Spare Me the Empathy Tantrum: Rafia Zakaria’s “Against White Feminism”

6 June, 2021
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Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption
By Rafia Zakaria
W.W. Norton (August 2021)
ISBN 9781324006619


Myriam Gurba


When I was a girl, I practiced a naïve feminism.

I fantasized that by identifying as a feminist, my politics would cast an impenetrable forcefield around me. Misogynists would splatter against my invisible barrier the way bugs did against car windshields. Patriarchal boys and men, however, worked hard and fast to prove that my announcing, “I’m a feminist!” wouldn’t be enough to stop them. In response, my philosophy of feminism matured.

Meanwhile, shitty encounters with more than a few white girls and women prompted further re-evaluation of my politics. Instead of seeing me as their sister, some white feminist do-gooders treated me as someone who needed to be rescued by them, thus confirming what I’d suspected, that a female hierarchy, rigidly stratified by race and ethnicity, indeed exists, and from its upper echelons, white feminists cast downward glances. This intersectional arrangement perpetuates two of white supremacy’s grossest trademarks: pity and contempt.

In Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, Rafia Zakaria scales, explores and maps the socio-political pecking order established, maintained and fortified by white feminism and the (mostly) de-facto army enlivening it. She defines a white feminist as one “who accepts the benefits conferred by white supremacy at the expense of people of color, while claiming to support gender equality and solidarity with ‘all’ women.” Zakaria analyzes how white feminist interventions and provocations reinforce white supremacy in direct and indirect ways, ultimately inviting readers to re-consider our relationship to the oft-fetishized mandate of solidarity.

Zakaria illuminates and traces white feminism’s topography, paying particular attention to the historical development of white feminism as a logical outgrowth of two unrelenting and related political projects: imperialism and settler-colonialism. Taking an internationalist approach, Zakaria assembles examples of white feminist fuckery happening wherever white feminists go: Everywhere. For those lucky enough not to have learned about white feminism through experience, Zakaria’s straightforward explanation makes its manifestations easy to spot.

In her author’s note and introduction, Zakaria presents a number of theses that unify her polemic. Against White Feminism critiques “whiteness within feminism” and through personal storytelling, at which Zakaria excels, the critic articulates theory. She begins by recreating an encounter which she cheekily titles “At a Wine Bar, A Group of Feminists.” As she reconstructs a meet-up with several writerly acquaintances in Manhattan, Zakaria torpedoes white feminism’s preference for a “gender-only” narrative in favor of an intersectional one. This gesture requires her to complicate the tableau and Zakaria layers her rendering with assertions of religion, class, immigration status, race, and lived trauma, fleshing out socio-political differences between herself and the other feminists.

Zakaria points out that she’s the only Brown and Muslim woman seated at the proverbial table. When an editor asks her, “Yeah…how did you even come here…like to America?” Zakaria shares her trajectory as an immigrant and domestic violence survivor. Through verbal and physical displays of sympathy and condescension, the wine bar feminists implicitly exoticize and demean her. It seems that by being herself Zakaria commits the social crime of unrelatability, an offense interchangeable with unlikability.

I nodded in agreement as I read about this uncomfortable scenario. While I’m neither Muslim nor of Middle Eastern descent, I am the queer daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother who settled in the United States. My Chicano dad is also ethnically minoritized. Like Zakaria, I survived domestic violence. On more than one occasion, when discussing my survivorship with a white feminist, my listener has burst into tears, placing the onus on me to soothe and comfort her. I’ve come to think of these white feminist responses as empathy tantrums and they demonstrate what Zakaria identifies as one of white feminism’s ugliest divisions. Because white feminism seeks to make heroes of its adherents, the movement requires a foil, and Zakaria explains that white feminism’s rhetoricians have cast those of us bearing “scars and sutures from the fight” in that role. White feminists and white patriarchs both benefit from this illusory script. It casts the former as saviors of Black and Brown women while excusing the latter from implication in patriarchy. This script nourishes the egos of white feminists and white patriarchs by conflating gender justice with whiteness, conveniently and deceptively making misogyny a problem exclusive to communities of color. Zakaria diagrams this false dichotomy, indicating that white feminism positions its adherents as those “who have voice,” rendering the rest of us a voiceless group who have one gift, “experience.” White feminists, therefore, exist from the neck up. They’re endowed with brains and mouths. The rest of us bumble heedlessly through a white world. No wonder we need saving. 

