WHITE WOMEN IMAGINE THEMSELVES THE EMBODIMENT OF WOMANHOOD
Do you notice when white women talk about women in any capacity, they mean white women?
This may seem like a clumsy mishap, but history tells us it is actually a social and political move to obliterate, to repudiate the existence of womanhood that is trans, Black, of colour. Indeed, this attitude is the basis mainstream feminism is understood, positioned to reflect the needs and wants of white women. It claims it is white women who experience sexism in its purest form and therefore they are best placed to speak to it. They alone have the expertise on what it means to be a woman.
BLACK WOMEN DISTANCE THEIR WORK FROM WOMEN’S ISSUES
Sadly, we Black, women of colour tend to respond to this white female aggression by tolerating it.
We accept that sexism, that is society assigning women and femaleness an inferior status, is not our fight, so heck no, we do not want to be associated with feminism and women’s issues. Consequently, instead of rejecting white women colonising womanhood and feminism, we turn our backs. Announcing on our social media pages that we are not feminists, which is to say we do not recognise our experiences as related to the female struggle. We announce that while our work is about driving change for all, it should not be understood as feminist work.
Even inspiring women like Tarana Burke, founder of the MeToo movement, are guilty of distancing their work from women’s movement.
For example, in a heated debate in 2020 over a new sculpture in New York that depicts a new take on the ancient Greek mythological tale, Medusa. The mythology goes; Medusa was raped by one man which angered one woman who transformed Medusa’s hair into snakes so men who look at her turn into stone. The gods were unhappy with this and worked with one man who beheaded Medusa. The 16th century sculpture depicts this man heroically holding Medusa’s severed head.
In a contemporary twist, one American-Italian man claimed to pay tribute to the MeToo movement and rape survivors by changing this image. He depicts a naked Medusa assuming the heroic position holding the severed head of the man who killed her.
Rightly so, Burke pointed out problems with this tribute on her Instagram on 17th October, one being the choice of a white male artist. The other over its “INACCURATE” interpretation of the MeToo movement, that is the sculpture suggesting it is about vengeance when actually “it is about HEALING and ACTION.” Burke, wrongly so, clarified the movement was not a women’s movement. Explaining MeToo advocates for sexual abuse survivors which include those who do not identify as women, and men and children.
She essentially says a women’s movement is the opposite of this. This observation is problematic.
ACCEPTING WHITE FEMALE RACISM UNDERMINES OUR WORK AGAINST RACISM
Burke’s response suggests two implications; either she rejects that feminism is about liberation FOR ALL and works to position the most silenced at the centre, and thus accepts the racist and separatist interpretation of a women’s movement by white women. Or she does not recognise sexism as a social issue, failing to appreciate its role in sexual violence against women and girls, and in the concealment of that same violence against men and boys.
That is to say either she accepts the racist stance of white feminism or accepts sexism. Given what Angela Davis’ taught us, that “racism nourishes sexism”, to accept one is to accept the other.
Therefore, Burke’s attempt to distance the MeToo movement from women’s movement, rather than from the whiteness and false interpretations of feminism validates the racism (and sexism) imbedded in these views. It strengthens racism and sexism which undermines her work to eradicate sexual violence. Violence experienced not just by Black, women and girls of colour, although considerably more so than white women, men and boys. Her action also affirms the idea that to talk about women is to talk about white women.
WHITE WOMEN IMAGINE THEY DO NOT HAVE A RACE
It is this dynamic of white women’s aggressive claim over womanhood and Black women’s somewhat passive response that Black feminists like bell hooks have been explaining since the 1980s. In her text ‘Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism’, hooks highlight how white women have historically assumed a racist attitude in fashioning womanhood in their reflection. A fashioning that shows their interest is in maintaining white dominance, not changing women’s circumstances.
We see this in dialogues around us. Take Heidi Klum’s complaint when she was referred to as a ‘white woman’.
If you missed this public exchange; in 2020 Black actress Gabrielle Union talked about her experience of racism as a judge on the show ‘America’s Got Talent’, (AGT). Hinting she might have been cut after one year because of its racist culture. Klum, also a judge on the show, asserted herself in support of AGT, commenting she only had good experience on the show and did not recognise Union’s negative experience.
To which those on social media educated her that being white meant her experience is different to a Black woman’s. It appears she then took offence in being categorised as a white woman, taking it as an act of aggression. This tells us women like Klum view themselves as ‘normal’ women which suggests Black, women of colour are the ‘other’ women, and thus an inferior type of woman.
To talk about Klum as a white woman is to threaten her imagined superiority, because it places her in a nondominant position with non-white women. Additionally, Klum’s 7-year marriage to British Black singer, Seal, and three mixed raced children is an important reminder that proximity to Blackness is not a substitute for the necessary work for white people to liberate themselves from anti-Black racism.
WHITE WOMEN DISTRACT ATTENTION AWAY FROM BLACK CAUSES
J.K. Rowling shows us other ways white women assert their imagined superiority.
Historically when Black causes gain mainstream attention, white women work to divert that attention away and onto themselves. We can see that in Rowling’s rampart antagonism against transgender women. As the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum in 2020, Rowling and many white radical feminists chose then to voice their concerns “about the new trans activism”. A movement that centres the most disregarded including Black transwomen, Rowling’s timing was not a coincidence but a direct response to what she perceives to be a threat to white women’s superior position over Black lives.
Her attacks on transgender womanhood takes attention away from the movement and onto what she perceives as more serious concerns. That is trans identities corroding women and girl’s rights, and the physical danger transgender women pose to ‘real’ women. She rejects the legitimacy of transgender women, arguing biological sex defines womanhood and it is this superior class of femaleness that must be protected.
This refusal to accept transwomen as women, different and not inferior to cisgender women, is her refusal to accept womanhood as a diverse and unfixed class. This suggests she is relying on the narrow interpretation of woman that is white, and thus reasserting white women’s imagined superiority. This tells Rowling’s concerns are not about women as she claims but in maintaining white dominance.
WHITE FEMINISM IS RACISM NOT FEMINISM
It is 169 years since Sojourner Truth addressed a group of white men who were rejecting women’s demand to become full citizens on the basis women were physically weak. To which Truth asked them if she, an enslaved Black woman who worked and survived sorely by her physical strength, was not a woman. It was a question to white women also who had not included Black women in their demand for women’s rights. They assumed then, as they do today, that to be a woman was to be white.