Against White Publishing: The Limitations of Rafia Zakaria’s “Against White Feminism”

August 19, 2021   •   By Amber Husain

Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

Rafia Zakaria

IN JUNE 2021, cycling for the first time to my London workplace in the tailwind of two national lockdowns, I indulged in noting the irony in a banner outside the British Library, advertising its exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Empowerment. The exhibition had been due to run until February 2021 but was extended in light of COVID-19 to run until August. As such, the show itself remained “unfinished,” yet the irony was more a function of the “business” implied. Among the pandemic’s exposures and amplifications had been the limits of Anglo-America’s mainstream “feminist” project. While feminism thus described is imagined as a story of linear progress, most women’s lives in the last 50 years have only been getting worse.


It is true that the freedom to vote and the right to equal pay have been enjoyed by more than the class of women closest to men in the racial-capitalist order, yet the creaking of neoliberal infrastructure under the weight of the COVID-19 crisis has sounded of how women at the intersection of poverty and racialization are progressively trampled by austerity, privatization, and the degradation of labor. Meanwhile, in the “Global South,” climate change and Western wars have trashed the notion of women’s lives as improving toward a point of equality. If feminism, as the dominant discourse would have us understand it, still looks like unfinished business, it is perhaps, as Rafia Zakaria writes in the opening chapter of Against White Feminism, because “the women who are paid to write about feminism, lead feminist organizations, and make feminist policy in the Western world are white and upper-middle-class.”


The feminism wrought in the interests of such women is, of course, one of selective “liberation” rather than genuine equality, a reformist approach to hierarchical systems rather than the dismantling our moment requires. Zakaria is not the first to inform feminist readers that “interventions that simply add Black, Asian, or Brown women to existing structures have not worked.” She is arguably, however, one of relatively few writers to have done so from within the existing structure of mainstream publishing. Much of her work as a columnist is split between the general audience for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and the somewhat more niche readership of the US’s left-wing Baffler magazine. Against White Feminism, however, was sold by Zakaria’s agent to cater to the audiences of both W. W. Norton in the United States and multinational conglomerate Penguin Random House in the United Kingdom. The book attests to a hope that, while the inclusion of Black and Brown women in a hegemonically white media circuit will do nothing to divert its current, it may at least facilitate communication — to the widest possible readership — of precisely how and why this is the case.


The central four chapters in Against White Feminism function quite successfully in this project of explanation. In a section on the “white savior industrial complex,” Zakaria demonstrates how the notion of “empowerment” metamorphoses under the aegis of “development” from an index of bottom-up resistance to a vacuous incantation. In the 1980s, Indian feminist Gita Sen and the organization DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women in a New Era) inspire scholar-activists such as Srilatha Batliwala to define feminist empowerment as “a process of transforming power relationships,” one that requires “a questioning of the ideologies that [justify] women’s subordination.” By 2015, however, Bill and Melinda Gates have become convinced that donating chickens to women in the world’s poorest nations will “empower” them (by making at best $100 a year from the eggs) to realize themselves in the model of the Western entrepreneur. Zakaria aligns such doltish, condescending acts of “aid” — the tossing of chickens and sewing machines at women who have asked for no such bounty — with the historic attempts of white suffragists to impose their agendas on the colonized. Indian women’s voting rights come not with British largesse, but with freedom from British domination. Indeed, as Zakaria shows, the bargaining of white suffragists leaned everywhere on white women’s claims to racial superiority over Black and Brown men. Allegedly empowering gestures of philanthropy, she observes, “delink the current condition of women from colonial histories, global capital expansion, transnational investment, and the continued exploitation of feminine labor.”


Western benevolence, moreover, is a typical pretext for war, the second of Zakaria’s empirical foci. Here, she relays the maneuver whereby America’s War on Terror has unrelentingly attempted to present itself as a project of women’s liberation. Her delightfully unflattering portrait of “securo-feminism,” a term borrowed from Lila Abu-Lughod, describes the collusion of “feminist” discourse with neo-imperial attempts to establish American-style liberal democratic institutions abroad. Coupled with these chapters on NGO- and securo-feminism is another pair that also deals with the consequences of racial-capitalist, heteropatriarchal oppression. First, the ongoing sexual discipline of women from marginalized communities (juxtaposed with a “white-feminist” discourse of indiscriminate sex-positivity) and second, the racist narratives that circulate around “honor killings” and female genital mutilation — both caches of stories that muffle the capitalist-colonial origins of violence against women whose lives do not conform to the institution of the bourgeois nuclear family.


