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Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay in Montreal in 2015. Photo by Eva Blue/Flickr/Creative Commons

Flawed and fierce

Feminist women of colour say radical inclusivity starts with owning the movement’s imperfections

By Hana Shafi

I stood among a sea of pink pussy hats. There were families marching. Elderly women with signs saying they had been protesting since the 1960s. Young women in groups with their girlfriends. Teens. Even men expressing solidarity. This was the Women’s March in Toronto in January, part of a worldwide movement of women’s marches. In Toronto, the estimated turnout was 60,000 people. Globally, the movement attracted millions of women in over 70 countries who were effectively telling the world we would not be silenced, we would not tolerate oppression, we would not accept a bigoted, racist, misogynistic president of the United States. But one thing must be noted: in this wave of pink, the faces were mostly white.

“How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do?” asks Roxane Gay in her New York Times bestseller Bad Feminist. While the book was published in 2014, Gay’s commentary is perhaps even more relevant today. The lack of diversity at the Toronto Women’s March reflects a larger problem with mainstream feminism: white women tend to dominate the conversation, leaving little space for those whose identities and experiences differ from their own. As we strive to build a movement that is radically diverse and inclusive, voices like Gay’s are helping to point the way.

Gay, a bisexual Haitian American who writes openly about body image (her new memoir, Hunger, comes out this month), shot to prominence with the release of Bad Feminist three years ago. In essays both scathing and compassionately understanding, she explores the imperfections and contradictions of contemporary feminism while still wholeheartedly embracing the movement as a liberating force. Gay dubs herself a bad feminist, a description that readers of the book will find hard to believe. It’s her self-awareness about her own shortcomings and problematic favourites — she confesses to loving the movie Pretty Woman — that makes her a good feminist. Is there really such a thing as a perfect feminist?

Gay highlights the need for intersectional feminism, a term coined by civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. If events like the Women’s March are to truly succeed in breaking down the divisions and hatred now being amplified by U.S. President Donald Trump, the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability must be explored. As Gay humorously puts it, “On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in my ass — being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both these things, but the world keeps intervening.”

It is strange how often feminism is presented as white and western. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the critically acclaimed novels The Thing Around Your Neck and Americanah, comments on this misconception in We Should All Be Feminists, a published version of her award-winning TED Talk. She recalls how, growing up in Nigeria, she was told that feminism was not part of the culture there, that it was “un-African.” I, too, have heard similar sentiments in my own South Asian and Middle Eastern community.

This notion that feminist activism is an inherently western thing — an inappropriate behaviour that white women engage in — ignores the fact that women of colour have a rich history in resisting oppressive systems. Women of colour have been at the forefront of gay rights, of civil rights, of independence movements in colonized lands, in preserving the traditions of cultures that have been almost eradicated by genocide and occupation. Yet these narratives have been so excluded from mainstream discussions of feminism that even our own people forget and somehow believe that feminism is a white woman’s invention. Where are our stories being told — not just our histories, but the stories of our present lives?

Through the writing of both Adichie and Gay, we see our stories being told. After all, these are women who are both proudly black and proudly feminist — two identities that have gone hand in hand throughout history. In their work, it is clear that at times feminism is seen as a white western concept simply because the language being used to describe it is white and western. Women’s equality, women’s strength and fearlessness, often goes by other names in other parts of the world.

Gay analyzes the idea that perhaps the very language of feminism is alienating to women of other backgrounds: “I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”

Though I felt empowered to be part of such a historic occasion as the Women’s March, I failed to see my story there. I cannot imagine the alienation that trans people must have felt among the ubiquitous pussy hats — the endless references to genitalia they may not have. This movement needs to be for them, too, and especially for trans women of colour, who are at greater risk of violence. There is comfort, security, relief in seeing one’s story represented.

“No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism.” This singular line of Gay’s defines contemporary feminism. What we can all — or at least a lot of us — agree on is that feminism, despite its imperfections, is necessary. It has always been necessary, long before Trump.

But those involved in the movement must admit about themselves what Gay has triumphantly admitted about herself: that we are bad feminists. This is not to absolve ourselves of responsibility or disregard criticism. Rather, we have to admit we are bad feminists in order to start asking ourselves how we can be better, how we can make this a stronger, more inclusive, more action-based movement. Those of us who talk a lot must start doing more listening so we can understand experiences beyond our own lives.

“Culture does not make people,” writes Adichie. “People make culture.” We, as inherently flawed and often inconsistent people, must still strive to make a culture of feminism that is intersectional, that is radical and that takes up as much space as possible until the cultures that oppress and divide us no longer have room to dictate our lives.

Hana Shafi is a writer and illustrator in Toronto.

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