There are so many women (and a number of men, if we’re really being honest) I have come across who are very feminist in thought and practice, but bristle at that term being used in their presence. Sure, some of them have adopted Alice Walker’s “womanism” moniker instead, but plenty of others don’t feel that their approach to gender parity needs a name at all. I’ve always been a little bothered by this; as Iyanla Vanzant famously said let’s “call a thing a thing.” We can’t really challenge sexism unless we acknowledge it exists; living in opposition to it is great, but not enough.
However, when I see Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and their fellow cast mates from the upcoming film, Suffragette, posing proudly while wearing shirts that say “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” I am reminded that no matter how hard Beyonce, Chimamanda and Melissa Harris-Perry represent for #TeamFeminist, the repugnant stench of White racism is inextricable from the concept for so many people.
— SUFFRAGETTE (@SuffragetteFilm) September 29, 2015
Seriously, is there anything more tone deaf than casually putting “slave” on a shirt worn by a bunch of White women? And the idea that we shouldn’t be offended because Emmaline Pankhurst, the originator of the quote was British—because that’s a group of people that have clean hands when it comes to slavery, am I right?—is so…predicable. Peak White Feminism. PEAK!
I won’t spend too much time making the distinction between White feminists and White feminism, because it was so wonderfully broken down by Zeba Blay here, but it’s worth acknowledging that no, silly, we aren’t talking about every White person who identifies as a feminist when we say the latter. However, the distinction needs to be made between those so-called feminists who center White womanhood in their pursuit of gender equality and those who are actually feminist in a way that promotes equity for people of all races, backgrounds, gender expressions, etc.
Here is the full quote, for the “Well, actually” crew that seems to think those of us offended by the shirt are too stupid to understand it: “Know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”
The offense is not at Pankhurst’s words, but that someone could actually think it’s no big deal to put those words on a shirt with a bunch of smiling White actresses promoting a film about a movement that was often times extremely racist and failed to center Black female voices, and for those shirts to be worn for primarily U.K. and U.S. audiences—considering the specific relationship to slavery had by both places.
Alas, it seems the more that feminists of color make noise in the media, the deeper White feminism digs its heels in and refuses to acknowledge the ways that White racism allows them to be privileged, despite still living under the heel of sexism. As hard as I have worked personally to preach the gospel of gender equality (Sex positivity! Equal pay! Access to healthcare!), White feminism shows up like the one cousin who you don’t invite to “nice” family gatherings: loud, ignorant and unapologetically so.
So, an R. Kelly rape joke here and a dismissal of Nicki Minaj’s feelings about racism there. Then a little casual racism posed as jokes that punch down at oppressed people. Or a call for people of color and LGBT people to support women (that really did happen!) A starlet ignoring the significance of Zendaya’s Barbie moment and saying “What about me?”, and a lady mag proclaiming a tribe of women made famous by well-executed plastic surgery and romantic relationships with Black men as “America’s First Family.” And now, American born, highly-educated Meryl Streep at 66 years old, not knowing that the words “rebel” and “slave” (and, really, “rather” and “slave”) have no business together on a tee shirt? White Feminism, ladies and gentlemen.
I’d like for the White feminists of the world to stand down so that I might be able to reach those who are in need of a consciousness raising without having to explain and apologize for their actions, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Alas, we soldier on. I’d rather be an intersectional feminist than one who can’t understand or recognize the challenges faced by women of color, despite a history of philanthropy that would suggest otherwise. I’d rather bypass the privilege and have the ability to connect with humans outside a pretty pink White feminist bubble.
Feminism isn’t new, and White feminism for damn sure isn’t new (which is why you won’t be seeing many Black women in Suffragette), but what has changed is the immediate public response to these gaffes. As soon as the Time Out article went live, the Internet let everyone involved have it. Will we see less facepalm moments from White feminism as a result? Time will reveal. But in the meantime, I want my drunken cousins in (nonexistent) feminist solidarity to understand that they simply aren’t the faces or the axis of feminism anymore–and they never were in the first place.
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY Magazine’s Senior Editor.