Taylor Swift: a typical feminist iconflickr: Eva Rinaldi

As BME Women’s Rep on the Women’s Campaign, I’m often called upon to talk about intersectionality. I don’t consider myself an authority on the issue by any means, but I find it interesting how many people who identify as feminists have not even heard of the term, let alone apply it to their activism. Liberation politics by its nature is the politics of growth; as you learn more about different intersections and the history of the movement, you gain the tools to start deconstructing problematic conceptions of feminism. It’s normal that when most people arrive at university they have a pretty basic understanding of feminism; an idea that has been heavily influenced by mainstream media which relies on the invisibility of anyone who is not a white, middle class or wealthy, cis, straight woman. What is most striking is how the historical divisions in the movement, most visible in terms of race and sexuality, are mirrored in the mainstream movement today. How many of the feminist icons (excluding Beyoncé) that the media holds up aren’t white, wealthy women?

Often, when you ask white feminists to engage critically with the divisions in the movement and the possibility that mainstream feminism today is not inclusive, you are met with pleas to end unnecessary criticisms and ‘focus on the positives’. Cries for ‘unity’ are heard loud and clear, as if asking people to recognise that not every woman or non-binary persons lived experience is the same causes ‘division.’ One woman told me that it’s “just too hard” to have a movement that includes every kind of woman. This defensive response is symptomatic of privilege, no matter how well meaning. When white women refuse to recognise that they too can inflict harm on other women and genderqueer people by disallowing them the chance to air their grievances in feminist spaces, they uphold a structure that privileges their voices and their experiences of patriarchy above all else. When Taylor Swift condescendingly implied that Nicki Minaj was being unreasonable in her critique of black women’s exclusion at the VMA’s; when non-white women are constantly asked to ‘calm down’ about their historical marginalisation from a movement supposed to liberate them; when they are spoken of and not to by liberal feminists who refuse black and visibly Muslim bodies any agency; when ‘leaning in’ means leaning on the backs of racialised women; when Beyoncé’s feminism is robustly critiqued by the white mainstream and Amy Schumer’s accepted without question, I begin to understand why many non-white women refuse to identify as feminists.

Naturally, it is to be expected that those in a position of privilege wish, intentionally or unintentionally, to continue to benefit from that privilege and will therefore be reluctant or unwilling to recognise the problems with popular feminism today. The problem is not that feminism is popular, it is that it is generally reduced to merely ‘believing in the equality of the sexes’, ‘thinking women are people’, and other simplistic generalisations that obscure the fact feminism isn’t just one thing. There are feminisms, opposing frameworks of thinking with different methods and goals; some seek liberation completely defined outside of the arbitrary idea of ‘equality’.

I am all for a feminism that is accessible because accessibility often translates into pragmatism. Convoluted academic theory is stale and unwelcoming, open to only a few to decipher. However, accessible feminism should not mean a whitewashed, watered down, palatable kind of activism that refuses to recognise the nuance and complexity of people’s lives, because feminism without an intersectional basis is useless. Any kind of feminism that does not consider how race, sexual identity, class, religion, ability and sexuality might influence how we see the world is advocating for a particular kind of women whose voices have dominated Western feminism for years. When we radically hold our feminist icons, whether they be Emma Watson or Taylor Swift, to account and call them out on misguided, problematic ‘feminism’ or their refusal to critically engage with race, we are not demanding ‘too much’ of them; we are demanding to be heard and for our lives to be considered as robustly as our white peers.

It’s important that our feminism is intersectional because by recognising how different variables work in concert to create interlocking systems of oppression, we are better able to understand how to provide solutions that go some way to remedy our unique experiences. Alongside a feminism that seeks to understand intersections, we need an openness, a willingness to learn from one another and the courage to challenge older feminists on outdated ideas. Movements change organically; what we value develops as time goes on and we must be responsive to this. Feminism entering mainstream discourse is important, but every movement’s integrity depends on how it chooses to learn from mistakes of the past. Put simply, rather than making feminism non-threatening and palatable for men, our first focus must be the women and non-binary people that we have excluded from a conversation that has been happening for decades.

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