The Parthenon

Why I am rejecting the term “white feminism”

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Mainstream feminism sometimes fails to recognize that some cultural practices don’t need to be unlearned for women to embrace feminism.

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An idea persists among many modern feminists that mainstream feminism is “white feminism.” That is, it isn’t meant to help anyone other than white middle and upper class women. I firmly reject the term “white feminism.”

I reject the term not because I think feminism as it stands is successful in helping women of all races, ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic conditions, but because there are other groups of women — white women — whose cultural ideals don’t always mesh with mainstream feminist ideals.

It is the same argument people make for feminism being “white feminism.” They see feminism as something not meant for them because it doesn’t align with their cultural values.

In her book “If I Had a Hammer: Retraining the Really Works,” Margaret Little talks about her experience teaching Aboriginal women (primarily impoverished, single-mothers) carpentry through a program called the Women’s Work Training Program.

One of the key points of her novel is the cultural barrier that impeded the women’s success in the program because of its structural “whiteness” even though it was developed specifically for them.

One example Little gives is that the women wouldn’t ask questions during the training if they didn’t understand something, when she asked them why they told her in their culture it would be seen as disrespectful and “challenging one’s elders” to ask questions when they are being given instructions. “I just can’t unlearn it, and I don’t want to,” Little quoted one of the women as saying.

The women were experiencing a disconnect between their culture and what the program was trying to teach them, and they didn’t feel comfortable giving up that aspect of their culture. Mainstream feminism sometimes fails to recognize that some cultural practices don’t need to be unlearned for women to embrace feminism.

As a white, Appalachian feminist I often find that my cultural upbringing and ideals don’t go along with the feminism that I see most often displayed in the mainstream. I do, however, still identify as a feminist while acknowledging that I might not always agree with other feminists or make choices with which they would agree.

In my mind, the feminist icons are the strong mountain women who stayed home, raised a family, worked the land, tended to the animals, chopped their own firewood, took a casserole to their elderly neighbor and still had dinner on the table for their own family every evening.”

— Jocelyn Gibson

I imagine the disconnect I feel between my goals and those of mainstream feminists is similar to what women of color feel in the same predicament. Mainstream feminism seems to care about high-profile working women who are held back from promotions and can’t break through the glass ceiling, and so do I, but that isn’t a women’s issue I am faced with on a daily basis. I care about whether women in West Virginia are able to afford bottled water for themselves and their children when we are in the middle of yet another water crisis. I am concerned that impoverished single-mothers have to make impossible choices between clean water they can’t afford and water that could make their children sick when they don’t really have a choice at all.

My life in the mountains has taught me that women don’t have to work high-profile careers to be successful. In my mind, the feminist icons are the strong mountain women who stayed home, raised a family, worked the land, tended to the animals, chopped their own firewood, took a casserole to their elderly neighbor and still had dinner on the table for their own family every evening.

Mainstream feminism considers traditional Appalachian women oppressed along with Muslim women, Christian women and women belonging to tribes in Africa. What they don’t see is the feminist potential of these women, just because they are part of a culture that appears patriarchal doesn’t mean they don’t have their own unique brand of feminism.

I’m with the idea that mainstream feminism doesn’t include or care about everyone, but I am not with the idea that it is “white feminism” because it marginalizes white women too. We can all agree that feminists come with a variety of principles that are indicative of their background and culture and no one brand of feminism is the right brand.

Jocelyn Gibson can be contacted at [email protected]

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