Sunday, May 7, 2023

Feminism’s Long History of Anti-Whiteness - Janice Fiamengo

Recently propelled into the spotlight through discussions of critical race theory, anti-white hatred has a long history in Second Wave feminism. In this video, I offer an outline of how white feminists came to accept second-class status within the movement they created. 

In the late 1960s, as we’ve seen, feminists capitalized on the enormous social power of female victimhood. White feminists at that time were certainly aware of racism, but they were largely unconcerned by it as a competing paradigm of victimization. In her 1972 essay “Sisterhood,” feminist leader Gloria Steinem asserted that women had a deep bond with other women born of shared patriarchal oppression; it was a bond that transcended all differences. She stated that “The odd thing about these deep and personal connections among women is that they often leap barriers of age, economics, worldly experience, race, culture—all the barriers that, in male or mixed society, seem so impossible to cross” (“Sisterhood,” p. 129). Sisterhood, forged in the universal experience of male dominance, was powerful. This was the utopian position of most feminist leaders in the early 1970s. 

In her 1970 book Sexual Politics, Kate Millett acknowledged racism in the United States, but saw it as a dying ideology, one fast losing its hold on society. The ideology of sexism, in contrast, remained in full force: “Groups who rule by birthright are fast disappearing, yet there remains one ancient and universal scheme for the domination of one birth group by another—the scheme that prevails in the area of sex” (Sexual Politics, p. 24). Women everywhere were linked by this allegedly “universal” injustice. Feminist journalist and activist Susan Brownmiller made a similar claim in her 1975 book Against Our Will, which made the argument that “From prehistoric times to the present, rape has been nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (p. 15). In those heady days, patriarchy was the singular unifying truth of the women’s movement. It's worth noting that Kate Millett was not afraid, as later generations of feminists would become, to harshly condemn non-western cultures as worse for women than western cultures, which she admitted had been softened, “indeed moderated somewhat by the introduction of courtly love” (45). 

Courtly love was the Medieval concept of consecrated adoration of women. Recognizing the lesser evil of western societies was not yet forbidden in the women’s movement, and Millett condemned non-white patriarchies with particular relish, angrily enumerating the evils they had done and continued to do: 

“The history of patriarchy presents a variety of cruelties and barbarities: the suttee execution in India, the crippling deformity of footbinding in China, the lifelong ignominy of the veil in Islam, or the widespread persecution of sequestration, the gynacium, and purdah. Phenomenon [sic] such as clitoroidectomy, clitoral incision, the sale and enslavement of women under one guise or another, involuntary and child marriages, concubinage and prostitution, still take place—the first in Africa, the latter in the Near East and Far East, the last generally” (Sexual Politics, p. 46). 

Millett might have been shocked to think how quickly white feminists like herself would learn to refrain from criticizing African, Islamic, or other non-western cultural practices. As feminism became an increasingly utopian ideology, it became less interested in the practical conditions of real women and much more interested in ideological purity inspired by anti-western Marxist and Maoist theorizing.

White feminists soon showed themselves willing to sell out the truth—as well as other women—in exchange for ideological orthodoxy.

By 1979, when Gloria Steinem and radical feminist author Robin Morgan co-authored an article on the practice of removing the clitoris in women and girls, a practice that existed in many Islamic and African countries, these two canny feminist leaders were well-attuned to the racial sensitivity of the topic and went out of their way to stress how fully they empathized with how “The situation is further complicated by the understandable suspicion on the part of many African and Arab governments and individuals that Western interest in the matter is motivated not by humanitarian concerns but by a racist or neocolonialist desire to eradicate indigenous cultures” (Steinem and Morgan, “The International Crime of Genital Mutilation,” in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, p. 336). 

Robin Morgan

Steinem and Morgan were quick to accept that previous Western concern over clitoridectomy must have been “racist” or “neocolonialist”—why? Because a Kenyan leader had said it was. They wrote, “As Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, noted in his book, Facing Mount Kenya, the key mobilization of many forces for Kenyan independence from the British was in direct response to attempts by Church of Scotland missionaries in 1929 to suppress clitoridectomy. Patriarchal authorities, whether tribal or imperial, have always considered as central to their freedom and power the right to define what is done with ‘their’ women” (“The International Crime of Genital Mutilation, p. 336-37).