All eight chapters of Against White Feminism catalogue varied yet predictable instances of white feminists reproducing the same the illusion: their struggle to rescue Black and Brown women. According to this dynamic, white feminists accrue and dispense expertise needed by non-white women and these experts flatten us into an inarticulate demographic bound by “lived trauma.” Zakaria repeatedly reminds us that its often white women who do the traumatizing. Sometimes, they call this bad behavior philanthropy.

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In a chapter titled “Is Solidarity a Lie?” Zakaria reminisces about an email she received in 2012. A professor invites her to volunteer at an “informal event that would bring together feminists from different parts of the world for a conversation about women’s rights.” When Zakaria generously arrives to the event, a white feminist chastises her for her lateness and for failing to wear her “native clothes.”

Looking around the room, it dawns on Zakaria that she’s been roped into performing the role of a “native” Pakistani at a “global bazaar.” The white feminists in attendance treat Zakaria and the other exoticized women at the fundraiser as if they’re “flavors for consumption,” the women of color having been summoned to participate in a display of symbolic cannibalism.

Zakaria locates her experience at the “global bazaar” within a larger context, allowing readers to connect this not-so-post-colonial scenario to historical instances of similar white feminist fuckery. She tells the story of Ayn al-Hayat Ahmad, an Egyptian princess born in 1858, whom white feminists invite to a lecture about “the Western and Eastern attitudes toward the veil.” The princess’s late arrival to the event scandalizes her hosts whom, it seems, chiefly view her as a Brown woman in need of their help. Her sultanic status is tertiary to their expertise. For defying their etiquette, the white feminist hosts deem the noblewoman rude.

 Zakaria writes that their indignation signifies racial discomfort and the Egyptian noblewoman who dared to put on airs is made to pay a price for her royal behavior: Press coverage of the event insinuates that the Princess is ignorant of punctuality and, therefore, primitive. Zakaria writes that white feminist anxiety can be “weaponized externally in any number of ways: as anger, victimhood, [and] a refusal to cooperate or communicate,” and, at the “global bazaar,” white feminists can be witnessed following in the footsteps of their anti-veil foremothers. White feminists who misconstrue Princess Meghan Markle as rude do the same.

In a chapter titled “White Feminists and Feminist Wars,” Zakaria again plunges into the personal. She describes watching the 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty “in a nearly full movie theatre in Indiana.” The movie glamorizes the role played by an anonymous female “CIA sleuth” in the capture and execution of Osama bin Laden, cinematically elevating “white women as the ultimate weapon in crushing Brown terrorists.” At the end of the screening, the Midwestern audience validates the filmic propaganda through standing ovation. As she listens to their applause, Zakaria cries at the injustice. Here, the army of people who enliven white feminism expands from de facto to de jure, and Zero Dark Thirty feeds a sadistic appetite, one sated by images of white women subjugating and dominating Brown men. In 1974, Jewish feminist Andrea Dworkin issued a prescient warning to her comrades, cautioning against “a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.” Securofeminists from the US to Sweden to Canada scoff at such admonitions. 

