Dear fellow white feminists:
Imagine we are having a discussion about sexism. We are telling stories about being sexually harassed on the streets, about hearing others blame a woman for being raped, about feeling completely disrespected by our boyfriends who expect us to act like Sasha Grey every time we have sex and tell us we are frigid when we refuse to go along with it.
We are really into our conversation, and we are getting mad, and we are talking about the patriarchy and how it pisses us off, and we are talking about men and how they piss us off, and it feels good, because finally we are around others who understand these feelings of rage and frustration we carry around with us.
And then let's imagine a man finds his way into the conversation, and not just any man, but a particularly argumentative man who is totally invested in his own awesomeness. (This has happened to all of us, so it shouldn't be too hard to envision this.) He starts taking offense to the things we are saying, and he lets us know it:
"Not all men are like this! You are being reverse-sexists. You are misandrists! Sexism isn't that big of a deal; after all, you could live in the Congo or Saudi Arabia. I don't understand what you are complaining about. You are just overly sensitive. Maybe if you weren't so emotional, people would listen to what you have to say."
The guy has come into a conversation about women and sexism, and he has made it all about him. He has posited himself as the arbiter of what is sexist and what is not sexist, even though he has never been on the shit end of the patriarchy in his life. Sometimes he will claim to be our ally, and that he is all in favor of equality between the sexes, but he doesn't think we are going about it the right way.
Totally annoying, right?
Yet for some reason, white feminists can't seem to understand how often we do the same thing to women of color when they talk about race and feminism. We are just baffled that WOC could be angry at white feminists, and we don't understand why they can't take the time to help us understand, and why they can't do so without so much hostility. "Why do they have to be so mean about it?" we sob as we nurse our hurt fee-fees.
But the second a man barges into a conversation about sexism and tries to derail it, you can be assured those very same women would be all over that man for flexing his privilege and acting like he is some kind of expert when really, he doesn't know shit.
Funny how that happens. (Not really.)
Last night, I had the dubious honor of watching what seems like the seventeen thousandth mess like this over at Jezebel. Over the course of 500+ comments, the "why can't you help me understand?" and the "I don't see why you are so angry" and "how can you say I'm privileged, I came from a poor family!" and "I feel like I am a White Person Punching Bag!" (*dies*)
I see discussions like this, and I hear the justifications made about the whiteness of the women involved in the Newsweek piece about feminism, and I read the accounts of suffragettes who were angry that black men could vote before white women, and I read about the racism among riot grrrls and zinesters, and I read about #racefail, and so on and so forth, and it all has the cumulative effect of making me feel like I really can't blame women like Renee Martin, who choose to identify as "womanist" rather than "feminist." I can't blame them at all.
We talk a good game about wanting to be more inclusive, but the truth is, we pretty much suck at it. We think that because we read bell hooks and Alice Walker, and because we care about female genital mutilation and rape in the Congo, that this somehow makes us too enlightened to be burdened by white privilege, that it makes us too aware to be tainted by racism.
Bullshit. We live in a society that privileges white skin above all else, and if you have white skin, you experience that privilege whether you want to or not. You might have been raised by a single mother on food stamps. You might be gay. You might have a learning disability. You might be a woman. You might have mental illness. You might have a million other things that would put you at a disadvantage, but if you are white, then there is one kind of privilege you do experience, and all of the whining and guilt in the world isn't going to change that.
A lot of us don't seem to get this. We are very used to thinking of ourselves as being on the shit end of things, and so when we have to reorient ourselves and our world view so it reflects the true complexity, the true intersectionality of things, it freaks us out. And I'll totally admit that part of me gets it, because I too was once a defensive white girl. I couldn't understand why people of color would rant about white people like we were awful. I felt offended and hurt when I saw the anger of women of color, and I took it personally. When I read, for instance, zines by Mimi Nguyen for the first time, I felt like I had been slapped in the face.
But I can't empathize too much, because at some point, I stopped viewing their anger and their frustration as being All About Me, and started recognizing it as a perfectly rational response against a world that thought nothing of treating them like bundle of offensive and destructive stereotypes. (Because, as a feminist, anger at oppression and injustice is something I am totally unfamiliar with. *snort*) And I realized that if I was going to really fight racism, if I was going to back up my lofty ideals about "equality" and "justice" and "freedom," it meant I was going to have to shut the fuck up and listen.
Listening was hard, and it hurt, especially when I realized that I had said and done some pretty offensive things in my life. I still burn with shame when I think of some of those things, but I also know that my shame and my pain is nothing compared to what it must be like to be on the receiving end of those words and actions, not once or twice, but over and over again, every day of every week of every year of your life.
Listening is also simple. It is just the matter of being willing to hear what the other person has to say, and honoring it as truth that is worthy of respect. Yet as simple and as powerful as this act can be, I notice that a lot of us white feminists have serious difficulties with it. Our defenses go way up, and we become incapable of recognizing that we have turned into that obnoxious guy that barges into our discussions to tell us all about how we are wrong about sexism.
I am aware that I am hardly an expert on all matters related to race, which is kind of the point. I recognize that I don't know everything. I know I have tons to learn, and that I will always need to work on my ideas about race (and sexuality, and colonialism, and ablism, and gender identity, and...), because I, as a cisgendered, middle-class, college-educated, physically able, white American woman in a heterosexual relationship, will never be able to use first-person experience to understand what it is like to live in a body and a life that is different from mine.
But I can learn. I can listen. I can capture a glimmer of understanding, and I can use it to build a more nuanced, compassionate worldview. And so can you. So next time you come across a discussion about race, before you open your mouth or put fingers to keyboard, sit back and just listen. You might be surprised by what you learn.