Dear some white feminist friends,
I write this to you sincerely, from a genuine space of calling in. While I may feel anger towards you at times, my intention is not to fill the space between us with that anger. My wish is to use the flame of that emotion to ignite our mutual awareness, to light the spaces between us feminists, so that we may build bridges over fractures that have compounded over generations.
I ask you, first, to turn to your own experience, as feminists. White female feminists, I ask you to recall those times when you and your fellow white female feminists spoke out bravely and with clarity about those patriarchal thorns – large and minute – that had been so deeply buried under your skin that it seemed like they had become invisible to the rest of the world. Remember those moments when you vocalized enormous unevenness and inequity that had long blended into accepted, unquestioned norms. Remember the courage it took to say those things, with what might have been received as audacity. You knew it would make others uncomfortable, because you had been bearing it silently and skillfully all along. The things you finally had the space to vocalize, that once were shared glances with another sister.
And then remember hearing from other folks – men and maybe women, too – that you had gone too far. That you were being picky and difficult. Relax, it was just a joke, just an innocent mistake.
Except you knew in every bone of your body that it wasn’t a “just a joke”. Ever. It was always a coded message. Remember the quiet rage that boiled up inside when your bravery and truth were reduced to a caricature. You cannot know what I am talking about unless you are a woman, unless you have lived and walked for days and months and years in these worn out shoes that have been handed down to me by generations of grandmothers, you would think and say.
But things are changing, you were told, and you need to be grateful. It seems like nothing will ever please you, woman. I am on your side, and I would say something if I thought something was actually wrong. But now you are overreaching. You need to lighten up and to stop finding something where there is nothing.
And over and over again, you clenched your teeth in utter disbelief when you were told that your insight and self-expression and equality were vulnerable to approval. One saving grace were the men, the male feminists, who said, I do not know what it is like to be a woman in this world, but I believe that we are equals, and I believe you when you speak your truth. In fact, it is not for me to believe or not believe. Your truth is simply true. That partnership made a difference.
Now, my white feminist friends, see people of color who bring to the surface and bare their cuts and bruises, who share boldly the subtle and gross realities about being people of color living in a racialized system steeped in white power. See how they divulge and unpack and explain oppression that is so subtle, it lives in the system like a virus, coded within words, resting in the American psyche, nestled comfortably in institutions and norms that camouflage and depend upon it. Imagine the skill and awareness and courage it takes to discern it, to articulate it.
Now see how they hear from some white feminists – male and female – that they are exaggerating, that it is too much, that their constant racializing of things that are not racialized is exhausting and unnecessary. And see how they are criticized for being angry and relentless in the natural enactment of their agency. (You know the rest.)
This ongoing hypocrisy deepens the chasm between people of color and white feminists.
Friends, you cannot know the depth and diversity of oppressive experiences that a person of color bears on a daily basis. You are not meant to know, even when it is right in front of you. It will be literally unbelievable for you to learn about these pervasive, endless things, just as it was and is for some white men to accept and acknowledge your oppression. You will want to reject the scope of what they say because it is so suffocating even just to hear it. Accept it anyway, as your white male feminist friends accepted what was unbelievable to them. Remind yourself that the calling out of oppression seems relentless only because the oppression is relentless. Remind yourself that it is not your place to authenticate or validate the oppression that a person of color articulates. Your experience does not define ours, just like men’s experiences do not define women’s.
If you are truly dedicated to building trust where there is now mistrust, then consider this: you are now being asked to do for your brothers and sisters of color what you asked and ask your white brothers to do.
I have seen some white feminists learning how to do this, and I believe it is possible. It is okay if it takes some time for you to develop this new habit. It is okay to stop in the middle of a response or reaction or post or conversation and say, Hey, I just realized that I’m doing the very oppressive thing to you that is done to me. I will do better by you.
You will never know the experience of being a person of color, and you certainly cannot conflate the experience of being a white woman with being a person of color. But you already know the experience of having your truth disbelieved, dismissed, and disregarded by men in power. And you know what you seek in your male allies. So, you know exactly what is needed from you, and not just by you.
Now be that ally that you sought, that you seek, for your sisters and brothers of color. I gently offer that a more inclusive and compassionate expression of a white feminist’s power – more than speaking up – may well be knowing when listening to and accepting the seemingly unbelievable is the most powerfully healing form of support. What a beautiful, radical possibility.
With an open heart,
Indu Viswanathan is a “Mama-Educator-Scholar-Activist, bursting through the yuck with love and sass.” Please visit Indu’s public Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Indu.Viswanathan75/