Dear Fellow White Ladies

I want to talk about racism and feminism. Oof, that sounds really big and it is, but well, it’s been in the air lately, like pollen. And like pollen, this discussion has the chance to make everyone extremely uncomfortable. However, when pollen finds its place, it leads to the creation of new fruit. This discussion has the chance to bear fruit (do I get a prize now for squeezing the most out of a metaphor?).

I attended a women and white privilege seminar recently. It was run by a very lovely woman who loved words like “healing” and “goddess.” After an introduction to privilege, we jumped into a conversation that focused specifically on white female privilege. As she was careful to point out, as women, we are an oppressed group, but as white people, we are the oppressors. This intersection between race and gender can be difficult to navigate, but navigate it we must.

The United States is quickly become a racial and ethnic plurality. In my neck of the woods, the nearest major city is not majority white. The future is here ““ we are living it. While the achievements of mainstream feminism cannot be discounted, the changing racial and ethnic landscape demands a similar shift in feminism. White women cannot continue to steer the mainstream feminist movement without regard for their sisters of color. (Please note that this discussion is related but tangential to a discussion of feminism and womanism. For more information on womanism, please read this piece from Renee Martin who runs Womanist Musings.)

Even without such a demographic shift, allowing middle class white women to dictate the direction and tempo of mainstream feminism is wholly unsustainable. It’s unsustainable not only because it ignores the poor women, women of color, queer women, trans women, disabled women, but because it fails to recognize the basic principle that we’re all bound together. I know that’s cheesy as fuck, but there is no way we live in nice, neat, self-contained bubbles.

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” (Australian Aboriginal Group)  We cannot be free of the patriarchal oppression until all women are free.

And that’s why I am talking to us, white ladies. Did you read that wonderful piece by hepshiba at the dailykos? Please read it if you have not. In that piece, hepshiba discusses her work with feminist organizations led by white women which paid lip service to diversity, but ultimately, did nothing to stop racism and often chose to perpetuate it. These groups dedicated to serving women and the ideals of feminism failed women, all women. If we are to be feminists, we cannot perpetuate oppression towards our sisters of color.

Anti-racism must become a key tenet in feminism. We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. We need to learn to shut up. We need to learn to step back. We need to accept that feminism, if it is to continue and be successful, must change in its goals, its organization, and its leadership. We must be flexible. We must make our spaces safe and welcoming, but we must not expect anyone to want to work with us and we absolutely cannot expect to be allowed in every space. Accessible, but with no expectations.

I’m not saying we should stop fighting the battles we’ve been fighting. Nor am I saying that we must charge in willy-nilly, with our White Savior cape and our vial of White Women’s Tears, with no knowledge of or respect towards the work that is being done by women of color in their communities. That’s just a whole different flavor of bullshit.  What I am doing is calling for feminism to embrace anti-racism in words and in deeds. I am saying that we need to be active in the process of extending feminism beyond our perspective.

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22 Comments Dear Fellow White Ladies

  1. Avatar of CarkaCarka

    I found the phrase “poor women, women of color, queer women, trans women, disabled women” bizarre bordering on unpleasant – because I am a white woman who is both queer, and trans, and I’m very definitely middle class! I could make an argument that I ought also be considered ‘poor’, too.

    Maybe my reading of the word “class” is a US/UK thing, but I really do not see why you ought assume, for example, that there are no middle class women who are queer.

    1. Avatar of LittleGirlBlueLittleGirlBlue

      She’s referring to women who identify as part of a group that’s traditionally marginalized–she’s not saying you have to be all of them to qualify. That would really be kind of silly.

      1. Avatar of CarkaCarka

        Even without such a demographic shift, allowing middle class white women to dictate the direction and tempo of mainstream feminism is wholly unsustainable. It’s unsustainable not only because it ignores the poor women, women of color, queer women, trans women, disabled women, but because it fails to recognize the basic principle that we’re all bound together.

        I’ve read it again, and it still seems to say the silly thing. *shrug* Maybe I’m being too literal-minded.

        1. Avatar of KitzyKidKitzyKid

          I think that this could be cleared up for you by the author including “cisgendered” as a qualifier to being the kind of women to dictate the direction of feminism. It seems to be implied, but I don’t want to put words in her mouth.

          I also think that maybe you are right about the word “class” throwing you off, because for me being middle-class and being poor would be mutually exclusive.

