Dear fellow white feminists: We are not doing enough to dismantle white supremacy and confront racism. Dismantling white supremacy is white people’s work to do, and there is a moral and ethical imperative for us to do it with full energy, attention and commitment. Just as racial injustice in America is the responsibility of white people, so is the battle for the eradication of it. And it is a battle we can win, if only we’d do the work.
Yes, as white feminists, most of us at least say we care about this issue. But caring requires more than feelings — it demands significant action. And yet, many of us neither recognize the depths of racism nor own our part in it by speaking up and confronting it; nor do we listen to and follow the leadership of people of color, nor put our bodies in the fight for racial justice. Rather, we continue to silence and erase people of color in myriad ways, including telling them they are wrong about examples of racism instead. (See: the Tina Fey debacle.)
This has always has been the case — since the birth of this country — even if we are only now facing it in light of events such as the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville; numerous high profile examples of police brutality against people of color, including murder; and the many racist horrors of the Trump administration, such as the pardoning of Joe Arpaio.
White feminists in particular must lead the way, as we are already committed to seeking gender justice and therefore already on the forefront of white engagement with creating change to our broken nation. After all, there can be no gender justice without racial justice, yet throughout its waves, feminism as a political movement has continuously failed to be intersectional — that is, feminism that recognizes the connectedness among all forms of oppression and works to eradicate all of them.
Let me cast the current role of many white feminists in terms I know we all as white feminists will recognize.
We all know how infuriating it can be to talk to men about an occurrence of sexism and have them respond with ambivalence, or a yawn, or lack of understanding. “What’s sexist about that?” they ask.
We all know what it’s like to be told by men that something isn’t sexist when we are telling them it is.
We all know the outrage and exhaustion, along with the simmering anger, when men ask us to explain for the umpteenth time some simple point about sexism, as if it is not their job to educate themselves, but rather ours.
We all know what it is like when men do get it but offer only surface-level support on issues that are literally matters of life and death for us.
We all know what it is like to be soul-crushed and diminished and erased and belittled when they don’t listen, when they don’t get on board with the fight for gender justice in a real way.
We all know what it’s like to hear men say “not all men!”
We all know what it is like for men to exercise their power in ways that control us — for example, regarding abortion rights and access — and we know that not nearly enough men fight for us, for our rights.
We all know what it is like to watch men’s silence.
We all know that it is men’s work — not ours — to stop sexism and violence against women and to dismantle the patriarchy.
Yet, we — along with white feminist men and gender non-conforming folks, too — do all of these things, constantly, to people of color. White feminists are to people of color what men are to feminist women.
How many collective thousands of hours did we spend arguing that the Tina Fey sheetcake sketch wasn’t racist? Similarly, how many times have men said to us, “that was a joke, lighten up!”
There is a poem by Danny Bryck, “If You Could Go Back,” that begins like this:
If you could go back you
would walk with Jesus
You would march with King
Maybe assassinate Hitler
At least hide Jews in your basement
We need to ask ourselves: what are we doing right here and now?
There is no way to truthfully consider racial injustice without a stark look at its long history, which is stitched into this country’s very foundation. So first, we should stop acting surprised at horrific displays of racism. Neither the vast systems of institutional racism nor personal incidents of racist violence should be surprising in a country founded and built on slavery that has carried its deeply racist history into the present. And in today’s hyper-connected world, it is impossible to overlook, confronted as we are with images of unarmed people of color shot in the street by the police, of white supremacists carrying flaming torches and bearing Nazi symbols, and a president who praises these cops and these bigots. Anyone shocked by the horror in Charlottesville is either not paying attention or is lying to themselves about the state of this country. If we are not bursting with passion on these issues and working to prevent them from happening again, we are either willfully ignoring reality or participating, ourselves, in the quiet racism of silence and inaction.
Here is what we white feminists do in response:
We send a bit of cash to the Southern Poverty Law Center, then go back to our lives of white privilege and passivity with probably not many people of color in our social circle.
We give our opinions on the removal of confederate statues instead of saying, “I stand with African-Americans – it’s up to them.”
We talk about tolerance for differing opinions, even when people of color have laid out those “differing opinions” as being racist.
We often stay silent to maintain our own comfort — we’re more comfortable letting racism run amok than disturbing our own social orders a bit by confronting someone else’s comments that promote white supremacy, even if only in “small” ways.
We make claims that we are staying in touch with Trump voters because we can better affect change if we do, while never really actually having those hard talks with them, thereby tacitly condoning their racism.
We do not fight racism daily, though people of color must live with it daily. We white feminists aren’t fully on board – just like men aren’t on board all the way with feminism. We show up to march in Boston against the idea of white supremacy, and then go back to our regularly scheduled lives.
Here is what we white feminists must do instead:
1. We must feel the nation burning with white supremacy and fight it with our entire beings.
Why don’t we act from a place of deep ardor for racial justice? Perhaps if we owned how horrific centuries of white supremacy was and is and interrogated our own racism – for we all are to one degree or another – we would be able to call on our consciences for what is right. We must own every bit of this country’s racist past and look carefully at how it is embedded in our republic.
