The Problem With White Feminists

There is a disconnect between white feminists and self-identifying feminists and womanists who are Women of Color (WoC).

Unfortunately, this issue is likely to worsen as Hillary Clinton, a powerful white feminist herself, runs for President of the United States and white feminists feel emboldened by it.

Issues of sex, race and gender overlap; we cannot pretend that racism doesn’t exist when discussing feminism and equality among not only men and women, but between women of all colors, races, and creeds.

I get aggravated when I see white feminists, who are protected by white privilege, use WoC as workhorses and props to propel political and social movements forward, when those who most readily reap the benefits of that hard work of WoC are white women. This exploitative behavior doesn’t perpetuate equality; rather it holds true to the old patriarchal framework they claim to fight, the problem then comes when white women assume the roles of white men, acting as ‘Massa’ to the WoC they subjugate. Feminism should not be simply assuming the role of the patriarchal white man.

A true feminist movement would not be so one sided, and would support WoC as well. Instead of ushering in an era of true equality, I continue to see WoC carted out only when it benefits white feminists. When WoC are being attacked and white feminists sit idly by, silence is betrayal. Why are WoC expected to assist white feminists when such aid is not reciprocated? Where’s the love?

Since the very beginning, white feminists have stood on the shoulders of WoC. The suffrage movement was inspired by white women witnessing Iroquois matriarchy. One of the first suffragists was a Native woman named Zitkala Sa, who was Dakota, like me. Yet her work is never mentioned in feminist conversation.

White feminists have a history of exploiting Indigenous women. Eve Ensler, created the Vagina Monologues and V-Day, flies into third world countries, films impoverished women and children who have been horribly violated, assigns her own narrative to it, leaves, and takes all the credit while those who have been victimized remain voiceless and in pain.

After a trip to the Congo to investigate sexual violence occurring against women there, Eve was quoted as saying, “I must see a fistula,” and set about doing so. Fistulas are holes created through tears in a woman’s body, between the vaginal wall and the rectum. This occurs during violent rape, or when girls still in puberty give birth. When a girl or woman has a fistula, she is unable to hold her urine or excrement. As a result she starts to stink. They are then treated like social pariahs, even though the cause of the smell is fistulas created by men who’ve victimized them. These women, these girls, bear the stigma; not their rapists. The fact that Ms. Ensler could speak of these women in such dehumanizing terms is not only appalling but irresponsible and yes, racist. These women with fistulas, Ms. Ensler, are your equals. This isn’t a freak show and they aren’t your meal ticket. Let them speak for themselves.

White feminists tend to ignore the demographic most effected by sexual violence: Native women. There’s an epidemic of missing and murdered First Nations women in Canada. The feminist movement could assist Native women by sharing their global platform with us and acting as allies, where we all insist that governments, communities, and the media do more to stop our women from being stolen, raped and murdered, while also continuing to search for the lost ones who must come home.

White feminists also need to take responsibility for the role white women have played in racism in America. White women have always been active in terrorist organizations like the KKK. Because racism and misogyny are so entwined, they must be jointly addressed if we truly desire to dismantle either one.

Personally, I don’t self-identify as a feminist- although I agree with much of the feminist platform: equal rights, equal pay, reproductive rights, etc. However, I part ways when it comes to who I am as a Native woman.

You see, I do things as a strong, empowered Oceti Sakowin (Sioux) woman that non-Native settler feminists do not understand, nor do they seem to want to. Through their colonial lens, they view sacred women’s ways as submissive rather than humble. For instance, they assume that because I wear a long dress or skirt to ceremony, that I’m being treated as an inferior. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wear my floor sweeping skirt out of respect for my ancestors, the brothers and sisters in my circle, and myself. To wear the skirt is an honor. When we cover our power of creation in modesty and dignity, we are shining examples of feminine beauty and the power of the deity White Buffalo Calf Woman herself flows through us.

We do not need to be men. Being an Oceti Sakowin (Sioux) woman is enough. In fact, the ancestors taught that we are more powerful than men. After all, Ina Maka (Mother Earth) was the first Indigenous female. Women carry the power of the Great Mystery within our wombs. We care for our men too, because we love them and we want them to be strong, and be the best version of themselves. We are not adversaries; we are partners. We are one as a People and Nation.

Within mainstream society, I think feminism is needed to overcome the screaming domination that is global patriarchy. When I see women like Michelle Obama lead, I see hope for equality for ALL women, not just white feminists. As for myself and other traditional Native women like me, being a woman is all the power we need. Feminism isn’t the answer; returning to traditional lifeways is. Our strength as women is within us, whether western colloquialisms apply or not. It doesn’t change who we are. We aren’t asking for your blessing, nor do we need it. We mean what we say, and our words lead to actions. We are causal agents who create movements. Look to the legacy of strong Native women who’ve not only birthed Nations, but fought for them. We lead in our own way. Our hearts beat strong and fierce. We will speak for ourselves and through those we’ve deemed worthy.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.

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