Sh*t White Feminists Say to Black Feminists (and How to Counter Them)

by Kesiena Boom 

How many times have you gotten into a discussion with a white feminist that has made you wanna tear your hair out? How many times have you wished you had a short, handy guide that explains how white feminists can make the steps towards not being quite so infuriating? Well, here we go, your dreams have come true. The following list is everything you need to combat the offensive Ani DiFranco brand of feminist in your life.

PROBLEM #1: Accusing Us of Not Being Sweet and Kind Enough 

"You’re too angry and militant! No one will ever listen to you unless you’re nice.”

Translation: Your anger makes me uncomfortable because I’m unaccustomed to it. I don’t feel the need to get mad because I have less invested in the cause.

Let's get one thing straight. Those who comprise the oppressive class have NO VESTED INTEREST in giving up their power over you. Pleading, cajoling, and asking very nicely for white people to stop exploiting people of colour gets us nowhere. History is the only place you need to look in order to confirm this. It took a war to even begin to start the halt of slavery in America. It took women sacrificing themselves, destroying property, starving themselves, assaulting police officers and much more before they were given the right to vote in England. It is because of strikes and protest and strong shows of discontent that workers have earned labor rights over the years. Nothing is ever gifted to us without a fight. Black women could talk all day and all night, placidly and peacefully with any of the racist white men in Congress and it wouldn’t change a thing. The process of change is sparked by conflict, it forces an undesirable situation that will only cease if demands are met. When white feminists ask us to temper ourselves, they are saying, “Give in to the status quo.” They are saying, “You have no right to meet your dehumanisation, exploitation, and oppression at the hands of white people with righteous anger. How dare you be visibly shaken!”. They are saying that they are more dismayed at our reactions to racism than with racism itself.

PROBLEM #2: Denying Their Own White Privilege 

“How dare you accuse me of being oppressive because of my race? I’m can’t be privileged, I’m a woman!”

Translation: I feel attacked because I have never had to consider the ways in which my whiteness has aided me through life. I am experiencing barely-concealed rage because I’m being ascribed an attribute based on my skin colour and I am unhappy about it.”

Being made to face up to the ways in which you unknowingly aid and abet the system of racism is a difficult pill to swallow. That’s totally true. However, when white feminists kick back at Black feminists for pointing it out, all we really see is a baby throwing their toys out of the pram. Which is the more hurtful situation: (a) benefitting from racism; or (b) having your life detrimentally affected and stunted because of racism? Being white does not negate the oppression that white women face because of their gender, and that is not what we’re trying to say. However, being white DOES offer white women advantages that Black women cannot access. By pointing out to white feminists their racial privilege, we are not saying that their lives have been perfect, that they have never suffered, that they cannot also be working class. We are simply highlighting how one person can embody the experience of both the oppressed and the oppressor, as well as how they must recognise and try to minimise the harmful effects the latter category enables them to create.

PROBLEM #3: Making False Equivalencies Between Racism and Other Oppressions (or Non-Oppressions)

“I understand how you feel when you experience racism. I’m gay/have ginger hair/have a hearing impairment.”

Translation: I am not truly listening to your lived experiences and am trying to level the playing field between us so that I do not have to confront my whiteness and can pretend that our lives are identical.

OK, so one of the above is not like the other, and honestly the minute a white feminist brings up the ginger/Black comparison I feel like the battle is already lost. Systemic incarceration, enslavement, endemic police brutality, lower life expectancies etc. vs being teased on the playground does not an analogous situation make. On the other hand, when it comes to other real examples of minority identities it is understandable that people want to use their own experiences to relate to other people’s struggles. There is no harm in respectfully and INTERNALLY drawing parallels between oppressions in order to conceptualise and understand the impact of them more fully. However white feminists should ask themselves why it is that they cannot just take Black feminists at our word about the devastating realities of racism, without having to relate it to their own lives? Is it because we live in a world that constantly touts its bullshit ‘post-racial’ credentials, and therefore is constantly and subtly undermining Black people’s attempts to point out racist occurrences? The truth is that no two oppressions are the same and in fact do not stay constant for the person in possession of the oppressed identity. Context changes the way the world relates to us. Making shaky connections between minority identities is a somewhat crude way to homogenise experiences and that does us all no damn good.

PROBLEM #4: Expecting Us to Always Be Willing to Educate Them

“How will I ever learn how to be a better ally if you don’t teach me?!”

Translation: You owe me your emotional and intellectual labour because I am suffused with a sense of entitlement to it. I am not really bothered about helping end racism, but I want to make life difficult for you because you have forced me to think about my whiteness and I resent it. I am too lazy to do my own research because racism is your problem and I’m NOT a racist.

Black women are not white women’s Mammies. We are not their personal tutors. Why must we expend energy, time and time again explaining how things are racist, or how they are hurtful, or why white people shouldn’t say this or do that? White feminists constant insistence that we debate with them about the subject of our own humanity needs to end. We do not owe our oppressors a free masterclass in the myriad of ways they continue to trample on us. There are so many free resources that white feminists can utilise on the web in order to learn about race and racism. For example Gradient Lair and Black Girl Dangerous. The speakeasy section of Autostraddle and its Women of Colour tag. White feminists can go to a library and pick up work by Patricia Hill Collins, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur. They can attend conferences organised by Black women and hear us speak our truths. They can listen to our music: Janelle Monae, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, Beyoncé, Neneh Cherry, Nicki Minaj and hear our pains and joys. They can pick up what we are putting down without wheedling and whining at us in our spare time to hold their hands through racism 101. Opening white feminists eyes to the ways in which they have been complicit in the subjugation of their Black sisters is not something that can be conveyed in one conversation anyway. It is something that needs to be consistently and constantly learned by listening to what Black women put out into the world.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's a start. White feminists and Black feminists will only be able to be a strong and united force once the former start listening to us.

Photo: Shutterstock

Kesiena Boom is a Black lesbian feminist and writer who adores Audre Lorde, sisterhood and the sociology of sexuality. She is twenty years old and also writes for You can tweet at her via @KesienaBoom.

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