By Islay Nicklin
[Photo copyright: Tyler Feder]
In June, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Scottish high school pupils began speaking out about their experiences with racism in schools. At that time, I was finishing my probationary teaching year in an Edinburgh school, and rather than applying for permanent teaching posts, I was planning to develop a gender focused social justice organisation. I know this is baffling to many. Why, at what for most people is the very beginning of a teaching career, would I change course? The truth is this was always the plan. I wasn’t sure of the details, but I knew I wanted to work for positive social change in education. So, on the first Monday of the summer holidays after completing my first year teaching, I set about developing my venture, EAGER.
I am a white, cis-gendered woman, a dual UK/American citizen, and a lifelong activist. I share this personal account in the hopes that others may find it helpful in their thinking and development. In the past I have been involved in activism for LGBTQI+, Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, and climate change/ environmental sustainability, but it was gender that I planned to initially focus on when first developing EAGER. Specifically, I was interested in gender normative messages and the way these impacted children’s development. What messages were being directed at young girls and leading them to develop more passivity than boys? What messages were being directed at young boys and leading them to develop less emotional literacy than girls? And what impact were these gendered messages having on those who did not feel they fit into gender normative roles? What could teachers do to combat these negative impacts?
These were the questions I sought to answer in the early days of summer, but as young people from my community spoke out about how they’d been negatively impacted by structural racism, I quickly realised I could not call EAGER a social justice organisation without focusing on race as well as gender. In fact, I couldn’t call myself a social justice activist without working for justice for all – the racially marginalised, the LGBTQI+ community, those with disabilities, and those living in poverty, as well as women, trans and non-binary individuals.
If I only focused on gender equality, I would be guilty of an exclusionary form of social justice that seeks justice for a specific group, but not for all. I would argue that this is not social justice at all, because how can we have justice if it’s only just for some? This is how EAGER became The Eager Network, an intersectional social justice venture, rather than a feminism specific one.
What is White Feminism?
Let’s clarify, first of all, that white feminism does not refer to all feminism practiced by white people. White feminism is a particular position of feminism that excludes women of colour, as well as LGBTQI+ and trans women (DiAngelo 2011, Ortega 2006, Yuval-Davis 2006). This exclusion is not as overt as it once was. White feminism has historically fought to get white, straight, cis-gendered, non-disabled women the same rights as their male counterparts. While white feminism today may not overtly harbour racist/homophobic/ableist perspectives as early feminists (such as the suffragettes) did, it is still commonplace for predominantly white feminist spaces to subtly (or not-so-subtly, but at least inadvertently) exclude, marginalise and oppress women of colour. Modern white feminism centres the experiences of white women as victims of oppression and minimises or ignores the intersectional experiences of oppression faced by women of colour, as well as the role of white women in perpetuating, or directly contributing to, these experiences. In a letter to her book club Emma Watson (2017) shared her experience of initially feeling confused, defensive and panicky when she first heard the term white feminism. She then described the evolution of her understanding to realise she’d been focusing on the wrong questions and needed to instead consider the way her race and class, as well as her gender impacted her experiences.
White feminism essentially upholds white supremacy and other systemic oppressions. It stands to reason then, that white feminism is not really feminism at all. Because feminism is about liberation from oppression. It’s not about white women ruling the world; it’s about dismantling unfair power hierarchies that disproportionately benefit white, cis-gendered, non-disabled men.
Any fight for social justice, must address marginalisation and oppression as a whole, complex topic, not just as it impacts one particular group.
Intersectionality and Identity Politics
The opposite of white feminism is intersectional feminism, which recognises the role of multiple factors (race, disability, etc.) in experiences of gender oppression. The term intersectionality was coined by Crenshaw (1989) to describe the complex way in which different identities intersect and influence a person’s experiences. It was first used to discuss feminism in relation to black women, who would experience both racism and sexism because of their intersecting race and gender identities. Other intersecting identities that need to be considered include the presence or absence of a disability, class and economic background, language, sexual orientation, religion, whether gender identity matches gender assigned at birth, age, pregnancy or ability to become pregnant, education or credentials, skin tone, and physical appearance or size (Morgan, 1996). All of these factors, and essentially, the intersection of these factors, influence the complex ways in which a person experiences power and privilege, and/or marginalization and oppression. It is important to note that a person can experience privilege in one area, while also experiencing oppression in another.
