our dirty little secret: white female privilege

much of my life these days is defined by doing all manner of messy work: supporting friends, dismantling white privilege, challenging patriarchy, embracing anger, calling bullshit out when i see it.  and i am doing it all with people i really love and care about.  but there’s this nagging undercurrent to many of the conversations i’m having these days, especially as we approach the intersection of white privilege and sexism.  i have built alliances with other white women in this work, women i trust and appreciate, but when we get to that intersection, so often i hear the phrase “white male privilege” used as a shield, as something to hide behind.  it is used a lot in this way and i get angrier every time i hear it.

i want us to come clean.  white male privilege exists, yes, but so does white female privilege, and i think it’s time we acknowledge that and challenge it, instead of pretending it away so that it can go unchecked and wreak havoc in our communities.  we, white women, derive privilege from our skin just like white men do.  some examples might include:

  • white women are the beauty standard, which means we can challenge the beauty standard because we define it–for me this means that i can wear my chin hair out with a less extreme penalty.  in fact i am often appreciated for my courage, but that courage rests on the backs of women of color who put my white beauty on a pedestal.
  • we are the purity standard, the feminine standard, the standard for all things consider woman and wonderful, really.  which, like being the beauty standard gives us the power to define what it means to be woman.  and we do, every day, whether in our shockingly white feminism or in our media dominance.
  • we can be emotionally expressive all along the spectrum: from anger to vulnerability, without much repercussion.  sure, i’ve been made to feel crazy because i was screaming at a man, but even then other people circled around me to support me.  i have seen the exact opposite response from the same community when it was a woman of color expressing her anger.

    notice that these are ALL white women. but we wont complain about that part. nope.

  • we are deemed worthy of protection.  white women, because we are the ultimate feminine, are defended and given more institutionalized protection than women of color.  you’ve heard it before, someone dismiss a woman of colors fears, saying she can take care of herself.  i’ve heard about it happening in my supposedly “radical” occupy community.  that is bullshit.
  • we get media images and histories of people that look like us reminding us that we are the makers of history, the paramount in worth and value.
  • the list goes on.

hell, we have the privilege of pursuing social activism.  and still we cannot admit that we harbor an oppressor inside each of us.  it’s so much easier to say that we are the oppressed, that we are struggling alongside our sisters of color without distinction.  it’s so much easier to ignore the role we play in upholding white supremacy.  trigger words, trigger words.  are you getting defensive yet?

ok, let’s take a breath.  i get that it’s painful to admit that we, too, uphold racism.  especially painful for white women who think they are part of the solution.  who think they are sisters in solidarity.  but we do more damage by ignoring our white female privilege than we undo in all of our cool anti-racist work.  so let’s step up and check our privilege.  we do not get to stay comfortable at the expense of the struggles of other women.  we do not get to pretend we are exactly the same as women of color, that we do not directly support the oppression of those women.

no, white boys, this doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. paxus
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 16:21:52

    First off, i totally dont feel off the hook. One of the most important and most challenging parts of our dance is the white privilege stuff.

    so identifying is critical, you cant talk solutions without IDing the problem. But this post leaves me curious. So what are the next steps? Clearly, some part is getting others to agree that this is their dirty little secret too.

    And i have to say my first problem with the 8 women picture is not that they are all white. Had Beyonce of Naomi Campbell been thrown in there it would not make this okay. For me the political point is backwards, we are saying there is some problem with the beauties of the past being displaced by these anorexic beauties of the present, when for me the real problem is we have created a culture where what is important is that women are only valued by their looks.

    The fashion industry defined beauty standard (race, shape, mark up) has a huge impact on what women try to look like, AND i want a culture which values people not principally for appearance. Perhaps we need to try real blind dating.

    Reply

  2. Sara Tansey
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 17:41:34

    So i agree that there are many things problematic about the picture of the 8 women. but as i’ve seen it floating around as an expression of white woman indignation, there is no complaint, no analysis of either the objectification piece OR the racial superiority piece. but generalizing back to the objectification piece denies the real and damaging white supremacy inherent in the beauty dialogue. and i dont want us to keep doing that. which is why i wrote this piece. there are many concurrent struggles that deserve recognition and i dont want to create a hierarchy for them. women valued because of their bodies, fucked up. women of color constantly seeing the white beauty standard reinforced all around them, fucked up. because by perpetuating the white beauty standard, we demonize and devalue any other form of beauty.

    next steps: one) admitting that white female privilege exists and that we, as white women, perpetuate it. two) stepping the fuck back in conversations with women of color, allowing our experiences to be less important. three) being self critical when we’re creating “safe” spaces for women. four) deconstructing the ways in which we perpetuate white female privilege in our own relationships and communities. five) calling shit out when we see it happening.

    there are more, and i get that these may not be fully satisfying.

