Emma Watson’s Feminist Book Club Goes Intersectional
In July of 2014, Emma Watson was named by UN Women as a Goodwill Ambassador; in September of that year, she delivered a speech at the United Nations Headquarters promoting HeFor She, a campaign to encourage men to be advocates for women and women’s rights. For many fans, these few months marked a change in Watson’s public persona – she was now activist as well as actress, and more Hermione-ish than ever before. But not all feminists were ready to praise Watson for espousing a version of the movement that didn’t represent them, especially after an end-of-year survey named the actress as Feminist Celebrity of the Year.
Critiques of Emma’s brand of feminism were broad-ranging, with readers complaining that her speech was male-centered, cis-centric, and glaringly white. Among the clamor of support for Watson on social media, there were a number of dissenting voices criticizing her presentation of feminism.
I love Emma Watson but I’ll pass on her feminism.
— donnie yen stan account (@moniquekcollins) December 29, 2014
I’m so over Emma Watson and her watered down, intolerant feminism
— jãy (@Iemonade) December 31, 2014
I love feminism but this whole Emma Watson packaged brand isn’t the end all, be all. (No shade to Emma)
— Peggy Carter (@ThatGirl_Wiggy) December 28, 2014
On other platforms, writers offered more in-depth critiques of Watson’s speech. In one such piece, published in the University of North Carolina’s feminist magazine the Siren, Brianna Cooper explained just what made Watson’s feminism so white:
Noticeably absent from Emma’s speech is any mention of the multitude of problems imposed on women of color due in large part to the institutionalized racism held in place by the intersecting barriers of white supremacy and patriarchy. In fact, intersectionality never comes up at all… The problem goes much deeper than Emma’s speech because the lack of intersectional analysis reflects the mainstream white feminist movement as a whole… By making women of color invisible, Emma is maintaining the lack of inclusion, relegating women of color to a proverbial limbo that causes people to question whether we are really part of the feminist movement or not. We are.
For readers unfamiliar with the term, “intersectionality” is a concept first formally theorized by law professor and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and refers to the need to consider how different aspects of identity – like race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and others – are interwoven in the experience of oppression. Emma’s failure to recognize intersectionality was seen by many feminists, like Cooper, as a major flaw in her speech.
In the years since her UN address, Emma has continued to advocate for women’s issues, from taking part in the recent Time’s Up campaign to launching Our Shared Shelf, a feminist book club on Goodreads, in 2016. But although Watson’s selections for the book club have included works by Alice Walker, Bell Hooks, Maya Angelou, and Roxane Gay, she never explicitly addressed criticism of her own white feminism – that is, until choosing Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race as Our Shared Shelf’s January/February book for 2018.
Eddo-Lodge’s book grew out of a 2014 blog post by the same name, in which she expresses her frustration with white people who are too disconnected and defensive to listen when she tries to point out the ways they are complicit in or benefit from white privilege.
I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates our experiences… I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white – so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact; they interpret it as an affront.
When Emma announced that Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race would be Our Shared Shelf’s first book of 2018, she also owned up to her white privilege and the ways it had affected her views of feminism in the past. Emma’s blog post is a candid account of her journey towards understanding intersectionality – a journey on which Emma is still growing and learning.
When I heard myself being called a ‘white feminist’ I didn’t understand (I suppose I proved their case in point). What was the need to define me — or anyone else for that matter — as a feminist by race? What did this mean? Was I being called racist? Was the feminist movement more fractured than I had understood? I began…panicking.
It would have been more useful to spend the time asking myself questions like: What are the ways I have benefited from being white? In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist? How do my race, class and gender affect my perspective? There seemed to be many types of feminists and feminism. But instead of seeing these differences as divisive, I could have asked whether defining them was actually empowering and bringing about better understanding. But I didn’t know to ask these questions.
Eddo-Lodge’s book is a promising place to start for those who, like Emma, want to begin asking those questions of themselves. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race begins with an introduction to the history of black experience in Britain and continues by laying out how systemic racism shapes society and government. There are also chapters defining white privilege, explaining intersectional feminism, and laying out the relationship between race and class in a British context.
Of course, reading one book is not a one-step solution to building a more inclusive feminism, but it is an important step in working to decenter the experiences of white women in discussions about equality and justice. Undoubtedly, there is still much for Emma to learn, but she’s using her platform to invite Our Shared Shelf’s thousands of readers to learn with her – and that’s a pretty good start.
If you want to join Emma on her journey, Goodreads is hosting a giveaway of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race now through February 23.