Yesterday morning I saw a twitter exchange between Dr. Brittney Cooper and somebody-else that incorporated the hashtag #AskAWhiteFeminist. Cooper told somebody-else to #AskAWhiteFeminist about the problems with a white feminist’s speech at the Oscar awards ceremony Sunday night. And then somebody-else went on a name-calling rampage – bigot, hater… – towards Cooper.
Now, I’ve been following Cooper’s work over at The Crunk Feminist Collective for almost three years. Her engagement with music and T.V. pop-culture in United States, auto-biographical methodology, explicit attentiveness to dynamics of race in intersectional feminism and commitment to a particular kind of Christianity is, in the least, helpful with my own theological and philosophical investigations. I have referenced CFC work in many of my undergraduate essays (especially this one) and so when somebody-else called Dr. Cooper these names I felt defensive and angry; the kind of defensiveness and anger that comes over me when I hear somebody speak ill of one of my favorite teachers. I don’t always agree with my favorite teachers but I`d think more than twice before I name-called them. Mostly because one of the reasons these teachers, like Dr. Cooper, are my favorite is because their work adheres to a kind of wisdom that doesn`t often show-up in academia. This is a wisdom that knows when one can and cannot speak. And so, when one of my favorite teachers is speaking, I`m gonna get my listening ears on and trust that they know far more than I do in what they are speaking about. So, when Dr. Cooper told somebody-else to #AskAWhiteFeminist I – as a kind of student-from-afar of Cooper’s – felt somewhat responsible to respond to the comments and questions from somebody-else because of the #AskAWhiteFeminist hashtag. Here it is:
When a white woman in North America speaks about an issue affecting “all women,” it implicitly silences the issues that are particular to Women of Colour. Beyond the wage gap between the sexes (and between races), WOC experience a variety of direct violence, micro-aggressions and suspicions towards them that white women do not have to deal with. There are systems of violence that target WOC and these are experiences that white women – like you and me – will always be exempt from.
Racism has a different history in Canada (where I am from) than in the United States (where Dr. Cooper is from) and the systems of racist oppression vary between different provinces because each province has a unique relationship to colonialism, treaty-relations and residential schools. Yet, both white women in the states and Canada are afforded similar power(s) that have and often continue to crush the knowledge and voices of WOC.
Authentic relationships between WOC and white women might be possible. I have been trying to figure this out for a little over a decade and I still have a lot to learn but one thing I know for sure is that a white women – feminist or not – cannot speak for WOC and or claim solidarity in experiences that we – white feminists – will not experience in a country that, en masse, privileges the visible whiteness of our skin. Authentic relationships between people as friends, lovers, – let`s call it love – is rare and if realized it is only due to a whole lot of luck and so much work; work that includes but far exceeds the capabilities of the two people striving for an authentic relationship. Love – any kind – is way bigger than the two people desiring to be in authentic relationship together and so we require support systems to guide us and hold us up, together, especially when we are exhausted, heartbroken, confused and enraged. But our support systems are inextricable from ways of thinking and acting that sustain and perpetuate racism; ideologies that often ignore and downright despise WOC. Like you, I also desperately want to believe authentic relationships between WOC and white women are possible. Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich had a relationship that, I think, may have glimmered authenticity.
I know part of my responsibility, as a white cis woman, as a feminist, as an Anabaptist-Christian, is to unlearn the reigns of control that my traditions have afforded me. These are reigns of control that seek to dictate the terms of communication and relationships between myself and WOC. If, as your twitter feed notes, you want to work for “women’s rights” and “indigenous peoples,” then it is vital that you unlearn the powers and privileges inextricable from the visible and invisible particularities of your body. Broadly speaking, what you want to work for can be called “Social justice” which has concrete realities that meet up with every person in their own spaces and times, and working for social justice requires us to learn our own bodies, spaces and times so we know what is required of us. Remember Sunday when Common and John Legend accepted their Oscar for “Glory?” Common used similarly vague terms like “hope” and “justice” which are terms that are used by many folks all over the political spectrum but John Legend rooted-and-made-concrete the justice being called for: something is wrong when there are more black men incarcerated in the U.S. today than there were under slavery in the mid 1800’s. [In italics and not quotation marks because I am paraphrasing]. We need places, times and concrete actions of injustice to be named, like John Legend did when naming the racism against black men in the U.S., so we can name our own complicity in them, so we can learn how to participate in the work for justice.
