10 Things White Feminists Should Know To Better Understand Intersectionality

Politically and socially, the most powerful demographic, with the exception of White men, is White women. Though still underrepresented in key economic and power positions, White women enjoy numerous social benefits, maintain political power as a “majority” voting body, are still allowed access to the resources provided by White men through marriage or other familial ties and are protected by patriarchal ideas of fragile femininity.

This social hierarchy of “Whiteness,” regardless of gender, becomes particularly evident in the nearly male-absent world of feminism. Though feminism purports itself to be a movement that represents the needs of all women, White dominance remains stubbornly omnipresent, marginalizing the voices and needs of women of color.

For that reason, I’ve created this list to help White women better understand intersectionality and come to better grips with the hurdles that Black and minority women face. It is not meant to splinter, or further divide the feminist body, but merely written with the hope that the power bestowed upon White women, as a result of White supremacy, can be used for the betterment of others.

As a Black woman and the writer of this piece, I would like acknowledge the limitations of this list, as it primarily deals with my experiences and research. I do not claim or wish to be the voice of all minority women, but I present this offering as one Black woman’s perspective.

1. If you don’t get it, don’t feel bad: Intersectionality is such a complex idea, even the American legal system struggled with it. As described by Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in her essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” when Black women raised a lawsuit against Ford General Motors in the mid- 70s, for being unfairly discriminated against and laid off because of both sexism and racism, the court system refused to allow the plaintiffs to create an argument that was both race and sex-based. Though the courts acknowledged there was indeed discrimination, they failed to recognize and even feared that accepting such an argument could lead to the creation of extremely powerful, legally protected minority:

The plaintiffs allege that they are suing on behalf of black women, and that therefore this lawsuit attempts to combine two causes of action into a new special sub-category, namely, a combination of racial and sex-based discrimination…. The plaintiffs are clearly entitled to a remedy if they have been discriminated against. However, they should not be allowed to combine statutory remedies to create a new “super-remedy” which would give them relief beyond what the drafters of the relevant statutes intended. Thus, this lawsuit must be examined to see if it states a cause of action for race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively either, but not a combination of both.

The idea that Black women face multiple hardships because of both racism and sexism is a particularly difficult and harsh reality to face. But feminism must do so, and do so even better than our court systems once did, in order to thoroughly accommodate the needs of all women.

2. While White women fight for the right to work, minority women beg for the right to not. The idea that a household can be headed by a male breadwinner has historically been a foreign, out of reach concept for the vast majority of women of color. Since the country’s inception, Black women have worked both in and out of the homesphere; in the fields alongside men during slavery and emancipation, and more recently as housekeepers, factory workers, nannies, teachers and even business professionals, among many other occupations. Thus, Black women were never truly barred from access to the working world.

When the Civil Rights Era allowed Black families access to a middle class lifestyle, some women of color were finally awarded the opportunity to be homemakers. However, that social “elevation” was short lived. As it became less economically feasible for a household — White or Black — to be maintained on a single income (Google the Two-Income Trap), Black female opportunity to be a largely, stay-at-home population almost completely vanished, once again.

This continues a long standing history of inequality between White women and Black women, where the choice between working and staying at home has consistently existed for one demographic, but not the other. And yet the fight for such rights of “choice” continues to be presented as furthering the “female” agenda. When Black women have widely gained the right not to work, then feminism can claim the fight for “the right to work” benefited all women.

3. White women have long attempted to — and sometimes succeeded in — silencing the voices of Black women. When Sojourner Truth rose to challenge notions that women were weak and fragile, White feminists urged her to be silent, fearing that her voice would divert attention from women’s rights and issues to emancipation. Here are her words:

“Look at my arms! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me-and ain’t I a woman? I would work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it-and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have born thirteen children, and seen most of ‘em sold into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me-and ain’t I a woman?”

Her speech drove the feminist movement forward by pointing out the logical fallacies of female fragility, since Black women labored equally as hard as Black men and perhaps even harder than White men. Yet, even White women did not want her story heard. This marginalization of minority female voices by White feminism, out of fear that minority issues will overshadow gender issues, has been a consistent them historically and continues to plague the feminist movement.

4. Access to femininity is a White Female privilege. The legal protections awarded to White women, that criminalized rape, were not historically extended to Black women, because they were not considered women. This quote taken from a Texas courtroom in the late 1800, unapologetically demonstrates this truth: “What has been said by some of our courts about an unchaste female being a comparatively rare exception is no doubt true where the population is composed largely of the Caucasian race, but we would blind our- selves to actual conditions if we adopted this rule where another race that is largely immoral constitutes an appreciable part of the population.”

Both femininity and womanhood are defined by White patriarchal norms, like chastity and confinement to the home-sphere that, as previously discussed, have long been denied or off-bounds to hypersexualized, working Black women.

