Last month at the Emmy’s, Viola Davis became the first black woman in its 67 year history to win Best Actress in a Drama Series. In her acceptance speech, she quoted Harriet Tubman:
“In my mind,
I see a line.
And over that line
I see green fields and lovely flowers
and beautiful white women
with their arms stretched out to me
to get over that line
but I can’t seem to get there no how
I can’t seem to get over that line.”
Though it was written in the 1800’s, “that line” is still there, and it represents the racism that separates Intersectional Feminists from White Feminists™.
White Feminism™ (well defined by Catherine Young) is feminism for white people, not necessarily by white people. It ignores intersecting systems of oppression (like racism) and centers its feminism around the ideals, struggles, and lens of white women who are typically heterosexual, able-bodied, and middle-class or wealthy. You don’t have to be white or a woman to be a White Feminist™ and not all white women are White Feminists™.
When Viola won, black women everywhere erupted with joyful celebration, clapping and cheering at Viola’s strength and courage. Black actress Taraji P. Henson, nominated for the same award for her groundbreaking role on Empire, stopped to hug Viola and express sincere congratulations. But a white woman wasn’t happy. Nancy Lee Grahn, an actress on General Hospital, felt excluded. She took to Twitter to express her dismay.
She did what White Feminists™ do – she made the conversation about herself. A classic symptom of White Feminism™ is self-absorption and ego centrism. “I wish I had the opportunity to play roles she has” she sighed in her self-pity.
Nancy took it a step further. She attacked Viola’s right to use the acceptance speech as a venue for speaking on racism.
“I heard Harriet Tubman and I thought it’s a fucking Emmy for God’s sake. She wasn’t digging through a tunnel….my upset is acting awards don’t fix racial justice.”
Her stance is ironic, given her enthusiastic support for Patricia Arquette, who used her Oscar acceptance speech just six months ago to address social inequality in the form of the wage gap. The difference is, Nancy felt included then because whiteness was centered.
“Good use of your win to champion women. Make your moment matter. I like that,” Nancy had tweeted then, in support of Patty.
More horrifying than Nancy’s hypocrisy is her historical ignorance. Harriet Tubman may have been the leader of the Underground Railroad, but she did not literally dig tunnels. She helped hundreds of slaves escape from the South to the North before and during the Civil War. But there’s another important hallmark of White Feminism™ here. Nancy was policing Viola’s right to speak on the topic of her choice. Nancy’s assumption that she could do so demonstrates a devaluing of black women, and an erasure of their humanness. Nancy then spoke on something she had no knowledge of – Viola’s personal experiences of racism, positing that Viola “has never been discriminated against.”
When her comments were questioned, Nancy demonstrated “Miss Millie” syndrome. In the movie The Color Purple, Miss Millie famously defended her racism by saying “I’ve always been nice to you people!” Nancy’s version of this rhetoric went like this: “30 years an advocate for human rights and now I’m a racist. Color me heartbroken.” This is what White Feminists™ do when they are called out for racist words and actions: they get angry about their feelings being hurt, act defensive and self-righteously indignant, and deny accountability.
“I’m a fucking actress for 40 years,” Nancy continued. “None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not venue for racial opportunity. ALL women belittled.” White Feminists™ typically apologize badly and Nancy was no exception. “Tried to respond with love,” she complained. “Gotten mostly condescension and vitriol.”
Time then did what it does for all White Feminists™ – it gave Nancy the opportunity to reflect about what she said and to say she was sorry.
For her outrageous narcissism and sense of entitlement, for inserting herself and her whiteness into Viola Davis’s moment, for derailing the conversation, for devaluing and erasing a Woman of Color, Nancy Lee Grahn wins The Snowflake Award, for being the most offensive White Feminist™ this month.
The level of White Feminism™ in our culture is disturbingly high. I’ve noted recurring themes in this Bingo Card, so feel free to “play along.”
