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And the Oscar goes to … White Woman Savior Complex

Patricia Arquette’s backstage comments reveal feminism’s racial divisions

February 24, 2015 11:00AM ET

The Oscars have always been a celebration of power and, with it, an embrace of sexist gender paradigms. In the glitzy run-up to the show, now telecast live from the red carpet, has-been stars turned anchors vie to catch a word with this or that trussed up nominee. Yes, the men are dapper and suave, but the Oscars are really about the gowns and jewels. This is reflected in the panels of doyennes that sit in judgment of other women, critiquing their clothes, their hair and their jewelry. Here are women at their frivolous worst but none of them ever complains about the gender bias of the Oscar circus. In keeping with trends of years past, only 35 women were nominated across 20 nonacting categories this year. There were no female nominees in seven categories, including directing, writing and original screenplay. Since 2012, only 19 percent of all Oscar nominations have been for women.

This was why “Boyhood” star Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech for her best supporting actress Oscar got such an enthusiastic response from the women in the audience and among the Twitterati. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” she proclaimed.

The comments, though warmly received, were not surprising. Celebrities increasingly embrace a cause after they earn recognition. Feminists and equal-pay advocates were thrilled to hear their cause voiced at a starry show watched by millions of Americans.

What did surprise, however, was her subsequent comment backstage. “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,” Arquette said after the show, expanding on her newfound position as an advocate of equal pay and women’s rights.

Her overarching points were clear: White women in the U.S. have always stood up for feminism and women’s rights, with gays and women of color existing in supporting roles. Arquette’s lack of inclusion and disavowal of a feminism that is multicolored and multiracial drew an outcry from women of color and gay feminists. Her comments illustrate the fragility of an intersectional feminism and the fact that white women are seen and celebrated as leaders of inclusive feminism.

This is not a recent notion. Most American discourse on feminism operates according to this one-size-fits-all rule. If Gloria Steinem’s whiteness defined the American feminist movement in the 1970s, then Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” defines it now. Nonwhites are expected to approbate and modify their own lives or positions to participate in this narrative. The parameters of this paradigm ignore differences in privilege that separate the white and nonwhite feminisms. White women dominate the mainstream American feminism because they can still draw on white privilege and occupy the entire category.

Wage inequality and discrimination against women is a reality that women of all races experience, but white women remain the loudest and the best situated to claim the struggle as their own on the Oscar stage.

To be sure, white women face discrimination, but their eminence in the realm of feminism renders their portion of white privilege invisible, giving them an unquestioned right to speak for all women. At conferences, seminars and discussions on feminism, the female face is almost always white.

Feminism’s lesser others — black, brown and Asian women — dare not object. Doing so imperils the few opportunities that white women, in an effort to be judicious or inclusive, drop their way. Nonwhite feminists must embrace and celebrate all suggestions from white feminists to retain any space in the realm of feminist discourse. The silencing is endemic. In her recent essay for Fusion, “Stop it with the feminist whitesplaining,” African-American feminist Latoya Peterson discusses how white women use their privilege to silence women of color. She cites a workshop at the Women’s Media Center where a white woman asked her what she did for a living. When Peterson told her she ran Racialicious, a small blog on race and culture, the said women angrily cut Peterson off. “‘See, this is what I hate about women — we never play big,’ she announced, before launching into all the reasons I should feel proud of myself and emphasize my achievements,” Peterson wrote.

Such “feminist whitesplaining” goes well beyond domestic debates. The U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan utilized white feminism as a gloss to cover up the strategic reasons of these expeditions. (Think of first lady Laura Bush speaking up for Afghan and Iraqi girls.) Hollywood and Western media helped promote the tale. In 2013 the film “Zero Dark Thirty” used the idea of the liberated white feminist taking down Osama bin Laden, embracing torture as a means of nailing dirty brown terrorists. The racism and the Islamophobia of that rendition went largely unquestioned. In this cinematic iteration, feminist solidarity exists only to promote the cult of the white woman warrior at the expense of demonizing nonwhite others. This requires others to be submissive and even enact their submission in a way that highlights the saviordom of white women.  

Over the years, black, Afghan, Iraqi and many other women have played this role, which while calling itself solidarity invariably positions white women as the stars of feminism. The racialized others who question white women’s superiority are left out of conference panels, blogs and empowerment retreats because their positions are too subversive to white female hegemony to be given a voice. The white women’s complicity in the oppression faced by these others is consequently buried and forgotten.

In a sense, Arquette’s statements revealed the fragility of global feminist solidarity and the secret of unspoken racial privilege that haunts the movement. Wage inequality and discrimination against women is a reality that women of all races experience, but white women remain the loudest and the best situated to claim the struggle as their own on the Oscar stage. For everyone else — the black feminists, the Muslim feminists, the Hispanic feminists and so many others — the Oscar tradition is awash with exclusion and derision.

“It’s not one or two jokes. It is not one or two years when persons of color go unrecognized,” Haitian-American feminist Roxane Gay noted at the end of the event. “It is the totality.” This totality was reflected in the words spoken, the awards given and the number of women left off the Oscar stage. 

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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