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Feminspire | April 25, 2014

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Why White Feminists Need To Shut Up and Listen When It Comes To Race

Why White Feminists Need To Shut Up and Listen When It Comes To Race

| On 09, Jan 2014

Ya’ll, we’ve gotta talk.

We’ve got a privilege problem within “anti-racism” and white feminism.

We’ve got too many people like Tim Wise who make a profit positing themselves as authorities on people of color’s issues, our lives, and who are very quick to speak over, dismiss, and belittle voices of color and even go so far as to state themselves as “victimized” by our criticisms of their benefiting off of our marginalization. We’ve got too many racist white people ignoring people of color in discussions about race for the sake of prioritizing other white people who will coddle them and make anti-racism more consumable and about them and their guilt. We’ve got too many white women like Lily Allen who will be more than OK to appropriate Black female culture so as to posit herself as “above” and more “intelligent” and “ladylike” than it and be heralded on this front by majority culture.

I’ve read too many pieces by white “allies” or feminists on the topic of race that make me tilt my head and grimace at the paternalism and ignorance still blatant in their voices. I often think “Yeah, you think you’re doing the right thing, but you’re so wrong.” Could it be because they’re not actually speaking from a place of personal knowledge and experience on these issues, or that despite their knowledge on certain issues still have a lot of racism to unpack? At best, they’re merely abusing their privilege and speaking over us, regurgitating what feminist bloggers, academics, activists, and writers of color have been saying for ages, except in their whiteness they’re the one with the position and visibility to be heard for it and build a career off of it, and they don’t give us any credit or direct people to us to hear our narratives ourselves. At worst, they’re saying wholly misguided, dangerous, racist and ignorant things on our behalf, and having a hand in perpetuating our marginalization.

Why do I click on the links to the authors of so many (elementary, mediocre, racist pandering, guilt-heavy, white-centric) articles about race from major online news sources and see that said authors are white folk, all while the few good parts of said pieces themselves sound vaguely familiar to things I’ve already heard being discussed before by folks like me, but to less acclaim and attention? Why aren’t these new sources using people of color writers who will just do a proper job of it from the get-go? Why do none of these white people say, in their pieces “It is about time we listen to people of color’s voices and narratives”, posting links and quotes to our works, and instead speak as if they are self-realized activists who came to these great conclusions themselves, and are commendable or valiant in their position? Why don’t white people just not write these pieces at all, realizing it isn’t exactly their place and many people of color have already talked about these subjects? Why do white people get so bothered at the thought of us not thinking they’re qualified to know or talk about our existences, hate the idea of people of color wanting to center and prioritize ourselves, our voices, our narratives, and build communities around that? Why do “seasoned” white leftists, liberals, feminists and anti-racists get so mad when you point out their blatant racism and bias they’ve still got to check and work on?

What about us folks of color isn’t good or knowledgeable enough that it requires white grandstanding and paternalism?

Even when I’ve read decent and commendable anti-racist pieces or thoughts by a white person put on a larger platform, I always wish that visibility could have been given to a person of color instead. We are socialized to always center and prioritize whiteness. The very idea of saying “I look within my own community for voices, authorities, and talent” is preposterous, and seen as “divisive”, even “reverse racist”.

There isn’t enough “This isn’t my place to talk about these issues” in the feminist and anti-racist blogosphere, and a glut of profiting off “Social Issues Awareness” by people with privilege in individual points of marginalization. They are too often heralded as heroes for talking about these struggles and given more credit than marginalized peoples are. They are too often seen as level-headed, unbiased, and eloquent while we’re emotional, radical, biased, and angry. While white feminists or anti-racists get accolades, we risk our livelihoods for speaking out truths. In the business of calling out racist dynamics and hierarchies, there are racist dynamics and hierarchies. While calling out objectification, people of color are being objectified.

