When feminism caught my attention as a young teenager, I will be the first to admit I did not take the most intersectional approach. I didn’t even know what intersectionality meant at that time in my life. To a thirteen year-old, white girl from Arizona, feminism meant re-blogging cute doodles of “girl power!” on Tumblr and being openly pro-choice. I lacked any awareness of my privilege as a white cis-woman, and it was not until much later, when I went to college, the lack of intersectionality in my feminism became abundantly apparent to me. Furthermore, I learned to recognize my own role in upholding white supremacy (and still am learning). I have noticed in college so often white individuals, specifically white women, deny playing any part in the racist structures so deeply pervasive in the United States. Racism is discussed in such a twofold manner that white (often liberal) women immediately go on the defense to exclaim they have no relation to white supremacy and racism whatsoever. This line of thinking is ignorant to the multidimensionality of white supremacy and the many forms it takes.
We as white women need to recognize and discuss not only our personal role in white supremacy, but also the historic role our demographic has played in it as well. As a white woman, I would like to call on other white women throughout this piece to be open and willing to criticize ourselves first and foremost. It is critical to the flourishing of intersectional feminism going forward to acknowledge the wrongdoings and pain caused by the white women before us and today.
I recently came across the iconic photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, striding into Little Rock Central High School in 1957 when it was illegal for her to be there based on the color of her skin. With her shoulders back and gaze forward she presents undeniably strong and poised. No doubt she felt the immense pressure of history’s eyes on her in this moment. Even more striking to me is the first line of protest behind Elizabeth was a group of enraged white women. Reporters that day wrote of the women wailing, with tears flowing down their cheeks, as they screamed racist slurs at Eckford and the other eight Black students trying to attend school.
White women have actively policed the spaces Black individuals can and cannot be in throughout American history. The photograph of Eckford serves as a startling visual reminder of this. Even the shining moments we discuss in feminist history are tainted by themes of racially-based hatred and violence. Leaders of the suffragist movement, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while important historical figures in many ways, continually sided with white supremacy in order to push their agenda of suffrage. They adamantly opposed the passage of the 15th Amendment, giving Black men the right to vote, on grounds “that it would result in women being dominated by inferior men.” Black individuals were deemed unworthy of the right to take up space in the political arena by these women.
“White women have actively policed the spaces Black individuals can and cannot be in throughout American history.”
Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of white women had already been active members of the Klu Klux Klan and other domestic terrorist organizations during this time in the South. Decades later, white women led the fight against desegregation of schools and other public facilities across America under the rallying cry of “state’s rights” and “limited government”. They used their influential positions in school systems and women’s organizations to further their discriminatory agenda. These women created and led grassroots movements motivated by upholding institutions of racially motivated hatred. Even within the feminist movement of the 1960s, women of color were often excluded from positions of leadership creating a lack of intersectional agendas at the forefront of the movement. These moments in time are just a fraction of the vast history of relations between white women and racial oppression.
And how can we forget 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Tr*mp in 2016? This was an eye opening moment for white feminists. Not for many women of color. History demonstrates how often white women side with their racial interests over gender. In the past year alone, the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack has gone viral on Twitter to shed light on stories of Black individuals getting the police called on them simply for existing in public spaces. White women, such as BBQ Becky and Permit Patty, are often the voices behind these calls, turning to 911 as a customer service line of sorts, when cohabiting a public space with a person of color becomes too much for them. The nicknames these women received online are satirical responses to the “reason” they got law enforcement involved in an every day, non violent situation. BBQ Becky, for example, notified police of a group of Black people legally barbequing in a local Oakland park. These women blatantly ignore how much danger and trauma they are potentially inflicting on these Black individuals in these instances. The traction of this hashtag goes to show the prevalence of this discrimination and the role white women play in it.
“While women are generally left out of historical conversations no matter the moment in time, in this case it allows white women to go unseen in the history of white supremacy.”
Pretending white supremacy is solely upheld by white men excuses white women from their complacency and active role in upholding oppressive institutions and structures. White supremacy is often discussed in a heavily masculinized regard. While women are generally left out of historical conversations no matter the moment in time, in this case it allows white women to go unseen in the history of white supremacy in the United States. Many of the leaders of white supremacist groups are men and often those perpetrating violent crimes for these groups are men as well. White cis, hetero men reside at the top of the power struggle in this society, so it is easy to pin them as the main perpetrators of racism and sexism alike. However, regardless of gender, white people intrinsically benefit from systems of racial hierarchy. It is critical white women begin to recognize these systems in their own lives and on a greater societal scale. In order to dismantle these structures, the people whose lives most benefit from them must be more than willing to help in every way possible.
So this is my message to fellow white women: We cannot leave it solely to people of color (especially women of color) to do the physical and emotional labor necessary to make lasting change. We must acknowledge the deeply racist history of the United States and white women’s role in it to this day. In order to acknowledge it, we must create space to talk about it openly. We must uplift the platforms of people of color and support their leadership . We must listen without defense or discomfort or anger. As a white woman, I am calling on other white women to be better. Calling on myself to be better. To be better for all women, not just those who mirror my complexion. There is always room to grow, listen, and learn in intersectional feminism. We must hold each other and ourselves accountable for our relationship to white supremacy. It is essential in the move forward for greater equality and reconciliation in our society.