Bette Midler shares myopic take on feminism

Amidst the anger, outcry, and protest leading up to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court, acclaimed actress and singer Bette Midler sent out a tweet quoting a controversial lyric from a John Lennon and Yoko Ono song. That tweet and a follow-up defending and attempting to explain her initial tweet, both of which have since been deleted, were met with intense backlash and led to a conversation on a continuing issue about the intersection of gender, race, and advocacy.

“‘Women, are the n-word of the world,’” Midler tweeted. “Raped, beaten, enslaved, married off, worked like dumb animals; denied education and inheritance; enduring the pain and danger of childbirth and life IN SILENCE for THOUSANDS of years[.]”

Criticism came immediately from The Atlantic reporter Jemele Hill and other Twitter users who responded that Midler had no right to use the offensive word.

Midler later apologized for her words, writing, “Angrily I tweeted w/o thinking my choice of words would be enraging to black women who doubly suffer, both by being women and by being black. I am an ally and stand with you; always have. And I apologize.”

But Midler’s comments point to a greater issue. Other than her use of the racial slur, she wrote of the afflictions of women: of rape, violence, forced marriages, servitude, and lack of opportunity. While all these are true, we must consider the context in which she wrote them. Admittedly, she wrote in anger in the midst of Kavanaugh’s nomination and impending confirmation. She wrote them about how women’s experiences are disregarded, but she also wrote without thinking about how her words would be viewed by women of color. She wrote from the perspective of white feminism.

White feminism is a difficult concept to describe. It isn’t singularly defined or finite. It is a continuous and constantly changing idea about gender and race. It encompasses the idea that white women do not and cannot have the sexist experiences of women of color, and do not consider that these differences exist. A white woman is a white feminist if she does not believe or understand her privilege.

There are many signs indicating a white feminist, but the greatest may be a white woman who does not understand that she, like all white people, benefit from a white-led society. White feminists are those so privileged that they are able to ignore systematic racism, bigotry, — and yes, some types of sexism — just because it does not apply to them.

The idea of white privilege makes white people uncomfortable; even for people who are advocates for equality, diversity, and representation, the idea of one’s own privilege is daunting, but it is so ingrained in society that it cannot be ignored.

Why has this become a conversation about race? Some may question why everything has to be about race or why we can’t just talk about sexism. But that’s the problem. Oppression and marginalization is intersectional. Race and gender — as well as class, nationality, disability, age, and sexuality — are interconnected and interdependent. You cannot talk about one without considering the other. White women will never understand the struggles of being a woman of color, but they can be an ally, they can give women of color a seat at the table that their privilege inherently provides. They can help women of color have a voice in these conversations.

To have this discourse, however, we must think before we speak and not spew our words in anger. Twitter, social media platforms, and the internet itself have given us avenues to do this like never before. It has given the voiceless voices, but it has also given people the liberty to say whatever they see fit. Unlike Midler, most Twitter users are not high-profile celebrities. Most will not be criticized for tone-deaf comments or white feminist tweets.

Most of the time, we don’t really consider the impact of our words, and what they mean to people who we don’t directly interact with, but we should. Midler's apology acknowledges this and the implication of her words. Hopefully, she will learn from this. Hopefully, we will learn from this. The only way to combat sexism and racism and all intersectional systems of marginalization is to do it together. We as a society can do better.