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Koa Beck’s new book examines how white feminism’s commodification and systematic exclusions are rooted in a knotted history of racism. By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.

Feminist writer and editor Koa Beck

Writer Koa Beck.
Credit: Martha Stewart

“This is my set,” says Koa Beck, laughing. On the other end of the Zoom call, she’s sitting in front of a dark brown bookshelf stacked with copies and posters of her new book. It looks like a signing table at an author event – not that any signings are happening at the moment.

Beck is in Los Angeles, where she lives with her father and wife, Astrid Larson, in a house her grandparents built in 1951. The couple moved back to the family home from New York City just before the Covid-19 shutdown to care for her unwell father. As with so many conversations now, we begin by comparing pandemic experiences. Beck tells me her father has just received his first vaccination – “a huge relief”.

It’s an easy conversation, like chatting to a friend. Over our hour-long call, Beck is affable and casual, punctuating her sentences with “like”, “you know” and “right”. The conversation flits between friendly small talk and a more rigorous intellectual discussion as we dive into the themes of her new book, White Feminism, a meticulously researched and damning history of the movement’s roots in exclusion.

Beck, who will be appearing via video-link at the Sydney Opera House next month as part of the ninth All About Women festival, knows a thing or two about the pervasiveness of white feminism. She’s held senior roles at Marie Claire and Vogue, and from 2017 to 2018 was editor-in-chief of Jezebel, one of the defining online feminist publications of the 2010s. Her tenure at Jezebel was especially timely – she started there just weeks after #MeToo started trending, invigorating a new wave of mainstream feminist discourse.

But Beck’s understanding of race politics began long before her career in media, before she even had the language to describe it. She was born in Hawaii to a white father and a Black mother, relocating to Los Angeles at the age of three. Her ethnically ambiguous looks allowed her the privilege of “passing” for white, as she detailed in a 2013 essay for Salon – and later, after coming out as queer at 17, she found she passed for straight, too.

“With my invisibility has come her privilege, an experience that has undeniably marked most of my life,” she wrote of her “straight white doppelganger”, citing sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness – the perception of oneself through the eyes of the oppressor.

Beck’s second formative experience of race was O. J. Simpson’s murder trial from 1994-95. “I have a memory of the news footage clicking over to the white Ford Bronco hurtling across the freeway in LA,” she says. “I remember my mum, dad and grandparents talking about the racial dynamics of that trial, and O. J. going up against this system that had very specific ideas about Black men and Black people.”

She carried this knowledge with her through teenagehood, when it merged with her discovery of feminism through publications such as Bitch and Bust. At this time, in the mid-2000s, feminism wasn’t mainstream in younger circles. “When I was a teenager, it was very divisive to say that you were a feminist,” she remembers. “People mocked you, they made fun of you, they thought you were angry all the time.”

While at college studying French and English, Beck became an avid reader of Jezebel and Feministing, and was taken by the way in which the websites modernised feminism. “I studied a lot of gender theory and feminist theory, but it was very sanitised and scholastic,” she says. “When I started spending more time on Feministing and Jezebel, it was a lot more accessible and interesting, reading people taking things that I studied in a feminist social ethics class and applying it to Britney Spears or Mary J. Blige. It seemed a lot more colloquial, a lot more conversational.”

After graduation, Beck self-published a novel and freelanced writing literary criticism and short stories. Her move into the media sphere coincided with the rise of fourth-wave feminism – and the rapid commodification of the movement – in the early 2010s.

“The timing of my career follows a very specific time line in that all of a sudden, feminism was in, so it became very du jour to hire somebody with a background like mine,” she says. “A lot of women’s publications were hiring a gender editor or feminist editor. The fact that I was fluent in certain conversations was deemed an asset by my employers. But then I started to realise, as I took these jobs and worked in these spaces, that when I said the term ‘feminist’ and thought about a whole host of issues, it wasn’t the same as a lot of the women who hired me or who I worked with.”

In White Feminism, Beck lists examples from her career, such as an editor at Marie Claire dismissing a story about transgender men’s birthing options as “niche”, and another editor telling her that a photograph of a white woman in a power suit “told the story faster” than a photograph of a Black woman. This centring of dominance – whiteness, cisgenderism, heterosexuality – falls under the umbrella of white feminism: a failure or refusal to take an inclusive approach, paying lip-service to progress while allowing ruling structures to remain fundamentally unchallenged.

After Beck began working at Jezebel, she began to do more speaking engagements and noticed that in the post-Me Too landscape, as mainstream feminist literacy increased, white feminism was coming up more and more. “There was always a young person that would raise their hand and ask me about white feminism, and I really took that to heart,” she says.

“When these young people would ask me these questions, they were describing basically running up against white feminist ideologies – for example, the same women who they went to the Women’s March with, they’d been trying to get to go to a Black Lives Matter protest, and they would not go. What does that reveal about the feminism of your friends, your colleagues or your family?”

These constant questions inspired Beck to write about white feminism. She didn’t want to write an essay collection or a memoir: “I wanted to do something very large in scope, something deeply researched,” she says. She left Jezebel and was awarded the Joan Shorenstein Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2019 to research and write a paper, “Self-Optimization in the Face of Patriarchy: How Mainstream Women’s Media Facilitates White Feminism”, which she expanded into the book.

Drawing from a vast array of sources and perspectives, White Feminism is an ambitious historical document, reaching back into the suffragette movement and moving through to the current day to show Western feminism’s historic allegiance with capitalism, white supremacy, self-interest and what Beck calls “a fundamental lack of imagination”. She analyses the modern corporate world and popular protest movements to reveal that, despite the appearance of progress, nothing much has changed. As she writes, “White feminism isn’t new, but it has found new life.”

Beck emphasises that despite its name, white feminism is not just about race – it’s about striving to individually climb the ladder within a capitalist, patriarchal system, rather than collectively working to abolish it and improve conditions for everyone. She points to Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 self-help book Lean In, which encourages women to aspire to the corporate positions of men, as the manifesto of the movement. “White feminism is an ideology and a practice, and it can really be practised by anyone,” she says.

Years after her initial recognition of the privileges of passing for a white heterosexual, Beck sees that her ambiguous appearance is something her employers used to their advantage, too. “Because I’m so light and conventionally feminine, I have noticed that power structures – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly – use me to basically inoculate themselves against accusations of racism,” she says. “One of the things that I wanted to challenge directly with this book was that, if I am your definition of progress, that doesn’t challenge power. A lot of people who share my sexual orientation, who share my racial make-up, aren’t necessarily going to walk through the world the same way.”

White Feminism arrives at a cultural tipping point, when conversations about race and privilege are happening more and more. After the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction in 2020, there was a spike in sales for literature around race, as well as an increase in passive activism. But we need more than optics, Beck says.

“I think this speaks to a lot of the rhythms by which people engage with the news or discourse on race – you’re aware that people are watching you and so you have to position yourself in a certain way rather than actually unlearn something,” she says. “The threshold is actually structural change, not just a bunch of black squares or people being photographed – whether that’s grassroots activism or our government actually acknowledging what happened with systemic changes.”

One topic we continually return to is the centring of the self in modern feminism. It’s something in which websites such as Jezebel traded extensively in the 2010s, with first-person essays that revealed sensitive personal details of the writer’s life in what Slate’s Laura Bennett called “the first-person industrial complex”. Post-Me Too, it’s back, and it’s complicated: on one hand, the personal is political and there’s power in owning one’s story and using it to help others, but on the other, there’s the solipsism and the unease of having one’s trauma exploited for profit – another boon for neoliberalism.

“That was a very, very fraught time and a lot of women’s publications, mainstream and otherwise, participated in this churn of gender trauma,” Beck says. “If that was the vehicle by which we were slowly understanding gender and feminism, it kind of reveals a major artery in white feminism, because the heart of that ideology is to remain very self-interested and be very individualised in the way that you think about oppression.”

It continues, in a way: in the age of social media, white feminism has found a new vehicle through influencer culture, where empowerment is a product or personality. In the book, Beck warns against anointing a single person the face of change: “It’s here that this narrative of an individualised ascension within a feminist context or landscape is often popularised, and where issues of social justice, activist tendencies and political ideologies are captured as highly specified singular radicalisms rather than part of bigger movements.”

The irony of writing this piece – the first time she’s ever been profiled, she tells me – isn’t lost on me. I ask Beck how she reconciles this cognitive dissonance – after all, she’s promoting a book and speaking at events that cost money to attend.

“I actually really appreciate the question, because I thought about this a lot when I signed the contract for my book and committed to commodifying my intellectual ideas,” she says. “I am very adamant that I am not a brand. I’m doing a lot of work to make sure that the book is robustly available in library archives. I’ve made sure that most of my talks are free. I’ve been trying to find ways to complicate my book as a product so that people can engage with these conversations without the threshold of money.”

White Feminism’s final chapters are a call to arms, laying out what Beck calls the three pillars of change: visibility over privilege, fighting the systems that hold marginalised genders back, and holding everyone – including women – accountable for abuse. Through writing the book, Beck’s own understanding of what a more inclusive feminism can achieve has blown open.

“Mainstream feminism has been very successful in saying, ‘This is what we can accomplish with what we have,’ ” she says. “Coming off this book and seeing so much of what other gender movements have accomplished and the way that they’ve communicated empowerment, I feel like so much is possible when you move away from a white feminist ideology.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "White out".

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Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese–Australian writer based in Melbourne.