Yet terms such as “bourgeois” and “nuclear” are not Zakaria’s. The specific intersections of capitalist class relations with those produced by colonialism are not her primary concern. Perhaps the author believes, and she is largely correct, that the scenarios she profiles speak for themselves, indicating a complex system the reader can grasp as “whiteness” without the need for that system’s precise description or analysis. The six discursive chapters that frame the central four, however, offer a different impression. Rather than designating historical engines of privilege-production, “whiteness,” in these opening and closing sections, is rhetorically cast in near-exclusive terms of white women’s privileged behavior. “A white feminist,” Zakaria writes in her opening lines, is someone who “fails to cede space to the feminists of color who have been ignored, erased, or excluded from the feminist movement.” “To be a white feminist,” she goes on, “you simply have to be a person who accepts the benefits conferred by white supremacy at the expense of people of color.” The story begins in a wine bar where we encounter a group of women whose concession of space to Zakaria is found wanting. The book concludes with the author’s desire for this tendency to give way to something altogether more inclusive.


It is odd that, while the kernel of content in this book is formed around a structural critique — one that would appear to demand a very specific political response — it comes to us cushioned in an equal bulk of light, fleecy padding that draws the attention pleasantly away from such partisan concerns. “I want to be able to meet at a wine bar,” Zakaria writes, “and have an honest conversation about change.” It is surely a reasonable wish, but a minimal demand. Zakaria’s central, well-researched chapters are framed on one side by a series of encounters with obnoxious white women; and on the other by a call to action that reads as an incitement to better etiquette. Despite brief gestures at white supremacy’s deep “political” roots, these chapters call for us simply to “excise” unpalatable behaviors.


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The language of excision is pleasing. Scattered liberally among the cushioning chapters of Against Feminism, it allows the reader to fantasize the curative effect of expelling bad white women. We might picture a plum called feminism, poised on the cusp of ripeness, withheld from its transformative pleasures only by a few pernicious bugs to be casually removed from its flesh. These insects range from the white playwright-cum-journalist claiming to speak for Congolese women to the witless do-gooding liberals who organize “feminist” events. There is, for instance, the author’s “blonde handler” at an event where she’d thought she would be giving a lecture but instead is invited to exoticize herself and sell some Pakistani trinkets. “Everywhere I looked,” Zakaria writes, “there were white women, all of them flushed from [their] little cups of ‘free’ wine.” Then there is the “smug white professor, nose-pierced and wild-haired and duly sporting the scarves and baubles of the well traveled,” who encourages Zakaria’s graduate school classmates to “ramble on about threesomes.” There is Christiane Amanpour of CNN, Lara Logan of CBS. There is “the woman who [apparently single-handedly] laid the foundation for a corporate friendly working girl feminism” (Helen Gurley Brown). For any warm-blooded reader of these toe-curling portraits, there can be no doubt that white women, unequivocally, must be stopped.


The glee to be taken in consuming these vignettes is seemingly harmless in nature. They surely represent, if not “whiteness” itself, its ugly instantiations. Who really suffers from such writing other than exploiters of the suffering of others? Or those who have wrought that suffering directly through their arrogant or ignorant deeds? And yet, there is something slightly off in this pleasure; something about the book that makes for an uncomfortably comfortable read. It wouldn’t be hard for the cheery liberal, perhaps one with red or brown hair, to imagine she is more enlightened than some of these insufferable blondes; to view subscription to “whiteness” as a matter of pure sensibility; to suppose rejecting complicity might be simple as sitting down.


