I had more messages than usual after posting about Natalie Portman yesterday on Instagram for questioning the basis of the lavish praise she got for wearing a Dior dress embroidered with the names of women directors not nominated for an Oscar this year.
I got messages along the lines of…
Well, it’s better than doing nothing, isn’t it?
We have to start somewhere, change takes time…
If people criticise like this, then it will scare other people off speaking up
I’ve had a good think about this. First of all — Natalie is a multi millionaire, influential, white woman. She can handle some critique.
Natalie Portman has her own production company and has hired zero women, apart from herself.
She has money and power — so wearing a Dior dress and pointing at some names on it rings hollow. She could be using her power to hire talented people from minorities that are routinely overlooked.
Also, she has been heaped with praise. The gesture is palatable, fashionable and doesn’t offend mainstream sensibilities. Can we compare and contrast that with the treatment that other celebrities have faced when making a stand against racism?
In 2017 American football player Colin Kaepernick, was among the first players to kneel during the pregame US national anthem in protest against extrajudicial killings of black people by police, sparking protests. Since then, Kaepernick has been unable to find a team to sign him as the NFL wanted to distance itself from the protests.
Also in 2017, black trans model and activist Munroe Bergdorf was dropped from L’Oreal’s diversity campaign (the first to feature a trans model). The brand did not want to be associated with her after a media storm which saw her branded as “anti-white” for statements that she made concerning the complicity of white people in widespread racism.
So, when rich white women are held up as models of feminism, it pisses people off who may be materially penalised for more meaningful actions.
The underlying point of all of this is that if your feminism doesn’t extend to fighting for the rights of black people, disabled people, trans people it is just white supremacy with a feminist veneer. Similarly, if your anti racism excludes women then it is equally problematic. The word for all of this is intersectionality, a theory intoduced by academic Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989.
I do understand that when people like Natalie Portman are criticised it makes people scared that they will be singled out if they make a stand on inequality and don’t ‘get it right.’ First of all, is it really so bad if someone points out a flaw in your argument? I reposted a story on Instagram from Laila Woozeer — a queer person of colour. If someone with lived experience of sexism, racism, critiques a very rich influential woman, I’d say that’s fair enough. If we’re so scared of being criticised that we say silent, it just serves to stifle discussion about important issues.
There’s a name for it — white fragility. As white people we are so insulated from speaking about difficult issues concerning race that it feels very risky and uncomfortable to enter into the fray. But enter we must! The first step is to start listening to the experiences of people who live and breathe the experience of sexism, racism, homophobia and all the rest of it.
If you do see yourself as a feminist, it’s not enough to keep quiet. And it’s perfectly possible to stand up for what you believe in while also staying humble and being open to critique from people who are really fighting for the same things as you. And, as a white feminist you are probably more likely to get rape or death threats from an anonymous male troll for speaking your mind than you are to be harmed by someone more ‘woke’ than you (as happened to Mary Beard, Caroline Criado Perez).
If you are up for learning more, some people I follow (on her and on Instagram)that have excellent insights are: @novareid Laila Woozeer, Aja Barber, @munroebergdorf, michael a. estrada 🌸, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle