Columns / Discourse / May 16, 2018

White women: Check yourself and your feminism

The annual Feminist Party at Knox was just this past weekend. I remember attending the Feminist Party my freshman year and I thought it was the best party of the year. I danced with just a bra on and I was drunk off God knows what. But this year was a little different. Since freshman year, my view on feminism and bodies in space has changed drastically. Consequently, my view on this year’s Feminist Party changed. This was the description of the party via the Facebook event:

“Come wearing whatever the fuck you want, Vogue-ing as hard as you want. Come unafraid to party it up and celebrate THE BEAUTIFUL THING THAT IS FEMINISM. It’s spring and we’re hot. Minimum amount of clothing is pasties, but be creative!”

When I walked into the house, scantily-clad white girls and femmes were “twerking” to “This Is America” by Childish Gambino. That song is super heavy and particularly controversial because the video depicts violence against black people. So it’s sensitive to me and other black Americans. I guess I’m asking why white people would ever think that twerking (rather poorly) to “This is America” could be deemed acceptable? Or, at the very least, why no one questioned that this may be an insensitive thing to do. I am asking the same question to the hosts of the party. Wouldn’t you know that Knox College is a predominately white institution and that the majority of your attendees would be white, cis and able-bodied?

So critical theorist Judith Butler says that gender is performative. Meaning that we communicate our gender through a symbolic language, i.e. the clothes you wear, how you talk, which bathroom you go to. According to Butler, this symbolic language is reiterated constantly through messages in our culture. If you are assigned male at birth and you wear a dress one day, no doubt you’ll get dirty looks thrown at you. So anyone who doesn’t live up to these expectations are excluded in order to reproduce the gender binary. But gender is inaccurate and unstable, which is why it has to be reiterated constantly. Anyone who doesn’t fit into the standard is violently excluded, humiliated and sometimes killed by individuals and institutions that uphold the gender binary.

So here comes this pretty little thing called Feminism to critique the gender binary and power relations. While women and femmes of color played important roles in the Feminist movement, white women were always deemed to be the founders and faces of the movement. Little do people know white feminists during the suffrage movement were racist as hell. Susan B. Anthony and other feminists of the time wanted voting rights for white women and white women only. Their logic was that white women gaining the right to vote was one step closer to realize white supremacy in the United States. Second-wave feminism during the 1960s and ‘70s discussed primarily middle-class educated cis straight white women and hardly ever collaborated with the Civil Rights or Gay Rights Movement (because queer women/femmes and women/femmes of color, or any one of those intersecting identities supposedly didn’t exist). That’s why black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in response to white women not paying attention to the interactions of race, class and gender. Black feminists reminded white feminists that they are the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

I’m sure the white feminists at Knox are fully aware of intersectionality (or at least I hope so). But while I was standing with my arms folded at Feminist Party, I couldn’t help but think that feminism promoted by white women helps progress systems of oppression. Feminism promoted by white women centers around the politics of all women existing in “we” Ñ “we” meaning the category of a “woman,” a category that exists because of the gender binary. We women, who are against patriarchy, in opposition of the abject other. “We” politics dismisses salient differences of individual people, those being differences in race/class and the varied experiences of womanhood. White women failing to recognize black, latinx, asian, lgbtq+ or any other identity other than white women is problematic. Historically, it’s been true. And it’s true for the white girls twerking to “This Is America” when they should damn well know that white women are oftentimes the perpetrators of racism. The person who called the police after seeing a black real estate agent enter into a house he was investing in? White woman. The person who yelled at the group of Middle Eastern men in Denny’s? White woman. The list goes on and on and onÉ

Feminism is an imperfect movement because it is run by people and people are imperfect. I firmly believe that we are all problematic because we have been conditioned into believing some things are the norm when they shouldn’t be. But I also firmly believe that we need to constantly check ourselves for any problematic behavior we may be exhibiting. We all have our oppressions but we also all have our privileges. I am not perfect. I make mistakes. I’ve hurt some people. But I learn from it and I change my behavior for the better from then on. I’m not asking you to cancel the party in years to come. I am asking you to really question the intentions of hosting a Feminist Party as a white person. Think beyond “unity” politics and consider the many identities of Knox and how the party may or may not exclude them. I challenge you to hold yourself accountable and do better.


Francesca Downs

Tags:  feminist party intersectional feminism white feminism

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