“And the question for us arises: how relevant are the truths, the experiences, the findings of white women to Black women? Are women after all simply women? I don’t know that our priorities are the same, that our concerns and methods are the same, or even similar enough so that we can afford to depend on this new field of experts (white, female).” — Toni Cade Bambara, 1970
“In Cambridge, Maryland, Gloria Richardson … and other parts of the country, local leaders began to stir up our people at the grass-roots level.”— Malcolm X, Message to the Grassroots, November 10, 1963
White women feminists are faced with a material reality that challenges the very meaning of our feminism.
This material reality is true for white transgender women (like me), white cisgender women, and white gender nonconforming persons, in addition to white men who identify as feminists. All white people who are feminists run into this material reality, because all white people run into it.
The material reality is that, in terms of the material advantages we enjoy from the colonial exploitation of Africans (Black people) and all other oppressed peoples, white people need to step down, rather than climb up.
In philosophical materialist terms (as opposed to philosophical idealist terms) white women who are feminists (like all whites) are confronted with the fact that– whatever our struggles are against patriarchy– our status as colonizers dialectically places us in an unjust position to colonized peoples: Africans, Indigenous peoples, and the majority of humanity. Our oppression– on account of the misogyny, transphobia and homophobia created and perpetuated by the European nation– puts white women at odds with the patriarchal, capitalist power structure; yet our position as white people– who benefit from the political category of “whiteness”– also places us in a dialectical struggle between the colonizer and the colonized for control of the material resources of the world.
White women who are feminists already can recognize that systemic oppression (by definition) is not based on the power that one individual has over another. Individuals don’t have that kind of power.
If I try to oppress you as an individual, you will never never allow that– unless you don’t value yourself. You’ll stop me. But if I have an entire system backing me up, and I’m able to oppress you on account of that system’s power, then you will know that if you try to stop me, the system will crush you. It’s an unfair advantage. We’re not settling our differences in an equal way. It’s not that I’m better than you, or stronger than you– it’s that I have a system backing me up, one that controls the situation. This is a system whose benefits I enjoy at your expense, and if you move against me, this system will destroy you. It’s unjust.
Nobody who knows their true value as a human being, and as an individual, will allow themselves to be exploited and oppressed, so this oppression must be enforced through some form of violence. Transgender white women, cisgender white women, and all oppressed white people probably can recognize this reality: we can handle dealing with one person’s negativity, but going up against an entire system of oppression is too much for us by ourselves, so we get together with people who have similar interests and move against the system.
Even as white women are oppressed within this system, all white people materially benefit from this same system at the expense of Black people (Africans) and most of the people in the world. When I say the system materially benefits us, I mean the system of political, economic and social power that was created by white people for white people: colonial capitalism.
This system controls the material resources that are necessary to support life itself. If a person can’t gain access to these resources, they can’t live, or life becomes a great struggle. Their life expectancy is affected. The infant mortality rate of their children is higher. Or their children go hungry. This affects their grades, in a society where a good education is frequently necessary to access material wealth, because the job market requires a college degree. And if they live in an area with fewer resources, the schools are falling apart. It’s not safe on the way to school, at school, or on the way home from school. It may not be safe at home. The kids don’t have decent clothing. So they get sick. They can’t go to the doctor, so they get sicker. All these things happen on account of a lack of power. The system of power benefits the people for whom the system was created, so the finite resources of nature go to those people– food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare.
And it’s not enough that oppressed people don’t have access to these material necessities. They must be controlled, otherwise they won’t put up with their oppression– why should they? So the police, and the teachers, and the media, and the politicians are there to put them down, and they have the system of power backing them up in this effort. Individually, they aren’t so strong. But the unjust system– that gives them a badge, that makes all the rules, that builds the prisons and the detention centers– is what allows individuals to enforce the power of the system.
What does this have to do with feminists who are white? It means that all white people are part of the colonizing, oppressor nation whose wealth and power come at the expense of the colonized, oppressed nation.
It doesn’t matter if we’re aware of and approve of this dialectical relationship or not. We probably don’t want to be oppressors. But our feminism is materially based on our position as white people on top of a pedestal of colonial oppression, and so– regardless of what’s in our heads– our existence, our very ability to live, comes at the expense of colonized people.
White women– even as we are oppressed within our nation– are part of the oppressor nation. Regardless of our ideas or how we view individuals of any national (or “racial”) identity, white people’s vantage point is based on the material wealth we enjoy through white power’s colonial domination and exploitation of Africans and all other nations invaded by Europe.
The priorities, concerns and methods of white women who are feminists cannot be the same as those of Indigenous women, whose nations have faced genocide, having been almost entirely wiped out by the system of white power that we benefit from. African women who labor in Africa for a dollar a day, so that we can buy a cellphone or a chocolate bar, are materially positioned differently from white bourgeois women in the U.S. and Europe (or anywhere else). African (Black) women in the U.S. face a different material reality in their daily struggle with the very institutions that benefit white women (even if we benefit less than white men): the police departments, the media, the schools, the places where they work, their white bosses and other white people they work with.