2. We must listen to critiques of our own behavior.
As Aja Barber wrote, “You are not getting ‘bullied’ because you are being called out for problematic behaviors, such as talking over women of color and erasure of their voices, in a conversation where you absolutely do not understand the subject matter. It is duplicitous and manipulative to declare otherwise.” When people of color are telling us something is racist, we need to hear it. (Just like we want men to do when we are telling them something is sexist!)
3. We must drop our defenses.
We need to stop saying “not all white people” and “not all white feminists.” We need to stop dismissing discussions of our history or racism as “dredging up the past.” We need to stop having one set of conversations with white folks and another with people of color. We need to stop saying things like “but I get that the cops are scared” to our white friends, while nodding about police brutality toward people of color. We need to stop saying “I’m not a Nazi,” as if this is only about the Nazis in the streets and not centuries of structural racism.
4. We must use our power.
We fight for our own families and our own kids, and we must fight for the families and children of people of color with the same gusto. What if we advocated for all schools the way we do for our kids’ educations? The more we act like our own children are more important in the world than anyone else’s, the more we fail as human beings. Similarly, we must fight — as hard as our foremothers fought for us — to end voter suppression and improve voting access for people of color.
5. We must listen to people of color on the myriad ways we can fight for racial justice.
Brilliant voices like Ijeoma Oluo offer strong prescriptives to those who say they want to do something to fight white supremacy. Black Lives Matter is doing work to dismantle white supremacy at every level, as Shanelle Matthews discusses in this important article. We must recognize and support these efforts.
Last week I asked Heather Cronk, co-director of SURJ Action, an organization that works to undermine white support for white supremacy, what white people should be doing to support BLM right now and as we move forward. Cronk responded, “The first thing white folks should do to support Black organizers and other organizers of color is to listen. Rather than running out to organize actions or to tackle people on Facebook, listen to Black organizers' needs and strategies. Line up behind and alongside local organizers of color in your community who are making very sophisticated calculations about what's needed and what the risks to their lives and livelihoods are.”
6. We must give financial support to people of color and the causes they helm.
When I asked Cronk about specific strategies whites should enact, she suggested: “As you listen to the needs and strategies being crafted by local organizers of color, move resources to local organizing groups led by people of color as a first concrete step. That can be in the form of donations (and should be, to the extent that you're able), but could also be in the form of goods and services. As you move those resources, you'll start to build deeper trusting relationships with organizers and organizations -- which will help inform how you can most strategically be helpful in this moment.”
When I asked Cronk what actions have been lacking from white folks since the election, she told me: “After a surge of protest and outrage after the election, many white folks have settled into a ‘new normal’ that is both harmful and dangerous. If you haven't yet gotten connected with a local SURJ chapter in your community, you can find a nearby chapter here. It's vital for white folks to not simply show up at protests, but to be engaged in the grinding work of organizing our people away from white supremacy by building an anti-racist majority — and that requires not just mobilizing, but organizing.”
7. We must speak out — and that means to family, friends and colleagues, too.
Through history, white people have perpetuated our country's systemic racism in numerous ways, including through complicit silence. I asked Cronk about what should we be doing instead.
“White supremacy is foundational to this country — and white people need to take responsibility for dismantling it. White supremacy thrives on white silence — so white people must vocalize our support for another way forward,” she said. “Rather than remaining silent, white people must take responsibility for educating ourselves — as well as our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family — about the ways in which white folks not only benefit from white supremacist policies and practices, but also are harmed by white supremacy. Racism hurts white folks by keeping us separate from our best selves and separate from one another — it fosters fear and silence in our communities, rather than love and support. Read the Movement for Black Lives policy platform to get a better understanding of what a vision for collective liberation looks like."
We need to stop worrying about making people uncomfortable by discussing prejudice. White people should be uncomfortable — just as racism makes people of color uncomfortable all the time.
8. We must put our bodies on the line — put our own white skin in the game — by standing with people of color in protest.
White feminists, we have the power not just to be in the fight with people of color but to help win it. When we make fighting white supremacy a constant stance and racial justice work part of the fabric of our daily lives, rather than going to one march and then going home, we are doing right. When we support BLM and SURJ with action — donations and mobilizing in solidarity as directed — we are truly caring and putting ourselves in the fight. When we engage in the thorny, painful work of challenging people directly on an individual level, we are taking the necessary risks to do this work. When we do this hard work on a constant basis instead of feeling badly about racism and marching for a day, then we become the allies and champions people of color have always needed us to be.
Again, from “If You could go back,” nearing the poem’s conclusion:
Now is when we need you to go back
and forget everything you know
and give up the things you’re chained to
Now is when we need to act. We are failing people of color, white feminists. We are not doing nearly enough to confront our racism. Now is when we need to go back. We must be truly intersectional in our feminism. We must own our racist past and present, we must listen, we must act, and we must fight and fight and fight for racial justice. We must.
Let us begin.