About a year or so ago, I was involved in an online conversation about feminism on an anonymous message board. The person on the other end of the conversation was a black woman who stated that she does not identify as a feminist, because feminism is not for her and has never been for her. I had never heard this sentiment expressed before (likely because I had not been paying attention–I was not “woke”). The woman elaborated by listing a few examples of how mainstream feminism throughout the 20th century had been a movement exclusively intended for white women. These are the two that stood out to me the most:
- The push for women’s suffrage surged after black men got the right to vote, which many white feminists found to be particularly unfair because they viewed themselves as superior to black men. The mainstream women’s suffrage movement focused on gaining the right to vote for white women.
- During the mid-twentieth century, while ambitious, unfulfilled housewives of upper-middle class America fought for their right to work outside the home, black women were working outside the home out of necessity. When white women did eventually go to work, they would often leave their children under the care of a black “nanny” figure.
Intentional or not, mainstream feminism neglected the needs of black women who were several steps behind in the fight for equality. While 20th century white feminists fought be treated as equal as the white man, black women were fighting to be treated the same as white women.
Yet during this online conversation, many women who sought to defend feminism brought up the idea that even though the white feminists of the 20th century may have focused their attention on the rights of white women–due to being the product of a time period immersed in erroneous, racist ways of thinking–the end result was indeed the acquisition of the rights for all women to vote and pursue educational and career goals. While it may have taken longer for black women to receive these opportunities, they eventually reaped the benefits of the white feminist movement.
In other words: Trickle Down Equality.
That phrase stuck with me ever since that conversation. There are plenty of conversations about the flaws of “trickle down economics”, which suggests that filling the pockets of the rich will eventually lead to greater economic opportunities for the poor and middle class, while according to many economic experts and historical precedent, it never quite works that way. Instead, the pockets of the rich only get thicker, deeper, while the other 98% continue to suffer.
Would not the same apply to the concept of “trickle down equality”? If white women continue to leave women of color out of the feminist conversation and cling to a message that is exclusive to the needs of white women, eventually their pockets may become thick with equality: they may one day be regarded the same as any white man. But where does that leave women of color? Several steps behind, hoping to be treated like a white woman, who is treated like a white man? Will these women ever realize a future of true equality if they continue to lag several steps behind the white woman who shatters the glass ceiling but fails to reach out to her fellow women of color so they can do the same?
21st century feminism, while significantly more inclusive than past movements, still has improvements to be made in this area. Thousands of white women attended the January 2017 Women’s March across the country, but where were these women (myself included as a guilty party here) at the #BlackLivesMatters marches that have been taking place across the country for well over a year? The Women’s March was lauded by multiple news outlets as being a peaceful protest with no arrests made, but were arrests to be expected when the majority of participants were white women?
I attended the Women’s March in Austin, and while there were an equal number of Latina women as there were white women, the lack of black women was glaring to me. I attended this march benefiting from my privilege, not having to worry about being arrested or harassed by police, and indeed, the few police officers I saw were dressed in their daily uniforms, with only one weapon holstered to their belt, standing on the side streets in passive observance. I’m trying to imagine if these thousands of white women were actually black women, gathered together in a massive group parading through the streets of every major US city. If we are being honest, then we must admit that the police would be there in riot gear, ready for a fight. The chants we ourselves shouted through the streets would be taken as belligerence; arrests would be made.
We as white feminists cannot continue to leave our sisters of color behind. In the words of black feminist Anna Julia Cooper in 1892:
It is not the intelligent woman vs. ignorant woman; nor the white woman vs. the black, the brown, and the red, –it is not even the cause of woman vs. man. Nay, ’tis woman’s strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear her voice. It would be subversive of every human interest that the cry of one-half the human family be stifled.
In the same way, it will be subversive to the interest of feminism for the cry of our sisters of color to be stifled by our chants for exclusive equality.