Feminism, it’s intersectionality and the efforts to make it more inclusive, by Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro.
I was invited to do a presentation on my work as an activist and researcher for a talk that celebrated feminists in Ireland and Northern Ireland last year. When I received the invitation by email and saw the word feminist, I was struck by my dilemma around feminism and all that it represents. The term feminism has always been a hard concept for me to grasp and one that I am still educating myself on. bell hooks describes feminism as “being about rights — about women gaining equal rights”. It is a message that I understand and fully support.
There are a lot of complexities with the term feminism that makes it hard for me as a young Black woman to truly see myself immersed in this movement. Through multiple discourses such as popular cultures, mainstream media, film and literature, Black women are always portrayed as intellectually inferior to their white counterparts. Their lived experiences of existing in a racially articulated world are brushed aside and minimised in the process of championing the struggles of white women. The experience of white middle-class women continues to be this homogenic representation of the universal woman and Ireland is no exception.
In college, I took literary theory classes where we covered feminist theory and the four different waves. The first wave was visible in the late 19th century/20th century, it focused on access to the public sphere from the angle of political and legal equality with men. The second wave (the 1960s-1990s) focused on subjectivity, reproductive rights and sexuality. During the second wave, there was clear tension between black and white women especially in the United States with the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Wini Breines posits that “Black women distrusted white women’s ruptures with white men, understanding that white women had less to lose than did black women in a break with black men and that the black community was already ruptured in dangerous ways” ( 1103). This is a criticism that is still prevalent in the 21st century. The third wave (the 1990s to 2007/8), carried on from the previous wave with features of activism, cultural theory, and interpretation of gender and sex. We are now at fourth-wave feminism which relies heavily on the presence of social media and demands a need for intersectional feminism. Social media has called for more accountability and has created a demand for feminist spaces to be more inclusive and diverse.
Feminism and whiteness
I struggle with the concept of feminism due to its close link to whiteness. Whiteness and white fragility are something that I have always associated with feminism. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, there was this noticeable silence from people who were proud feminists yet missed seeing the intersectional element of race and feminism in Ireland. I failed to understand how there wasn’t enough outrage where women from minority and migrant communities were talking about their experiences of racism in Ireland. If the core message of feminism deals with equality, then why was there silence? It raised the question of whether feminism only applies to white bodies and experiences, making the rest secondary. This was when I came across the term white feminism which provided a nuanced explanation of my confusion about the movement.
Living in a racially articulated society and trying to make sense of how I navigate the world by being subjected to both racism and sexism simultaneously makes me want to become better educated on intersectional feminism. Through this quest, I also came across Black feminism. This helped me understand my place in society and my place in this movement as a whole. It differs from earlier waves of feminism as “Black women have been excluded from mainstream feminism because of their race, while simultaneously being excluded from Black liberation movements because of their gender”. Black feminism pays attention to the political identities that earlier feminism movements overlooked.
Moreover, there is clear tension when it comes to finding the best way to achieve social change where sometimes white women are complicit in perpetuating racialised ideas that are harmful to women from marginalised communities. This question is something that I have seen when I talk about white privilege and its link with the feminist movement. There is the uncomfortable nature that surrounds the word ‘white privilege’ as it acts as a characteristic that separates this notion of how we are all women.
Theorist Linda Alcoff notes that “Some feminists have argued that sexism is more fundamental than racism, in the sense that sexual identity is more important than racial identity in determining social status” (209). This ignores how there are certain sectors where white women benefit and are less disadvantaged all because of the virtue of white privilege. While Gloria Joseph further elaborates how “white women are both tools and benefactors of racism” (209). This is because of their position in society, a position that is downplayed when women of colour try to talk about their lived experiences. White privilege and fragility still appear to be touchy topics. This cultural sensitivity makes it an almost impossible task for women from marginalised communities to share their lived experiences.
The self-interest of feminist movements is challenged by the concept of intersectional feminism. Intersectionality of race, gender, and class are vital to understanding an individual’s lived experience. Feminist Audre Lorde critiqued feminist movements that failed to recognise the “ real differences between us of race, age, and sex” (Clark, Rebecca 73) dimensions that need to be interrogated. As a black able-bodied woman, I am aware of how my lived experiences may differ from others’ due to the multitude of factors that affect individuals. My hyper-awareness of my position in society enables me to understand the different intersectional elements. This awareness paves the way for me to understand others’ lived experiences without the need to dismiss their experience with the sentiment of how we are all women.
