So what’s the argument between black and white feminists all about?

  • Marie Claire is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.
  • There’s a row going on in feminist circles about intersectionality – with Women of Colour and “white feminists” squaring up against each other.

    We thought it was pretty important so we asked two journalists who happen to be good friends, Anita Bhagwandas and Alix Fox, to thrash it out…

    Anita and Alix

    ANITA: After the recent Women’s March there have been a few pictures doing the rounds – like this one where a WOC marcher holds a sign saying “Don’t forget White Women voted for Trump” while in the background three white girls with pussy hats take selfies. This picture says a lot for me, and it’s not just about the marches but a wider perspective on race and feminism right now. In my opinion, those three white women look like they’re having a bit of a crack at feminism, just for fun, so they can make themselves look good on social media. Whilst the woman of colour at the front is saying it as it truly is.

    ALIX: This is a massively complex topic which – as a person aware of my anaemic-Casper-esque whiteness – can be nerve-wracking and awkward to talk about, so please forgive and correct me if I fudge anything up! I’m open to learning – but here’s where my head’s at right now.

    Firstly, I think it’s important to recognise that a single snap doesn’t always show the whole picture. Sure, being right-on means more than bunging a cutesy pussy hat on and taking selfies to virtue signal via Instagram. However we don’t actually know these particular women, what they truly stand for and may have stood up for in the past.

    That said, there is definitely a problem with a lot of white women not fully appreciating the struggles of WOC and how they might be (consciously or otherwise) contributing to them. White people can sometimes accidentally be rather oblivious to their own privileges. I’ve probably unwittingly made my own cringey, sheltered doofus mistakes.

    But even if naïve newbie activists like those seemingly shown here haven’t got everything spot-on yet, and aren’t as woke as they could and should be, surely them showing up is better than staying at home and doing fuck all?! Change and learning has to start somewhere…

    Surely them showing up is better than staying at home and doing fuck all?!

    ANITA: Agreed – everyone has to start somewhere, but it’s the rhetoric behind WHY they showed up that gets me – and it’s so evident in this photo. And they’re only here because the issue at hand affects them. Let me explain…

    If Trump was just offensive towards just WOC, rather than women in general, there is no way this many women would have shown up. And there’s no way there would have been this much affirmative action, and mainstream media coverage either if it just affected WOC too. And that’s why the congratulatory backslapping of white women on social media really grated on me post-march.

    Of course, it’s great that everyone and anyone (all races, all genders) marches to show solidarity against Trump and his outdated sexist bullshit agenda – I’m ALL for that. But where were these white women when WOC have needed support on pivotal issues for decades? Where have they been for campaigns like #sayhername and #blacklivesmatter when people were actually dying because of their colour? You didn’t see nearly so many white women out there protesting and marching then did you? And that’s simply because it didn’t affect them.

    But where were these white women when women of colour have needed support on pivotal issues for decades?

    When the media talks about feminism, it’s always white feminism. I can’t even tell you how many times I roll my eyes reading another ‘it’s so hard for us to get the same pay and working rights as men’ feature. White feminists worry about the glass ceiling, but WOC are not so much fighting the glass ceiling, but just failing to even get in the bloody building at all. And even further back than that to the First Wave Of Feminism in the 1800’s white women were fighting for the right to work – WOC have been working (often forcibly at the hands of white women) our entire lives. We just aren’t fighting the same fight, historically, or now.

    ALIX: I hear you. And it’s crucial that white women take on – and act upon – these very valid points to become better, more inclusive feminists.

    But I do wonder, is damning and shaming them for trying and aggressively attacking them for doing too little, too late the best way to get the message across? I fear this approach could merely lead to in-fighting when, as you say, sisters should be pulling together. On occasions, it feels like more hate when we need love, division when we need to be linking arms.

    And when some of these women are so new to activism, having a go at them too harshly could drive them away or even turn them against the wider feminist movement. On the flipside, if we were all able to have calmer, constructive conversations, there’s an opportunity to advance everyone’s understanding and empathy, and strengthen the feminist cause at a critical moment.

    However, I fully appreciate that it must be sodding annoying to have a privileged white lass say ‘Can’t you just be a bit more gentle in the way you express your anger, and try and meet people in the middle?’! Poor little delicate white snowflakes, eh?! It’s become clear to me lately how exhausting and aggravating it must get for WOC who, after centuries of oppression, are now being asked to try and gently explain their position to clueless white people who you’d hope might already be well aware, and welcome them to join activist flocks so regretfully late in the game.

    I do believe talking will achieve more than taunting though, empathy will get us further than aggro, and teaming up is better than taking sides, if everyone can manage it. I know that’s a HUGE ask.

