In her new book, "White Feminism," Koa Beck argues that white feminism is more than a convenient label or catchphrase.
White feminism is an ideology that can be traced throughout the history of the feminist movement in the United States, starting with the suffragettes and leading up to “girl bosses,” the savvy female executives who primarily deploy feminism as a marketing strategy, the current avatars of this brand of feminism. This ideology preaches the importance of individual success and conceives of equality as something women can achieve primarily through careerist endeavors and the exploitation of other women and marginalized people. The goal of white feminism is not to alter the systems that oppress women — patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism — but to succeed within them.
This ideology is fundamentally exclusionary, she says, functioning to keep women of color from enjoying the benefits of any feminist gains or otherwise enlisting them in creating the illusion of equality for their white counterparts, such as by performing the domestic labor that allows white women to succeed in the workplace.
White feminism, however, is not exclusive to white women, Beck says. Because it is so pervasive, people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds often buy into the promises of white feminism, believing that if they work hard enough, they may be able to reap its alleged rewards.
Beck spoke to NBCBLK about how white feminism is holding back the feminist movement and the way people are rebelling against it to create real feminist change.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
NBCBLK: Let’s start with the term “white feminism.” It has become a bit of a buzzword. Can you talk a bit about how people use it colloquially, and how you define it?
Koa Beck: I find the word gets thrown around a lot in an unhelpful way. One of my goals in structuring the book was to draw very clear parameters around this ideology and how it functions — to basically set in motion a good working definition for people. I define white feminism as an ideology and a very specific approach and strategy toward achieving gender equality that focuses more on individual accumulation, capital and individuality — accruing power without any redistribution or reconsideration of it. And that’s why white feminism overlaps with white supremacy and classism and transphobia, because there’s no analysis of that power and it’s very singular in its execution and goals.
There are a few different terms for this brand of feminism: "lean in" feminism, corporate feminism, etc. Why did you choose to structure the book around white feminism specifically?
Beck: What I found when I was researching this book is that the thread that runs through what we might call lifestyle feminism, empowerment feminism or corporate feminism — some of my friends say “feminism lite” — is a white success model or an aspiration to whiteness. That’s what we’re talking about across all these brands of feminism: going to a very elite college, running your own company, exploiting other women to get there, entering into marriage or a long-term relationship with another partner, having children, being middle class, really supporting those values which are really intrinsic to our nation. White feminism as a practice and ideology aspires to those things rather than interrogates them.
Sheryl Sandberg’s book "Lean In" has become a touchstone for some of the pillars of white feminism you describe, and you reference it throughout your book. The ethos of "Lean In" has been discredited over and over again by feminist writers, but in the mainstream it remains stubbornly intact. Why do you think that is?
Beck: A pattern I found while studying both first-wave and second-wave feminism — as well as in a lot of my own experiences of the third and fourth wave — is that white feminism is very successful at adapting with the times. This mainstream idea of the white success model was being critiqued in the first wave as well, with a number of women’s groups — Native women’s groups, Black women’s groups— being extremely vocal about how the white suffragette model of equality wasn’t achievable for most women in the country. And not even just success, but basic equality was not achievable. Same for the second wave: Black and Latina feminists spoke out against Betty Friedan’s "The Feminine Mystique."
My takeaway is that white feminism is enduring because it’s so palatable and because it doesn’t really challenge much about our structure, our life, the way we make money or the way we relate to other women. There’s something so easy about it, and it fits within the rhythm of the shows and media we consume. You can basically identify as a “feminist” without really challenging power, and that’s very satisfying and welcoming to a lot of people.
Do you think in some senses it’s easier for people to think of feminism as something that can be achieved through individual rather than collective effort?
Beck: I think the narrative of individual achievement is very engaging for a lot of people and has been throughout time. A lot of our cultural narratives are structured that way. There’s this idea that you should look inward, rather than looking outward at systems and examining the way those systems treat you, me and people we’ll never meet. White feminism casts you as a revolution in and of itself. There can be something deeply satiating and fulfilling about seeing a single woman succeed within this very specific framework.
In one chapter of the book, you talk about white women’s tendency to self-consciously acknowledge their own privilege and the emptiness of this gesture. How can “confronting one’s privilege,” as we’ve come to call it, make people think they’re off the hook?
Beck: I’ve been in quite a few situations both professionally and personally where the acknowledgment of any sort of privilege — whether it’s whiteness, heterosexuality or cissexism — is considered the beginning and end of that statement: “As a privileged white women, I….” What aligns that with a white feminist ideology is that that system that imbues you as the power holder is still being maintained. You’re not making that statement and saying, “I think that should be disrupted in this capacity.”
How do we get past that when people have recognized there’s social capital — and in many cases, actual capital — in loudly declaring one’s politics? Social media in particular lends itself to dead-end acknowledgements of privilege.
Beck: In the book I explore the blurry lines between “personal branding” and white feminism. Fourth-wave white feminism has been very adept at uniting personal branding with identity politics, or whatever the social justice narrative at that particular moment is. I think we have to raise the bar for what feminist and social justice is.
When someone uses the word "feminist," what are they even talking about? When there’s a startup company that employs 20 people with uteruses and none of them can afford birth control, is it really a “feminist” company? Is a co-working space that prides itself on having Audre Lorde’s books in its library but has its cleaners come saying they’ve been racially harassed a “feminist” company? We have to redefine what it means to be a feminist workplace, a feminist company and a feminist leader, and the first step is reinterpreting these images and messages we’re getting all of the time.
You use the example of the Women’s March to illustrate an earnest attempt at superseding white feminism by representing many different needs and interests. But as you point out, the movement quickly became corporate, splintered and more or less fell apart when scandals beset the leaders. How do we build mass, intersectional movements while making sure they don’t become oriented around a few personalities and that they remain grassroots?
Beck: I don’t know what the Women’s March’s plans are in 2021. But I think historically people organizing for Native rights and queer rights — as well as a lot of women-of-color-led efforts — have been very good at being very skeptical of partnering with power. They’ve been very particular about when they do and in what capacity and what money they accept. I’ve seen certain movements try to essentially become corporations, and that’s a space where some values get compromised. And often they get compromised because of money or certain power dynamics.
I think the growing police brutality protests in the U.S. are a good example of [the opposite of] that. There are a lot of examples of mass movements that are not branded or corporatized: the more grassroots #MeToo movement, the Google walkouts, the fast-food workers who walked out following really extreme sexual harassment. Overarching in all of them is the idea that empowerment isn’t something you buy. It’s the feeling that comes from challenging power.
In another part of the book, you talk about a common slogan of white feminism: “The future is female.” You argue that the future is instead “genderfluid.” Do you think “women” is still a useful category for feminism to center on?
Beck: No. In my book and throughout my career I talk about marginalized genders and place women on a spectrum of those genders. I’m thinking about cis women, trans women, trans men, nonbinary people, gender-variant people — everyone who, in different ways, is marginalized by systems of oppression. Acknowledging a spectrum of marginalized genders rather than just focusing on women is not only important in itself, but imperative for the future of feminism.