Author Rafia Zakaria states her agenda for “Against White Feminism” in a book trailer released by Al Jazeera's AJPlus brand: "putting the fangs back in feminism is a very urgent project."
She then reminds us that mainstream Western feminism is, and always has been, for white women and girls — and that this how it's been embedded in popular and news media, our consumerist economy, wars, political discourses, and more.
The first few lines of her book clarify exactly who she's calling out as a white feminist: ". . . someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns, agendas, and beliefs as being those of all feminism and all feminists." This is about a set of entrenched assumptions and behaviors rather than racial identity. Although, of course, this kind of feminism is advanced mostly by white women.
As Zakaria, the civil rights attorney, sets up her case in “Against White Feminism: Notes On Disruption,” we see that she is not on some earnest mission to educate the misinformed or enlighten the uninformed. This, as Tressie McMillan Cottom would say, ain't her row to hoe. Instead, Zakaria presents, calmly and methodically, plenty of well-researched evidence for why white feminism is messed up and why it must be dismantled. Like the feminists of color she cites — Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Lila Abu-Lughod, and more — Zakaria's thesis is that we are dealing with systemic racism built over centuries into our cultures, institutions, socio-political movements, and everyday interactions and behaviors. And, like Cathy Park Hong in Minor Feelings, Zakaria is not making any allowances for the myth of white innocence.
Through historical and contemporary examples from across the world, the book's eight essays examine how imperialism, settler-colonialism, capitalism, neo-colonialism, and late capitalism have allowed for a white-centric feminism to evolve such that it speaks for all women everywhere. Regardless of their relative disadvantages, cultural differences, and lived experiences, women of color — especially in non-western countries — are only included in this feminist movement when they conform to its particular values. Zakaria illustrates how these values are in service of white supremacy and capitalism, leaving no room for any Black, Brown, or Asian feminisms.
There's the extensive damage done by white women who traveled to colonized countries to civilize and save native women from their terrible conditions and, particularly, from native men. And the centering of whiteness by women who traveled to war-ravaged countries to bring attention to the difficulties of the local women. Instead, those local women were often othered, objectified, or exoticized and coerced to follow the Western feminism model, Zakaria writes. When Western neoliberalism and capitalism became the engines driving large-scale foreign aid and development projects, women's "empowerment" (a term originally introduced by Indian feminists in a more holistic context) became a "fuzzword that could be pinned to numerous motives," Zakaria says. All of this is not news to those who've been keeping score. But Zakaria goes further to quantify how many such white savior initiatives failed precisely because of their harmful, oppressive approaches.
This fuzzy kind of empowerment is also part of the securofeminism that emerged during the war on terror. Discussing the hypocrisies and ironies that not only caused initiatives and programs in those countries to run aground, Zakaria reveals the appalling cruelties they inflicted on local women in the name of freedom.
Similarly, Zakaria says, sex-positive feminism has become a stand-in for total liberation and empowerment and led to the commodification of sexual identities. She relates a particularly moving incident from her law school days. As a Brown Muslim immigrant, a divorced, single mother, and a survivor of domestic abuse, she felt forced to perform her sexuality or be reduced to the usual stereotypes associated with her cultural identity. The ending of this chapter speaks to so many women like her (and me):
"I had broken every gender norm I had been raised with, had chosen education and independence — and all the struggles that came with it — with little support. The seminar's preoccupation with sexual pleasure instead of sexual politics seemed so disconnected from the feminism I was trying so hard to model for my daughter. If only I could have known I was not alone, had been able to hear the voices of Muslim and other feminists of color like myself waging frontline struggles against terror, against religious obscurantism, and against patriarchal domination, but yet excluded from white feminist discourse."
Although such personal anecdotes are included throughout, Zakaria's aim is not to explore her own pain but to retrace the history of how white feminism has caused unending trauma through the centuries to many like her. What she wants is nothing less than transformational change that blows past tokenistic affirmative actions. The last chapter outlines four ways that white feminists need to change their mindset for this transformation to occur. These are not new suggestions but, given the state of things, they bear repeating.
More critically, let us all internalize these three ideas that Zakaria threads throughout the book. First, she reminds us of Kimberlé Crenshaw's "war for narrative", which asks feminists of color to reshape the story and course of the movement, make the role of whiteness visible, and recalibrate our experiences and politics into feminism. We must develop and honor our own genealogies by including the resilient women in our lives and histories who have not been considered feminist per the traditional Western model. Second, she cites Nancy Fraser's philosophy of gender justice, which involves redistribution in the economic sphere beyond class hierarchies, recognition in the socio-cultural sphere beyond tokenism, and representation in the political sphere beyond identity politics. Third, she invokes Audre Lorde's call for solidarity, where community does not mean compromise or competition but a space that accommodates and values different kinds of knowledge and expertise, particularly that which comes from lived experience.
White feminism isn't confined to the Western world; it has been exported and embedded all over the world. If the ongoing effects and implications of that haven't made you want to bare your fangs yet, this steely, incisive critique deserves your attention.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and host of the Desi Books podcast. https://jennybhattwriter.com.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.