Get behind me, white feminism

Today is going to be a day of hot takes on the Oscars and there was plenty to talk about: Neil Patrick Harris’ attempts to gloss over white-washing with failed enlistment of black actors, Sean Penn closing the evening by honoring his “friend” with a racist/xenophobic “green card” joke. I’ll be reading all of those takes and then getting back to my life because culture-making is as important as culture-commenting.

But I needed to say something about that Patricia Arquette speech. After thanking the Academy and all the people for her win, Arquette launched into a brief but emphatic statement about equal pay for women:

“To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

The audience rallied behind her, and this gif was born:

You WILL be seeing this again. I myself will be using it for anything that calls for premature enthusiasm.

You WILL be seeing this again. I myself will be using it for anything that calls for premature enthusiasm.

Now, I’m all for equal pay. Collectively speaking, women are underpaid compared to men. What initially bothered me was how Arquette was tying equality to maternity. And on a night when much had been rightfully made about the overt Academy snubbing of black art, taking the platform to talk about equality without mentioning race at all seemed insensitive and inadequate at best. Unfortunately, it got worse after the show. Arquette went into the press junket and said:

“It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don’t have equal rights for women in America and we don’t because when they wrote Constitution, they didn’t intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

Meryl-Streep-Prada-Glasses

Get out of my office, Patricia.

This is a classic mistake of white feminism. I’ve written before about the historical trespasses of the white women’s movement, so I won’t break into a full-blown recap here. I also have a small child harassing me while I’m writing this, so I will make a few quick points.

  1. The first lie institutional power will sell you is that there isn’t enough porridge, pay, or power to go around for everyone. This scarcity myth compels marginalized people to contend for scraps, and it is an utter distraction from the work of equality. It also reinforces the idea that hierarchies are fair, give turns, and can be trusted to divvy out measures of power and influences as they see fit.
  2. We can resist that scarcity myth and the power that’s using it to oppress folks by centering the needs of the most vulnerable. Calls for “everybody, let’s work together” are most effective when they say, “everybody, let’s work together and get behind this person who’s getting trampled.” While white women are marginalized in a patriarchal society, we cannot continue to build our success on the backs of people of color or anyone who is pushed out farther by institutionalized oppression. We don’t take down white patriarchy to replace it with white matriarchy. The whole dang thing has to come down.
    Master's House, Master's Tools
  3. Equality isn’t about chasing and catching up to white dudes. It’s about dismantling systems that prop up white supremacy, patriarchy, and the like. Again, we need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is full enfranchisement of marginalized people (including men of color who currently make less than white women do).
    wagegapbrokenupbyrace-011
  4. White ladies who aren’t willing to use their prominent platforms to talk about how black lives matter really should never, ever, tell people of color to come work for them. To do so is the height of entitlement and re-enacts dynamics of white supremacy. See point 2.
Back up, Khaleesi.

Get back to wardrobe, Khaleesi. Your privilege is showing.

It’s time for us to understand what Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw described as “intersectionality.” White feminism makes these mistakes time and again precisely because we insist that marginalized people get on board with us rather than doing the work to understand and serve them. As Christians, we are commanded to see and walk with the systematically and personally disenfranchised. Isaiah 58 reminds us that our good intentions and our ritual operations aren’t enough:

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Let’s stop playing by those old rules and build solidarity by looking at the whole picture and not just the part that affects only us.

Privilege in Feminism, Part 3-Centering Marginalized Women

The last two posts, I’ve looked at both biblical examples and American historical examples of how patriarchy grants certain women privileges over other women in order to preserve male-dominated order. I had planned to write an intense, equally-long final installment to discuss how we can move forward from this place of competition to a position where the voices of marginalized women take center stage and privileged women and men stand in solidarity with them against oppressive forces. I had planned to say a lot of things, but given the topic at hand, I decided to just frame up this post, and create a space where you all could hear from some of the women that are teaching me these days.

I may be just a humble substitute teacher, but I can still give all y'all a quiz.

