White women’s role in racism is beginning to get the attention, study, and correct analysis, to honestly tell the story of American racism. People are outlining the role of White women in housing segregation, support of racist politicians and policies, verbally, financially, and physically.
I would like to add to this conversation the role of Feminism and Racism. Specifically, by looking at the role of White Feminism that we have been taught to celebrate as social justice fighters for ALL women. However, feminism, even and/or especially, the beloved Suffragettes that we study during Women’s History Month, have never been for ALL women. Feminism has been for White Woman, usually upper middle class, White Woman, but additionally, they have racist, White Supremacy views, policies, and worked against the freedom of Black women.
The narrative of “benevolent, non-racist Women” is especially present during March, that is Women’s History Month. Just as Black History Month celebrates the contributions of Black Americans with the goal of ending racism, Women’s History Month celebrates women’s contributions with the goal of ending sexism. Women’s history, contributions, and values are all part of the work to create the f-word: feminism.
By definition, feminism is “the equality of sexes.” Even in 2018, feminism is presented as an all-encompassing definition, a team of all kinds of people who believe in the equality of genders. But feminism has never been an all-inclusive group fighting for the rights and equality of all women. Feminism in mainstream culture leaves out the experiences of women of color. And throughout the history of the fight for women’s rights, that fight was too-often exclusively for and about White women.
In our society, where whiteness is considered the norm, white privilege distorts all kinds of efforts toward equality, including feminism. Being non-racist takes years of hard work, research, and introspection. Feminists who haven’t done that work to address their conscious and unconscious racial biases promote a version of feminism often referred to as “White Feminism.” White Feminism leads people to prioritize issues that affect white, cis and affluent women. Here are some examples:
- While the pay gap between white men and white women dominates headlines and conversation, this gap is beginning to close. Yet Black women work more hours than white women and their pay gap with white men has grown.
- White Feminism assumes the term “reproductive freedom” means access to birth control and safe, legal abortion. But Black women’s experience of being denied the right to reproduce is excluded from this definition. Their experiences include forced sterilization, unwanted coercion into using higher-risk methods of birth control and welfare policies that penalize women for having more children.
- Discussions about workplace flexibility and “work-life” balance for working women who are white and affluent ignore the long and often irregular hours worked by women in low-wage jobs. They also overlook the role women of color play as nannies, house-cleaners and other domestic help for white women professionals. Many professional women could not do their jobs without the long hours and low pay put in by the domestic workers they employ. Women of color in the professions know their history and fear taking advantage of flextime as long as it is viewed as a handout.
While all of those issues are important, they are issues that are top priorities for ciswomen and middle and upper-class White Women. They aren’t top-of-mind for the majority of women in the United States, who earn less money and come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. They also exclude women who have different experiences of being a woman.
Because of the role of racism and white supremacy in America, it is impossible to study sexism without also studying racism. While Women’s History Month tends to focus on White Feminist leaders, Black Feminists (who sometimes use the term ‘womanist’ to distinguish themselves from White Feminism) have been fighting for both race and gender equity since the founding of the United States. Too often they have been forced to choose whether to identify as Black or as women. To add insult to injury, for Black women, not only were their issues ignored largely by the White Suffragists historically and by White Feminists today, but the issues that are priorities for Black women are attacked by White Feminists acting from racial bias. Ironically, those feminists claim feminism while attacking other women.
The Myth of the Helpless White Woman
Often, White women have been shielded from their role in their racism due to the narrative that says they are helpless, vulnerable and in need of saving. That narrative has harmed White Women who were interested in breaking gender norms. More importantly, it has also been a tool of racist oppression of Black Americans.
The narrative of White women as helpless, vulnerable and in need of saving is dead wrong. Historically, White women were not silent or apathetic about racism. Today, as a group, they continue to participate actively in the perpetuation of racism and White supremacy.
Historically, although White women were unable to own property or “work” for themselves, they have always played the role of employer and boss over Black women. Throughout American history, White Women have held positions of power over Black Women. Viewing issues of employment in the United States over time, White women have nearly always chosen White Supremacy and racism over Women’s Rights or Feminism.
During slavery, White Women may not have officially owned slaves, but they were the bosses of the house. In these positions of power, White women re-enforced racism by how they treated house slaves or their employees. White women, who our textbooks would try and tell us today were for “family values” and “traditional nuclear families” overwhelming, participated in the inhumane, cruel act of separating black families, mothers from their children, the especially brutal separation of mothers from their newborns. Additionally, White Women, remained quiet and compliant, as their husbands, sons, brothers, engaged in the serial, mass rape of enslaved Black women.
During Reconstruction and the Great Depression, Americans of all races, classes, and genders experienced hardship. These difficult times for the entire country would have been a prime opportunity for White Women to unite with Black Women to improve the lives and outcomes for all women. But White women still chose White Supremacy and racism.
The institution of social work was created and maintained by White women who had at best a limited vision of racial justice or equity. Its founder, Jane Addams, was a privileged white woman, as were many other leading early social workers. Although she helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and condemned lynching, her understanding of the lynching issue was very limited, and Ida B. Wells’ efforts to expand it were unsuccessful.
Racist biases in early social work led to official participation in the eugenics movement, which persisted as late as 1957. Social workers have also had the power to make decisions about forced sterilizations of women of color, a practice that continued in hospitals through the early 1970s.
The social programs launched by the New Deal policies of the 1930s created a wonderful opportunity for White Feminists to move from bossing Black women solely in their homes to holding power over them as social workers and bureaucrats in child welfare and poverty alleviation programs. Similar powers are exercised by nonprofit directors and by teachers and principals. These White women had — and still have — the power to determine whether a Black woman is parenting “correctly,” doing her nonprofit job “correctly” and whether her children are learning “correctly.” In essence, they hold the power to determine whether Black people will survive and thrive.
Even today, we see an over-representation of White women in positions of power as teachers, social workers, and nonprofit directors. In these roles, they continue to have power over Black people and often wield it without an understanding of the history of privilege and oppression that permeates their role in these so-called “helping professions.”
It is imperative that we acknowledge the historic racism that was and still remains part of the Feminist movement, as well as how White women’s racism affects Black folks, and especially Black women currently.