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On “White Female Privilege”

March 27, 2011

[Edit circa 2013: One of the hardest things to learn as a person who's socially privileged in some areas and oppressed in others (i.e. most people) is that FINALLY HAVING A VOICE and SPEAKING UP do not apply in all circumstances, on all topics. White women are women, and so should be talking a lot about gender stuff. We don't need to be talking about race stuff, however. I still have a lot to learn, but I think I've finally learned when to shut the fuck up, and this was one of those times I should have done it. No one needed my opinions here.]

Subtitle: The Question of Speaking Up When the Progressive Movement Contradicts Itself

A reminder: one of the reasons I started this blog (as I state on the About page) is to serve as a place for “advanced-level feminist musings.” So far, all of these musings have been in relation to kink or sex work, which makes sense in light of the blog’s title. ‘Kinky’ is, however, the adjective in “Tales of a Kinky RadFem,” implying that radical feminism is the Big Thing here, and indeed it is. Feminism of the radical flavor is my overarching philosophy, and kink is one thing I apply it to. Sometimes, I apply it to things completely unrelated to sex and kink identity.  This is one of those things.

*Trigger warning for discussion of racism and sexism*

Oh, and one last italic-ky thing: While the subject of this post technically qualifies for my Wrong on the Internet series, the goal (and, therefore, the tone) of it does(/ do) not. WotI is for unilateral declarations of “Hellfuckingno”, while this is an attempt at furthering discussion.

If you’re in any way part of the social justice blog-o-sphere/s (Ugh…I cannot stop hating that word no matter how many times I use it) then you’re familiar with both Racialicious and Feministe. If you read either of them regularly, then you’re also likely to be familiar with this article at the former site and possibly with the discussion of it at the latter. I commented on both pieces (with the same argument I’ll be reiterating here in a second) but tried to keep it to a minimum because I didn’t want to take up too much space as a white person in virtual places dedicated to the discussion of racism (the entire site of Racialicious and certainly that particular post on Feministe). Doing so is obnoxious and unfair. What’s also obnoxious and unfair— albeit in a completely different way— is what ended up happening in the comment sections at both sites: people (by which I really do mean almost everyone, on both sides) twisting one another’s words by responding to arguments that were never made. I don’t think anyone did this on purpose; I think we were simply talking past each other, or maybe at each other, in essentially repeating the same initial arguments without engaging with the responses they garnered. This never ends well, if it ends at all, because such continued misunderstandings are really easy to get drawn back into. I found myself doing this, and I realized I needed to stop both because of the futility of it and because, as I said, being white all over a space devoted to racism is very not cool because that space isn’t mine. So I’m talking about this in my own space in order to further the discussion in a non-invasive way. Whether ‘furthering the discussion’ means adding one more comment in the form of this post or adding a bunch of comments by opening this post is entirely up to other people. I get if this is viewed as a white co-optation of the discussion (or as a topic not accessible to a lot of my regular readers) and blown off.

This brings me to who should talk about what. Even if I do this in my own space so as not to have an outsize presence in others’ conversations, I’m still dominating a discussion that really isn’t mine. We try not to do this in social justice spheres (bloggy or otherwise), and often times we will try not to do it at any cost; as privileged people privy to discussions about others’ oppression, we know (or should know) to either be supportive or quietly figure shit out on our own. This is absolutely appropriate in most instances, such as when the tendency is to turn the discussion to one’s own problems and thus away from the issues at hand (“I can’t relate to racism, but as a disabled person I…”) or to deny the issues altogether  (“I never see that kind racism happening, so it must not be a thing.”) Every once in a blue moon, however, someone in a discussion about hir own oppression will say something that is either objectively illogical or subjectively illogical by the standards of social justice. And people let it slide– folks in the same oppressed group don’t want to undercut their own, and folks who are not in the oppressed group don’t want to spill their privilege all over the place, and, most of all, everyone generally agrees so why bother saying something?  Because internal inconsistencies, when left unchecked (by which I mean, ‘unremarked upon’, not necessarily ‘unresolved’) weaken the philosophy of a movement and make it open to outside attacks. In such situations, when we’re not denying anyone’s experiences but questioning the logic they’re using to support it, I think it’s everyone’s right— and maybe responsibility— to say “…wait a minute.”

