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The Dangers of White Feminism

This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

Feminism suffers in its theoretical framework when it excludes other axes of oppression, and reproduces forms of domination. As Patricia Collins argues, historically, Black women have been excluded from the concerns of both feminists and Black progressive movements.[1] Here I will focus on the dangers that come if we, as feminists, exclude concerns of race.

We tend to conceive of femininity under certain character traits. Women are assumed to be fragile, passive, motherly, and so on. The experience of Black women problematizes this conception of being a woman. As Collins writes, “If women are allegedly passive and fragile, then why are Black women treated as ‘mules’ and assigned heavy cleaning chores? If good mothers are supposed to stay at home with their children, then why are U.S. Black women on public assistance forced to fund jobs and leave their children in day care?” This discrepancy in gender roles suggests that being a woman depends on social context. Although feminism can recognize the social construction of gender, it typically excludes the way gender roles can change along the axis of race. Women are oppressed as women, but the oppression of women manifests in different ways across the axis of race. Thus, the exclusion of Black women’s experiences demonstrates a lack in the theoretical framework of some feminism.

It is important to recognize that this lack cannot be solved by a simple addition. A Black woman does not suffer the oppression of being Black in addition to suffering the oppression of being a woman. Rather, gendered oppression happens along racial lines. The oppression of women affects Black women in ways that it does not affect white women. Axes of oppression intersect one another.

The exclusion of Black experiences not only marks a lack in feminism’s theoretical completeness. Certain feminists projects can be problematized by actual Black experiences. Aiming to erase gender difference appears to be a promising aim. However, it is problematized by the fact that Black women are already under threat of being unwillingly de-feminized. Collins writes, “Black ladies have jobs that are so all-consuming that they have no time for men or have forgotten how to treat them. Because they so routinely compete with men and are successful at it, they become less feminine.” The identity of Black working-class women as women, is threatened. Thus, a project aimed at eliminating gender difference aims to erase a difference that is already blurred for some black women. This is in no way to argue that the project of eliminating gender difference is necessarily untenable, but such projects must include the voices of those for whom gender differences are unwilling blurred.

Certain feminist projects have in fact harmed women along racial and economic lines. For instance, integrating women into the general work force. The labor that women have traditionally been relegated to, specifically care within the household, has gone unpaid. Thus, women have been economically dependent on men for providing basic goods. Hence the motivation to develop economic independence for women. Historically, the integration of women into the work force outside of the home has produced certain deficits of care in the home. Families in higher economic standing, where both parents work, sometimes hire a nanny to care for the children. This labor is overwhelmingly performed by lower-class women, and moreover, women of color. They are often tasked with caring both for the children they nanny as well as their own children. Thus, the deficit of care is passed on to the children of the nanny. This deficit is filled either by the unpaid labor of the nanny or the unpaid labor of some other family member who will herself be in a position of economic dependence.

As with the previous example, this is in no way to argue that we, as feminists, should not pursue economic independence for women. Rather, it is to argue that we should be careful that we do not push unpaid labor, deficits of care, and economic dependence along the axes of race and class. Feminism must necessarily concern itself with other axes of oppression or it will be in danger of defeating its own ends, and reproducing other forms of oppression.

[1] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (2000)

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Kyle O'Dowd

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