The second place Snowflake Award goes to Meryl Streep and the Suffragettes. Unfortunately, the United States is not the only country where White Feminism™ flourishes. Time Out London magazine recently released a photo shoot for the movie, about the British suffragette movement. In the pictures, Meryl Streep and her costars pose wearing t-shirts that read: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
The quote was originally said by UK suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and the ad campaign is offensive for many reasons. First, if you were offered a choice between being a rebel and being a slave, which would you pick? The quote implies women of color had an option to be enslaved, which is both historically inaccurate and disrespectful.
Second, there were UK suffragettes of color, though they were not as well-known as Americans Ida Wells or Sojourner Truth. In the UK, the non-white suffragettes were mostly Indian, and they’ve been erased from history and representation in the movie. An example is the Indian princess Sophia Duleep Singh who “wasn’t just welcomed by the movement” but considered a “rock star suffragette.”[i]
Third, given the racist nature of suffragette history,[ii] it was insulting for a group of white women to wear this white t-shirt for UK and US audiences. American suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, is known to have said: “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.”[iii]
In fact, black women didn’t even get the right to vote when white women did. Although the U.S. 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 and legally enfranchised all women, state laws and vigilante practices disenfranchised most black women in the South, who couldn’t vote until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.”[iv]
Time Out defended the photo shoot as a “rallying cry” for women, arguing that it “was not intended to criticize those who have no choice but to submit to oppression, or to reference the Confederacy, as some people who saw the quote and photo out of context have surmised.” [v] The two countries do have different historical interpretations of the word. In the UK, a “slave” has referred to a domestic slave, while in the US, “slave” usually summons imagery of black chattel slavery. However intentions do not equal impact.
Pankhurst herself made the comparison between white and black women painfully obvious when she said that “out of women’s voteless condition had grown the most appalling slavery, compared with which negro slavery falls into insignificance.”[vi]
And therein lies the heritage and heart of White Feminism™, caring only for itself, oblivious to the struggles of women of color, erasing them from the picture, the movement, and historical representation. To date, no one involved has issued an apology.
Matt Damon wins third place in the Snowflake Awards. On HBO’s Project Greenlight, Effie Brown, the successful and respected black female producer of Dear White People, openly questioned the decision to select a white director for a film about a black prostitute. Matt Damon interrupted her, talked over her, and condescendingly explained that diversity would be achieved through the casting of the film, not the director. His combination of mansplaining and whitesplaining was so obnoxious it spawned a new term all its own that became a trending Twitter hashtag: #Damonsplaining.
White Feminism™ has a listening problem. If Matt had listened more and talked less, he might have heard the point she was trying to make. But White Feminists™ are usually so busy talking they make no room for the silence necessary to amplify the voices of the marginalized. Maybe Effie’s inclusion as the only black woman in the room was enough “diversity” for Matt. Effie had a valid point, that a white male director could have significant blind spots in framing the story of a black female prostitute.
But White Feminists™ usually do not say “thanks for pointing out my blind spot. I’ll do some reading about this and try to do better.” Instead, it’s usually more along the lines of: “It’s really hurtful that you don’t acknowledge my place in this struggle with you, and you should be nicer to me. We’re on the same side.”[vii]
After significant and justified backlash, Matt apologized. In typical White Feminist™ form, his apology was weak. He said: “I am sorry that they offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood. That is an ongoing conversation that we all should be having.”
In standard White Feminist™ fare, Matt’s apology demonstrated an arrogant lack of humility that simultaneously denied responsibility and attempted to take credit for sparking a conversation that has been ongoing for decades. The unconsciously embedded White Supremacy in his statement displays a core element of White Feminism™ – that the white point of view is the right point of view.
White Feminists: As a group, our racist behavior is appalling. We need to do better. Will you join me? Will you talk to EVERY WHITE PERSON YOU KNOW about WhiteFeminism™? We cannot dismantle the unconscious White Supremacy within us, as individuals, or as a united team, until we are willing to acknowledge it’s there. When we point out racist behavior to each other, please do not say “you’re dividing feminism!” Let’s be grateful for the mirror that points out our blind spots, and use this as an opportunity for personal growth.
All cartoons by Alli Kirkham, originally published for Everyday Feminism
[vi] The Women’s Movements in the United States and Britain from the 1790s to the 1920s