The importance of talking about and unpacking the issue of race within white feminism was on full display in Atlanta on Friday evening, when best-selling feminist authors Erica Jong and Roxane Gay gave the keynote chat for the 10th annual AJC Decatur Book Festival. Gay delightfully kicked off the conversation with a nod to #BeyDay, and the authors' wide-ranging conversation covered feminism, writing, empathy, and even the presidential race. Best known for her 1973 debut novel Fear of Flying, Jong's writing was seminal to both second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution. Meanwhile, Bad Feminist author Gay has become one of today's leading writers, thinkers, and tweeters on 21st-century feminism, as well as racial identity, privilege, and culture. But when the talk circled around to intersectional feminism, a palpable tension emerged. During the Q&A, a woman asked Jong and Gay about the hashtag #feminismisforwhitewomen and how the feminist movement can improve racial inclusivity. Jong bristled at the suggestion that white feminists have overlooked women color, at one point categorizing the hashtag as a product of "historical ignorance."
I asked Erica Jong about #feminismisforwhitewomen & she said feminism has always been interested in women of color. About to throw tomatoes— Randa Jarrar (@randajarrar) September 5, 2015
Perhaps reflecting a generational gap between the second-wave and social justice-minded feminists of today, Jong briefly persisted in defending mainstream white feminists as instrumental to making the lives and interests of women of color known.
Erica Jong also claimed "no one" would know about Sojourner Truth had it not been for Gloria Steinem writing about her. Oh word? #dbf2015— Saeed Jones (@theferocity) September 5, 2015
In fact, when suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida Husted Harper, and Matilda Joslyn Gage published A History of Woman Suffrage in 1902, Sojourner Truth was the only African-American woman mentioned in the text, despite the ongoing efforts of many Black women at the time advocating for both racial and gender equality. Moreover, in 1913, African-American journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells had to defiantly walk alongside white suffragists at the National American Women's Suffrage Association's Washington D.C. march in the face of organizers' requests that black women remain at the back of the parade line.
Those, of course, represent only two instances among an historical legacy of women of color being both directly and indirectly displaced from the white women-led feminist movements of the 20th century. Gay resisted taking Jong to women's history class, though. Throughout the appearance, Gay kept her cool. In a follow-up question from another woman directly asking for Gay's thoughts on the problem of white feminism, Gay explained the need for intersectionality. Upon hearing the term, Jong asked for clarification, though maybe — just maybe — for lack of hearing rather than lack of understanding. But when it comes to matters of race and the work that needs to be done to ensure that #BlackLiveMatter within feminism as well, Gay had the last word:
The work of fixing racism is not something we, as ppl of color, have to do. We don't have the problem. "We're good." - @rgay— Sheree L Greer (@shereelgreer) September 5, 2015
All in all, witnessing a second-wave feminist vanguard defending white feminists as unerringly inclusive of women of color to a feminist woman of color crystallized the necessity of these ongoing and, like Friday's, uncomfortable conversations and confrontations on matters of race and identity within mainstream feminism. While Jong's conversational missteps can be partially attributed to coming from an earlier era of feminism that was indeed fraught with polarization and ostracism, white feminism and privilege oversight is still alive. But to make feminism the truly inclusive movement for all women that Jong assumes it to be, it's high time white feminists face and own up to this unsavory past and present.