For that reason, Black female sexuality and chastity have never been regulated or protected by the law. In other words, in the past a man could have raped or victimized a Black woman with little to no fear of impunity and today overly sexed images of Black women are the mainstream norm in every media medium from hip-hop music videos and lyrics to TV and movies.

Today, society’s refusal to bestow femininity onto the Black woman looks a bit different but still shapes the Black female experience. Ideas of the “strong Black woman” seem practically impenetrable, creating the widespread perception that black women do not need emotional support or help, despite encountering various hardships. “Superwoman syndrome,” where Black women take on numerous responsibilities and burdens, often to their own detriment, persists. Black women are less likely than their White counterparts to seek counseling, fearful of being perceived as “weak” or incapable. Hypersexualized imagery of Black women continue, with very little outrage, because it is still societally accepted, to a large extent. And yet, there is little to no feminists advocating for Black female access to femininity.

5. After years of intentional and unintentional marginalization of minority female voices, White women have become the authoritative voice of all feminism, making it far too easy for minority men to dismiss female advancement as a “white” agenda. To put it simply: minority people want, in no way, to further White supremacy. Therefore, movements that operate from a mostly “White” platform are easily dismissed by people of color — and even more specifically men of color– as oppressive or furthering a “White agenda”, despite the best of intentions. This makes Black and minority women’s call for rights in their own community even more vulnerable to attack or neglect.

A similar trend occurs as the LGBT movement extends its political influence, globally. In regions and countries where the fight for gay right’s is understood to be a “western thing,” many condemn the movement on the grounds that it is pushing a “White, Western agenda.” The powerful link between Whiteness and feminism and/or Whiteness and gay civil rights, must be weakened in order to create movements that can have greater, universal impacts. How can this be achieved? Step one: increase the visibility of minorities in both movements.

6. Money is power and White women just have more of it. With the wealth gap between Black households and White households at a staggering $100,000, by conservative estimates, it should come as no surprise that much of that wealth is inherited and/or accessed by White women. Wealth increases educational opportunity, the availability of proper health care, opportunities for financial investment and allows for a generally more stable lifestyle. Access to wealth also directly and indirectly affects mental health by affording those with money the best available therapies and counseling and greatly reducing the stress associated with financial burden or instability.

7. The feminist fight for respect for sex workers, despite inequality in pay based on race, demonstrates a White female centric “feminism.” While White feminists advocate for female [White] sex workers to gain societal respect, minority women are not afforded the simple right to equal pay in the same industry. The premium paid for White female bodies amounts to more than two times the earnings of Black women and Hispanic women in the same industry. Yet, the narrative that currently dominates feminist circles, where prostitution, stripping and pornography are concerned, revolves around the importance of legitimizing sex work and the women who do it.

Women should be awarded dignity and respect despite their occupation — that most certainly is a cause worthy of fighting for. However, it should not overshadow the economic inequalities faced by women of color performing the same work. Especially when we consider the reality that no Black woman’s dignity has ever been legitimized by White society, not even Oprah or the First Lady, who have both encountered racial discrimination and humiliation, despite their social status. The movement must orient itself around equality for all women, beginning with equal pay and access to work. Otherwise, it continues to demonstrate feminism’s inability to advocate for all women, not only White women.

8. There is a STD epidemic in the Black and minority communities, having huge impacts on the women, but feminism could care less. According to the CDC, the Black female demographic contracts STDs, including Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Syphilis at 6- 15 times the rate of their White female counterpart, mainly due to a lack of reproductive health education and access to healthcare. American Indian women contract these diseases at 1-5 times the rate of White women and Hispanic women are two times more likely than White women to suffer from these infections. Where are the feminist campaigns to end this vast problem?

9. Mirror, mirror on the wall, society only reflects the fairest of them all. Most minority women have adolescent stories filled with dreams of wanting their skin color to be lighter and their hair to be longer or straighter. This is a direct result of society’s lack of supportive representation of minority women and girls in the media (books, television, music, advertising, fashion etc). There have been many efforts to increase the visibility of women of color, today’s standard of beauty still reflect society’s longstanding adoration of “Whiteness” and White femininity. Many movements have been spearheaded by Black women to combat the issue. For example, Bethann Hardison’s campaign to attack discrimination on high fashion runways garnered support from Black women like Naomi Campbell and Iman, but White women were oddly absent from the conversation, en masse.

10. The psychological impacts of slavery, Jim Crow perpetual oppression and dehumanization of the Black population remains widely unexamined by feminism, despite its egregious effects on Black women.  The historical and continued dehumanization of the Black population, the hypersexualization of its women, the emasculation of its men and the perpetuation of stereotypes like the Black male reprobate or “thug” myth and the infamous Black female “welfare queen,” employment and workplace discrimination — to name a few examples — has had incalculable impacts on the mental health and well-being of the individuals in Black community. In the absence of examination of these psychological, there can never truly be Black female progress.

Please feel free to add more points in the comments section, especially points that specifically pertain to the struggles of other minority female groups. Together, we can all enlighten one-another and build a more diverse feminism.