Feminism has often been built on racism.
That’s one of the painful but undeniable conclusions of Vron Ware’s Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History. Originally published in 1992, the book has just been rereleased by Verso and, as Mikki Kendall writes in a new introduction, the volume is as timely as ever.
In the late 1800s, Ware says, white feminist leader Frances Willard argued that lynching was caused by black men attacking white women in the South. In our own day, Kendall argues, feminism is “about having it all, but in a way that had white women in boardrooms with women of colour as their secretaries.” White women’s struggle, Ware shows, often depended on demonizing men of color and/or ignoring or erasing women of color.
At the same time, though, the feminist and civil rights movements have historically worked together and built on each other—most obviously in abolitionism, but also during the Civil Rights era, and arguably in #BlackLivesMatter as well, where black women have been central to organizing and activism.
When I interviewed her, Ware said that the impetus for her book came from her participation in the “hugely successful anti-racist anti-fascist movement” in Britain against the fascist National Front in the late 1970s. That movement united feminist and anti-racist activists—for a time. But after the NF was roundly defeated in 1979 elections, white feminist support for anti-racist work leeched away.
“The fact that there was a Nationality Bill being planned to restrict immigration from non-white Commonwealth countries, and that South Asian women were being subjected to so-called virginity testing at Heathrow airport, were not seen as campaigning issues for many white feminists,” Ware told me.
That’s broadly the story Ware tells of feminism and race. Coalitions form and then dissolve; there’s a step forward, and a step—or more than a step—back.
Beyond the Pale isn’t a celebration of white feminism or a condemnation of it. Rather, it’s a hope that knowing the past can help feminist movements build on their best history and be wary of their worst. I talked to Ware about the new edition of Beyond the Pale and the intersection of gender and race, past and present.
Feminism and black civil rights struggles are sometimes thought of as being united, and then they’re sometimes thought of as being opposed. How do you see black civil rights movements and feminism complementing or not complementing each other?
As odd as it seems now, in the U.K. we weren’t really aware that the first organized movement for women’s rights was a direct outcome of the anti-slavery movement in the U.S. Yet this bedrock of alliances between women’s rights campaigners and abolitionists was fundamental to the emergence of feminism. So the idea of tracing the connections between these different freedom struggles across the 19th and 20th centuries really inspired me to write a more historical book – although it was very much addressed to the contemporary moment.
But of course it’s not just about finding those episodes where feminist and black freedom movements come together. Thinking historically about the political connections between different groups of people working alongside each other in solidarity also means trying to figure out why those alignments implode and break apart, why they don’t last. In the case of the fallout between male abolitionists and white women’s rights activists, the rifts were spectacular and the damage lasted for decades.
You talk in your book a great deal about 19th century imperialism and how white feminism was involved in that in various ways. Is white feminism still involved in imperialism today?
I would say that there are important changes but also continuities that are very worrying. In my book I argued that the British movement for women’s rights that emerged in the second half of the 19th century was closely aligned with the imperialist project of bringing “civilization” to colonized territories.
Many women who argued for suffrage, or the right to girls’ education, also believed they could ‘help’ women in ‘heathen’ cultures where they were downtrodden by their menfolk. This theme has been explored by many other feminist historians since then, and it was gratifying to see how many young people were immediately outraged by the Bush administration’s attempt to represent the bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 as an attempt to liberate women from the Taliban.
How has feminism been used to bolster or oppose imperialism in places like Afghanistan and Iraq?
I was teaching in the U.S. at the time and remember holding a video-conferencing session with women’s studies students in New Haven, Connecticut and London. Both groups were scathing about the PR surrounding the so-called rescue of Jessica Lynch, let alone the attempts made by Laura Bush to portray herself as a leading proponent of women’s rights.
But there are other dimensions of U.S. foreign policy that have not garnered anything like the same awareness of how feminism can be complicit with imperialism. This is particularly true on the domestic front as much as in the war zones occupied by U.S. forces.
To take just one example - the routine, endemic stigmatization of fellow Muslim citizens as potential supporters of terrorism, or the branding of ‘Muslim culture’ as monolithic, inherently patriarchal and oppressive of women, continues unabated. Attitudes towards Islam are derived from deep histories of European colonialism and historical conflict. Look at how Bush used the world ‘crusade’ in 2001, for example.
He said, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.”
Within and across this history, deep-rooted ideas about racial hierarchy, white supremacy and Christian hegemony survive and evolve into the present, bolstered by the notion that ‘we’ in the west are ‘civilised’ because we are more liberal on questions of gender equality and sexuality.
These assumptions continue to infuse political discourse at the highest level, encouraging the U.S. population to be complicit in all kinds of war crimes, such as drone executions, torture and so on. Where is the outrage at the attacks on Yemeni citizens, or the U.S.’s growing military footprint in sub-Saharan Africa? Current feminist concerns in the U.K. don’t often extend to a critique of our government’s foreign policy.
How has white feminism been complicit in narratives about black criminality in the past?
Well, of course, once you start looking, you can see that the figure of the helpless white woman facing the threat of violence from black masculinity has been constantly used to argue for more draconian policing. You can see examples from all over the British Empire, from the Klan and the history of lynching in the U.S. and so on.
The National Front used slogans like ‘If they’re black, send them back,’ ‘White women are muggers’ main targets’ and ‘Race-mixing is treason.’ It was seeing the phrase ‘White Women’ plastered all over their propaganda that really got me thinking in the first place.
The phrase was particularly significant because the London police force were pushing the line, which they got from their New York City counterparts, interestingly, that young black men were disproportionately involved in a new form of street crime called ‘mugging.’ By persuading the public that the streets were particularly dangerous for vulnerable people – old as well as female and white – they hoped to get increased powers, which, of course, they did.
My first attempt to write about this argued that any feminist campaign for safer streets had to distance itself from the racist idea that black men were inherently dangerous. I have to say, it didn’t go down very well, and I was accused of being divisive. No feminist publication would take it.
I think it was because I was thought to be accusing white women of being racist without confessing how racist I was myself, because I too was white.
You talk a bit about your own experiences in feminist organizing in the 70s and 80s and how divisive and frustrating it was to try to include anti-racism in feminism at that time. I wonder if you think there’s a parallel there with the arguments around the toxicity of social media feminism.
The very phrase ‘social media feminism’ sounds very nice and modern, but as you say there are toxic sides to it that make it quite the opposite. I mentioned the hostility to my article in 1981-1982 because the issues would be familiar to anyone trying to communicate online now.
I don’t suppose that the kind of arguments that feminists are having now have really changed. People still fight over who is entitled to say what and how they say it. There’s an endless amount of bad faith and pathological silencing, and when it’s carried out online it can be so much more exposing, humiliating and negative. The Internet can be a terrible place to have a public argument or to try to change the way people think. Very rarely edifying.
But on the positive side, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that feminism is seeing a resurgence right now. We wouldn’t be having this conversation ten years ago. There is a kind of virtual democracy made possible by the Internet which allows us to do away with some of the hierarchies we might experience elsewhere.
Someone asked me the other day whether we were just doomed to repeat the same arguments about race and gender over and over again. They obviously found this a really depressing prospect. But it’s more surprising in a way to think that any set of political arguments can be done and dusted so that future generations don’t have to think about it. Social media feminism is all very fine, but it’s in the doing and talking in real time that our political selves really come alive.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.