Here we see the distinctly anti-Western emphasis that began to dominate feminist thought and would flower over the next decade into overt anti-white propagandizing. Steinem and Morgan, two well-educated, free, and sexually liberated white women—committed to the distinctly western concepts of female sexual pleasure and sexual autonomy—were careful to express sympathy with Kenyan men who opposed the Church of Scotland missionaries, men and women, who had attempted in 1929 to suppress the practice of clitoridectomy. Without providing any evidence or feeling the need to explain their conclusion, Steinem and Morgan agreed with a Kenyan man that the missionaries who objected to cutting off girls’ clitorises—which was, after all, the feminists’ own position—that these missionaries were motivated by racism and therefore were at least as objectionable as those men who promoted the cutting off of girls’ clitorises.

Steinem and Morgan distanced themselves from the white missionaries in articulating their own superior moral position: “Past campaigns against female mutilation, conducted for whatever ambiguous or even deplorable reasons, need not preclude new approaches that might be more effective because they would be sensitive to the cultures involved and, most important, supportive of the women affected, and in response to their leadership.”  

Note the phrasing: being “sensitive to [non-western] cultures” and “responsive” to [non-western women’s] “leadership”: these are the touchstones that later generations of feminists would adopt and which would harden into a rigid orthodoxy. This was not moral relativism, as it is sometimes assumed to be. It was the acceptance of the outright moral inferiority of western culture, specifically its Christian inheritance and its individualist ethos. The mandated perspective of feminists became: always assume that all previous western initiatives, even those specifically designed to end female suffering, could not have had humanitarian motives; and always declare a commitment that is pro-indigenous and anti-colonial. Western culture itself was not considered indigenous or worthy of being defended.

As these Marxist ideological currents took hold, the relative harmony created by feminism’s focus on shared oppression decisively shattered in the 1980s. A collection of articles in a book called Conflicts in Feminism, edited by American feminist academics Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller in 1987, made clear that class and especially racial differences had set women at war with each other over who was more oppressed, and who complicit in other women’s oppression. It was a war from which feminist unity never fully recovered, though phenomena such as the Women’s Marches and #MeToo social media campaigns have attempted with some success to reunite women under the banner of shared sexual victimhood. 

Bell Hooks

In one essay in the Conflicts in Feminism collection, prominent black feminist theorist Bell Hooks went so far as to say that “We cannot speak of all women as being oppressed.” In her view, most white women would have to give up the oppressed designation (to be fair, she also exempted herself as a well-paid academic—but she definitely did not exempt black women in general). The white co-author of the essay, Mary Childers, tentatively agreed with Hooks, stressing that “An exclusive focus on male/female conflict serves as a distraction from other kinds of conflict” (63)—precisely that between white and black women. The women’s rights struggle had in 20 short years became a multi-faceted tribal war amongst different categories of women vying for superior status.

For many white women, being told that they weren’t oppressed and being charged with racial oppressiveness was a devastating allegation that denied their prized identities as valiant victims; but because it employed the same oppressor/oppressed binary at the heart of their theory of patriarchal oppression, it could not be rejected without imperilling the logic of feminism itself.  If white privilege was structurally parallel to male privilege, then how could white women maintain their virtuous victimhood? As it turned out, they could do so only by pledging to fight a reformulated enemy, specifically white supremacist heteropatriarchy.

The moral imperative of this fight was made clear by feminist sociologist Peggy McIntosh in her much-reprinted 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which she urged women to prove themselves more conscientious than men about what began around this time to be called systemic oppression. McIntosh, a professor of women’s studies, claimed that while very few men were “truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage,” white feminists owed it to their movement and themselves to be “outraged about unearned race advantage.” This was the true beginning of feminist agony over having white skin. 

Peggy McIntosh
Along similar lines, Bell Hooks assured white women that they could avoid the worst of their guilt as oppressors if they committed to joining with black women in resisting white male power: “Naming yourself as privileged is not to name yourself as oppressive or dominating, because we have choices as to how we exercise privilege” (“A Conversation about Race and Class,” p. 75). White women accepted Hooks’ offer, eagerly confessing their white privilege, blaming white men, and committing a la McIntosh to dismantling so-called systemic white advantage through various acts of reparation. 

In the process, white women were forced to relinquish significant interpretative power to non-white women, and even sometimes to non-white men. Because white privilege was said to be a system of unearned advantages that whites were taught not to see—and that not seeing it was actually the evidence of the privilege—then committing to anti-racism meant accepting without question nearly any claim of racism made by a person of color. To deny a claim would be to reveal oneself as insufficiently aware and/or insufficiently morally sensitive. To retain moral purity, white women surrendered to women of color the near-absolute right to define the racial meaning of their own actions, a right still not in their control today. 