During the wake of BLM, I realised that I was not the only person who was also struggling to call myself a feminist while being Black. I saw other migrant women expressing the double standards of some feminists who do not see or choose not to acknowledge how race is an intersectional element that shapes an individual’s experience. I found myself reading social media posts where Black women were detailing their experiences of racism, discrimination, and sexism while their white counterparts on the same platform stayed silent ( while in the past had been used to posting about other feminist issues such as gender-based violence , gender pay gap, women in politics etc ). They stayed silent and refused to see the harmful nature of the simultaneous effect of being subjected to sexism and racism. These experiences are overlooked and brushed aside as insignificant. Those women that remain silent fail to see how they too are complicit in the marginalisation of other “feminists”.
This silence is something that I came confronted with when I started to be invited to talk about my racist experience. I garnered attention but at the back of my mind and on social media I was aware of how other women such as those from the Traveller community were not invited to these talks like me. I educated myself on the different racial discrimination they experienced, made sure to mention their names in my speech and would reach out to fellow activists to see how I could pass on the microphone in order for me not to be complacent in their silencing. It requires self-awareness and a genuine want to highlight the different lived experiences that women from marginalised communities face.
I have been in situations where I am talking about a barrier that I have faced that I can pinpoint down to race and have been dismissed immediately. It’s been brushed aside as an experience that any woman can face. This dismissal proves my point about white fragility that stunts the ability for some feminists to consider Black women’s experiences without the need to feel that they too need to centralise their voices. There is complete ignorance and denial of how women of colour and those from marginalised communities occupy spaces and opportunities differently since we live in a racially articulated society. Being a woman is not an amorphous experience and once this awareness is realised it becomes easier to understand the true meaning of feminism.
Panels that took place in 2020 and 2021 whose themes were about feminist issues at times were solely white panellists. I remember there was a talk on Direct Provision and no woman of colour or of a migrant background was invited to take space in the discussion. This left me astounded as I failed to understand how event organisers think it’s perfectly acceptable to host such events without centralising the lived experiences of those women who are experiencing the harsh realities of Direct Provision centres day in day out. This misguided judgment caused a lot of outrage online which led to the event organisers apologising and inviting more diverse voices. The message that I learned from this experience was how women from marginalised communities constantly must demand a right to speak about their experiences. For far too long there has been this acceptable nature of viewing whiteness as a default for everything which is coined around the general term of feminism.
Although we still have a long way to go to make feminism more inclusive, there are visible changes taking place in Ireland. Recently, I have seen amazing women reconfiguring the understanding of feminism and challenging the accepted view of predominantly white spaces. There are women from diverse backgrounds pioneering change and making feminist spaces more inclusive in Ireland. In June 2020 ,we saw the election of councillor Hazel Chu who was the ninth woman to hold the position in the office. Chu’s win was a great celebration as it showcased the cultural richness that is visible in Ireland. Her win made it possible for women from ethnic minorities to see themselves in positions of power. This success was followed by the election of the first African female mayor in Ireland Uruemu Adejinmi who resides in Longford. This win was historic as “she is the first migrant, first African and first black female to become mayor”. This win proved to be another monumental step forward as it showed the power of representation and the need to champion feminist icons from diverse backgrounds. Others paving the way are Traveller activist Rosemarie Maughan who rightfully criticises social justice movements that exclude Traveller voices and Blezzing Dada who champions mental health awareness and social justice. They are among the list of women who I associate feminism with as they approach gender equality, sexism, classism, racism from an intersectional lens.
Ireland is at a pivotal moment where it is bursting with cultural richness with the visible presence of multiple cultural heritage. This places us in a unique position where fourth-wave feminism can become more inclusive. There is a need to actively listen and understand the range of concerns and needs that different people in our society have. More inclusive spaces are needed for people like me with a migrant background to be able to see themselves as part of the movement that is pushing for change and equality. An equality that benefits all and considers the dimensions of class, race, and gender. Everyone should feel proud to call themselves feminists, but you cannot be something that you can’t see. I am excited for a time that I will be able to confidently say that I am a feminist and look around me and see more diverse voices join me on this quest for equality.