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Is mainstream cis-white feminism failing the BLM movement?

By Halima Jibril

Aug 13, 2020

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Human rights

Aug 13, 2020

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26 July 2020 was a Sunday. I was feeling overwhelmed and angry after seeing pictures and videos of police in the UK and the US mistreating, beating and killing those protesting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

I felt all this anger in my chest that I just did not know how to deal with, and then I saw a tweet that tipped me over the edge. “I’m noticing that none of Trump’s secret federal police, tear-gassing and striking peaceful protesters are women.” This tweet was written by American actress Phillipa Soo, best known for playing Eliza Hamilton in the Broadway musical Hamilton. There’s so much to unpack with her statement, but firstly, it’s just not true. This was a repetitive sentiment that I kept seeing from white and non-black women who call themselves feminists today. Are they purposely missing what it really means to be a feminist, or do they still not understand?

Many people—particularly white women—came to Soo’s defence stating that she was pointing out the fact that women aren’t the ones perpetrating harm, and if more women were in these positions, this kind of violence wouldn’t happen. It’s always extremely disheartening to see thirty-year-old women tweet about feminism the way I used to talk about feminism when I was fourteen and didn’t know any better.

Feminism, to so many of these women, still only means ‘women’ and ‘equality’. To them, feminism is not about building a new world to change the lives of disabled people, trans people, non-binary people, black people and so many others. Instead, their feminism is hollow, it is superficial. It is about working within violent systems which allow white-abled bodied women to be at the top. It is not a feminism that liberates us all, but one of compromise. These are the same women who call themselves allies to black people and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. If this is still your feminism in 2020, you do not support the Black Lives Matter movement in any way, shape or form.

In 1977, Marlene Dixon, a feminist sociology professor from the University of Chicago, used a Marxist analysis to explain why the Women Liberation movement fell into decline in an essay entitled The Rise and Demise of Women’s Liberation: A Class Analysis. She wrote that the middle-class women who were leading this movement worked with the aim of “organizing around your own oppression.” This was the idea of making sure “we take care of our own problems first.” This ideology was explicitly clear in the FX historical drama Mrs America,  which depicts the Women’s Liberation movement and the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s. In one episode, ‘radical’ feminist Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) is seen talking with her fellow movement member Betty Friden (Tracey Ullman) about making gay rights a part of the women’s rights agenda. Friedan, who has a history of keeping lesbians out of the movement, states that “they shouldn’t make this (the convention) about lesbianism. It’s not our fight.”

There’s something inherently capitalist about this way of thinking. This individualist mentality has been an integral part of white feminist history. For example, in 1893, all women were given the right to vote in New Zealand. Rather than rejoicing at the liberation of other women, British women were upset because Maori women had the vote and they did not. Jad Adam’s writer of Women and the Vote: A World History, recounted that suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett saw it as “appalling that white women of a certain station in society didn’t have the vote, while those in the colonies did.

True liberation is not liberation for oneself, it is about taking that freedom that feminism makes you feel, and extending it to others to create a new world.

But instead, too many women today believe that making women leaders of violent, white supremacists and capitalist systems is what will free us, that being on the same playing field as cis-white men will free us. They are wrong. This kind of thinking ensures that the most marginalised in society continue suffering, but girl power, right?

Black feminism—which was not created as a response to white feminism—has taught me that we are fighting for a world we can not see yet. It is about fighting for a world without the police, a world without prisons, a world without exploitation, without the gender binary, a world without suffering, a world without hunger, a world without capitalism, a world without racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism and transphobia. A world with collective care, and a world without girl bosses.

I want to see more self-proclaimed feminists think of feminism like this. To believe that we can build a world like this. To engage with radical black thinkers who have been saying this for years! Not just read Women Don’t Owe You Pretty by Florence Given, or White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. I want to see more feminists reposting speeches by trans and disabled activists on my timeline, the way they were fervently reposting Alexandra Ocasio Cortez for calling out a Republican member of Congress who accosted her on the Capitol steps, and listen to every word they have to say over and over again.

I want more cis-women to look at the way that they uphold the patriarchy in their every day lives. I want more people to understand that feminism is hard fucking work. What could the world be like if we carry on the work done before us by black radical feminists? If we never give up, we can truly change the world. Not by reform or by working within these systems, but by abolishing them. Lola Olufemi said it perfectly—we may not see the world we are fighting for in our lifetime, but ‘someone else will’ and this should motivate all of us, every day.

Just to say, I don’t know everything and I’m still learning. In five years’ time, I’ll probably come back to this article and think, wow, some parts of this needed to be developed further, yikes! I don’t know if I completely agree with the words anymore. But this is how our feminism should be, we should be learning, unlearning, disagreeing and growing as we age. We can not stay in this stagnant, uninspired and unhelpful form of feminism. That is not how we liberate marginalised people and that is not how we create a just world for black people to live in.