I hope that the actor’s acknowledgment that she has benefited from being white will lead others to ask themselves hard questions too
Feminism, to quote bell hooks, is for everybody. It’s a simple enough statement. Utopian in its vision, it has however proved, for the very constituency who should have been most receptive to its premise – feminists – contentious. A simmering argument within the movement, along with debates about how far it has included working-class, LGBTQI and disabled women, has concerned race.
It was there when in 1851 abolitionist Sojourner Truth asked the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, “Ain’t I a Woman?”. There she was demanding that white feminists include black women’s struggles in the fight for women’s rights. It was there, too, in Audre Lorde’s open letter to Mary Daly in which she wrote that “the history of white women who are unable to hear black women’s words, or to maintain dialogue with us, is long and discouraging”.
The very mention of the word ‘white’ raises hackles rather than serving as a catalyst for introspection
It is a reality actor and activist Emma Watson acknowledged this week. To have a prominent British feminist question, as the result of a black woman’s words, “What are the ways I have benefited from being white?” and consider how she is implicated, as all white people are, in white supremacy by asking, “In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist?”, has felt almost unthinkable.
Over five years ago Chitra Nagarajan and I, both members of an activist group called Black Feminist, wrote: “The feminist story belongs to all women everywhere but that is not the impression you would receive from the mainstream media, where it seems that all feminists are concerned about is a particular type of woman.” That woman was invariably white and middle-class. We were, along with our fellow black feminist activist Reni Eddo-Lodge (whose book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race sparked Watson’s epiphany), merely stating the blindingly obvious.
Then the debates were reignited by a gushing interview between Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham in which the former failed to ask about the very blatant whitewashing of New York in Dunham’s hit show, Girls. Moran, when asked if she had addressed “the utter lack of people of colour in Girls”, replied: “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it.” That’s caustic wit for you.
From here the dispute quickly moved on to “intersectionality” (which tells us that inequalities such as class, sexuality, disability, gender and race do not exist in isolation but rather crisscross and therefore compound injustice). It was deemed too cumbersome a word and concept to really apply to feminism. For those of us arguing the relevance of the theory to black women’s lives, it merely demonstrated the unwillingness of the white feminists we tried to engage to see beyond themselves.
The very mention of the word “white” raises hackles rather than serving as a catalyst for the kind of introspection demonstrated by Watson. It is something Watson herself admits she was guilty of at first – writing that when she heard herself being called a “white feminist” she wondered, “What was the need to define me – or anyone else for that matter – as a feminist by race? What did this mean? Was I being called a racist? Was the feminist movement more fractured than I had understood?” In short she panicked and revealed the ways in which whiteness will protect itself rather than engage with the substance of what is being said. Watson should be commended for beginning a journey into how her whiteness makes life far easier for her to navigate.
It is a privilege that operates in a thousand little ways that range from the seemingly insignificant – “glasses that aren’t designed for black features”, to the grotesque – disproportionate numbers of BAME deaths following police restraint, or our higher rates of poverty and homelessness.
There is an overwhelming desire to ignore the material differences white skin – even when you are a woman – affords people in a world where whiteness is still seen as the norm against which all else can be judged. Why else the balking at being called a “white feminist” if not for the fact that it felt shocking to be “raced” in the way that the “black man walking down the street”, or “the Asian girl with ribbons in her hair” is daily. Race, for those white feminists, was something they did not have to think about, and trying to make them do so only resulted in the focus being shifted to their hurt feelings – merely more centring of whiteness.
Dismantling racism can only begin to happen if many more white people are willing to do their share of the work. That doesn’t mean pointing the finger at those racists over there (insert the north of England, the American south or whatever other area you seek to stereotype and dismiss). Shifting the guilt on to others is just another way of deferring the important. White people, feminists and non-feminists, need to be asking themselves the same questions Watson has. In what ways do you benefit from being white? At least that’s a start.
- Lola Okolosie is an English teacher and writer focusing on race, politics, education and feminism