When Feminism Dovetails With White Supremacy
Simply using the term rankles. White people don’t like being called White. It’s taken as a threat that they might suffer the fate of the Other one day. Whiteness is meant to confer a kind of invisibility. It is meant to mask the power and privilege it has granted itself. It is meant to elide and obfuscate. It is meant to place the White person above being questioned. Whiteness is a construct. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Whiteness confers power. Femaleness does not. Power is the enemy of equality, and the fork in the road where we are forced to choose between the two is where feminism and White supremacy combine into something noxious: White feminism.
White Feminists do not want equality; they want power. Specifically, they want the same privileges and immunities as White men. Their struggle is about climbing to the top rung of the oppressor class. It’s why “smashing the glass ceiling” is so central to the narrative. There is room for only so many people at the top, though, and widening the applicant pool is bad strategy. The result: White Feminists tell on themselves whenever race comes up.
White Feminists are to discussions of White supremacy what Men’s Rights Activists are to discussions of patriarchy. They pretend to be against it, but in reality, they are among its staunchest defenders and weaponize phony, completely self-serving notions of equality that erase the dynamics of power. They derail, they center themselves, they claim victimhood where there is none, they diminish and erase the suffering of others, they co-opt, they disrespect, they seek to dominate and control. They also can’t see how embarrassingly self-parodic they’re being.
There is a long history of White women choosing to align themselves with the power of Whiteness instead of seeking their own liberation. The 53% of them who voted for President Donald Trump is the most obvious contemporary cohort. I’m not sure how many of these women would identify as feminists, though. White Feminists are a liberal problem.
The White supremacy practiced by American liberals presents as more paternalistic and condescending than the vitriolic, mouth-frothing of the right wing, but make no mistake — it’s still White supremacy, and it’s still violent. Mass incarceration — a form of ethnic cleansing — is just one of the racist horrors modern Democrats have foisted onto Black America. This isn’t a history lesson, though. What propelled me to write this essay was watching the following events unfold.
In response to the Senate confirming Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a credibly alleged serial sexual predator and belligerent drunk, to sit on the Supreme Court, White feminism went on a rampage.
One of the key tells that you’re dealing with a White Feminist is that they erase women of color, particularly Black women. They also have an overweening sense of entitlement to the labor and accomplishments of activists and organizers who are people of color — again, particularly Black women. It’s not an accident that Tarana Burke, the Black woman who created #MeToo in 2006, has been virtually erased, and messy, White female movie stars have shoved themselves to the forefront of the movement that nearly everyone is now convinced began only a year ago. You see, it wasn’t important until White Feminists started paying attention, deemed it worthy, and anointed themselves its leaders. No one meant for that to happen, though. It wasn’t deliberate. They were just sharing their stories, and you know, they are more relatable… That’s another thing White feminism does: dodges accountability.
Another bout of White Feminist nonsense began when Bette Midler wrote in a since-deleted tweet, “‘Women, are the n-word of the world.’ Raped, beaten, enslaved, married off, worked like dumb animals; denied education and inheritance; enduring the pain and danger of childbirth and life IN SILENCE for THOUSANDS of years They are the most disrespected creatures on earth.”
If all women are niggers, what does that make Black women? That question never crossed Midler’s mind, because she wasn’t talking about anyone who actually has to bear the burden of niggerdom on top of womanhood. The brutality, the blood, and the oppression that are steeped into that word are just there to sensationalize. Black people’s suffering is a shoddy special effect.
Twitter quite rightly told Midler about herself.
Midler then doubled down, citing Yoko Ono as the source of the quote and claiming rather bizarrely that “This is not about race.” In what world is shouting about “n-words” in a discussion about oppression on Twitter not about race? If it’s not about race, why censor the word? Midler is someone who knows the rule “Don’t say ‘nigger’!” but doesn’t really understand why it exists.
