On 8 March, women across the world are going on strike. We will be striking from paid and unpaid labour, which includes office work, lecturing, cleaning and care work. Additionally, the Women’s Strike will be delivered to homes across the world by demanding that domestic duties, looking after children, performing household tasks and other chores are also recognised as economic labour.
Women of colour are not just exploited by capitalism in demanding and low-paid work, but also through the requirement to perform heavy emotional labour. We police our language and behaviour, we take on roles of healing when supporting each other, and we carry the burden of educating in order to “teach” or “explain” what microaggressions are. Therefore, I am striking against exploitative labour, against an economic system that qualifies robotic drudgery as “real work”, against detention centres, immigration raids and the prison system, as well as against the emotional labour and domestic labour built upon the presupposition that my gender defines me as a source of empathy and support in a relationship with male-identifying partners.
“How do you build a movement which decentres whiteness?”
It is not enough to be feminist. Talk of “equality” and “reform” fails to challenge the problems of sexism, racism and hierarchy of our society. So how do you build an anti-racist women’s movement? How do you build a movement which decentres whiteness and gives a platform to the experiences of those who are marginalised?
We are all conditioned into gender roles, and thus expected to perform conventional feminine or masculine behaviours. However these traits that we are told are “feminine” are socially understood as inferior. Because of this, femme-identifying people face a logic of discrimination and oppression that acts in understanding the body as something to be consumed and disposed of. Even women in positions of power are sexualised, or their appearance is seen as noteworthy. When a young woman is murdered, we know that the Daily Mail or the Evening Standard will publish the most attractive photo of her they can find, as though this is the only context that matters. Women are either sexual commodities, or baby-birthing machines; any other pursuit is secondary to these characteristics. These are the concepts that mainstream feminism has been struggling against.
We must push our critique of race and gender inequality further. We live in a white supremacist world, one that sees male whiteness as the central ideal, one that erases or exotifies the experiences of “others” exiled and excluded from its worldview. Mainstream feminist movements in the past and present propagate a feminism that universalises women’s struggles. This marginalises the women of colour who also fight against racism. For women of colour, the over-simplifying binary of women-victims and men-oppressors is insufficient.
“We need to stop platforming white, privileged celebrities as the mouthpieces of our movements”
Whiteness acts as another form of domination, affecting the everyday experiences of women of colour. Femininity is defined by Eurocentric ideals, which is why white women are seen as the default. As a result of this, in non-white communities and countries, skin bleaching and colourism are normalised, and an aspiration towards more European features is expected and celebrated. Whiteness is seen as the standard; anything else is seen as lesser. This goes beyond beauty standards too: there is also a behavioural element. Black women are seen as loud, “ratchet” and bossy, and East Asian women are perceived and stereotyped as submissive and eager to please. Meanwhile, white women are granted multi-faceted characteristics and remain the most desirable “possession” for both the male gaze and often the feminist ranks.
We need to confront feminist movements which supposedly fight for women’s rights, but at the same time perpetuate racism. We need to stop platforming white, privileged celebrities as the mouthpieces of our movements – anyone who benefits from this society probably isn’t all too invested in overthrowing it. Liberation for women will not come with equal pay, or more CEOs or a female James Bond. Liberation for women requires decolonising our understanding of gender and oppression. Decolonising as in seeing how even our concepts of gender are rooted in racist concepts, and how even oppressed groups can also be oppressors.
“Women of colour” is a mouthful to say; it encompasses the many varying experiences of women across the world who share the broad struggle against white supremacy due to their melanin or culture. Yet this struggle does not look the same, nor is it experienced similarly even between women of the same ethnicity or culture. Women of colour are not a homogenous group, and like women from low-income backgrounds, face different battles. White supremacy has put white women at the vanguard of mainstream feminism which erases the efforts and organising women of colour have spearheaded. Women of colour only come into the conversation if they need to be saved from their impoverished and backward cultures.
“We do not need heroes, what we need is recognition for the women who are truly doing work on-the-ground”
Our feminism should not aim for inclusivity with token women of different ethnicities and cultures sprinkled in our organisations so we appear progressive. We do not exist as trophies for your liberalism.
We need to learn from the movements, the organisations and the works of feminists of colour, both of the past and present. We have a responsibility to empathise, and to make ourselves uncomfortable. Decentring whiteness within our feminism means working with women of colour without expectations or obligations. We need to platform women of colour doing work, creating radical communities and challenging the state and patriarchy. Right now feminism is trendy and is widely co-opted, with mainstream feminists hailing Emma Watson and Lena Dunham as their heroes. We do not need heroes, what we need is recognition for the women who are truly doing work on-the-ground.
Our feminism needs to collaborate and show revolutionary solidarity as accomplices not allies to the struggles of women of colour. “White ally” is a tepid term that implies the exchange of favours, centring white women’s struggles and leaving anything “other” in the by-lines. Let us be accomplices. Show support not because you want to recruit some brown people to your cause, but rather because you cannot believe in real change for women without the destruction of racism.
To build an anti-racist women’s struggle we need to centre the struggles of women of colour.