As I read the flood of attacks on white feminists for ignoring, dismissing or actively sabotaging their sisters of color, I feel all the emotions, starting with a big fat dose of defensive anger. What about ME, I think? I may be late to the party, I may have made mistakes and been insensitive, but I’m here now, right? Doesn’t that make it okay? I see now, though, how cringeworthy that response is, and how it diminishes the agonizingly real experience of women who suffer more under the iron fist of patriarchy than I ever will. The attacks on me and my white sisters are warranted; we earned them.
I don’t have to like it. I get to feel my feelings, even the ugly ones. But I have to own that I am part of the problem, and—more importantly—find a way to throw myself deeper into the struggle. My feminism must move beyond a simplistic view of myself as the victim, and embrace my dual role as as oppressor and oppressed, with the power to strip others of their freedoms while I reach for my own. This is hard to do. My brain is still new at this, and I am protected from the truth by layers and layers of buffering privilege. I have no idea how to imagine a truly just world.
If society is simply a mirror of the souls of its citizens, the greatest risk in social revolution is that it will merely re-create the old injustices in a new form. Today’s struggle within feminism is a clear and depressing example of this; when meaningful numbers of white women take their long-overdue place in the ranks, we immediately establish the old paradigms of white supremacy as our unspoken ground rules. At first we can’t help it. We don’t know any different, at least until we encounter meaningful critique, which has been swift, widespread and crystal-clear. When those who fight beside us tell us directly how we are harming them and we make specious rationalizations instead of changing our behavior, we are being racist. It’s as simple as that.
Of course it doesn’t feel simple at all, when I’m the one doing it. It feels like free-falling, panicked, through waves of ugly, vulnerable pain. It feels like being gut-punched. When I read or hear someone dismissing my efforts to make the world a better place, I bristle. When I read or hear someone saying those efforts are actively harmful, I start to flail. That’s how deep my privilege is rooted. Because of the color of my skin, I’m trained to expect nothing but praise and appreciation when I step outside my comfort zone to work for change. I’m not taught that criticism is valuable and necessary. I’m not taught to evaluate my actions by their impact, rather than my intention. I’m not taught to listen carefully to voices at the receiving end of injustice, particularly that from which I benefit. Because my education didn’t include these things, I am dangerous rather than useful in this fight, a loose cannon in the arsenal. That has to change.
Change of this kind is a spiritual act, a shifting of the soul into self-alignment. It requires that most radical of thought-experiments, “Let’s assume I’m 100% wrong, and go from there.” Laying down the security of being pre-labeled right about everything by the world in which we walk is scary as hell. The wall between us and the reality we were born to ignore is built of heavy, sharp-cornered rocks of delusion. We heft them at our peril; there will be blood on our hands before we’re done. The remembered comfort of the status quo drags at us, even at our thoughts. Wouldn’t it be easier just to go out to dinner and talk about something else? We can, you know. There is no outward punishment in store for us if we shirk this work. The cops won’t attack us, we won’t be stigmatized in the mainstream media or stripped of our dignity by employers or colleagues. We allow others to endure these injustices while we balk at having to change our minds.
There is no greater privilege than to feel safe in having and expressing our emotions. As white women we are pinched between being denied our own authentic self-expression by the patriarchy and denying our sisters of color the right to their anger, their pent-up frustration, their bitterness. We know the incomparable value of being free to speak our truths to each other; we feel the distance that sexism puts between us and our fathers, sons, lovers and brothers. We must acknowledge that even as we mourn the rifts that separate us from those we love, we are creating those same rifts between ourselves and the women who know more than anyone—more than we do, because they are disadvantaged in other ways that exacerbate it—the price of being female in this world.
It’s not just women of color, either. Mainstream feminism, dominated by white, straight, cisgendered women, routinely marginalizes everyone else. Women who love other women, women who started out in life looking like boys, women who reject motherhood, women who refuse to seek approval of their appearance, women who prefer lots of partners or no partners at all, women who rejoice in their sexuality—these are all treated with some degree of contempt. Can we blame these groups, who are targeted so much more brutally for every kind of degradation, for being pissed off at us? I think not. We have failed them, oftentimes at the same moment that they were organizing and fighting to resist the same oppression that we are just noticing today.
So what do we do, white women? Do we let our angry, embittered sisters speak their truth to us and acknowledge that we have been complicit in their oppression even as we sought our freedom? Do we welcome the flame and steel of their words to burn and carve away our blindness so that we can see the world through their eyes? Do we accept that rage is a legitimate response to the world that our sisters live in, and to our failure to fight on their behalf? Do we understand that the pain we feel at being called out is just a tiny glimpse of the constant pain our culture inflicts on those who don’t conform to the white, cis-gendered heterosexual standard of “human being” in America? Until we do, we can’t engage fully in this struggle. As long as we fail to acknowledge our role as oppressors in the struggle to end oppression, our power is at best diluted, at worst dangerous.
The spiritual change I mentioned earlier is not easy. It requires abandoning our sense of entitlement: to be right, to be respected, to lead. It requires letting discomfort, embarrassment and shame be part of our emotional repertoire, to be processed and released without defensiveness. It requires opening our ears to new voices that may not speak in ways we like or understand very well, and it requires believing them. We’ll have to learn a whole new language, from naming our emotions to labeling our own actions and the power structures in which we are defined as oppressors. We’ll have to seek out new information even when we know it’ll be painful. It may take a new kind of self-care to nourish ourselves during this process. We may need more time alone, more sleep, more prayer or meditation, more time with trusted friends and mentors. It’s worth it, though. This work is critical to the final vision of the world we’re fighting for. It’s the backbone of the struggle to dismantle injustice instead of rearrange it. We don’t need to be comfortable. We don’t need to be applauded. We are tough enough to let people be angry at us and work beside them anyway, learning from their criticism how best to proceed. It is up to us to buckle down for the long haul, to step up to bear burdens because of our privilege rather than avoid them. So far we’ve failed to earn the respect of those who have been fighting for centuries without our help. It’s time to earn it now.