Let’s put down the sheet cake, turn off the TV, take a deep breath and look in the mirror.
I’m talking to you, my sisters, the white, straight, middle/upper-class women who say that women and men should be equally valued in our world. I’m talking to you, women who laugh at jokes that hurt our black and brown and poor and disabled and trans sisters EVEN WHEN WE KNOW THEY’RE HURTING. I’m talking to you, my mystified fellow-travelers who can’t understand why no one except us wants to label herself “feminist” or join in our struggle for liberation. Ever since women like us beat and starved enslaved black women to punish them for submitting to the rape of their white masters, we have allied ourselves with our oppressors in order to maintain our ascendancy over every group except white men. Ever since women first allowed men to divide us against each other—white against black, rich against poor, virgin against slut, mother against worker, queer against straight, cis against trans—we “white feminists” have sided with the powerful against the powerless, with our own interests at heart. It has to stop.
Many of us wear the “feminist” label with pride, thinking of the long battles fought to secure not only women’s suffrage, but the access to education, jobs, status, political power and wealth that followed. It’s time to look hard at that self-satisfied history and recognize how many women those battles simply ignored, dismissed or threw under the bus. Where were we when black women were turned away from the polls even after they were legally allowed to vote? Where were we when lesbian women were forced into conversion therapy or single mothers were banned from housing and employment? Where are we today when trans women are slaughtered in the streets, our infant mortality rate rivals that of a third-world country and Indigenous American women face intimate partner violence at a rate twice that of any other racial group?
We don’t lose any of our privilege by recognizing how it harms others. We don’t become less safe by acknowledging our sisters’ right to be safe too. Our cultural and political gains don’t evaporate when we admit that in striving to share power with our oppressors we have become toxically oppressive ourselves. What are we so afraid of? Losing our place in a cultural hierarchy that we already proclaim is fundamentally flawed? Risking the disapproval of men? Exposing ourselves to the judgement of the sisters our (white, rich, straight) women’s movement cast aside? We can take it! We are the women with the least to lose from speaking out. We have nothing to lose but our fragility, our blindness and our fear.
These words aren’t directed to everyone. I’m speaking to you if:
- You advocate abortion on demand but you remain silent about the need for universal access to free, accessible, non-toxic contraception and pre-natal care including housing, food, education and comprehensive post-partum support.
- You bemoan street violence but have nothing to say against mass incarceration, lead poisoning, community trauma or police brutality.
- You gripe that you only make 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes but you accept that black women only make 64 cents on that dollar and hispanic women only 54.
- You want more women in corporate board rooms and political bodies but you aren’t demanding that schools in low-income neighborhoods get the additional resources they need to counteract the effects of poverty on their students’ learning.
- You talk about the need for unity between women but you ignore the fact that marginalized women don’t feel welcome in your activism/organizing spaces, and you avoid activism/organizing spaces that don’t prioritize people that look and think and live and feel like you do.
If this is you, it’s critical to take a look at who we are and what we’re doing. Since Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, we’ve had a name for what we already know: that oppression in just one area (race, gender, class, ability, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) is a radically different experience from oppression in two or more areas simultaneously. Black women—oppressed for being women at the same time they’re oppressed for being black—have to struggle not only with the practicalities of each, but with the fact that all forms of oppression reinforce each other. A black woman faces active obstacles to her well-being from white men, white women and black men, as well as the institutions and systems which protect each of them at her expense. The exponential, cumulative harm done to women enduring more complex oppressive experiences is beyond calculation.
The stereotypical white feminist has no oppressor save white men—and can often neutralize some aspects of that oppression thanks to class factors like education and wealth. Patriarchy doesn’t scare us in the same way as it would if we were poor or brown or queer, because we are confident that our class and race privilege will protect us. It does, too, which is why fewer of us are killed by our partners, fired illegally, misdiagnosed at the doctor’s office and silenced in courts of law.
Patriarchy has exacted a price from us, too. We’re socialized to believe that our power lies in manipulating and controlling men—to keep them from using their dominant position to hurt us. We’re told from birth that if we aren’t nice enough, compliant enough, accommodating enough, we will be valueless. We judge each other mercilessly on our adherence to this propaganda, competing for an artificially-constructed prize that boils down to a trophy for doing what we’re told. We all know this feeling, right? Thanks to the progress of women’s liberation in the last century, the daughters of the white feminist movement have unlimited access to information and education. We have the brains to do something with it once we have it. But we end up placating the patriarchy instead, establishing ourselves triumphantly in perpetual second place and leaving our exhausted, angry, wounded sisters in the dust.
It’s time to repudiate the legacy we represent. It’s time to acknowledge and correct the core injustices born when white women embraced oppression as a stepping stone to sharing white male power, shutting their sisters out. It’s time to stop believing only the narratives that make us feel good about ourselves, and start listening to AND BELIEVING those whose experiences of life outside our bubble are uncomfortably real and raw. Feminism to date has been overwhelmingly focused on getting white men to share their power with us. Instead, let’s learn from our sisters who have spent lifetimes fighting and dreaming and writing and singing and marching for a a world where oppression has no place. Their vision is more beautiful than ours. Their courage is more tested, their tactics are more proven. All we have to do is open our eyes and see.
It’s not going to happen overnight. We’re creatures of habit, and our most shameful habits are the hardest to break. But we must start—today—to tear down our narrow, grasping activism and replace it with a vision that embraces not only all women, but all men. We must own that our so-called power today is nothing but a sop thrown to us by men who realize that we are impotent as long as we are divided against each other. We must listen to, embrace, and learn from the criticism of those that we have harmed, or there can be no progress together. We have to see how we have used our own oppression to intensify the oppression of others, and correct our course. The only way to heal the wounds that divide us from each other is to fling ourselves into the work of building trust and community where today there is bitterness and doubt. We have to do it ourselves, not wait for our rejected sisters to approach us or do the work for us. We can use our collective power to unlock self-determination for every woman instead of settling for crumbs from the patriarchal table. It’s okay if it’s scary; it’s okay if our feelings get hurt. We’ll learn from it, we’ll deepen our reserves of strength and generosity and truthtelling, and we’ll emerge as strong, brave indomitable warriors. As long as any woman is chained by oppression, we are all trapped in the same patriarchal shadow. Let’s open our eyes and start setting each other free.