"Equal, progressive, empowering, global, vital, active, aware, positive, intersectional": A rapid-fire list of single-word definitions of feminism from participants opened the Boston College Women's Center and ALC's meeting on "Unpacking White Feminism" this past Monday. Almost thirty students of mixed genders and ethnicities sat in a tight circle, comparing thoughts, experiences, and frustrations with the well-intentioned but ultimately problematic movement.
White Feminism is the commercialized and trendy branch of feminism that advocates for the rights of white, middle and upper class women while dismissing the unique struggles of women of varying sexualities, races, and physical abilities. The group of students at the meeting discussed how this kind of feminism, boasting equality only in its name, is the kind most often portrayed in the media and at BC.
After watching the Huffington Post video "Why We Need to Talk about White Feminism," students delved into their own observations of times they noticed problematic displays of exclusion in the media. The conversation included the applauded appropriation of the same non-white features on white women for which women of color are criticized and deemed inferior. Students commented on how television shows that tout "girl power" fail to include non-white women as characters, and shows that do feature successful black female protagonists often pair them romantically with white men. White feminism is often prevalent among actors, singers, and other high-profile figures who fail to use their platform to advocate for the issues that affect their diverse fan base.
White feminism isn't just an issue in the entertainment industry though—it is apparent even in consumerism. Popular companies like Urban Outfitters sell products like this feminist throw pillow, a statement piece that allows buyers to boast of their social awareness, while also selling products known to be copies of an independent female designer's line of jewelry, causing many to criticize the company's hypocrisy and willingness to capitalize on the superficiality of the white feminist movement.
One might wonder how, as a consumer of media content and products, but also as a citizen, friend, student, and conscientious person, they can avoid the trappings of White Feminism in order to support all people in their struggle for equality.
One student in attendance pointed out that "just because someone is marginalized in one part of their identity, doesn’t mean they understand the issues of all marginalized groups." This idea is key to understanding where many well-meaning women fail. Assuming as a white woman that one's experience embodies the experience of all women ignores the reality that different groups of women face different kinds of discrimination.
So though some white women have made positive changes by spearheading issues that impact all women, women of color must be listened to and valued when voicing their perspectives. One student suggested that white feminists use their wider platforms to uplift the lesser-listened to voices of their non-white peers. One way to accomplish this would be by posting articles and responses of people of color to social events and controversies, rather than directly commenting themselves. Such a tactic would be especially useful in introducing a diversity of thought within predominantly white communities like BC, where many people have similar views because of shared experiences.
Those at the event went on to discuss that BC students who want to avoid the trappings of self-deluding, exclusionary, White Feminism can do so with a combination of both mindful interactions with others and self-education. Students can calmly challenge the problematic beliefs and statements of friends, and should make sure to do so in a way that speaks from objective fact, not personal narrative, so that as a white person one can educate without "whitesplaining" issues that one has never directly faced.
Students at the event also emphasized that the person feeling attacked in a situation should not necessarily be the one to explain what part of an action or statement was offensive or wrong—it’s best if bystanders step in and explain for them, and in all discussion of social justice issues, it is important to appeal to the humanity of someone and assume that transgressions stem from limited knowledge rather than limited morality.
Self education through researching intersectional feminist ideas can be helpful, too — engaging with online content like podcasts and academic content that emphasizes intersectionality in a students' field of study. Many professors at BC strive to include curriculum representative of a broader scope of experiences. As part of the Women’s Center event, those in attendance brainstormed names of faculty and staff they viewed as intersectional feminists on campus, provided below. Granted, this is not an official list provided by the Women's Center, nor is it an exhaustive list of intersectional feminists at BC. However, these names suggested by students at the event may serve as a beneficial jumping-off point for those looking to break outside of the confines of white feminism and engage in conversations about intersectionality on campus.
Near the end of the discussion, one of the students present said, "Society is not set up for me as a black woman to succeed." All BC students feel some pressure about the future—pursuing a fulfilling career path, meeting important contacts, finding happiness in one's personal life—but for some, these pressures are compounded by the setbacks and discrimination they will face because of a combination of race, gender, sexuality, and other factors. Those who have the privilege of facing life's inevitable challenges from a position of privilege are capable of easing the path for those who do not, and that is what it means to truly strive for equality.
A Student-Generated List of Intersectional Feminists at BC:
Fr. James Keenan