Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Letter to White Feminists

This essay aged a few months, but it came at a time when a borrage of requests landed in on my doorstep to "help" White feminists become more aware of their racism. In my own work to combat internalized oppression, internalized inferiority and superiority, I have found an invaluble community of Radical WOC to challenge and support me. Many thanks to BFP, Blackamazon, Lex, Fabulosa, Sylvia and the fierce supporters both on and offline.

For every human, fear is a natural component of life. In every situation, fear plays a part of our decisions in whom we choose to love, leave, vocation, direction, and faith. Fear, without discernment, can have a paralyzing, sometimes permanent cage in one’s life.

When I counseled individuals struggling with addiction, this quote hung on my corkboard, “The possibility of change is so fearful that most will stay with what is familiar to them, even if it is hell. The unknown is that daunting.”

For a feminist of color, fear encapsulates much of the process of self-actualization, or as I call it, tapping into the often frozen fountain of love and potential. Feminism, the multi-defined movement that centers justice on issues relating to women and gender, is hardly the warm home where a woman finds herself. Feminism, for women of color, depends largely on the level of ready availability of community, resources, support, and education.* (Education, not the formal academia style, but the roots of educating. A means of broadening one’s knowledge to lead a richer, fuller life.)

Mainstream feminism, theory and political action that receives primary attention and recognition, will often directly clash with the culture and experience of women of color. Mainstream feminism, while boasting strides that women of color are in fact included; transgender folks, individuals with disability, and non-heterosexual identified women continue to remain unwelcomed. In other words, mainstream feminism has fallen short of creating a place of friction. You want easier winds. The objectivity of mainstream feminism is often mildly fought negotiation and radical sisterhood, overlooking the basic premise that most non-white women were born with in their blood: Difference is inevitable, necessary, and good. Compromise is not always necessary or even needed. The simple existence of difference is needed. Compromise is not.

When discussing mainstream feminism, One radical feminist of color wrote,“ I normally do not participate. I want woc feminism to be so much more than just anger. I want it to be so much more than just reacting to stupid white people.” (Ahh, Fabulosa Mujer...)


The empowerment of WOC, a force that history has yet to fully document, strikes fear into the heart of mainstream feminism. After all the careful thoughts, studying, language acquisition, and open panel discussions, many White feminists have asked me is it possible that I have been participating in oppressive behavior? Toward other women? These questions prompt pause and, in that pause, fear.

This fear often yields two reactions. One White and or mainstream feminists to sink their desperate claws in to the shoulders of WOC feminists and beg for a tutorial, a lesson for change, how to be better, live better, make others feel better. How do you get rid of conflict? Discomfort? This ugliness between us? This ugliness between us is not something that can be rid of by simply talking about it. It must be undone by your mind, your soul, your truthful admittance that you are living off the expenses of the marginalized and your extravagance has a price. You center yourself in your theory, why not center yourself in your decolonizing, de-racist work?

The second reaction is my favorite, and by far, more entertaining to read on blogs: TOTAL DISMISSAL of WOC and anger of the possibility that a progressive feminist has not thoroughly checked her knapsack and must be sent back to Peggy McIntosh for further examination.

What woc have known is that their lived experience is that of an entirely different species than that of their dominantly privileged counterparts. The corners of life that most privileged people dare not even speak or consider are the shadows in which woc not only visit, but exist and breathe in. How could their perspective not be deeper, to include the light and the shadow, the blood and the cells, the suffering and the redemption?

These truths of antiquity for WOC flow from their pens as if from their blood. They know mess. They hold both the blunt and the shy in their calloused hands. Our forefeministmothers knew they needed a different space and feared what that might be, where it would be. And so, many of them waited. They waited in the margins, too afraid to approach the center, too afraid to leave.

Then, suddenly, a shift occurs. A momentun begins. WOC realize that the margins extend beyond ourselves, and there are Others, so many Others hanging onto the little bit of faith, hoping Something will change, hoping their voices will be heard, hoping their blood will stain deep enough that will rouse an feminist investigation.

Radical WOC can spot each other. We find community and have broken off from the margins and turn our backs to an agenda that never served us, never truly listened to us, or even loved us enough to try and understand Brown, Black, and grey matter.

This shift, the No More Margin Living illustrates the current state of grassroots organization and separatism that is currently transpiring: WOC planning, strategizing, theorizing, building, and moving away from the margin and recreating a circle of their own, one with no margins known; an open circle with nothing in the center but deliberate inclusion and focus on the Other. It's a circle, but with no vortex. It emphasizes knowledge, history, colonialization impact, imperialism - all found in self stories, in the narrative, not the text. It is no wonder, then, that when WOC begin to voice their own experiences White women begin to cry from dismantled sisterhood and intersectionality.

Please understand this: sisterhood was never whole to begin with.

