The Invisibility of Whiteness in the White Feminist Imagination

In: Shades of Whiteness

White feminists have been criticized for their lack of attention to the role of racism in the subordination of women. Early pioneers in critical race feminism, including Kimberlé Crenshaw and Angela Harris, exposed the universalizing of white women’s experiences and cautioned against treating sexism, racism and other sites of oppression as discrete systems of domination. To the extent that racism has been acknowledged in mainstream feminist work, the focus has been on its role in victimizing racialized women rather than in privileging white women, allowing white women to cling to a fantasy that situates them as the oppressed rather than the oppressor. Fantasies of whiteness in early feminist scholarship were rooted in the presumption that a feminist movement founded on white women’s experiences would be beneficial to all women. Through an examination of feminist legal scholarship in Canada over a twenty-year period, I explore how fantasies that perpetuate and protect the invisibility of whiteness have evolved in mainstream feminism. This evolution includes some theoretical acceptance, however reluctant, of the existence of white privilege as evidenced by superficial references to racism that eschew more meaningful engagement. However, it also encompasses the tendency to reject race-consciousness, and thus an interrogation of whiteness, through a stubborn, seemingly beneficent adherence to colour-blindness. Fantasies that simultaneously recognize and diminish white privilege enable racial hierarchies to be preserved in feminist analysis.