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  • Miranda L. Galbreath, MA, MA, LPC

Check your feminism....

The Universe recently handed me two books simultaneously that have given me a LOT to think about. I heard an interview on NPR with Rafia Zakaria, author of

"Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption." I put it on hold at the library, and when I went to pick it up, I came across Ruby Hamad's "White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color." Both women have written books challenging our views of feminism in general, and white feminism in particular. As a white lady who identifies as a feminist, and who also strives to be antiracist and to understand the viewpoints and experiences of those who differ from me, I was eager to learn as much as I could from Zakaria and Hamad. Their books have given me new lenses through which to view the world, history, culture and feminism, and are challenging me to re-think the way I see and the way I "do" feminism, and the way I understand its history.


There is way too much amazing, intense, thought-provoking stuff in these books for me to do them justice with a little 'ol blog, so I'm going to use this space to lay out some of the questions I'm asking myself about my feminism, and will continue to ask myself moving forward:


Is my feminism white? And if so, what can I do to make it inclusive?

This isn't something that had ever occurred to me, but once Zakaria explained it, it made so much sense. She began the book by stating, "A white feminist is someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and racial privilege attached to it have played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns, agendas, and beliefs as being those of all feminists." She goes on to explain that you need not be white to be practicing white feminism, and that not all white feminists are practicing white feminism. She describes how a feminist can profess to believe in intersectionality, have black and brown friends, but still fail to make the voices and concerns of black and brown folks a central part of their feminism. The white feminist can talk the talk, but still be attached to old systems of belief and organizational structures that prioritize whiteness and white ways of thinking and being.


This particularly challenges me to think about my job in the prison system, a system designed by white folks specifically to extract free labor from folks of color. A system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color and wreaks havoc on their families and communities. I call myself a feminist, but I am a part of that system, reinforcing many of its values, while struggling with many others. Many feminists of color are involved with prison abolition, while I work inside of one. Is there a way for me to be more expansive in my feminism and still stay in that system, working toward that state employee pension?


Where are the voices of women of color, both in history, and in the present moment?

Both Hamad and Zakaria talk about how the history of feminism has pushed out or erased women of color and their concerns. Certainly when I think about the history of feminism, when I've watched documentaries or read books, all of the early feminists I've seen portrayed are white. Where are the women of color in those histories? It's not that they weren't there. It's that they weren't valued or respected at the time, and their concerns were pushed aside, just as they have been in our histories of feminism. I want to challenge myself to seek out the voices of feminists of color as I continue to study history in general, and the history of feminism more specifically. As noted above, what we consider feminist from a white feminism lens might not capture what black and brown feminists were doing throughout history, so I challenge myself to expand my ideas about what feminism looked liked throughout history. And when I look at the face of feminist movements today, I want to challenge myself to ask where the voices of color are, and to seek them out if they are absent, and be suspicious of feminists who claim to speak for all women if the voices of some women are absent or sidelined.


Where did this belief/stereotype/etc. about people from a certain group come from? And are my decisions rooted in false beliefs about certain groups?

Hamad discusses the origins and history of many racialized stereotypes of women, and reveals how seamlessly they have shaped the way we see women of various races, skin colors, and from various communities. She discusses how enslaved African women were portrayed by their enslavers as oversexed, nymphomaniac Jezebels who could not even be raped because they were such uncontrollably sexual creatures. Which of course meant it was totally okay for their white enslavers to use them as sexual objects and livestock to breed new generations of enslaved people. We can see those entrenched beliefs playing out to today in how black and brown girls are disproportionately disciplined in schools for things like dress code violations, or how it's more challenging for a woman of color to be believed when she makes an allegation of sexual assault. Hamad discusses Asian women being portrayed as exotic and mysterious, Native American women being portrayed as either princesses or sexless drudges who exist only to serve their men. Although I like to think of myself as not falling prey to stereotypes and beliefs like those, they are so entrenched in our culture as to be practically invisible. Look at any Disney movie and you're likely to see piles of these harmful stereotypes, which set the stage for how our children grow up to see people. And so I need to challenge myself to keep asking, am I seeing this person or these people through the lens of a harmful stereotype that was developed and perpetuated by white colonial settlers for their own gain?


Is there some white savior action happening here? And what needs to change to make whatever is happening actually useful for the folks I am serving? Am I listening to their voices?

