Meryl Streep’s Divisive Feminism: How White Feminists Silence People of Color

The acting legend has come under fire for comments she made at a film festival about diversity, but white feminists have long felt that their rights matter more than people of color.

Morris MacMatzen/Reuters

On Thursday morning, Meryl Streep and her fellow Berlin International Film Festival jurors fielded a series of questions about diversity in the film industry. Naturally, in keeping with the infinite wisdom of privileged white peopleTM, the panel consisted of seven white folks. Now, one could reasonably argue that there is a time and a place for a group of white people coming together to validate one another’s opinions and share them with the world. A round table discussion of how to most efficiently appropriate slang terms from other cultures and magically make them uncool, perhaps, or a support group for people who really like Chik-Fil-A but still feel bad about it. These are just a few examples of panels that would naturally give white people a (much deserved, centuries in the making) opportunity to speak their minds and have their voices be heard. Conversely, a discussion of diversity might benefit from some actual diversity.

Unfettered by an educated peer or any sort of informed perspective, Streep took this opportunity to really let her white flag fly. “The thing that I notice is that there is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture and, after all, we’re all from Africa originally,” Streep said during the press conference. “You know we’re all,” she continued, “Berliners, we’re all Africans, really.”

“Ich bin ein Berliner” it was not.

When not busy cultivating her line of JFK-inspired microagressions, Streep can be found rocking a promotional tee for her film Suffragette, emblazoned with the Emmeline Pankhurst 1913 slogan, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” The quote, within the context of women’s activism in the early 20th century, aimed to underline the importance of fighting for female suffrage and emancipation. However, terms like emancipation and slavery take on a new light when they’re being employed within the cultural context of the literal enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans. What’s intended as a rallying cry for white ladies who just want to leave the kitchen is easily read as a huge, insensitive middle finger to the generations of Americans for whom slavery was more than just an effective metaphor.

Seemingly unbeknownst to her, Streep is riding a wave centuries in the making—the perfect storm of racial ignorance and intersectional apathy. At her tour de force film festival performance, Streep went on to hit a blissfully unaware white feminist home run (yes, I know that Meryl Streep technically identifies as a “humanist.” No, I don’t want to talk about it). Before you could say “White Privilege II,” Streep steered the conversation away from diversity and towards lady-centric self congratulation, boasting that “This jury is evidence that at least women are included and in fact, dominate this jury, and that’s an unusual situation in bodies of people who make decisions…So I think the Berlinale is ahead of the game.” One small step for putting an effective spin on a sticky situation, one giant leap for declaring lady world domination while completely ignoring the egregious absence of black and brown women in the process. It’s like when George W. Bush preemptively declared “mission accomplished” and we all felt really weird about it. So throw on your least problematic feminist t-shirt and get comfortable, folks—cause right now seems like as good a time as any to talk about the complicated relationship between feminism and racism in America, aka white feminism and its discontents.

Of course, Meryl Streep isn’t really the problem. What she is, however, is entirely emblematic of a cultural moment in which feminism is cool and trendy, but Hollywood’s pesky diversity allergy is just as abiding as ever. According to a new study, the television and film industries are starting to improve upon their egregious, sexist employment practices by hiring more female leads. Unfortunately, these historic strides are reserved almost exclusively for white women. According to Variety, “In a sign of the lack of racial diversity, the percentages of female characters of color were largely unchanged, with a slight increase in Black female characters (from 11 percent in 2014 to 13 percent in 2015), no change in the percentage of Latina characters (flat at 4 percent), and a drop in the percentage of Asian female characters (from 4 percent to 3 percent).” In other words, trendy white feminism (Amy Schumer is funny! Tina Fey rocks! Lean in!) has had absolutely no effect on the lived experiences of women of color.