Transgender African (Black) women and other trans women of color have a life expectancy of 35 years. They are more likely to be homeless, and when they go to homeless shelters they are more likely to be raped. Almost every statistical measure demonstrates that the material reality for transgender African (Black) women and other trans women of color places them in greater danger than white trans women like me.
This isn’t an accident. It’s not bad luck on their part, or good luck on mine. It’s by design. It’s the system. So, regardless of what I think or feel about my transgender sisters who are African or Black or Latina or Indigenous, the system still works the same way: it endangers them, in order to keep me safer.
The relationship of white people’s feminism to the struggles of African (Black) women and other women within colonized nations is similar to liberalism’s relationship to conservatism, and how these two relate to socialist revolution:
Liberalism is the opposite of conservatism– obviously. But it’s the opposite laterally, on the same plane. This plane is the top of a pedestal that is placed on colonized, oppressed peoples, or the proletariat.
Liberalism and conservatism oppose each other within the bourgeois nation, which is the white nation controlled by European imperialist capitalism. This is the nation that was born through Europe’s attack on Africa and the Americas more than five centuries ago. And class antagonisms exist within the European nation. Ideologically driven class wars are waged– the various interests of white people within the European nation struggle to gain the advantage and to reap the most benefits of white power. This struggle for power includes that of feminists.
Feminism within the white nation is a bourgeois struggle for wealth and power– a struggle against patriarchy. But the entire structure that contains these forces of struggle sits on top of colonized nations who are the working class of the world (the proletariat).
Enslaved Africans built an empire for the material enjoyment of Europeans. This empire was built on land stolen from Indigenous peoples. So the struggles within the European nation have been worked out through white power’s further oppression of Africans and all other colonized peoples. Horizontally, liberals and conservatives fight for the material benefits that come at the expense of vertically oppressed African people and all other so-called people of color.
Feminists who seek to reform the system of white power– colonial capitalism– run into this material reality. If white women (trans and cis) receive more material benefits at the expense of colonized women (and all colonized people), but are struggling to get an equal share with white men, then we are faced with the choice of either gaining an equal share with white men through further colonial domination, or– instead– remaining locked into a hierarchy of exploitation created by white power.
This is the contradiction of white power. White power has stated that all people are equal. Initially, it only meant white men with property. But the people have struggled against it, and forced the system to mean something closer to what the people want. The problem is, the system itself is not designed to benefit everyone in an equal manner. Capitalism is designed to benefit the few in the ruling class at the expense of the many who labor to create profits for these few. A tiered system of oppression cannot be anything else, otherwise it ceases to exist.
Therefore, in order to resolve these contradictions within the white nation, it follows that the economic and social opportunities– which have been created for the perpetually restless, discontented white masses– must come at the expense of those outside the nation. At the same time, the subjective idealism of patriotism and “American exceptionalism” must be promoted by white power so that European colonizers in the United States will believe that life’s value is different for us than for a Palestinian woman, or an enslaved child in Africa, or a young African named Michael Brown gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, or twenty trans women of color (at least) murdered in 2015.
Feminism for white people is a reflection of our bourgeois interests, our wish to resolve the contradictions of capitalism within the system itself (reform), rather than resolving the contradictions of colonizer/colonized, oppressor/oppressed, and Europe/the world.
Feminist theory for white people is an attempt to change the ideas in the minds of people without changing the fundamental structure of society, which is controlled by European imperialist capitalism. It is this system of white power that controls the material resources of society, out of which feminist ideas (and their opposing sexist views) grow; and this entire system rests on the global domination of people outside Europe, originating in the imperialist invasion of Africa more than five hundred years ago.
It is through colonial genocide that the capitalist system continues to hold power: the political power that comes from the barrel of a gun. All white people benefit from this violence while the system of white power is still pointing its gun at the world. But the benefits we enjoy from this violence are most certainly not equal– women are oppressed, trans people are oppressed, disabled people are oppressed. This is the way the system is designed: it places profits over people. But the materials that are necessary for the accumulation of these profits– the land they are extracted from and the labor that produces them– are the stolen land and stolen labor (and therefore the stolen lives) of Africans, Indigenous peoples, and the entire proletariat outside Europe.
Europe by itself does not have enough resources to sustain the lifestyle demanded by white people. So white people took over North America, and Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, and Australia, and much of the world outside Europe, murdering, plundering, committing genocide. Africans were stolen from their homes in Africa, brought to North America in chains, and it was their free labor which allowed the white colonies to become wealthy and powerful– so much so that they could then break away from England, and keep all this stolen loot for themselves.
European immigrants flooded the continent, the land of Indigenous people, while formerly enslaved Africans were locked out of these material benefits, generation after generation. Indigenous women were murdered or driven to reservations. African women were impoverished, raped, sterilized, disrespected. Asian women experienced similar colonial abuses, so that white people– men and women– could work out the contradictions within the European nation.
This isn’t to say that white women have had it easy. Far from it. But, historically, white women have worked out the problems of white women on our terms– especially on the terms of American white women. The struggles for our rights to be recognized, and our movements for liberation, have not been led by Indigenous women and African (or Black) women.
