“White feminism” refers to feminism that centers the needs and struggles of white women, specifically white cis-women, ignoring the ways the patriarchy intersects with racism and transphobia.
It has a long history.
We can start with the suffragettes. Back in the mid 1800s white women were organizing for the right to vote, but were specifically uninterested in helping Black women gain the right to vote, and vehemently against helping Black men gain the right to vote. Susan B Anthony famously said “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” and Carrie Chapman Catt, Founder of the League of Women Voters, made it even more explicit when she said “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.”
Jump forward to the 1950s when pharmaceutical birth control became available. Marked as a watershed moment in the feminist movement because it gave woman an autonomous way to choose when or if to have children, what is usually ignored is the fact that to make this medicine available, poor and uneducated Puerto Rican women were used as human guinea pigs, and given these pills without being told that these pills had yet to be proven safe. They were not at all safe, and women died as a result of testing these drugs, without ever being told it was in fact a test.
Jump forward to the 60s and 70s when white women were championing our right to leave the home and join the workforce, ignoring the fact that women of color were already working while raising a family. And then when white women joined the workforce, it was usually women of color who came into their homes to clean and cook and raise their children. Due to the patriarchy and the ways “women’s work” is underpaid and undervalued, this only increased economic disparities between white women and women of color.
This is just a taste of the historical context we are sitting in right now. If the strong reaction to pink pussy hats and Pantsuit Nation surprises you, this is some context to explain why our “good intentions” have not been so well received. White women feminists have a long history of ignoring the needs and struggles of women of color and transwomen, while simultaneously using their labor and lives to get what we, white cis-gender women, want.
Now, in the era of 45 and the increased involvement of white women in activism work, there is an increase in the white co-opting of the work of women of color. We use the right words, we pose for the right pictures, we even donate to the right organizations, but our actions tell another story. And like James Baldwin said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”
We might call our feminism intersectional, but it is still centered on the needs of white cis women, and using the labor, bodies, and voices of women of color and transwomen only when it gets us what we want.
It isn’t enough to change our language and give lip service to the fight for equality and freedom. If we, as white women committed to justice, are not systematically divesting ourselves from white supremacy, then we are upholding it.
We have to do better.
- We have to learn to see the construct of whiteness as a system of patterns, a series of interlocking pieces that are designed to keep white people on top at all costs.
- We have to recognize the ways white womanhood has always been the crown jewel of white supremacy, and used as an explicit excuse for violence against people of color.
- We need to see the ways we are perpetuating white supremacy in our actions that don’t “seem” racist, but are in fact thoroughly woven through with white supremacy.
- We must learn to listen, and do what we are asked to do, rather than what we think we should do, or what we think is right.
- We must acknowledge the gut-wrenching truth that white women built, and continue to build white supremacy.
In The Skeleton Key: Dismantle, I offer a space to examine the patterns and the historical context of whiteness, and the ways white women are by default complicit in the perpetuation of white supremacy. I am doing it at the express request and with the paid collaboration of women of color.
We meet for 5 weeks to go deep into the truth of white supremacy. It is only a beginning, but it is a necessary beginning.
We start February 4th. Registration is open and space is filling. Join us.