WW Norton & Company
Author Rafia Zakaria sets out his program for Against white feminism in a trailer released by Al Jazeera’s AJPlus brand: “Putting our teeth back into feminism is a very urgent project.
She then reminds us that mainstream Western feminism is, and always has been, for white women and girls – and that is how it has been incorporated into popular and news media, our consumer economy, our wars, our political speeches, etc.
The opening lines of her book make it clear exactly who she calls herself as a white feminist: “… someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it has played and continues to play in society. universalization of white feminist concerns, agendas and beliefs as being those of all feminism and all feminists. ”This is a set of entrenched assumptions and behaviors rather than racial identity. of course, this kind of feminism is advanced mainly by white women.
While Zakaria, the civil rights lawyer, sets up her case in Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, we see that it does not have a serious mission to educate the ill-informed or to enlighten the ill-informed. This, as Tressie McMillan Cottom would say, is not her hoe rank. Instead, Zakaria calmly and methodically presents a lot of well-documented evidence as to why white feminism is messed up and why it needs to be dismantled. Like the feminists of color she cites – Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Lila Abu-Lughod, and more – Zakaria’s thesis is that we are dealing with a systemic racism built over centuries in our cultures, institutions, socio-political movements, and daily interactions and behaviors. And, like Cathy Park Hong in Minor feelings, Zakaria ignores the myth of white innocence.
Through historical and contemporary examples from around the world, the book’s eight essays examine how imperialism, settler colonialism, capitalism, neocolonialism, and late capitalism allowed white-centric feminism to evolve. so that he speaks for all women everywhere. Regardless of their relative disadvantages, cultural differences and lived experiences, women of color – especially in non-Western countries – are only included in this feminist movement when they conform to its particular values. Zakaria illustrates how these values are at the service of white supremacy and capitalism, leaving no room for black, brown or Asian feminisms.
There is the extensive damage caused by white women who traveled to colonized countries to civilize and save indigenous women from their dire conditions and, in particular, indigenous men. And the focus on whiteness by women who have traveled to war-torn countries to draw attention to the plight of local women. Instead, these local women were often altered, objectified or exotic and forced to follow the pattern of Western feminism, writes Zakaria. When Western neoliberalism and capitalism became the engines of large-scale foreign aid and development projects, the ’empowerment’ of women (a term originally introduced by Indian feminists in a more holistic context) was become a “fuzzy word that could be associated with many patterns,” Zakaria said. All of this is nothing new to those who mattered. But Zakaria goes further by quantifying how many such initiatives by white saviors have failed precisely because of their nefarious and oppressive approaches.
This fuzzy type of empowerment is also part of the securofeminism that emerged during the War on Terror. Discussing the hypocrisies and ironies that have not only failed initiatives and programs in these countries, Zakaria reveals the appalling cruelties they have inflicted on local women in the name of freedom.
Likewise, Zakaria says, positive sexual feminism has become a substitute for full liberation and empowerment and has led to the commodification of gender identities. She recounts a particularly moving incident from her years in law school. As a brunette Muslim immigrant, divorced single mother, and survivor of domestic violence, she felt pressured to exercise her sexuality or be reduced to the usual stereotypes associated with her cultural identity. The end of this chapter speaks to so many women like her (and me):
“I had shattered all the gender norms I had been raised with, had chosen education and independence – and all the struggles that came with it – with little support. The seminar’s preoccupation with sexual pleasure rather than sex politics seemed so out of touch with feminism that I was. If only I could have known that I was not alone, if I had been able to hear the voices of Muslims and other feminists of color like I who lead frontline struggles against terrorism, against religious obscurantism and against patriarchal domination, yet excluded from white feminist discourse. “
While such personal anecdotes are included throughout, Zakaria’s goal is not to explore her own pain but to trace the history of how white feminism has caused endless trauma through the centuries to a lot like her. What she wants is nothing less than transformational change that goes beyond symbolic positive actions. The final chapter describes four ways white feminists need to change their mindset for this transformation to happen. These suggestions are not new but, given the state of affairs, they deserve to be repeated.
More critically, let’s internalize all these three ideas that Zakaria develops throughout the book. First, it reminds us of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s ‘war for storytelling’, which asks feminists of color to reshape the history and course of the movement, to make the role of whiteness visible, and to recalibrate our experiences and politics in feminism. We need to develop and honor our own genealogies by including resilient women in our lives and in our histories who have not been viewed as feminists according to the traditional Western model. Second, she cites Nancy Fraser’s philosophy of gender justice, which involves redistribution in the economic sphere beyond class hierarchies, recognition in the socio-cultural sphere beyond tokenism, and representation in the political sphere beyond. – beyond identity politics. Third, she invokes Audre Lorde’s call for solidarity, where community does not mean compromise or competition but a space that welcomes and values different types of knowledge and expertise, especially those that arise from lived experience.
White feminism is not limited to the Western world; it has been exported and integrated all over the world. If the continuing effects and implications of this haven’t made you want to show your fangs yet, this scathing and incisive review deserves your attention.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, literary critic and host of Desi Books Podcast. https://jennybhattwriter.com.