In the wake of the Quvenzhane Wallis-The Onion debacle, one voice was uncomfortably noticed as largely silent through the rallying to support the young actress: white feminists. For those who are not familiar with the incident, on the night of the Oscars, the satirical news company The Onion was live-tweeting. They tweeted about Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, who was the starring actress in the film Beast of the Southern Wild, and was nominated for Best Actress. The tweet “jokingly” referred to Wallis as the “C-word”. Despite their satirical nature, many did not find this amusing or satirical, including myself. There are just some who are immune from ruthless jokes, and children are in that category. Feminists of color, predominately Black, instantly rallied around Wallis, and they noticed the appalling silence from white feminists (Clutch Magazine, tressiemc, Melissa Harris-Perry Show).
This is not the first time that feminists of color have felt slighted by White feminists, and it will not probably be the last. But instead of releasing my stresses with this complex (I have done that enough with my supervisor at the Women’s Center), I want to present a core solution that does not just apply to this specific conflict, but to an entire consortium of conflicts between people that are oppressed and people who have privilege:
Empathize FIRST, Understand SECOND, “Incentivize” NEVER.
The most colossal issue I have noticed in my study of feminism and in my own experiences is that when it comes to the rifts within feminism. there has been this mistake of attempting to understand the issues of feminists of color before empathizing, and when I say “empathizing”, I mean communicating “I am there for you in the midst of your struggle, sister”. THAT’S IT. No “I know what you are going through” or “I understand your pain”. Just simply “you have my support.”
While we appreciate the effort in white, straight feminists to understand the struggle of feminists of color or queer feminists, it is not a prerequisite or a requirement for empathy. This should be extended from the very beginning. So when we look back at the incident with The Onion, we notice that when white feminist voices that did speak out initially, it was to force us to understand The Onion’s intentions, and how is that (defending your male counterparts) standing up as a feminist when your sisters are in outrage?
I say “Empathize FIRST” because it allows for feminists to freely speak for themselves, their pain, their struggles, and as well their triumphs without trying to mold it into a message that is palatable to white feminists’ ears. It can be. It can exist as is and thus empower those proclaiming that message.
I Say “Understand SECOND” because there should be efforts made to understand. We cannot effectively support and advocate for each other if we do not attempt to walk down the path in each other’s shoes from time to time. But this is something that must not be the instinctual reaction when we see our sisters hurting. Empathy must flow from our souls from the beginning, with understanding to follow. But this understanding must be guided by those afflicted within said struggle. I often notice that those in privilege try to create understanding based on their own experiences or knowledge (“I know all about poverty because I took this course on it”), and that’s a no-no. Let those who are experiencing the struggle create the framework that will allow understanding to flow. I know that sounds elementary, but you would be surprised at how many people in privilege do just that.
Lastly, I added “‘Incentivize NEVER” and I included this phrase because there are prime examples of white feminists extending empathy, support, and understanding to groups under oppression for self-interest. I am in the middle of reading Women, Race, & Class by THE Angela Y. Davis, and she devotes an entire chapter titled “The Anti-Slavery Movement and the Birth of Women’s Rights” which thoroughly explains the relationship between early feminists and the abolitionist movement. While there are some true sheroes from the era that cared extensively for the well-being of enslaved Africans and African-Americans (cue Prudence Crandall, Lucretia Mott, and the Grimke sisters), it was some of these same women and many others who used the slavery rhetoric to advance their own cause as suffragists. Often they would try to compare their struggles as wives confined to their homes as housewives to the bitter, unrelenting subjugation that American slavery inflicted on enslaved peoples. Looking back, this seems preposterous, but this was a powerful tool for early feminists, and in return, leaders did advocate fiercely for abolition. Female anti-slavery societies were formed by both Black and White women during this time period. But I wonder how involved these women would have been if they did not find some way to make their efforts work in their favor as well. While I boldly believe in supporting the movements of those outside your identity, I do not believe in searching for a reward in return, and if we want to move forward in sisterhood and solidarity femmes, we must do away with this mentality.
With these suggestions in mind, I really do believe we can rebuild the feminist movement to be wholly united while simultaneously empowering all of our identities.