How to Navigate a ‘Taylor Swift Moment’
When Feminista Jones came to my campus last autumn I was the most excited to hear her talk about her #YouOkSis campaign against street harassment. Thinking my feminist roommate (white, like me) would also be going to such a momentous occasion, I asked her if she would like to have dinner beforehand.
“I was going to go but I didn’t know she’d be talking about black feminism. I thought she’d be talking about everybody feminism.”
Frustrated, I went to the talk alone.
My roommate, like many white feminists, didn’t get it. Equality for women may be a single issue but, as Audre Lorde put it so well, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
For feminist ideologies to work properly they require a fundamental understanding of intersectionality, namely the way in which various societal constructs (e.g. race, gender, class, sexuality) work together for various individuals. That means feminist ideologies, even when applied to a subgroup of women, are applicable to even those who do not identify with that group.
Let me give you an example.
A few weeks ago, the internet blew up over Nicki Minaj calling out the MTV Video Music Awards for nominating a video that “celebrates women with very slim bodies.” A few tweets later, Taylor Swift invited Minaj onto the stage with her to share the victory if ‘Bad Blood’ were to win Video of the Year, but in doing this, Taylor was ignoring intersectionality in favour of a “white feminist” viewpoint. What I mean is that Nicki’s whole string of tweets were recognising a racial unfairness as well as pointing out her body’s nonconformity to beauty standards. Nicki’s statement came at the intersection of her being black and being a woman. Taylor’s counterargument, unfortunately, took the white feminist approach and dismissed Nicki’s racial statement. By suggesting Nicki was “pitting women against each other” and inviting her to share the stage, Taylor was tapping into a mainstream white feminism that is not inclusive.
Okay, so Taylor’s apology tweet about misunderstanding makes sense.
But doesn’t it also make sense for Taylor or some other white feminist to misunderstand the argument in the first place? We were so quick to feel better about the two making up. We forgave the white feminist for not understanding.
On the other hand, it definitely makes sense for black feminists to have understood where Nicki was coming from. The problem here is that the person with more privilege is given the benefit of the doubt while the person with less privilege has to understand mainstream (white) feminism to make the argument in the first place. In many ways, black feminists must take mainstream feminist ideologies and weave in racial experiences in order to make an argument under which they apply at all.
Apply that to women of any other non-white racial or ethnic identity and you see that the same approach is necessary.
So, now, why should white feminists care about this if “their” feminism is the “norm”?
The freedom to ignore intersectionality is a sign of privilege. And white feminists (like myself) have the option of running with that privilege without looking back. However, gender equality will not go as far if we do so.
In addition, when I talk about feminists I don’t only mean women. Men can be feminists, too. My roommate didn’t want to attend Feminista Jones’s talk because of a racial difference. That’s similar to a man saying he didn’t want to attend because of a gender difference.
The talk definitely applied to men in attendance, just as it applied to white women. There were things to be learnt. In fact, most women of colour in attendance probably already knew most of what Feminista was talking about. Those not identifying as black feminists probably had the most to learn.
And that is why white feminism isn’t even good for white feminists.
White feminism ignores a whole slew of issues that women of colour deal with perhaps in more intense ways. For example:
- White women are the standard of beauty that women of colour are expected to conform to. At the same time, white people have a tendency to appropriate the fashions of other cultures — picking and choosing what they deem “beautiful.”
- The black community tends to prize “thick” women but those same women receive critiques for not having the thin body type that mainstream society prizes.
- Affirmative action tends to help white women more than women of colour.
- White women don’t struggle with the same level of anxieties about their natural hair.
- Women of colour have a much harder time finding beauty products that work for their hair type and skin colour.
- As Feminista Jones described in the talk I attended, women of colour are more likely be street harassed, more likely to be victims of random acts of violence including sexual assault, and more likely to be murdered.
All of the above and more are true. The facts aren’t meant to diminish the struggles all women face. Rather, they are meant to point out the diversity of struggles mainstream feminism tends to ignore. They are still very much issues of gender equality. White feminism leaves behind women of colour and, therefore, does not allow gender equality to reach its full potential. It’s still okay to have a Taylor Swift moment from time to time but only if you recover with a healthy look at your privilege in relation to the statement you’re making.
[Note: For the most part I’ve spoken about intersectionality as it applies to race and gender because those are ideas I’ve studied extensively. It is important to consider while reading how intersectionality applies to any other social construct that creates a system of privilege as it interacts with feminism.]