Occasionally the project of rhetorical excision gets out of hand, the iconoclastic urge appearing to overwhelm critical honesty. In an early chapter oddly entitled “Is Solidarity a Lie?” Zakaria turns her scalpel on Simone de Beauvoir. “De Beauvoir’s goal in the The Second Sex,” she writes, “is simply this: to carve out for women the position of the universalizable and generalizable subject.” “But in comparing ‘women’ to ‘others,’” she goes on, “who include Blacks [sic] and Jews [sic], de Beauvoir reveals herself to be thinking of ‘women’ as only white women.” Referencing Beauvoir’s theoretical linkage of race, class, and caste as comparable forms of exploitation, Zakaria infers that she thus “sees each of these as discrete systems of oppression that could be compared, but did not overlap.” This conclusion is drawn from The Second Sex’s introductory paragraphs, in which Beauvoir, rather than concerning herself with whether solidarity is a “lie,” sets out to ask how it is that solidarity among women has been systematically repressed. “If [women] belong to the bourgeoisie,” Beauvoir laments in her introduction, “they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to Negro [sic] women.” Rather than denying any possible intersection of identity categories, Beauvoir seeks to unearth the (intersecting) systems that produce such categories in the first place.


When Beauvoir suggests that “women,” unlike Black and Jewish populations, are unable to trace their oppression to a single historical event, Zakaria again infers the exclusion of Black and Brown women from “the philosophical category essentialized.” Of course, Beauvoir’s landmark legacy is the statement that “woman” is not an essential category, but rather an idea constructed. Her reference to women’s lack of a coherent narrative of oppression is not an insistence on “woman” as essentially white, nor on any notion that women’s oppression could not be historicized. It is instead a characterization of the distinctly capitalist illusion that women’s subordination is somehow organic.


Beauvoir brings into view woman’s inorganic “construction” as a set of social processes irreducible to mere psychology. By contrast, in framing lack of solidarity as a question of pointed “lies,” Against White Feminism points to various social-psychological ills: the “cult of relatability”; the “cult of individualism”; the “mythology of the self-made [white] superwoman,” who is cynically “clever” and “egoistic.” We can attribute these ills to “paranoid beliefs,” and to the “territoriality” of older white feminists in particular. “The introduction of a different kind of authority,” writes Zakaria, “is seen as a threat to the legitimacy of [white women’s] contribution to women’s rights — as if feminist thought and praxis is a zero-sum game, with one kind of knowledge supplanting the other.” These accounts of motivated reasoning are entirely plausible, yet are useful only in the context of engagement with certain structuring truths. Most important, under neoliberal capitalism — a system whose central organizing principle is competition — the truth that most everything, whether we like it or not, is zero-sum. As such, a more interesting question than why white women can be so defensive is the question of why, until directly challenged, they see no wrongdoing to defend. Marx described capitalist ideology as shaping a material world where, to the bourgeois mind, exchange value comes to look like the only kind of value. Similarly, as Beauvoir points out, the social processes through which the figure of woman is “made” and debased are obscured by a social order that everywhere affirms the natural supremacy of men.


Beauvoir’s theory of change in the face of women’s systematic division had a lot to do with the theory and principles of socialism. It is a term that appears only once, in passing, in Against White Feminism, a book that invokes the “political” 93 times and “politics” 62. Perhaps we are to understand this lacuna in light of the corrupted regimes with which Beauvoir in particular was aligned (Stalinism, for one, and Maoism for another). Yet nor does the idea emerge in relation to histories of Black feminist organizing, which, had they been included, would have spoken to so many of the book’s central concerns.


Take for instance, the significance of “intersectionality.” “Women of color,” Zakaria writes, “are affected not simply by gender inequality, but also by racial inequality. A colorblind feminism thus imposes an identity cost on women of color, erasing a central part of their experience and their political reality.” This understanding of the intersectional, derived by Zakaria from the writings of legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is notably distinct from the related concepts suggested by Black socialist and communist feminists long before Crenshaw’s coinage. The “triple oppression” advanced by activist Claudia Jones theorized not so much the intersection of racial and gender designations, but rather how capitalism deploys the intersecting systems of racism and patriarchy to divide the entire working class. The cost to Black women here (as women, as Black, as workers) is more than one of mere “identity.”


