How To Acknowledge Where Your Feminism Can Do Better

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Actor Emma Watson is a longtime advocate of women’s rights, and has even served as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador since 2014, but the actor has had her fair share of constructive feedback over the years about her feminism. Specifically, her “white feminism”: a phrase used to describe feminists who don’t acknowledge or incorporate racial justice into their activism. Watson addressed those criticisms on her online book club, “Our Shared Shelf,” and did so in the most refreshing way. Instead of defending past comments, Watson owned up to the fact that she has not always been the most educated person when it comes to intersectional feminism, and all the ways race, disability, sexual orientation, and class can affect a woman’s life. She acknowledged that making your feminism more inclusive takes hard, ongoing work — a fact that’s not often made public by major celebrities.

In making this statement, Watson created a model for white women to transparently discuss how "white feminism" still upholds systemic racism. So, how do you acknowledge where your feminism can do better? It’s not always easy to admit when you’ve messed up, or that you have more learning to do — even though we're all guaranteed to mess up, and the learning isn't going to stop. Let’s face it: receiving critical feedback is often uncomfortable or upsetting. Whether at work, at home, or in our activism, it’s normal to feel defensive when confronted about something you’ve done — especially if, like Watson, you have good intentions. Sure, most white people who culturally appropriate at music festivals probably don’t do so with an intent to perpetuate racism, but a lack of intersectionality goes deeper than just cultural appropriation. White feminism can be used to silence, erase, and exclude women of color from the fight for women’s rights. The bottom line is, intent does not always match our impact: you’re still accountable for the ways you uphold oppressive systems or unintentionally hurt people — especially those you claim to be allied with.

If you’re thinking to yourself well, I can’t know everything about social justice, you’re right! Privilege can — and does — make us blissfully ignorant of the issues faced by marginalized communities we’re not a part of. That’s why it is called “privilege” in the first place. But that doesn’t give you an excuse to ignore your “blind spot,” as Watson called it, once you’ve been made aware it exists. If you find yourself feeling defensive or confused about the constructive feedback you’ve received, that’s when you know you should be following Watson’s advice: ask important questions. Watson explained in her statement that she first "panicked" when she heard herself called a “white feminist,” but wished she had focused on learning more about the term, and systemic racism as a whole — rather than dismissing the comments and focusing on your ego. Watson explained further in her letter:

It would have been more useful to spend the time asking myself questions like: What are the ways I have benefited from being white? In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist? How do my race, class and gender affect my perspective? There seemed to be many types of feminists and feminism. But instead of seeing these differences as divisive, I could have asked whether defining them was actually empowering and bringing about better understanding.

Instead of the age-old phrase that “knowledge is power,” try looking at the blind spot with the phrase “knowledge is empowerment.” It’s normal to feel shame or guilt if called out, but you can use those feelings an an opportunity for introspection, self-growth, and promoting growth in your community. There are thousands of think pieces, essays, reading lists, and resources all over the internet on any aspect of intersectionality you want to learn more about — all you have to do is make the effort!

Most importantly, acknowledging your blind spots means not only expanding your perspective, but implementing what you’ve learned about intersectionality through your words and actions. Watson turned the lessons she learned about white feminism into a call-to-action for her book club members to read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, and explore their own implicit biases and privileges. How will you turn your previous blind spot into something that has a positive impact?

Intersectionality is not a concept you process and learn overnight. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” ally or feminist, and there’s no way to avoid messing up. But, being able to acknowledge those blind spots and doing better can make a world of difference.