I was born into a very liberal family. My parents marched in civil rights marches. I’ve spent my adult life trying to broaden awareness of injustice and trying to listen. Unfortunately, at least on the listening part, I’ve been less than successful.
I’ve spent the majority of my life believing that because I considered myself an ally, I was deserving of respect by the African-American community. Sure, I understood that strangers might eye me with suspicion or even assume that I am like far too many racist white people, but once people got to know me, I thought, they would understand I was on their side.
Even as I’m typing that, I feel my white privilege pouring out of my fingertips. I am not entitled to anyone’s respect or understanding.
Believe it or not, the first time I realized good intentions might not be enough was after Patricia Arquette’s after Oscar’s speech when she talked about income inequality, which is a serious issue. Arquette said:
“So the truth is, even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface there are huge issues that are at play that really do affect women. And it’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now!”
Source: Washington Post
Arquette’s comment, as well-intentioned as it was, lit the interwebs on fire in protest, often from African-American women. I didn’t understand the controversy. We are all on the same side, fighting the same fight, right?
Despite Arquette’s claims, historically, white women’s efforts to support greater women’s equality have been directed toward greater equality for white women. For example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and some other white suffragists supported the right to vote for white women and refused to back the 15th Amendment, which allowed U.S. citizens to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” At the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913, African American women were told to march separately—at the end of the parade.
My mind opened a little. For as much advancement has been made in equality, African-American women were still steps behind. Equality for women is bound to mean that white women would still be more equal. Okay, I get that part now.
I have long understood that women of color often hate it when men of color date white women. I always understood that on a very superficial level. It was like when a Jewish (now ex) friend resented me for dating a Jewish man, because only my father is Jewish. That relationship didn’t last long enough to have logically put a permanent dent in a friendship, but we were never the same after that. But I do understand that when you belong to a minority group, there are only so many people to choose from if you want to maintain your own heritage. I didn’t understand that there was much, much more to it.
The latest part of my evolution came from a very unlikely source, the mass murdering terrorist Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a bloody shooting rampage in a South Carolina church. One of the things Roof reportedly said is:
“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
When I heard those words, I understood, at last. You don’t hear a lot of people talking about black men raping white women anymore, but many, many, many black men throughout our history have been incarcerated and killed over accusations that they raped a white woman. In many of those cases, it was consensual sex and in many others, there was no sex at all, but that hasn’t stopped far too much blood being shed, all in the name of protecting white women. Too little of that has changed, unfortunately.
White women perhaps aren’t a direct physical threat to black men, but we are much worse. Even those of us who have the best intentions are a threat as long as we are even seen talking to a black man. Think about that for a moment. Our existence is responsible for the lives lost of countless men, countless sons and countless fathers. Is it a wonder that black men would shun us and black women would be angry?
Naturally, I don’t feel I need protection from white men, but that doesn’t matter. White men “protect” me whether or not I want it and whether or not I’m even in danger. That’s where white feminism comes in. It will only be when white men stop feeling that they are the protector of everything, including the status quo, that we will even begin to see equality.
Women of color have been saying these things for generations and we haven’t listened. The very fact that I might reach people that they haven’t been able to is in and of itself white privilege. You should be listening to these women, not to me.
I am not implying that all or even most African-Americans harbor overwhelming resentment toward me and toward other white women. In fact, I’ve had very few negative experiences with African-American women, but I have felt as though I’m an outsider and I’ve even been offended by it. I need to understand that it’s not my fault I’m white, but that I am white and I will never understand what it’s like to live as a woman of color.
None of this, of course, means that I will stop fighting for full equality for everyone. I still and will always consider myself an ally to people of color, but (and this is where I think I have the biggest problem with Rachel Dolezal) I can never be a civil rights leader for women of color. I can only be a civil rights follower and that’s good enough.
Featured image via FreeStockImage.com