Awhile ago, I was involved in a great but challenging debate with some of my intellectual superiors on the issue of ‘White feminism’. The initial discussions revolved around feminist imperialism (or imperialist feminism). A discussant equated this with ‘White feminism.’ This assertion, made in passing, was problematized by a White Muslim female revert, who found the term, in fact, ‘racist’. It immediately triggered an impassioned debate about the use of Whiteness as a socio-political category and a descriptively pejorative classification for a [large] brand of feminism. Most of the arguments struck against the point that to refer to a brand of feminism under the auspices of Whiteness was racist. If we could accept Women of Color feminism or Black feminism, then could we not accept White feminism as a feminism that is entrenched not in skin color but a history of privilege and imperialism? After all, the Third Wave of feminism emerged as a response to the Whiteness of feminism, making an effort to respond to the many intellectual and thought potholes left by preceding generations that served to be exclusionary. During the discussion, slightly upset by the denial of White Privilege’s more than peaking presence in feminism, I maintained: White Feminism’ as a term is not racist, in the least. It was and remains a diagnosis for a feminism which was and is.
One of my main arguments was countering a point made by the discussant who problematized the use of ‘White feminism.’ She claimed that her Whiteness was overshadowed by her physical appearance as a practicing Muslim woman. To this, I responded (with much intrigue):
I think it’s interesting to think that Whiteness can be somewhat compromised or completely erased by entering Islam. I think, personally, the only real bit of legitimacy (to an extent) to that perspective comes when there’s a burdened visual to accompany one’s Muslimness — and a very particular visual at that (the hijab and her sisters). Other than that, I don’t think one’s whiteness or even perceived whiteness can easily be so shed. Nor can white privilege. And, of course, this works both ways — even class privilege cannot fully erase bigotry against so-called “people of color” who have ‘attained’ it — if anything, it just can just hide it until the quiet moments where it does rear its ugly head. Class doesn’t always necessarily trump race, despite what the Marxists may say.
And let us not forget the privileges that come from being white within our large and diverse Muslim community (with, obviously, some disadvantages and condescending assumptions). Both white in skin tone (fair complexions, etc) and white as a socio-political category and heritage.
I realize this sounds fatalistic: that we can never ‘escape’ what privileges us and what disadvantages us in relation to our skin color and our epistemic history and memory. I don’t mean to speak without exceptions or in absolutes.
I do, however, think we should not and cannot underestimate the power of both owned and perceived privilege and treat it as something extremely flexible and fluid through which one can move in and out. The near-fastened nature of white privilege is exactly why the Third Wave emerged. It is exactly why the term ‘White Feminism’ (and also ‘women of color’) was brought about.
Since this discussion, however, I couldn’t help but think about White Privilege in the setting of not only Muslims, as a social group, but from the perspective of faith. From perspective of faith–there lies no difference between myself and a Muslim from either the socio-political category of Black or of White. Before God and with one another, we are all equal. Yet there is something to be said about the inequalities which are so historically, socially and institutionally embedded within both physical society and our individual and collective psyches, that I wondered how such God-centric equality could be achieved.
From there, I also thought more about the point of the headscarf erasing Whiteness. While I disagree it ‘erases’ Whiteness, I have come to believe that it certainly puts Whiteness and White privilege in a flux — which is, in of itself, an interesting socio-historical phenomenon. And, mind you, I speak of this flux as primarily in relation to non-racialized society, outside the Muslim domain. Within the Muslim domain, Whiteness is a whole other issue which permeates through imperialism, beauty and other’ing.
While many may argue that ‘racism’ against Muslims is non-existent since to be Muslim is to be a practitioner of a faith and not part of a race, the fact of the matter is that Muslims have become racialized bodies. In other words:
Racialization refers to processes of the discursive production of racial identities. It signifies the extension of dehumanizing and racial meanings to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group.Put simply, a group of people is seen as a “race”, when it was not before.
I went for Wikipedia because I felt that was the best short definition I could find at the moment. Thus, racialization refers to the process by which non-racial groups are made into a race by virtue of how they are represented and spoken about. The key part of the above definition is ‘dehumanizing’ — racialization is not, in anyway, a positive transformation of a group. It is, in fact, the attempt to destroy a group by placing it within the arbitrary but fixed confines of the socially constructed ‘race’ category. Europe serves as a prime example of where such racialization has taken place in the past (European Jewry) and is currently taking place (Roma, Muslims). Also, on a slight tangent, there is I would argue (and perhaps it is painfully obvious to those who enjoy critical race theory and social power relations) also the process of racialization of non-White/Anglo immigrants in Euro-American societies (into a single Immigrant race).
Thus, if we accept Muslim bodies to be racialized bodies, does then coming into the faith, specifically from the vantage point of privilege, racialize the non-racialized as well?
It’s okay. Take an Advil.
What I mean to say – when a White woman, a White man converts to Islam, does s/he lose a large part of his/her privilege? I’m more inclined to say no than yes — but then I want to further ask: what of physical indicators of faith and piety? Does the headscarf racialize? Does the beard? Does fasting racialize? What about taking the time to pray in a non-racialized environment of privilege? Does a woman, physically discernible as Muslim, face a greater degree of racialization than her male counterparts in faith due to the effects of gender on race perception and treatment as well as the role and imagery of Muslim women in creating that ‘discursive’ tradition that renders Islam a racial category?
Whiteness cannot be erased for all socio-political intents and purposes (yet?), but can it be compromised by adoption of not only a racialized physical appearance but a racialized set of beliefs? And I don’t mean ‘adoption’ in that White hipster appropriation kinda way.
These are just some thoughts that have been swimming in my head lately as I try to unravel what Whiteness means to me and how I, as a person of faith with many layers of interlocked and subverted privileges and disadvantages, can engage with it in an earnest way so that I can move forward from intellectual reductionism and fatalism. Still working through ideas and challenging much of what I’ve said here already.
Looking forward to your thoughts.