Thursday, October 25, 2007

Defining "Woman Über Alles" White Feminism

(I think I need to note that the term used in the name of this post isn't original to me. I am pretty sure that incredible and always witty belledame22 used it before I "stolez" it.)

Yesterday I was in a conversation and someone criticized the fact that I have stated that I'm a womanist. For privacy's sake, I'm not going to reprint their comments but eventually the conversation led to some discussion on whether "womanism" is antithetical to feminism. Anyway, I wound up using the term "white, Western, middle-class feminism" and a fellow woman of color asked me what I meant by this. I've used it several times in the past and I figure she might not be the only one who didn't know what I was talking about. I just thought I'd reprint my description of this group that I refer to when I talk about why womanism describes my views better than just using the word "feminism".

White, Western, Middle-Class Feminism
(aka "Woman Über Alles" White Feminism)

White, Western, middle-class feminism tends to view ideas like "freedom" and "liberation" in terms of what people in this society value or consider desirable. It tends to mimic Western society as a whole in that it can be quite imperialist regarding what needs to be done to "fix" other societies/groups. It centers issues that affect whites but those issues that mostly affect women of color are de-centered and often ignored completely. It tends to downplay the role that race plays on the oppression faced by women of color because they are "of color" and, regardless of what WOC say to the contrary, it is often times stated that ending the patriarchy is all that's needed to end that oppression. It denies the historic role that white women have played in the oppression of people of color and how it continues to do so in many ways to this very day. It is the feminism of the those whose biggest problems really may be the patriarchy. It is the feminism that insists women of color wait for a "more convenient season"*.
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This phrase was taken from a letter written by Martin Luther King Jr. while he sat in a Birmingham jail. The following passage shows the context of this quote.

"I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress."

8 comments:

Lisa Harney said...

I've been talking a lot about stuff like this for the past few days - racism in general, and racism in feminism. It's amazing to me that some white feminists can talk about male privilege and how it impacts their lives, can even acknowledge the existence of white privilege, but cannot actually make the leap to examining that privilege and applying that examination directly to feminism.

Of course, it's not just race, but any kind of privilege (able-bodied, cisgender, economic) which receives token acknowledgement at best, and vicious denials otherwise.

La Lubu has an interesting post on Feministe about her own disconnects from feminism, which includes the primacy of white concerns over all others, as well as several other issues.

I looked up womanism on the web, and I don't see how it could be harmful to feminism's stated goals. Sure, I can understand how some people might be upset that womanism doesn't put them first, but those people are always upset when the rare occasion comes up that they're not first.

It is the feminism that insists women of color wait for a "more convenient season"*.

That letter from Birminghma Jail also has a passage about how "later" nearly always means "never." I seem to quote it everywhere these days, too... I may have overused it, given its applicability to the ENDA situation.

Another Conflict Theorist said...

As I was reading your definition of White, Western Middle-Class Feminism that very excerpt from Dr. King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail was going through my mind.

I think the most frustrating thing about any justice movement are those members who put their own interest first as a matter of course and attempt to deride you for noticing it.

Nice post.

Rent Party said...

"Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

Yes, and it's a great phrase.

Lisa Harney said...

I think the most frustrating thing about any justice movement are those members who put their own interest first as a matter of course and attempt to deride you for noticing it.

This can't be stated strongly enough.

For some feminists, they try to frame it as "gender supercedes race", which implies that all women experience the same oppression, and therefore women of color have the same political needs as middle-class white women.

I was just reading some old threads on on old forum about discussions on another old forum (Ms. Magazine, specifically). I found a thread asking why women of color didn't participate much. One of the answers that really stood out was:

Another reason is that the whole concept of feminism of a middle-class white woman's movement. I remember a thread back when Ruby would regularly post on Ms where she mentioned forced sterilization of women. It was DISMISSED as something that happened a long time ago, but not now. When she protested, she identified the women this is happening to as WOC. At that point she was told then that's a racism problem. I remember being so stunned when I read that. And I remember walking around with Ruby soon after discussing that thread and how pissed off she was about how lily white Ms and feminism in general seems to be.

That highlights to me the idea that racism is a problem that some feminists believe isn't worth addressing (or rather only addressing after all feminist goals are achieved). Or rather the only oppression that's worth addressing is the oppression that affects them directly.

What I prefer to see are coalitions and alliances, not political separatism.

Ktrion said...

Grrrl, we are so blessed that you share your voice with us all!

"Woman Uber Alles." snap!

Yeah, don't you love it when other people tell us what we should call ourselves. I remember when I was at transgender panel and one of the cis-women there saying that she didn't think "transgender" was a useful term and "you people" should call yourselves something that I understand better.

belledame222 said...


What I prefer to see are coalitions and alliances, not political separatism.


Wouldn't you think? Exactly what we're hashing out at the ENDA thread at my spot. It's amazing how apparently smart people just...the penny doesn't or didn't drop.

Lisa Harney said...

Yeah, don't you love it when other people tell us what we should call ourselves. I remember when I was at transgender panel and one of the cis-women there saying that she didn't think "transgender" was a useful term and "you people" should call yourselves something that I understand better.

I love that one. Another I've heard recently is that "cisgender is an offensive slur." Because, of course, pointing out privilege is a horrible bad thing when it's a woman's privilege.

Belle,

Thankfully, you handled that guy like a pro. :)

I can't agree enough that alliances and coalitions are necessary. I'd rather have friends than stand around pointing fingers until the sky falls.

DaisyDeadhead said...

GREAT POST! :)