In the aftermath of the Miley Cyrus scandal in late August of this year, I noticed a piece on Jezebel titled “Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of her VMA Performance.” It was the first article I’d read–of what turned out to be many–arguing that Cyrus’s use of black women “as props” was more problematic than any of the sexual gestures and irresponsibility she was generally being called to task for.
While the overarching sentiment of the article has since been widely echoed across the Internet, what stuck with me the most was the term “#solidarityisforwhitewomen” (which was appropriated and changed for the title of the Jezebel piece). I dug around, followed links and fell down an Internet wormhole reading about the creation and implications of the term. Mikki Kendall, a black female blogger, created this Twitter hashtag.
In her piece explaining the creation of the hashtag, Kendall argues that:
Feminism as a global movement meant to unite all women has global responsibilities, and – as illustrated by hundreds of tweets – has failed at one of the most basic: it has not been welcoming to all women, or even their communities.
She begins to unpack the racial history of feminism (and its lack of focus on women of color), but only emphasizes recent history. Her specific call to prominent “Internet feminists,” most of who are white women, magnifies a somewhat myopic viewpoint and undermines the historical importance of her hashtag.
In the early days of feminism, at the beginning of the 19th century, the feminist movement focused solely on the education of middle-class women (Estelle B. Freedman, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and The Future of Women). During this time, however, slavery was still a very real institution in the United States. So, as a result, the middle-class elite (read: white women) were arguing for education for women but ignoring a very large segment of the community they were supposedly fighting for. Even during the abolitionist movement, there were anti-slavery groups that were comprised solely of white women, underscoring this implied notion that black women weren’t needed to join the feminist movement; they were still in their own, lesser class. As Jezebel’s Lindy West put it, “A lot of the first-wavers were totally racist, plus they were still pretty into the idea that a woman’s job is shutting up and scrubbing stuff. But, you know, nobody’s perfect.”
Maybe Kendall is right in focusing her complaints only on the recent past. Perhaps it makes more sense to speak to today’s generation of feminists using relevant examples that they can relate to. But the larger issue is this: the lack of intersectionality amongst feminist communities isn’t self-sustaining. Women of color have historically been marginalized within feminist movements, causing infighting and an astounding lack of solidarity. If white feminists can’t recognize this inequality amongst their own ranks, any step forward is going to continually be met by racial barriers. Miley Cyrus may be the latest culprit of undermining women of color in a quest to assert her own femininity, but she won’t be the last. If we can’t (or won’t) talk about race at the same time we argue for equality for all, we aren’t really talking about equality. Ignoring this fact will lead to the self-cannibalization of the feminist movement that Kendall pointed out (and also helped to sustain).
— Bailee Martin