Toxic Feminism: White Supremacy in Heels
Feminism is based upon the advocacy of women’s rights focused on achieving equality between the sexes. White feminism is a strand of feminist advocacy that uplifts white women while excluding minority groups by failing to address or make efforts to assist issues that do not directly benefit white, straight, cisgender women. Feminism is supposed to uplift all women intersectionally, not simply the already advantaged ones. Intersectionality is when overlapping socially constructed identities such as race, class, or gender shape the world in which people experience life socially, and the issues addressed by feminism are those that assist all women, even if that means there is a focus on women of colour in a time of need. Intersectional feminism would mean feminism that advocates for a wide range of issues and identities that apply to all women. White feminism advocates for a better quality of life for middle and upper-class white women all while excluding racialized minorities in areas they need the most assistance escaping the wrath of a capitalist patriarchy that is stacked against them through a multitude of biases, not simply gendered ones. It is inherently racist because it claims to be in the best interests of all women even though it actively ignores the voices and needs of women of colour if they do not align directly with what best serves whiteness. “A meaningful common interest between [different people of the same class, or women of different races] does not exist by default. We cannot reduce any group of people and the multitudes they contain to a single common interest” (Haider 2018, location 778).
Every white woman has in some way benefitted from systemic racism, whether they have realized it or not. There is not simply one female experience and white feminism denies this. White feminism isolates women of colour by diminishing and not recognizing how race completely changes a woman’s social standing and experience within life today. White women exist in an absence of racialization and through the concept of me-too-ism, they often racialize womanhood itself, actively ignoring the experience of womanhood that is predisposed to racism. Whiteness is socially constructed to maintain a hierarchy in favour of white power and it is an ideology reproduced through institutionalized racism and existing social structures. This process sets white people as the standard of humanity, leaving all others to be compared against them and thus less valued as members of society. White feminism perpetuates white supremacy by focusing on the issues of white women as paramount. When whiteness is the standard, society depicts nonwhite people as subhuman, normalizing oppression and allowing for practices of exclusion to flourish. White feminism is not an attempt to extend equality to all women, if it were the case, then there would be an overwhelming emphasis on the unique issues that face black, indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other racialized women, but in order to assimilate into both a racist and patriarchal culture, white feminism sought to legitimize whiteness as the only civilized and patriarchal race, reinforcing the ideology of racialized minorities being subhuman. Racism is not about race, as race itself is socially constructed, it is about maintaining existing power structures in the interests of capitalism and whiteness, thus concentrating power.
Black and other racialized women are excluded from feminism and are forgotten in the history of women’s movements. In the United States, when the 15th Amendment passed allowing for black men to vote, white suffragists began demanding for change regarding the voting rights for women, all while excluding black, Native American, and Asian women (Dionne 2017). Once awarded the right to vote, white women celebrated their wins during the suffrage movements, whereas black women were defrauded by voting registrars and threatened with violence simply for attempting to exercise their rights. This is not an isolated event, racism permeates every part of society. “...black women had unique needs that were defined as much by race as they were by gender and region...The ratification of the 19th Amendment set off celebratory parades all across the country...black women across the South learned that the segregationist electoral systems would override the promise of voting rights by obstructing their attempts to register.” (Jenkins 2019). White feminism treats race and gender as mutually exclusive, thus depriving black women of support and advocacy when facing discrimination. Racialized minorities are burdened both by racism and sexism, white feminism ignores those intersections. To illustrate the impact of sexism, wage disparities between men and women are often cited to expose sexism in the workforce. The general statistic used to elucidate these disparities is that women make 82 cents on every dollar men make, but this statistic is flawed, it is only reflective of white women in comparison to white men(“America’s Women and The Wage Gap”, 2019). It illustrates the injustice in gender discrimination but it does not encapsulate what this disparity means for black women. “African-American women make, on average, sixty-four cents on every dollar made by white men...If we looked even closer, we could see that in Louisiana, Black women were making 43 percent of what white men in that state make. And when you consider that in 80 percent of Black families, Black women are either the sole provider or the main provider, it brings into focus the economic hardship experienced by most Black families in this country”(Taylor 2019, 21). Including black women in feminism is not a forfeit to identity politics, but a necessary step in the validation of the black female experience while living in a state of perpetual oppression and exploitation experienced at the hands of a racist patriarchy. Within feminism, discussing the intersections between gender, race, and class as a collective issue to visibilize and mobilize racialized minorities. “Aimed less at policy and law than at culture and subjectivity, identity and visibility politics reflect an attempt to broaden the scope of social change” thus allowing for feminist advocacy to represent all women(McCammon et al. 2017, 1).
