When White Women Close Ranks
A brief foreword: It’s been a while since I’ve updated this series of essays on racism in the feminist movement. The racism has kept on happening, as predictable as it is painful, but I haven’t always had the energy or inclination to write about it. However, in moments of optimism that could possibly be described as insanity, I decided to try again.
Dedicated to Amanda Fucking Palmer and Victoria Brownworth
Olive Morris Print Credit: Twitter user @Extreme_Crochet
In many ways, although the movement is in a state of flux, this is an exciting time in Scottish feminism. Women are coming together to form grassroots organisations and independent research groups. I’ve been engaging, going to meetings, and coming into contact with lots of new women in the process. During the last few months, I’ve made some friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. Those relationships with women are an abundant source of joy. However, the flip side of meeting so many new women is that I have been exposed to their racism.
Like the majority of Black feminists, I can never afford to take the solidarity of white women for granted. I think some white women get offended that our shared womanhood doesn’t automatically win them my trust – but those are usually the women best avoided. With every white woman I meet, whether or not she realises it, there is a careful vetting process that takes place inside my head. I watch and listen carefully before opening myself to a connection with her.
I’m wary of white women, but open to the possibility of kinship and solidarity with them. It’s exactly the same way I feel about Black men. In a white supremacist patriarchy, there’s potential for good and harm in both of those relationships. Racism within the feminist movement has hurt me in profound and painful ways; so much so that I can’t afford to let my guard down with white women – at least, not to begin with. There will probably be some white feminists reading these words thinking that I sound paranoid or unsisterly. To them, I say: how much do you trust men?
A man you have never met before approaches you on the street, calling after you. He could be about to hand you back the umbrella you dropped without realising and continue on his way. Or he could be catcalling and following you in the hope of forcing contact you do not want. You are poised to run or scream. The metal of your house keys is hot between your knuckles. At the back of your brain flickers an animal sort of fear, the fight or flight instinct hardwired to keep us alive. It could be nothing. But, you can’t help thinking, it might be something. That’s how it works with gender.
It also works that way with race. Just as I fear sexual assault on the last train home, I fear being pelted with racial slurs. Over time, like countless other people of colour, I’ve developed a kind of spidey-sense that tingles when it’s coming: those questions designed to police and undermine the belonging of my Black body in this white, white country. Whether it’s the hands of men trying to cop a feel or the hands of white women curious about the texture of my hair, both forms of touching happen without my consent and are a part of the racialised misogyny that hugely complicates my relationship with public space.
The Scottish feminist movement is very white. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given that the majority whiteness is a consequence of Scotland’s population. Still, it can leave women of colour vulnerable within feminist spaces. I cannot take it for granted that there will be another Black woman in the room. When racism happens – which is a case of when rather than if – there is no guarantee that other women will recognise it. And even if white women do understand that what’s happening is racism, they will not necessarily be willing to acknowledge it as such. The final hurdle: those white women who recognise and acknowledge racism aren’t always willing to challenge it.
As a consequence of being in multiple minority groups, I can’t rely on members of the majority choosing to align themselves with me. Challenging racism requires white women to voluntarily step outside of the fold. Speaking out can carry a social penalty, if most white women in a space wish to repress conversations about the politics of race. They watch as my perspective is delegitimised and I am Othered, afraid of being cast out as I have been. It’s a very well documented phenomenon, which Sara Ahmed summarised perfectly:
“When you expose a problem you pose a problem. It might then be assumed that the problem would go away if you would just stop talking about or if you went away.”
Anger is weaponised against Black women in much the same way the concept of hysteria is used to undermine women of all races. Our rage is pathologised. This image of the Angry Black Woman, dark and threatening, renders us monstrous in the white imagination. We are positioned as innately hostile, impossible to reason with – in short, beast like. And if a Black feminist challenges a white woman’s racism, this regressive stereotype is wheeled out like clockwork to shut her down. If anybody plays a race card, it’s the white women trying to avoid being held accountable for their anti-Blackness.
