Against White Feminism
- By Rafia Zakaria
- W.W. Norton & Company
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Sarah J. Trembath
- September 25, 2022
It’s time to reimagine — and reinvent — a crucial movement.
Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption is an extraordinary book with an unfortunate title.
Or is the title unfortunate?
My (mostly white) undergraduate students told me that they would see the title, pick up the book, and read it. My group of Black women writer friends said they’d do the same. I’m not sure I would have, though.
To me, the book’s title invokes hashtag activism, woke sloganeering, and meme-culture rhetoric. Part of its subtitle — Notes — suggests that the book’s contents will be similarly reductive. But what’s between the covers of Against White Feminism is actually revelatory and necessary. It’s also very well written. Zakaria’s prose is consistently engaging and sometimes beautiful. The author deals almost exclusively with complexities, but her delivery is never unclear.
My students and friends were right.
Zakaria is a lauded writer with a unique ability to mesh the political, historical, and personal with good storytelling. Against White Feminism — eight essays sandwiched between an intro and conclusion that read like manifestos — addresses an array of interrelated topics, each building upon the others in support of the author’s purpose here: Zakaria wants white women to see the world through the eyes of other people, and she wants to normalize race conversations within feminism.
She also hopes to move woke feminism beyond call-out culture into important conversations, and to move feminists from being “reactive” to being “transformative.” She wants what she calls “whiteness” — and what I call “whiteliness” — to go away and make room for a holistic feminist movement in which women of all social strata, races, and religions can bring their concerns and talents to the table.
Each chapter is framed in a personal moment in the author’s life or a current event to which she’s bearing witness: the othering of women of color in social or professional contexts; white saviorism in global NGOs; the manner in which capitalism coopts social-justice movements; sex-positive feminism, and what it gets right and wrong; the hypocrisy of the white Western gaze upon misogyny in non-Western nations; racism in the upper ranks of the most prominent feminist organizations; and more.
Via cross-cultural analyses, Zakaria traces all that she hopes to reveal back to colonial precedents and then all over the globe. She often frames her thinking through the words of her muses or the experiences of women whom she’s encountered along the way. The result is that the book offers a real education on rare topics, and it does so with an intimate touch that elevates it above the less-dimensional work of academic and database scholars. In many ways, this book feels like a gift.
Zakaria’s personal history is international in scope and truly variegated. It includes law degrees and prominent positions in important organizations, as well as poverty, domestic violence, and single parenting. Despite the gritty nature of many of the author’s subtopics (forced hysterectomies, clitorectomies, intimate partner violence, and so on), nothing here evokes pity.
The richness of Zakaria’s life and the lives of the women to whom she exposes readers informs every page. It also situates her perfectly for the critique she has undertaken: that white feminists need to “consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns, agendas, and beliefs, as being those of all of feminism and all of feminists.” She continues:
“The book is directed at pointing out what must be excised, what must be broken down, in order for something new, something better, to take its place…[Its goal] is not to expel white women from feminism, but to excise whiteness, with all its assumptions of privilege and superiority, so as to foster the freedom and empowerment of all women.”
These are enormous goals. But Zakaria’s project is clearly blessed by the collective wisdom of the survivors she serves and by her quoted muses: Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Indian feminist Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, Egyptian writer Huda al-Sha’arawi, Bengali writer Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and others. Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” is an especially present conceptual frame and inspiration. In a way that would have pleased her muses, Zakaria surely has brought the tools of Black and brown women to this project of tearing down the old in order to build something better.
The chapters are tough reads at times. Emotionally, I mean. This is likely especially true for white readers who remain entrenched in mainstream feminism without having critically questioned it. Zakaria masterfully exposes hypocrisy where she finds it, even among the leadership of sacred feminist organizations like NOW, the Association of American University Women, and the Feminist Majority Foundation. But those white feminists who make it through the book, buoyed its prose and the insight, will be rewarded.
Zakaria has taken her best swing at the whiteliness of a movement she hopes to make viable for all women. And she never caves into the temptation to pander to white fragility or to prematurely bridge gaps. But she makes it clear that she envisions an inclusive, pluriversal, mainstream feminism. She writes:
“When I look around me today, I see too many women of color turning away from feminism. In some cases, they are saying goodbye to mainstream feminism in order to build more specialized movements: Muslim feminisms, Black feminisms, queer feminisms. These smaller groups have a powerful role to play, but we also need to create a space where different tribes can work together on issues that affect us all and, vitally, where they can lend one another equally ardent support for issues that do not affect us all…such that every woman who calls herself a feminist, of any race, class, nationality, or religion, can see a path forward and a reason to stay.”
As a 52-year-old Black writer and teacher who’s been radically politically engaged for 35 years or so, I absolutely fall into the category of the women who said goodbye to the idea of calling herself feminist. But three decades after caving to my disgust with elitist feminism, I could see myself reclaiming the title feminist…if it were Zakaria’s feminism. The vibrancy of her offering and the persuasiveness of her call to action have rearranged some of my thinking.
But will the (whitely) white feminists even pick this book up, what with its title and all? In the words of one of my students, yes, they will. “We want to be good allies,” this student explains. “Don’t we?”
So, Against White Feminism, then, is an extraordinary book with a title that will prick the consciouses of white women who want to be good allies. And it’s a validation for all women of color who’ve felt disconnected from the movement and are open to reconsidering feminism. It’s an education, a great read, and a lush and compelling book.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]
Sarah Trembath is an editor, writer, performance artist, and educator. Her work has appeared in the 1455 Literary Arts magazine, Voicemale, the Santa Fe Writer’s Project Quarterly, the Rumpus, Everyday Feminism, Sally Hemings Dream zine, Azure literary journal, DCist, and the Grace in Darkness anthology of DC women writers. Her first book, a collection of poetry and prose on coloniality, race, and class called This Past Was Waiting for Me, came out in 2018, and her chapbook of poems, It Was the Scarlet that Did It, came out in 2019. She is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia and Howard University in DC and is on faculty in the Writing Studies Program at American University.