It is not enough to tell the world that your two bosses are blackFlickr: UN Women

Emma Watson is of Caucasian ancestry and she lives in a multiracial society where the Anglo-Celtic ethnic group was historically the dominant one. Ergo, she is “white”, with all of its loaded sociological connotations. And if she does really believe in “the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes”, then I’d say that makes her a feminist too. Cue a Twitter Q&A in which she neatly sidesteps the blunt question “Are you a white feminist?” with a rambling panegyric to intersectionality. What’s wrong with that? Or, on a more serious note, what is wrong with that…

Firstly, it’s that she gives white feminism an unduly hard time of it. Castigating it as the “exclusion of black women from the [feminist] movement”, she then proceeds to distance herself from the label by declaring that her bosses “(and the people who gave [her] the job) are two black women”.

There is nothing inherently reprehensible about white feminism. It does not try to actively exclude women of colour, like me. It legitimises itself through campaigning for the eradication of an existing social ill. But the problem with white feminism is this: legitimation extends to the racial inequality that it in itself embodies. Think of the excessive airtime that the Suffragists (sorry Newnhamites) gave to prominent men such as John Stuart Mill in their campaigns. The political capital it potentially earned is undeniable, but in terms of combatting the male paternalism, the effect was most likely counterproductive. Put simply, no matter how hard it tries, white feminism can never really include ethnic minorities unless they enter the movement in a filial, subordinate capacity.

Equally we can’t go to the other extreme of venerating all feminists of colour whilst demonising the Emma Watsons. This means that we can’t just countenance Watson’s appointment as Goodwill Ambassador because the women she was hired by were black. Acting as a microphone “to amplify the experiences of other people” is poor substitute for listening to the fighters and the victims themselves. We have no excuse – translators and technology allow us to create a visceral bond with a woman on the other side of the globe. But perhaps it’s all too close for comfort. Perhaps we need an intermediary, a Watsonian ambassador with a pretty face and tinkling voice to relay the suffering of other women without the gory details, in a manner that is slightly easier to stomach.

Out of Watson’s entire speech at the United Nations, only two sentences explicitly referenced the struggles facing other women across the globe (child marriage and lack of access to secondary education), as opposed to her own experiences with gender-based discrimination (such as being called “bossy” for wanting to direct a play).

That is not to trivialise Watson’s personal struggles; on the contrary I feel a great deal of empathy towards her, as many other educated young women living in the occident do. The dregs of institutionalised misogyny still swill around in the underbelly of Cambridge life: all-male drinking societies, a disproportionate investment in male rowing and rugby clubs, not to mention The Tab’s coveted title for ‘Rear of the Year’.

But unlike the world of Model United Nations, the real United Nations and all her subsidiary campaigns do not have unlimited funding. That is something that the First World generation need to fully comprehend the gravity of. We cannot waste time with niceties: the most severe of crimes against women need to be articulated. We should neither become desensitised to words like menstrual rape, intimate partner violence (IPV) or flogging, but nor should we feel squeamish about educating and discussing these issues with those of the opposite sex. That is what HeForShe purports itself to be about.

In sum, an apologist approach will not work in the battle against gender inequality. Watson already vacillated in excusing “[her] own luck/good fortune/privilege something like five times in [her] UN speech”. We simply don’t have time for this. We need to hear stories from the horse’s mouth, not through the lens of inevitable condescension that comes when Children in Need or Comic Relief pay for a celebrity to go to Africa to cuddle the impoverished children there.

It is the same with Watson. She might be the perfect candidate for an ambassador: smart, sharp, witty and articulate. But diplomacy doesn’t always work. If the prospect of tackling crimes against women need to be packaged in an “invitation” for men to pay attention delivered by an attractive “white feminist”, then there is a serious problem. And that problem doesn’t lie at Emma Watson’s feet, but at our own.