On white womanhood: an apology


Guys. We need to talk about white womanhood.

Last week, Ivanka Trump endorsed her father for president, calling him “color-blind and gender-neutral“; a man who sees the potential in others and goes to bat for them. This is Donald Trump we are talking about—obviously this is not true. Taylor Swift trended on Twitter with #KimExposedTaylorParty, firing up the conversation about white feminism and the ways Taylor has used her white womanhood to paint herself as a “victim”. Melania Trump’s plagiarism of a speech originally from Michelle Obama pointed out the ways that white women have profited from the work of black women.

If it was easy to blame racism and bigotry on white men, it is much harder to do that now. White women have brought their fair share of turmoil to the black community. We just do it “nicely”, with soft voices and a smile on our faces.

It’s true, I am familiar with some systemic oppression. My keys have left marks on my fingers from gripping them too tightly as I walk through a parking lot. When I was 16, I was harrassed by two middle-school boys while my best friend and I were sitting on top of my car, watching the sunset. I am familiar with not being at the top of the food chain, but I’m pretty high up. To equal the plight of white women with the pain of black women would be a gross misrepresentation of history and the abuse and disregard for black women in our culture today.

Being a woman does not make me any less white.

White women have branded our own kind of poison: taking without thanking, climbing without helping others up, naming ourselves “victims” of the system without a glance behind us. Just oppressed enough to garner sympathy, but not low enough on the food chain to deserve it. Being a white woman means Gone With the Wind, “white girls sleep while black girls fan them with peacock feather fans“, racism. White woman racist means Taylor Swift garners sympathy while Leslie Jones is forced to leave Twitter. White woman racism is Ivanka Trump, with a pretty smile, going above and beyond to endorse her father when she was not obligated to.

But for many white women, our racism is in our silence rather than our voices.

In a journal from the U.S. Department of Education titled “When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color“, Mamta Motwani Accapadi writes,

While White women have been depicted to be the foundation of purity, chastity, and virtue, Women of Color have historically been caricaturized by the negative stereotypes and the historical lower status position associated with their racial communities in American society. Additionally, as Palmer states, “the problem for White women is that their privilege is based on accepting the image of goodness, which is powerlessness”. This powerlessness informs the nature of White womanhood. Put in simple terms, male privilege positions the nature of womanhood, while White privilege through history positions a White woman’s reality as the universal norm of womanhood, leaving a woman of color defined by two layers of oppression.

It’s time for white women to celebrate and honor black women, who are some of America’s strongest culture builders, while white people borrow words from black culture like “woke” and “salty”. (White people do not have the right to label other white people as “woke”, but that’s a blog post for another day.) It’s time to honor the culture-builders, and ask for permission to share their art instead of stealing from them with such disregard for the creators. We can do better.

So, to the black or brown or just non-white people reading this: I’m sorry. We, white women, have not taken ownership of our participation in racism in this country.

Because of a white woman’s silence, Emmett Till died in 1955.

Because of white women’s silence, Dylann Roof shot and killed 9 black people at Bible study, saying, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

Because of white women, the hashtag #WhiteGirlsDoItBetter went viral in July 2015.

I refuse to remain silent in the face of racism. I refuse to turn a blind eye to the role that my whiteness has played in my inability to stand in solidarity with other women. I recognize and repent of the ways that I have continued to allow racism to exist, both personally and systemically, and I commit to using my resources and opportunities to draw attention to your voices.

And to my fellow white women: let’s start speaking up and doing our work.



4 thoughts on “On white womanhood: an apology

  1. Hannah, this is great. Thanks for laying this out so clearly. It’s easy for me to know that I have privilege as a white woman, but it’s hard to identify the specific ways, sometimes (mostly because I don’t put forth the effort to, which is completely on me.). So thanks for giving me a place to start from.

    I’m reading Kindred by Octavia Butler right now. I black woman from the 1970s time travels back to a plantation (I forget which year…) and her observations on the relationships between black and white women are fascinating. She is more scared of the master’s wife than of the master himself, which I think is saying something about white women, then and now.

  2. I cringe every time I read something online which involves a white woman speaking for me and all our other counterparts who also happen to be white women. Like the random luck-of-the-draw each of us had to be born in the US [for instance], we also had that same random luck to be born white, and female. Please note: I said ‘luck’, not ‘lucky’. Yes, it’s true that many would perceive being born with certain attributes or being born into a certain country to constitute a certain amount of luck, but so would be having been born into a rich family or to have been born the child of genius parents. So yes, maybe white women have had a certain amount of luck bestowed on us, but in my day-to-day life, I don’t look at it that way. What I do look at in my conscious daily life, is how I strive to be fair, open-minded, and non-racist. I don’t use words like ‘woke’ and ‘salty’ in my vocabulary or to anyone; beyond thinking that the use of such buzz words to be generally silly, the desire never entered my mind. But I disagree with your assertion that we should never use these words, that it is outside of our ‘right’. I also don’t think that I should apologize for or that we should be made to feel that we are in perpetual debt to people of other colors or origins because some of us use femininity to get their way, or certain of us never learned manners (i.e. saying thank you when someone helps us or gives us something).

    I just wish my white female counterparts would stop speaking on behalf of me and others in this way. If you feel you need to apologize, please do it on behalf of yourself, or those who ask you to speak on their behalf. I think we are all old enough to speak and think and act for ourselves, and there is something more than a little condescending about a 20-something year old feeling responsible for rationalizing how ‘white women’ have been failing all along. When you get to be 40 like me, you’ll understand and appreciate this perspective more, even if you don’t think so now.

    • I don’t know you or how you interact on a day-to-day basis, but it’s great that you try to take responsibility for yourself. However, we’re not just responsible for ourselves: there is a greater system in our society that benefits white men and women over other people of color, whether we want it to or not. So we have a choice to make: how will we respond to this need for systemic equality? Will we say “not my problem” or will we do what we can to truly make the U.S. a safe and thriving society for everyone?

      I’m not saying we should live in a perpetual state of shame. What I am saying is that the lineage we come from is not a kind one, and we have an opportunity to change that. I think that opportunity starts with humility. How can we change if we cannot admit that we were wrong?

      I am not speaking for collective individuals: I am speaking on behalf of a corporate sin that I am a part of. I am apologizing for the role I have played in that corporate sin, and that as a community we must strive to do better. It is not the task of an individual, but of a community.

      I’m sorry if you felt talked down to–that was never my intention. However, you and I are different people and our years will wear differently on each of us. God bless.

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