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Nov 04 2013

Sisterhood Ain’t Powerful: White Women’s Rights

white guilt white privilege

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When reality TV fixture Omarosa Manigault claimed on the Bethenny Frankel show that white women could “walk around” being mediocre and still get rewarded with opportunities—while Black women had to be exceptional—the predominantly white female studio audience gasped, outraged by her “heresy”.  Omarosa’s baggage as a tabloid lightening rod notwithstanding, her charge resonated deeply with many Black women. As a Black female Ph.D., much of my professional life has involved navigating and pushing back against a very specific, insidious brand of white female racism and paternalism. In the workplace and academia, this brand has consisted of the delicate nuances of power masquerading as benevolence, the kind that grins in one’s face, understanding, sympathetic, worshipping at the cult of the legendarily “strong” Negress; appropriating blackness and using it as a weapon when real world decisions about hiring, promotion, and visibility are at stake.  Over the years this display has come in various guises.  The white master’s thesis advisor who said my writing was not “graduate school caliber”, then “retracted” her statement two years later when my thesis was given a departmental award.  The white dissertation advisor who vehemently opposed my being given a “with distinction” commendation after my successful dissertation defense.  The under-qualified white career bureaucrat/manager, armed with an undergraduate degree, who lied about my job performance on my annual evaluation.  The white MIA coworker who breezed into the office whenever she felt like it, never published anything, never ran a consistent program yet got a promotion and wound up supervising me.  The white British “I feel your pain” department chair at a prestigious private arts college who hired me to teach two token semesters of Women of Color in the U.S. classes then stood idly by while students of color were academically marginalized and shut out of financial aid.

In her article “Job Discrimination Lives On,” Margaret Kimberly writes “Even at the supervisory level apartheid is the order of the day. Black men and women are rarely hired to supervise white people. Black men supervise black men, black women supervise black women, and white men are in positions to manage everyone else.”  The majority of my supervisorial “gatekeepers” have been white women.  And since its inception, white women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Yet there are very few white feminist political commentators, activists, academics or pundits who vigorously champion affirmative action or make it an explicit focus of their public advocacy.  According to the U.S. Labor Department “Six million women workers are in higher occupational classifications today than they would have been without affirmative action policies.”  Of course, this isn’t counting the “unofficial” legacy of white affirmative action which undergirds generations of white wealth accumulation, white residential segregation and white upward mobility in higher education.  When Tea Party fascists to “moderate” whites, and even some “liberal” ones, savage affirmative action and lazy shiftless pathological Blacks the “unearned” advantages white women reap are never part of the diatribe.  As has been well documented, white families and communities actively benefit from the job opportunities, business loans, government contracts, increased wages and private sector access that affirmative action has conferred onto white women.  In her article “The Death of Affirmative Action,” University of Minnesota law professor Michele Goodwin notes that, “White women benefit significantly from state and federal affirmative-action programs in the private sector with hiring… and recent efforts to diversify boards of Fortune 500 companies…Prior to revamped admissions practices in direct response to civil-rights laws, women had much less possibility of success in suing a university to admit them.” In an article on the new Jim Crow of administrative hiring at Ivy League campuses, The Chronicle of Higher Education maintained that the number of (white) women in upper management has increased but representation of people of color remains stagnant.

As bell hooks argues in a recent critique of the Cheryl Sandberg Lean in phenomenon, Black feminists are especially rankled by white women’s shopworn white supremacist resistance to even identifying themselves as white. In corporate hyper-segregated sectors like the film industry, behind the camera stasis (vis-à-vis directing, casting, technical and production jobs) or in front of the camera “progress” for white women is routinely framed by white women entertainment journalists as a step back or a triumph for all women.  It has only been recently that some white feminists, spurred by feminist of color criticism and high profile Twitter campaigns like that of #solidarityisforwhitewomen, have begun to own their privilege, if not the considerable capital that white femininity carries with it in the workplace, residential communities, the criminal justice system, and education.

Last month, when a white female student (the first ever) began participating in our Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) sessions, “Rene”, a Latina student, objected to her inclusion in a space for women of color.  Without consulting my students beforehand, I had personally invited the white student to come to our meeting after she’d made insightful anti-racist comments about gender, sexuality and discrimination in a Teen Health workshop I was teaching.  But Rene was right—WLP is supposed to be a safe space for women of color, a rare commodity even in schools that are predominantly African American and Latino.  By unconsciously assuming “sisterhood”, and not consulting with students about the inclusion of a potential white “ally” in our group, I had failed to absorb the lessons of my own lived experience.  In my rush to be inclusive I’d been exclusive, forgetting the very basis for the organization in a culture where white girls will never have to worry about being affirmed, reinforced and humanized on a playing field with the dark other.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Of course, this isn’t counting the “unofficial” legacy of white affirmative action which undergirds generations of white wealth accumulation, white residential segregation and white upward mobility in higher education.

