Singer Taylor Swift was recently criticized for dating musician Matt Healy, who has a history of making racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, and anti-Muslim comments. Healy did a Nazi salute in concert and admitted to watching racially degrading porn described as “white men humiliating and sexually dominating Black women — physical violence coupled with jokes about poverty, welfare, slavery, putting nooses on women” (The Cut, Buzzfeed, Buzzfeed). Swift briefly brought him on her tour and collaborated with rapper Ice Spice after Healy laughed at racist commentary about her. This led to criticism that Swift was “another complicit white woman,” shielding white men from accountability. Though the artists broke up, the Taylor Swift controversy highlights a problem with mainstream feminism.
Swift’s documentary, Miss Americana, portrays itself as depicting the “birth of an activist” and a “feminist coming of age story,” including a 29-year-old Swift tearfully pleading with her father and team to allow her to discuss politics despite following a “‘Shut up and sing’ mantra” for most of her career (Variety). Since then, she has endorsed Democratic candidates, called herself an LGBTQ+ ally, and spoken against Trump and Confederate statues. In 2020, she declared that she would be “loudly and ferociously anti-racist” and never let “privilege lie dormant when it could be used to stand up for what’s right” (Twitter).
Given her stance, Taylor Swift’s involvement and current silence about the relationship is deafening. So is the defense of her, from mostly white women, that not only infantilized her role—allowing her to recede into the comforts of whiteness and white fragility—but downplayed Healy’s actions as common dirtbag behavior—readers it’s not.
• Consider: What does it mean to be anti-racist, an LGBTQ+ ally, and intersectional? What sacrifices am I willing to make to ensure that the world is more equitable for everyone?
• Have comfortable conversations with your families, friends, and children about the current social and political climate, including racism, trans and homophobia.
• Support organizations like Okra Project, Essie Justice Group, the Black Feminist Project, and Indigenous Women Rising.
Conversations about mainstream feminism are seen as attacks against white women (Harper’s Bazaar). Criticism is viewed as a sexist critique aimed at tearing down women and putting them in their place. But even when those impacted by sexism call for accountability, they’re often met with anger and claims that infighting and pitting the movement against each other won’t help the cause. But said cause has largely been one-sided, and deflection won’t change the reality that mainstream feminism only protects cisgender white women…and men.
Far too often, mainstream feminism fails to recognize that patriarchy is not the only threat against women.
“…the reality [is] that white women can oppress women of color, straight women can oppress lesbian women, cis women can oppress trans women, and so on. And those identities are not discrete; they often can and do overlap. So too do the ways in which women can help or harm each other under the guise of feminism” (Hood Feminism excerpt).
Within the movement, some are told to wait longer for equality that either never comes or is a fragmented, hand-me-down version that pales in comparison (see reproductive health, rights and justice, voting rights, and employment and pay parity). Yet “why are white women only ever called upon to reject white supremacy, not white men?” is a common response to the critiques of white feminism. Such questions suggest a disinterest in dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy and read more like, “why can’t I also be racist.” Feminism that is cishet and white-centric is, in practice, just about expanding power for the privileged few.
Repeatedly we are shown how racism, ableism, Islamophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, classism, and even misogyny, are not always deal-breakers or worthy causes to address for white women simply because they don’t largely affect them, even with overlapping marginalized identities.
Taylor Swift is the epitome of white feminism and performative activism, a feminist when it benefits her and an ally once the risk is minimized and support is “workshopped-woke enough to feel like you’re making a statement when you’re not” (Buzzfeed, Salon). It’s a “type of behavior” that, according to author Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, “rests under the guise of feminism only as long as it is comfortable, only as long it is personally rewarding, only as long as it keeps ‘on brand'” (Harper’s Bazaar). Even her ability to choose to opt into politics is a privilege reserved for white feminists.
While women shouldn’t be forced to answer for the behavior of the men in their life, and one’s relationship with a bigot doesn’t make them worse by association, that doesn’t absolve you of your role as an enabler. People who are bigoted, incite, or perpetuate harm and violence, even through the lens of a joke, are bad. This is especially true of white cisgender men who are the primary beneficiary of white supremacy and the patriarchy. But white feminists will have to decide if the enemy of my enemy is my friend pertains to upholding white supremacy or achieving universal equality.
We’ve seen women of color’s #MeToo stories being ignored and denounced by self-described white feminists (Refinery 29), their support of Trump in 2016, and white women with a history of racist and transphobic behavior call for sisterhood (Daily Beast, Daily Beast). We have seen how performative activism during the 2020 civil unrest and Black Lives Matter protests have amounted to abandoned DEI initiatives, increased police budgets, anti-Black policies, and the continued death of Black people. And how a post-Roe v. Wade world had existed for many marginalized people long before its overturning became a concern for white feminists.
Being anti-racist and an ally is a 24/7 role. Genuine solidarity and allyship require not only fighting the good fight but recognizing how we each perpetuate these harms and injustices and being willing to change that.
• Mainstream feminism is white-centric and falls short of being intersectional.
• Critiquing white feminism isn’t giving white cismen a pass for their role in white supremacy.
• True solidarity and allyship are more than performative online virtue signaling.