Thing is, white people can’t just say “Oh, I realize my privilege! I realize it is super hard to be of color!” and end it there. “Privilege” means there are certain spaces, discussions, and narratives you are not entitled to and can’t speak on based on said privilege and that has to be respected. Knowing you have “privilege” or being a progressive doesn’t mean you’ve magically deconstructed learned racism and racial dynamics in your life and now exist, racism unlearned and gone from your mind, in a privilege-less, dynamic-less, context-less vacuum. So long as these structures exist, you live in them, are privileged by them, benefit from them, and you learn from them. That’s a lifetime effort, to want to dismantle them, which means it is a lifetime of letting marginalized people take control of their own lives and identities and speak upon them and listening to us.

It’s about time that we stopped centering white people’s authority and narratives and that white people started listening to and centering and trusting us instead, letting us call the shots for our own means and community building, and give this system of commodification of marginalization a huge overhaul. Just ask me about my favorite authors, bloggers, new sources, articles, books, feelings, convictions, thoughts. I promise you, I know what I’m talking about.

Written by Briana Ureña-Ravelo
You can follow her blog here!

  • Lucy

    I so totally agree with what Urena-Ravelo is saying here. I mean, white females get pissed when men call themselves “feminists” and then talk over them; they get so mad when men decide that, actually, they know best when it comes to women’s issues. Why should it be any different for the issues stemming from people of colour? Just like women need to give a voice to our problems, people of colour need to give a voice to theirs. Stop trying to silence others. Bravo, Urena-Ravelo!

  • Holly

    I love this piece.

  • birds sing artblog

    I think i’m very lucky, one of the first feminist books i read, at 19, was Mari Evans’ Black Women Writers, a really wonderful anthology that set me up to ask why none of these writers were in the library, and keep looking for more. But it’s heartbreaking that 30 years later, women/people of colour still feel/are unheard, still have to be so much better to get published, still get ripped off. All those awards and honours and everyone still needs to be reminded by articles like this…great piece, hope it echoes far and wide!

  • Fumi

    This is a great article. Sometimes though, as a white feminist I’m unsure if I’m crossing boundaries. For example, I was browsing through my newsfeed the other day and my friend had shared this great article discussing racism, and in the comments another white girl was saying she grew up in a multicultural community in the U.S. and experienced racism. I tried to explain the difference to her, but in doing so is kinda meaningless in the sense I’m just another white person speaking for a group/groups I’m not a part of. But there were no people of colour speaking in that conversation. I do know lots of people I could’ve asked to participate as people of colour, but I felt strange bringing them into such a volatile conversation – volatile in the sense it was trivializing the experiences I know they have; would they have appreciated that? Or even wanted to participate? Should I have just not said anything and let the girl go on thinking someone calling her a name was equivalent to the experiences of poc? THEN I would feel like I wasn’t denouncing it but turning a blind eye. While this doesn’t exactly apply to let’s say, websites or blogs publishing material about racism, the points presented in this article I feel can translate to our personal life in such scenarios. So, instead I linked her to a few articles about racism that were written by a black woman so that I was platforming the ideas of someone who wasn’t white and actually writing from personal experience, but even then as she argues with the ideas presented is it right for me to respond and point out her misconceptions, me being white and all?

    Additionally if you’re writing or speaking about something that may have different connotations for people from a different ethnicity, is it right not at all to mention that? I feel in this scenario you’re damned if you do damned if you don’t, if you mention it you’re speaking for a different group and if you don’t mention it you’re ignoring the experiences of people from said group. What to do in that scenario? For example I’ve read about how Slutwalk meant something entirely different for black women in Canada, and it was apparently something bw denounced. So, if I were to write about Slutwalk on my blog, and I didn’t mention this, I would be ignoring a very important viewpoint. But also being white that means I can’t write about that viewpoint. So what would you recommend here?

    These are honest questions I have and I hope someone can offer me a bit more insight. I am well-meaning but a little lost!

  • jenna

    I agree with the critique, but then again it seems like racialized feminists are attacking white women who are trying to help them, which is a pretty stupid thing to do. They should be thankful that anyone even attempts to help them, if it wasn’t for “white feminism” they would have never experienced any type of liberation in the first place. White women used their privilege as a leverage to improve the status of all women. Of course, their methodology was not perfect because its impossible for them to know 100% all of the experiences that racialized women go through, since they do not live their lives. At least they kicked off the women’s rights movement. Is it really white feminists fault that the only way to get our bigotted society to pay attention is through their voice? (In reference to white people saying what black people have been saying for decades). Why dont you stop attacking your allies and start attacking the real Perpetrators of sexism. WHITE MEN !

