Sisterhood Blog

Feminism’s Race Problem Surfaces (Again)

By Sarah Seltzer

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Last week Twitter blew up with the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. The discussion began after a notoriously abusive “male feminist” had a very frightening and nasty public breakdown.

But the hashtag itself, started by blogger Mikki Kendall, contained tweets expressing frustration, hurt and, at times, some withering intellectual takedowns of aspects of mainstream white feminism — and by extension a particular strain of mealy-mouthed white liberalism — that either doesn’t take people of color or other marginalized folks into account or in many cases actively excludes and disparages them.

After this month’s conversation about Jews and white privilege here at the Sisterhood, I recommend absorbing what the conversation reveals about the racism that can linger in so-called progressive spaces:

The conversation’s text and subtext about whose voices are elevated in the media also speaks to something troubling in the professional world: the way success comes through “networking.” In fact, networking is a value preached in business, media and tech circles. In theory, it’s great to “make connections” and use them to get ahead. In practice, this too often means not really expanding one’s network, but rather working through already-existing structures and mentorships. And surprise, surprise, those existing networks are far from perfectly egalitarian and inclusive. As Brittney Cooper reminds us in this poignant post at Salon about interracial friendships fading away over time, a side effect of racism is that it polices the parameters of relationships — and therefore the parameters of who has whose backs and who hands whom job offers.

The bigotry within feminism has existed since the beginning of American social movements, pre-dating Seneca Falls. That longstanding schism is connected to the failures of more recent strains of feminism. We have women CEOs but not universal daycare; we have sexual harassment rules governing corporations and yet immigrants, native women, and inmates have little recourse from sexual violence; we talk about the right of mothers to work, but not the rights of workers who take care of their children. The list goes on and on.

Essentially, feminists have squeezed open room at the top for a few women, mostly white ones, but the movement’s greater task, not yet accomplished, is to wholly re-imagine a world that lacks such a defined top and bottom to begin with. As long as there is a top, after all, the instinct of many will be to race there, pushing and kicking others down in a frenzy of scrambling.


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