Rafia Zakaria has been continually pigeonholed by White women into playing the role they expect of her. Her third book, Against White Feminism, is a response to this. Drawing from her own experiences as a Brown woman, who fled her abusive husband with her daughter, and then worked as an immigration lawyer and for Amnesty International, it is more than just a reframing of feminism; it is Zakaria holding truth to power.
Anyone can be a White feminist—they don’t need to be White, nor a woman—they just need to “buy into the idea of promoting White privilege and centering Whiteness,” as Zakaria says. While only some are malicious, the results of these policies, regardless of intent, are the same: Brown and Black women are pushed under—others decide what their problems are and what will “solve” them, while their actual issues remain unidentified, because they were never listened to or asked.
Zakaria’s book is part of a wave of recent publications attempting to describe this phenomenon. Ahead, we talk with Zakaria about how white feminism works, the forgotten origins of the term “empowerment” and how this worldview has impacted her own life.
How has White Feminism decided the fates of Brown women?
There is this situation where the Great White Women of the United Nations and a number of international NGOs decided they’re going to replace Indian women’s existing wood-burning stoves in rural Rajasthan. It was assumed the Indian woman wants a career, that she does not want to be out there doing this physical task of gathering wood. They spent hundreds of millions on this, and Indian women, by and large, refused to use these stoves.
When they finally got around to asking these women why they weren’t using these stoves, the answers were: First of all, I like going out to collect wood, because all the women of the village do it together, and it’s our time to talk to each other and replenish the sisterhood. Number two, I don’t want to be a wage earner—I like my life. The only job I can do is to break rocks at some construction site, and I don’t want to go out and break rocks. That’s horrible. I’d rather cook, so I like to use this stove. More than that, your stove keeps breaking down: I live hundreds of miles from the nearest city, but my stove, I can make it, repair it, do whatever to it.
It didn’t occur to the officials that other women put different values on different things that aren’t a capitalist, wage labor idea of empowerment.
You wrote that empowerment originated from Brown feminists, right?
Yes, empowerment was a term Brown feminists developed to describe a political struggle against all patriarchal institutions. Empowerment has been distilled by White feminists down to what it is now: a technocratic term of art, where you can give chickens or a clean stove or any old random thing you can come up with, and then women will be empowered. The political was taken out of this question.
Empowerment is also a feminist branding tool, from “putting on these sneakers will make you empowered”; “wear this sports bra”—empowered; “wear this lip gloss”—more empowered. It’s become things that you buy, instead of things you do and struggles you participate in.
Trickle-down feminism doesn’t work: You can’t make Afghan women feminist by bombing them and giving them money for schools; you can’t make women in poor immigrant communities in the U.S. feminist by telling them, “You should go to thisprogram,” as if they have no concept how to empower themselves. This has to stop.
How has this bled into your life?
While I was staying in a shelter, I learned about the absolute absurdity of trickle-down feminism—the requirements grant-making institutions wanted shelter employees to meet were completely disconnected from the experience of an abused woman in a shelter.
Also, as I was in an abusive relationship with someone who was Muslim and not White, it was assumed the violence I suffered was the consequence of “honor violence,” as opposed to being simple abusive-jerk violence.
I, as a Brown person, still try not to follow the pre-created notion that a White person will not understand race-related aspects of my life. You want to believe these people, who have very progressive politics, who espouse every woke position you can ever think of.
Everything is prefaced with, “This is nothing to do with race,” right? And that’s my most hated sentence of all time. You, as a White person, don’t get to decide that. I’m the person who’s in the Brown body; I’m the person who gets asked to show ID if I’m in a fancy hotel or wherever White culture has deemed I don’t belong. Those things happen to Brown people all the time. You know, the reason they do that is because we’re most likely to say, “Okay”—they’re aware of their privilege.
You’ve said in other interviews how hard it was to get this book published—including how your previous literary agent said it would never sell to both publishers and readers. How does the industry continue to keep authors of color down?
White feminism happens when you shut down Brown authors without giving any due consideration to their views and their perspective. It happens when a Brown author’s book comes up for review, and they can’t flash elite magazine bylines, so it isn’t reviewed. It happens in these silent ways that are never visible to the rest of the world, so people think, Well, this Brown or Black author’s book didn’t get reviewed in these top publications, because the book just wasn’t good enough. BIPOC authors can never raise their qualms in public, because they will be rejected as sour grapes. The knives are all being stuck into the livelihoods and writing of minority authors very surreptitiously.
When a White person is criticizing any BIPOC author, they often don’t think it’s because of race. That lack of self-reflection in that equation, that lack of pausing and saying, “Would I say this to a White person?” needs to be asked more often.
One of the most disappointing moments I’ve had as a Brown feminist was when I got to interview someone I’ll call a Great White Feminist Author, whom I admire so much. She had selected one of my essays for an anthology. It truly, truly, absolutely meant the world to me! When I spoke to her, I said, “Thank you so much for including my essay. It meant so much to me; it was so encouraging at a time when I wasn’t feeling particularly confident.”
And she goes, “You know, I tried my hardest to include as many women of color as possible on that list.”
I was just crushed. My heart broke into a million different pieces. It seemed to me, from the way she said it, her intent going in was to have a majority of women of color. When you say you’re trying to do that, it ends up meaning, if there was a fair competition, I probably wouldn’t be on this list. It commoditizes the inclusion of women of color as a virtue signal. It becomes this intra-White conversation, where she, a White woman, and the White women who are going to read it are going to say, “What an awesome White woman,” because she’s so open to including women of color.
She’s not the only White feminist who’s done this to me, but I still struggle with that, because I still admire her. It was and is such an unthinkingly racist thing to do. She essentially affirmed every White person who thinks that the only time Black, Brown, Asian authors are selected for anything is because they’re Black, Brown, Asian. Not because they’re good.
So many Black, Brown, Asian authors, especially if they dare criticize The New York Times [as Zakaria has], can be buried or get a small, tiny paragraph, which is fine, because, as a BIPOC author, you’ve been kicked around a lot by the time you publish a book like this. You develop a Teflon exterior, but why should I be expected to have this? Why are these books put into a niche?
The question should be, What are we going to do to change this? and whether the people committed to being allies are going to literally put their dollars behind their words, and buy and talk about these books, make them part of the larger discourse.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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