    • PraiseTheLorde

      Egads! The reason for feminist of color attacking* White women is simply a mystery!

      *(‘Cause you know, a thorough critique and criticism of White women is the same thing as a baseless diatribe.)

    • cirose

      “racialized feminists” should be “thankful that anyone even attempts to help them”?! That is really incredibly crass, racist and ignorant of you to say. White women had the freedom to press for additional pieces of the white male pie only because we had the unpaid/underpaid labor of women of color at our disposal. Additionally, sexism is not limited to white men.

      • jenna

        Girls girls, relax, I did not mean to offend. I am just tired of people attacking each other and nitpicking on who has more privilege than the other. The only people that have real privilege are the 1 per-centers in this world. We all need to unite and fight against oppression together. John has the best comment (scroll down to find it). It is what I had in mind. The operations behind the oppression of minority women is way bigger than a few white feminists not including them in the conversation. If you go back in history far enough, you will see that the people who have controlled the world and continue to control the world are 99% white men. Yes, the same men that have colonized, and continue to colonize, murder, rape and destroy Africa, Asia, and South America. Yes the same white men that are currently planning depopulation protocols in third world countries for their sick eugenics plans. These are the same white men running society at the moment.
        So, you see, the role of white feminist privilege is microscopic in the grand scheme of things. The capitalist system is what oppresses everyone and intends on turning everyone into a slave in the future via the N W O. Please don’t waste your time nitpicking on who has more privilege when there are much bigger things at play.

    • Jodi Rives Meier

      That whooshing sound you just heard was the point going all the way over your head.

    • Carol

      I find it interesting that you are so eager to let white feminists slide on their racism while bringing white men to task for their sexism.

      It’s interesting that you are willing to look at feminism writ large as a manifestation of white women’s benevolent privilege, while viewing white male privilege as problematic when they both contribute to the marginalization of communities of color.

      An “ally” does not co-opt the message and silence voices. An ally does not take an idea from another, pass it off as their own, and take the credit for doing so.

      We never asked for perfection, simply consciousness. Consciousness of the ways in which the confluence of race and gender make it so that the words white women speak are given credence when the words women of color speak are ignored or are silenced. Consciousness of the history of the various stages of the feminist movement and how it first completely excluded women of color and then included women of color only to use them as pawns in white women’s bid to liberate and self actualize themselves.

      So I think what you fail to see is that granting mainstream feminism a pass on this issue is contributing to the continuation of a cycle that has repeated itself for centuries. You and people who think like you are a part of that problem. You are complicit.

  • Wan Abi Sufi

    Mentioning Femen would be great too, one train they have such backlash is the appearance of looking down on n brown woman

  • Jojo

    Could someone link some articles that are representative of this phenomenon? I’ve been reading a lot of critiques of white feminists talking over women of color recently, but I haven’t witnessed much of it myself (maybe because most of the things I read about race are written by people of color). Who are some of the white feminist writers/bloggers who are perpetrating this? I think it’s an important issue to understand, and I’d just like some extra context. Thanks!

  • Jodi Rives Meier

    Or they use their privilege to make room on the platform for other voices.

  • John

    This piece displays the complete poverty of privilege theory by raising questions that remain unanswered. The author asks why black writers are not properly represented in the media then goes on to attack white feminist journalists as being at fault, the focus should be on who controls the media and what are their business and class interests. It would be more helpful to discuss the privilege of newspaper editors and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch who decide what get’s published. Many white writers are well aware of the role of commercial media in perpetuating racist ideas in society and this is why they use their position to speak out about oppression. All women no matter what their race are exploited in a capitalist society and race or sexual orientation can compound this, the point is if somebody is oppressed but not as much as others it is not a privilege. Real privilege is linked to wealth, class and position within the system which the author has ignored too busy with attacking other working class people as privileged because they have a voice that hasn’t been silenced. The purpose of privilege theory seems to be about silencing others rather than engaging and working with them to fight the sexism and racism apparent in our society. As an Indigenous person I am fighting for basic human rights not privileges.

