New feature: Piercing the whitening silence

Terese Jonsson calls for all white feminists (herself included) to step up to the plate on racism and white privilege

A couple of months ago, Annika Spalding challenged F-Word readers with the question ‘Whose feminism is it?’ Disappointed with her experience of feeling like she “stood out a bit” and had been “overlooked” at a major feminist conference, she asked:

Is feminism reaching women who are living in poverty? Women who have come over to this country on a marriage visa and can’t speak any English? Is feminism reaching young teenage mums? Is feminism reaching women who didn’t attend university? Is feminism reaching women who choose not to work, regardless of whether or not they have children? Is feminism reaching women who do not have access to the internet? Is feminism reaching mums? Is feminism reaching women of colour? Really?

Her words echoed those of many frustrated women before her, and led me to wonder, once again, when are we going to stop going around in these circles? When are the white, privileged, cis-gendered, university-educated, able-bodied women who too often insist on dominating feminist conversations going to actually start listening? And following on from that, when are we going to start changing? Annika addressed many different issues in her article, all important and inter-connected, but right here and now I want to focus on one strand in particular; namely, the ongoing racism and unchecked white privilege in many feminist communities in the UK.

I should mention at this point that I am a white, middle-class feminist. I’m not saying I have all the answers or that I occupy any moral high-ground on this matter, but I am saying that if we are to build real feminist movements in the UK, if this recent “upsurge in feminist activity” oft-cited in Guardian lifestyle columns is going to mean anything to the women Annika wrote about in her article, white feminists have some serious shit to sort out.

But first, let’s be clear that this is not a new discussion. Here’s a letter from black feminist Jan McKenley, printed in an issue of the women’s liberation magazine Spare Rib in 1980:

I’m beginning to feel invisible again within the WLM [Women’s Liberation Movement], having to work myself up to making ‘heavy’ statements that will embarrass sisters in meetings – I can see the eyebrows going up already – “Not racism – that old chestnut again – it’s so boring.” Well, if it’s boring for you, white sister…. I’ve got no monopoly on dealing with racism – it’s your problem too.

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