Against the Prevailing Order: Why We Must Deconstruct “White Feminism”

The violence of coloniality, Ana Vilenica and Ivana Pražić argue in their contribution to the text series “Black Box East,”, is either ignored or not sufficiently understood by white feminists – and thus reproduced in the course of this. Scrutinizing the toxic power structures of coloniality in East Europe at large and Serbia in particular, the two researchers urgently call for a deconstruction of white feminism and a struggle against “whiteness.”


The Roma women in Tsigane mahalas did not listen to rock or punk music (yeah!) as well-known and (self)attested criteria of self-consciousness and emancipation particularly in the Balkans, and given that they usually married early in life they were all set to be sent off to conveyor belts of the greater-Serbian feminism. It has always been Greater and Serbian, although it has mostly been anti-nationalist. It has always been a glorious salvationist greater-white-Serbian sightless (appologies to the blind folks), or colourblind feminism.

Rather than being a personal indictment, “white feminism” refers to a political position that promotes white supremacy through gender equality efforts.Nevertheless, in the predominantly white (East) European country of Serbia this seems to be difficult to grasp.Any issues raised against almost exclusively liberal progressive gender politics, as practiced by NGO-ized “feminist scene” in Serbia, are heard as a personal assault on self-consciously benevolent feminist groups and individuals:

“This is so not right. I know this group of women well, they have been on the scene for years. I can testify that they are doing things the right way.” “This is so ungrateful!” “This is so unjust. It seems that the feminists are the greatest problem of racism in Serbia.”

These comments were taken from a recent (November 2021) Facebook discussion but they exemplify well the usual line of (passive) aggressive argumentation which the feminist establishment typically employs to dismiss sharp criticism. Especially criticism by the only critical whiteness and race studies non-white theoretician, philosopher, and poet in Serbia: Jelena Savić, who has been active on social media and other publicly accessible (digital) spaces for a good number of years now.

The above responses are typical of white feminist affective strategies elsewhere, though. In her book White tears/Brown scars (2019) Australian scholar, author, and journalist Ruby Hamad explains how white tears function as a manipulative tactic of risk management to protect whiteness and white power by claiming victimhood and hurt feelings. Although white tears are often shed within feminist circles in Serbia, whiteness and genealogical coloniality of feminism are never discussed in those color-blind spaces. This is the case despite the availability of translations of Adrienne Rich’s works since the late 1970’s and popularity of Audrie Lord’s writings among feminist and lesbian activist circles since the late 1980’s. And despite the centuries-long presence of nonwhite bodies of the Roma and other non-Serbian people in the culture, history, and politics of (pre)modern Serbia.

When it suits their liberal-progressive emancipatory agendas – for instance, when supporting the campaigns against teenage marriages or against intersectional violence and discrimination of the queer Roma – feminists in Serbia decidedly applaud to Roma feminist and queer activists. More often than not, however, such alliances come at a dire emotional cost. At various occasions we have witnessed divas of feminist, lesbian, and peace activism wipe their sympathetic tears to acknowledge the publicly (or privately) staged confessions of Roma who survived intersectional violence. When confronted with the self-image of benevolent armchair white saviouresses (with all its colonial genealogical legacy) feminist celebrities readily throw some of the above expressions of dismissal at the trouble-maker.

The feminist establishment in Serbia is unanimously sightless of its whiteness. How long is the history of feminist political and cultural whiteness in Serbia? And how has it been enacted? To try to answer these questions, we will shortly delineate a history of white(ning) Serbia and its antiziganism by following the line of argumentation which addresses these issues as offered by the only Roma critical race theoretician in Serbia, Jelena Savić.

East European racial exceptionalism

The Roma from Tsigane mahalas are perfectly fit for such Eurocentric projection of grandeur, the one modeled after the Christian god-loving ideal of virgin [sic.] Maraya and intended for all those women who emerged from socialism feeling reinvigorated and with a sense of creational power, having experienced the freedom-loving decade of the 1960’s and stories of brotherhood and unity, riding on the wings of Tito the Yachtie’s colonial Non-Alignment Movement. Carried by the waves of a fantastic manoeuvre of conceptualizing racism without race and engaging the entire repertoire of Orientalism and postcolonial thought to position the whitie’s Balkans in opposition to Western Europe, Serbian feminists abused Tsigane mahala as exemplary case studies so that it has become hard to imagine anything other than how those very feminists and their female progeny, the very saint mothers and virgin Marayas, cast their saintly mantras at Tsigane mahala. So much so that all Marayas of Europe have united in bowing before and howling over the Romani women’s ill fate in performing their saintly quintessence. Jelena Savić

In their book chapter “Race and Racism in Eastern Europe: Becoming White Becoming Western” Law and Zacharov argue that “the East European ‘search for race’ and the striving to ‘attain whiteness’, can be understood as attempts to rediscover the privileged whiteness that has been partly lost during the socialist past”. Since in the European Cold War Eastern bloc ethnic and racial identities were actively discouraged, as they argue, racism was relegated to the U.S. and southern Africa as the concept of race was (purportedly) outlawed in the Eastern bloc enabling the region’s claims of the dismissal of racism. We may add that in Yugoslavia this went hand in hand with anti-imperialist and anti-colonial aspirations which enabled the country to join the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) as the only (predominantly) white and European member state.