There has been controversy over intersectionality in mainstream media, with conservative publications generally calling intersectionality an offshoot of identity politics that forces people to define themselves based on their characteristics rather than their characters (O’Neil, 2015), which is inherently racist and serves to marginalize white people (Shriver, 2018). These conservative arguments seem in part to be based on the colour-blind approach to race issues that so many have been raised to believe in, the idea that in order to avoid racism, we must not see race. This idea usually seems to be rooted in the foundational principle of judging people ‘not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their characters,’ as spoken by the great MLK in the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It is a well-meaning ideology and makes sense in theory, but the issue is that we do not live in a society in which racism and prejudice do not exist. Therefore, a person’s skin colour will impact their experiences, and pretending not to see it is like trying to solve a problem by closing your eyes and doing nothing. I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of human civilization that we have solved a complex societal problem by pretending it didn’t exist.
Criticisms of intersectionality have not been limited to conservative writers. Similar concerns about divisiveness and overemphasis on identity characteristics have been raised in left-leaning publications as well (Lilla, 2017), but intersectionality was never intended to eliminate objectivity and stake everything on specific characteristics; rather, it offers a way to mediate the tensions and spaces between multiple identities and group politics (Crenshaw, 1991).
I doubt very much, for example, that many Scottish teachers would argue that class/poverty does not affect young people’s experiences. Why then, is it difficult to recognise that interactions of race and gender or race and class will significantly influence experiences of oppression or privilege?
It’s Only Social justice if it’s Social Justice for All
In her book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge (2018) talks about how feminism was what brought her to anti-racism, by helping her to think critically about social issues and oppression. However, she also found herself experiencing racial marginalization, often being the only black woman in predominantly white feminist spaces. In one example, a group of women discussed beauty standards and what a selection of cover models had in common. When Eddo-Lodge pointed out that they were all white, this was quickly dismissed by the group. She was told that this was not a place for discussing racism.
This experience reminded me of experiences I’d seen in Scottish schools, when discussion of certain social justice issues was shut down in ‘equalities’ spaces, because it wasn’t a space for that particular issue. How is it that groups dedicated entirely to working towards social justice can fall into the trap of picking which injustices are worthwhile? If we only fight for women in the dominant groups, we are not fighting for all women. There is no social justice, unless it’s justice for all.
Crenshaw, K. 1989. ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.’ University of Chicago Legal Forum. 1 (8). Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/
Crenshaw, K. 1991. ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.’ Stanford Law Review. 43 (6): 1241-99
DiAngelo, R. 2011. ‘White fragility.’ The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70.
Eddo-Lodge, R. 2018. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Lilla, M. 2017. ‘How the modern addiction to identity politics has fractured the left.’ New Statesman. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/09/how-modern-addiction-identity-politics-has-fractured-left [Accessed 27 October 2020].
Moon, D. G. & Holling, M. A. 2020. ‘White supremacy in heels: (white) feminism, white supremacy, and discursive violence.’ Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 17:2, 253-260, DOI: 10.1080/14791420.2020.1770819
Morgan, K. P. 1996. ‘Describing the Emperor’s New Clothes: Three Myths of Educational (In) Equality.’ In Diller, A. et al. The Gender Question in Education: Theory, Pedagogy, & Politics. Boulder CO: Westview.
O’Neil, B. 2015. ‘An A-to-Z Guide to the New PC’s.’ Spectator. Available at: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/an-a-to-z-guide-to-the-new-pc [Accessed 27 October 2020].
Ortega, M. 2006. ‘Being lovingly, knowingly ignorant: White feminism and women of color.’ Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 21(3), 56–74.
Shriver L. 2018. ‘Identity politics are by definition racist.’ Spectator. Available at: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/identity-politics-are-by-definition-racist [Accessed 27 October 2020].
Watson, E. 2017. ‘First Book of 2018! Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge’ Our Shared Shelf announcements, Goodreads. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/19152741-first-book-of-2018-why-i-m-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race [Accessed 27 October 2020].
Yuval-Davis, N. 2006. ‘Intersectionality and Feminist Politics.’ European Journal of Women’s Studies. 13 (3): 193-209.
Islay Nicklin is the founder of The Eager Network, an online, intersectional social justice education startup. She is a fully qualified teacher and has taught in both primary and secondary schools in Scotland. She holds an MSc in Transformative Learning and Teaching from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Environmental Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Islay has a broad range of experience prior to teaching, including extensive volunteering and activist work, and working within the health and wellness industry, in which she holds a range of vocational qualifications. With a strong identity as a generalist, Islay works to combine her multiple specialisations to contribute to positive change in the world.
Instagram: @Eager_Network / @islaywellness