The PEN Pod: Exploring White Feminism and Ways to Combat It with Ruby Hamad
Ruby Hamad’s first book, White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, published in early October, explores white feminism and offers a reinterpretation of white women’s participation in oppression. Ruby joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss the meaning and origins of white feminism, the way its racism and limitations affect all people of color nowadays, and what she’s been reading recently. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Ruby begins at the 12:29 mark).
First, let’s start here: What is white feminism, and how has it worked to the exclusion of women who aren’t white?
This is a really good and important question. It’s one that usually gets overlooked because it seems self-evident, but white feminism doesn’t mean any feminist who is white. Rather, it’s a feminism that not only centers the middle-class white woman, but that is implicitly—and explicitly at times—hostile to those who attempt to decenter the middle-class white woman in feminism. So, what this means is that not all white women who are feminists are white feminists, and conversely, not all white feminists are necessarily white. You can espouse an ideology even without necessarily being the beneficiary of that ideology.
This is an important point because historically, when white society and white identity, as we understand them today, were constructed in the settler colonial era, being white—and here I mean Western European as a quite specific definition of who qualifies as white—was not sufficient to be considered part of white society. It wasn’t just about the biological designation, even though it was presented that way. The working class and the poor were not considered part of white society; sex workers were excluded. There were very strict rules.
It’s out of this context that Western feminism emerged. It emerged not as a movement that aims to annihilate these exclusions and marginalizations, but only to improve the status of white women—middle-class white women within them. That often came at the expense of everybody else. Historically, we see this in the suffragettes who were furious at the prospect that Black men might get the vote before them. In Australia, as well as in the U.S., white women played a pivotal role in the removal of Indigenous children from their families on the pretext that they were rescuing and civilizing them.
Nowadays, we see women of color continue to spell out—we are repeating ourselves again and again—the various ways in which we’re still excluded from this feminist progress. This ranges from the lack of women of color in leadership positions to the lack of interest from white women in issues affecting women of color that don’t affect them—racism and imperialism, for instance. And we see a focus on things like sexual assault, gender pay gap, domestic violence, but all without consideration for how these actually affect women of color more profoundly. So, I’m sad to say it’s built into the Western feminist ideology to be exclusionary because of the context out of which it emerged, in settler colonialism.
“Historically, we see this in the suffragettes who were furious at the prospect that Black men might get the vote before them. In Australia, as well as in the U.S., white women played a pivotal role in the removal of Indigenous children from their families on the pretext that they were rescuing and civilizing them. Nowadays, we see women of color continue to spell out—we are repeating ourselves again and again—the various ways in which we’re still excluded from this feminist progress.”
I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that this is a provocative argument. You write in the book about The Guardian essay you had a few years ago that was everywhere: “How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour.” At one point, you said you almost withdrew that piece from The Guardian. Why—maybe it’s self-evident—is this so provocative, and why do you find it difficult even to share this point of view?
It’s a mixture of personal, professional, and societal reasons. I will say it’s certainly easier now than it was then. It was only two and a half years ago, but at that time, a term like “white women’s tears” wasn’t really discussed in the mainstream. I think that’s part of the reason why my essay went so huge. For people of color, Black people, Indigenous people, nothing I said in that essay was a surprise—the surprise was in where they saw it, which is in The Guardian. They were shocked to see that The Guardian would publish that.
What I was afraid of or worried about is that in Australia, we’re way behind—we’re two decades behind, in many ways, in terms of the discourse. That ended up being prescient because the article was a lot more well-received overseas than it was here—it was largely ignored here. What I was doing in that piece was connecting what I saw happening around the Western world, between white women, and not only women of color but all people of color in various contexts—particularly, African American people. That was around the time the issues like a Black man in Starbucks being asked to leave, or a white female manager calling the police on two Black men happened.
I started to connect those sorts of dynamics and incidents to things I was seeing in my own life and around me, which is this variety of ways in which white women are able to exert power by seeking protection from people of color. I was like, “Is this what’s happening with all these things that I’m going through, that I’m seeing other women of color go through? Is this the same dynamic?” I thought I was writing to only an Australian audience. I wasn’t expecting the U.K. and the U.S. arms of The Guardian to pick up the peace. And I knew I was writing to a progressive audience that was already kind of fed up with me, in a way, because I wasn’t playing by their rules.
I was tolerated well enough by my peers when I limited my criticisms to conservatives or society as a whole, asking questions about racism as if it’s this sort of mysterious entity that visits upon us. But when I turned the critical lens to my fellow progressives and feminists and asked, “Well, how about this and how do you account for that,” I just found myself getting more and more marginalized within the feminist and media spaces. So, in a sense, I did wonder if I was signing my own career death warrant by writing that piece, but at the same time, I just knew instinctively that this had to be said, that this is important, that it accounted for a lot of my own experiences, and judging by what I was seeing—by asking questions on my Facebook page to women of color and the response I was getting—this was affecting a lot of women. The reason, essentially, is difficult to share because as much as white women will still downplay or deny it, they are in a position of power over women of color. For us, to bring something like that to the table is to risk having that power exerted against us.
“I was tolerated well enough by my peers when I limited my criticisms to conservatives or society as a whole, asking questions about racism as if it’s this sort of mysterious entity that visits upon us. But when I turned the critical lens to my fellow progressives and feminists and asked, ‘Well, how about this and how do you account for that,’ I just found myself getting more and more marginalized within the feminist and media spaces.”
I imagine that, by revealing this point of view, you do have a motive—to further the objectives of equality and inclusion. Where do you see hopeful signs that this kind of white feminism is being eclipsed, say, by a more inclusive feminism?
