I messed up.
Have you ever screwed up something so bad that you wanted to run away from the world and hide? And pretend it never happened?
Yup, that kind.
First things first. I wanted to discuss intersectional feminism in this space, and instead I wound up perpetuating white feminism. Crap.
So please take a short journey with me so that you can avoid my mistakes.
(Ok, I lied; it’s a little long, but this is important stuff, friends. Please read.)
Raise your hand if you identify as a feminist.
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve identified as a feminist. My parents played “Free to Be You and Me” on vinyl during my childhood, my mom ran for elected local office successfully, and taught my sister and me that we could be anything we wanted to be..
At the time, to me, being a feminist was the belief that men and women should have equal rights, and the desire to change the status quo.
When I dove headfirst into women’s studies classes in the late ’90s and early 2000’s, the primary class was called “Introduction to Feminisms” (emphasis on the plural) because my professor said there isn’t just one kind of feminism.
I absolutely grew up with white privilege, but didn’t recognize what that meant until college. In women’s studies classes, I read formal feminist theory about the idea that we couldn’t just fight for women’s rights to make any meaningful change. I learned that there were many overlapping forms of oppression that impacted people’s lives in layered ways: race, ethnicity, disability, LGBTQ status, age, religion, immigrant status, among others. I didn’t know it had a name.
Up until that point, I hadn’t really acknowledged the fact that I was white. It wasn’t something to be celebrated, it didn’t feel meaningful to me; it was just a fact. It felt the same as having brown eyes or small feet. My race didn’t define me; it just WAS.
I realize today that that’s an incredibly lucky way to move through life.
So what IS intersectional feminism?
Fast forward to present day. Intersectionality, a term that Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw termed in 1989, has
Not sure what intersectionality is? Check out this primer written by Christine Emba that Dr. Crenshaw suggests.
“Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power. Originally articulated on behalf of black women, the term brought to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them. Intersectional erasures are not exclusive to black women. People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse — all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more. Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.” – Dr. Crenshaw
A few years ago, I attended a presentation by Sister Song, a reproductive justice collective formed by women of color, which aims to strengthen and amplify the collective voices of indigenous women and women of color to achieve reproductive justice by eradicating reproductive oppression and securing human rights. During that training, I learned more about why it’s critical to center the voices of women of color in the fight to improve policies and systems that impact marginalized communities the most.
Even when I speak to policymakers about why policies that impact women typically impact women of color the most, I know that’s not enough. While I’ve worked to bring more voices of women of color to the table and to public conversations and spaces, I know that I can do better. It can’t just be on my terms. The voices must come from the community, and speak in a way that they have ownership and leadership over their words.
So it felt important to educate my own readers at Think or Blue about gender issues and children, and how intersectional feminism must play a role in that, if not center it.
It felt wrong for me to be the one to write about it.
As a white woman, I shouldn’t be the one to describe intersectional feminism, right? I shouldn’t be the one to describe how feminism has traditionally left out marginalized communities, whether it be women with disabilities needing better health and reproductive care, undocumented women feeling terrified of police and the legal system, Black women facing a wider wage gap, or trans women feeling they are safe and valued.
Wouldn’t that further silence or oppress people who have been marginalized?
So I set out to “do the right thing.”
First, I contacted a blogger friend with whom I’ve traded guest posts to invite her to co-write about this topic at ToB, but for a few reasons it was not the right fit for her at the moment.
Then I decided to go straight to the source. I approached an online magazine that specializes in intersectional feminism, and asked whether one of their contributing writers might be interested in a guest post. I indicated that I couldn’t pay any writers at the moment because I haven’t covered my own expenses yet, but that I’d be happy to promote the writer and site across my own social media channels.
This is where I messed up and I didn’t even realize it.
