Race and Feminism. Mirrors and Shadows.

Race and feminism often get into arguments, and with good reason. Many white feminists miss race, or gloss it over, or avoid it out of shame or fear or insecurity. Or, heck, internalized unexamined racism.

There is so much about race to look at and examine and face, confront. We talk so passionately about privilege and when it comes time to face our own as white women, well, it can be such a sour and piercing look in the mirror, a mirror we normally enjoy gazing in with our reflection as leaders and powerful women, our faces usually brightly shining back. Only now when forced to look, it appears shadowed and distorted by the weight of our culture and history and yes, our own complicity.

These are mirrors and shadows that haunt us activists, and as people. I know this is true for me at the very least. I suppose I can only speak for myself, but I have this feeling, it might be true for others.

As widely reported, there were some situations that occurred over Oscar weekend in regards to one gorgeous and talented 9 year old girl, Quvenzhane Wallis, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work in Southern Beasts of the Wild. She was amazing. I saw the film and was incredibly moved both by it, but also by her raw talent.

So, to rehash, she was the object (a prop) in a joke about George Clooney’s propensity for dating younger women and then The Onion attempted a joke about how people were afraid to admit that she really was a very bad word pertaining to women’s genitals.

She is a woman of color and this makes things even more complicated and the jokes even more inappropriate than they already were.

I’m not gonna go into whether the jokes “worked” or not, cause that is so far afield of the problem that if that’s your defense I don’t have time for you.

At work, I’ve had a number of conversations and arguments about race and sexism and their intersection. And I’ve written about the sexism part, though not so much where race joins in. Why may be important here, I’m not sure if it’s useful to discuss, save to say that I didn’t, and it was a fault of mine.

Race is an issue here. As Mikki Kendall just noted on Twitter,

“Kathy Griffin lost her job for that Dakota Fanning rehab joke. But the internet is still arguing the cleverness of calling Quvenzhane a slur.”

It’s real stuff. And it’s true. Why is it true?

Here are some amazing writers, both white and of color, willing to look in that mirror and shine the “why” back at us. They note why allyship is important, with why white women need to stand up and speak out, with why calling a young African American woman a cunt (in any way) is extraordinarily problematic, with why much of the empathy in this case is woefully misplaced (towards the writers of the jokes, not the subject of them) and why.

Shakesville: On Quvenzhané Wallis.

Jessica writes:

Wallis is a young black girl in a country with a horrific history of racism and sexual exploitation of young black girls.

“She’s a young black girl in a country with a horrific history of racism and sexual exploitation of young black girls. Because – AND I CAN’T SAY THIS ENOUGH – black women’s bodies have been sexually exploited, used, disparaged FOR CENTURIES. That’s great for you if that history doesn’t mean anything to you but that doesn’t mean that history isn’t real and isn’t present now. The fact that you don’t have to engage with that history when MacFarlane or the Onion “jokes” just means you’re lucky.”

Her piece is amazing and comprehensive and lists many wonderful articles about why the Onion got it wrong. Most were written by women of color. Please, please read it. It’s spot on and it’s also worth noting that she’s received a wide amount of push-back from white feminists for the piece. Which is telling in and of itself.

Tressiemc shows some research on mainstream and online feminist orgs most of which didn’t respond to the situation. She notes:

“Racism in feminist circles is nothing new. Angela Davis documented the history of racism in the evolution of woman’s suffrage. When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined intersectionality it was a refutation of the ethos that all the blacks are men and all the women are white. This dominant construction of humanity as either raced or gendered effectively erases the lived, structural, and political experiences of black women. As one who watched the debacle unfold live the night of the Oscar’s coverage, I’m inclined to believe West Savili’s reading of the events. But, many are not.

Did white feminists ignore, downplay — or, worst — defend the public degradation of a black little girl?

That struck me as an empirical question. To explore it I did a little content analysis.”