Firstly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the way many white women—the book has been out in Australia for a year, it was changed a fair bit for the international market—received it. Back in the old days, when we could still tour our books, I had a lot of white women either in the audience or message me afterwards saying, “I just want you to know that some of us are thinking deeply about the issues that you are bringing up.” That’s really encouraging. I’m seeing how the term “white women’s tears” has become mainstream, and I think that essays like mine played a large role in exploding that taboo. Now, we’re seeing white male comedians talking about this stuff on Saturday Night Live. I don’t know if there are some legitimate criticisms about such monologues, but the fact that it’s now possible—it wasn’t like this even just three years ago.
So, there’s definitely been a big shift, but, having said that—it’s too soon for me to say in regards to my book in the U.S.—the prognosis here in Australia doesn’t look that good. I haven’t seen enough of the change here in Australia, in the way white feminists conduct their feminism. I deliberately finished my book with a series of questions for white feminists, and that was not a rhetorical exercise. I was challenging them to really address these issues. It’s not enough to say, “Yes, I’m going to read more women of color, I’m going to read this book or that book, and I’m going to have more Black women or more Indigenous women, more Brown women on my panels.” They really have to interrogate their relationship to power, as well as their relationship to us—to women of color.
My book has been out for more than a year here in Australia, and there’s been no attempt from any prominent white feminists in the country to engage with these questions. I think that article was big enough, and I think the book was critically well-received here as well—all the reviews were very positive—so I’m quite disappointed by this silence. It’s like there’s a cone of silence around the book—it’s not talked about at all by mainstream feminism. That, to me, tells that white feminism in Australia is out of reach—like I said, we are behind in Australia in our discourse.
Perhaps this means women of color need to find another way to organize. I think books like this are significant, and similar books have come along before it that ask white feminists to interrogate their power, and they were ignored as well. I wonder how much of this is due to the possibility that Western feminism isn’t equipped to be inclusive. Is it too limited by its insistence on gender being the master factor in oppression? With all that’s going on—the pandemic, climate change, the U.S. elections, Black Lives Matter—I find myself getting frustrated with the way feminism remains so myopically focused on gender equality, because what good is gender equality in a world that’s essentially consuming itself? We need something more than a movement that can’t be introspective enough to admit its own limitations. What is feminists’ stance on climate change, the pandemic, Black Lives Matter?
Maybe what we need is a holistic way of thinking—a new way of thinking that includes the ideals of feminism, of everyone being “equal” for lack of a better word, but that also regards reconciliation with each other and the rehabilitation of humans back to the Earth, because we are, essentially, slowly destroying ourselves. Can feminism, even a more “racially inclusive feminism,” really address these issues? That’s the big question that I’m still trying to figure out.
“We need something more than a movement that can’t be introspective enough to admit its own limitations. What is feminists’ stance on climate change, the pandemic, Black Lives Matter? Maybe what we need is a holistic way of thinking—a new way of thinking that includes the ideals of feminism, of everyone being ‘equal’ for lack of a better word, but that also regards reconciliation with each other and the rehabilitation of humans back to the Earth, because we are, essentially, slowly destroying ourselves.”
Books like yours maybe force us to reckon with those questions.
That’s the challenge I’m presenting—we need to answer these questions and issues that I bring up in that book so that we can get to the point where we can work together on the problems that are really affecting all of us as humans.
It’s interesting, because you had this opportunity for the book’s publication in Australia before the pandemic. Now, you have the international version coming out after this global lockdown. How are you coping with getting your book, your work, and your ideas out into the world when we can’t really go anywhere?
It’s quite a timing, but I’m more fortunate than some others—not only creatives, but lots of people with their jobs—in that we took a hit initially, of course, when it was first published, and we can still do our work. We can’t tour the book physically, but we have opportunities to do the online tours. It’s not the same thing—you can’t really connect with your audience, you can’t sign the book for your audience, so you’re missing out on that connection to people, but at least it’s still possible to do.
It’s frustrating, I was due to be back in the U.S. in the summer. At first, it was like, “Well, maybe I need to put that off for a couple of months,” and now it’s just hanging in the balance completely. It’s hard—you never get your first book again, so it would have been nice to be able to be there. However, I’ve certainly got a lot more to be thankful for, and a lot less to really complain about, than many other people that have been hit by this. So, it’s just one of those things—I’m still grateful that it is still getting out there, perhaps not as well or as much as it would have otherwise, but it’s life, and you have to take those hits and keep going.
As you said, the work transcends our ability to go places. We can all go to our independent bookshop, order from our independent bookshop, or download the book. So, what are you reading right now?
I’ve just finished Red Pill by Hari Kunzru, a fantastic author who has this really enviable ability to take these contemporary memes that are almost these throwaway memes, like a red pill. Funnily enough, his previous novel is called White Tears. It’s not about white women, but he has these terms, and then he constructs a narrative and gives a historical context. Red Pill is about a male writer, a liberal who gets—or he thinks he gets—sucked into this underworld of the far right. But the question is, how much of this is actually happening? How much of it is his own fears and anxieties about the instability in the world around him and his inability to take care of himself, to take care of his family? I like the way that Kunzru plays with our minds quite a bit in his novels. So, that was a lot of fun, and I’m quite fortunate I am able to review this book for an Australian newspaper.
I’m about to now start The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto. That’s set in Pakistan, Karachi, and it’s about young people that get drawn into the web of the Islamic state. So, kind of similar in that regard—I didn’t think about that before—but that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m enjoying getting into fiction again after writing this book, and I’m doing a Ph.D., so I’ve been immersed in nonfiction and research, and it’s really nice to read novels again.