Andrea J. Plaid’s piece (again, right here) actually sort of starts out by doing just this.  As a woman of color, she is, of course, speaking as a member of both of the oppressed groups involved when she says that combating racism with sexism is anathema to the principles of social justice and is entirely ineffective (and she’s totally right, by the by.)  When she goes on to argue for the existence of a white female privilege, she’s also speaking as a member of the oppressed groups at hand. I can only speak from one. That’s why I really, carefully considered her argument before critiquing it. But, ultimately, her argument wrong. It’s also anathema to the basic principles of social justice to assert that there is a female privilege of any sort. Before I argue why, it’s important to acknowledge— like, really important; I cannot stress it enough— that 1) white privilege is a thing (this is the classic introduction to the subject, for those who are unfamiliar) and 2) white privilege is a thing for all white people, including those who get the shit end of the stick when it comes to other forms of oppression, like sexism. White privilege differs for every oppressed class of white people, but it always manifests somehow (another resource for those new to the idea, though this, again, is written by a white woman.) Therefore, 3) white women are privileged over women of color in terms of racism and sexism. I am not debating that, and neither will you (at least not in my space, as I qualify it as racism, and that goes against the commenting policy.)

What I am arguing is that white women are in no way privileged because of their female-ness; they are privileged as females, as in each of their aspects and identities, because of white privilege. This is female white privilege, not “white female privilege.”  This whole debate could mostly be an issue of semantics (“white female privilege” and “female white privilege”, both meaning what I described in the first sentence of this paragraph); it certainly seemed that way sometimes in the comment sections of both Racialicious and Feministe. It’s clear, however, that there’s at least some disagreement over the fundamental question of female privilege— that Plaid and her supporters were(/are) arguing for the existence of such a thing, at least for white females, and others (including myself) were(/are) arguing against it.

Here is a re-iteration of Plaid’s white female privilege list (for the original, please see the first link in this piece; she includes attributions to various sources), with notation marks inserted by me. The asterisks indicate something that’s a white privilege (sometimes, as it intersects with female identity) and the carrots indicate something that’s benevolent sexism.

[White women...]

  • Can benefit from their association with white men as a wife, daughter, sibling, and mother.*
  • Have all their faults and flaws into perfect imperfections.*
  • Easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring women like them.*
  • Can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer any communications without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of their race.*
  • When told about our national language or about “civilization,” they are shown the people of their color made it what it was.*
  • Can turn on the television, open a newspaper, or go online and see people of their race widely represented.*
  • Can remain oblivious of the language and of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in their culture any penalty.*
  • Are feel free to exhibit a wide range of emotions, from tears to genuine belly laughter, without being told to shut up.^
  • Can use the “sheer fear of tears” to their advantage. (Sarah Jaffe calls this “White Lady Tears.”)^
  • Are not compelled by the rules of their gender to wear emotional armor in interactions with most people.^
  • Are allowed to be vulnerable, playful, and “soft” ^without calling their worthiness as a member of their race being called into question.*
  • Are seen as the embodiments of value and purity^ and, due to their phenotypes (especially if it’s close(r) to the blonde-and-blue-eyed ideal), be considered worthy of protection—including having nations go to war over this purity and piety–*and instantly become the objects of universal desire.^
  • They are seen as the default and the ideal embodiment of physical beauty and sexual attractiveness. This idea(l) is replicated, despite the efforts of visual diversity, in all form of media, from paintings to plays to porn.*