Before you speak (or tweet) about solidarity between women in the future I urge you listen and research more in the areas of critical race theory, read first-person narratives from WOC, and watch youtube videos teaching about white privilege. Once you have learned how to listen to stories of every-day racism, I encourage you to attend meetings and marches that are facilitated by WOC and are open to your (non-leadership) attendance. We have been socially trained to privilege the images, sounds and work of white people and so it is the responsibility of Whites to teach white people how to unlearn and oppose these hierarchies based on race. We as individuals are always and forever bound to particular places, people and histories and so we cannot escape the legacies and realities of racism that we live within. Shortly after your exchange with Dr. Cooper she posted a link to her blog site and provided a list of writers who are WOC to check out (Anna Julia Cooper, Pauli Murray, Toni Cade, Ida B. Wells, June Jordan). Accept those offers as moments of grace – as gifts. I have also found the work of some white activists helpful – efforts to unlearn and oppose racism while living within white privileges – and so I suggest these three thinkers for your continued investigation:
- Jane Elliott is one white woman who teaches white people about our responsibilities to oppose racism and you can find her lessons and research on youtube as well as most intro courses in Conflict Transformation and Psychology. Elliott also shows how racism works with the ethics of domination that sexism works within – this makes it impossible to claim, as you have, that sexism is the biggest and most intense violence.
- Secondly, Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack`` can be found for free on the internet and I have found it a helpful tool in introducing the blinders that come with being white. It is not explicit about sexism but I find some of her points imply the connection of other “isms” to racism. Also, her introduction describes her context as a prof in Gender Studies and why she needs to write about whiteness.
- Lastly, I saw from your twitter write-up that you are an #atheist so you might not be up for this but I have found Christopher Pramuk’s book Hope Sings, So Beautiful a helpful text in thinking through my own Christian responsibilities in unlearning and opposing racism. I suggest him because he is an accessible writer who holds together the vision of a unified and racially diverse body of believers (i.e. the church) with the realities of racism in the United States. He is a white Catholic theologian who draws on the songs and stories of Black Americans to guide this book and his target audience is white America – it is analytic but primarily confessional.
Today I wanted to write something totally different – I wanted to write a post about art-making in spaces of crisis. But, your twitter attack on Dr. Cooper and her subsequent use of the #AskAWhiteFeminist hashtag demanded that I, as a white feminist, put that vision on hold for the time being. I wonder how Dr. Cooper felt from your continuous questioning to the problems associated with white women demanding solidarity. Imagine if all WOC dedicated time to pointing out individual white peoples’ blatant disregard for different, interlocking, systems of oppression? For starters, and to our detriment, we would have fewer novels, poems and art. But from an analytical standpoint, white people would still be dictating the terms of engagement between ourselves and WOC. This is to say, when we as white women demand that WOC teach us how we are racist, we are still pulling on the reigns of control that continue to occupy spaces that oppress WOC.
You might find that this investigation into the powers accompanying our whiteness calls other aspects of your identity into crisis. I can imagine identifying as both a #humanist and as #atheist might begin to unravel. So good luck to you.
May you unravel in all the ways that “social justice” demands of you.
May you be surrounded by a community of support who will hold you as you come undone and who will guide you into less-violent ways of being-in-the-world.
May your hands be released from the reigns of control that you, without conscious effort, are gripping so tightly.
Peace to you,