  • MarlenaRae

    Fucking bravo. This article is perfect. I am going to staple it to my eyes.

  • Alexandra

    Just because a person is discussing an issue does not mean that they’re acting said they know more about the issue than someone who lives it.
    Feminism is for women, white black yellow purple brown green, whatever. WOMEN.
    Some people just have to have something to be mad about, and I bet that if “white feminists” decided to avoid talking about “black feminism”, then you’d probably write an article about how horrible white people are for avoiding the topic of black feminism… And then placing some other bizarre parallel to their actions.
    It must take the impossible to make yoh happy. Maybe try reaching out to white feminists instead of writing such a negative article

  • Amelia

    I’m a white feminist in film school and I’ve been battling with my feelings about the lack of representation WoC face in media and here is the conclution I’ve come to. I will never not cast a woman because of her race but it is also not my place to direct or write a story that explores the dynamics and feelings of racism because it is not my story to tell. This article tells me I have come to the right conclution. Thank you :)

  • Bastet

    Hi. I personally believe not all white women feminists are ‘equal’. Non-American white feminists are largely spoken down to like we don’t understand and must be backward, less educated, behind the times etc even when we come from the first country in the world to give women the vote, the 6th country in the world to pass the marriage equality act, the first country in the world to have a male to female transexual Mayor, have already had two female Prime Ministers, implemented mandatory cultural studies in high school over two decades ago and require cultural sensitivity training for all professionals working with children, in the performing arts, aged care, physical disability services, regional council employees and all mental health services and have a bi-cultural dual government. Even with all this the non-American status means we must be ignorant country bumpkin hicks.

    It really angers me given that my home country has made so many break-throughs that have helped women in other countries make these steps also.

    Because of this ‘equal but not really’ perceived status, I feel like I can very much relate to what you are saying and why their is anger attached to it. Sometimes I feel like screaming, ‘My voice is real. My experiences are real. My intellect is real. I am real.’

    Before ending my rant, I am from New Zealand. One branch of my family is Jewish but I was raised non-Jew. One branch of my family is from Malta (meditteranean) but I was raised ‘kiwi’. My features can ‘pass’ as white. I’ve learned diction so I can ‘pass’ as middle-class despite not even being lower middle-class. I think intersectionality and privelege is extremely complex because there is perception inter-playing with reality.

  • Kit Kimberly

    “We’ve got too many people like Tim Wise who make a profit”

    No, he doesn’t. He gets paid. NOT the same thing at all. And he doesn’t always get paid.

    I don’t disagree AT ALL with the basic premise, but it’s important to get the language and terminology right.

  • Elaine Hang

    This is why Intersectionalism should be on the rise. The feminist movement has for far too long ignored and/or actively discriminated against the LGB, trans, PoC, and disabled communities. The feminists who usually are heard the most are white women do not have the right to speak on the behalf of other groups if they are not knowledgeable about the struggles members of the “other groups” face. Even then it’s still iffy. Minorities and the oppressed groups a part or not a part of the feminist movement have been drowned out by the cries of the white women.

    There’s no excuse to speak over or ignore the voices of fellow women. I’m sure some other woman wouldn’t want me, a high-school Asian girl, to speak for them, even if I know a lot about her! HER story is NOT MINE to tell.

    I firmly believe if “feminist” groups are not intersectional, then you’re involved with groups that ignore and/or marginalize the rights of other communities (LGB, trans, PoC, disabled, etc.). I don’t consider that feminist at all.

  • Unsure

    The author criticizes white “allies” as having a voice that is “guilt-heavy”. Can someone PLEASE explain to me how we’re supposed to speak from a place that is anything but, when we’re accused for being somehow intrinsically ignorant and wrong for being born white? I don’t claim to speak on the behalf of those from a different ethnic or racial background from y own, nor do I deny my privilege; but what I’m missing across several articles of this nature is what we’re supposed to do about it. I don’t think it’s fair to point fingers and accuse people of something they did not personally do anything to contribute to, other than be born with a genetic makeup they did not choose.