The ability to live, move forward, progress WITH, not despite, difference is a conception that mainstream feminists have yet to embrace. And while the “mentionable” effect( aka giving shoutouts, sidebars, quick links, and forget-woc-not stats) provides a literary alibi which testifies that WOC are not being ignored, the truth is that the agenda on the clipboard largely remains dictated by white, middle-class, academy educated, Eurocentric American women. And the clipboard is not being passed around.

Well, we don't need your clipboard. We have our minds. I am over this and am unafraid. So the only tutorial I can give is this: get over your fear. Walk out into the unknown, if you are that committed to anti-racism within feminism. Be willing to give up your comfort and privilege of ignorance and safety.

Let me know, but I'm not waiting.


  1. “The possibility of change is so fearful that most will stay with what is familiar to them, even if it is hell. The unknown is that daunting.”

    Growing up with alcoholics, I never understood this behavior till later in life. But it's one of the truest things I've ever read on a blog. I've seen people suffer in invisible prisons, dooming themselves and their partners a cycle of destruction.

    "Radical WOC can spot each other. We find community and have broken off from the margins and turn our backs to an agenda that never served us, never truly listened to us, or even loved us enough to try and understand Brown, Black, and grey matter."

    As a transgender woman, I can understand this part of what you've written. Even if we are included in a discussion, we're told to keep our mouth shut, lest we be accused of being up to our old manly dominance. We are to be meek and quiet and just feel lucky to be included. You talked of callous hands knowing. Many times we are told how we think and why we do what we do, without being asked.

    As a white transwoman, I'd equate my experience as to a small child whose mother slaps the crap out of them in public and curses. Far from callous, the experience is something I've never encountered, so it's amazingly stark and shocking. It also has made me see how much of a fool I've been about a lot of things for a very long time.

  2. Marti,

    Thank you, deeply, for your comment. I'm glad you found some pieces of truths in that post and, when I read your comment, the one thing that struck me is your last line, "It also has made me see how much of a fool I've been about a lot of things for a very long time."

    Gosh, how many of us can say this about our own backward glances at our lives? How many fools have I been and how many times?


    What struck me is how open and introspective you sound - quite the opposite from foolish.

  3. But I couldn't see it around me unless it happened to me. I like to think I'm a bit more self aware than that.

    Thanks for writing this. It's an amazing essay.

  4. It certainly is.

    ijwts, briefly: I really like "no more margin living," for several reasons.

    i also think: the "fear of change" part is really key. it kind of drives me bonkers especially coming from people who're constantly on about EXAMINE this and that; it's like, um, psst, over here? you missed a spot...

    Sometimes I think the other part of the problem, maybe, is that the "critique" model in general, including yep self-criticism, can go horribly wrong. I mean, I guess I wish there were more nuance and careful attention paid to that, so that it didn't seem to so many people like the only options were hairshirt wearing (which helps no one else, really, anyway; hairshirt wearing is about -yourself;- the only reason other people sometimes seem to want it is because it's a kind of transference of their own shame, but to me that's not a healthy bargain or the best way of connecting) or "lalala don't want to hear it lalalalala."

    It's hard. On the one hand, I totally get (from both sides of this, in various contexts) the exasperation with "cookie giving" for shit that should be really basic, especially when the cookie-eater never seems to go beyond that point and taking the time and energy to be patient with the clueless person feels like it's taking much needed time and energy away from oneself and one's peers/comrades/sisters/loved ones/etc. So sometimes, you do have to make that decision: look, not today, I'm not up for it.

    What I do think, though, is that at minimum it's best to own it, you know: this is -my- boundary. At least if one wants to keep any possibility of communication with this individual or clump of people; "you suck because you want a cookie, you loser" feels good (I know, I've done it, may well do it again), your friends cheer you, and so on; but, even if it's "deserved," it...probably doesn't help, really. Usually. I dunno. I'm being very general here, I know, just because I see or experience this dynamic playing out in so -many- contexts.

    I also really liked Nanette's piece.

    Coming at it from a psych-ish perspective, I guess the concept I'm groping for is "optimal degree of shame," or maybe "reintegrative shaming" (the latter a term I picked up from Bitch/Lab, credit where due and all that). On the one hand, if you treat people who're blithely trampling all over you with kid gloves, that's not good for you -or- them or anyone else; you're bottling up your own feelings at the expense of theirs (once again!) and they probably never will tweak exactly how much they are hurting you, and so will continue to do so in other situations.

    On the other hand, if you ladle on the shame and blame with a trowel, it probably feels good momentarily, because you're getting to express some (perhaps long-pent-up) rage, feel righteous and triumphant, all of that; but, again, even if it's "deserved," it probably is just shifting and delaying the problem rather than addressing it with an eye toward real transformation. That is, there was no real communication; and it's true, with some people I think it really -never- will be possible, because they -really- don't want to hear you; and eventually you -will- go from frustration to rage to even sadism if you continue to engage with this person.

