The future of feminism in the face of white supremacy: Why Hillary Clinton can’t be our hero

11/15/2016 11:24 am ET Updated May 01, 2017

By Avery Brien

This post originally appeared on Medium via Heller Forward.

The United States of America just elected a white supremacist, billionaire misogynist to lead our country. Exit polls indicate that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. Although this reality is complicated and nuanced, there are a few things we can say with near certainty:

  1. 53 percent of white women did not feel inspired by Hillary Clinton, her message, or her political career. This number does not include white women who voted for Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or those who chose not to vote at all.
  2. These women were not only uninspired by the Democratic nominee for President, but they gave their vote to a man who has preached sexual violence and is committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, which denies humans the right to bodily autonomy. These are examples of a patriarchal system sending messages to people that their oppression is okay.
  3. The construction of whiteness, which has been used by economic elites as a political tool to divide and conquer since before this country was founded, is still doing exactly that. I worry that even the white women, white queers, and white trans people who voted for Hillary Clinton don’t know this history, how to address it, or how to build a movement for intersectional liberation.

As I grapple with what this election means for me as a white, agnostic, genderqueer person with citizenship status and a working-class family, part of my brain-space has been focused on the future of mainstream feminism, a movement that has been white washed, a movement that has yet to see the nuances and intersections of human identity, and a movement that has yet to see beyond the dominant systems that oppress so many.

In the face of overt misogyny and the threat of fascism, the feminist movement must work harder than ever before. In order to be effective in dismantling patriarchy, dismantling white supremacy, and dismantling all systems that oppress us, mainstream feminism needs to change.

First of all, the 53 percent of white women who voted for a white supremacist, misogynist bigot carried identities beyond being a woman. This is important. In addition to being women, a lot of these women are straight. A lot of these women are cis-gender. Many of these women are poor or working-class. A lot of these women are rich. Maybe some of these women live on the brink of homelessness. Maybe some of these women battle mental illness. Addiction. Carry trauma. Some of these women are even survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner violence. Nevertheless, these women are white, and their whiteness influences their vote.

The whiteness that these women brought into the voting booth, that all white women bring into the voting booth, is the force that constructed the political system they engage in. It is the force that constructed our economic system which leaves some people poor and hungry. Historically, as imperialism destroyed indigenous cultures around the world, this whiteness is the force that built the patriarchy we currently live in.

When European colonists first settled in what would become the United States, they brought every piece of their white supremacist culture with them, including their misogyny. Including their transphobia. Homophobia. Classism. Xenophobia. Ableism. Their concepts of masculinity and femininity. Since the day we were born, white supremacy has told us how to be men and how to be women. It tells us that we can’t be anything else. White supremacy built capitalism. It tells us that people should be poor when they don’t try. It tells us that children should go hungry, if their parents don’t have a job. White supremacy pushes us to ask, “Well, how come you didn’t get a better education so you could be financially stable?” White supremacy strips us of our compassion. It tells us that housing isn’t a human right, that water can be destroyed, that our earth is for profit.

As the white feminist community grapples with where to go from here, remember that this is why race and the history of our white racial supremacy must be at the center of our politics. White supremacy has built everything that destroys us.

So with that said, let’s really ask ourselves: Who should be our feminist heroes?

The night after the election, I went to a No DAPL action training, and I heard stories of indigenous women fighting on the front lines at Standing Rock, fighting to protect the sanctity of water, to protect their community from the U.S. government, and to protect the earth from the ongoing, continuous threat of systems constructed by white colonizers.

These women are feminist heroes.

On election day, my mother called me to inform me of an invasive surgery she would need on her spine, and I was forced to ask myself: “for how long can a near 60-year-old woman with arthritis in her spine work 50–60 hours a week making $13.50 an hour before she can’t any longer? What will I do with my piles of debt and my non-existent savings when she throws in the towel?” Despite the fear and pain I carry for my mother’s future, she continues to thrive. Embarking on four years of sobriety, she continues to invite lonely co-workers and distant acquaintances into her home for holidays, to share meals, to build community. She doesn’t have a lot, but she gives to those who need it more than her and when I asked my mom, “How will we pay for 20 percent of this surgery?” she said “Avery, I don’t care if I have to send them five dollars a month until I die. They won’t stop me from living.”

My mother is a feminist hero.

Every day, indigenous women, Black women, immigrant women, Muslim women, poor women, undocumented women, women with disabilities, women with mental illness, women who battle addiction, trans women, non-binary people, lesbians, queer women wake up and overcome oppression and trauma and hate and misogyny and transphobia and racism and xenophobia and pain. They survive the culture of white supremacy every single day. This is where feminism needs to start. This is who feminism needs to lift up. These are the roots of who we are and these are my feminist heroes.

When I reflect on Hillary Clinton’s career, I see how misogyny affected her opportunity. I also see how her whiteness influenced her politics. I see how her desire to rise to the top reinforced white supremacy and negatively impacted many women along the way. As we fight for the liberation of all women and all people, what messages are we sending with the selection of our heroes? When we uplift Hillary Clinton as a feminist hero, we are uplifting someone who sat on the Board of Directors of Wal-Mart, a woman who climbed into the top one percent as a public servant, and in doing so supported systems that oppress working-poor women across this nation.

As much as any single one of us admires Hillary Clinton for her strength and her intellect, we must also remember that she didn’t support same-sex marriage until it was politically convenient. We must also remember that she advocated for the expansion of the prison system and the militarization of police. We must also remember that she moved forward the agenda to criminalize drug use instead of expanding social services to those battling addiction. We must remember that the symbol of putting anyone in the White House is a symbol of violence to indigenous women around the world. And as we reflect on all of this, we must ask ourselves: who are the women — the people — we are trying to liberate?

The result of this election isn’t at all surprising. And even if Hillary Clinton had won, many people, including some of the white women who voted for Trump, would have continued to be systemically oppressed by a culture of white supremacy that — if left unaddressed — will kill us all. It is time for us to stop seeing women and start seeing intersections. It is time for us to see poor women, black women, indigenous women, and white women. It is time to follow the lead of women of color, to follow the lead of the women struggling to survive, and to ask ourselves, “How good is breaking the glass-ceiling when what lives above it was erected with human lives sacrificed for the construction of a system that still refuses to give people life?”

My feminist hopes for the world do not end with putting a woman in the White House. Rather, I hope that the feminist movement can center on creating a society in which all women and all people thrive. As we march forward, we must continuously reflect on how and to who our feminism gives life, and we must remember that feminist heroes already exist beyond our ceilings, beyond our walls, and beyond the constructs that shape our dominant world.

Author’s Note: To learn more about intersectionality and building a movement around it, please read Kimberle Crenshaw’s work, including “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color

Avery Brien is a Master of Public Policy student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Within the poverty alleviation concentration, Avery focuses more specifically on labor policy through the lens of economic, social, and racial justice. Avery, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, also worked in community partnership development at Big Sister Association of Greater Boston before arriving at Heller.

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