When we think of feminism, what comes to mind? For many, images of hairy armpits, dyed pubic hair, and slogans like “Free the Nipple” are the first things that pop into our heads. That body hair and those slogans more often than not come from cis, middle-to-upper class, skinny white women. The self-proclaimed “allies” to those women are, more often than not, skinny, cis, middle-to-upper class white men. When these are the only images that are shown with the label of feminism, it is incredibly difficult for those who fall outside of the aforementioned characteristics to identify with feminism.Just to cover our bases, feminism is a movement aimed at achieving the social, economic, and political equality for all genders. Keeping this is mind, feminism which only serves to better the lives of abled-bodied, cis, skinny, neurotypical, white women is what is known as “white feminism”, and may be practiced by members of all races. White feminism is often practiced accidentally, usually when one simply forgets to include members of other oppressed groups in their worldview, or when people do not critically review given information.
One may spot a white feminist by listening to some key phrases such as, “Free the Nipple!” or, “Men don’t have to think about what they’re wearing when they walk down the street!” While these phrases may seem relatively innocuous, the uncritical regurgitation of these phrases by feminists serves only to alienate other oppressed groups. Let us examine these phrases. First, we have, “Free the Nipple!” Bodily autonomy will always be a worthwhile endeavor, and it is true that a woman’s nipple is unduly sexualized. However, the fight to expose the naked body of a woman may not appeal to, say, a Muslim woman living in the West. In France, for example, the public display of religious symbols, including veils or head coverings, is outlawed. This means that Muslim women, some of whom may value modest dress, are denied the choice to cover themselves. In Western countries where religious head coverings or veils are permitted, many are often harassed for wearing the hijab or niqab. If the right to nudity is one of the main topics of a movement, a woman who is fighting for modesty may not wish to align herself with that movement.
Secondly, we have the commonly repeated phrase, “Men don’t have to think about what they’re wearing when they walk down the street!” This implies that men, including men of color, are not sexualized based on what they are wearing, which, in a way, is actually true. This is because men of color are sexualized no matter what they’re wearing. The preconception that black men all have large genitals and are sexually aggressive is common the world over. The idea that brown men are either sexual assailants or experienced seductors is also very common. East Asian men, however are effectively stripped of their sexuality, and are seen by Westerners as submissive and effeminate. In addition, men of color must always be careful to wear clothing which is deemed as culturally acceptable to avoid being seen as a physical threat to those around them. This means black and non-white Latino men must try not wear baggy clothing, and Sikh and Muslim men are often forced to remove their turbans and shave their beards. These unfair stereotypes are not addressed by white feminism, thus making it difficult for many men of color to identify as feminists.
When what seems like the most important issues for members of the movement seem to completely gloss over your struggle, it’s kind of difficult to identify with, or even have sympathy for feminism. This is why we have “intersectional feminism”. Intersectional feminism, first introduced in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a feminist theory created to address how people of color, women in particular, are simply forgotten by the mainstream feminist movement. Intersectional feminism acknowledges the intersection of identities, particularly racial and gender identities. Pretty simple, right?
To illustrate the difference between intersectional feminism and white feminism, let’s use a frequent issue posed by white feminists: the wage gap. A white feminist would exemplify the wage gap by the commonly repeated phrase, “Women make 78 cents for every man’s dollar.” An intersectional feminist, however, would point out that in the United States of America, only white women make 78 cents for every white man’s dollar. Additionally, an intersectional feminist would state that for every white man’s dollar, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women make 65 cents, African American women make 64 cents, Native American and Native Alaskan women make 59 cents, and non-white Latina women make 54 cents. Do you see the difference that using some (easily Googled) statistics makes in the effort to include everyone?
Under intersectional feminism, we may all find a place in the feminist movement; there is no hierarchy of race or class in this ideology. Intersectional feminism seeks to serve all of our needs. This theory welcomes difficult discussions on race, gender, sexuality, and any source of oppression one may think of. There is no need to exclude people from a movement more than capable of helping everyone.
Like Bell Hooks once wrote, “Feminism is for Everybody”. Now let’s help others to understand that.
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color (6th ed., Vol. 43). Stanford Law Review.
Fisher, M. (2015, April 14). Women of Color and the Gender Wage Gap. Retrieved September 13, 2015.