The reference, moreover to “political reality” as a matter of pure “experience” is more than just an oversimplification. It is a framing determined to avoid demanding that the reader hold certain commitments. “[E]xperience engenders politics,” we learn; we must “revitalize the political” such that we draw in “women whose stories and politics are presently invisible.” Experience is indeed vital to the formation of political ideas, yet in this elision of politics and backstory, ideas begin to recede. What matters becomes not what the “politics” are, merely that they are seen. As such, Zakaria’s issue with one particular NGO has less to do specifically with neoliberal politics than with failure on the part of its workers to “capitalize on [Colombian women’s] political identities.” Zakaria does briefly get behind the idea of “specific political claims,” yet she does so without insisting that these claims be transformative or coherent. “Resilience,” “caution,” and “endurance” thereby emerge as her “feminist” values of choice, not because they reckon with any of the systems predicated by whiteness, but rather because they are shown by certain women of color. They are also, given their relative ideological neutrality, conveniently marketable terms. “Individuality,” meanwhile, is described as “an antidote to politics and solidarity.” The strange suggestion that “politics” might be a kind of poison aside, this statement equally strangely suppresses the politics of capitalism itself.


Antiracist socialist feminisms are concerned with the rejection of the social and cultural arrangements that structure women’s oppression: racial capitalism; heteropatriarchy; the carceral imperialist state. These are feminisms cognizant of how, while the abolition of whiteness will not directly follow from the abolition of capitalism and its disciplinary and divisive apparatus, each abolition is a necessary condition of the other. For some white women, alignment with a political project such as this requires a commitment to a collective struggle at odds with their class interests. This is not the same as an individual act of disavowal. “White and Western charity donors will eagerly donate money,” Zakaria writes, “but they will not give up the cheaply produced ‘fast fashion’ that is sold by major American brands.” It remains pragmatically unclear whether such a “giving up” refers to a consumer choice, to organizing for the overhaul of garment industry dynamics, or to dedicating one’s life to a horizon on which exploitative industry would cease to exist. The white liberal reader most likely extends a finger to delete her ASOS app before she is whisked into the next short chapter on a slipstream of affirmative prose.


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Against White Feminism opens in that wine bar in the company of influential women — writers, journalists, and media and publishing professionals. It is notable, if not so much noted, that these women represent industries ever more commercially shaped. The infamous tendency of publishers (generally the larger the worse) to mitigate risk through cleavage to a narrowing status quo — shaping acquisitions and editing styles in the image of previous success — ensures, as we have seen for decades, a broadly bland, unchallenging, and economically conservative literary landscape. Audiences for new titles are predicted and assumed, rather than created anew; the tastes of imagined white liberals are engrained as editorial guides. Zakaria claims to have abandoned the notion of “three or four waves of feminist analysis” on the basis that it centers the struggles of white and Western women, yet reproduces it nonetheless in this book “to make the chronology easier to understand.” We sense that Zakaria is writing not only of what she perceives as the “tiny attention spans of white women,” but also, and unfortunately, for them.


In order for a better feminism to occupy the popular imaginary, it is indeed necessary, as Zakaria suggests, for powerful white women to “eschew territoriality and let go of individual egoism.” This, she declares, and admittedly to heart-warming effect, will help us to “forge an authentically constructed solidarity.” The interests of capital, however, necessarily divide and rule, and it is therefore perhaps unsurprising that solidarity under capitalism is not so readily forthcoming. “Authenticity” is no more a source of social cohesion than it ought to be its horizon. Like selflessness, solidarity must be built and renewed through sustained political struggle. Feminists must ally with labor unions, migrants and anti-imperialists, radical environmentalists and anti-militarist groups to begin to envision any kind of post-capitalist society. Through direct action and movement politics, coalitions such as these must seek the most expansive transformations.


A post-capitalist society is not, perhaps, at the top of the imagined white reader’s wish list as she strolls to her local bookshop to educate herself either in feminism or in race. As such, the reader of this book is pulled into an awkward tug of war. Its vital political histories and powerful critique come to us enclosed in the trade nonfiction folds of keyword-heavy flattery. As Baldwin famously wrote of “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.” As Zakaria herself points out, “to stand for something inherently means that some will choose not to stand with you.” It is hard not to wish that publishers were willing to take such a risk.


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Amber Husain is a writer, academic, and publisher. She is currently a managing editor and research fellow at Afterall, Central Saint Martins. Her essays and criticism appear or are forthcoming in 3AM, The Believer, London Review of Books, Radical Philosophy, The White Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of Replace Me, to be published by Peninsula Press in November 2021.