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How to recover from being a white feminist

Sep. 14, 2017
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Welcome to all my “‘white feminists” out there who wish to recover! First of all, thank you for taking the step of coming here to join me in this journey. Now, some good news: recovering from being a “white feminist” is absolutely within your control. To aid in that process, I have created several steps for you to follow. If you observe these guidelines, there is hope for you to adopt a more intersectional, 4th-wave style of feminism.

Now, I myself am in recovery from being a “white feminist”, so I know firsthand the lack of real hardships we have gone through. If at any time you feel defensive, remember that this is totally normal during the early stages of recovery—just know that it’s your privilege talking. Check yourself, and keep going. 

With all that in mind, let’s begin! 

1. Realize that you are not alone.

Realizing that our issues as white women are not universal among all women is the first step to recovery. I understand that our privilege as white women—and often as straight, cis, or able-bodied women—makes us think that our issues are the only ones that exist. News flash: they are not! Our issues may be the only ones that exist to us, but we are not alone in feeling or being oppressed. 

Women of color, trans women, women with disabilities, and women from other marginalized communities face discrimination and oppression that the typical ‘'white feminist'’ has never faced, nor will ever face, because most of us are not women of color, trans women, women with disabilities, or women from marginalized communities. In fact, women from marginalized communities such as these face other forms of discrimination (like racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, etc.) which intersect with the sexism they already face. In other words, we need to open our eyes.

That being established, we must recognize how selfish and problematic it is for us as feminists to only concern ourselves with the issues of white women, who face the least amount of oppression. In order to be a feminist, we must take into account the experiences of all women and the intersecting discriminations that they face. This concept is called intersectional feminism, and it is what we will strive for in our recovery from “white feminism”. 

If you’re still in denial about being a “white feminist”, once again, you are not alone. Not so long ago, I too was a “white feminist” in denial—the kind of “white feminist” who thought I was intersectional when, in reality, I was not. I grew up in a family of feminists, and I prided myself on being ahead of the curve when it came to feminist issues and feminist thought. That was my problem right there. I assumed that I already knew everything there was to know about feminism, so I didn’t bother to go looking for more answers, because I didn’t think they existed. Well, they existed, all right—they just didn’t exist in my pretty little white-girl world. Like so many others, I was blind to my privilege.

Thankfully, I got a wake-up call.

I got involved with the Free the Nipple Campaign after I graduated college. The Free the Nipple Campaign is a movement and grassroots campaign to end censorship and sexualization of the female body. Sounds cool, right? It is, and I would like to say that those are the aspects of the campaign I still wholeheartedly agree with. But the manner in which members of the campaign go about this is by rallying and protesting in public… topless. The idea is to normalize the female body rather than sexualize it. The manner of protest is also meant to bring media attention to the cause. Well, it works, because that’s what I was doing when I got arrested.

My friend and I decided to go topless at a Bernie Sanders rally at the Wiltern in Los Angeles. We were yelling and getting the crowd all riled up, and everyone loved us—that is, everyone except for the numerous policemen who lined the streets. Eventually they grabbed us and put us in cuffs. I thought I was so badass. I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t until very recently that I realized that my actions were not those of a badass but of a privileged ass. 

I didn’t think twice about taking my top off, running around, and screaming things in front of an onslaught of cops. Women of color and trans women don’t have the luxury of not thinking twice about that. They don’t have the privilege of not assuming that anything bad would happen to them in that scenario.

My intentions were to stand up for the rights of all women. However, by doing so with an action that is exclusionary of certain communities of women, my actions were regressive for feminism rather than progressive. By not including the experiences of women of color, my actions furthered the belief that the issues of white women take precedence over women of color. This is what the practice of white feminism does: it erases the experiences and issues of women from marginalized communities until the only issues left standing are those of white women.

White ladies, you’re not the only ones being oppressed, so stop making it out like you are. Women are dying for you to stop erasing them—literally. 

