Written by Bevyn Howard.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
**Content Warning: Violence**
Late one Sunday night on July 22, 2018 a black woman was mercilessly murdered. Nia Wilson and her two sisters Letifah and Tashiya were transferring at the McCarthur BART station in Oakland, California when a man attacked them, unprovoked, stabbing Nia and Letifah. Nia eventually died and as Latifah held her, bleeding from a slit across her neck, she watched their attacker wipe off his blade as he stared back at the life taken. The murderer was later identified as John Cowell, a 27-year-old white man who had several run-ins with the law. The very next day a vigil was held in Wilson’s honor, with community members coming together to share in their anguish. The vigil, however, soon escalated into a march against the treatment of their community with participants chanting “stop killing our kids.” Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said in addition to the pain the community felt over Wilson’s dreadful murder, the gathering was “also about the broader pattern of black people being arrested and pulled over when black people are victims of violence” and “feeling that it’s taken less seriously.”
This outrage over Wilson’s murder and was not limited to the Oakland community. The hashtag #NiaWilson soon became a trending topic on social media with prominent figures lamenting Nia’s slaying. So, why does this matter? What does the murder of a black woman have to do with equal rights for women? What mattered was the silence.
As social media started demanding justice for Wilson, many couldn’t help but notice relative silence on behalf of prominent White Feminists. Rachel Cargle, an anti-racism feminist, posted a picture to Instagram that read “I am still waiting for your favorite feminists to say a single word about #NiaWilson” with a caption urging her followers to tag White Feminists. She did this because accounts like Girl Boss, a feminist social media page with over 1 million followers, waited over a week from Wilson’s death to post about her murder. While it took the social media page Women’s March, who strive for a more intersectional outlook, only two days to post. So, what does this mean? And is this lack of outcry by White Feminists over Wilson’s death common, or just an anomaly?
In the world of feminism, there are certain issues that ring most often. When people think of feminist issues these usually include sexual assault, equal pay and access to healthcare. However, what isn’t usually thought about is police brutality, hate crimes, and racial discrimination. But don’t those issues affect women too? Yes, they do but they only affect women of color. Therefore, these problems aren’t always seen as feminist issues. That’s what this story exemplifies – that White Feminists don’t acknowledge women of color issues as inherently feminist issues. In Nia Wilson’s case, White Feminists did not see the slaying of a black woman, at the hands of a white man with many believing it a possible hate crime, as an important enough story to speak out about. Meaning, they didn’t see the perils that a black woman faced as perils that women face.
Cargle also addresses this in an interview on the “Real Talk Radio” podcast channel. Cargle was talking about her public lecture series “Unpacking White Feminism” when she commented on contemporary feminism and how,
“a lot of feminist action is taking place and benefitting white women, specifically upper- and middle-class white women, without considering a lot of the ways being a black woman affects womanhood or sexuality affects womanhood.”
What Cargle is critiquing is the feminist movement’s failure at considering the numerous identities that cause discrimination against women like race, class, religion, or sexuality. This failure ends up only affecting change in favor of a small percentage of women: namely cis, straight, wealthier white women. But why is this the case? I mean Kimberle Crenshaw gave us “intersectionality,” shouldn’t this issue be a thing of the past? Well Cargle says it’s because white women are considered the standard “woman” for feminism. Thus, when the rights of women are fought for, it is only on the topics that matter to white women. Now, this doesn’t mean that these issues can’t also affect women of color. Sexual assault, the wage gap and access to healthcare are all issues that affect white women and women of color alike. But when it comes to issues that involve racism, homophobia, and classism – the problems that fall outside the middle class normative – that’s where White Feminism fails to protect all women. So, it seems that if we, as feminists, want the feminist movement to look more like the women it is seeking to fight for, that means we need to broaden our perception of what womanhood looks like.