Empowering Her* Voice: White Women's Responsibility to Black Womxn
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Esme Dunne outlines how white women's unique position as oppressor and oppressed have shaped racial discourse and activism today. Art by Imogen Luczyc-Wyhowska
There is an irony to address in writing an article about allyship as a white woman. A key part of anti-racism work is amplifying black voices and not taking up space created for non-white people, which I feel is exactly what this article is doing. However, it is imperative that black women, who the world simultaneously depends on and destroys, do not have to spend their energy on educating white people of their struggles. As such, in advertising anti-racism resources and a white person’s definition of allyship, influenced by black academics, I hope to display exactly what this article advises: empowerment and allyship without further silencing marginalised voices.
As I write this, drinking black coffee under the recommendation of Sarah Vaughn, smoking into my homemade Florence Given ashtray and stalking @empowerhervoice on Instagram, the world has stopped waiting for Nevada to turn blue not five minutes ago. But amidst liberals’ celebrations, we, as a society, must contemplate the information that almost half of Americans voted for a white supremacist leader. That more white women voted for said leader in 2020 than they did four years ago. 55% of white women voted for Trump. Voted for the pinnacle of their own oppression. This we must digest, and then dismantle.
As a white person, to disassociate oneself from a conversation about racism because you see yourself as beyond that or as anti-racist, you are claiming ‘Not all white people’. Many women will experience the frustration that comes hand-in-hand with hearing the words ‘Not all men’: this defensive statement attempts to undermine the authenticity of womxn’s experience by pointing out that not every man actively participates in the oppression of womxn but are in fact allies. What the perpetrator of this comment must observe is this: nobody is saying that all men treat womxn as inferior to them but instead that all men benefit from the systemic inferiority of womxn. By definition of patriachy, all men benefit from the oppression of womxn as all white people benefit from the oppression of people of colour. Even if anti-racist, white people benefit from the oppression of marginalised groups: their marginalisation results in white prosperity. Furthermore, the fundamental maltreatment of black people at the hands of white people means that those who don’t actively partake in this maltreatment are disproportionately celebrated, just as men are in relation to womxn.
In order not to scream ‘not all white people’, white women must accept that their skin yields white privilege. True allies acknowledge this and use this privilege to fight with and for others. Rachel Cargle explores the danger of white women tears, observing that “liberal white women have an immediate reaction of defence when someone challenges their intentions. And it is in that precise moment they need to stop and realise they are actually part of the problem.” Not only do white women centre themselves in conversations about racism and being defensive when their own prejudice is recognised (as opposed to recognising this and dismantling it), but weaponising their vulnerability as women and subsequently endangering black men. We’ve seen this countless times, recently in Central Park with Amy Cooper, a white woman who rang the police on Christian Cooper, a bird watcher. Charles M. Blow acknowledges this weaponisation in his New York Times article ‘How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror’, “There are too many noosed necks, charred bodies and drowned souls for these white women not to know precisely what they are doing: They are using their white femininity as an instrument of terror against black men.”
Allyship is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “supportive association…with the members of a marginalised or mistreated group to which one does not belong”. As a woman, I expect men to be feminists and subsequently dismantle their misogyny and sexism, whether internalised or not. Equally, black people should expect allyship from white people and other people of colour. But we are clearly not delivering: voting for Trump is explicit racism. It is the continuation of a death sentence already enforced on black and brown bodies. It is not allyship. We are not delivering.
This year’s Black Lives Matters protests acted as a call to arms to all allies. Much of this was positive, a chance for people to show up and stand with the black community. But much of this was performative. Our Instagram feeds were scattered with black squares, until they weren’t anymore. We prioritised white appearances over black lives. Similarly, the term ‘Karen’ emerged as an identifiable persona, an acknowledgment of white women’s role in the perpetuation of white supremacy, privilege and patriarchy, and was rejected by white society. The world was more outraged by white women being called ‘Karen’ than it was over the mass murdering of black bodies.
Primarily, one must understand that white supremacy exists both overtly and covertly, and that our colonialist history has impacted our culture so significantly that it is now an integral part of it. As such, one cannot be a true accomplice without examining previous racial bias. White women are a dangerous breed: the duality of our experience as both the oppressed and the oppressor grants us a unique standing point within society – our vulnerability can be exploited as a form of protection. Black women are not granted this protection but are subject to an intersection of sexism and racism: misogynoir. Moya Bailey, who coined the term, notes that misogynoir manifests through an array of damaging practices. These include, but are not limited to, cultural appropriation (no, it’s not "just hair"), stereotypes such as the "angry, black woman" which limits black women’s ability to express their emotions and the adultification of black girls. A 2017 Georgetown University study found that adults viewed black girls as “less innocent” than white girls of the same age; this unfounded assumption is due to the hyper-sexualisation of black girls, in turn leading to victim blaming and rape culture.
Sojourner Truth delivered her ‘Ain’t I a Women?” in 1851 at the Women's Rights Convention, Ohio. Truth evoked the vulnerability complex of white women and how it disregards the experience of black women: “I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”. That was 169 years ago. It is 2020 and black women’s cries are still ignored. What are you going to do about it?