Feminism means equal rights for all women, not just white women

Feminism means equal rights for all women, not just white women
6 min read
19 Oct, 2018
Comment: White feminist leaders must reach out to women of colour to heal a growing divide, writes Ruby Hamad.
Women of colour must be included in the leadership of feminist campaigns, says Hamad [NurPhoto]

There is a rift in Western feminism between white women and women of colour that has been steadily growing wider.

Although feminists of colour are growing braver in highlighting the ways in which mainstream feminism erases and marginalises us, we have also made attempts to bridge this gap by pointing out that our concerns are not with white women per se but with "white feminism" - a term coined to describe a Western feminism that remains centred on issues affecting white, primarily middle-class and wealthy women.

Often this activism is at the expense of women of colour, either by ignoring our concerns and critiques, or by appropriating our work while pushing us aside.

The Me Too movement has been a prime example of this. Although begun by African-American Tarana Burke in 2007, the movement only gained mainstream traction last year in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, when actor Alyssa Milano turned it into a hashtag, encouraging women to share their stories of assault and harassment online.

Since then, the movement has been dominated by white celebrities, some of whom, such as Rose McGowan and Asia Argento, have themselves fallen from grace in spectacular and very public ways.

Before Argento, the Italian actor who was one of the first women to accuse Weinstein of rape, was outed as an alleged abuser herself, she was lauded at Cannes for her rousing speech denouncing Weinstein and the many industry people who covered for him. She was introduced to the stage by Ava DuVernay, the African-American director of Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, who remained by her side for the duration of the speech and was filmed consoling and congratulating Argento afterwards.

Later, Argento took to Twitter to grumble that apart from Spike Lee, who had co-incidentally just won the Palme D'or, no-one had shown her any support following her speech.

This collision of feminism and racism is by no means confined to the world of entertainment

When someone on Twitter pressed Argento as to DuVernay's response since "she was right there", Argento replied bluntly: "No response."

This might seem like a minor oversight, nothing to focus on given the nature of Argento's speech, but in a world where women of colour are both erased and demonised, to portray DuVernay so falsely in such a public manner is exactly what we talk about when we talk about a white feminism that elevates itself on the backs of women of colour.

When Argento was politely corrected by DuVernay, she declined to offer an apology.

This collision of feminism and racism is by no means confined to the world of entertainment. Earlier this month, Diane Smith-Gander, a prominent Australian business leader and Chair of Transfield, the corporation that oversees Australia's offshore detention centres, invoked Me Too when she took a public swipe at local shock jock Alan Jones, accusing him of bullying fellow business woman Louise Herron, who is the CEO of the Sydney Opera House.

In a radio interview, Jones had railed at Herron because she refused to allow the iconic Opera House sails to be used to advertise a horse race in which Jones has stakes. The radio host then threatened to personally make some calls to the state government get her fired if she didn't comply. Smith-Gander blasted Jones for being a bad role model, linking his behaviour to the high rates of violence against women in Australia, and declaring, "men bullying women is the worst form of bullying there is".

All of this would be commendable if not for the inconvenient fact that Transfield has seen overseen some truly shocking treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in detention, including of course, women and children. This includes multiple suicides and suicide attempts, the denial of abortion to assaulted women, severe mental health issues in child detainees leading to a condition known as "withdrawal syndrome", in which traumatised children simply stop eating, drinking, and interacting.

Perhaps most shockingly, and certainly most suspect given Smith-Gander's invocation of Me Too, under her watch Transfield has been the target of allegations of official cover-ups of sexual assaults, with female detainees on Nauru claiming their abusers were flown to the mainland to escape the allegations.

Not only does this demonstrate "white feminism" in action by promoting the concerns of white women under the guise of equality and ending violence against women, but Smith-Gander goes even further by appropriating feminist discourse to serve the interests of institutional and state power - the very same power structures that "bully" all women, be they white women or women of colour.

Both Smith-Gander and the woman she was defending from Jones' attack - and let me be clear this is not condoning his behaviour which was unacceptable on its own merits - are powerful, wealthy women. It is unacceptable, yet sadly unusual, that a woman overseeing this treatment of desperate human beings would use feminism and gender based violence to promote herself.

Even less unusual is that no white feminist leaders have criticised her for it; rather she received a glowing write-up in the pages of the mainstream media.

White feminists who loudly decry a 'lack of diversity' in the public sphere still routinely organise conferences with a startling lack of women of colour

White women have benefitted enormously from the work of feminists of colour and anti-racist advocates. The calls for workplace diversity, which has always included white women among those needing greater representation, has overwhelmingly benefitted white women; statistics from the US reveal that gender diversity is the only area seeing significant improvement in inclusion, with tech companies such as Intel and Slack reporting up to 40 percent more women in their ranks.

But of the 65 hired by Slack in figures released by the company two years ago, 62 were white and 3 were black. At the same time, even as the majority of white women continue to vote for male political candidates that are obstacles to all women, they also feel comfortable enough to brazenly appropriate the form of protest championed by black athletes including Colin Kapaernick who started "taking a knee" during the pre-game national anthem - a silent protest that cost him his football career.

Following the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court despite the allegations of assault from Christine Ford, white women in the US decided they would "join" the protest by stripping it of its racial justice essence and turning it into a protest against rape culture.

Meanwhile, here in Australia, despite women of colour fighting alongside our white counterparts, it seems whenever gains are made, they happen if not directly at our expense, then certainly without our inclusion. White feminists who loudly object to all-male boardrooms and all-male panels, and decry a "lack of diversity" in the public sphere still routinely organise conferences and workplaces with a startling lack of women of colour.

Time and again, white feminists turn the other way when people of colour seek racial justice and liberation, only to appropriate their work when it becomes convenient. It is no wonder then that women of colour are losing patience.

White feminist leaders have to make an effort to reach out to women of colour to heal this rift before it becomes irreparable.

Ruby Hamad is a writer and Phd candidate in media and postcolonial studies at the University of New South Wales. Born in Lebanon and raised in Australia, she splits her time between Sydney and New York. 

Follow her on Twitter: @rubyhamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.