This article was originally published on louisaleontiades.com as “The Cowardice of White Women: Learning to Resist” and is republished with permission.
Some questions you don’t expect to have to ask in your lifetime, let alone answer. But with the rise of Trumpian fascism, a question has consistently rattled around my white woman’s brain: At what point would I put my own life on the line for others? How oppressed do others have to become for me to risk my own survival?
Growing up in Britain, my notions of fighting for the resistance were informed by watching wartime parodies like Allo Allo, where unwilling coward Rene Artois was roped into protecting refugees with stereotyped accents and recovering artifacts from the clutches of slapstick Nazis. Some years later, I stopped laughing. Anne Frank’s diaries opened my heart as she gave voice to the persecuted, all the more poignant because I knew that she and many more like her had been killed.
Maybe it was then I first asked the question: would I risk my own life to protect the Anne Franks of this world? The answer was always yes. But hindsight is a flattering bedfellow. Even if I had understood the evil enormity of what was going on, would I have acted to save her life whilst risking my own?
And will I now when push comes to shove?
We know the dark path of fascism and discrimination beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yet even with all our hard-won foresight, some can scarcely believe it enough to fight against it.
Many of us don’t want to believe it. Others believe that protesting peacefully is our best and only recourse. Token gestures of support, so-called allies remaining silent when confronted with hate speech, wait-and-see naysayers.
If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that those who have dear friends or are themselves persecuted for their race, gender, sexuality, or religion are more likely to resist or activate themselves earlier. Me? I’m a coward.
How I Learned To Appease the White Supremacist Male Power Structure
Despite my fear, I send money every month to my more marginalized friends. I call out those who post hate and division on my Twitter feed. I call in family and friends. I enter into spirited debates in forums. I force myself to read the papers.
But my hands shake whilst doing all of this. My heartbeat goes into crazy overdrive. I am permanently hyperanxious. I am often emotionally beaten down simply by reading the newsfeed, and whisky is my new best friend.
Quite simply, because fighting goes against who I am. I am a “fawner”. One of those whom, if kidnapped, would be highly susceptible to Stockholm Syndrome. The “good girl”. The people pleaser. With powers of denial so inculcated in my upbringing that I believe and perpetuate lies which are not of my own making.
I have little access to my fight mechanism, because as a middle-class white child, I was brought up to kowtow to power or be outcast. Conflict or confrontation with those higher up the social scale risked rejection, abandonment and ignominy. My people pleasing has afforded me enormous advantages in terms of social interaction. As a survival mechanism, it has served me well in my society.
But its usefulness is running out.
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When you have learned that the best, and almost exclusive, way to survive is by diminishing yourself in order to support those in power — mainly white men — it is paralysing and seemingly impossible to enter into the fray against them. To a greater or lesser extent, you have acted as an object to please them for most of your life, so how can you be expected to act now? This is the inadmissable and often unconscious conundrum that many white (especially straight) women face deep in their core.
How We Learned To Swallow Our Resistance
When looking at the four survival mechanisms — fight, freeze, flee or fawn — only one of them, fawning, overwhelmingly represents a net gain for a white middle- and upper-class woman such as myself. Fawning, ingratiating ourselves and adapting to how society works both on a conscious and unconscious level, often affords us a better quality of life than fighting, fleeing or freezing. And we are all driven by survival.
In my childhood, lip service was paid to feminism whilst we were still slut- shamed and taught to sacrifice ourselves for others. We were born into a society centered on training us to become the great woman behind the great man, or alternatively, suppressing much of who we were and how we felt in order to work harder for less money in the business world run by men.
We were taught that we had a chance, you see. If we could fawn or otherwise adapt well enough, we could make it. Still, we felt like frauds in the workplace, scared to claim our own abilities with anything other than self-deprecation lest we offend. We were taught to fake it until we made it. We wore our confident masks, but we were still people pleasers, still feeling like frauds.
What Books Taught Us
The rigours of our white woman role is one of Jane Austen’s universal truths. In her novels we learned the harsh lessons of the plain Charlotte Lucas, who chose (in the absence of any other option) to marry a despicable man and then apologized for it. Of Lydia Bennet, who risked disgrace and ruin after being naively seduced by a manipuative and selfish cad. Even of Elizabeth, who although spirited, was simply damn lucky.
Other texts painted the same picture. Of the rather too obviously ambitious Becky Sharp who was despised, whilst her counterpart, the rich Amelia Sedley, was industrious and obedient, but described as a “tender little parasite”.
We read about the abused Jane Eyre, who fell in love with a verbally abusive liar. This man risked her livelihood through bigamy, and oh, by-the-by, also locked his Creole wife in the attic. We were supposed to sympathize with him because according to Bronte’s narrative, Rochester was Jane’s “happily ever after”.
In more modern times, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In advised finding a husband who believed in equality because the most successful women have a supportive man. But murky undertones marred the superficially feminist message. According to Sandberg, whilst a supportive man is helpful, more helpful still is having a man at all: the most successful women in the business world, she said, are married.
Western countries confer (heterosexual, especially middle-to-upper-class) couples privilege in the form of tax breaks, social capital, and respectability. Meanwhile, single women without children are stigmatized, and single women with children face more stigma and an even slimmer possibility of rising in the workplace without adequate or any childcare. This is a truth that even Sandberg, as rich as she is, had to find out the hard way. Social stigma, guilt and shame abound, but in each case, the conclusion is the same: without a man, your survival will be far more difficult. Find one and keep him or be damned.
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From Accommodating to Fighting Oppression
For many pant-suited, white, middle-to-upper-class women, fawning in some way before white men is learned by rote, and through example. Fighting, in contrast, is seen as the realm of those more marginalized, because by definition they are less able to fawn their way across racial and/or class barriers (among other barriers) to secure their position in a white-dominated world.
Fighting is considered to be a less “worthy”, and often lower-class, response. After all, as once advocated by white male aristocrat Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the pen is mightier than the sword – but only until sanctioned by men in the form of systemic violence or war.
We absorb this philosophy into our psyche, and it’s no wonder that white women have no idea how to be otherwise. Terrified to stand up and fight. Wholly unused to it and therefore ineffectual. And although cowardice implies conscious choice, it is also how we were molded as babies, chastised as children, addled into adulthood.
Some of us choose to be neutral and therefore tacitly complicit, to march peacefully – because resorting to violence would allegedly be to become no better than the fascists. Some of us become feminist; disparaged, derided and attacked by many white men and women who still conform to the declaration that they “don’t need feminism”.
Adaptation is the key to so many white women’s survival. But at some point, adaptation also means that you lose the ability to fight for your survival — not to mention other groups’ survival! — when adaptation no longer works.
That time is now.
I have been building my courage. It has meant years of first dismantling who I was, who I had been taught to be. The candour in my writing has risked my own sense of self, my friendships and my family’s acceptance of who I have become – an increasingly heavy price as I become ever more radical. That is the way of things when you criticise your kind.
After years of work, I am still only able to wield the pen. But I need to be ready to act if I’m to be the person I want to be. The person who, when asked whether she would risk her own life to protect the Anne Franks of this world, would say yes and do it.
[Feature Image: Photo of a crowd of people protesting on a city street in front of a coffee shop and holding up signs reading “NO TRUMP, NO KKK, NO FASCIST USA”, “EAT THE RICH”, and “BE ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY”, among other slogans. In front of the gathered crowd is orange caution tape strung across the perimeter, and in front of that stands a white police officer. He clasps his hands low across his pelvis while staring off with a stern expression. Source: Pexels]