FemSoc so white: Why whitestream feminism is bad for all of us
As the first BME Officer of Bristol University’s Feminist Society, I have done my best to represent the interests of feminist students of colour, and to promote their voices in the white-dominated space of the university. My priority has been to encourage communication between FemSoc and Bristol’s women of colour, who are tired of the white, middle-class focus of mainstream/whitestream feminism, and the often chauvinistic machismo of movements promoting racial and cultural respect. Sadly, this predicament faced by the women of colour at Bristol is neither new nor specific to the university. Indeed, this double-consciousness has been foisted upon black and brown women the world over for centuries. This uncomfortable phenomenon was exemplified in the speech given by Sojourner Truth, the extraordinary former slave, abolitionist, champion for women’s suffrage, and crusader for the rights of black women, delivered at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. In her candid expression of her experience in which blackness, femininity, and poverty were inextricably intertwined, Truth asked the audience, ‘ain’t I a woman?’ While much has changed since then, the structures of a racist, capitalist, patriarchal society remain intact. In spite of our best efforts, marginalised groups are still struggling for recognition.
The constructions of black femininity and the oppression experienced by women of colour differ greatly from those of white women. Indeed, Black womanhood and femininity have been used as counterpoints to white womanhood and femininity throughout history. The conflation of race and gender-based oppression bring a different character to our daily interactions with racism and white supremacy to those experienced by our fathers and brothers. Moreover, people experience overlapping and interdependent systems of oppression in everyday life based on their race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. In the sage words of Audre Lorde, ‘There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.’ While this may seem like a self-evident truth, mainstream/whitestream liberal feminism at large still doesn’t seem to have caught on.
At the beginning of this year, I optimistically set out to encourage greater involvement by BME students in a society that failed to speak to their individual and collective experiences and struggles. With this in mind, I was heartened by the suggestion of an intersectionality workshop hosted by FemSoc. Something along these lines had been my primary goal when taking on the role of BME Officer. Indeed, I relish any opportunity to call attention to the significance and nuances of intersectionality when dealing with the oppression of those who identify as women. It is important that the diversity of women’s experiences within the university, in the UK, and across the globe are included within broader feminist discourses. I earnestly set about organising the event, expecting a little support from the committee. However, the days and weeks passed, while my increasingly desperate pleas for assistance went apparently unheard by the group. Meanwhile, a great deal of unnecessary pressure was put on me by external figures to create a rigorously structured and inclusive safe space.
On the evening of the event, I was astonished when I was greeted by one committee member (the society’s president), one woman of colour, and a small group of my duty-bound friends and acquaintances. I was struck by the realisation that an undeniably lazy form of tokenism was at play. I understand that as the society’s BME Officer, it is my duty and privilege to bear the burden of representation, but therein lies the danger of being expected to speak for all people of colour, or in this case, all marginalised groups and individuals, most of whose struggles I have not experienced. At the time, I felt foolish for having given my ultimately unrewarding free time and labour in the name of a society that didn’t seem committed to taking the necessary steps towards progress and inclusion. Indeed, much to the president’s dismay and embarrassment, nobody from the committee had contributed, not one person had even taken a moment to promote the event on social media with a cursory ‘share,’ and none of them turned up. While rather irritating, my exasperation that evening wasn’t founded upon this single trivial incident. I was frustrated by the culmination of my experiences as an opinionated feminist of colour in this white-dominated, liberal, elitist university, which has been characterised by such instances. In my eyes, FemSoc’s lackadaisical approach to the pursuit of intersectionality exemplified one of the ways in which mainstream/whitestream liberal feminism still fails women of colour and other marginalised groups.
In spite of the circumstances, the discussion on intersectionality proved constructive. The society has openly acknowledged its inherent issues and is willing to adapt. Moreover, the society’s innovative ‘Pads for Refugees’ campaign, which has been running since 2015, has proved hugely successful. This year, FemSoc has provided a much-needed platform for feminist discussion with the establishment of FemX. Earlier in the year, Nasra Ayub enlightened us with regards to fighting FGM with Integrate UK, and I’m confident that Chanté Joseph’s much-anticipated talk, ‘Can a Black Girl Catch a Break?’ will prove to be an affirmative breath of fresh air. FemSoc has agreed to adopt the name, ‘University of Bristol Intersectional Feminist Society’ as a demonstration of their commitment to inclusion and understanding. However, gestures are not enough. At the workshop, the lively focus group contributed to a set of new proposals, including a pledge to work with all willing liberation and identity societies towards a less hegemonic form of student activism.
While this timely and necessary course of action is a step in the right direction, mainstream/whitestream feminist spaces at large remain hostile environments for those who aren’t white, straight, cis, able-bodied, young, middle-class women. In 2015, the Suffragette’s rallying cry of ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ was unabashedly resurrected by Meryl Streep and her privileged posse of co-stars on the cover of Time Out. This remarkable moment highlighted the persistent erasure of minority voices, and the co-option of the trauma of slavery, institutionalised racism, and white supremacy in the past struggle for women’s suffrage, and in the brand of feminism promoted by today’s mainstream media. The modern spirit of frustrated, marginalised feminists was encapsulated in the words printed on the placard carried by London-based social and political activist, Angela Camacho at the Women’s March on London this year, which declared: ‘The struggle within the struggle #FuckWhiteFeminism.’ While protesting under this banner, Camacho was met with considerable backlash from fellow demonstrators, and she was advised by others to hide it for fear of her safety. The vicious, reactionary nature of many people’s responses to white women being called out on the privileges they collectively enjoy is illustrative of the systematic marginalisation and silencing of minority voices of dissent. With occurrences such as this happening on a daily basis, is there any wonder why women of colour actively avoid engagement with mainstream/whitestream women’s rights spaces?
Like the indicting message on Angela Camacho’s placard, this is not a condemnation of individual white feminists, but of the self-serving, exclusionary nature inherent in the institution of liberal mainstream/whitestream feminism which continues to fail the marginalised. This privileged form of feminism must be eradicated to make way for a truly intersectional movement which actively seeks to disrupt and dismantle all systems of oppression. We can begin by acknowledging and working against the exclusion of people of colour, queer and LGBTQIA+ people, trans people, immigrants, people with disabilities, and people from different socio-economic backgrounds. The manifold and simultaneous oppressions experienced by different groups and individuals must be appreciated, for a non-intersectional lens renders a multitude of experiences invisible. It is the collective responsibility of those who claim to be in the struggle for the liberation of all who identify as women to confront the oppressive systems which maintain one another. I’m just not sure how much longer women of colour and other marginalised groups will be willing and able to sustain the tiring, unrewarding pursuit of allyship with the whitestream.