    But the nature of that transaction, whether you're dealing with one of those individuals or not, is more of a "shame-dump." i.e. this person is saying something that brings up all kinds of old rage and hurts; but TODAY, ENOUGH: -I- am not the bad person, YOU ARE! BLAAAAARRRGGGHHHH!!

    and it might get them to back down, cowed, and go the hell away, and that might be your goal and the best thing you can truly hope for, with this person.

    as a general method, though, politically speaking, it...isn't great.

    and here I am thinking more of a lot of more "mainstream" white feminists; online at least I see many of the WOC feminists doing this far less often. I'm not the only person to have observed this, either.

    otoh I know that pretty much every demographic and even individual is more than capable of going into that mode and staying there. myself included, natch.

    -goes off to ruminate some more about this-.

  5. (heh, guess that wasn't that briefly...)

  6. Joan Kelly2:43 PM

    What you wrote here and what I see on many of my favorite blogs makes me think about what I can only describe as the photographic negative of something MLK said. I know, for God's sake with the bringing-up-of-MLK, it just really is one instance where I can't think how else to illustrate what I'm feeling. So, he said something to the effect of injustice anywhere being a threat to justice everywhere. Which, in my self-righteous way, I will also now state that I wish this was the quote that sprung to white people's minds rather than the twisting of the idea of colorblindness.

    But to the other thing - the existence of both what you describe in this post and the very fact of you saying it is, to me, something that makes more of it possible everywhere else. Like, the presence of kick-ass-ed-ness here is a boost to kick-ass-ed-ness everywhere. That's a crass way of putting it, I get tongue-tied sometimes when I am excited and still waking up at the same time. To sum up - I love this, all of what it promotes and documents and announces.

    I'm glad you felt comfortable commenting here, too, Marti, and am not surprised that this space prompted feelings of safety and openness in you.

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  8. and here I am thinking more of a lot of more "mainstream" white feminists; online at least I see many of the WOC feminists doing this far less often. I'm not the only person to have observed this, either.

    could you clarify what you mean by this, belle?

  9. ::brows furrowed::

    I'm thinking, absorbing all that you are saying Belle.

    ::still thinking::

  10. >and here I am thinking more of a lot of more "mainstream" white feminists; online at least I see many of the WOC feminists doing this far less often. I'm not the only person to have observed this, either.

    could you clarify what you mean by this, belle?>

    Sorry, I know that was long-winded and convoluted and vague and so on.
    "this" referred to

    ladle on the shame and blame with a trowel/"you suck because you want a cookie, you loser"

    i.e. i encounter a lot of that in the mainstream white feminist blogs, less so on many--not all--spaces where people are already familiar with intersecting oppressions, radical WOC blogs among others. at least that's how I've been interpreting what that might be about; it might just be my own perspective, though.

    it's also possible I have less patience with a number of my fellow white feminists when they lose their shit, because I can look at it from the perspective of, well, I'm a white woman, too, and I have no idea why you're THIS knee-jerky about your Theory of Everything, although i feel like i -tried- to understand (and got jerked at myself). although i'd been chalking that up to hetnormativity as well as, well, they're attracted to that particular variant(s) of feminism for some reason, no doubt, even as I'm not for my own reasons, which could all be totally idiosyncratic.

    i dunno. i also feel like a lot of people don't deal with anger very well, and that may or may not be a cultural/gender thing (middle-class white U.S. women) among other things. at any rate I know it used to drive me up the wall at, say, Dyke Drama group, a real-life (collective all-women, mostly lesbian, mostly white, mix of older and younger women). A lot of general dysfunction, which comes in a million different flavors; but also a kind of, smiley smiley smiley smiley until one day it go BOOM, followed by a shitload of earnest processing that never really seemed to solve much.

    yeah, I'm still formulating this also.

  11. and now I'm also thinking that this:

    "you suck because you want a cookie, you loser"

    ...might also be an expression of unconscious entitlement in a lot of cases, even as it's nominally about righteous rage at the privileged person.

    I'm also very aware that there's been a lot of tsking about "tone" and how that can be used as a power move also. i.e. "you're too angry, I won't listen to you while you're so angry, oops except I wasn't actually going to listen to you anyway, but now we can talk about your anger instead of what you wanted to talk about, which helps me out, thanks!"

    It's...yeah. For me there's a difference between "anger" and "shutting down," and I'm usually pretty clear which is which. That is, you can be angry and still be engaging; you can be angry and -not- engaging; you can be not angry, "polite," even, and not engaging; and you can be not angry and engaging, which is what theoretically is supposed to be what good dialogue is all about all the time and in reality, well, good luck, really.

    But a particularly frustrating dynamic is when one person, usually the one with relative power in the discussion, is nominally "reasonable" but is actually stonewalling the other person, who's been trying to connect repeatedly and failing, getting increasingly frustrated and then angry; quick everyone blame the "angry" person.


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