    Reply

    • larry bishop
      Feb 11, 2012 @ 02:43:12

      There are tremendous number of very potent conversations being set forth here within the general framework “white privilege” and like Sara I have no desire to create any hierarchy that would characterize any one of them as having any greater degree of importance, than another.
      From my own initial reading of everything that has been posted (kudos to everyone), the thing that resonated with me the most was the idea that “white women are the beauty standard” and in turn the various aspects of its characterization.
      I think this is a false ideal that really needs to be challenged for quite a number of reasons, but quite distinctly for the simple fact that white women are not the standard of beauty, and if there is any “standard” with regard to both beauty and white women it is a standard that bears witness to the depth of objectification, exploitation, subjugation, and psychological destruction that can be achieved through the relentless promotion of form over content, and as such constitutes one of the paramount examples of the innate sickness of the consumer paradigm.

      Reply

  3. molly
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 21:42:43

    A few things. First, I think there is a more general “white privilege,” but that there too are gendered aspects of that privilege. I also think that white females try to draw upon their shared experiences of oppression in order to find some common ground, but I would agree that this can be taken too far. Interestingly, I think sexism generally speaking is considered less potent because of the fact that white women, with the aid of their privilege, have made so many gains.

    I also take issue with the statement, “that courage rests on the backs of women of color who put my white beauty on a pedestal.” I’m not sure about this. I think many women of color reject white beauty standards, and I wonder if that’s really where you’re drawing your courage from.

    And lastly, I find that image immensely frustrating. The thing is, the top row of pictures have not in reality become hotter than the bottom row to most people. I don’t think the mainstream standard of beauty is quite as exaggerated as those images, and only gives them more power by proclaiming them to be hot. Hell, Christina Hendricks has been lauded as the sexiest woman alive (http://www.christinahendricksgallery.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/page-six-christina-hendricks-full-body-grey-suit.jpg, http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2011/9/16/1316187726347/Christina-Hendricks–DO-N-001.jpg). So I wanna check the use of that image in that it only perpetuates lies about current beauty standards.

    Reply

  4. donnagg
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 02:38:18

    Paxus and Molly,

    In regard to your references of Beyonce and WoC(women of color)’s rejection of the standard of white beauty, respectively, I give you this to consider:

    http://colorlines.com/archives/2009/05/loreal_white_beauty.html

    and

    http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/01/beyonce_is_the_whitest_shes_ever_been_in_new_album_promo.html

    Reply

  5. donnagg
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 04:06:10

    So, here’s the other thing for women of color: not only, as sara aptly points out, do we suffer for our expressions of anger, etc., in relation to white women, but also in relation to men of color. It has been my experience that a man of color (MoC) can post videos/articles/other commentaries addressing white privilege on the OCV fb page and can expect approving, even glowing responses from the general community while a woman of color can post THE EXACT SAME video/article/other commentary and get totally flamed for it… sometimes behind her back, but flamed, still. Further: the same people who “liked” or responded positively to the MoC’s posts are often the same people who (openly or behind her back) disparage the WoC for daring to speak truth to power.

    Gah… I’m getting sick having to think about this right now, but thank you anyhow for opening up this conversation, Sara.

    Reply

  6. frank
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 23:27:39

    This goes quite far back in the history of feminist struggle: think of Sojourner Truth- “ain’t i a woman”. the irony perhaps being that middle/upper class white women fetishized, objectified and oppressed as they were/are, at least maintained
    some toehold on the attentions of dominate white male culture and could thus
    speak back to/at it with some possibility of being heard. Access to the
    political arena, to jobs, to education, to jobs with equal pay all get parceled
    out along these chains of hierarchy and within our “radical” movements
    we internalize the same chains despite our outward professions of letting every
    voice be heard. in reality maybe the voices we hear are the ones- given the nature of this divided society- that we’ve always heard-even ( and especially) if they’re saying things which are different, “cool” and “radical”. so as a white male i often find myself responding most attentively and strongest to something another white male has said and thinking of that as the default position – white man has said it all and i need listen no further. The hard work is breaking away from these chains of association and privilege is what we (I) need to be engaged in- not easy
    and we need to be open to being called out- ESPECIALLY US WHITE GUYS!
    If we’re sincere and serious about undermining the status conferred by systems
    of oppression(s)- classes, genders, colors, sexualities, abilities all on some
    chain of being- heard/seen, interpreted, judged as being worthy only on our terms
    and not on the speaker’s- it requires not only listening but (for those with some
    degree of privilege, however relative) being required to step back and even be “pushed” back if need be. Sometimes you’re stepping up and sometimes you’re
    stepping back in a way that’s both awkward and necessary.

    Reply

  7. Lesley
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 19:51:37

    This is an interesting way to voice this opinion/reality. I feel like there is a lot of more personal aspects related to this that you are living that I don’t know about. But as the Cinderella that fits into this societal glass slipper of a stereotype my nose feels adequately rubbed in societies shit. I comprehend the justice of this but also recognize that “owning privilege” is often cold comfort; again being the demographic generally hollering about male bodied people abusing their privilege.
    What does feel good for me as a female bodied person is when a person of the other gender realizes their privilege as a tool for subversion. I see that you have talked a little about that in the replies and such but I hope each white female bodied person leaves this blog with the acknowledgment that they are also empowered by this injustice. There is a lot of opportunities afforded to the people who naturally fill this demographic to shake shit up, not only on the behalf of women of color but also on the behalf of themselves. We all realize that those eight pictures are as much of a cage for the individuals who resemble the women as for the people of color and(and we haven’t even cracked this egg yet) the trans folk out there, very different cages, but cages none the less.
    So I agree, we shouldn’t be jumping beside people of color and scream, “Your struggle is my struggle!” But I do think to be allies in any profound ways we need to acknowledge how this reality creates space for our own unique flavor of subversion.
    At my collective house, every other Monday, we hold a discussion called “Positive Masculinity” where we discuss ways that male bodied people are also caged by their own privilege and so far we have been able to find examples of ways to call out this bullshit dichotomy together, empowering all genders. It isn’t perfect, often we get stuck in simply forming definitions for hours, but if we’re looking for solutions they don’t usually come from guilt but from empowerment. Especially when the people you are calling out are already one of the most silenced and objectified demographics, like these over-sexualized, might as well be blow up dolls, we have pictured here.

    Reply

  8. larry bishop
    Feb 11, 2012 @ 22:41:59

    Ran across this in the course my own exploration of the “white beauty standard”, and thought it was pertinent to this discussion…..http://threadbared.blogspot.com/2009/10/blackface-and-violence-of-revulsion.html
    follow the link…

    Reply

  9. donnagg
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 03:43:52

    Another to add to my blogroll… cogent and privilege-shattering, I dare say. Thanks for the tip, Larry.

    Reply

  10. donnagg
    Mar 03, 2012 @ 00:56:24

    Reply

  11. naaww
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 04:37:45

    Very interesting article. http://www.naaww.wordpresss.com

    Reply

  12. islandgirl77
    Feb 15, 2013 @ 08:49:49

    It is interesting to note that white female privelge often lies in the sublities. They are so accustomed to being on a pedestal in every way, that when that is challenged, they become threatened (some not all). One example is they don’t want to share control to anyone or do not trust anyone to be competent. For example, I belong to an NFL cheer alumni group. We plan reunions every now and then. Every year, the white alumni plans the event. One year, some of the black ladies got together to plan a very nice, professional event. Unbeliveably, NONE of the white women showed up, but planned their own event on the same night! Also, on Facebook, when the Victoria’s Secret page posts black models, there are always negative and hateful comments. Not so for the whites. I guess I’m wondering where the sense of entitlement and superiority comes from. GOD didn’t assign a chosen race. In fact, throughout the BIble, those who were oppropsed was close to HIS heart.

    Reply

    • Sara Tansey
      Mar 05, 2013 @ 14:52:53

      Dear islandgirl,

      The sense of entitlement is integral to the systems of power and oppression that allowed white men to “explore” and dominate the world. without a sense that white was superior to everything else, we could not have killed, terrorized, stolen and plundered as we have for the last several centuries. I do not know the psychology of that initial sense of entitlement. thank you for your angry response. i wish this bullshit weren’t real and that white women were more willing to own this part of our privilege so that we could at least challenge it more powerfully.

      sara

      Reply

  13. chuck
    Mar 24, 2013 @ 01:26:06

    White female privilege is a growing concern among a number of women’s groups especially those of color. Its extremely hard for a lot of white women to admit that they are extremely privileged in this society due to their color and especially their gender. Its hard to say how the women’s movement will handle this situation as most white women don’t like the hearing the label ‘White female privilege’. For them its easier to throw darts at the bulls eye rather than be the one wearing the bulls eye and they don’t like that.

    Reply

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