Is my Brown Skin not White Enough for You?
A Discourse on Identity Politics
word by Fiona Williams
colour by Kosisochukwu Nnebe
As a cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, university educated woman of colour who was raised in the Western world, I have a complex (and oftentimes contradictory) relationship to feminism, privilege, and oppression.
The histories of the Feminism Movements are both complex and diverse, reflecting the evolution within ‘feminism’ itself. This evolution involves the understanding of feminisms (the plural rather than singular form) as a concept, of the peoples engaged in these identities, and the diversity of their practices. I am a proponent of Third Wave feminisms due to their investment in social ‘difference.’
As a person of colour hailing from a middle-class background, it is discouraging and hurtful to see essentialist, white-privilege-perpetuating modes of feminism pervade the mainstream media and popular culture. This mode is known as ‘liberal white (western) feminism’ and is perpetuated by the likes of Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, and Lily Allen. Rather than acknowledging the differences between women, liberal white feminists—advertently or inadvertently—perpetuate the idea that there is more to be gained through a global sisterhood of feminists as ‘womanhood’ is a universal experience. As Sampaio explains,
“‘global feminism’ represents an extension of modern western feminism’s emphasis on universalizing features of western feminist subjectivity in its calls for a ‘global sisterhood’…[and] authors such as Gayatri Spivak have called for ‘strategic essentialism.’ That is, recognizing the futility (and the dramatic erasure of political possibilities) of any attempt to completely undo predefined identities, Spivak opted for a process focused on building coalitions across subject positions and specific topics, while keeping a critical eye to the internal dynamics of the alliance” (Sampaio, 198).
While I can sympathize with ‘strategic essentialism’ as there is a historically salient rationale for rallying behind a common identity, this strategy can become reductive as it lacks the nuance of an intersectional approach, and can also lead to a double-bind of oppression if differences in thought and/ or experience are delegitimized. The notion that racial or class differences are divisive for the feminist movement is misinformed; creating a ‘universal global sisterhood’ on the basis of white, Western feminist ideals involuntarily assimilates non-Western peoples into a narrative of ‘whiteness’ as if whiteness is the only ideal to be achieved. Also, it must be acknowledged that not all white women are ‘white feminists’ and being a ‘white feminist’ is not exclusive to white peoples.
“While all women experience sexism and oppression, different groups of women experience it in significantly different ways and in varying degrees. Discussing the nuances of racial, class, and gender differences are imperative to the feminist movement.”
The involuntary assimilation of non-Western feminisms into the narrative of white privilege is problematic as it silences and invalidates the experiences of people of colour. This is why I find intersectionality imperative to a feminist discourse, as intersectionality “adds nuance to understanding different sites of feminism(s) and the multiple dimensions of lived experience, and it lends insight into the relationships among struggles for liberation…intersectionality seeks to shift the logic of how we understand domination, subordination, personhood, and rights” (May, 166-68). The imposition of Western ideals onto other societies is a form of cultural imperialism as it presupposes that the ‘Western’ is superior and the standard that the rest of the world should work towards. As cultural imperialism has implications for all gender identities, bell hooks asserts that the root of white supremacy (in North America, the United States particularly) is the desire of powerful white people to maintain dominance over black communities. Moreover, she argues that “initially black males did not see themselves as sharing the same stand-point as white men about the nature of masculinity…they had to be taught patriarchal masculinity. They had to be taught that it was acceptable to use violence to establish patriarchal power” (hooks, 2). This is an example of why Third Wave feminisms focus on social difference is so imperative: the global distribution of power has implications for the concept of what it means to be a gendered person, as we are taught—we are socialized—into our positions in society.
However, this socialization of identity becomes problematic due to the increasing immigration patterns in our globalized world. For instance, I am a woman of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, but I was raised in Canada and my primary language of communication is English, so I simultaneously identify as both Eastern and Western. I value the Western feminist struggle for pay equality and breaking the glass ceiling, but I am also aware that within these struggles white and upper-class women are granted more privileges and access than the lower-class and women of colour. In the United States, for the “working-class, poor and underemployed women, globalization has meant shrinking economic and educational opportunities, coupled with the repeal of state-support programs and a palpable backlash evident in both the anti-immigrant and anti-welfare movements of the mid-1990s” (Sampaio, 184). Globalization has unfortunately resulted in the exploitation of already vulnerable, oppressed populations, and in relation to feminist discourse, it has increased the political and ideological differences between first-world and third-world feminists. The gendered division of labour in developing countries is the outcome of centuries of European and American economic exploitation and cultural imperialism (Lorber, 90). The redistribution of power and economic resources, coupled with hyper-industrialization, has resulted in the social, political, and economic disadvantage of women.
The imperialist, white supremacist, capitalistic heteropatriarchy has shaped my experience of living as a woman and my understanding of feminist discourse. While all women experience sexism and oppression, different groups of women experience it in significantly different ways and in varying degrees. Discussing the nuances of racial, class, and gender differences are imperative to the feminist movement.
Anna Sampaio. “Transnational Feminisms in a New Global Matrix.” 2004.
hooks, bell “Plantation Patriarchy,” 2004, 1-16.
Judith Lorber, “Transnational Feminism,” 2012.
Read more work by Fiona Williams
See more colour by Kosisochukwu Nnebe