When White Feminism Becomes White Supremacy

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 

As someone who writes a lot about race, I am used to getting “feedback” from all different kinds of people who may or may not agree with my stance on the subject. The people who disagree are loud with their disagreements, and I’m always anticipating it, so I don’t pay it much attention.

What I pay more attention to, though, are the white women who claim to be feminists, the ones who will post pictures of their pink pussy hats, go on diatribes about how we need to “smash the patriarchy,” and will talk about things like gun control and gun violence. Their reactions are always the ones I’m most interested in. Because when it comes to race, they’re fine talking about it when it doesn’t really impact them, but as soon as it does, they’re willing to throw me under the bus.

That’s why more often than not, white feminism is nothing more than a re-branding of white supremacy; it’s just put in a more palatable package.

Before you go clutching your pearls in dismay, let me explain how we got here. It’s really not that far of a leap when you follow the timeline of feminism. Let’s go back about 100 years, to the early 20th century and the fight for women to vote. The Suffragettes, those women who get paraded out as the foremothers of feminism (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sager, et. al), were racist as fuck. Their fight wasn’t for women to vote, it was for white women to vote. They didn’t even try to disguise their white supremacy; they wore it right out there.

Why do you think they wore white? To make it painfully obvious that if it ain’t white, it ain’t right. Sure, they’d “allow” black women like Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper to march far behind them, but if they thought black men were unintelligent, then they surely didn’t think black women were any better.

But what do feminists in the early 20th century have to do with 2018, you may be asking. In short, everything.

They are the shoulders on which every wave of feminism after was built upon. “Intersectional feminism,” a term that didn’t exist before the 1980s, is basically an idea that women of color have always been fighting for. And yes, there are white women out there who do actively follow in the belief system of intersectional feminism. But even those who claim to be intersectional can unintentionally put whiteness in the forefront of conversation.

For example, a few months ago, after Representative Maxine Waters was targeted by the president after telling people to continue to be angry and speak out if they see members of his staff out in public, Congresswoman and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wasted no time throwing Rep. Waters under the bus. This is white feminism 101: calls for respectability and not being “divisive.”

Rep. Waters wasn’t telling people to be vicious and attack White House staffers or GOP members, she was merely reminding folks the only way to keep the pressure on them is to let them know in no uncertain terms that we will not go quietly.

Respectability politics is the tool that a white woman — feminist or not — are quickest to pull out of her toolbox. “Why can’t we all just get along?” “Why are you being so divisive?” This is especially true when black women have something important to say that goes against the idea that niceness is the default. If black people stay “nice,” then it’s easier for white people to maintain the status quo of power. That’s why white feminists attached so quickly to Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” train of thought, and will try to use it as an argument for politeness politics. Black women calling for action to advocate for themselves isn’t “going low;” it’s a way of surviving in a system that doesn’t advocate for us.

Even though white women face challenges because of their gender, they’re still afforded a lot of things in this country that black women aren’t. But they can’t see past their constant self-victimization. White feminism, and by extension, white supremacy exist in a space that vacillates between victimization and benevolence. This is especially true when it comes to their interactions with women of color, and being called out, or even called in.

I have many white women friends who identify as feminists. That’s great, but it means that I’ve seen white feminism is action many times. Depending on the friend, I may call them on it if I believe they’re in a place where they will actually take my words to heart. During the early days of this new political order, so many of my white women friends were all like, “Where’s Obama? It’s his responsibility to say something.” I rolled my eyes so hard I seriously thought they were going to get stuck. Finally, I had to call some of them on it.

That’s the thing about white supremacist feminists, they want people of color (especially black women) to do all of the emotional labor, even though most of the time, white people are really the ones who need to lead the charge. They are willing to stand on our backs, but then not give us the proper space to be truly included in the conversation.

Whenever something goes wrong during this new political shit show, white feminists look to black women to “fix it.” It feels like they’re expecting Olivia Pope from Scandal to come in and say “it’s handled,” and then they can be absolved of having to lift a finger and reap the benefits of the labor of black women. It was evident when black women, by and large, voted against Roy Moore, even though they will not get anything from it. Or even when it came to voting for the president. Even though Hillary Clinton hadn’t done a damn thing to really prove why black women should vote for her, we still did, and 45 percent of white women (including those who view themselves as feminists) voted for the pussy grabber. Because they knew that, under him, they’d still be able to reap the benefits of their whiteness uncontested. Heaven forbid they have to give up some of that power.

But if I were to call one of them out on their bullshit, you’d think I stabbed them in the ass with a hot poker. “We’re all women, we’re supposed to support each other. How could you be so divisive?” That’s almost a direct quote I’ve received in my inbox by a white woman who felt “attacked” by something I had to say in regards to race. “I’m not one of them!” is another popular one. Well, they may not believe they are, but they’re putting it on display in black and white. So…YEAH.

Until white feminists can understand what intersectionality truly means, we’re never going to get anywhere. It’s more than just the acknowledgment of white privilege, it’s even more than unlearning. It’s sitting and listening to black women when we say, “Hey, this is a problem.”

White supremacy is a problem that will only go away when white people want to actively fight against it. White feminism will only go away when white women open their ears and eyes and are willing to see that they’re apart of the problem they’re so fiercely trying to fight against.

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