Again, I am not debating the asterisks, points that reference white privilege. What I’m debating are the carrots, the points that reference benevolent sexism and spin it as a privilege. Benevolent sexism is a form of ‘positive’ discrimination and, therefore, is not really a privilege. We all acknowledge this as social justice advocates (though, for those who are unfamiliar, there’s an explanation of why benevolent sexism is not a privilege here and why ‘positive’ discrimination is harmful here).  Calling benevolent sexism a privilege because it’s better than malevolent sexism (especially as it intersects with race) doesn’t make any sense within this logic. It’s also unnecessary: we can acknowledge this relative advantage and make the point that white women are placed above women of color in our social hierarchy without elevating this kind of positive discrimination to the level of privilege. Otherwise, we’re validating a belief that harms women of color as well and, possibly, every oppressed group. Doesn’t benevolent sexism being a privilege mean *all* forms of positive discrimination are privileges, at least in some contexts? There’s no reason why it wouldn’t. Then we’re left with the same sentiments we’re trying to fight, sentiments that echo every kind of ‘-ism’ and ‘-phobia’. As I pointed out in a few of my comments, “[If Plaid is right, then] black men being treated as hyper-sexual ‘mandingos’? Actually a small privilege when compared to desexualized Asian men. Disabled people being patronized by having the abled help them when they don’t ask for it? Bad, unless we’re comparing it to the way that the disabled homeless are entirely ignored.” On top of Plaid’s point being illogical within our philosophy and echoing the views we oppose, it also pushes us dangerously close to Oppression Olympics, as illustrated with the black/ Asian example.  All of these things weaken the social justice movement, and it’s for this reason that I really, really oppose the argument for white female privilege.

I’m sort of expecting— and am, in fact, kind of hoping— that someone is going to leave a comment definitively explaining how I completely misinterpreted the logical basis of Plaid’s argument and/or letting me know that there’s a whole other theory of privilege of which I’m currently unaware. I mean, that’s why I used the term ‘furthering the discussion’— because someone may very well argue this away. It would really wrap things up quite neatly, me being a dumbass. I’m being totally sincere about that. However, because things are rarely that neat and the world is full of intractable conflict, I’m more expecting that there won’t be a tidy “Oh, I was obviously wrong” resolution on either end.

Update 4/6: Every day I look at the Google search terms that lead people to my blog, and today I was surprised to find that “white female privilege” was one of them. Certainly there had to be a *bunch* of results for that, so how could my blog be anywhere near the top? I googled it for myself out of curiosity and while I’m no less perplexed as to how I got to the top of the second page of search results (there are some 30,000 of them), I am super dismayed by the other top results, by what they imply when looked at collectively.  The second overall search result is for “female privilege” alone, from Feminist Critics, and it details all of the awesome benefits women get from benevolent sexism. Much further down (after my blog) is the Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog result that I linked to here, written in response to Feminist Critics. In between are all of the recent pieces by major progressive bloggers in support of Plaid’s piece, sudden declarations that some form of female privilege does in fact exist. The implication of all of these results is exactly the kind of facepalm I was worried about: we as a progressive community have gone and contradicted ourselves, affirming the arguments of conservative critics because we don’t want to come across as racist. This is not doing anyone any favors except the conservatives.

I’ve read some of the responses elsewhere on the Internet to arguments like mine. They basically boil down to ‘Oh look, the white women [although not all of the proponents of the argument I made *are* white women] are using any excuse they can (semantics, this time) to move the discussion away form racism so they don’t have to address their relative advantage over black women.’ This is really, really not what’s happening this time— in fact, every argument I’ve read that’s similar to mine begins by affirming white women’s relative position above black women in the social hierarchy.  What’s really happening is that some of us are seeing the red lights flashing that we are undermining our own movement . I agree that the conversation should not be turning away from race, which is why I think everyone should have stopped at the beginning of the discussion and come to an agreement on how we could avoid echoing our enemies and get back on track. It’s also why I am going to make this my last remark and then let the whole thing drop: racism in the progressive movement is one helluva rock but undermining basic progressive ideals is a hard place. Both have to be addressed and destroyed in tandem or neither will go away, and we’ll be effectively immobile.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sparkly permalink
    March 31, 2011 12:32 pm

    Yeah, pretty much this. I definitely think all the stuff on the list is the result of white privilege, which may manifest differently for women, but isn’t a result of special “female privilege”. That being said, I’m white, so I really try to tread lightly in these discussions.

