Blaming women for the ills of the world might appear an odd feminist call to action. But an idea gaining traction is that the “white feminism” dominant in the United States and the UK is not only a driving force of societal racism, but responsible for a host of other bad things, from the war on terror to the hypersexualisation of women in popular culture, to the dreadful abuses of power we see in international aid. It’s part of a growing tendency on the left to look for scapegoats at the cost of building the solidarity needed for social change.
This is not to downplay the extent of racial inequalities in the UK, the way they affect women of colour and the structural racism that lies behind them. But it’s quite a jump to move from the observation that women are no more immune to racism than men to holding the feminist movement accountable for the plight of women of colour around the world. A new book, Against White Feminism, by Rafia Zakaria, makes precisely this case. To stack up the argument, she stereotypes feminism beyond recognition as a shallow, consumerist and exclusionary movement dominated by selfish white women who care little about scrutinising the male violence perpetrated by white men.
Feminism is a broad movement: look for it and you’ll find superficial strands. But to reduce feminism to this alone is to ignore the British tradition of radical grassroots feminism that has brought women of all colours and classes together in the fight against patriarchal male violence. In one of the best-known examples, Justice for Women and Southall Black Sisters worked together from the early 1990s to get long prison sentences overturned for women driven to kill their abusive partners following the most dreadful prolonged abuse.
In the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, Southall Black Sisters led with Justice for Women standing alongside. “It brought women – black and white, young and old, professionals and survivors – together in a wonderful moment of unity to highlight injustice and change things for the better,” says Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters. “There were differences, but it was only through solidarity with each other that we could create change. The black feminist tradition has challenged feminism’s blind spots around race and class not in the interests of separatism, but to strengthen our collective movement.” The women’s refuge movement provides similar examples.
Attacks on white feminism are the product of a broader divide in the anti-racist movement about the best route to social change. Is it by making well-intentioned people who are unwittingly complicit in replicating inequalities feel guilt and shame for their “white privilege”? Or by inviting them to feel a shared sense of injustice in a way that emphasises common belonging to a movement, without glossing over difference? Feminists such as Zakaria fall into the former camp. But guilt and shame can make solidarity harder, not easier, to build.
The mainstream anti-racist left has a bad track record of hanging out to dry women of colour challenging misogyny within their communities, for fear of upsetting cultural sensitivities. Examples abound: the Newsnight investigation that revealed several Muslim female councillors who have experienced pressure not to stand from Asian Labour party members, which prompted the Muslim Women’s Network to call for an inquiry into systemic misogyny in the party that was met with overwhelming silence; the smears the MP Naz Shah has faced from local Asian men in her party; the negative response to the anti-FGM activist Nimco Ali from her local Labour party. The white privilege discourse makes this more not less likely, because it makes people more scared of being culturally insensitive.
Indeed, reading Zakaria’s book, one gets the impression that white women can’t win, damned for speaking only of their own experience, but scolded for getting involved in fights that aren’t their own. The irony is that radical feminism has often run counter to the mainstream left on this precisely because it regards female oppression as cross-cultural. Intimate partner killings, female genital mutilation or forced marriage: it’s all patriarchal violence at the hands of men, a universal female experience.
It would be obscene to suggest that a white 18-year-old leaving care could ever be considered more privileged than me
Not only this: white feminism critiques strengthen patriarchal forces by falling into the trap of the privilege Olympics. We need analysis of outcomes by class, race and sex to understand the extent of inequalities, but it should never be overextended to imply all white women are more privileged than women of colour (consider how obscene it would be to suggest that a white 18-year-old leaving care could ever be considered more privileged than me).
Yet that is exactly what lazy polemics about terrible white feminism do: they empower men to use the fact that all white women are supposedly high up in the privilege pecking order to tell middle-aged women to shut up or, even worse, accuse them of weaponising their abuse and trauma. It doesn’t help women of colour, either: it implicitly posits Asian male crime against women as somehow lesser than white male crime, because Asian men are victims too.
This is part of a broader trend on the left towards fracture, where attacking people with whom you share quite a bit in common is now seen as a laudable displacement activity for the Southall Black Sisters/Justice for Women approach to real change. It is telling that Zakaria chose not to engage with a critical book review by Joan Smith, the longstanding campaigner against domestic violence, instead launching a personal attack on her “old and white” appearance.
“Be kind” is not a platitude, it is a political slogan, for without kindness, how can we foster the solidarity that must be built, not demanded? Making well-meaning but imperfect people feel terrible about themselves may sell books, generate outrage and indulge some people’s masochistic tendencies, but the one thing it will never ever do is change the world for the better.
• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist