When racism becomes a white person's issue

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Recently, I wrote an article on Daily Life about race representation in fashion, using it as a launching pad to delve into a discussion of how Western society regards the bodies of people of colour. Fashion, like other forms of pop culture, may well be regarded as somewhat silly and shallow, but it is there that our values are reflected right back at us.

To my surprise, my article drew strong criticism on Twitter from some prominent white feminists who were incensed that I would waste time and space writing about fashion when there were More Important Issues to deal with.

Race representation in popular culture may not be a blip on the radar of middle class white feminists - because it does not affect them - but for Women of Colour (WoC) who rarely see themselves reflected in magazines, it matters. A lot. Failing to consider this makes feminism dangerously irrelevant to many WoC. So much so, in fact, that many black women in the US have given up on the label altogether, preferring the term “womanist”.

In the early '90s, Elizabeth Spelman published Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought, in which she argued that feminism was marginalising WoC due to its tendency to ignore how race, class and ethnicity react with sexism to affect non-white women.

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Spelman wrote that for feminism to be inclusive, it had to acknowledge the unique experiences of WoC and allow them space to give their own accounts of their lives. She argued that feminism confuses “the condition of one group of women with the condition of all”. In other words it is extremely marginalising for white feminists, who occupy a position of relative privilege, to lecture WoC on which issues should be important to them.

There seems to be a prevailing view that a step forward for one is a step for all. The furor over Girls, Lena Dunham's breakthrough TV show, demonstrates how WoC are expected to “take one for the team”, even as they are excluded from the benefits of a supposed feminist victory.

Dunham's extraordinary success has been rightly hailed but, as criticism of the show's lack of characters from non-white, non-privileged backgrounds shows, it is a victory for some women only.

Although Dunham has tried to address this criticism, many white feminists seized on Dunham's words that she was simply writing about “people she knows”. But would feminists accept this as a valid excuse from men who leave women out of films? Is it ever OK for privileged men to only “write what they know"?

Caitlin Moran, when asked if she planned to discuss Girls' lack of racial diversity in an interview with Dunham responded, “Nope. I literally couldn't give a shit about it.”

Moran, one of feminism's major voices, and one which informed us  How to be a Woman , literally couldn't give a shit about the ongoing exclusion of non-white women in the public space. Clearly, Moran is unfamiliar with the words of African-American feminist Barbara Smith: “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of colour, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women – as well as white, economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandisement.”

As a woman of Arab-Muslim background I cannot divorce my experiences of being female from that of my race and religious background. While I am certainly pleased for Dunham at her success, I am also painfully aware that as a WoC - and a Muslim to boot - I cannot benefit in any meaningful way from it because it is a limited success that still actively excludes women like me.

As a writer I am fortunate to be given a public platform to express my views. Nonetheless, I find that whenever I write on issues of race and religion, I face such a strong backlash; it leaves me wondering if my work would attract the same hostility had a white woman penned it.

In one article, I criticised Israel's treatment of black Ethiopian Jews, only to have readers dismiss me as “biased” and “pushing another agenda” on the basis of my surname. As if an Arab is intrinsically incapable of objective, critical thought.

When I wrote about the blatant, and much-criticised , whitewashing in the film The Impossible, I was accused of “playing the race card” and having “an ulterior motive”.

Most recently, I lamented the direction of excessively patriotic Anzac Day commemorations, and was beset by furious readers who informed me that as a “foreigner” I had no right to talk about the Anzacs. Many wanted to know why I “even came here”. For what it's worth, I was two when my parents fled the Lebanese Civil War. I am now in my 30s and have been a citizen since the age of seven. I have never considered myself a foreigner in this my country.

It seems to me there will always be a portion of the population that will regard me with suspicion. To them, I will always be the "other". In this I am reminded of the powerful words of black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde: “I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the front upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

And it is precisely this that leads me to write about issues such as race representation in fashion and the erasing of people of colour in film. Because it is this marginalisation that allows criticism of me based on nothing but my skin colour and my last name to flourish. Is it so surprising people don't trust Arabs given that, on those rare occasions when we do make it to the screen, it is overwhelmingly as terrorists or religious fanatics?

Without an understanding of how various forms of oppression intersect, feminism is meaningless. Success for some women is not a success for feminism because if feminism benefits only some women, some of the time, then that feminism is no feminism at all.

Ruby Hamad is a contributing author to the anthology 'Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat', which she will be launching 7pm Monday May 20th at The Surry Hills Community Centre.