Against White Feminism

Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption BY Rafia Zakaria. New York: Norton. 256 pages. $24.
The cover of Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

There is an important distinction between what Nancy Fraser calls “affirmative change” and actual transformational change. The former is perfunctory, form-filling, intended to silence and appease; the latter requires the dissolution of underlying structures and hierarchies for a complete reformulation. Whether it is the National Organization of Women or an organization like Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) or even the Women’s March, all require transformational change. This means reconsidering everything, from the way meetings are organized and conference calls are set up to the way public demonstrations are organized. The go-to for most organizations, sadly, is affirmative change: the installation of a Black woman at the top or the creation of a committee to look into “diversity” (AIUSA convened many of these, fostering the impression that something was being done, when all that was done was to establish another committee whose findings would not be available for months and sometimes years).

The change that we need, that feminism needs, is transformational change. The analysis of where and how to make this change must be intersectional, considering race and class and gender, and the redress must be both redistributive and recognitive. These are the demands of the moment but none of them can be met without a revival of the collective and, most important, a return to the political.

One afternoon in the fall of 2020, I had a discussion with an older white woman academic about a topic she considered terribly controversial and I not at all. The issue at hand was simple: during our conversation, I had confessed that I no longer used the “three or four waves” of feminist analysis in my writing and speaking about feminism. That structure, I told her, represented a way of looking at history primarily through the lens of white and Western women.

She was aghast. In her mind, my rejection of this particular historical frame, which is a mainstay in gender studies courses all over the United States, was a precursor to turning all white women out of the feminist movement, even though they were not personally responsible or culpable for the wrongs of white feminists past, and even though they had, in her own words, “made the movement.”

Her words, or rather her anger, have stuck with me. First, it is impossible for any change to occur unless white women, particularly older white women, let go of their paranoid belief that racial equality within the movement is some sort of surreptitious strategy to displace them.

Second, if feminism is to be redeemed, timeworn/outmoded/colonialist ideas of history, tradition, and contribution have to be transformed and new frameworks created to take their place. White feminists who lay claim to having “made the movement” are reflecting the structural privilege and power they have claimed at the expense of women of color. And as Kimberlé Crenshaw says, “The value of feminist theory to Black women is diminished because it evolved from a white racial context that is seldom acknowledged.” In order for any of these ideas to be of use to us, we need to face up to the environments in which they were generated. Creating a new narrative that is self-aware and unwilling to constantly repeat the injustices of the colonial past is essential to organizing women around the idea of solidarity.

Third, white feminists must recognize and understand the distinction between whiteness, whose inequities have left such rot within the innards of the movement, and being a feminist who is white. The former creates hierarchies that further entrench the race-based inequities in society and enshrines white culture, white ways—of eating, drinking, sleeping, speaking, communicating, and organizing—as “the” ways. The latter is a descriptive term unattached to an agenda of domination.

The difference is important; it refuses to allow white women to disengage from feminism under the pretext of being “banished” by an anti-white feminist agenda. When you are called out for white feminism, this is not a mere description of your racial heritage, something you may feel guilty about but can do nothing to change. It is a description of your words and actions. It is crucial that white women realize that being white and a woman are not the criteria that make a woman a white feminist; it is instead refusing to recognize white privilege. She can, instead, eschew territoriality and let go of individual egoism to help forge an authentically constructed solidarity.

Finally, white feminists must accept that true solidarity, where all races of women interact at a level of parity, means accommodating and valuing many different kinds of knowledge and expertise, first and foremost the kind that comes from lived experience. Accomplishing equality will require lifting up women who are not slick with jargon or rhetoric and venerating their contributions as much as those who know how to package themselves appealingly.

Excerpted from Against White Feminism, published by W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2021 by Rafia Zakaria. Reprinted with permission.