White Feminism

A conversation with former Jezebel EIC, Koa Beck.

Koa Beck in Los Angeles. Photos by Yezmin Villarreal.

Koa Beck moved from New York City to her hometown of Los Angeles a few months before quarantine started. She is now writing and publishing books, but before that she was working in the fast-paced media world as a journalist and editor. She is the former editor-in-chief of Jezebel and has also worked as an executive editor at Vogue, and a senior features editor at MarieClaire.com.  

Personally as a QPOC, I loved reading Koa’s insider perspective in White Feminism of what it was like working at various women’s media outlets as a queer biracial woman. She writes about how she encountered resistance from her straight, white editors whenever she pitched articles that were outside of the realm of either making white women rich or providing relationship advice for straight women (excluding Jezebel, of course!).

In White Feminism, she provides insight into how there is a direct correlation between white feminism in popular culture and the foundations of the feminist movement, which came from white women who wanted gender parity with white men over anything else; Queer/trans women, women of color, and low-income women were never part of that equation. But, thankfully, Koa writes about how, “We need to learn how to recognize and chart the course of white feminism so we can dismantle it once and for all.”

I’m sure many of you have come across the term and have your own relationship to it. I talked to Koa about why she wrote this book, and what she hopes readers get out of it. Check out our conversation below.

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DQ: What led you to write this book? 

Koa Beck: First and foremost, because of my career and the spaces that I’ve been in, and the newsrooms, specifically, that I’ve been in, and then—through that—the proximity to power that I’ve had in my career. 

I’ve taken my own understanding and navigation of white feminism for granted because it’s been a big part of my professional life and something that I’ve always had to navigate. But having said that, in terms of impetus—what really incentivized me to analyze the ideology formally and put it into a book was in the latter-end of my media career. I was doing a lot of public speaking. Every time I did a speaking engagement, whether it was me on my own or a panel with other journalists, there was always a young person in the room who raised their hand to ask directly about white feminism—in terms of dealing with their friends, who were white feminist or had clearly white feminist platforms; or understandings of gender; or how to deal with white feminism at work; or how to deal with white feminism in their own family—and it would really stay with me that these very young people would get up in a room full of other white feminists and ask that directly. 

I felt there was such a need to write down what I knew and to write down what I thought they should do because a lot of books and even pieces, to some extent, that have addressed white feminism as an ideology and as a practice, some of the instructions or advice I don’t agree with. Often the impetus is on the woman or nonbinary person of color to enact A, B, C, D, to put forth a certain strategy—I don’t agree with that.

 I think white feminism needs to be addressed by white feminists. 

How do you define White Feminism?

I define white feminism as an ideology and a very specific approach to gender inequality that replicates very specific strategies of racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and white supremacy, specifically to reach “gender parity” (whatever that means); whether that’s a number of women on boards, or a number of women running companies, or a very specific approach to gender inequality that does not contend with these other deeply disenfranchised lenses.

What has been your own journey with coming to understand what white feminism is and how it functions in our everyday lives such as in our work life, social groups, or institutions like education?

I’ve had so many experiences with white feminism in real time (and a lot of subjects who are interviewed for the book also share their own experiences) but in grounding our experiences in history—specifically, experiences of other women who have tried to either work with white feminists or try and get white feminists to see around a white feminist ideology when advocating feminism or gender rights—I learned how insidious and also agile white feminism is. It’s so good at adapting with each wave of feminism. It’s, in some ways, mercurial in that it’s very good at adapting. It’s very good at both procuring radical language, but sanitizing what a lot of those words actually mean, or their origins. White feminism has always been really good at branding. Even in the 1920s, feminism had branding down. Obviously that predates influencers or Instagram or hashtags or captions or anything. It is an ideology that has always been very adept at marketing and consumerism from the beginning. 

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Who is this book for?

That’s a good question. I wrote it keeping in mind a few different audiences. 

I absolutely wanted to talk to young people of color, who are having a lot of these experiences and don’t understand why, or are being inevitably blamed for [the experiences] themselves, or their inability to work in these environments.

I think that having all this in one place literally from the suffragettes to the influencers and seeing the history rapidfire is really, really important for young people to understand the historical backdrop by which they are trying to operate, or assimilate, or ascend in these structures. 

There’s a lot of history of people who have tried before you and, to my assessment, the reason they were not able to is because of white feminism. There are moments of the book where I do talk directly to white feminists in sort of piecing together their literacy, but also puncturing their really one-dimensional understanding of gender rights and how they have been indoctrinated to think about feminism, and to challenge that with actual history, actual reporting, actual facts and statistics about the women and nonbinary people of color who are not a part of their movement and who have not been a part of their movement for a very long time and for a very good reason.

White women don’t like to be called “white feminists.” What advice would you have for white women who want to become intersectional feminists? 

I feel like a lot of, in my own confrontations, with both white feminists and white feminism, what’s always missing is context. I think that for those white women who want to be feminists, who happen to be white, as opposed to white feminists—because I think those are very different things—becoming very acquainted with this history is often what is missing. When I’m having a conversation with what I deem to be a white feminist and she’s not understanding why I think it’s very misleading to have a push for CEO’s being equivalent with gender equality for everyone—what’s missing there is the understanding that black women have been inducted into basically being slave breeders.

That is the missing piece that she doesn’t see—whether in contemporary times, or a hundred years ago. Same with domestic workers. Like, that’s a whole history that she is not aware of. I think that understanding all these different movements and also what people, who specifically were not part of white feminism in the United States, have been pushing for; whether it’s native people and their movements; the Chicanas and everything that they were advocating for in the United States. I think understanding these objectives and strategies can be very illuminating for them. I think an engagement with history is necessary for understanding that and that’s why when writing this book I chose to incorporate so much history to convey that context and backdrop for why white feminism developed in one direction, while black lesbian feminism, the Chicana movement, and the Red [Power] movement went in a decidedly different direction.

In the book you write about how most queer people, and queer women specifically, don’t come from affluent backgrounds. Yet there are not many public LGBTQ spaces that exist besides bars, and when it comes to the lesbian community, most of those have either shuttered or there are very few left. Despite the public acknowledgement that the queer community is becoming more “visible” now, we haven’t seen much improvement in terms of creating more public LGBTQ spaces. Is visibility a trap? 

I think it can be. I think words like visibility and representation are a really good example of what capitalism and white feminism, specifically, have been very good at extracting and using in public discourse and in their own panels and conferences. But do they actually know what that means when they use a word like that? I think that as I get into in the book in more detail, if we’re coming into this with the understanding of money and money dictating people’s value ( what gets made for them, how much of them there are in a certain area, who can pay for that threshold to walk into that room, proverbial or otherwise) that will inevitably leave a lot of people out because a lot of people, especially women domestically and internationally, and queer people, don’t have money and they haven’t had money for a really long time. The way we are currently structured in the United States, they will continue to not have money. So if you use a word like representation or visibility that does not take that into account and is just trying to shoehorn a single brown woman into an otherwise white seascape, whether it’s a website or a boardroom. That, to me, is an incomplete use of both of those terms—of visibility and representation—if money (and the ability to get it, and maintain it, and secure it) is not a part of what is being discussed.

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White Feminism by Koa Beck is our first pick for Dyke Queen Book Club!

Buy a copy at your local bookstore, or check it out from your public library.

It is available as an ebook, audiobook (read by Koa herself!), or a physical book.