I rarely show anger in front of white women; not in person, not knowing how it will be used against me. Not even when the world gives me good cause to be angry – whether through an accidental stubbed toe or the deliberate workings of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. The full range of human emotions is not a luxury permitted to Black women in the feminist movement.
The only white woman I expressed any anger in front of after being subjected to racism was Cath Planet. As a working class woman she knows exactly what it’s like to have her anger pathologised, to be punished for speaking truth to power. Cath never presumed my trust, and I never presumed hers, which is perhaps why we’ve been able to build a meaningful friendship over time. It’s a relationship in where neither of us has to be afraid of showing the other negative emotion.
Whether or not they realise it, all the white women who said that I was being overly sensitive about race sounded like nothing so much as a man in a position of power trying to delegitimise the complaint of sexual harassment filed against him by a junior female employee. They closed ranks, in exactly the same way Boris Johnson did when he shut down the inquiry into the conduct of Mark Field MP that began after he slammed a female protestor into the wall and dragged her from the room by her throat. White women choose to leverage their power in exactly the same way that men do, importing the patriarchy’s oppressiveness and cruelty into a movement that’s supposed to fight for the liberation of all women.
I have yet to meet a radical feminist who meets misogyny with a smile, accommodating the comfort of sexist men over the safety and wellbeing of women. And I hope that I never do. The power of radical feminism lies in its rigorous structural analysis, however uncomfortable it can be. Still, white women continue to expect me to accommodate their racism, to be polite in addressing it – or, better yet, say nothing at all.
Black women’s access to the ‘sisterhood’ is so often dependent on our willingness to stay silent about racism and ignore the hierarchy of race. One white woman recently had the gall to say she was “disappointed” I had called her racist. It was the same old story: a white woman’s comfort prioritised above a Black woman’s wellbeing. We are accused of dividing the movement when we challenge racism. But white women’s racism is what divides feminists. Many of them prefer clinging on to the power they hold through racial inequalities over finding out what the world looks like when we are all free.
Every so often a white woman will say to me “but we’re not men”, as though their violence is excusable because it’s less likely to be physical. Black women deserve so much better than choosing between the false binary of men’s misogyny and white women’s racism. We deserve to be treated with respect and kindness everywhere – especially in social movements of which we are so often the backbone. Race is a hierarchy in exactly the same way that gender is a hierarchy. White feminists can either work to disband both by actively building interracial solidarity, or cling to power in one by reinforcing the other. They must choose.
God knows it’s not comfortable scrutinising yourself as a member of the oppressor class. But that critical self-reflection is so freeing. And it opens up the most exciting possibilities for connecting with women whose lives are completely unlike your own.
When I first became active in the feminist movement, other middle class women actively warned me off trying to connect with working class women. I disregarded that advice. For those relationships to be possible, I continue to work at unlearning my own classism. Looking back, it’s obvious these middle class women feared working class feminists because of the fundamental challenge they made to women invested in structural power imbalances. Working class women connected middle class women performing politeness to harmful respectability politics, which are used to cover up all manner of injustices.
Working class feminists bring more integrity and compassion to the feminist movement than the middle class women who become the face of this movement. Having relationships with them is rewarding because of, not in spite of, how they challenge me as a middle class woman. I know what it is to realise I’m the asshole. I know it can be painful, awkward, hard work. But it’s worth it, because if you have the courage to go beyond what’s comfortable then you can access a sisterhood that’s so much more than you can imagine until you dare to be part of it. What’s easy isn’t always what’s right or good.
Compassion shouldn’t be limited to the women who look and live like you do. And marginalised women shouldn’t be made to carry the burden of their own difference within the feminist movement. Instead of the women who hold power closing ranks on the women without it, we should each be finding ways to leverage our power to the benefit of women who are vulnerable in ways that we are not.