2. Remember that others have gone through this too.

As you move forward in your recovery, you will begin to see that you are not the only “white feminist”—not by a long shot. There are countless other “white feminists” out there. In fact, what if I told you that the entire mainstream feminist movement has excluded the experiences of other women in favor of the experiences that privileged cisgender white women face? Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the priorities of the feminist movement over the past few decades…

First Wave: 

The first wave of feminism took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a focus on creating equality for women from a legal standpoint. The main objective was women’s suffrage. So far so good, right? Wrong. Although this first wave opened up the idea that women should have the same opportunities as men, it was solely concerned with the opportunities of white women and white women alone.

Let us now remember a “white feminist” who was never able to recover: Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She pioneered tirelessly for the rights of white women to vote while completely and utterly disregarding women of color. (In fact, she infamously argued that it would be a disgrace for people of color to earn the right to vote before white women!) Let her legacy be a reminder to us that even the most famous feminists were often actually “white feminists” with racist tendencies. 

Second Wave:

The second wave of feminism began in the 1960s and lasted until the early ‘90s. The focus of this wave of feminism was on fostering equality with regards to social issues, like reproductive rights, equality in the workplace, sexual freedom, and shifting family values. This wave also involved a renewed focus on domestic violence and rape. Although the widened scope of gender equality issues tackled in this wave was a positive development, the utter lack of inclusion of women who were not white, cis-het, and upper middle class was its fatal flaw.

Second-wave feminism was the founder of “white feminism”. This is where our parents learned their feminism, and it is where we will look to learn what not to do. They made their mistakes, and now it is our responsibility to learn from them and re-teach them. 

3. Know that you can always ask for help.

It can be hard to come to grips with the fact that we were never actually intersectional feminists because we failed to fully recognize that feminism includes all women, not just white women. It can be even harder to learn how to include other women’s issues in our feminism, especially considering that we’ve never even acknowledged most of these issues before now. But just know that we can always ask for help… by using Google. 

I know what you’re thinking, and no, we can’t just ask the women we have been excluding our entire lives for instructions on how to include them. This may be difficult, considering we have been living our lives with minimal accountability towards anyone other than ourselves and other white women, but we are going to have to figure out how our feminism has been flawed all on our own. 

I would now like to share a moment during my recovery when I relapsed. I had just had my epiphany about my little Free the Nipple stunt and was further reflecting upon my ignorance. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was indeed a “white feminist”. It was my lowest point. But I was eager to dig my way out of my hole of exclusivity. I had the idea to post a question on social media asking women of color, trans women, women with disabilities and women from other marginalized communities how I could be more intersectional in my practice of feminism. No. No. No. And one more time: no. 

Thankfully, I never pressed the button to post it, but it doesn’t matter. I still had the thought to ask people to take time out of their lives to explain to me how I could be less oppressive to them. Not only does this question reek of the privilege of someone who thinks they deserve answers without doing the work to get them, but it also forces the people being asked these questions to relive moments of their oppression, which can be very traumatic. As the great Audre Lorde said, it is not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressor. Additionally, asking questions like this expresses a lack of genuine concern: if I really wanted to learn about what I’m asking, I would avail myself of the many terrific resources that exist for free all over the internet.

If I wanted to learn how to be a surgeon, I wouldn’t walk up to a surgeon and tell them it’s their job to educate me. Years of watching Grey’s Anatomy have taught me that I need to go to medical school, intern at a hospital, become a resident, commit to a fellowship, and so on and so forth. If I want to learn something, it is my responsibility—and my responsibility alone—to learn it. 

If I truly cared about being a more intersectional feminist, I wouldn’t put the burden on someone else to teach me how. I would find out myself. 

4. Understand that the ability to recover has been with you all along.

As we get further along in our recovery you may start to notice that the answers to recovery have been with you all along. Like, probably right next to you. Like, maybe these women have been yelling at you to hear them all along, but you just couldn’t be bothered to listen. 

I realize that this is a difficult concept to grasp. Even now, you are probably thinking that that has never happened to you. You are probably thinking that if someone had told you that your practice of feminism was harmful to other women, you would have listened and stopped completely, right?

