Western feminism tells me to check my privilege. It reminds me that I am white, and despite my working-class upbringing, I am – and have been for some time – middle class. It notes that being white and poor is nothing at all like being black and poor. It pays attention to what I say and how I say it, and is always ready to call me on it.
Yes, I am white and I am Afrikaans. My feminism is perhaps a reaction to and perhaps a result of my upbringing. My feminism is Western; the culture in which I was raised was saturated with the West’s image, I saturated myself with the West’s ideas. My education was by and large cast in a Western mold. And yet… I am African. I know this, but I do not yet fully understand it.
It’s so easy to imagine that the feminism I practice is a sort of universal feminism, that there are injustices that are wrong in every culture regardless of the differences in cultural practice. Domestic violence? Wrong, surely. Rape? Yes, I would say, in every instance. Child marriage? Well, of course. Female Genital Mutilation? One of the most egregious. But these issues, as much as Western feminism concerns itself with them, can be presented as specifically African in degree and prevalence. These issues and the effects of colonialism and apartheid on them are what keep me up at night. These issues in their social and cultural context are what make African feminism unWestern. The Western world has plenty of feminist activists fighting the good fight in force, despite how hard the US is trying to resist change. I have nothing to offer them, but what do I have to offer on home soil?
I therefore find myself asking the question, can I be a white African feminist? Or am I simply a Western feminist living in Africa? And you may roll your eyes and answer me, perhaps even with an exasperated sigh, yes, of course you can. But the criticisms are written in neon on the walls: my race is the cause of the prolonged perpetuation of poverty, which leads to further gender inequality in the form of sexual harassment and poor education, inter alia. And therefore I doubt my feminism because I cannot fully understand the depth of the problems of African feminism on a personal, private level. Theorise all you want, it will only get you so far.
Check your privilege, says Western feminism, and I am reminded of the brute facts. A man can be a feminist as long as he is aware of the fact that his being one does not constitute the saving of women, but standing with them, listening to them, stepping out of the cycle which perpetuates gender inequality. He must be aware of how he himself has benefited from the very inequalities he is taking a stand against. I must concede that I can only be a white African feminist in the same way. My feminism may have been born of Western ideas, but it was bred and nurtured on African soil. It is not the problems of the West but the struggles of this place we share that has shaped this woman I am today. I have no choice but to be an African feminist. Anything else would be a betrayal.