Harpers Bazaar lists 4 integral items of toxic white feminism, Tone policing, spiritual bypassing, white saviour complex, and most commonly, centering (Cargle 2018). Tone policing is used to silence and dismiss black women’s outrage on the oppression they face. This white paternalism plays into negative stereotypes that are reproduced, asking for black women to appear more pleasant in the face of adversity rather than being the “angry black woman” trope. Women of colour are silenced or treated as radical when an unarmed man is murdered, or when exposing structural ideological flaws, instances that understandably cause outcry. Spiritual bypassing seeks to demand unity and peace- the “why can’t we all just get along” narrative, reproducing the aforementioned stereotype through the dismissal of minority groups and the request that they simply overcome the adversity they face. This is used to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and structurally biased injustice. The white saviour complex insists that white people are not a part of the problem, using minor human niceties as excuses for neglecting people of colour from the cultural conversation on injustice. Because there is a belief that treating someone who does not fall under the standard of whiteness as a human should be celebrated as a sort of advocacy for racial equality, substandard human care is dismissed, this is like claiming because you have black friends, you cannot be a part of the problem. Finally, centering falls under the sense of “me-too-ism”, requesting that black people make their expression of experiences more palatable for white consumption, all while suggesting solutions that are self-serving. “White women get so caught up in how they feel in a moment of black women expressing themselves that they completely vacuum the energy, direction, and point of the conversation to themselves and their feelings.” (Cargle 2018). In doing this, whiteness steps in the way of progress, seeking to find a way to make white people more comfortable with the oppressive systems that make people of colour uncomfortable every day. “Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning. But that time is over...What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?”(Lorde 1981).
White women’s lives are the sites for the reproduction of racism. Racism and race privilege are all-encompassing and play a major role within white feminism and white women’s experience, whether they are strikingly obvious or subtle microaggressions that plague societies with oppressive ideologies. White women experience privilege in education and wealth, which are reproduced over generations, spanning over hundreds of years of generational wealth that marginalized groups simply could not accumulate due to legal and racist cultural restrictions. This also maintains all-white neighborhoods which has influence over local allocations of governmental funding, housing, and property value. Healthcare is severely influenced by racism. Regardless of class, maternal mortality rates for black women are four times the rates for their white counterparts in America, this is even reflected in their offsprings’ mortality, which is also higher than in impoverished regions of West Africa or Mexico (Villarosa 2018). Even black multimillionaires including Beyoncé and Serena Williams each experienced complications with their respective pregnancies in recent years, despite their overwhelming wealth and successful careers(American Heart Association 2019). Sexual choices for black women and girls are severely invaded and attacked from a paternalistic stance, administering a disproportionate amount of more permanent birth control methods, opposed to simply using a daily pill that can be managed personally or ceased at any time (Brubaker 2007, 530). There is copious debate and research around why black women are suffering at exponential rates in the healthcare system in America, but it is undeniable that they exist in a realm of inescapable systemic racism that creates a system of psychological stress, dismissal of medical concerns, and paternalistic whiteness that provides for an invasive injection of societal racism in the most personal sector of life or death (Fitzgerald and Hurst 2017, 2). Racialized women are treated as subhuman, disallowed the privileges of being the standard of society. These concerning death rates and health entwined biases are a reminder of feminism’s faults and the intersectionality of race, gender, and class biases.
Another oppressive state apparatus white feminists neglect is the justice system’s implicit bias against racialized women. In Canada, 38% of women in prison are indigenous, even though they only make up for 5% of the total population and 50% of all inmates put into solitary confinement are indigenous women”(Bellerichard 2018). “Between 2001-2002 and 2011-2012, the incarcerated Aboriginal population has increased 37.3%, while incarcerated Aboriginal women have increased by 109%. Aboriginal women offenders comprise 33% of the total inmate population under federal jurisdiction (Priority: Aboriginal Issues 2016). White feminism fails women of colour in all aspects of life. Reform needs to occur at every decision-making point within the justice system to level these disproportionate rates for women of colour, and change will not be facilitated without advocacy. Incarceration reproduces oppressive cycles and solitary confinement, mass incarceration, and our lack of support for offenders who have completed their sentences are extremely damaging and sends women into a cycle of recidivism. Thus, eliminating (or at least making it immensely more difficult to have) the ability to escape poverty, gain an education, employment, or even receive standard health care. White superiority is constantly reproduced in politics, media representations, and policy “Racism thus appears not only as an ideology or political orientation chosen or rejected at will; it is also a system and set of ideas embedded in social relations”(Frankenberg 1993, 78).
For feminism to operate on behalf of all women it needs to be practiced with intersectionality. Any feminism that is not intersectional or disregards the impact of capitalism on oppression leaves women of colour in a precarious position being dismissed by the very movement that is supposed to support them. White feminism is just as toxic as white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and all other oppressive societal structures that are designed to keep women of colour erased, oppressed, and discarded by humanity. True intersectional feminism is not exclusionary, and adding a feminist label to bigots, racists, and structures holding prejudices only causes true feminism to appear ineffective in the eyes of the opposition. As noted in “Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective”,“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.” (Taylor 2019, 22). Allyship is necessary in order to dismantle major structures of oppression to fight for all women’s rights. Whiteness holds incomprehensible privilege that permeates all sectors of society and ideology and allyship must utilize this privilege to assist marginalized groups. Anti-racist feminism examines “...how to support “difference” without simply reiterating an objectifying framework constituting problems of patriarchy and racism, but in terms of the possibility of taking up “difference” more subjectively in terms of human agency and creativity to recreate and occupy multiple, shifting, alternate socio-political and cultural positions beyond conventional categories such as gender and race.” (Aguiar, Calliste, and Sefa Dei 2000). Anti-racist feminist politics must challenge colonial and imperial practices and address racism as a paramount issue to be tackled as a collective. Women cannot succeed in abolishing the patriarchy without the inclusion of all women no matter their prescribed race.
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