Hearing the phrase "white feminist" used to offend me. In fact, I was convinced it didn't apply to me. I mean, yes, I'm white. And, yes, I'm feminist. But I'm definitely not racist, I recognize my white privilege, and my feminism is pretty damn inclusive. At least, I thought I was. When I had my daughter, and I had to teach her about the world around her, I was made to confront my own white feminism, whether I liked it or not.
The phrase white feminism isn't new and, sadly, it's pretty much the way most people experience and/or witness feminism in action. If you hear the word "feminist," and it brings to mind things like abortion rights, Gloria Steinem, pussy hats, and equal pay, but not how women of color have been forcibly sterilized and killed by police, the rights of transgender people to use, say, the bathroom, or the pay gap between white women and Black and Latina women, then your feminism is objectively white and fails to include historically marginalized communities. And if you get defensive or angry when a person of color tells you what is missing from your feminism? Well, I'd say it's time to grab a mirror and take a long, hard look at what a white feminist looks like.
So, how do you get past the discomfort of recognizing that you are privileged, and quite possibly part of the problem? For me, it took having a daughter. There's something about having to teach someone something new that helps you wrap your head around it, too. I found that teaching my kids about race issues is complicated, but necessary, especially when I realized that I had the privilege of deciding not to if it all proved to be too "difficult" for me. I also realized that the feminist issues that were important to me were not that inclusive, and my advocacy was often white-washed and conducted with (for the most part) other white people marching by my side. So in the end, I knew if that was the only exposure my daughter had to feminism, I would be raising her to be a white feminist, too.
The process of confronting and trying to dismantle my own white feminism has been hard, and I am acutely aware that this process is far from over and must be ongoing of it's going to be successful. But I also know it's worth it, especially when I consider what's at stake. I'm not there yet, but I'm trying my hardest to be intersectional in my feminism, and that means confronting my white feminism in the following ways:
I Realized My Politics Weren't Always Inclusive
I own a pussy hat. I have spent most of my adult life working and volunteering with an abortion and women's health care provider. I have testified before Congress and my state legislature to expand access to abortion care and birth control. I march in protests. I engage in online activism. I write letters. So I thought all of these things made me a good feminist, but after much thought and consideration I realize they make me a white feminist. As a white woman, I need to take more time to listen to women of color, and use my privilege to fight for people less privileged than I am. It's not about just helping when the issues directly apply to me. It's about helping when the issues apply to all women and marginalized communities.
It took getting pregnant with my daughter and realizing that I am privileged to pretty much always be able to access birth control and abortion care if I needed it, to realize that these issues aren't even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to being a real advocate for all women, and not just cisgender white women.
My White Privilege Became More Apparent
The inner-city hospital where I delivered served a primarily Black and Latinx community. When I was at the hospital in labor, I had some awesome conversations with my midwife about what it was like to work there. During that conversation I realized how privileged I was to be able to nonchalantly chat with her about teen pregnancy, poverty, access to birth control and abortion, and religious objections to reproductive health care, when these things disproportionately impact women and girls of color and didn't impact me negatively.
I had so many other options than the women who primarily visit and are cared for at that inner-city hospital. For women of color, they didn't have any other option than to live in that reality.
I Realized How "White" Children's Books & Shows Are
This is so subtle, but also something that we all work together to change. Like, right now. I remember an embarrassing moment at IKEA when my then 2-year-old daughter told the Black cashier that she was getting a "chocolate baby doll." I realized that my partner and I needed to make sure she understood race, and not just in terms of color and not through stereotypes.
I went through our bookshelf and media playlists and started adding and subtracting, because she needs Wonder Woman, sure, but she also needs Dr. McStuffins, Garnet on Steven Universe, and to regularly see women of color doing badass things. I also realized that I needed to teach her about real-life super heroes like Malala, Roxane Gay, Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and NASA's rocket girls.
I Had To Recognize My Own Racism
So, yeah, most white people are racist, even if we don't see it or acknowledge it. It can be overt, like locking your car doors in a black neighborhood or recounting someone's race when you tell a story about your sh*tty neighbor. Or it can be subtle, like talking to your daughters about workplace equality and not mentioning women of color, transgender, or queer women. Or getting embarrassed when your daughter assumes that the Latinx waitress at the Mexican restaurant spoke Spanish, but realizing that you often make the same unconscious mistake. Or even saying that race doesn't matter, when it absolutely does and the only reason you believe it doesn't is because, well, you're white.
I Had To Learn How To Listen
As an activist, I am used to having my voice heard and not taking any sh*t, but as a mother I've come to see that there are many times that my voice (and the voice of my white daughter) isn't the one that's needed. There are times when we need to step aside and let women and girls of color do the talking, or wait until we're asked to amplify their voices rather than taking the mic. That means shutting up and listening, which is hard for me.
I Realized That Impact Doesn't Trump Intent
We teach our children that the phrase "I didn't mean to" makes their mistake or actions OK, and that actually might be true when you're a kid. For adults, though, it's not enough to say "I didn't mean to" or "that wasn't my intention." When a person of color says that your behavior or words hurt them, the only way you should respond is to say, "I'm sorry" and "I'll do better." Then it's up to you to figure out how, because it's not a marginalized person's job to educate a person of privilege.
I Realized That I Talked About Women's Rights As If They Were They Were The Same For All Women
My daughter will always face challenges as a girl and woman in this world. But I also know that, as a white girl, she won't face nearly as many challenges as girls and/or women of color. She will probably never be mistaken for a sex worker, get pulled over, be bullied, or be assaulted for the color of her skin. She will almost certainly always be able to access health care and education. She will never be asked if she's "legal." She probably won't be pulled out of the airport security line for "random" screenings.
I used to think that I was a good feminist, because I fought tirelessly for things like equal pay and reproductive rights. But, as I have become a mother to daughters, I realize that achieving these things, while important, won't really change things for people of color if we don't address structural inequity and racism, too. So, I am trying my hardest to change that for my daughters, so they don't become white feminists, too.
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