I recently attended an event where I had the privilege of hearing Pastor Chaka Holley speak on the topic of raising up the voices of women in the margins. In her speech, she called on white women to actively seek out groups who represent women of color, women who belong to the LGBTQ community, women who are disabled, and any other woman who is marginalized by society. She asked white women to seek out these groups and do two things: 1. raise up their voices and 2. join them in their battles. Her reasoning was sound. If you seek to lift up the most marginalized, under-represented people of a group, you raise up the entire group.
And her two requests really aren’t difficult for anyone to accomplish. To raise up another’s voice requires giving someone space to be heard. It could mean actively seeking leaders from marginalized groups to speak or write in a larger forum of which you have access to. It could mean shutting up and listening as members of marginalized groups speak on an issue.
In order to join marginalized groups in their struggles, you first have to acknowledge that their experiences are different from ours (white people), even as women. Black women have additional challenges than white women. So it stands to reason that their additional challenges translate into additional or different struggles. For example, white women make $0.77 for every dollar a white man makes while black women make $0.69. Because of this gap, one does wonder: If white women were to close the wage gap, would black women make $0.92? This one issue (the wage gap) is more complex than men make more money than women, so it requires a more complex or multifaceted approach to solve the problem. That’s why joining marginalized groups in their specific struggles is so important.
Joining a marginalized group cannot include dialog that begins with, “Hey come join our group,” because that kind of language or intent assumes that our struggles are their struggles. And as I said, while we might share common struggles, the experiences and struggles of white women, black women, disabled women, and a lesbians are uniquely different. White feminists who engage in this kind of dialog have been accused of being imperialistic, and while I do believe the intent of white feminists to be sincere, that intent can be short sighted and ultimately imperialistic. A similar criticism, I might add, has been made of the atheist activism movement.
Before I go on, let me explain what I mean imperialistic white feminism. First, imperial feminists assume (like I’ve already said) that all women share in the same struggles and experiences. But more importantly, it assumes that white, straight, and non-disabled women know what’s best for everyone else and, therefore, are best able to identify which battles we all should fight in the name of gender equality. Well intentioned imperial feminists have formed a habit of telling other groups what it is they should be upset about and what battles they should fight. A great example of this is women in Islam. More specifically, imperial feminists have attacked the head covering, known in the Western world as the hijab. To imperial feminists, it’s a symbol of female oppression and suppression of sex. As an atheist, I have struggled to see the hijab as anything else, but if you ask a Muslim woman how she feels about the hijab, she may give a very different answer. She might say it shows her devotion to God. Or she might say it symbolizes a rejection of a Western standard of beauty, beauty that doesn’t require tight fitting clothes, make up, and a great hair do. Sadly, the dialog from white feminists on the subject of Islam rarely includes Muslim women. This exclusion of the actual stakeholders in the dialog and the subsequent prescription for action is imperial feminism.
So, to go back to Pastor Holley’s message, white feminists need to set aside this idea of getting others to join their cause. Instead, white feminists should be looking to join other groups in their struggles. It’s quite simple, really. Step 1, find a group you’re interested in. Step 2, ask, “How can I help?” Step 3, create social change together! Whatever cause you choose to join is not mutually exclusive from that of white feminists; it’s complimentary to the struggles of white feminists. You don’t have to give up your women’s group. You can add in the new group, and redistribute your time. Another alternative, if you’re already a member of a group, is to actively seek out partnerships. Again this partnership isn’t about getting the other group to help. It’s about working together on raising up a marginalized group.
I truly believe that if we raise up the most marginalized, under-represented, and poorly treated groups in our society that we will all rise up with them. I know that many white feminists feel marginalized and aren’t sure how they can help. But remember white folks, you are privileged. Adding your voice and your presence to a cause brings with it your privilege and your privileged voice.