“You do not have to be white to be a white feminist,” Rafia Zakaria writes in the author’s note to her latest collection of essays, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. It is also possible, she further argues, to be white and feminist and still “not be a white feminist.” The term, then, seems to be one that Zakaria attaches to a specific definition. Rather than “describing the racial identity of its subjects”, according to her, white feminism is instead “a set of assumptions and behaviors” that are intertwined with mainstream western feminism. However, she adds, it is also true that “most white feminists are indeed white, and that whiteness itself is at the core of white feminism.” In Zakaria’s opinion, a refusal to recognize white privilege is fundamental to the definition of a white feminist.
Against White Feminism critiques the “whiteness” within certain feminist activism and what it has done to the movement. In the first chapter, Zakaria argues that Black and Brown women’s contributions to feminism are often ignored. For instance, she points out how gender studies courses teach predominantly the work of white feminists, and even if Black or Brown or Muslim feminists are included in the curriculum, they are “offered as a condiment, the entrée being the white feminist texts”. Where are the gender studies courses that predominantly teach the works of Black or Brown or Muslim feminists, she asks.
In her book, Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, Eve Kosofsky writes about “paranoid reading”—how certain kinds of readers experience fiction by anticipating bad things, thus focusing their reading on eliminating “bad surprises.” While Zakaria’s book is not fiction, I experienced a sense of paranoia while reading it the first time– sometimes, anticipating the book to lead me somewhere wrong. Perhaps, a part of my paranoia was my own participation in what Zakaria would argue is an aspect of white feminism, when a feminist of color is often read with doubt and refused entry into the epistemology of feminism.
It would appear that Zakaria anticipated this kind of suspicion to be projected by her readers. The concluding chapter, for instance, is filled with caveats for both white women and women of color. She argues that, for a transformative form of feminism to work, it is crucial for feminists to work out solidarities across identities and “specialized groups.” Zakaria repeatedly reminds the reader that the book does not call for an “elimination of white women,” but instead urges the elimination of “whiteness” from feminism.
Zakaria’s own experience includes on-the-ground crisis-based legal assistance to Black and Brown immigrant women in domestic violence shelters, involving issues related to immigration and child custody. Her book thus produces a narration that marries scholarship with conversation, critiquing the various forms of inequities within the feminist movement propped up by western, white feminism. Her experience with the law and its violence informs the book. For instance, in chapter seven– “I built a white feminist temple”– she discusses what she describes as “culturally coded crimes.” She argues that it is not that culturally coded crimes like “honor killing” are not violent crimes, but the fact that there is such a ready attachment of a cultural dimension to such crimes in order to signal that they are more brutal than similar crimes occurring among white communities is something that must be recognized as a problem. For instance, she points to the different standards applied to intimate partner violence between white couples and Brown or Black couples. The latter, she argues, becomes a reflection of the community and its culture, and the former is seen as an individualistic crime both by the law and the people.
Gender justice requires parity among women of color and white women. A trickle-down version of feminism, Zakaria argues, will not account for the differences that exist across groups. However, that recognition alone will not do. Material realities necessitate a redistribution of resources, such as government welfare programs, legal assistance for women of color, and so on. Solidarities must be built on transparent conversations that do not shy away from disagreement and discussion. In Against White Feminism, Zakaria warns that any feminism that expects universal agreements is a branding exercise and will ultimately elude accountability, forsaking potential transformation for the sake of agreement.
by Rafia Zakaria
W. W. Norton & Company
Published August 17, 2021
Barathi is a New Delhi based independent researcher and a lawyer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Chicago Review of Books, Entropy Magazine, the Hindu, Down to Earth, and the Economic and Political Weekly.