Because they can…
As women we have not yet achieved equity with our male peers, making International Women’s Day still necessary. I am astounded at how far we have to go. I was taken aback to see that an institution in Bangalore organised an all male panel, an organisation in the United States only invited white women and a white feminist writer was proud that her latest book made a reader be meaner to straight men.
White women are still given more attention than those of Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour (BIWoC). Why don’t many white women work with us to create an intersectional feminism, but rather see it as their duty to save us or to feel threatened by us? A powerful white female minority has managed to break the glass ceiling world and continues to successfully isolate BIWoC, the majority, while pursuing a vision of feminism that only meets their particular needs or what they feel our needs should be. Why haven’t more white women been our natural allies, supporting our demands and meeting us eye to eye?
When we point out the intersectional discrimination we face from white feminists and demand accountability, it can be perilous; you are likely to be hit with white fragility and white women’s tears. The focus will not be on the discrimination you faced, rather on the feelings of the white woman. If you use the word racism or racist you will be considered inappropriate, mean and unprofessional, while the actual racism gets swept under the carpet.
I called out a woman for blocking a discussion on structural racism during a meeting. After she told me that I was arrogant, difficult, complicated and a know-it-all, and questioned why I was even part of the group, I responded that her racist behaviour during the meeting contradicted her belief that she is an ally to women of colour. Was this conversation civil? Of course not — naturally I wish the tone had been different. But who was called out by a white male in the group as behaving inappropriately and ultimately forced out of the group?
When we try to civilly identify and talk about problems, we are blocked, making change nearly impossible. Those with power are the perpetrators and still make the rules. Why would they be willing to share power? Due to their perceived superiority granted to them by their race, many white women believe it is their responsibility to decide what is best for the rest of womankind. I was shocked when a meeting meant for migrant feminists in Bern, Switzerland was led by a white Swiss woman. When I politely questioned this, I was met by defensive Spanish speaking white immigrants that this was totally fine and I was ruining the mood; I should stop being disruptive and unappreciative. White solidarity trumped migrant solidarity.
Looking honestly at the situation would require white feminists to question their behaviour and be willing to change. Because discrimination and racism are viewed as a binary, either you’re racist=bad or you’re not=good, which means the majority of white women react defensively and deny that they can have racist behaviour. As many do not understand intersectionality and feel superior, they think they can ‘’represent’’ and decide for BIWoC. They don’t see the need to make space for us to tell our own stories and share our demands. As Rafia Zakaria points out in her book, Against White Feminism, the famed British suffragettes did not support Indian feminists’ demand for an independent India, but wanted them to focus on getting suffrage from colonialist rulers. Of course the white woman knows what’s best.
Change can only happen if we think like campaigners and organisers — making logical arguments and presenting evidence won’t cut it. Those of us who are impacted by such behaviour must come together to build our power in order to resist collectively. Doing so breaks the myth that the discrimination all women face is the same and brings intersectionality to the forefront. It also shines a light on the systemic nature of discrimination of BIWoC. Too many of us suffer in silence and accept such discrimination because the risks to resisting can be high, from losing one’s livelihood to reputational damage. Yet collective resistance can mitigate these risks and makes it possible to get widespread wins.
I know there are white supporters out there; we need them to have the courage to speak out and become active allies. Because if they don’t, our only options are to grin and bear it or to be attacked for speaking out. White allies are instrumental in getting their fellow whites to shift their mindsets. It is the same responsibility that those of us in India from upper castes have toward shifting perspectives on casteism.
The personal and collective psychological toll on BIWoCs is heavy. I would posit that white women are also negatively impacted — white fragility stunts personal growth and a race that looks to stay on top is defensive and is distrusting. Society at large misses out. So much potential is lost because people are blocked from having a seat at the table, or if they are at the table, their ideas are disregarded. When the table is diverse, equitable and inclusive rich ideas emerge due to cross pollination, resulting in the betterment of society and trust and friendships across cultures, races and religions. Coming together is so much easier than keeping people out. Will more white women be finally willing to follow our lead in the struggle for an antiracist and intersectional feminism?