“Woman is the Nigger of the World” is a song released by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1972. Ono reportedly coined the phrase in a magazine interview in 1969. This language coming from a woman of color speaks to how deeply ingrained and universal anti-Blackness is and how solidarity between people of color is often a scam, but that’s for another essay. Lennon explained the use of the word in the song to mean any oppressed person. What a filthy culture vulture. What a repellent ingrate. Imagine making yourself a multi-millionaire on the backs of Black Americans and their art then having the temerity not only to use the word “nigger” so loosely but to blithely erase the people actually being called niggers during the Civil Rights Movement. My God… You must have been able to see the towering spires of arrogance from outer space. John and Yoko were “allies,” though. Imagine being Midler and having your politics stuck in the groove of this shitty record for nearly 50 years.
The song was heavily criticized when it was released. It was also highly praised, though, and it’s unsurprising by who. The National Organization for Women gave Lennon and Ono an award for this foolishness. The controversial phrase has lived on among White feminists and found life in a new generation. This picture of a White woman holding a sign saying “Woman is the nigger of the world” was taken at SlutWalkNYC in 2011.
All the backlash eventually led Midler to apologize.
There was no respite, though. Right on the heels of Midler’s tomfoolery came White Feminists attempting to shoulder their way to the front of the #TakeAKnee protest. Suggestions that women protesting Kavanaugh’s confirmation take a knee during the anthem going forward were coming thick and fast and getting tens of thousands of likes and retweets. Imagine doing that knowing Eric Reid was suiting up for his first game after being blackballed and months of not knowing whether he’d ever play again. Imagine not thinking to allow him and the people for who he was willing to sacrifice his career to have that moment. Imagine arguing that, shoving yourself in front of him is solidarity. The selfishness on display was really something to behold.
Those of you who follow me know how strongly I feel about what’s being done to Colin Kaepernick, and that in my own small way, I try to fight for him and the movement he started with my writing. I was incandescently incensed.
The replies to one particular tweet were particularly dispiriting. I shared it with my small band of followers, with the cover, “Read the replies to this tweet… and understand that what you’re witnessing is one of the more insidious forms of white supremacy. Really consider the depth of the entitlement to black people’s labor that is on display.”
The tweet is embedded. Click on it and read the replies if you already haven’t. Look at the tantrums being thrown. Look at the demands being made. Look at the entitlement. Look at the lack of respect. Look at all the gaslighting talk about “unity” and “ending divisiveness.” Look at the way accountability is being framed as oppression. Look at how quickly some of the responders descended into venomous rage, all because they were quite reasonably being told “no” by people they believe they shouldn’t have to listen to. All because they think being in charge is their birthright. All because they’ve learned well the central lessons Whiteness teaches: That they are more important in each and every circumstance and that everything belongs to them. The irony. This is why White feminism is a particularly poisonous form of White supremacy. Its adherents have all the tools to deconstruct institutionalized, systemic racism. They fully comprehend what it means for oppression to be deeply embedded into culture, yet they extend that understanding to others only when it serves their ends. When they say “unite,” they mean “beneath us.”
If you truly want the “infighting” to stop, consider choosing to be the ones doing the silent uniting instead of searching for parades to jump in front of.
Really consider the unmitigated gall it takes to have almost fully co-opted #MeToo — a movement that merges seamlessly with White Feminists’ grievances against Justice Kavanaugh — then look up and demand #TakeAKnee too. The insolence.
The protest movement Kaepernick began is incredibly powerful. In spite of his reclusiveness, it has managed to stay in the news. That’s quite a feat in a world where the news cycle turns over in hours. Think about what it means that White Feminists can’t allow Black Americans to have that small bit of power, that they tried to take it for themselves and many of them collapsed into paroxysms of petulant ire when they were denied.
They aren’t allies.
Historically, White women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Not enough people know this. Not enough people talk about this. When the Kavanaugh-reinforced conservative Supreme Court eviscerates these programs, they won’t be targeting White women, though. They’ll get to keep their gains. Whiteness will be their shield and buckler, and I don’t think this same “Let’s take a knee!” energy will be there for the fallout from those decisions. It won’t be there for a host of other issues. Black Americans know this. White Feminists have played Lucy to their Charlie Brown with the football of civil rights one too many times.
White women who identify as feminists, until you consistently show up for the causes of Black Americans, you need to keep your eyes on your own papers, and do your own work. Stepladdering on the backs of Black activists and organizers to center yourselves is incredibly disrespectful. Everything that is useful to you in the moment isn’t yours to commandeer. Taking what doesn’t belong to you is theft. It’s the point of Whiteness, though, the whole reason it was created: to colonize, steal, and disempower the robbed. That behavior lives on and manifests itself quite sneakily. The wholesale confiscation of #MeToo and the attempted appropriation of #TakeAKnee are examples of this.
