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How feminism continues to fail women of color

Celebrity and mainstream feminist icons remain myopic on race

August 1, 2015 2:00AM ET

A few years ago, I had a heated conversation with a very accomplished older white woman. I tried to explain the difficulties I've faced as both a writer and woman of color — poverty, discrimination, microaggressions — and was met with utter disbelief. According to this woman, because I was successful, I couldn’t possibly have faced racism in my field or in my life, for that matter. All the while, she kept recounting the sexism she faced in the male-dominated field of academia. While I sympathized with her struggles as a professional woman, she was unwilling to see how my identity as a daughter of Mexican immigrants would pose obstacles for me. I grew exasperated trying to explain myself to her. How could I prove a lifetime of challenges based on both my race and gender? Even when I cited specific examples of racial discrimination I had endured — being disregarded and disrespected by white editors, for instance — she refused to acknowledge my experiences.

I often remember this conversation because it is so representative of what I see in mainstream feminist discourse. Frequently, there is a willful ignorance about the hardships facing communities of color. Ultimately, feminism without intersectionality is simply self-serving. Women who fret about climbing the corporate ladder and shattering the class ceiling, but who are indifferent to the violence, poverty and discrimination that women of color face on a daily basis are looking out for themselves — or at most, trying to protect people just like them.

Take, for example, the recent Twitter exchange between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj. When Minaj’s highly popular music video, “Anaconda,” was not nominated for an MTV Video Music Award in either best choreography or video of the year categories, she justifiably took to Twitter to vent her frustrations. Minaj pointed out that had she been “a ‘different’ kind of artist,” her video would have been recognized. Because she was nominated, Swift quickly and incorrectly assumed Minaj was attacking her personally. Instead of examining the power structures in the music industry that dismiss and discredit black female artists, Swift automatically became defensive, tweeting at Minaj, “I've done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Swift’s response exemplifies the sort of cluelessness that white women — including those who consider themselves feminists — often exhibit about the hurdles women of color have repeatedly and historically withstood. After she and Minaj shared their points of view, Swift realized she was wrong. “I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I'm sorry, Nicki,” she tweeted.

Though Swift eventually acknowledged her naiveté and publicly apologized to Minaj, her initial response is indicative of the widespread myopia among celebrity and mainstream feminists when it comes to race. 

It’s time to hold popular feminist discourse accountable for masquerading as women’s empowerment.

Recently, TV One commentator Roland Martin called out the National Organization for Women for its silence regarding a white police officer’s brutal treatment of a 15-year-old black girl at a pool in McKinney, Texas. “You can’t say that you care about women, but then you only care about women who are nonblack,” Martin stated. NOW eventually released a statement, but an organization that claims to be committed to protecting women’s rights shouldn’t have to be shamed into responding to the public abuse of a young girl at the hands of law enforcement. What kind of women, exactly, are such organizations dedicated to protecting?

On the celebrity front, “Girls” creator Lena Dunham has been continually called out for her privileged form of feminism. When many critiqued her show for its lack of diversity, she called this blatant whitewashing of New York a “complete accident.” Given such visible contemporary activism concerning representation on screen and this country’s rapidly changing racial demographics, I find this hard to believe. And while I understand that we all make mistakes, Dunham, who is often hailed as a feminist icon, has too frequently demonstrated her insensitivity and disregard for women of color, calling herself “thin for Detroit,” admitting she had more compassion for the stray dogs than the “poverty-stricken people” of India and participating in a stereotypical portrayal of Latinas in a “Saturday Night Live” skit. (The list goes on.)

In a piece for Salon, writer Eesha Pandit has also pointed out the lack of outrage among mainstream liberals and feminists over the recent death of Sandra Bland in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. While many prominent voices have spoken out about the recent Planned Parenthood controversy regarding highly edited and misleading videos that show employees speaking casually about the organization’s tissue-donation programs, there are few feminist leaders addressing police violence against women of color. The Planned Parenthood attacks are alarming and may have grave political consequences, and activists should certainly take action. However, overlooking the plight of women of color in this country is contradictory to the feminist movement, because it deliberately ignores a large segment of the female population.

The hashtag campaign #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, started by blogger Mikki Kendall, erupted two years ago, calling out mainstream feminism for sidelining the struggles that women of color face. She specifically highlighted prominent feminists who failed to support women of color whose careers were attacked by blogger and self-described “male feminist” Hugo Schwyzer. Unfortunately, the lack of white allies is still evident today. True feminism goes far beyond equal pay and abortion access. The kinds of activism that ignore issues of race and class seek to protect and advance middle and upper class white women rather than promoting the well being of all women.

It’s time to hold popular feminist discourse accountable for masquerading as women’s empowerment. It’s encouraging that Swift was able to identify and apologize for her blind spot. Now it’s time for other feminists to look beyond themselves and do the same.

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and writer living in Chicago. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and other publications. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a "Discovery"/Boston Review poetry prize. Find her at www.erikalsanchez.com or on Twitter at @ErikaLSanchez.

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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