Women are angry, and rightfully so.
I only have to write the words “Brett Kavanaugh” — a series of events so deeply disturbing in their unmasking of elite frat boy rape culture that I stopped my compulsive news watching for three weeks after — to convey how deeply US women are under attack by the Trump regime.
As white women in particular are justifiably encouraging each other to let out their anger in the face of the current administration, it’s important to be honest and transparent about the ways that white women in feminist movements have attempted to downplay and silence the anger of women of color, especially when it comes to racism and white women’s failure to take action to dismantle it.
Let us remember: even as white women marched in D.C. and around the country for the Women’s March on Inauguration Day 2017, 52% of white women voted to elect Trump president in the first place. More recently, in the Congressional midterm elections, white women “backed Democrats and Republicans evenly,” according to The New York Times, at a time when the GOP has thousands of brown children locked in cages and is in open alliance with white nationalists.
If you, like me, are a white woman, take a moment to think about that last sentence. White women, despite all the protestations and think pieces and unpaid emotional labor by women of color since the last time white female voters statistically sold them out, were still as likely to vote for the party of vitriolic white supremacy and creeping neo-fascism. If I’m this disgusted by the dismal state of my fellow US white women’s minds and hearts in 2018, I can only imagine the familiar gut punch of betrayal women of color must be experiencing.
For too long, white women’s fragility with respect to issues of race have traumatized and alienated women of color from white-dominated feminist movements. White fragility, according to sociologist Robin DiAngelo, is an “isolated environment of racial protection [that] builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress,” given that North American white people “live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress.”
“White fragility,” explains DiAngelo, “is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves … includ[ing] the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
Because white people aren’t under attack by the structural racism created by a white power structure, they’re able to deny its realities. Casting themselves as the victims in discussions about racism, many white people defensively deflect from the issue, complaining that it’s actually people of color causing racial division (“race-baiting”) by pointing out its existence in the first place.
The following are four ways that white feminists exhibit white fragility in continuing to downplay and silence women of color’s anger at racism. When we’re able to identify these dynamics, we can become better at intervening in them and, as white women, refuse to perpetuate them.
Many white women, in a combination of our gender socialization as well as our white fragility, grow up with the message that crying can “get us out” of tough situations. Pulled over by a cop? Apparently if you’re a white woman, you can avoid more severe repercussions by eliciting empathy through your tears. Meanwhile, Black women like Sandra Bland haven’t had that luxury, to put it mildly.
Being called out for our behavior isn’t comfortable or easy, fellow white women. I get that. I’ve been there. As both someone committed to social justice and a people pleaser, it’s absolutely gutting to me to realize I’ve done something wrong and not been as thoughtful as I could be. However, in the moment of realizing we harmed others, it’s not about us. Making it about us actually upholds racism, because we’re allowing our own emotions to take center stage over the truths of those we’ve negatively impacted.
If you’re distraught over the pain you’ve caused to the point where you want to cry, take a moment to collect yourself and then process those feelings later with other white people in order not to further extract emotional labor from women of color. If you’re crying for other reasons, like feeling attacked or judged or losing public credibility, take time to rethink your priorities.
Focusing on intent versus impact.
When called out for participating in or enabling racism (as all white women have done in our lives to different degrees by virtue of being socialized into whiteness and holding racial privilege over people of color), white feminists, shocked and embarrassed, will often claim that they weren’t intending to do anything racist. Therefore, they argue, they shouldn’t have to be held accountable — any criticism by a person of color was all a misunderstanding, overreaction, or both. I’ve had Black friends my whole life! a white woman may say. I’m a loving person who cares about everyone! You don’t know my heart.
Intentions are important; after all, they’re a core part of a person’s character. However, our intentions don’t always translate into how our actions come across. When we wound others, that wounding matters, despite having not meant to do so. When white feminists dismiss how their actions have impacted women of color, we’re not doing the hard work necessary for solidarity-building and authentic human connection across difference. Taking accountability for how we uphold racism, even if we didn’t mean to uphold it, is the only way to move forward and do our job in dismantling white supremacy.
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I don’t see race, so why do you? This is a common white refrain in responding to the reality of racism. The ideology of colorblindness is something most white people grow up with, often (ironically) as a way of thinking we’re being racially respectful. If we look past race to see people as individuals, we’re winning at this whole anti-racism thing, right?
In the words of Pat Parker, in his 1978 poem “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend”:
“The first thing you do is to forget that I’m black. Second, you must never forget that I’m black.”
Seeing people in all their complexity, versus only as their racial background, is important. At the same time, racism exists, and people of color are poorly treated as a result. To ignore race, as white feminists have for far too long, is to ignore this ongoing reality, and it does nothing to intervene in white supremacy. In addition, as a white person, ignoring the reality of race is testament to equating difference with something negative or off-putting.
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I’ve seen it in so many discussions: white women telling women of color that maybe they have a point, but it’s hard to listen to it because said women of color aren’t delivering their truths in as soft and palatable a way as the white women would prefer. You’re making it harder for (white) people to listen to you when you act so angry!
Women of color’s anger is just as valid as white women’s. White women, do you accept the idea that our rage should be toned down when we express it to men? Should we always be nice after a lifetime of sexual harassment and intrusion, feeling unsafe and self-hating in our own bodies, and constantly picked apart by society? If your answer is hell no, why do you expect differently from women of color?
Further, women of color, especially Black and Latina women, are already subjected to racist and misogynist stereotypes in society that make it harder for them to assert themselves in distressing situations and be treated seriously. The “angry Black woman” and “spitfire Latina” tropes reinforce the idea that these groups of women are inherently “too much” emotionally. In casting women of color as irrational and “playing the race card,” white supremacy can continue unabated. Why add to that oppression, white women?
If any of us are going to move forward and build the equitable world we all deserve, we must be willing to embrace radical humility and empathy. Maintaining an air of defensiveness and self-righteousness when confronted with our wrongdoings will never heal anyone’s souls or promote a better society. White women, we can do better. There’s no better time than today to examine ourselves with honesty and change our actions. Our sisters of color deserve better.
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