    I’ve never heard this framing of privilege before. Yet those who most deny that privilege exists are the same ones so vehemently opposed to affirmative action programmes.

  2. 2
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    As happens every time you write, I learn more about how to recognize the racism in myself. I gave up on grad school when I transitioned, so I’m always admiring that you persevered in the face of all this crap, more than I would have gotten as a (white, for those reading along and not knowing) trans woman in STEM, I think perhaps, and remained awesome.

    Thanks for the learning, prof. I’ll try and apply it where I can.

    1. 2.1
      blackskeptics

      Thanks, as always, Caitie, for the response.

  3. 3
    rai

    Thank you for this! Omarosa’s words definitely resonated with me as i can recall many instances in my life where I was discriminated against. And thank you for sharing your experience, it truly means a lot. I think many times many WOC feel isolated in many professional environments. We are either unable or feel pressured by others not to communicate our experiences. Even when we do express them we are often told that it is all in our heads, as though we are not even competent enough to relate our own experiences. And the unfortunate thing is that some of the people who dismiss the discrimination faced by POC in general, but WOC in particular, are often other POC.

    1. 3.1
      blackskeptics

      Absolutely Rai, thanks for your response. Time and again WOC are told that to suck it up, stop being “angry” “delusional” learn to be team players, ad nauseum. while white (or accommodationist POC) cronyism and insider politics grease the wheels of promotions, assignments, publication, etc.

  4. 4
    inkomation

    This was a good read and Omarosa’s words are the truth and now that we are and have been exceptional they can’t handle that either.. You have all the experience education and skills and they simply can’t believe how is this possible because your black.. Yep in 2013 this is going on..

  5. 5
    leni

    And since its inception, white women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Yet there are very few white feminist political commentators, activists, academics or pundits who vigorously champion affirmative action or make it an explicit focus of their public advocacy. According to the U.S. Labor Department “Six million women workers are in higher occupational classifications today than they would have been without affirmative action policies.”

    Feeling pretty stupid at the moment because I’d never thought of affirmative action as something that I benefited from, but I certainly have. Thanks for giving me one less blind spot! Again!

    I’ve always been a supporter of affirmative action policies because I think they are ultimately good for all of us. I guess I considered myself a secondary beneficiary or something, which was really stupid and arrogant. So thanks again, because I don’t want to be that stupid and arrogant person.

  6. 6
    Schlumbumbi

    Many legit points made, but if you start an article with a sympathetic reference to an extrovert psychopath (Omarosa Manigault), you trigger very, very bad feelings in lots of people.

  7. 7
    robertbaden

    We’ve got a court case involving race brought against University of Texas by a white woman.
    Don’t hear anything about preferences for women in the news of this case. Maybe Texas doesn’t have affirmative action for women?

  8. 8
    1. 8.1
      Pierce R. Butler

      Oops – big html fail by me in # 8! Sorry for messing up your nice clean thread…

    2. 8.2
      blackskeptics

      Yes, I’ve used that excellent book in my current book Godless Americana. I meant that there has been no acknowledgment of this history of white supremacy from a secular freethought perspective. All of the accounts I’ve read (most notably Jacoby and Gaylor) have valorized First Wave white feminist freethinkers without noting their complicity in the white supremacist ideology and political propaganda of the age.

      1. Pierce R. Butler

        My first peek at White Women’s Rights for Stanton as I wrote my comment quoted her at Seneca Falls badmouthing “the ignorant Irishman in the ditch”, so I think we can safely say her supremacism filtered along class lines as well as race (though “whiteness” was still being defined in 1848).

        The freethought movement has a history of (ahem) whitewashing its own history. (E.g., I have only once seen an acknowledgment of Robert Ingersoll having apparently made up from whole cloth the oft-cited “quotation” from Ferdinand Magellan about trusting his sight of the earth’s shadow on the moon over all church authority. I wonder what opinions Ingersoll expressed on racial/gender issues?…)

        The current turbulence over gender and sexual issues within the movement will no doubt be swept under the nearest carpet as soon as it’s feasible to consider the twenty-teens as “history”. Blehh.

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