The world we live in was constructed to benefit white men and therefore there is undeniable privilege in being both white and being male. But what about white women? Or Black men? This is where intersectionality comes into play. Intersectionality recognizes an individual’s multiple identities and how they overlap and “intersect” to create, or reduce, privilege.
The idea of intersectionality when white women talk about feminism is crucial because white women do not experience patriarchal oppression in the same way Black or Latina women do. White feminism is problematic because it focuses only on gender without taking into account a woman’s sexuality, able-bodiedness nationality, or racial-identity. As Jarune Uwajaren and Jamie Utt wrote in an article for Everyday Feminism, “It is not, in fact, possible to tease apart the oppressions that people are experiencing. Racism for women of color cannot be separated from their gendered oppression. A Trans person with a disability cannot choose which part of their identity is most in need of liberation.”
And yet, this is exactly what White Feminism asks women to do – to cast aside their other identities for the sake of “Girl Power” or “Women’s Empowerment.” In many ways, in fact, White Feminism is an appendage of patriarchal oppression as it attempts to suppress the experiences of anyone who is not a privileged White, Western woman.
In an open letter to Mary Daly, author of Gyn/Ecology, Audre Lorde, a feminist and civil rights activist, captured the importance of intersectional feminism. In it, she wrote:
“To imply, however, that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how those tools are used by women without awareness against each other… As an African-American woman in White patriarchy, I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialized.”
Though Lorde’s letter was written in 1971, its message rings true today as White, Western, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered women remain at the forefront of feminist discourse. It rings true when Annie Lennox calls Beyoncé “Feminist-Lite” for twerking and owning her sexuality while white women, such as Taylor Swift or Katy Perry, are praised when they do the same.
Swift and Perry, however, are not the problem but rather a symptom. They represent the widely held view that white, cisgendered, able-bodied, straight women’s liberation will necessarily lead to the liberation of all women and this is simply not the case. By empowering only Western, White women, we are simply holding up the ideal of whiteness, not the complex, multifaceted experiences of women throughout the world.
Women are oppressed by patriarchal institutions of power but to varying degrees and for a variety of reasons. It is for this reason that what is considered “liberating” for White women in the United States may not be considered as such for women in non-Western societies. In fact, the idea that Western, White Feminists have the ability to liberate women in non-Western countries is a form of cultural imperialism.
Laura Bush’s call for military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 in an attempt to “liberate Afghan women” shows the inherent issues with White Feminism. In her radio address, Bush told the American population “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” In doing so, she conflated U.S. military intervention with the liberation of Afghan women and her husband began a war that Afghan women never asked for. Though President George W. Bush has famously claimed to have “liberated” Afghan women, they are far from liberated following a decade of U.S. occupation and funding. According to research conducted by Global Rights, an estimated nine out of ten Afghan women face physical, sexual or psychological violence, or are forced into marriage.
Lina Abirafeh, a specialist on gender-based violence who worked in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, concluded that aid programs in Afghanistan were aimed at women alone, rather than also addressing men. By failing to engage men in productive dialogues, aid programs attracted resentment from both men and women. The New York Times wrote, “Ms. Abirafeh contends that Afghan women have always been conscious of their suffering, but take offense at the idea that they need foreigners to intervene on their behalf.”
Unless the women that Western White Feminists want to liberate are involved in the conversation, the outcome will always be the same. Over a decade after the invasion of Afghanistan, Afghan women still do not have a seat at the table–both figuratively and literally.
According to a 2014 study by Oxfam, out of the 23 rounds of informal peace talks involving the Afghan government and the Taliban between 2005 and 2014, women were present on only two occasions. In the discussions between international negotiators and the Taliban, women were never present.
Women do not need to be saved. They need to be engaged. They need to be respected. They need to be heard. White, Western Feminism has failed to do this thus far, and the future is currently looking bleak.
Hillary Clinton famously stated that women’s rights are human rights but Clinton’s human rights record is spotty at best. Clinton’s support for the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Palestine, the bombing of Libya, and the regimes of numerous dictatorships shows that only some women’s rights are human rights. Her track record does not show her support for women, but rather her support for colonization, imperialism, and the West. Clinton looks out for the interests of White, American women, not all women.
Nadia Elia, an author and writer, put it best in her article for Middle East Eye: “Feminism is not about getting a bigger piece of a toxic pie: it is about changing the ingredients of that pie. Feminism is incompatible with racism: dismissing the lives and humanity of some people, to secure the privilege of others, is racist.”
In my view, feminism is not the problem. The problem is that the privileged minority – White, Western women – are dictating the future for the vast majority. Didn’t feminism emerge because women were tired of men constantly deciding what’s best for women? Why is it unacceptable for men to oppress women but acceptable for women to oppress other women?
In February of this year, Madeline Albright introduced Hillary Clinton by exclaiming to the crowd: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” In doing so, she attempted to shame women who feel that Clinton does not speak for them. Women who feel that Clinton does not have their best interests at heart. Women who are capable of making their own decisions without white women telling them that they ought to vote for a white woman because she’s a woman. Because of “Girl Power”.