          Being marginalized as a female doesn’t mean you can’t also be marginalized for being part of another group, but I think that the point here is that if feminism is directed in a way that only deals with issues faced by middle class white women without any consideration to issues faced by people who might also be queer, or might be a different race, a lot of women are being left behind by the movement.

          1. Avatar of Ailanthus-altissimaAilanthus-altissima

            Yes, I should have included “cisgender” more throughout.

            Carka, I did not mean to imply that there are no middle class queer women. I apologize if I wasn’t clear – LittleGirlBlue and KitzyKid’s comments cover what I would have said. Also, thanks to your comment, I am now thinking about how my use of the word “class” could have different connotations to people living in the UK versus the US (where I am). I really appreciate that.

  2. Avatar of soitgoessoitgoes

    The problem with what you’re suggesting is that different kinds of activism often contradict each other. Supporting religious freedom (which goes hand-in-hand with anti-racism) sometimes necessitates allowing women to participate in misogynistic religions. Trans activism is essentialist (“If you feel like a woman, you have the right to also look like one”) in ways that contemporary feminism (looking like a biological woman doesn’t dictate anything else about you) is not. Asking us all to work together is assuming that everyone already agrees about everything, which will never happen.

      1. Avatar of soitgoessoitgoes

        No, but I don’t think it’s helpful to gloss over the reality that different forms of activism have vastly different goals that sometimes prevent them from working together. It’s not about “putting differences aside” and forging ahead. We all want different things. I mean, not everyone is liberal. Not everyone is progressive. Some people espouse rhetoric that’s flat-out incorrect, factually speaking.

    1. Avatar of KitzyKidKitzyKid

      I think that’s kind of a cop out. Even within any group not everyone agrees about everything, be it in a group against sexism or racism or whatever else, but we don’t just give up and say it will never get any better because of it. I don’t see how opening up a dialogue for white women to maybe consider not putting down and othering anyone who doesn’t fit in our little bubble of whiteness is a problem or a futile effort, even if it might contradict some of our existing notions about what we should think as feminists.

      1. Avatar of soitgoessoitgoes

        Of course conversations can happen, but they would very quickly reach a point where one side had to concede to the other just to keep the peace, even if they didn’t really agree on the point at hand. Your point is why I don’t always engage with other feminists. I have my own beliefs, and I don’t really care who agrees with me. I think “choose your choice” feminism is dumb and is often used to bolster anti-feminist actions.

        1. Avatar of KitzyKidKitzyKid

          So conversations with other groups are pointless and conversations with feminists who think differently than you do are pointless, because you probably won’t agree on things? I’ve learned the most from people that I often don’t agree with, and gained a whole lot of perspective from people with different beliefs.

          If you don’t want to engage with a differing opinion that is your call. It’s a lot easier to just continue on in one line of thinking and to disregard anything else as dumb or too different from your personal opinions to have merit.

      2. Avatar of LittleGirlBlueLittleGirlBlue

        I think kitzykid is right here. throwing up our hands and saying we have different viewpoints and can’t relate The End is a pretty sad state of affairs. I would argue that real feminism means that everyone has a space, and deserves equal right to that space, and respect, but I recognize not everybody aligns with that idea.
        I think the author was simply trying to say that we need to abandon the idea that feminism is strictly the purview of white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgendered women. And maybe different groups don’t identify with every principle–perhaps modern feminism is like a venn diagram. But surely, there’s that middle purple section that we all can see and fight for together, a fight that would be far more constructive than all of us fighting separately for our own thing. And perhaps in time, we’ll help each other fight the yellow, pink and pale blue sections that lie outside of our own personal boundaries, too. At least that would be nice.

    2. Avatar of MadGastronomerMadGastronomer

      Trans activism is essentialist (“If you feel like a woman, you have the right to also look like one”) in ways that contemporary feminism (looking like a biological woman doesn’t dictate anything else about you) is not.

      Bullshit. This is transphobic and deeply ignorant.

      Trans people DO have the right to transition, and to look, dress, and live their lives in ways they’re comfortable with, just like the rest of us do. It’s not essentialist. Go educate yourself.

      The rest of your bullshit is also bullshit (and, by the way, being a feminist should damned well mean allowing women to make their own decisions, including when they decide to be a part of a misogynistic religion). But I really felt I had to say something about that one.

