White Feminists In Trump’s America

We can no longer conflate popular-culture wins with actual, systemic success

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked what having a woman as president would mean to me, a 23-year-old feminist. It was almost always older women who asked, with a gleam that anticipated an effusive, moving answer — one that would honor the blood, sweat, and tears they had sacrificed so that I could be here.

For a very long time, I gave them the answer they wanted: HILL YES I was excited for Hillary Clinton. #Feminism is succeeding. Representation matters!

But for just as long, I also felt hollow. There wasn’t just Clinton’s problematic history with the black community, her notorious support for the heinous 1994 crime bill, her welfare reform, and other extremely dubious parts of her track record. There was also, of course, the recognition that one cannot vote in good conscience for a candidate just because she shares your anatomy, that a female president doesn’t automatically equate to full-fledged feminist policies.

But it was even more than that. The deep unease I couldn’t name, which has caused me anxiety for over a year now, wasn’t really about Clinton herself at all.

I can name it now: We weren't ready. Not just our nation, but our mainstream feminist movement, was not ready.

As a feminist who has been involved in activist work since the age of 15, the seething hatred Donald Trump foments and represents sadly does not surprise me. Any woman who has been told that she deserves to be raped and/or mangled for preaching nothing but love and equality — not to mention the many women who have been silenced and harassed simply for daring to express themselves publicly in any capacity — couldn't possibly be surprised. Any person who has watched countless friends face similar hatred in their day-to-day lives simply for existing in something other than cisgender, heterosexual, white, male bodies couldn’t possibly be shocked.

But as I watched state after state called for Trump last week, confusion battled with deep-seated panic, and disbelief temporarily overpowered longstanding disgust. I thought I was abundantly aware of how bigoted, how angry, how hateful much of this nation is. But more than 59 million people really feel this way?

So many complex, systemic factors created this repulsive reality. But as someone who has devoted much of her life to a movement aimed at squarely defeating those factors, I couldn’t help but question my own participation in how we got here.

White people elected Trump. He beat Clinton among white women 53 percent to 43 percent, and 63 percent to 31 percent among white men. Clinton won among black women by 93 percent, and among black men by 80 percent.

Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Bethpage, NY.

But the problem is not just the white women who actively voted for a candidate who poses a threat to not only their own rights but also the rights of countless, far more vulnerable others — although we certainly must reckon with this inaction. The problem also, more covertly, lies with the white people who had supposedly committed to preventing such a reality: white feminists.

Over the past few years, the oft-reviled feminist movement has become a trend and a popular identity. As Andi Zeisler noted in her book We Were Feminists Once, the social-justice movement has largely entered the mainstream as a celebrity identity worthy of emulation and a sellable commodity in the form of blithe commercials and t-shirt slogans. Many of us were so busy celebrating this superficial saturation as a systemic success that we confused talking about feminism, vocally supporting it, with actually doing the work.

This iteration of feminism persisted at the same time that our nation seemed to finally discover the injustices that marginalized communities have been facing for centuries. For far too long, people with enough privilege and/or isolation from the type of police brutality that has been killing people of color for years were capable of casually assuming it didn't exist. But Americans have finally been forced to confront the unprecedented, compelling evidence of this violent, racist reality. This superficial version of feminism persisted at the same time that news of native people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and the threat it poses to their land and well-being — one recent iteration of their oppression that is woven into our nation’s fabric — at last permeated our country’s consciousness. It persisted as Muslim Americans shared their accounts of being regarded as terrorists for nothing more than their names, faces, and attire.

Throughout this period, there were certainly many people engaging in impactful feminist activism. But there were also many more who should have been doing the same but instead got lost in a climate of complacency, who assumed that wearing a t-shirt claiming that “the future is female” or retweeting into an echo chamber was enough. There were people who, if not actively participating in this work, should have at least been listening to, watching, and respecting those who were. There were still others who remained ignorant of these movements altogether, who were left to fester in internalized misogyny and permitted to perpetuate racism.

White America at large must reckon with this. And before that, white people in the feminist movement must reckon with this. White feminism cannot claim to be making actual progress, fighting for actual social justice. We have allowed a version of feminism in which white women not only fail to meaningfully engage in the movement themselves, but also fail to bolster the valuable work women of color are doing (and have been doing) to progress our society in a way that benefits all of us, to persist. This failure took many forms, but at least one of them was believing that a single white woman coming close to the highest office in the land meant that feminism had finally permeated our culture in a deeply meaningful way.

“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” feminist thought leader Flavia Dzodan famously said. Last week America proved that, apparently, we are erring on the side of — no, fully enmeshed in — bullshit.

But real feminism — the intersectional feminism that women of color and other marginalized groups have been leading and participating in all along — is not bullshit. It’s our only hope.

It’s time for us to address racism in our own communities and support the efforts women of color have already made toward achieving justice. It’s time for white women to do the damn work. Actually, it was time for us to do the damn work decades and decades — and countless warnings and insights from marginalized groups — ago.

We should be ashamed. But we cannot be paralyzed by this shame. We may not be able to undo the grievous error we made last week, but it is our responsibility to ensure it never happens again.

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