Blog by Thomas Colquhoun-Alberts
Knowledge Coordinator, Opportunity Now & Race for Opportunity
The social media aggregator Storify reports that “Feminism got crunked today”, referring to the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen that recently trended on twitter. The criticism is simply this: downplaying women’s diversity in the name of solidarity tends to privilege the voices, concerns and experiences of a few (mainly white, liberal) women — to the exclusion of many more women whose experiences are significantly different.
So, for example:
#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen who expect my support for slutwalks but won't respect my decision to dress covered
#solidarityisforwhitewomen when pink hair, tattoos, and piercings are "quirky" or "alt" on a white woman but "ghetto" on a black one.
#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen calls Hillary the first viable women's candidate even though Shirley was the first and only nominee” (That’s Shirley Chisholm, who lost the US Democratic Party nomination to George McGovern in 1972, surviving three assassination attempts along the way).
The immediacy and transiency of Twitter is perhaps ideally suited for railing against feminism’s exclusions, but in truth #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen is the latest flaring of a longstanding criticism. And rightfully so.
The many ways different women are marginalised and excluded is still often thought of in terms of multiples of oppression: black women are twice as oppressed as white women; black working class women experience triple oppression. But the implied equivalence of oppression at different multiples is hardly helpful or useful because it ignores women’s diverse contexts and different experiences.
Intersectionality is sometimes used to convey the diversity of women’s experiences of oppression, empowerment and privilege. It is a relational and contextual perspective. It recognises that a woman may experience being marginalised and silenced during the board meeting, but at the local business school where she is a frequent guest speaker her views are privileged because she is a woman executive with boardroom-level experience. As a woman who managed to ‘succeed’ in the corporate world, she might welcome being celebrated as a role model and example of hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity. But she may fail to appreciate why her achievements are not similarly valued by some among the school’s female teaching staff who did not share, for example, her privileged access to scholarships and other gifted income that enables unpaid internships and subsequent work opportunities.
Hence #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. Solidarity that ignores differences also privileges a certain set of experiences, namely those of white women. Feminism cannot be unified as a movement for change if it does not recognise and value the diversity of women’s experiences of disempowerment and discrimination and the importance of context in understanding how oppression works. Whether you are lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, consider yourself disabled or are regarded so by others, are from an ethnic minority background – all of this makes a difference. Ignoring that fact makes for an exclusionary and narrow solidarity.
The challenge is to understand the varied ways differences are used to work out who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down – and then use this understanding in practical ways to ensure everyone is included and enabled to realise their aspirations and potential. Opportunity Now and Race for Opportunity encourages the employers we work with to address the unconscious biases that can exist within all of us and the impact these have on how we work with our colleagues, who we recruit, who we develop, etc. Both ON and RfO also advocate Inclusive Leadership as a way of ensuring leaders get the best out of ALL their employees. Inclusive leaders recognise the differences within their team and leverage these differences to the benefit of the team and the wider organisation, through for example, encouraging greater innovation.