October 13, 2020 (Updated )
In the months following the killing of George Floyd, we’ve seen an influx of articles in mainstream publications addressing racism and the Black experience – subjects that, in the past, were more often found in specialist platforms that amplify Black voices, or during Black History month.
For Black female journalists in particular, having our experiences and expertise finally recognised as worthy of mainstream coverage is undoubtedly a good thing. This shift in priorities, prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, has created opportunities and amplified the voices of communities often marginalised from conversations. More coverage of anti-racism can help normalise difficult discussions and encourage readers to confront the atrocities that are happening on their doorsteps.
But, while brilliant Black female journalists have gained prominence writing thought-provoking, compelling racial justice pieces, White feminism in media environments can threaten this progress. A clear code of conduct needs to be established within the sector when discussing racial justice issues: a policy which irons out the dos and don’ts, and mitigates unintentional harm through actions that are perceived to be helpful.
What Is White Feminism And Why Is It A Problem?
The term White feminism refers to feminism that prioritises the experiences of white women. To summarise a long history of white feminism, the first, second and third waves of feminisms are now believed by many to have treated the experiences of Black, Asian and Indigenous women as an afterthought.
The British Suffragette movement, for example, secured the right of property-owning women over 30 to vote in 1918, but women from ethnic minorities (who were disproportionately unlikely to own property) didn’t receive the right to vote until 1928.
The persistent overlooking by feminism of the Black experience helped inspire the rise of Black Feminism in the 1970s, with Kimberlé Crenshaw coining the term Intersectional Feminism in 1989 to describe the massive variations in experience among women with regards to race and class.
Not only is White Feminism negligent in its omission of Black voices, it is also dangerous. In her 2019 book They Were Her Property, Stephanie E. Jones-Rodgers discusses the fact that 40 per cent of all slave owners were women, while half a million women joined the KKK after it launched a women’s branch in the 1920s.
Fast-forward to the present day and we see that the prejudice and complicity of some white women, sometimes dubbed “Karens”, can put Black people in danger. When white woman Amy Cooper was filmed calling the police to make false allegations against Christian Cooper, a Black man bird-watching in Central Park, we saw how the legacies associated with lynching Black men to protect white women were maintained.
How Can Journalists Spot White Feminism?
White feminism can be found lurking insidiously in the pages of our favourite women’s magazines, as well as national newspapers. For example, space is too often given to white female journalists to comment on racial justice topics, and white people’s narratives are frequently positioned above those with lived experiences. This not only demonstrates poor judgement from the individual writer, but also indicates oversight on the part of editors, and wider issues of representation in journalism.
Without personal commitment to challenging internalised biases, and the systems that operate to benefit whiteness, journalists are complicit. Allyship requires holding yourself perpetually accountable, and questioning if you are the right person to write a piece. It’s about creating paid opportunities for Black women, passing the mic, and holding your editors accountable.
“Without personal commitment to challenging internalised biases, and the systems that operate to benefit whiteness, journalists are complicit.”
Founding Editor of Aurelia Magazine Kya Buller says that commissioning writers to write about issues around race that don’t affect them is “misplaced and lazy”. She adds: “Pieces discussing racial justice should belong to the writers that are directly affected by our systemically racist society — BIPOC writers”.
Kya says making the right decisions about commissioning makes for better journalism. “That commission would have been a better, more informative, read if the editor had found the right writer for the piece,” she says. “I have seen pieces by white writers about ‘understanding their privilege’ published during the BLM movement that gained global attention and, while I understand the guilt must have been difficult, I have to ask whether or not these pieces were necessary. Where is the same energy now? Would we not have learned more if they had given that space to a Black writer?”
Eradicating White Feminism In Your Newsroom
Sometimes, this can make the newsroom an unwelcoming, even toxic environment. Vivian, a second-year journalism student at the University of Sheffield, agrees: “White journalists should not discuss racial justice issues. Period.”
Habiba Katsah, freelance journalist and staff writer at Restless Network, reflects: “I’ve worked in a lot of spaces like women’s magazines that are run by predominantly white women. People think they’re progressive and care about Black women but then hold a lot of problematic views.”
Shama Nasinde, freelance writer and music editor of Schön! Magazine, says: “In journalism, I’ve seen white feminism play out as easily taking offence to criticism, being defensive rather than open to critique and people trying to paint themselves as the victims — basically everything but taking accountability for the ways in which their feminism is harmful and non-inclusive. There’s lots of playing clueless too, which is no excuse in 2020.”
This puts Black women in the uncomfortable position of having to navigate these toxic situations. Shama continues: “I don’t call out this behaviour anymore, I just keep quiet. It’s a survival tactic every Black person in white spaces has to develop. If you complain, it will always be spun against you or you’ll get called aggressive, argumentative or confrontational. We’ve got bills to pay. You’d rather not address it than risk losing employment or making work relationships harder for yourself.”
“In journalism, I’ve seen White feminism play out as easily taking offence to criticism”
In recent months, we have seen performative allyship perpetrated by prominent players. Major publications have been criticised for offering opportunities to write about race to white writers instead of Black writers, and for lacking diversity on their staff. Major media brands like Glamour, Cosmo and ITV were also criticised for requesting unpaid contributions during Black History Month.
Kya explains: “I think that every team of editorial staff should be diverse, potentially avoiding situations like this. Pieces on racial justice deserve care, attention and nuance and often that can be given only by somebody with similar life experiences.
“I understand that white editors, especially recently, have acknowledged privilege and the need to commission more pieces on race, though. If I was to give tips, I’d say do the research, don’t expect your [Black] writer to educate you, allow the writer space to express themselves and centre how they feel. Don’t let the piece lose their voice.”
Introducing a code of conduct to advise on reporting on racial injustice would not be a move to restrict free speech; it could be a tool to enhance it, and ensure that free speech is equitable and representative of all those with a story to tell. How free is a speech reserved solely for privileged voices? This isn’t the first time Black female writers have demanded better from their white colleagues in the industry, but we need this time to be the last.