Unfortunately, Hollywood is just one symptom of a white feminist pandemic. In an effort to achieve radical change and encourage political action, feminism, like all movements, seeks to bring people together and mobilize them towards a common goal. But what feminist movements—the most visible of which have been led by affluent, influential white women—often fail to understand is that gender is just one of the myriad social identities that can motivate, unite, rule, and divide us. While we might all be able to cite misogyny as a universal nuisance, a white woman is likely to experience prejudice in a completely different way than her non-white counterpart. Failing to acknowledge this diversity of experience leads to whitewashing decisions about what feminism should look like and what it should accomplish. Looking at the white faces of feminism throughout history (think Mary Wollstonecraft, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem), how is a woman of color supposed to see herself within, or at all identify with, this purportedly anti-patriarchal movement that fails to recognize her experience of oppression?

Forget issues of visibility and lack of representation—let’s talk about all the times white feminists have been straight up racist.

The suffrage movement was majority-led by white women, many of whom were resentful that black men got the vote before they did. Women’s enfranchisement was seen as a step on the proverbial ladder of justice; while some suffragettes certainly supported the rights of black men and women, the notion that those “causes” were less worthy, and that individuals of colors should wait their turn, was a disturbingly prevalent one. Even when abolition was the cause du jour, white feminist efforts at solidarity were Iggy-Azalea-level problematic. White ladies actually managed to make abolition about them, campaigning on behalf of the issue while totally obscuring the voices and activism of advocates of color. Enter the unsettling trend of white women gleefully crusading on behalf of women of color, but shying away from actually working with or alongside them. Think about a history of privileged white women taking on non-white women’s issues as charity cases or side projects, and you’ll start to understand why claims of universal sisterhood can elicit an All Lives Matter-caliber side-eye.

Adding insult to injury, white feminists have a tendency to demand allegiance and support from the very women whose divergent experiences they have historically diminished and ignored. Recently, Gloria Steinem told Bill Maher that women should come to their senses and support Hilary Clinton. “They’re going to get more activist as they get older,” Steinem said, suggesting that a vote for Sanders is not truly activist. “And when you’re young, you’re thinking ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.’” Steinem got a lot of heat for implying that women are pretending to like Bernie Sanders to trick men into sleeping with them. This backlash is totally understandable—it was a weird call by Steinem, and a generally dick move.

But this PR gaffe is even more insidious than it initially appears. You can tell that Steinem truly believes that any woman who is choosing not to support a female candidate is simply befuddled. This uncritical assumption that a female politician will have every woman’s best interests at heart is one big “fuck you” to an intersectional movement that has clearly passed Steinem by. And let’s not forget former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who took to the campaign trail to announce that “Young women have to support Hillary Clinton... And just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Naturally, when Hillary Clinton is trying to get elected, we’re all sitting around in one happy solidarity circle braiding each other’s armpit hair and cleaning out our diva cups; a vote for Hil is a vote for gal pals everywhere.

What Clinton fails to understand is that all women don’t owe her their loyalty, especially if she isn’t the strongest candidate on the intersectional issues—police violence, mass incarceration, and Palestine, to name just a few—that have just as much bearing on their daily lives as their ovaries. Brown and black women face a litany of concerns merely living in America in 2016; any real ally wouldn’t add accusations of gender betrayal to that long list. And let’s get real for a second, @ Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright—how hard did you campaign for Shirley Chisholm when she ran for president in 1972?

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So when Meryl Streep totally ignores issues of diversity, and instead chooses to compliment herself and her all-white panel on their feminist victory, we’re looking at more than just a clickbait-y story or a trumped-up offense. We’re talking about centuries of white women hogging the microphone and steering the conversation. We’re talking about wait your turn feminism and the women who are tired of waiting, about the questionable intersectional credentials of a presidential candidate who has lobbied congress to expand the drug war and mass incarceration, and who has consistently recommended military force abroad (which hardly ever bodes well for black and brown communities worldwide). And we’re talking about a world in which Harriet Tubman musing about the impenetrability of white female privilege, as quoted by Viola Davis at the 2015 Emmys, is as relevant now as it was then: “In my mind, I see a line. And over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me to get over that line but I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”