This weekend, I came across an article on the Huffington Post in which a feminist unfavorably compared a real-life feminist woman of color to a fictional white feminist character. I took to Twitter, and my fears were confirmed — it isn’t snark. This is a piece that seriously posits Beyoncé as the the Big Bad Too-Sexy-Not-Feminist-Enough, with the alternative being Leslie Knope.
To call Beyoncé “unfavorably compared” here would be a cop-out. The piece uses alleged flaws and shortcomings in Beyoncé’s feminism to make the description of Leslie Knope’s feminism look better. To salt the wound, it goes on to praise how Leslie Knope “encourage[s] women to support one another”.
There was absolutely no need to go after Beyoncé since Leslie Knope’s feminism is awesome. It doesn’t need a foil, especially not a racialized one that relies on respectability politics. I’m not going to claim that mesh & leather are inherently feminist by any means, but all of my nope-without-a-K goes out to racialized pearl-clutching about dancing and clothing.
The writer of the piece is senior editor at I AM THAT GIRL, a site that does seem to try for racial inclusivity at first glance. She was nice enough, if full of non-sequitors about cis feminism and a multitude of voices, when I tweeted at her about the problems with her piece.
This goes out to not only her, but also to other white feminist women with platforms who might be reading this (if any): You can do better.
As feminists, you must know how unquestioned biases work when it comes to promoting gender privilege. Apply that to race with the realization that, this time, you’re the privileged one. A bitter pill to swallow, but it’s still, like it or not, the medicine for what ails feminism.
I am a woman of color, but I am not black. Like you, I once didn’t realize the disproportional and misogynoir-tinged nature of my criticism of black women. I now double- and triple-check my mental comparisons of white feminists to black feminists, since my biases aren’t obvious to myself — and I still am learning basic things. Even legitimate criticism needs to be weighted in careful consideration of historical and contemporary context.
If we truly want an inclusive and intersectional feminism, being nice to critics is not enough. Encouraging women of color to write responses on their blogs in response to white women’s problematic pieces on the HuffPo is not enough. Simply saying that we need lots of voices is not enough. Pictures on your site that show a woman of color or two are not enough.
None of that is enough.
Consider that the fictional character you’re elevating in this game of More Feminist Than Thou is played by an actress who has done some, at best, racially questionable things in the name of comedy.
Consider how hard it must have been for Beyoncé, as a person of color, to say that she’s a feminist despite feminism’s shoddy record in engaging on racial issues — especially when it comes to the bodies of women of color.
Consider that other pop singers have been defended by feminists when they actively and vehemently denied that they are feminists. Meanwhile, Beyoncé is still being criticized for not being feminist enough even after she sampled a feminist author in one of her singles and then integrated the sample into her performance at a mainstream awards show.
Once again, with feeling: White feminists rushed to Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift’s defense against criticism of their explicitly vocalized disdain for feminism, but Beyoncé literally dancing in front of the word at the VMAs is not enough to satisfy her white feminist critics.
Consider that straw-manning those of us who take Beyoncé at her feminist words and actions as thinking she’s the only feminist ever is a hindrance to fostering inclusivity within feminism.
And if you won’t listen to me, will you listen to a fellow white woman? Or think of what Leslie Knope would think of tearing down another woman in order to build her up? I don’t think she would approve.
And for the record? A long-sleeved, high-necked leotard leaves plenty to the imagination. This queer lady certainly noticed how much of Beyoncé was covered up for that awesome VMA performance.