There is something not quite right about the massive amount of time and effort devoted to the question of white privilege in relation to feminism: I’m not 100% sure what yet, but I’m working on it. Maybe together we can get to the bottom of it, maybe I’ll work out what the issue is for me as I write. You may agree or disagree, we shall see.
I’ve been watching and engaging in various dialogues lately. I’ve read some brilliant articles and some awful ones. All the while something hasn’t been sitting right.
The concept of “white privilege” as a framework is constructive in the modern context, however it whitewashes human history for all women and I’m not convinced this is a good thing. Intersectionality (we HAVE to find a new word for that) is perhaps a better, more inclusive term.
implies allows conclusions to be drawn from* just those two words a) women of colour have forever been oppressed and, b) white women have never been oppressed. We know in the history of the human race neither a) nor b) are true.
There have been many powerful women of colour throughout history. The Ashanti Queen of Ghana, Yaa Asantewaa, who lead her people against British rule is just one example of so very many. Yet every time I hear or read “white privilege” I feel Yaa Asantewaa and others like her fading further into oblivion. What of the Amazons of Dahomey? Are they too forgotten? Whitewashed out of our modern view of women’s history as if these women never existed?
White women were legally chattels in many legal jurisdictions until very recently.
Under the doctrine of coverture, a woman was legally considered the chattel of her husband, his possession. Any property she might hold before her marriage became her husband’s on her wedding day, and she had no legal right to appear in court, to sign contracts or to do business. Although these formal provisions of the law were sometimes ignored—the wives of tradesmen, for example, might assist in runing the family business—married women technically had almost no legal identity.
In 1864 the Contagious Diseases Bill was ….. a horrendous piece of legislation.
Do we whitewash the oppression of white women out of history too? In Victoria this year domestic violence statistics rose dramatically: is any woman, of any colour, being beaten or raped and killed, really so privileged?
But it goes deeper than that. While I understand women of colour from places like the USA and Australia seeing white privilege as a relevant framework to illustrate how mainstream feminism has in many, many ways failed women of colour over the years, I also see it being worn as a badge of honour by white women. In an almost “Of course I’m privileged, I’m WHITE, but I will now lift up my coloured sisters” kind of way. Charitable: that is it! To me it sounds like a charity. I don’t want a charitable act for my daughters, I want unity and solidarity. Not so long ago the white woman was a mere chattel, while the Ashanti Queen was leading an army.
Many societies of people of colour were matriarchal. Rarely societies of white people.
White colonial men, perhaps in an attempt to reduce women of colour to the same legal status as their own white women had been prior to women’s suffrage, ruled women of colour minors in at least one jurisdiction:
Prior to British rule, African women could own property and had legal rights. In 1927, British law declared them legal minors, dependent on their spouses.
White women should have fought against this, but having so recently gained their own rights it is doubtful they would have had the political power base at that point. I haven’t researched that aspect.
I don’t want my daughters looking at Western feminism and getting some impression we consider women of colour to have always been oppressed. I want them to know about the Ashanti queen, or any of the other powerful women of history who were not white.
We also seem to keep looking at feminism through this prism of Western society and that prism distorts our perspective of women in other societies, for example Yemen or Saudi Arabia. We need to remember the three main religions have subjugated women for centuries, irrespective of colour. Thankfully, that is something many women of colour were not subjected to until their lands were invaded.
Yes, there are issues historically. Yes, I can’t see Haraway’s cyborg manifesto helping many at a grass roots level today. Yes, I very much like Eleanor Robertson’s article on intersectionality. We must learn from the past mistakes and move forward for the betterment of all women.
As trite as it may sound, the truth is, united we stand, divided we fall. Golden rule of battle: divide and conquer. Women do not want to be defeated.
* From further discussion with readers, I have changed the wording slightly.
Edit December 28: Further discussion is taking place on Only The Sangfroid where Mark wrote me an open letter on this topic. For the sake of clarity, I am taking the liberty of reproducing most of my response here.
I’m a little confused how you determine I am in any way framing an argument AGAINST intersectionality. I think it is great! I think it is very useful. We should be expanding it and building on it. I think it is a MUCH MORE useful concept than white privilege. I just don’t like the name of the concept – it sounds like a traffic direction instruction rather than being related to women’s rights.
You ask what does white privilege mean beyond the USA? That is exactly my concern, but perhaps I didn’t make it very clear in my own article, or perhaps my article, written to open dialogue (which it certainly has done) is too open to interpretation itself? I am concerned that without the USA context, the meaning can and will be “morphed” into other meanings.
Interestingly, as I shared in a reply to a comment on my article, when I was describing the whole article and subsequent fallout to my daughter (who is black), funnily enough, before I even got to the charity concern bit, she chimed in with the word. You could perhaps say she is being influenced by living with me, or, conversely, perhaps I am being influenced by living with her. You are, I believe, familiar with my piece on “How does a racist hide racism?” and while I am not convinced all the white women running around being so proud of checking their white privilege are closet racists, from what I have been reading, I am concerned it will become another such tool. “Oh, I’m not racist, look, I check my white privilege every day”. Now ask them to rent their negatively geared investment property to an Aboriginal family. That came from a conversation I had earlier this evening, but I believe the other participant in the conversation prefers to remain anonymous so I will not name the person.
For women of colour generally, racism is a far bigger problem than feminism. So while white women are running around feeling so good about themselves for checking their privilege, are they doing REAL things about the eradication of racism? I am just asking the question, not passing judgement.
Mark, as for the terminology around the globe – please don’t ask me. I’m as confused as you. Generally I ask people what they want to be called, although I always think “people” is good.
I never suggested women of colour were excluding white women. It has essentially been the other way around – white women have focused on their own “world”, ignoring the very aspects Eleanor’s article raised. No life experience in those demographics.
If you have reached this point and think I am saying white privilege doesn’t exist, please re-consider. I have not said that nor is that question the topic of this article.
- The real reason the term “white privilege” needs to die (theupsidedownworld.com)
- Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is (whatever.scalzi.com)
- 2013 was a big year for feminism, but the movement still alienates minorities | Erika L Sánchez (theguardian.com)
- If this is feminism you can keep it (teamoyeniyi.com)
- White Privilege: A History of the Concept (A history thesis: Georgia State University)