One White Feminist’s Slow, Bumbling, Slightly Embarrassing Road To Understanding Intersectionality
As will probably become very obvious over the course of this essay, I don’t have an academic background in feminism or gender studies. In fact, I’ve taken exactly one women’s studies class, my freshman year of college, and while I enjoyed the reading list and some of the class discussions, the academic side of feminism didn’t appeal to me.
For me, feminism is more of a basic instinct than a complex thought process. I have always been a feminist because I feel feminism in my bones. Since I was very young, I knew that men and women should be equal, that it was wrong that we weren’t, and that I would do whatever I could to help achieve gender equality. Of course I was a feminist.
Over the years, as I got involved in women’s rights protests and volunteer work and continued to follow feminist media, my feelings about academic feminism evolved from disinterest to disenchantment. Feminist conversations — especially online — seemed to be dominated by the academic buzzwords of the day and infighting about abstract concepts. The tone was elitist and snobby, and the content was totally off-limits to anyone who didn’t have an advanced degree in gender studies.
When I started mentoring teen girls, I saw how hesitant they were to embrace feminism, and it broke my heart. At the same time, I could hardly blame them. If I was too intimidated to join the current feminist discussion, how could I expect them to? In my eyes, feminism had gotten much more complicated than it needed to be.
This was the context in which I first heard the word “intersectionality,” and that’s why I initially dismissed it as yet another 7-syllable academic concept that was making feminism inaccessible to the majority of women.
The irony, of course, is that intersectionality is all about accessibility. It examines how race, class, and sexual orientation intersect with gender and inform people’s experiences. I know now that intersectionality is absolutely necessary to make feminism a welcoming, relevant reality for the majority of women. But I didn’t know that then. When the word first appeared on my radar, I didn’t understand it and I didn’t want to, because I assumed it was yet another overly complex distraction from the true goals of feminism.
White privilege is writing off an important concept championed by women of color because you think it’s “distracting.”
As intersectionality gained more and more attention, I read just enough about it to gain a very basic and very flawed understanding of it. I remember having a conversation with a friend (who is also white) about what I believed intersectionality to mean. “It integrates racial, cultural, and socio-economic experiences into feminism,” I said, “but if I don’t understand those experiences, I don’t know how to talk about them. It just makes me afraid to say anything, because I might get it wrong.”
White privilege is believing that you can — and should — speak for marginalized women instead of letting them speak for themselves.
And so I continued on my willfully ignorant path until earlier this summer (I told you my journey was long and embarrassing), when another white feminist showed me exactly how devastating a lack of intersectionality can be.
In the wake of the horrendous news that George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, musician Questlove wrote a staggeringly honest and beautiful essay about his experience as a black man in America, called “Trayvon Martin And I Ain’t Shit.” In it, he detailed the myriad ways he’s been profiled, mistreated, and marginalized. He wrote about how his appearance as a large, dark-skinned man is coded by society as “threatening,” so he’s learned to conduct himself in a way that keeps other people comfortable. “Imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own,” he wrote. “It’s like the opposite of entitlement.” One of his anecdotes involved finding himself in his apartment building’s elevator with a beautiful woman. He wanted to flirt with her, but she was clearly afraid of him. The exchange hurt him deeply.
His words were heartbreaking and enlightening. It was a timely indictment of our sick society that had cast Trayvon as an expendable thug and protected his murderer.
In spite of this, a white feminist named Kim Foster felt the need to write a response to Questlove, from a (white) woman’s perspective. She discussed how scary it can be, as a woman, to be in a situation like the one Questlove described — alone in an elevator with a man you don’t know. Did Foster have a point? Yes, but it wasn’t the right point, and it wasn’t the right time to make it, and it wasn’t her turn to talk. “This is one of those times,” she wrote, “that is truly not all about race, it’s mostly about gender and power.”
White privilege is questioning the validity of a black man’s experience because it interferes with your brand of feminism.
Questlove’s experiences absolutely were all about race, and a white woman being given a platform to devalidate his experiences? That’s all about race too. Foster believed that her experience as a woman, even a middle-class white woman, trumped Questlove’s experience as a black man. I recognized my own ignorance in her earnest words. Suddenly I didn’t want to be part of a feminist movement that was so tone-deaf and dismissive. This was the moment where it became painfully obvious to me that intersectionality was necessary for a truly inclusive feminist movement. And for every minute I had spent refusing to accept that, I was part of the problem.
Why had it taken me so long to get this point through my skull? Why was it so easy for me to ignore the arguments for intersectionality when they came from feminists of color, but when confronted with the bungling of intersectionality by a white feminist, I heard the point loud and clear?
The answer is yet another argument for intersectionality: because women who look like me were and are controlling the feminist narrative. Voices of women of color were easy for me to ignore because they don’t get nearly as much attention; their words are questioned, they are stolen, they are silenced. Kim Foster’s voice came through loud and clear because of the outrage it caused, yes, but also because she’s white. Her race gives her instant credibility in the mainstream feminist conversation, when women of color have to earn the right to talk.
White privilege is believing the dominant narrative is the only narrative.
But I’m also accountable for tuning out those voices. I’m guilty of pretending alternative messages didn’t exist when, in fact, I just wasn’t seeking them out. I’m guilty of passively accepting the narrative of mainstream feminism without questioning it. I’m guilty of not working to elevate the voices of women (and men!) of color who had been talking about the need for intersectionality long, long before a white woman so publicly biffed it.
I decided I didn’t want to be insulated by my privilege anymore. I started seeking out feminist perspectives from women of color. I started reading critiques of the white feminist movement. I set aside the corporate-tinged “Lean In” messaging of modern feminism and sought out stories from feminists who were struggling to feed their families. I followed the #solidarityisforwhitewomen thread on Twitter like a hawk. I started listening. I started asking questions. I will never shut up about feminism, but I have learned that feminism will not succeed if I, as a white woman, don’t learn to shut up every once in awhile and make room for others to speak.
I used to believe that feminism was simple: all women are equal to men, all women are in this together, boom, done. For a long time, I didn’t think feminism should be more complicated than that, but it is more complicated. Intersectionality is not an optional concept; it’s a truth, and as long as white feminists like me refuse to acknowledge it, the less effective and relevant feminism will be.
I wanted to write about my journey to understanding intersectionality not because I think I deserve a gold star (if anything, I deserve a failing grade for my painfully steep learning curve), but because I think a lot of white feminists are like me — our goals and values might be in the right place, but our privilege has insulated us to the need for intersectionality and the diverse concerns of the diverse group of women who make up the modern feminist movement. We want to keep feminism simple to achieve our goals, but we don’t realize that “keeping it simple” often means shutting out voices and experiences that don’t look like ours. If we want to be part of a strong, welcoming sisterhood, we must understand the effects of our privilege.
When male friends and family members come to me and ask for help understanding feminism and being a good ally, they often have no idea where to start. I always tell them the same thing: listen to women. Let them talk, ask them questions, and truly listen to what they have to say. I’m still learning about intersectionality and the way my white privilege informs all of my experiences, including my feminism. I’m learning a lot, actually. But most importantly, I’m listening. I’m sorry it took me so long.