Illustration by Michelle Mildenberg
Confronting the Blind Spots of the Feminist Movement
“Mainstream white feminists ignore their own harmful behavior in favor of focusing on an external enemy,” writes Mikki Kendall in her second book, Hood Feminism, which was published this February. Kendall, who is a self-described “occasional feminist,” is also the author of the graphic history Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists. Her work addresses intersectionality, policing, gender, and sexual assault.
In this excerpt from Hood Feminism, Kendall takes on the blind spots of the feminist movement, savior myths, and the biases that get in the way of progress.
Kendall writes that the truest way to build solidarity is to be willing to listen, to negotiate, to compromise, and simply to recognize when it is not your turn to be the focus of the conversation.
Solidarity Is Still for White Women
It’s not at all helpful for some white feminists to make demands of women of color out of a one-sided idea of sisterhood and call that solidarity. Sisterhood is a mutual relationship between equals. And as anyone with sisters can tell you, it’s not uncommon for sisters to fight or to hurt each other’s feelings. Family (whether biological or not) is supposed to support you. But that doesn’t mean no one can ever tell you that you’re wrong. Or that any form of critique is an attack. And yes, sometimes the words involved are harsh. But as adults, as people who are doing hard work, you cannot expect your feelings to be the center of someone else’s struggle. In fact, the most realistic approach to solidarity is one that assumes that sometimes it simply isn’t your turn to be the focus of the conversation.
When feminist rhetoric is rooted in biases like racism, ableism, transmisogyny, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, it automatically works against marginalized women and against any concept of solidarity. It’s not enough to know that other women with different experiences exist; you must also understand that they have their own feminism formed by that experience. Whether it’s an argument that women who wear the hijab must be “saved” from it, or reproductive-justice arguments that paint having a disabled baby as the worst possible outcome, the reality is that feminism can be marginalizing. If a liberation movement’s own representatives are engaging with each other oppressively, then what progress can the movement make without fixing that internal problem?
“The most realistic approach to solidarity is one that assumes that sometimes it simply isn’t your turn to be the focus of the conversation.”
Feminism cannot be about pitying women who didn’t have access to the right schools or the same opportunities, or making them projects to be studied, or requiring them to be more respectable in order for them to be full participants in the movement. Respectability has not saved women of color from racism; it won’t save any woman from sexism or outright misogyny. Yet mainstream white feminists ignore their own harmful behavior in favor of focusing on an external enemy. However, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” only works as clichéd shorthand; in reality the enemy of my enemy may be my enemy as well. Being caught between groups that hate you for different aspects of your identity means none of you are safe.
So how do we address that much more complex reality without getting bogged down? Well, for starters, feminists of all backgrounds have to address would-be allies about the things that we want. And when we act as allies, feminists have to be willing to listen to and respect those we want to help. When building solidarity, there is no room for savior myths. Solidarity is not for everyone—it cannot realistically include everyone—so perhaps the answer is to establish common goals and work in partnerships. As equal partners, there is room for negotiation, compromise, and sometimes even genuine friendship. Building those connections takes time, effort, and a willingness to accept that some places are not for you.
“When building solidarity, there is no room for savior myths.”
Although the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen rose out of a particular problem within the online feminist community at that moment, it addresses the much larger problem of what it means to stand in solidarity as a movement meant to encompass all women when there is the distinct likelihood that some women are oppressing others. It’s rhetorical shorthand for the reality that white women can oppress women of color, straight women can oppress lesbian women, cis women can oppress trans women, and so on. And those identities are not discrete; they often can and do overlap. So too do the ways in which women can help or harm each other under the guise of feminism.
From Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Mikki Kendall.
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