After a brief haitus to deal with some institutional shenanigans and the personal fall out from those, I’m back to writing about the trouble with white women and white feminism series. If you’re new to this series, you can read from the beginning, or just dive in here. The concept is that I’ll do a series of blog posts and compile them into a free reader. I started, ambitiously, thinking I would do this in a 15-week semester and be done with it, but life (and committee work) intervened. Meanwhile, white women and white feminism keep on doing what they do and in this call out culture, there’s not enough calling that out in my view. If you’re new to thinking about these ideas, Quinn Norton has given the world an excellent two-part series on whiteness. Do go read it. Onward…. to Part IV. White Women’s Feminist/Digital Activism.
Hollaback is often pointed to as a success of online feminism. If you’ve ever ridden the subways in NYC and you have heard the announcement about “a crowded subway is never an excuse for unwelcome touching” you have witnessed some of the fruits of their activist labor. On October 28, 2014 they published this video called “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” that immediately went viral and now has over 32 million views (screenshot below). This video was crafted by a PR firm to “go viral” – and to raise money for the Hollaback organization. Unfortunately, the video over-sampled in Harlem neighborhoods, and edited out white men who harassed the woman. As the ever insightful Zeynep Tufecki points out, there are some profound methodological problems with the video that result in a racially skewed result. Of course, the director of the video denies any racist intent, move along, nothing to see here.
This is not new, nor is it a mistake, rather it is a key element of the white feminism which is at the center of the Hollaback enterprise. As I noted in a 2009 WSQ piece, there is a preponderance of men of color represented on the Hollaback blog in photos taken by white women. This angle of vision is one that is consistent with carceral feminism, an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to street harassment and violence against women. (See Elizabeth Bernstein’s work on this.)
Carceral feminism is integral to white feminism and to this wildly popular, viral video campaign. The activism of Hollaback in this instance also raises questions about the potential for digital feminist praxis. As Susana Loza asks in the Queer/Feminist Praxis issue of Ada:
“Is mainstream feminism destined to remain the terrain of white women? Or can the digital media praxis of women of color, their hashtag feminism and tumblr activism, their blogging and livejournaling, broaden and radically redefine the very field of feminism?”
One of the insights I have gleaned from black feminist thought is that standpoint and positionality matter, in other words, who you are in relation to the research matters. I’ve done this here and here, and continue to do so in various ways. This seems to be one place that white feminism keeps messing up, thinking that the experience of “A Woman” who also happens to be white can stand in for the experiences of *ALL* women.
My own personal experience, my research on white supremacy, and the work of scholars such as Vron Ware, whose Beyond the Pale offers a discursive production of whiteness through a gendered reading of colonial history and Ruth Frankenberg, whose White Women, Race Matter, makes a compelling argument for the importance of examining the social position of white women, specifically, occupy in our society, lead me to the conclusion that it is crucial to critically analyze the position of white women in our society.
But – bracketing white women for now – to focus on the trouble with white feminism, and here, it is the critiques by scholars and feminists of color such as Jessica Johnson, Patricia Hill Collins, Chela Sandoval, Toni Morrison, bell hooks and many, many others I follow on Twitter whom Gramsci would consider “organic intellectuals” make the need for a critical examination of the trouble with white feminism a pressing one.
To return to Loza question about the digital media praxis, it seems clear now that that as Demetria Irwin has observed: “the feminist revolution will be tweeted, hashtagged, Vined and Instagrammed.”
When Mikki Kendall started the hashtag #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen in August, 2013 as a form of digital media activism directed at the predominantly white feminist bloggers, it was the hashtag heard around the feminist world. Kendall was calling out prominent white feminists who either rallied around or simply didn’t rebuke a rather unpleasant man claiming to be a feminist. In her piece about the hashtag at The Guardian, Kendall noted that women of color were being “in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women.”
I would argue that a similar thing is happening with the Hollaback video, only this time, it’s white men as street harassers who are being edited out in favor of the brand solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women.
You see this lots of places in white feminism, like in the Sandberg Lean In brand, which is a white, corporate brand of feminism, in which race, and more importantly white supremacy, is a taboo subject, as bell hooks notes. More recently, Susan Cox has observed the ways that Facebook – the company which Sandberg leads with Zuckerberg – is re-shaping our identities in ways that are antithetical to feminist notions of multiple, intersectional selves through their oppressive “real names” policies.
Kendall endured a vicious backlash after starting the hashtag heard ’round the world, and as far as (white feminist) Michelle Goldberg is concerned, it’s Kendall’s own fault.
For Goldberg, Twitter was “insouciant” women of color feminists like Kendall ruined it for white feminists with their “toxic tweets.” Goldberg is critical of Kendall who seems to embody the archetypical angry black woman in the hatchet piece Goldberg wrote for The Nation.
The real “offense,” if you will, of Kendall and other women of color on Twitter is that white women are made uncomfortable when called out for bad behavior. And, on Twitter, it just feels a little closer, more intimate somehow.
In Sara Ahmed’s terms, this is a violation of the “politics of feeling good” which seems to be at the heart of white feminism. Ahmed’s contribution here is considering how certain bodies are seen as the origin of bad feeling, as getting in the way of public happiness, exploring the negative affective (feelings) value of the figures of the feminist kill-joy, unhappy queer and melancholic migrant. In other words, how women of color, immigrants, queers all disrupt the happy, unified, narrative of “women” feeling good about (white) womanhood by pointing out difference. This gives white women the sads. Then they seem to get very, very angry. This is why we can’t have nice things, like feminism.
Mandy Van Deven points out that there is discomfort for (some) white women in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen conversation. That may be so, but this discomfort is not going away because women of color speaking up and speaking out are not going away.
Hashtag activism amplifies the challenge to white feminism. The hashtag that Kendall created sparked lots of others, such as #NotYourAsianSideKick. These are going to continue and proliferate and those holding onto the mythologies of white feminism are going to be mighty uncomfortable. Personally, I think that’s a very good thing because, as Chela Sandoval has observed, the “structural deficiency within feminist praxis” is its inability to deal with the challenges of feminists of color (Sandoval 2000, 49). To be able to move beyond an entrenched, defensive, and “toxic” white feminism, we need to follow these words of Loza and Nguyen:
“Feminists of the digital age must refuse the nostalgic discourse of authentic selves, of natural bodies, of fixed communities and instead attend to the “structures and relations that produce different kinds of subjects in position with different kinds of technologies” (Nguyen 2003, 302).
The work is not easy but if we want a digital feminism that has a praxis informed by critical race theory, then those who have only known white feminism will have to decide to be brave enough to get past hurt feelings, to learn how to parse hatred from anger, and begin doing the work of anti-racist, anti-colonial feminism. Are any of us brave?
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