“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names.
As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men.
Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
– Patrick Rothfuss
As passionate as I am about some of my own views I think it is also important to think about advocacy in general. Regardless of the cause, communication is key in making a difference. It is impossible to have a conversation with someone who merely fires off tag lines like a pinball machine while dodging difficult questions. What I mean by this is as soon as I hear things like “check your privilege” or “meat is murder” I automatically switch off. It’s not that I even disagree with either of these particular statements; I just don’t think that they are appropriate for anything else than for banners for a protest. The problem with catchy one-liners is that they are so easy to throw around that they quickly turn into static noise without substance. Once at a meeting with a visual merchandiser we talked about how there was now a bunch of buzz-words that they weren’t allowed to use in marketing anymore because the consumer market had started to resent them. Similar inflation can happen in any topic of public discussion where specific words or phrases are excessively used across media outlets. This is especially true to Twitter and clickbait headlines where a very compact expression needs to pack a punch and catch people’s attention. Replacing independent thinking, rationality and well-constructed arguments with 120-character statements just kills the conversation for me. There is no shortage of social justice memes to choose from – and all of them send me spiralling down into desperation with equal intensity, but let’s tackle a recent favourite, “white feminism”.
The phrase “white feminism” is generally used to represent one’s distaste of feminist speech that focuses on white women and ignores racial issues thus excluding women of colour. Technically anyone can be a “white feminist” regardless of their own skin colour or gender if the feminism that they promote is racially biased or exclusive. Fundamentally, the critique brought forward by this phrase is valid, but compressing the message into an easily misunderstood, and possibly provoking term seems counterproductive. I would predict that most people who hear “white feminism” assume that it describes all white women, implying that the fact of their skin tone automatically makes them racist. Because this is exactly what my first impression was. Needless to say that such a rhetoric doesn’t exactly encourage people to take into heart the very real issues related to ethnicity in the context of women’s rights. It is not surprising that upon being or feeling accused of something before having so much as a chance to voice their opinion, people tend to shut down or lash out, and not listen any further.
That said, I do think that there are times when when using more aggressive and inflammatory language is appropriate. Debates, speeches and protests can get very heated and emotional, and in instances where provoking reactions in your audience is precisely the goal, then it can be effective to boost up your message with evocative vocabulary. However, more often than not this kind of language only appeals to those who are already on your side, and you end up preaching to the choir. If that is what you want, then by all means. To be honest though, I still can’t see how using the term “white feminism” would be beneficial to the feminist movement. And I shall explain why.
There is a time and a place for big words when we are trying to emphasise the difference between our stance and that of our opponent’s. We want to draw a clear line between us and them and build up group mentality. That’s all fine even though personally I tend to frown upon the practice of blatantly demonising the other – unless they are a glaring bigot in which case they tend to do the job perfectly well by themselves.
I find that the problem with “white feminism” is that it drives a wedge within the feminist movement. And I think that this problem is both in the practice of ignoring racial issues, which is what this term is supposed to convey, and in using said term to discuss this issue. Obviously, women of colour tend to be at a bigger socio-economic disadvantage than white women. Many of these women live in third world countries or war zones of course, and my knowledge of the history and politics involved is nowhere near a level where I would feel comfortable discussing that particular struggle. There are many factors regulating the quality of life in conflicted and unstable areas. At any given time culture, tradition and religion are some of those things, and we can all disagree on how big of a part they play in the mistreatment of women. In my books, that part is significant.
It is all too easy to let oneself fall into the apologist void of “it’s part of their culture, and we must respect it” in the fear of being labelled a racist or islamophobic or whatever is the next trendy accusation. I couldn’t care less from which angle you look at it – the tradition of female genital mutilation is torture, not culture. This atrocity is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are numerous more covert ways in which girls and women face discrimination in the name of tradition.
Debating the significance of scarves and veils that cover more or less of a woman’s head has been all the rage for a while now. Are they signs of oppression? Are they empowering? Is it totally “white” and ignorant to even consider that they might be problematic?
I suppose they can be either one like just about anything else. I wouldn’t even bother weighing in on this if I could be sure that the decision of what to wear was always the woman’s, and only hers. But alas, I can’t. The problem really isn’t the veil itself but whether its use is part of misogynous tradition. There are those who think that we shouldn’t criticise any culture of anything because it is their culture. What such people are really saying is that those who have had the misfortune of being born into a culture where casual violence against women is condoned, are inherently different from those who were born into as peaceful a society as can be found on Earth today. To say that white people shouldn’t interfere because they don’t understand the culture, and women of colour don’t need to be saved anyway, is equal to knowing that your neighbour beats up their partner and not taking any action to help. Just because the victim of violence hasn’t come to you for help doesn’t mean that they want to be beaten.
Just to clarify, I am not saying that white women need to save coloured women. I am not saying that the burqa is oppressive and the mini skirt empowering. And of course, Islam, which I keep referring to, is not a race. And of course, race itself is an arbitrary concept however culturally relevant. I may have strayed away from the topic of feminist advocacy into straight up advocating feminism, but hopefully I have made at least half a point. Perhaps what feminism in Western countries currently suffers from is detachment from severe oppression. Are we, the fortunate ones, so used to freedom of expression, economic independence, contraceptives and certain amount of social security that we have forgotten what life as a woman used to be like? The notion that women of colour don’t need to be saved by white women is correct in that we shouldn’t victimise and infantilise those who live in adverse conditions. But as there is a power imbalance like there is one between the sexes, shouldn’t we try to do something about it by sharing resources when we can.
Finally, I think that there are more and less important feminist agendas that have to be dealt with. Those accused of “white feminism” are in that moment focusing on a less pressing issue that mainly concerns more privileged women who are mostly white. Is this outright wrong? Is it unethical to try to improve your own situation if someone else has it worse? As far as I understand, this seems to be at the core of the judgement of “white feminism”. That because in general white women are better off than women of colour, they should pay less attention to issues directly and exclusively related to themselves. This is certainly true when it comes to overall representation and visibility of racial issues in feminism. There is diversity lacking in the public discourse for sure. But I also think that if we want to make genuine progress in women’s rights across the globe people can’t be chastised for sometimes thinking about themselves and their own situation. We can all agree that being whistled at when crossing the road is nothing compared to being forced to marry a man four times your age when you are still a child. These issues can and must be worked on in many levels simultaneously. Feminism is after all about equality, and anyone who departs from that is not a feminist regardless of what they claim.
The point about advocacy – and this applies to any cause – that I wanted to make is that the choice of words really matters. I matters whether you want to bring more people to your cause or not. By using popular internet memes instead of your own words can easily alienate the very audience your message ought to reach.