The concept of “racial exceptionalism” helps us understand how East Europeans benefited from the privileges associated with whiteness without suffering from the white guilt of imperialism and slavery as Anikó Imre, a critical race and whiteness scholar in East European studies, has underlined in her key note lecture delivered at the conference Historicizing “Whiteness“ in Eastern Europe and Russia held in 2019. Deployment of racial exceptionalism was in part the effect of a self-serving manipulation of the historicized racialization of Eastern Europeans as not fully white which is why it remains within the conceptual framework of western historical colonialism. From within the other side of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europeans, with their alternative, communist modernity, were denied full access to whiteness ideologically conflated in the West with liberal democracy.

In fact, Serbia was envisaged as part of the backward East long before its Yugoslavian or communist historical chapters. Thus, in the mid-19th century, during the Crimean War, the British Army commissioned a philological research on the Oriental languages of “Eastern nations” inhabiting Western parts of the Russian and Turkish empires, including the Russian and “the Bulgarian, Servian, and other neighbouring Slavonian dialects”. Some 70 years earlier and riding high on the wave of European Enlightenment, an Austro-Hungarian Empire-born Serbian teacher, monk and modernizer/reformer Dositej Obradović praised (Western) European science and rationality as the pinnacles of humanity and the exact opposites of the backward, ignorant, and barbaric societies of the peoples of Africa (and Asia alike). Doing so, he anticipated the post-“communist” sentiments of East Europeans by 200 years while also leaving us a modern historical record of antiziganism in Serbia.

One of the early U.S. Cold Warriors and ideologues George Kennan claimed that the USSR’s inclination towards dictatorship and despotism were due to its “partly Asian” identity understood as an outcome of the long-term exposure to “Asiatic hordes” (rather than the ethnic composition of the country) along with – in a gesture of slavization – the annihilation of the pre-bolshevik westernized Russian elite after the 1917 Revolution. The conflation of “Asia” (or “the East”) with dictatorship is itself a Cold War transliteration of a colonial Western tradition to diagnose China (and other Asian or Eastern polities) as inherently despotic in their governing modalities.

The post-Cold War transition to (Western) European modernity had important repercussions for the intensive auto-racialization process which assumed whiteness to (East European) Serbian identity differentiating it from its Others. The discrediting of “brotherhood and unity” together with international anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism and the re-acceptance of nation and race, nationalism and racism as constitutive elements of European identity brought Serbia closer to explicit racial thinking and acting despite the fact that “racial exceptionalism” has persisted into the current period as a shield from “white guilt.”

What has augmented “racial exceptionalism” in Serbia during the transition to racialized capitalism and its partial return to Europe via its peripheralization is the condition of incomplete rather than full whiteness. Contested whiteness has placed the dominant East European white populations simultaneously at the center and the margins of symbolic boundaries of whiteness. In the course of this these populations were turned into Other Whites and White Others, as Julija Halaj has argued in her doctoral theses.

In the pursuit of providing legitimacy to the new post-socialist nation-state and whitening its contested European whiteness Serbia racialized further its Roma minorities as an additional layer to already “poliracialized” histories of East Europe. Given the long history of the Roma migration to and settlement into Southeast Europe, however, antiziganism had been deposited in the region’s cultural memory by the late Middle Ages and normalized before the formation of modern nation-states. It seems that it is to this cultural history of the Romani marginalization and demonization that white feminism in Serbia turns a (color)blind eye, while diligently reading US-American black feminist literature. After all, out of sight, out of mind…

White sainthood of anti-mahala feminism

Mahalas have always been spaces of otherness for both Serbian feminists and other Serbs, but they are spaces of shaming, those which are painful, touchy, sacral, like stigmata. (…) Such was the forging of the Serbian anti-mahala racist feminism according to which it is impossible to fathom that in the Tsigane mahalas there could be anything valuable, useful, important or good for the Roma women, black dolls for their favorite games, dolls for which they wish to be the way they imagined them to be, the non-Roma playing, of course, the role of colorblind saviouresses in those games. Jelena Savić

According to recent research whiteness as a moral category in East Europe has been produced trough the assignment of racialized meaning to the realm of sex. This long-term power mechanism (which colonial Europe had also deployed to racialize against its black subjects) affected gender and sexuality regimes in Serbia to construct Roma women as subjects unable to fulfill hegemonic sexual and gender norms.

Similar to corporeality, spatial racializing has played a pivotal role in the formulation (auto)whitening strategies in both Eastern and Western Europe. As elsewhere, in the (history of) Europe, thus, feminism in Serbia has turned its emancipatory and corrective attention to Othering the spaces of Tsigane mahalas. As mahalas can be perceived as semi-autonomous urban fabrics where things are revoked and adjusted rather than solved in an enduring way, they are the spatial Others in the white imaginary of the city. Mahalas are conceptualized as spaces of filth, foul smell, criminality, illnesses, abuse of women, children, natural resources, and (often) animals, as well as uneducated and deviant sexual practices with no emancipatory potential at all. As Jelena Savić rightly points out, white feminism in Serbia places the space of the mahala in the realm of white feminist shame. In such an affective spatial regulation, the mahala becomes a metonym for backwardness and plight of Roma women, a space awaiting to be annihilated by white (here: Serbian) feminist salvation (here: relocation) of its Roma women as a condition to and a result of their emancipation.