    ANITA: But why aren’t they already aware? It’s 2017! Why are we still having the same arguments that we’ve been having since the Second Wave Of Feminism in the 1960s? Can you really blame us for being angry when many white women are blissfully unaware of the issues we face and furthermore, just don’t seem to care – just like this photo demonstrates? And yet they still profess to be feminists – all for equality. But that’s equality on their terms and how they define it. Should we take them gently by the hand and say ‘please will you help us, even though you’ve never bothered before, because the world can still be a really shitty place for us – still?” That seems off to me – and the gently, gently approach hasn’t worked. More effective to me is asking white people to look outside their privilege to see what’s actually happening to WOC, here and abroad. Sometimes that needs to be shouted.

    It’s not about sides – it’s about action, and giving two fucks about the people around you. Do you realise how – post Brexit and now Trump, most recently with his horrific Muslim ban – how terrifying the world seems to us? Not only do we have a shit tonne of BS to deal with already (inequality in everything from getting into certain universities, to being asked to straighten our hair, to cultural appropriation) but now it seems like white people, and granted, not all, think that we’re all outsiders, stealing their jobs and their houses etc. That’s terrifying, and horrible.

    ALIX: Absolutely. I accept all the reasons for your anger and how it is expressed. Yet – and I’m SO colon-quiveringly nervous about saying this, because I know a lot of racist/sexist/deplorable arsebungs use similar language! – it can be disheartening to see signs blaming all white women for the actions of some. Not all white women (argh! Ifeelllikeadick) voted Trump; not all white women are wilfully ignorant; and of those who did or are, I hope some might be open to becoming more woke if we are somehow able to quit this cycle of arguing and break bread together. Which will obviously require effort on the part of white women as well as WOC.

    I’ve also found it challenging to read posts and poems asking things like ‘Where were the white females like you when Rosa Parks stayed sitting on the bus?’. I wasn’t born then, and while I acknowledge that white people have done atrocious things historically, I can’t change that – I can only change the future, and want the chance to do so. But yes, that means really listening to WOC. And chatting about this with you is helping me see how that might also mean accepting why they might feel the need to goddamn SCREAM sometimes, alongside empathic, warm discussion.

    ANITA: We should be talking about things more, agreed, and I’d actively encourage all discussions in this area. You’re right – in the US not all white women voted Trump – but 53% did! That’s a lot of people with a very clear message about their feelings towards POC

    I know we can’t change history – and I imagine that those older references of horrible racist events probably feel quite jarring to generally quite nice white folk, but I think to so many of us, it feels like there was silence then and there’s silence now. So what’s changed? That’s what those comments about Rosa Parks mean, because there’s still silence or worse, to be, having our thoughts and fears brushed off as ‘angry,’ ‘irrational’ or ‘being a little sensitive’.

    ALIX: I feel like I need to keep my eyes wide open, to see more of the truths I’m learning about; my heart open to understand them; and my mind open to thinking about how I can better support people of colour in times to come. Maybe that attitude would help a lot of us?

    ANITA: Totally – I think white women (and all people, actually) can be a bit wary of outwardly criticising their own majority, but being aware of issues affecting WOC and POC is the first step. White people are nervous about talking about race – I get that. But do some reading – chat to your friends who are POC and get another viewpoint that isn’t the dominant cultural one and listen when your friends are saying “look, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get that job because of my race’ or that a security guard followed them around a store for now reason. Let me tell you, we know. We know when we’re being consciously, or sub consciously, brushed aside or targeted because of our race. It’s not a chip on our shoulders, it’s instinct and we’ve honed it because we’ve been dealing with this shit our whole lives.

    And start really looking too. Look around your office and industry, are 99% of the people white? Why is that? I’ve noticed it so much in workplaces over the years and I always point it out, likewise if there’s no wheelchair access, I’ll always ask why not? We need to constantly be pushing past our own small view of the world to help everyone feel safer and more comfortable in it. Look around you, listen to what people are saying, and help support women – all of them.

    And it’s the little things too – fed up of just seeing white women on the covers of magazines? Tweet them your suggestions for WOC they should feature. Or if you notice that the only time Asians are on TV is to be a token cabbie, then call that out too. Or maybe you’re re-watching Girls and notice that it’s the most white-centric show ever though it’s set in New York – call that bullshit out too. Smaller misrepresentations and micro-aggressions are so hurtful, and serve as a constant reminder that to so many people, we still occupy a less important place in the world. And that needs to stop.

    ALIX: I’m going to keep learning, be kind where I can, and kick ass where I need to. And support all other women in doing the same.


    Main Image: Kevin Banatte

    Reading now