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White populist feminism makes intersectionality nearly impossible

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Over the past few years, populist politics have been on the rise across the western world. Few, however, have noticed the rise of populist feminism, a mainstream feminism that espouses to speak for and on behalf of all women, but essentially speaks for and on behalf of white, middle-class, cis-gendered and able-bodied women.

As a feminist, critical race media scholar, populist feminism is, in my opinion, more detrimental to women than patriarchy. Where patriarchy, in a structural sense, is often defined in terms of (white) male domination, feminism is supposed to be geared toward the political, economic, cultural advancement of, and personal and social rights for, women. Populist feminism, however, tries to achieve this by either neutralizing any and all differences among and between women, or tries to speak for all women on matters related to their bodies, especially motherhood.

When Iqra Khalid, a Liberal MP stood up in the House of Commons on February 16, telling the country's elected officials that she had received more than 50,000 emails most of which were death threats and insults in response to M-103, an Anti-Islamophobia Motion that was tabled by the Liberal Party, the media was quick to insert white women such as Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, Alberta Conservative MP Michelle Rempel and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne into Khalid's story because they, too, have received "hateful," mostly sexist messages.

While it is important to shed light on the challenges facing women in public office, the idea that Khalid, as a Pakistani-Muslim Canadian woman, would have similar experiences to her white colleagues and that her life story would and could be measured against theirs is the very definition of populist feminism.

Instead of acknowledging her positionality as a racialized and visibly marked woman in a majority white federal government, her body, literally and figuratively, was whitewashed -- as though the threats she faces are of no greater or lesser significance than her white woman counterparts. This is disingenuous at best, insulting at worst.

The recent uproar over Beyoncé's pregnancy photographs and Grammy performance is also an example of how populist feminists believe that they are the arbiters and gatekeepers of "proper" public displays of "true" womanhood.

On February 2, Rosie Millard, writing for the online British newspaper Independent proclaimed, "Hey Beyonce, as a mum of four let me tell you this isn't what pregnancy looks like." In a February 18 article in the New York Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley also argued that in Beyoncé's case, having a baby "isn't a miracle." She then asked the question, "Why is it that in an era when women are constantly insisting that they should not be defined by their traditional, biological roles, we have fetishized motherhood to such an extent?"

These comments remind me of Linda Alcoff's 1991-1992 article, "The Problem of Speaking for Others," in which she wrote, "not only is location epistemically salient, but certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous."

In other words, when privileged women speak for or on behalf of the less privileged, it has the result of increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for. While Beyoncé is certainly not an "oppressed" woman in terms of her socioeconomic class, racially, there are very few, if any, arenas in the public sphere of western culture where Black women's bodies are exalted, celebrated or idealized. The "we" in Riley's piece, therefore, reflects a desire to protect the parameters of (white) motherhood. It is not a neutral and fair critique of Beyoncé as a performer.

In 1991, when Demi Moore appeared nude and seven-months pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair in an Annie Leibovitz photograph; and in 2012, when Jessica Simpson reprised this motif on the cover of Elle, people may have thought both images were distasteful, but there were no attacks on motherhood. When a black woman does the same thing -- minus the nudity -- populist feminists are outraged because it challenges the "we" and "us" of speaking for others.

Many of my students at the University of Toronto Mississauga who are racialized, queer, Muslim, and in some cases all of the above, often feel disconnected from today's feminism. They are tired of the lens for which populist feminists use to critique the actions and bodies of the non-white; they are also frustrated by the lack of intersectionality.

In 1995, Kimberlé Crenshaw argued that an intersectional approach to feminism is necessary if we are to account for the multiple identities that shape how the world is constructed. Similarly, in her book Body as Evidence, Janelle Hobson notes that if we are to dismantle the hegemonic discourses of race, class, gender and nation that frame our perceptions of feminism and seek to define what might constitute a feminist agenda, we will then be one step closer to building a global feminism.

If feminists continue to speak for all without recognizing the varying structures of oppression and cultural nuances that are interrelated, overlapping and inseparable, feminism as we know it will continue to silence the increasing numbers of women worldwide who are not white, middle class, cis-gendered and able bodied.  

Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American writer best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God once said, "Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me."

Why so many feminists still continue to deny themselves the pleasure of the company of all women is, too, beyond me.

Cheryl Thompson has a PhD from McGill University. She is the 2015-2016 Recipient of the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship which she holds at the University of Toronto. She also teaches courses in Black Canadian Studies, Visual Culture, Media and Identity, and Transnational Feminism. She can be found on Twitter @DrCherylT.

Image: Facebook/Iqra Khalid

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