And not surprisingly, charges of race and other forms of privilege came thick and fast in the next decade. In response to an influential 1993 essay on intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw called “Beyond Racism and Misogyny,” the leveling of charges of privilege became a near-endless contest of one-upmanship that white women were bound to lose in an endless competition to claim the “lived experience,” in Crenshaw’s words, “at the bottom of multiple hierarchies.” The race to the bottom, where one’s understanding was allegedly clearest and one’s right to speak greatest, triggered an avalanche of claims of wounding and of verbal violence.

During the 1990s, white feminists were also taken to task for favoring western societies in their accounts of world patriarchy, or in other words for accepting, as Kate Millett had done, that white men had created freer and better societies, including better for women, than existed in other parts of the world. A number of non-white feminist academics, among them Gloria Anzaldua, Gayatri Spivak, and Trinh T. Minh Ha, bristled at their implicit designation as the poor sisters of feminism, pitied in their Third World misery. 

In her book Looking White People in the Eye (1998), women’s studies academic Sherene Razack let white women know that white men were not better than other men in their treatment of women, and that saying so was white supremacist. White men, she claimed, were responsible for imperialism, racism, capitalist oppression, homophobia, and Islamophobia, and unless white women denounced all these forms of oppression, they too would be classed as imperialists, racists, oppressors, homophobes, and Islamophobes. 

Razack’s words dripped with angry sarcasm as she described white women’s reprehensible bias in assuming the superiority of western freedoms: 
“Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh men confirm handily the superiority of Western men …. White women’s responses to articles on Muslim women and the veil include the sentiment that in comparison to Eastern women, Western women should consider their own men as gems of enlightenment and kindness” (83). 

There it was. White women were wrong to prefer life in a white western culture. In only a decade or two, it had become unacceptable to state that not being forced to wear a niqab was a good thing. It had become unacceptable to think that a culture that protected widows was more advanced than one that burned them on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Welcome to the upside-down world of intersectional feminism. 

Razack stipulated that all violence against women of color must be understood “within the context of racism and the histories of colonialism and imperialism” (84). In other words, the violence that women of color experienced in their societies could ultimately be laid at the feet of white men, who were its origin. Because white women could not bear to be accused of complicity in colonialism and imperialism, they found themselves willing to agree that it was racist to speak of honor killing as a problem particular to Islamic cultures. If it gained them the approval of their woman of color masters, they were even willing to agree that white male systems were the ultimate origin of all suffering and injustice—and indeed that became an article of faith of intersectional feminism.

Feminism thus developed an all-encompassing theory of social experience which though sometimes inscrutable and self-contradictory in its details was simple enough in its basic outline for a child to understand: victims were better than non-victims, and white men were worse than anybody else. Victim ideology came to infiltrate and coopt all competing social movements, including even atheism, evangelical Christianity, and animal rights. So powerful was the ideology’s moral charge that some non-white and gay men seized the opportunity to escape the oppressor designation in exchange for victim status. Though all men remained vulnerable to feminist accusation, some men could establish a partial exemption by emphasizing their marginalized characteristics. 

Social class, the one remaining vector of real privilege in North American society, has largely fallen away from most discussion, allowing fantastically wealthy people in the universities, the entertainment industry, politics, and the media to reap the enormous benefits of their alleged victimhood while disavowing their obvious advantages over the destitute, the despairing, the discardable, the homeless, the suicides, the falsely accused, the wrongfully imprisoned, and all the dispossessed, most of whom are men of all races, including many white men. White feminists sold these men out because performing their own moral righteousness was more important to them than truth. 

Robin Diangelo
Some white women, when confronted with their alleged privilege in anti-racist struggle sessions, break down in tears, but we’ve even learned to be suspicious of such evidence of shame, penitence, and/or empathy. Robin DiAngelo in her book about white supremacism has scornfully repudiated such tears. White women’s tears are “one of the more pernicious enactments of white fragility” (133), “self-indulgent,” “narcissistic,” and “ineffective” (White Fragility, 135). 

The same women who used to say they would bathe in male tears are now told that their own are worthy of contempt. 

The attack on white womanhood does not represent a turning of the tide against feminism, alas. It merely points to the absurd and irrational, vicious volatility of all designations of virtuous victimhood. There will always be more self-proclaimed victims to replace white women, other skilled accusers to milk public outrage. We will not escape feminism’s social pathology until we recognize that a movement based on collective resentment will always require more targets for vilification.

                                         Janice Fiamengo

No comments:

Post a Comment