Book Review – Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

You do not have to be white to be a white feminist. It is also perfectly possible to be white and feminist and not be a white feminist. The term describes a set of assumptions and behaviors which have been baked into mainstream Western feminism, rather than describing the racial identity of its subjects… A white feminist may be a woman who earnestly salutes the precepts of “intersectionality”—the need for feminism to reflect structural inequalities drawn along the lines of race, faith, class, disability, et cetera, as well as gender—but fails to cede space to the feminists of color who have been ignored, erased, or excluded from the feminist movement…More broadly, to be a white feminist you simply have to be a person who accepts the benefits conferred by white supremacy at the expense of people of color, while claiming to support gender equality and solidarity with “all” women.

Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

A few days before I finished reading Against White Feminism, I got tattooed. The tattoo artist, a cis-het white man, asked me, very politely, before we began, if it would be okay for him to ask me questions about my culture. I expected the standard questions about yoga, Indian food, or my bindi, but he got serious, right off the bat.

“Your culture, is it patriarchal?” he asked.

“It is. Very much so,” I replied.

“And the caste system. Is that still around?”

“Indeed,” I answered again, wondering where this was going.

“So as a woman, now that you’re in America, how do you feel?”

Ah, there it was, finally – familiar ground. The “tell me how great my country is; tell me how grateful you are to be in the chosen land of feminism,” conversation, that I’ve had multiple times over the last few years. I suddenly felt exhausted, and angry. However, he did ask nicely; did seem to want to genuinely learn; and I had just given him permission to poke me with needles, so I answered. In the conversation that followed, we spoke about feminism, casteism, racism, immigration, being pro-choice, etc. I think in the end, I managed to show him that the difference in misogyny I experienced in India versus the misogyny I experienced in the US, wasn’t one of degree, but of quality. I wasn’t “less marginalized” here, in fact, because I face racism, in addition to misogyny, a layer of complexity is added to my experience here. I can only hope that he will retain at least 1% of what i told him — enough at least, to lose the idea that the US is somehow “better.”

By highlighting Brown and Black and Asian women suffering trauma as the “usual,” their victimhood stemming from their cultures, while suffering white women are portrayed as an aberration, a glitch, white culture, including the feminism that has sprung from it, asserts itself as superior.

Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

Like I said though, this is not a conversation I’ve had for the first time. That I am a uniquely oppressed woman, who must be thankful to be here, in the land of the free, is an assumption that I have to counter occasionally, and that is thanks to white feminism. In Against White Feminism, Rafia Zakaria takes this belief, and strips it bare, exploring the how and why of it, as well as showing the often misguided and disastrous consequences that emerge when the rest of the world is seen and acted upon via this lens of white feminism.

A colorblind feminism thus imposes an identity cost on women of color, erasing a central part of their lived experience and their political reality. This makes it impossible to see the ways in which a white-centric feminism is not serving their needs.

Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism
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In the gender-only narrative that has dominated mainstream feminism, all women are pitted against all men, against whom they seek parity. In this struggle, however, white women have taken for themselves the right to speak for all women, occasionally allowing a woman of color to speak but only when she can do so in the tone and language of white women, adopting the priorities, causes and arguments of whiteness. But the assumption that women of color and white women all stand at the same disadvantages against men is flawed.

Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism : Notes on Disruption

In its eight chapters, plus a powerful introduction and conclusion, the Rafia Zakaria challenges the things we have come to take for granted about the supposed moral superiority of feminism in the west.

She shows how white feminists, even those as celebrated as Simone De Beauvoir, or Gloria Steinem, were unable to be truly intersectional. She describes how the aid-industrial complex, driven by white feminists at the helm, who disregard the voices of the people whom the aid is supposed to help, often end up causing more harm than good. She explores the hypocrisy of celebrating the successes of white women in war efforts, which by their very nature are patriarchal and violent. She questions how it is taken for granted that sexual liberation is at the center of feminism. She explains how feminism has been corrupted and weakened by capitalism, and offers a scathing critique of “choice” feminism.

Trickle-down feminism, where a solution developed at the top (meaning, generally, by members of the upper or upper-middle class, usually white) is not intersectional feminism; it is dictatorial feminism.

Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

In doing so, she raises important questions –how does one approach feminist texts and frameworks that are regarded as foundational, but which center whiteness? How can whiteness in feminist movements like #MeToo or the Women’s March be replaced by intersectionality? Is true solidarity between white women and women of colour even possible? What roles do redistribution and representation play in combating the depoliticization of feminism?

The change that we need, that feminism needs, is transformational change. The analysis of where and how to make this change must be intersectional, considering race and class and gender, and the redress must be both redistributive and recognitive.

Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption.

There is an additional reason why Against White Feminism resonated with me. As a privileged savarna woman from India, I have become increasingly disillusioned with mainstream feminism, aka, savarna feminism in the homeland as well. It is a feminism that I see holding on stubbornly to a gender-only narrative, and excluding not only people of marginalized genders, but also Dalit women, and Muslim women. It is a “lifestyle” feminism, that celebrates regressive, casteist and classist practices, just as long as a woman is doing them, and even prominent feminists — the ones who are held up as examples, have said disappointingly transphobic and casteist things publicly. Savarna feminism thus, mimics white feminism, even if some of these “feminists” are critical of colonialism and “western influences.”

Which is why I wish the author had a chapter on how white feminism is reflected within brown and black communities, and the alternate shapes it takes there. It might seem unnecessary in a book that is focused on combating whiteness, but if the answer to inclusion is “listen to brown/black women,” then it is worth considering which brown and black women. For example, NRI savarna women, often quick to cry “racism,” have been known to use an imaginary “Hinduphobia,” to support Islamophobic, casteist and patriarchal policies and practices back in India. I say this as a savarna NRI myself, and I acknowledge my complicity and privilege. Indeed, I would not be surprised, if many of them overlook the subtleties in the author’s arguments to find support for the “greatness” of Hinduism, and conveniently use them to blame colonialism for all the evils, while ignoring how the caste system and patriarchy both preceded the arrival of the British. White folks, eager to be “inclusive,” may well fall for these misdirections.

This however does not take anything away from the book itself. Rafia Zakaria more than acknowledges that non-white women face oppression due to systems and structures in their own cultures. What she is questioning, is the unconsidered usage of “white” solutions to these problems, and the tendency of white women to ignore the patriarchy in their own backyards in favour of playing saviour in foreign lands.

Contemporary feminism is missing a clear political frontier toward which to unite; it cannot exist simply as a force in search of an inchoate equality or the undefined eradication of patriarchy. We must unite behind specific political claims, and perhaps the most important of those claims is that the dominance of capitalism is bad for all women, even white women.

Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism

Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption is an essential read that calls for collective action and the rediscovering of the political soul of the feminist movement.

It is a book I enjoyed greatly, and which I will be recommending heartily to all my feminist friends. It is a book that has restored my faith in feminism, and given me hope that change, after all, is possible.

Thank you Rafia Zakaria, for writing this book.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Have you read any other books by either of the co-authors? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Book Review – Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

  1. I thought this book was absolutely top-notch — I reviewed it for Booklist and while I don’t specifically remember, I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t have given it a star. Rafia Zakaria breaks down everything so lucidly. Just a really, really great book.


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