Commentary Race

A True Ally Rejects Racial Hierarchy, and Other Tips From Feminists of Color

Regina Mahone

Feminism needs to center the experiences of all women of color in the movement. As a starting point, here are some suggestions from several smart women.

Last month at a NOW-NYC event—which has since been criticized for its attempt at reframing Mikki Kendall’s #SolidarityIsforWhiteWomen hashtag and subsequent discussion—I sat in a room with dozens of feminist women of color to discuss how women with more privilege, including mainstream white feminists, can become better allies to women with less privilege. (A video recording of the first hour of the event can be found here.)

As Kendall explains in a Guardian article on the creation of the hashtag:

When I launched the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, I thought it would largely be a discussion between people impacted by the latest bout of problematic behavior from mainstream white feminists. It was intended to be Twitter shorthand for how often feminists of color are told that the racism they experience “isn’t a feminist issue”. The first few tweets reflect the deeply personal impact of such a long-running structural issue.

As the hashtag spread across Twitter, people from all walks of life started joining in – to vent their own personal frustrations, as well as to address larger political issues. Feminism as a global movement meant to unite all women has global responsibilities, and – as illustrated by hundreds of tweets – has failed at one of the most basic: it has not been welcoming to all women, or even their communities.

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Interestingly enough, the event’s organizers at NOW-NYC were criticized for doing exactly what the hashtag had sought to address: “dismissing women of color … in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white [in this case, privileged but not white] women.” And it wasn’t the first time something like this has happened since the hashtag caught on in August.

At the event, a number of suggestions were made to increase truly allyship among feminists of all backgrounds. I considered not sharing what I heard, in light of the public criticism. But then I remembered something panelist Tiloma Jayasinghe, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, said at the event. She was discussing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and how the act is flawed because it forces people of color to engage in systems in which there is “embedded racism.” She said, “I have women [VAWA should protect] that will not call 9-1-1; they will not seek help because they don’t want their partner to get deported, or they don’t want him to be judged because he happens to be a Muslim man. … These are systems that do not work for us.”

We are all surrounded by systems that just do not work. For those of us in this movement for the long haul, it would be careless not to take the time to acknowledge and do what we can to help change the inherently flawed systems affecting each of our feminist sisters (and brothers).

Women and girls of color arrive at feminism in their own way and approach it a bit differently than white women, as they try to figure out where they belong in this movement. As another panelist, Nicole Moore of The Hotness, put it, “My experience as a woman of color, as a Black woman in the feminist movement, has been completely shaped by my race. I cannot be empowered as a woman unless I’m empowered as a Black woman.”

And panelist Patricia Valoy, feminist blogger at Womanisms and Everyday Feminism, said she explains to her family in Spanish that she’s a “women’s rights advocate,” because feminista “doesn’t really have the connotation that feminism in English has.”

For Jayasinghe, “feminist” doesn’t resonate for her and her South Asian peers in the social justice field as much as “gender justice” does, because the latter represents the movement as a piece of a much larger social justice narrative.

It is these variations on feminism, and their accompanying movements, that are often dropped not just from the mainstream feminist movement, but from laws like VAWA that mainstream women’s groups fought for. As Women’s eNews noted in its coverage of the event, “While mainstream women’s groups dedicated time and effort to ensure VAWA’s renewal this year, immigrant women were rarely at the meetings to speak for themselves. Jayasinghe said the big lesson from this recent funding negotiation was that immigrant women’s advocates had to join at an earlier point in the process.”

And, of course, not just these variations on feminism. The panelists and participants in the crowd, myself included, represent a very small (mostly privileged) set of people in a much bigger, much more diverse narrative.

In an article for NPR, Kendall wrote:

As a movement feminism is theoretically geared toward the equality of all women, regardless of race. But the way that equality is defined by the women in the forefront can be incredibly problematic, particularly if those leaders lack a connection to ethnically and racially diverse communities. For women of color — particularly those who are from lower-income brackets — even if there are leaders in the movement who look like them, the absence of someone who lives like them can make feminism seem like it exists to serve a select few. The question then becomes one of reach and of responsibility. Who can reach those who feel like outsiders? Who can connect those “outsiders” with insiders so that a broader range of concerns can be addressed? Are you only responsible to your own community or do you have a responsibility to others?

As panelist Lori Adelman, executive director of Feministing, explained at the event, the global feminist movement needs to “center the experiences of women of color in the movement” because “it has tangible effects.” And not just social benefits, but also economic and financial ones. For example, one of the issues Mikki Kendall addressed in the hashtag’s wake that resonated with many women of color was that of valuing our true worth. At the NOW-NYC event, Jayasinghe echoed Kendall’s remarks about how underprivileged women of color need to stop feeling like we don’t need to be paid for our time or that it’s a privilege when we’re presented with an opportunity and that experience is “good enough.”

Feminism needs to center the experiences of all women of color in the movement—no easy feat. But as a starting point, here are some suggestions shared by the smart women on the panel:

Lean On, Not In. People who are less privileged cannot afford the luxury of “leaning in,” said Moore. “We need to lean on each other.” Since the institution is not working for all of us, it is in our best interest to work together. We can do that by not only inviting women of color to the table, but also putting their issues on the agenda.

Know Your Boundaries. As Olivia Canlas, NYC chapter coordinator of the Association of Filipinas, Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Re-feudalization, and Marginalization (AF3IRM),  explained, women of color want to be in control of the issues that are important to them—the issues that have been silenced—so they can shape the conversation, rather than having to be reactive.

Understand That Their Issues Are Just as Important as Your Issues. Not only acknowledging difference but also embracing it better positions feminists of all backgrounds to build alliances and affect change. In fact, it’s feminism’s loss when the needs of all women aren’t brought to the table.

When You’re Wrong, Admit It. Instead of being defensive when you’ve dismissed the needs of a particular group of women, simply say, “You’re right. My bad.” Pointing fingers and deliberately misplacing blame only escalates the problem and distracts many of us from the work we should be doing to smash the patriarchy.

Don’t Assume Privilege. It’s important to remember we’re all complex human beings with more than one identity and our own stories to share. Approach everyone involved in this work with openness and compassion.

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