She finds fascinating stuff. Here she notes the response and white women’s anger. It’s a great piece

The BelleJarBlog has a very intense piece up about what the hell the problem is-which is that dealing with one’s own privilege is freaking hard to do. But that means we must do it. She says:

“Like, white feminists are perfectly articulate about how privilege works when they’re talking about male privilege, but they seem to plead ignorance pretty quickly when they’re reminded of the privilege that’s associated with their skin tone.

So what do we do about all of this?

Well, first of all, we fucking sit up and pay attention when women of colour tell us that they feel that we dropped the ball on this one. Because you know what?

A) They know what they’re talking about, and

B) They’re right

And then, after we admit that we fucked up, we talk about it. We talk about race until we’re blue in the face. Because pretending that this isn’t happening isn’t doing anyone any favours, and continuing to ignore the racial issues within the feminist movement is only going to serve to further divide us.”

It will indeed serve to further divide us. And frankly, our own defensiveness and silence as white women in a case like this? It is indeed it’s own dark and shadowy mirror of the defensiveness and silence we rail against at men, when we push for them to support and ally with us against rape, sexual assault, and sexism.

Isn’t it familiar? Their own privilege and history kicks in and separates them from us telling us it’s not a big deal anymore, that all men aren’t “like that” that we’ve “come so far” that men too are raped and assaulted and hit and abused (which they are) and we take that as their own defensiveness when we could be hearing and doing so much more together to create a world with less violence and more love.

This is as much a mirror as our white privilege and history separating us from other women, people of color, and the pain that whiteness has caused, that we too have been hurt by whiteness but that it isn’t about making it about white women, but about all of us and how we join together against well, shame. Violence. Cruelty.

Maybe we if we could turn those mirrors back at ourselves and really see, really see the good in there, as well the hurt. The fear, we could integrate ourselves enough to make change. Maybe if we could stop defending while deflecting blame and start standing up and reflecting hope, we’d get father faster.

For fuck’s sake it doesn’t lower us as whites (or frankly as men, or as straights, or cis-bodied in the case of other isms still happening) to say we’ve been part of a system that hurts others.

It raises us all up as humans to get to a place where we don’t have to do that anymore.

And that’s why it matters so damn much. More than anything.



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7 responses to “Race and Feminism. Mirrors and Shadows.

  1. HeatherN

    Lovely article, as always Julie. The more I think about it, the more I realize intersectionality is hard. Not as a concept; as a concept it’s damn easy. Living it, though, that’s the tricky part.

    I think we often feel our oppression a lot more than we do our privilege. I know, intellectually, that I benefit from white privilege. Were I to sit down and concentrate, I could of course come up with examples of how I’ve benefited from it. But I FEEL my oppression as a woman and a lesbian every day…I have to sit down and concentrate in order to not think about it.

    And when someone else tells me I benefit from white privilege (or class privilege, or whatever), there is an emotional pushback…a very visceral reaction that says “How dare you! You don’t know the crap I have to put up with!” But of course all of the crap I have to put up with has absolutely nothing to do with my race. That’s the problem with an emotional knee-jerk reaction…it’s completely illogical and widely missing the mark.

  2. “or avoid it out of shame or fear or insecurity.”

    Guilty. I’m so glad we’re talking about this. Thank you.

  3. Michael Bourda

    Nice post, Julie! I am glad there are white writers out there who are writing about racism and feminism. When black writers (both male and female) write on this issues, it often gets perceived as not legitimate or simply whining as if these problems no longer exist (just playing the “race card”). But, as you point out, these problems are real and have a history; and we need to remind others of that history and its current real world impact. As Faulkner wrote years ago: “The past is not dead (in the South). It’s not even past…”

  4. mrsbachelorgirl

    Beautiful essay, Julie, as always. I am appalled. The very idea that anyone would make jokes like that about a nine-year-old child, regardless of her race, is abhorrent to me. The fact that young black girls have been sexually exploited for centuries only makes it worse.

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