White feminists have been criticised by Black and ‘Third World’ feminists for silencing and overgeneralizing their experience. White Feminists have attempted to universalize their experiences, applying theories of ‘patriarchy’, and ‘the family’, to ethnic women, regardless of social realities. Whilst doing so, they have silenced minority women, ignored ideological manifestations which oppress them, and had their attention diverted from the realities which essentialism shields. In three articles the contributions to feminist thought by Hazel V. Carby, Patricia Hill Collins, and Uma Narayan will be analysed, alongside their critiques of white feminist thinking.
Hazel V. Carby – Black Feminism
Liberal feminists advocate women gaining equal rights through means such as education (Wollstonecraft, 2015) and legal reforms (Mill, 1869). Carby (1999) does not believe legal reforms have been beneficial to all women, especially black women. For Carby, a significant amount of gender inequality is rooted in racist colonial ideologies held about specific racial groups (Carby, 1999). In the following section, the focus will be on racist ideologies at play in society, and Carby’s rationale as to why dominant white feminist concepts such as ‘patriarchy’, ‘the family, and ‘liberation’, cannot be adequately applied to the lives of black and ethnic women.
Walby defines patriarchy as a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women (Walby, 1990, p. 20). Carby argues the term ‘patriarchy’ needs to be developed to create a more complex definition (Carby, 1999). Black men suffer from the intersectionality of class, gender, and race. Racism ensures that black men do not have the same relationship to patriarchal/capitalist hierarchies as white men (Carby, 1999, p. 111).
This disparity between black and white men’s relationship to patriarchal/capitalist hierarchies is displayed well when you examine European society. The world is built on a racial contract which partitions white/non-white populations, this contract has been strengthened through 500 years of European domination and gradual global supremacy. This racial contract is evident in historical events like the voyage of ‘discovery’, and slavery. The racial contract is built into psyches making it exploitative; life chance for white are always significantly better than for non-whites (Mills, 1997, p. 13-37).
Variation in life chances can be seen when exclusion rates are examined, in 2014 the Department for Education found Black Caribbean pupils were over three times more likely to be permanently excluded than all other ethnicities in the school population combined (Department for Education, 2016, p. 7). The House of Commons Library, between January-December 2015 found that Black men had an unemployment rate of 12.2%, more than double white men’s unemployment rate of 4.9% (House of Commons Library, 2016). In other words, white feminists have attempted to overgeneralize white men’s privileged patriarchal status in capitalist society to all men. For Carby (1999) the disadvantaged position of many ethnic men is rooted in historical colonial ideologies such as those created about black men in the transatlantic slave trade. This trend of overgeneralisation continues with theories of the ‘family’.
Ansley (1972) is arguing about the nuclear family in her Marxist analysis of male partners using women as a source to relieve their frustrations against capitalist exploitation (cited in Bernard, 1972). This type of literature unintentionally reinforces the nuclear family as the norm, rendering the theory inadequate for explaining black women’s lives (Carby, 1999). Throughout time maintaining the mythical figure of the financially independent, white middle-class family organized around a monogamous heterosexual couple required stigmatising African-American families as deviant (Collins, 1991, p. 165).
According to Platt’s (2009) analysis of the British Labour Force Survey in 2008, 20% of the White population were in tradition ‘nuclear’ families, 16% of the Black Caribbean population, 25% of the Black African population, with the Bangladeshi population making up the largest number of tradition nuclear families with 52%. For White British, Black Caribbean’s, and Black Africans the single person family type made up the largest family unit (Platt, 2009). Carby is keen to highlight that women living in different kinship relations are not necessarily oppressed in the way that white women are in nuclear families (Carby, 1999). The United Kingdom is a melting pot of various family structures the 2011 Census showed, 12% of the adult population of England and Wales was living in a cohabiting couple, and 42% of the adult population was not living in a couple (Smith, 2014, p. 23-27). Theories popularized by white feminists around the nuclear family fail to account for most individuals in the UK. These theories also buy into the ideological myth of the nuclear family which has been proven not only to be a mythical standard but a factor to racial oppression (Uzoka, 1979; Lehr, 1999; Roy, 2001; Collins, 1991; Carby, 1999).
The western nuclear family structure and related ideologies of ‘romantic love’ formed under capitalism are more ‘progressive’ than black family structures (Carby, 1999, p. 113). By ‘progressive’ Carby means black family structures are perceived as ‘backwards’ in comparison to the nuclear family. Western culture and feminists have aided this racist ideology by creating notions of women in need of ‘liberation’ which do not stem from experience, reinforcing throughout that some women and some forms of family are ‘advanced’ (Carby, 1999). One example Carby (1999) utilises is arranged marriage, which has the accompanying ideology of the forced marriage to delegitimize it.
In forced marriage, the medias ‘horror stories’ about Asian girls bear very little to their real life experiences. The ‘feminist’ version of this ideology presents Asian women as needing liberation, not in terms of their own herstory and needs, but into the ‘progressive’ social mores and customs of the West (Carby, 1999, p. 114). In 2015 the Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,220 cases on Forced Marriage across the UK (Home Office, 2016) it is 1,220 cases on Forced Marriage as many of the cases were practitioners seeking information on Forced Marriage rather than an actual Forced Marriage case. This is a small number of cases in comparison to the UK population which the World Bank estimated in 2015 to be 65,138,23 thousand (World Bank, 2015). For Carby, this inappropriate polarization behind ‘liberation’ is a direct result of imperialism, exemplifies the lack of research into black and ethnic women’s lives (Carby, 1999).
In the next article examining Black & Third World feminists against white feminism, Patricia Hill Collins contributions will be examined.
By Shaneka Knight
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Carby, V. H. (1999). White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood. In J. Solomos & L. Back (Ed.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader (pp. 110-128). London: Routledge.
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