With that question in mind, I would like to lead you through an exercise. Close your eyes and think of a time when you were talking to a man and you tried to explain what male privilege is, or what feminism is. Did he actively listen? Did he believe you? Or did he just get defensive and try to mansplain how male privilege doesn’t exist? My money's on “he got defensive”. How frustrating was it when he chose to defend himself rather than actually listen to what you were saying? Pretty damn frustrating, I’ll bet. And yet that is what white women do to our fellow sisters all the time. We are so adamant about being champions of equality that we refuse to think we are anything but.

There are examples of this everywhere. I would like to use any of the numerous examples provided by Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, or Amy Schumer as case studies of quintessential “white feminists” refusing to acknowledge their faults or listen when other women point out how flawed their feminism is. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, the example I will provide will be from my own history as a “white feminist”.

I was planning another rally for Free the Nipple, and I asked one of my closest friends if she was coming. I assumed she would, because she was also an avid feminist. When she told me she wasn’t sure about going, I told her that she didn’t have to go topless if that made her uncomfortable. When she still said she didn’t think she was going to make it, I was slightly offended, not understanding why she wouldn’t want to come out and support me and the cause. I didn’t realize until much later that she probably didn’t feel comfortable participating in the rally because she was a woman of color, which turned out to be the exact reason.

When I found this out, I asked my friend why she didn’t tell me at the time. Apparently, she had tried, but I didn’t really listen to her—I just brushed it off as a not-good-enough excuse. That one hit me like a brick. Not only did I disregard her totally legitimate fears of participating in the rally, but I didn’t even recognize that she had tried to tell me her fears in the first place. 

Although I would love to bury this fact deep down and never speak of it again, I can’t. It is our duty as recovering “white feminists” to speak out on our past mistakes and make amends. We can’t keep erasing other women and other issues to make ourselves look better, or to keep the focus on us. We have the skills and the knowledge to fully recover, and it’s time we do so.

5. Remember these steps in the real world.

You are almost through the steps. You now know that white women are not the only women whose issues matter. You now know that the mainstream feminist movement is founded on the values of white feminism. You now know that you can (and are obligated to) find the answers about these issues on your own on the internet. You now know that you need to listen to women from marginalized communities in order to be an ally. These are all good things. But now comes the challenge of applying these concepts to your actual practice of feminism and activism. This requires you to be constantly vigilant and conscious. Remember: you’ve been seeing the world through your privileged and narrow lens your entire life, and it’s going to take constant effort to readjust that lens to have a wider scope. 

Which brings me to another moment during my recovery when I relapsed. It wasn’t that long ago. In fact it was as recent as the Women’s March. I was very excited about attending the march as a newly enlightened feminist. I made a sign of a vagina that opened in the middle: written inside it were the words, “Ask before entering”. My sign was all the rage. People constantly asked to take pictures of it, I did little dances opening and closing it. I thought I was such an adorable and witty feminist. Wrong again!

My priorities were focused on going to the march and having a funny sign, rather than on the march itself. The women’s march was meant to signify resistance and resilience and solidarity for all women. It was about taking a stand against a presidency that doesn’t just threaten the reproductive rights and wellbeing of women but our actual lives. As a white, cisgender, able-bodied woman, I do not face the same risks and oppression that other women face every single day. There are many women who do not have the luxury of not thinking about these issues seriously and critically. I have privilege, and it showed through my casual attitude and misplaced priorities on a day that was meant for women like me to support women of color, trans women, women with disabilities, and women from other marginalized communities. I should have realized this, but instead I was busy making a vagina sign—which, as it happens, is exclusionary to women who don’t have a vagina.

I of course realized this later, but it doesn’t matter. I failed to apply what I had learned to a real-world situation. I can’t keep calling myself an intersectional feminist if I do not implement the practices of one all day, every day. This requires constant vigilance, critical thought and analysis, and taking a step back. I am committed to that process—are you?