    I really dislike the misuse of the phrase “white women’s tears”. I think in its original use, white women derailing discussions of racism to be about their hurt feelings, it’s fine, but I’ve seen it used too many times to denote the act of a woman who happens to be white crying at all. I have “emotional dysregulation” because I have a mood disorder and an LD related to the autism spectrum, plus I’m in a moderate-severe amount of physical pain all the time. So, yeah, I cry more easily than the average person my age. But I’m just starting to feel like people consider me weak and stupid if I cry at all. And I am not trying to derail if I have an emotional reaction to something. I actually want the discussion to continue despite the fact that I may be reacting. But I don’t want to be berated for it.

    • April 2, 2011 6:48 pm

      It’s always hard to address an -ism that comes up in a discussion of another -ism. For example, in this discussion, when someone says something ableist in a discussion about racism. It’s like, do I say something, or…? But yeah, I agree.

      • Jane permalink
        December 18, 2011 2:00 pm

        “For example, in this discussion, when someone says something ableist in a discussion about racism. It’s like, do I say something, or…?”
        It is hard, and reading this comment makes me feel a lot safer doing so here! This sentence from the post makes me really uncomfortable, and while I see what you were going for with the quotes, it really doesn’t address the problem:
        “Then we’re left with the same sentiments we’re trying to fight, sentiments that echo every kind of ‘-ism’ and ‘-phobia’.”
        ‘-phobia’ isn’t just another way of saying ‘discrimination,’ it’s a real condition that can seriously affect people’s lives. These sentiments that you’re arguing against do not echo every kind of phobia. They have nothing to do with real phobias. I don’t like ‘homophobia’ and its ilk in general, but this is on a different level. Thanks for listening.

      • December 19, 2011 4:30 pm

        Just to clarify, my hesitance was in pointing out ableism as a *white person* in a discussion about racism and not in pointing out ableism in general. I’m not sure how appropriate your call out is in this particular discussion, but I’ll allow it. For what it’s worth, I am familiar with the argument against using ‘-phobia’ to denote ‘hatred of,’ and I’m still not sure where I stand on it. From what I know, the history of the suffix to denote hatred is longer than its history as a noun used to denote a particular kind of mental illness. So it might be more appropriate to ask the people in charge of the DSM to reconsider its usage than to ask social justice advocates to do so. As someone who used to suffer from particular phobias (in conjunction with OCD), that’s my take on it, though I’ll probably end up deferring to people who have an active phobia in whether or not it’s an oppressive term to use.

      • Jane permalink
        December 19, 2011 6:15 pm

        Sorry if my comment was inappropriate. I’d like to clarify that I’m not objecting to using ‘-phobia’ for ‘hatred of’ in general (I said as an aside that I personally didn’t like it, and that’s all I intended to say), just to this sentence:

        “Then we’re left with the same sentiments we’re trying to fight, sentiments that echo every kind of ‘-ism’ and ‘-phobia’.”

        Every kind of -phobia includes my identity (the word I grew up using, and the word that will probably be used for a long time), and that makes me, personally, uncomfortable here. I’m trying to do the I-statements thing and just let you know that that reaction is a possibility.

      • December 20, 2011 4:20 pm

        Again, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate, but since this post isn’t really active anymore, I’ll let it go without too much thought.

        Oh! I get what you’re saying now. Okay. I do think the “-” before “phobia” is significant there. It signifies that I’m referring to its use as a suffix, and not as a stand-alone word. I understand your objection though, and I will try to avoid using that from now on. Thank you for letting me know.

  2. Sarah permalink
    April 11, 2011 12:08 pm

    Yeah, as a white female I get a kind of free pass from the system in a lot of criminal/self-defense situations…but then again the same thing that motivates that also got me taught from childhood by my dad that I was weak and needed male protection and should go around fearing young working-class black guys…so, which is better? Hmmm…I think I’d rather have the police, etc. see me as Mr. Public Enemy than have to unlearn childhood programming to see myself as Ms. Weak and Helpless, but a black guy might have a different view. Easier to just agree that BOTH SITUATIONS SUCK!

    • April 11, 2011 12:14 pm

      And as a white female, you don’t get to decide whether racism is worse than sexism. Indeed, a black guy probably does have a different view.

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