      PS, when you come up with excuses like that for why feminists should not also be anti-racist, your bigotry is showing.

  3. Avatar of tart.tart.

    This is not a complete thought, so forgive me in advance.

    I think if white people are honest about their privilege – the deep, long, violent, systematic nature of it, and our role in it – one of the logical steps IS abandoning some of the battles we’ve been fighting, or at the very least redefining them so radically that the same words don’t work anymore. How do you give words to the shame of being called a slut in a world where Brisenia Flores and Aiyana Jones are murdered well before they reached puberty? How do you talk about consent but never mention women who feel powerless to deny consent or cannot contact police when they’ve been raped without threat of being deported? Well… I don’t. That’s not to say those aren’t conversations worth having, because I think they are. But in the real world, where everybody gets the same 24 hours a day, I cannot in good conscience dole out prime time minutes to my own navel gazing when the system rewards my educated, middle class, white ass right after the boys. I don’t want poor women, women of color, queer women, trans women, disabled women, etc to feel their issues are safe in my space. I want to live in a way that makes it clear I take the safety of all women just as personally as my own.

  4. Avatar of Professor SProfessor S

    Thank you for your post Ailanthus. It’s so weird, but I was googling today, and came upon Hepshiba’s post and actually responded to an earlier post by Miz Jenkins, linking the article.
    In a conversation with a white friend of mine, I described a conversation that I thought was troubling, and while I tried to articulate my feelings she said, well, you know you are dealing with, White Privilege. I always feel so validated when a person of Caucasian descent gets it; it gives me hope.
    My favorite quote in Hepshiba’s piece is:
    “most racists are happy being racists, and simply don’t want to change. But at the same time they want to be protected from accusations of racism, and resent anyone who makes them “feel bad” about it. White feminists are no different from other white people in that regard, as feminists of color well know. A few are truly committed to diversity and anti-racist action, but the majority of us are not, and get angry and nasty when we’re driven out of our comfort zone. In my estimation, however, a racist feminist is no feminist at all.”

    The reason I like it so much is because I find this is true no matter the subject. Human beings, when challenged and pushed out of their comfort zone resist, some vociferously. Except we can’t really claim to be inclusive, progressive or open-minded when we are doing that.

  5. Avatar of [E] pileofmonkeys[E] pileofmonkeys

    This is excellent. I’ve been tryng to articulate something like this for a while now, and failing, and you said it exactly. I think that issues of race and feminism are so inextricably tied that it’s naive to think that by attempting to advance feminism as it stands now that we’re advancing for all women.

    “We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. We need to learn to shut up. We need to learn to step back. We need to accept that feminism, if it is to continue and be successful, must change in its goals, its organization, and its leadership. We must be flexible. We must make our spaces safe and welcoming, but we must not expect anyone to want to work with us and we absolutely cannot expect to be allowed in every space.”

    This is critical. Of all of the lessons I learned from race discussions at Other Ladyblog, the most important one was: shut up and listen. Stop trying to make it about you. Read. Learn. Seek out reasons why people are saying what they’re saying. Educate yourself. So many of us start out with such a narrow worldview. It’s up to us to correct that for ourselves.

  6. Avatar of seekwillseekwill

    Thank you for linking to Renee Martin at Womanist Musings. People in the past have complained about her tactics (really a tone argument, I think), but I’m a big fan. Regularly reading her work has made me so much more aware of my privilege. When I started reading WM, about three years ago, I noticed that a lot of posts made me really uncomfortable. Instead of instantly firing back a comment on the post, I just read more and tried to pinpoint why exactly I felt uncomfortable. In that search I think I learned a lot about my own privilege and how to confront it. WM helped me understand that confronting and fighting white privilege is ultimately my responsibility. As a white feminist, I shouldn’t automatically assume that a woman or color is going to give me all the answers.

    I think that daily-kos article you posted pinpoints exactly why so many white feminists don’t take the time to really devote themselves to anti-racism: it’s hard. It is so easy to throw up your hands and say “I don’t want to deal with this today,” walk away and forget about it. It’s really easy to do that. What so many of us forget is that women of color can’t get up and walk away that frustration. It’s lived, and if white feminists really want to make a difference we can’t give up when the going gets tough. We have to keep really listening and hearing what others have to say. We can’t be lazy.

    I’m still learning all this, or course, but it’s great to see others thinking in a similar vein.

    Great post! Thank you!

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