Both Hamad and Zakaria discuss the history (and present) of white women placing themselves in roles in which they can play the savior, both for the good feelings they get for saving those "poor, unfortunate" black and brown folks, and for the virtue signaling it provides. They describe white women throughout history taking on grand projects ostensibly designed to save the "primitive backward" black and brown "savages," when often these projects had ulterior motives, and were in support of colonizing and controlling a people. Think of all of the Native American children taken from their families and sent to schools in the U.S. and Canada to "civilize" them and save them from their own cultures. Their families, their language, and their history was stolen from them. The same was done with indigenous children in Australia. Hamad and Zakaria discuss charitable programs that are purported to support black and brown women, but are often designed to keep those women dependent upon charity; programs that are often developed without consulting those women about what would be helpful to them.


As a person who works inside of a prison system ostensibly designed to "correct" people (who are often black and brown), I need to challenge myself to think about whether what I think is helpful is actually what they need, and ask the people I am serving what they think would be helpful. As a person who enjoys volunteering in her community, I need to be more critical about the kinds of help the agencies I volunteer with are offering, and if it is the kind of help that takes service recipients' feedback into account and implements it. And do these agencies work to help service recipients become independent of the services, or act to keep recipients dependent upon charity? Are these agencies all about the virtue signaling via photo op, or are they doing the hard work when no one is watching?


Am I using my white privilege to silence or harm people of color?

I feel like at this point everyone has heard of "white women's tears" being weaponized against people of color, but in case you haven't, Hamad has written an entire chapter on it. I first read about this in Luvvie Ajayi Jones' book, "I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual." If you haven't read Ajayi, I highly recommend her. Of course our most obvious, most recent example that folks would be familiar with is the viral video of Amy Cooper calling the police on a black man who simply held her accountable for following park rules and putting her dog on a leash. (BTW, I do this to people all the time, and nobody has ever called the police to say a white lady is threatening them.) Amy Cooper proceeded to weaponize her white woman tears on the phone to the police in response to her distress at being held accountable for following the same rules everyone else was expected to follow. She got on the phone to the police and cried, saying she was being threatened by an African American man. She exists in this world, and she knew gosh darn well what kind of danger she was putting that man in. But she put her own distress at being held accountable above his life and safety. This is the same strategy that got Emmett Till murdered. And it's a strategy frequently used by white women in less dramatic, but still harmful ways.


I've been seeing it a lot lately when folks of color raise legitimate concerns, but are shut down by white women saying that being asked to even consider issues of racial injustice upsets them, and the discussion dies there. I've particularly been challenging myself to notice this at work on social media lately, where legitimate concerns expressed by people of color get shut down simply by white ladies expressing the belief that they should not have to feel uncomfortable in any way that challenges their own beliefs or actions. I'm watching it play out on a nationwide scale as I watch moms get emotional about their right to decide if their children wear masks while other children with disabilities who are more susceptible to illnesses are just expected to accept being placed at higher risk because a white mom is upset.


Is this sexual liberation masquerading as feminism for some shallow feel-good vibes?

And then there's this. A whole generation of women have been told that feminism = lots of casual sex. Women are "empowered" if they have lots of sexual partners and engage in lots of sexual experimentation and act in ways traditionally assigned to men. A whole generation of women was given the idea that being more like men is being "empowered." And this idea of women's empowerment is sold by magazines and portrayed in moves and shows up on t-shirts. Zakaria discusses this at length, and points to how shallow this viewpoint is, and how this type of feminism totally leaves out the concerns of many (often black and brown) women. She describes her own experience of disappointment as an immigrant and recently single mother fleeing domestic violence when she sat through a graduate level seminar on feminism that focused only on sex-positive feminism, and not on any of the many other issues facing her and many other women. Issues that were much more meaningful to her than having a lot of sexual partners. And she talked about feeling as though she had to perform sex-positive feminism in order to fit in and be accepted as a feminist; especially being a Muslim woman and fearing that others would make assumptions about her based on her culture. Zakaria's discussion of this issue got my wheels turning on thinking more critically about the rah-rah, sex-positive, you-go-girl commercialized feminism that I see all over the place. I want to think more critically about what I consume, what I get excited about, and what I paint with the brush of feminism. I want to pay attention to whether what's being touted as feminist or empowering to women is any more than surface deep. Speaking of which, this reminds me of another great book I just finished, "Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism," by Amanda Montell. Montell talks about the "cultish" language of the "Girl Boss" and "Boss Bitch" or "Boss Babe" sales pitch often used to lure women into pyramid schemes selling products like makeup and handbags and weight loss supplements. It's an example of exploiting shallow feminism by claiming women's empowerment at it's finest. Another excellent book written by a woman that I highly recommend!








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