I hope that the actors acknowledgment that she has benefited from being white will produce others to ask themselves hard questions too, says Lola Okolosie, an English teacher and freelance writer
Feminism, to quote bell hookings, is for everybody. It’s a simple enough statement. Utopian in its eyesight, it had nevertheless demonstrated, for the very constituency who should have been most receptive to its premise- feminists- contentious. A simmering controversy within the movement, along with debates about how far it has included working-class, LGBTQI and disabled wives, has concerned race.
It was there when in 1851 abolitionist Sojourner Truth asked the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio,” Ain’t I a Woman ?”. There she was demanding that white feminists include black women’s conflicts in the fight for women’s rights. It was there, too, in Audre Lorde’s open letter to Mary Daly in which she wrote that” the history of white women who are unable to hear black women’s words, or to maintain dialogue with us, is long and discouraging “.
It is a reality actor and activist Emma Watson acknowledged the coming week. To have a prominent British feminist question, as the outcomes of a black woman’s terms,” What are the ways I have benefited from being white ?” and consider the appropriate means that may she is implicated, as all white people are, in white ascendancy by asking,” In what lanes do I supporting and uphold a system that is structurally racist ?”, has seemed virtually unthinkable.
Over five years ago Chitra Nagarajan and I, both members of an activist group called Black Feminist, wrote:” The feminist narrative belongs to all women everywhere but that is not the impression you would receive from the mainstream media, where it seems that all feminists was very concerned about is a particular type of woman .” That girl was invariably white and middle-class. We were, along with our fellow black feminist activist Reni Eddo-Lodge( whose book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White Person About Race triggered Watson’s epiphany ), merely stating the blindingly obvious.
Then the debates were reignited by a gushing interview between Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham in which the former failed to ask about the very flagrant whitewashing of New York in Dunham’s hit show, Girls. Moran, when asked if she had addressed” the utter lack of people of colour in Girls”, replied:” Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it .” That’s caustic humour for you.
From here the dispute promptly moved on to” intersectionality“( which tells us that inequalities such as class, sexuality, disability, gender and race do not exist in isolation but instead crisscross and therefore compound injustice ). It was deemed too cumbersome a word and concept to really apply to feminism. For those of us arguing the best interest of the assumption to black women’s lives, it merely demonstrated the unwillingness of the white feminists we tried to engage to watch beyond themselves.
The very mention of the word “white” elevates hackles rather than serving as a catalyst for the kind of introspection suggested by Watson. It is something Watson herself admits she was guilty of at first- penning that when she heard herself being called a” white feminist” she pondered,” What was the need to define me- or anyone else for that matter- as a feminist by race? What did this mean? Was I being called a racist? Was the feminist movement more fractured than I had understood ?” In short she panicked and revealed the ways in which whiteness will protect itself rather than engage with the substance of what is being said. Watson should be commended for beginning a travel into how her whiteness builds life far easier for her to navigate.
It is a privilege that operates in a thousand little routes that range from the apparently insignificant-” glasses that aren’t designed for black features“, to the grotesque- disproportionate numbers of BAME demises following police restraint, or our higher levels of poverty and homelessness.
There is an overwhelming desire to ignore the material differences white skin- even when you are a woman- renders people in a world where whiteness is still seen as the norm against which all else can be judged. Why else the balk at being called a” white feminist” if not for the fact that it felt shocking to be “raced” in accordance with the rules that the” black human strolling down the street”, or” the Asian girl with ribbons in her hair” is daily. Race, for those working white feminists, was something they did not have to think about, and trying to stimulate them do so simply resulted in the focus being shifted to their suffer feelings- simply more centring of whiteness.
Dismantling racism is simply begin to happen if many more white people were ready to do their share of the study. That doesn’t mean pointing the finger at those racists over there( insert the north of England, the American south or whatever other field you seek to stereotype and dismiss ). Shifting the remorse on to others is just another way of deferring the important. White people, feminists and non-feminists, need to be asking themselves the same questions Watson has. In what lanes do you benefit from being white? At least that’s a start.
* Lola Okolosie is an English teacher and writer concentrates on race, politics, education and feminism