Although feminism in Serbia has at least nominally been anti-nationalist for the past three decades, along with its (self)rejection of particular (Balkan) nationalism(s), it uncritically adopted universal (hence: white) categories of progress. Doing so, it failed to critically address the white settlement history behind this progress or the historicized whiteness of the color-blind continent in the country’s geography, if not geopolitics. The pro-EU politics which has qualified both the current, post-2012 (rightist) and the previous (progressive) government in Serbia has enabled the adoption of the EU model for achieving intersectional (i.e. gender and racial) equality for Roma women through projects coordinated by non-Roma experts while, at the same time, re-admitting the (often violently) rejected Romani asylum seekers from across the EU in droves and taking part in the gentrification of mahalas as spaces of either the EU’s or private “development” interest.

The EU programs depend on a homogenized Roma identity comprising different ethnic, confessional, national, racial, geographical, and linguistic communities. Packed in this way, the so-called Roma issue can be depoliticized, culturally white-washed and supposedly solved in a techno-managerial way entailing a dialogue between the state and the civil society conducted on the national level. Nevertheless, as Jelena Savić has shown, this approach is based on an endless reproduction of policy papers and reports in which Roma women are turned into ghost-like subjects devoid of agency.

In her recent work Savić introduced a concept ofwhite feminist sainthoodthat can be of help in understanding how white feminism has been enacted on Roma women, the “black dolls” from the above quote. The game of saviouresses is played throughout Europe (both EU and Non-EU-East Europe) and in Serbia. As such this game is enabling well-intendeded feminists to shed white tears over black scars. The latter are imagined to stem from the inherently patriarchal, backward, primitive, pre-modern, and homogeneous Romani culture of slums, especially regarding the issues such as early marriages and large families.

In this way, the feminist elite in Serbia reiterates the kind of colonial salvation strategy deployed by the 19th-century missionary women complicit in what Gayatri Spivak described as the phenomenon of “[w]hite men saving- brown-women from brown men”. By leaving the racial hierarchy unaddressed in their gendered emancipatory endeavors, feminists in Serbia work on behalf of the (invisible) white men (here: Serbs), the dominant patriarchal beneficiaries of Serbian society whose nationalist and misogynist politics their supposedly anti-nationalist agenda seeks to overturn. But the assimilation into which the Roma women should aspire to in their allegedly upwards movement to emancipation. It is the power of racial (self-)exceptionalism, however, that enables the conflation of the centuries-old settler-colonial feminist interventions with contemporary feminist agendas in Serbia, while keeping them unsighted though applied in the Roma settings. And it is the same “magic” that enables this elite to pay lip service to the (Western) black feminist literature and activism while not only ignoring, but publicly shaming and demonizing the only non-white feminist and critical race studies theoretician in Serbia, Jelena Savić. But the shame is all yours, “sisters”…

Mahala feminism

White feminism in Serbia (as elsewhere in Europe) has a glaring blind spot: mahala feminism. This blind spot neglects brown mahala women’s endurance of a systemic exposure to extraction and dispossession as a consequence of European white policies, racialized privatization of land as well as the erasure and exploitation of racialized (and gendered) labor force. In her recent book Hood Feminism, Mikki Kendall argues that food insecurity, access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues. However, the focus of white feminism is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few. Analogous to the hood feminism in the U.S. there is a Tsigane mahala feminism in Europe which entails Roma (in all the heterogeneity of the term) women’s struggle for better and more dignified life. If this struggle is informed by their experience, then this also includes the experience of oppression by white women.

Although Serbia as Europe’s semi-periphery has been exposed to various forms of (neo and auto) colonialism, feminism(s) in Serbia undoubtedly and predominantly uphold what is perceived, or enjoyed, as cultural and political whiteness. The foundation of that feminism in whiteness is not only a product of circumstances which qualify the entire region of East Europe, but a conscious choice of those who formulate and propagate such feminism to take part in preserving white privilege. White feminism in Serbia suffers from myopia in regard to how structures such as race, class, sexual orientation, and ability intersect with gender. Furthermore it reproduces racist and racialized policies that promote white supremacy and work against Roma women, automatically undermining the concept of solidarity by turning into white sorority.

Although in Serbia, as elsewhere, feminism seems to be plural both its champions and those acting from the margins, at times or persistently, take part in the institutionalization of white feminist politics and policies of solidarity, equality, and emancipation. And they do so despite all the lessons from the readily available black feminist literature and, foremost, the finely worded decolonial critique so generously shared by Jelena Savić. Or so we hear it from within our white clouds of dark consciousness.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. The list of references is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here:

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