In September of 2014, Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and delivered a speech to the UN that called for greater global gender equality. Pretty predictably, the Internet lost its shit, trying to claim that the moment was a huge blow against inequality and the start of a new wave of feminism. Then, a few really intelligent people thought for a little and explained why it was bullshit.
Okay, that’s an overstatement. Watson’s speech was sincere and eloquent, and her desire to start the #HeforShe campaign came with the very best intentions. She’s also a young woman who’s still forming her thoughts and opinions, learning more about feminism and the world, and trying to do the best she can with the miles of privilege she has. Fair enough.
But the fact of the matter is that her speech and campaign do have some serious flaws – most notably in the fact that they’re just parroting White Feminism, which is all about the (white) wage gap, proving that feminists don’t hate men, and talking over people of color, people with disabilities, and anyone else that isn’t them. Watson basically proved she’s a part of this crowd in her most recent #AskEmma Twitter conversation when someone asked if she considers herself a White Feminist. In trying to defend her supposedly intersectional ways, she resorted to saying she couldn’t be racist because her bosses are black, said she didn’t need to check her privilege because she’s already mentioned that in a speech before, and pulled a Taylor Swift by essentially agreeing to be the gatekeeper/note passer for any black person that wanted to be heard. It was a lot to take in.
So I don’t want to vilify Watson. I don’t want to take her down a peg, and I don’t want to contribute to woman-on-woman criticism, but I’m having a hard time taking her seriously when she’d rather get defensive than listen and accept others’ criticism. After all, intersectionality doesn’t mean that you know the word exists and you take pictures hugging black people every once in a while. Rather, it means embracing the many ways people are oppressed and addressing them simultaneously with equal respect. There is no hierarchy of oppression that says we have to make sure that white women are paid as much as white men before turning to preventing the rampant sexual abuses of Native American women. White women should be able to make others’ suffering a priority and see that equality for all does not mean less for them. And if it’s more important that you, a white woman, defend yourself against racism than say, “I can see where these criticisms come from, and I agree that I can work on X, Y, and Z,” then you don’t understand intersectionality, and you are a White Feminist.
But you don’t have to stay a White Feminist. You can acknowledge your mistakes. You can vow to do better, and that doesn’t mean that you’re wrong – it just means that you can do better. So, please, Emma Watson and all the other well-meaning white women out there (myself included), do better.