White women like Emma Watson have weaponized black women’s bodies as shields as they claw their way up the white supremacist ladder to stand beside white men.
Vanity Fair’s March 2017 cover features Emma Watson, who is currently promoting Beauty and the Beast. One particular image has Watson in a sculptural white top, which is partially covering her breasts. Unfortunately, the sexists and misogynists came for her, claiming that she cannot be a feminist and do what she wants with her body.
Watson responded to the backlash by rightfully defending and reinforcing the core concepts of feminism, which include the agency to do as we wish with our own bodies. But another part of the criticism she received has nothing to do with sexism — and everything to do with white feminism and the audacity that white feminists have thinking that they are the gatekeepers and arbiters of feminism.
In an interview with Tavi Gevinson for Wonderland magazine in 2014, these two, rich, cisgender, famous, white women had a conversation about Beyonce and whether she was a feminist. Watson said this:
“I don’t know whether you have spoken to anyone about it, but my friend and I sat and we watched all the videos back-to-back and I was really conflicted. I so admire her confidence to put her music out in that way, in amidst all these very sensationalist sort of MTV performances, I was so psyched about that. On the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, this very strong woman – and she has that beautiful speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in one of her songs – but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her…”
After the Beyhive accused Watson of flagrant hypocrisy and attacked her on Twitter, she posted this same interview to her account, highlighting the sections that she felt supported her rebuttal that her comments about Queen Bey had been decontextualized.
Emma Watson’s own whiteness and biases showed up, and instead of it feeling like a learning conversation between two young women, her remarks felt arrogant and racist. Rather than looking into the history of the hyper-sexualization of black women and the reclamation of autonomy and sexuality of black feminists, Watson acted like an authority figure rather than a student.
Historically speaking, there isn’t anything new about this. White feminists have always stolen feminist concepts created by women of color for their own benefit. White women have weaponized black women’s bodies as shields for their own crimes and benefit as they claw their way up the white supremacist ladder to stand beside white men.
Watson isn’t the only white woman to question the feminism of Beyonce or other black women. Their lack of understanding or interest in learning about the historical context of black feminism and intersectionality allows them to perpetuate racist micro- and macro-aggressions in personal and public spheres of interaction.
Whiteness, and the privilege that it comes with it, imbues white women with the misconception that their own experiences are universal. This sort of power keeps women like Watson from being able to see that their perspectives are rather irrelevant when it comes to resistance for black and brown women.
When black women reclaim their sexuality and their bodies from the white gaze and the male gaze, they are doing within a historical context, which includes Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was used as a side-show attraction throughout Europe because of her physical attributes, and the sick exotification, fetishization and perversion that white people projected onto her. After being trafficked, Baartman died of an inflammatory disease in 1815. Her body was dissected and her genitalia, brain and skeleton were on display in a museum in Paris, France, until 2002.
When white feminists react to black women reclaiming their sexuality, they do so while ignoring decades of gynecological experimentation on black women without any anesthesia. They do so by ignoring the sterilization of black and brown women and the demonization of black women’s sexuality by the white supremacist patriarchy.
Quite frankly, had Watson issued an apology to Beyonce and a statement regarding a commitment to learning about womanism, intersectionality and systemic racism, then I wouldn’t be writing this piece. But she hasn’t, so I am.