Generally speaking, white women have not demanded full recognition of human rights and complete liberation for Indigenous women, and African women, and all colonized women, so that we will rise up together, just as we are oppressed together.
Because we are not oppressed together. Whatever feelings of sisterly bonds we may have, a system of colonial and capitalist oppression– where whiteness is the ticket to comfort and security– stands between us. White women– while oppressed as women– always have the ticket of whiteness to get us to where we want to go, and we benefit whether we choose to or not. Women within colonized nations do not have this ticket, and they have no choice. This lack of choice represents a lack of power. And this ticket is the difference between the colonizer and the colonized, the exploiter and the exploited, and Europe and Africa (as well as the rest of the world).
The image of Gloria Richardson pushing away the bayonet of a National Guardsman (as described on the website The Root, from which the image is borrowed for this essay) represents the key material difference between white women (who are the colonizers, like all whites) and African or Black women who are the colonized (like all Africans).
White women have faced great difficulties in our struggle within a system of patriarchal, capitalist power. In earlier eras, oppressed working class white women who labored in factories were threatened by state violence, sometimes fighting beside African women against the capitalist oppressor. Girls working in a factory in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1828, faced the violence of the capitalists’ militia when they protested the compulsory twelve hour work day. Women and men organized together to form unions, and women workers of the Collar Laundry Union in Troy, New York successfully fought for higher wages in 1866. Mary “Mother” Jones is a legendary woman and leader in the fight for labor rights.
There’s no question that white women– particularly working class white women– were and are economically oppressed. The question is how the struggles of white women have been resolved in relation to African women, Indigenous women, and all oppressed women of color. And the question also is what this struggle has been for, in its relation to the lives of all colonized Africans, Indigenous peoples, and the world outside Europe.
These struggles by white women– which might be categorized as “feminist struggles”– have not been primarily concerned with lifting up all women, regardless of nationality. White women have still been the main beneficiaries of these struggles. When we’ve lost, we’ve lost as white women– and all that the “white” status implies. We didn’t fall all the way down the ladder. And if we’ve won, we’ve won as white women, and climbed even higher. Our lot has not been thrown in with colonized African women or colonized Indigenous women, who– if anything– have played an auxiliary role, while the majority of their people remain unaffected by the outcome of these class and gender conflicts.
European women have benefited from the participation of African women in our struggles against patriarchal and capitalist oppression, yet this relationship has not been mutually beneficial, because the potential defeat of this struggle did not mean the same thing for us as it has for the colonized women of the world: an almost complete loss of the right to live.
Gloria Richardson was fighting for the basic human right to exist– to live freely with dignity. This fight was against white power, whose very basis is the denial of Black people’s right to live. This fight was against the system of European imperialist capitalism in its settler colony, the United States. Malcolm X recognized this. He saw that Gloria Richardson was one of the masses, the people “at the grass-roots level” who created revolution, rather than the leaders whose role was to “contain” the people. These leaders, who had been approved by the bourgeoisie, hadn’t “incited” or “excited” the people, because their job was to maintain the existing relationship of power. However, Gloria Richardson and other Africans at the “grass-roots level” “took to the streets.” And so they posed a real threat to the system of power. And we see Gloria Richardson pushing the bayonet away from her face, defying white power, glaring back at the hired guns of the white capitalist ruling class.
White women who are feminists are materially positioned in this society in such a way that our struggles against the system do not– as a rule– put us face-to-face with the bayonets of National Guardsmen. This shared danger only happens when white women reject our status as members of the bourgeois nation and throw in our lot with African women, and all African people everywhere, and all colonized nations. Even then, the “truths, the experiences, the findings of white women” (Toni Cade Bambara) are not the same for us as they are for Black women, because our histories within evolving material conditions have not been the same.
The pitfalls of white women’s feminism– in materialist terms– are as follows:
White women run into the reality of the colonizer/colonized relationship of all white people to all Africans and to all other nations invaded by Europe. This dialectical relationship requires that Europe– white people– benefit from the colonial domination of Africa and the world. A people will only be dominated through force. Therefore, the bourgeois theories of white women’s feminism disregard the essential factor in this relationship of oppressor to oppressed: the gun. The empire from which all white people benefit was gained through violence, and only can be maintained through violence, because no people who value freedom will allow themselves to be dominated.
White power’s gun is pointed away from white people, and is pointed at Black people and everyone else outside Europe. This isn’t to argue that white people aren’t sometimes destroyed by this weapon of white power. Capitalism’s only aim is to create more profits, and if this means white people are exploited or killed in the process, capitalism will crush whites as well. However, the system is designed to benefit the white ruling class, and white people rush to get on the other side of the gun, and join the ruling class. Our white skin helps us to escape the violence of the system. Black people do not have this luxury– quite the opposite. And it seems to me that white women’s feminism ignores this fundamental relationship between Europe/Africa, white power/Black Power, colonizer/colonized, and bourgeoisie/proletariat.
White people’s feminism seeks to resolve the contradictions within a capitalist society–which was built on the enslavement and genocide of Africans and Indigenous peoples– while remaining on top of the oppressed, rather than joining the side of the exploited and colonized peoples of the world by completely overturning the culture (and system) of violence.