In most states of America, the bar examination (the final hurdle which new lawyers must surmount to be admitted to the practice of law) is held twice a year, in February and again in July. It is a notoriously gruelling test, 17 hours over two full days, with the timings working out at about two minutes per question over hundreds of questions. Typically, candidates finish each paper with just seconds to spare.
I graduated from law school in May 2003, which meant I sat the bar exam in July. The first day’s testing would begin at 9am and end promptly at 5pm. This was not a problem. But the second day’s exam began at 9am and ended at 6pm. Six o’clock was a problem.
As well as being a law student, I was a single mother to a daughter and a migrant in the US — I knew only a handful of people in Indiana, none of whom I could ask to babysit. I had to pick up my toddler from the campus daycare at 5.30pm every day. After that time I would be charged $20 for every minute which passed. I should add that I was not only a single mother, I was a poor single mother who could not afford many minutes of daycare overtime.
None of this, of course, could be explained to anyone who mattered. My experience through three years of law school had taught me that lesson more forcefully than any on the syllabus: if the rigid rules weren’t written with you in mind, no one wanted to know. If you needed to pump breastmilk and the bathrooms were filthy and crowded, that was your problem. It was just too hard to change things, the wooden-faced administrators told me repeatedly. Instead of expecting accommodations, I just had to be better than my fellow students and finish the exam half an hour early.
In the weeks prior to the test, I timed myself over and over again with a shorter time limit than everyone else. I improved but I couldn’t quite finish my practice exams the full half-hour early. I kept pushing and the swampy Midwestern summer dragged on and soon enough the bar examination arrived. I completed the first day without a hitch and sped frantically through the second as best I could, finishing at 5.31pm, tossing in my paper and racing to the daycare centre. I clocked in at 5.35pm — incurring a $100 fine — and I counted this a victory. Two months later, I received the news that I had passed the bar, and a month after that I was sworn in as a fully-fledged attorney.
This incident was a turning point in my life. I was born in Pakistan, married at 17, living in a domestic violence shelter by 23 and divorced soon after. Becoming a lawyer was the near-impossible goal that had motivated me obsessively for years: the promise of freedom. While I was studying law at university, my home was a room and a half in a part of town where people were poor enough to steal the quarters out of the machines in the 24-hour laundromat.
However, even that unlikely victory did not mean that I, in all my brown-ness and all my Muslim-ness, felt recognised or accepted as a feminist. Against White Feminism is a book about why and how this is still true. Whiteness is at the core of the “girlboss” brand of feminism that puts the individual at the centre and everything else at the periphery. And its consequence is a careerist, gate-kept movement, its boundaries encircling a tight cabal of white women who dominate the discourse in every realm.
The book is about why mainstream feminism is failing and what we should do about it. Through the book, I examine how white institutions (and the institution of whiteness itself) fail to respond to the needs and experiences of people of colour, instead reproducing traditions of dominance and narratives of superiority to maintain their monopoly on power. I explain how the history of feminism has been tainted by the unspoken inequities of white supremacy — and how the lives of black and brown women like me are hemmed in by systems that either exploit them as tokens or exclude them altogether.
The lives of black and brown women are hemmed in by systems that either exploit them as tokens or exclude them altogether
We inhabit a moment when the racialised parameters of power and scales of value are being recast in exciting new ways. It is a moment of hope, but at the same time writing a book about whiteness during this racial turmoil is incredibly daunting — in some ways it feels a bit like trying to finish the bar exam early.
When I was a student, I felt unseen and unheard by an education system wilfully uninterested in accommodating the needs of a broke single mother with no support network. Those gatekeepers of social mobility, individual security and the power to change things for the better (or the worse) did not consider it their responsibility to make such opportunities accessible to all. My challenge was to win a place in this world of privilege in spite of everything stacked against me.
Back in 2003, I fought for my own and my daughter’s freedom. Now I am fighting for all women like me, black and brown women, and really for women of any race who are committed to justice and to a world of meaningful equity for all. It is difficult to get people to listen to this message, but it is also difficult to finish the bar examination early. I succeeded last time; I hope I can once more.
Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria is out on Thursday, £14.99, Hamish Hamilton