I may be just a humble substitute teacher, but I can still give all y’all a quiz.

Much of the feminist and anti-racist scholarship of today is focused on a concept named by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as “intersectionality.” Crenshaw coined the term to describe the intersection of oppression that black women face as both women and as black people. This concept can describe any number of levels of oppression against a person or group of people. You can read a sample of her academic work at the link above. Crenshaw, like many of her colleagues, argued that until there was an effort to address the intersections of oppression comprehensively and holistically, marginalization and discrimination would persist.

Author, poet, and activist Audre Lorde famously wrote:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference, those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
audreIn our current context, you see similar critiques of the myopic perspective espoused by prominent contemporary voices like Sheryl Sandberg, whose book Lean In, was touted as a call for American women to re-engage in feminism. Scholar and writer bell hooks panned Sandberg’s emphasis on women pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in her critique for The Feminist Wire:

Although Sandberg revised her perspective on feminism, she did not turn towards primary sources (the work of feminist theorists) to broaden her understanding. In her book, she offers a simplistic description of the feminist movement based on women gaining equal rights with men. This construction of simple categories (women and men) was long ago challenged by visionary feminist thinkers, particularly individual black women/women of color. These thinkers insisted that everyone acknowledge and understand the myriad ways race, class, sexuality, and many other aspects of identity and difference made explicit that there was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call “women” struggling to be equal with men. In fact, the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.

While works like Lean In bring feminism into the main stream of American culture, but rarely do they affect sweeping changes. This week, we saw similar skepticism emerge following a speech by Emma Watson at the U.N. (a speech for which she received immediate threats against her privacy and her person).

Is that spelled correctly?

Is that spelled correctly?

Watson was praised for her candor and her embrace of the term “feminism,” and while the moment was, for many, a needed introduction to feminism, it was not representative of the movement. As always, when we see these rallying points, we have to be circumspect about who is being left out of the conversation, and how we can keep moving forward, rather than setting up camp here in Women’s Studies 101. Consider these comments from Mia McKenzie on Watson’s speech as it centered men in the fight against misogyny (and really, read the whole post):

The underlying message here is that women deserve equity and equality because of our relationships to men. Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women’s equality because mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don’t already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings. It encourages men to think of women always and only in relation to themselves, as if our pseudo-humanity is only an after-thought of men’s real humanity. The truth is that women are whole, complete people, regardless of our status in the lives of men. This is what men should hear, over and over again. This is what everyone should hear, every day.

These critiques aren’t new. As long as someone is “discovering feminism” for the first time, there will be someone right behind them saying, “there’s still a lot you have yet to learn.”

This is a good thing.

If we are ever going to step out of oppressive paradigms and fully realize in a new Kingdom coming, one that is properly ordered around God and not a particular powerful segment of humanity, we need to commit to humility and to listening to the people who are pushed to the margin. That is, after all, who Jesus himself ran with on a daily basis.

With that in mind, here are a few additional readings for you to interact with and explore. You don’t necessarily have to agree with all of it, but you do have to listen. Consider them homework, if it helps. You do yours (don’t go asking your marginalized friends for answers, either). I’ll do mine. We can meet back and compare notes later.

Accomplices, Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally-Industrial Complex from Indigenous Action

Justice then Reconciliation by Austin Channing Brown

I, too, am racialized by Lydia Brown (includes discussion of disability!)

Killjoy Prophets: Troubling and Broadening our Liberation by Emily Rice (highlights current struggles within the “progressive” Christian community)

Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why It’s Future is Not Up to White Women by Brittney Cooper

I Can’t Believe by Micky Jones

Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy by Andrea Smith

White People, White Power, White Platform by Caris Adel

Extra credit (only because you can’t just click and read it, but get this anyway): More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership, and Faith. Authors: Asifa Dean, Christie Heller de Leon, Kathy Khang and Editors: Nikki A. Toyama, Tracey Gee, Jeanette Yep