How White Feminism Fails To Show Up For Women Of Colour

The following is an extract from author and activist Mikki Kendall's book, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot.
Courtesy of Bloomsbury/Shutterstock.
As debates over last names, body hair, and the best way to be a CEO have taken centre stage in the discourse surrounding modern feminism, it’s not difficult to see why some would be questioning the legitimacy of a women’s movement that serves only the narrow interests of middle- and upper-class white women. While the problems facing marginalised women have only increased in intensity, somehow food insecurity, education, and health care — beyond the most basic of reproductive needs — are rarely touted as feminist issues. It is past time to make the conversation a nuanced, inclusive, and intersectional one that reflects the concerns of all women, not just a privileged few.
In 2013, when I started #solidarityisforwhitewomen, by which I meant mainstream feminist calls for solidarity centred on not only the concerns but the comfort of white middle-class women at the expense of other women, many white feminists claimed it was divisive and called it infighting, instead of recognising that the problem was real and could not solve itself. They argued that the way to fix feminism wasn’t by airing its proverbial dirty laundry in public. Yet, since its inception, mainstream feminism has been insisting that some women have to wait longer for equality, that once one group (usually white women) achieves equality then that opens the way for all other women. But when it comes right down to it, mainstream white feminism often fails to show up for women of colour.

While white feminism can lean in, can prioritise the CEO level at work, it fails to show up when black women are not being hired because of their names or fired for hairstyles.

While white feminism can lean in, can prioritise the CEO level at work, it fails to show up when black women are not being hired because of their names or fired for hairstyles. It’s silent when schools discriminate against girls of colour. Whether it is the centring of white women even when women of colour are most likely to be at risk, or the complete erasure of issues most likely to impact those who are not white, white feminism tends to forget that a movement that claims to be for all women has to engage with the obstacles women who are not white face.
Trans women are often derided or erased, while prominent feminist voices parrot the words of conservative bigots, framing womanhood as biological and determined at birth instead of as a fluid and often arbitrary social construct. Trans women of colour, who are among the most likely targets of violence, see statistics that reflect their reality co opted to bolster the idea that all women are facing the same level of danger. Yet support from mainstream white feminists for the issues that directly impact trans women has been at best minimal, and often nonexistent.
From things as basic as access to public bathrooms to job protection, there’s a dearth of mainstream white feminist voices speaking out against trans-exclusionary policies and laws. A one-size-fits-all approach to feminism is damaging, because it alienates the very people it is supposed to serve, without ever managing to support them. For women of colour, the expectation that we prioritise gender over race, that we treat the patriarchy as something that gives all men the same power, leaves many of us feeling isolated.
When the obstacles you face vary by race and class, then so too do your priorities. After all, for women who are struggling to keep themselves housed, fed, and clothed, it’s not a question of working hard enough. They are leaning in, but not in search of equal pay or "having it all"; their quest for equal pay starts with equal access to education and opportunity. They need feminism to recognise that everything that affects women is a feminist issue, whether it be food insecurity or access to transit, schools, or a living wage. Does that mean that every feminist has to be at every event, know every detail of every struggle? No.
It does, however, mean that the language surrounding whatever issues feminists choose to focus on should reflect an understanding of how the issue’s impact varies for women in different socioeconomic positions. The conversation around work, for instance, should recognise that for many people, needing to work to survive is a fact of life. We can’t let respectability politics (that is, an attempt by marginalised groups to internally police members so that they fall in line with the dominant culture’s norms) create an idea that only some women are worthy of respect or protection.
Respectability narratives discourage us from addressing the needs of sex workers, incarcerated women, or anyone else who has had to face hard life choices. No woman has to be respectable to be valuable. We can’t demand that people work in order to live, then demand that they be respected only if they do work that doesn’t challenge outdated ideas around women’s right to control their bodies. Too often mainstream feminism embraces an idea that women must follow a work path prescribed by cisgender white men in order for their labour to matter. But everyone, from a person who needs care to a stay at home parent to a sex worker, matters and deserves to be respected whether they are in their home or in an office.
This tendency to assume that all women are experiencing the same struggles has led us to a place where reproductive health imagery centres on cisgender able-bodied women to the exclusion of those who are trans, intersex, or otherwise inhabiting bodies that don’t fit the narrow idea that genitalia dictates gender. You can have no uterus and still be a woman, after all. Employment equality statistics project the idea that all women make seventy-seven cents to a man’s dollar when the reality is that white women make that much, and women of colour make less than white women. Affirmative action complaints (including those filed by white women) hinge on the idea that people of colour are getting the most benefit when the reality is that white women benefit the most from affirmative action policies.
The sad reality is that while white women are an oppressed group, they still wield more power than any other group of women — including the power to oppress both men and women of colour. There’s nothing feminist about having so many resources at your fingertips and choosing to be ignorant. Nothing empowering or enlightening in deciding that intent trumps impact. Especially when the consequences aren’t going to be experienced by you, but will instead be experienced by someone from a marginalised community.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot by Mikki Kendall is published by Bloomsbury and available to buy here.