The editor arranged a phone call with me to ask a few follow-up questions. She then indicated that I had asked for free emotional labor from women of color. Women of color have historically been asked to perform emotional labor at no cost, and this idea is not only oppressive but it keeps in line with white feminism. If you don’t know what that is, read this and this. (Psstt..it doesn’t just mean that you’re white and you’re a feminist.) My heart caught in my chest. I wanted to sink into a hole.
But again, this isn’t about me or my feelings.
This is about the impact of my error, how I can do better, and how we ALL can do better.
I read more about emotional labor and hope you will, too.
“Sure, you can claim to love this black feminist blogger or that trans woman activist, but when it comes down to it, are you actually supporting them or just consuming their work without giving them anything in return? The truth is, we all need money to survive, and women of color living in a white supremacist patriarchal society need it more than most.” – Ally Ang
Also read these very real life examples of emotional labor, written by Vriddhi Vinay for Affinity.
How many times have I talked about how, even though the wage gap is about 80 cents for women on average, but for Black women that’s 63 cents, and 54 cents for Latinas? I knew that women of color weren’t being fairly compensated at their jobs, and yet it didn’t register that the demands, pressures, and institutional racism compound that wage gap in tangible ways. And in fact, those demands eat up valuable time, time that she could use to earn money elsewhere.
How can we do better?
This editor gave me a few ideas of ways that I could address this. It’s important to note, however, that she was not obligated to do so. Just as black people are not responsible for teaching white people about racism; intersectional feminists are not responsible for teaching others about white feminism or their failings in trying to practice intersectional feminism. And in fact, it actually required free emotional labor for her to do so. After our conversation, it occurred to me that I’d committed a double whammy here.
- Promote and share the voices of women of color in the space they already exist. Meaning, I shouldn’t expect women of color to come to MY space. There is already a plethora of gifted female writers of color who are writing about these topics in spaces they’ve created or in spaces in which they receive compensation for their hard work. I need to continue to share those articles and teachings, and do a better job of that. Go out and find them, and share their work. Stand behind them and lift them up.
- Admit our mistakes. Weirdly enough, just days before this, I had discussed with colleagues and friends that trying to practice intersectional feminism requires humility and an acknowledgement that we’ll make mistakes. I didn’t realize I’d make a mistake so soon. It’s embarrassing and feels out of line with who I strive to be. But I learned a valuable lesson that will help me be a better feminist in the future. A lesson that will better respect women of color.
- Discuss our mistakes. In the days after Charlottesville, I saw several articles float around that encouraged white people to talk with other white people about racism. In that vein, the editor suggested that I write about this issue in my own space, to educate readers who could have made the same mistake in the future. We have to own up to our mistakes, and identify each other’s mistakes.
- Put your money where your mouth is. Ensure that women of color are compensated fairly for their work. As a part of several nonprofits, I’ve been asking lots of people to do lots of things for free for many years, and vice versa. And as a newer member of the blogging community, I got a little caught up in the camaraderie that underlies it. (I say this not to excuse my behavior, but to share my honest thought process so that others can learn from it, and not repeat it.) But that doesn’t make it ok. I should have recognized that asking for free labor from a woman of color would compound the wage gap. I should have waited until I was able to compensate a writer appropriately. In addition, please consider financially supporting outlets that center the voices of women of color.
- Don’t shrink away. Are some of you starting to think, all these terms are too hard to keep up with… this is ridiculous… why should I even try if I’m going to mess up and be criticized…? If you are, that’s ok. But you need to get over it. Writing about my mistake will open me up to even more criticism. And I have to be open to that.
But this experience should not make you fearful to engage in feminism at all. Think of it like playing the guitar or practicing yoga. You don’t sign up for one class, learn a few chords, and expect to be a pro. You don’t do one sun salutation and quit. You come to the mat every day and practice yoga. You get stronger and connect with your breath. And before you know it, you’re showing a friend how to do downward dog.
Come to the mat every day, friends. Practice your feminism. Make it a way of life. It’s the only way we’re going to get better.
Photo: WOCinTech Chat