Zakaria circles back to domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, taking on FGM and honor killings. She describes how at age twenty-five, she fled her then-husband, a batterer, and took refuge in a domestic-violence shelter. She writes that “all the other women at the shelter…many of whom were white and American, were in hiding for more or less the same reason [as her.]” She concludes that had her husband killed her for leaving, the femicide would have automatically been called an “‘honor killing,’ because [they] were [both] Muslim.” Human Rights Watch defines honor killings as “acts of vengeance, usually death, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family.” Zakaria expands upon this definition, suggesting that men who murder white women for bruised egos commit individualized as opposed to collectivized honor killings: “Honor killing and ego killing are identical in their motivations to discipline and destroy women…It is the presence of a Black or Brown male perpetrator that fosters the idea that a crime is determined by the cultural or religious identity of those involved.”

Zakaria argues that exoticized representations of Muslim femicide cast Black and Brown feminists as passive victims who fail at curtailing our “uniquely violent men” and, importantly, she notes that this mischaracterization hurts white women by blurring and erasing the femicidal violence white patriarchs perpetrate against them. While white feminists will likely feel aggrieved by Zakaria’s criticism, her analysis stands to improve the quality of their lives and I found myself reflecting on how local community members discussed the first case of femicide to unfold in my social circle. 

“Feminists today face the great challenge of transformation: an embrace of the adversarial while knowing that adversaries are not enemies, an embrace of community that does not require endless compromises by those with the least power, and a realism that accepts women as they are and where they are today.”— Rafia Zakaria

In 1996, a fifteen-year-old female student who attended my high school alma mater broke up with her seventeen-year-old boyfriend. Days later, the ex-boyfriend crept into the ex-girlfriend’s home and shot her in the head with a .22 caliber rifle. Next, he shot himself. I was nineteen and attending university when my family phoned me and told me about this murder-suicide and in my women’s studies class, I happened to be learning about honor killings.

“Why isn’t what that boy did being called an honor killing?” I thought to myself. “Why does everyone keep discussing it in Shakespearean terms they learned in 9th grade English? If the killer looked like my brother, I don’t think white people would be using that language to describe what he did.” Apparently, the perpetrator wasn’t exotic enough for white Christians to classify his patriarchal violence as an honor killing, and at the victim’s funeral, a group of white girls whispered to each other in aspirational tones, wrongly comparing their classmate’s femicide to the double-suicide they’d read about in Romeo and Juliet. My alma mater’s principal, a Catholic priest, led a memorial mass during which he urged the student body not to judge their classmate’s killer, implying that to do so would bring dishonor to the boy’s family. The principal’s attempt to spare the killer from moral judgement speaks to what feminist philosopher Kate Manne has termed misogyny’s “entitled sense of shame…” 

Zakaria moves beyond critique and offers four prescriptions, some attitudinal and others structural, for intersectional transformation. In sum, these suggestions amount to what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has termed “breaking up with whiteness.” Cottom likens this break up to fleeing from a death cult and while escaping such regimes poses risk, doing so is worthwhile. When I ran from a femicidal abuser who battered me for years, I understood that my bid for freedom imperiled me, increasing the possibility of post-separation violence and murder. The batterer had issued threats, explaining to me that me that I was his reason for living and that if I stole myself from him, my crime would be punishable by rape, torture, and death. I lived in fear of this punishment. I also lived in fear of him killing me for making his bed incorrectly. Realizing that I preferred to die for leaving, I crafted a safety plan and during the escape process, I learned about solidarity: The person who most aided me was a white trans man. He acted not as my savior but as a loving co-conspirator who honored my expertise when I told him what steps we could take to ensure my safety.

My co-conspirator’s actions demonstrate a point made by Zakaria, that whiteness is not a “biological category” but is, instead, a “set of practices and ideas that have emerged from a bedrock of white supremacy, itself the legacy of empire and slavery.” My co-conspirator broke up with white heteropatriarchy in order to help me free myself. Most break-ups start with critique and then transition into disruption and while the threat of violence looms over many separations, our freedom depends on departure.


Myriam Gurba is the author of the true-crime memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time. Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her writing has appeared in the Paris Review, the Believer, TIME, and Harper’s Bazaar. She lives in Long Beach, California. Follow her on Twitter @lesbrains.

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