struggling against all forms of oppression.

So the question I want to ask my white sisters right now is this: what is feminism to you? Is it a lifestyle, a way for you to have an outlet about the sexism in your life, as it affects you? Or is it the ongoing fight to radically transform society, to end oppression against ALL women, and ultimately all people?

About the author

Terese Jonsson

Terese hopes to see lots of feminists at the demo against immigration detention outside Yarl's Wood on Saturday 21 March

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