Some people have read past the “content of their character” parts of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. They’ve read the part about the bad check America wrote the descendants of its slaves and what is owed to them. They’ve also read what he wrote about White moderates from his cell in Birmingham:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
White Feminists are striving for a negative peace where they sit atop the social hierarchy and pretend they want equality. They are the most effective envoys of the “wait for a ‘more convenient season’” message because shattering the glass ceiling is portrayed as benefiting women of all races equally. It won’t. It isn’t meant to, and they often slip and remind us what they really think. Never forget that White Feminist icon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg derided Kaepernick and his protest as “dumb and disrespectful” and compared it to flag burning — a position that is in line with Trumpian MAGA propaganda. She later apologized, but there is only so far “allyship” like than can take Black Americans, and it’s not to freedom. Brett Kavanaugh being worse is no excuse for people who should know better not to do better. “We’re not as bad as they are!” may be true, but it doesn’t lift the bar off the ground. More is required. Instead of some people doing more, others are not only constantly asked to take less but to turn over the fruits of their labor for next to nothing in return. It’s a scam, and people see through it.
While lack of common sense was spilling itself all over the timeline, First Lady Melania Trump was wandering around performing “Out of Africa” White-settler cosplay, and it made me want to hurl myself into an active volcano. Those sartorial choices weren’t made benignly. They were deliberately chosen direct expressions of the desire to head backwards into an apologetically colonial past. The choice of the pith helmet — an enduring symbol of European colonialism — was particularly on the nose. Nevertheless, Melania Trump’s linen pantsuit was marshaled in service to White feminism.
When Melania stepped off the plane in Egypt dressed like the villain from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kate Bennett, who covers FLOTUS for CNN, saw no hints of colonialist aspirations, only “a fascinating fashion statement for a country with a very poor record on women’s rights. In the politics of fashion realm, she’s sending a message: Women are equal.” Has anything about Melania Trump’s behavior signaled that this generous conclusion is warranted? Melania was a vocal birther. She has participated in several of her husband’s other ugly stunts. This continued effort to rehabilitate her and paint her as a victim who has no agency is one of the more sinister aspects of White feminism: It embraces and props up the trope of White women being inherently innocent and a civilizing force.
America is unable to come to terms with the fact that it is a colonial power. What do people think those reservations are? What is the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs if not a viceroy? These admissions are antithetical to what America purports to stand for, and White women play an important role in deflecting the conversation away from this reality, because their role in the atrocities can be romanticized. White women participated in and benefited from the brutality of colonization, but this is often hidden in the telling of history. Those images of Melania Trump were meant to conjure up the notion of colonial violence being polite, civilized, and stylish — something to aspire to. The First Lady playing this kind of dress-up while married to an actual fascist isn’t empowering for women, and anyone who sees it as such is collaborating with something incredibly dangerous to score cheap points to shine up their White Feminist bona fides.
This collaboration must continue to be named for what it is.
White feminism is a tool of White supremacy. If you wield it, you are comporting yourself like a White supremacist, and cloaking it in condescending benevolence doesn’t take the stench off of it. Don’t be surprised when the people who are White supremacy’s targets accept the version of yourself you’re presenting (intentionally or not) and want nothing to do with it. As long as White supremacy is at work in your politics, there is nothing for people of color, particularly Black people, to unite with. Your demands to “stop being divisive!” are attempts to manipulate and control people you believe should obey you, and you should interrogate why you feel entitled to their subservience.
If you truly want the “infighting” to stop, consider choosing to be the ones doing the silent uniting instead of searching for parades to jump in front of. Fascism is the encroaching spread of state-sponsored racism finding its way to neighborhoods that thought they would be exempt. Black and Indigenous Americans, who have been in the trenches and doing the work continuously over centuries are far better prepared to understand what’s happening and how to confront it than the gaggle of White people talking over them. Not recognizing this and refusing to allow them to lead in this moment are the things that make me the most pessimistic about America’s future.