On White Women’s Anger


I once wrote an article calling Barack Obama a fraud for his treatment of Shirley Sherrod. I may or may not have cussed him out, actually.

That post got fewer angry emails, comments, tweets, and general responses than has my analysis of the white feminist response to The Onion’s attack on Quvenzhané Willis. Seriously. Certainly, many reached out to discuss, debate or appreciate the post. Many more didn’t just take to task a methodological choice or a conclusion but with the very idea that I would ask the question.

That is odd.

It is also exhausting. Believe it or not, arguing with people that racism and sexism exist is not my full-time job.

And, frankly, I’m surprised by the response. As I noted, this isn’t one of my barn-burning posts. Trust me, I’ve written those. It’s a fairly innocuous survey of posts by feminist media outlets. I never call anyone a racist. I make the fairly pedestrian observation that in the U.S. race may be salient to an event. There are few million books and articles drawing the exact same conclusion. I really didn’t think that “race matters” was a controversial subject particularly among those who identify themselves as members of a marginalized group.

I’m also not sure those who are so angry actually read the analysis. I do not conclude that white feminists ignored what happened to Quvenzhané. I conclude that their response was muted and different than it was in historical cases (Sandra Fluke) or would have been had Quvenzhané been white. The latter is admittedly a counterfactual but I think that there isn’t a comparable case is a null finding of sorts that ultimately supports rather than undermines the conclusion that race matters to gendered treatment.

Among the charges, it was suggested that I made my analytical choices to deliberately exclude the white male feminist article that was “arguably the most important” and that I am, for some super secret colored reason, designing projects to make white women appear racist. You give me far too much credit. Blogs run by friends and allies and colleagues were included in my analysis. I pulled no punches because I am an ethical researcher. And I don’t have the wherewithal to spend time designing grand experiments to make white people look bad. I really don’t. And if I did? I’d spend those resources in other ways.

I am a sociologist. I do not often engage women’s studies departments. I am, however, slated to talk at the Southeastern Women’s Studies conference this year about something fairly similar: organizations, gender, and race as it pertained to The Chronicle of Higher Education and Naomi Schaefer Riley. I am reconsidering if I contribute to such spaces. This may be an argument in favor of disciplinary boundaries. Perhaps there’s some literature or history or ethos of the field of women’s studies or gender or feminism that precludes me from making a cogent analysis across disciplines.

Regardless, I am learning that I have a limited amount of energy and resources. I probably already have more than my fair share of legal, political, and academic battles to fight right now. I may not be the right person to suggest to women academics that race happens. Not right now. Or in the near future.

However, I stand by what I wrote. I can only say that there is no evidence of me wanting to write a story for the sole purpose of constraining feminists to writing one type of article or to deny white feminists credit due for all their anti-racist work. I was as transparent in the choices I made in the analysis as I know how to be. I invite others to do the analysis they think I should have done but failed to do. Knowledge production is a cumulative process that often takes multiple projects to even begin to get near some objective or subjective observable social reality.

I will concede that I may not be the one to do this analysis but I stand firm in my strong belief that the question of how white feminist organizations devote their resources differently is a legitimate question. On that, I will not budge. Because the minute we start deciding which questions are legitimate or not, we’re reproducing the very power structures in academe that produced women’s studies to begin with.

13 thoughts on “On White Women’s Anger

  1. You’re right. If they are going to tell you what questions to ask, they’re behaving as White supremacists, not feminists (though the intersection of these two are quite salient and duly noted before either of our existences). Now we are at the point where some White feminists are notably and measurably behaving differently towards Black women versus White, but now you and other Black women should be questioned or even attacked for noticing and speaking about this? We’re clearly moving backwards, at least how feminism is organized and discussed in the digital sphere. This is problematic. This reeks of the the “the ‘real’ racism is talking about racism, not actual racist thoughts, words and actions!” type of derailment. I’m looking around and wondering where is feminism. Is feminism is gendered White supremacy? This sounds too large a question to ask but it’s a question that needs an answer every day.

    1. Thanks for reading and supporting, Trudy.

      I think what got me this time was that I am usually acutely aware of when I have written something that will spark a response. I then make a conscious choice to engage that or not. This time, I was caught unawares so I was not prepared to devote resources to fighting the fight. And I mean these are pretty powerful women, some of them. You have to be ready for something like that. I don’t even have any vodka in my house, so I obviously was not ready.

  2. I’m betting that since Naomi Schaefer Riley is not the kind of white women a lot of Women’s Studies feminists respect, your talk would be well received. I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that your questions and critique will be premised on an ideology that most at the conference probably willingly embrace.

    I liked the shakesville post quite a bit, but I felt more than a little queasy by how differently both blog pieces were treated. You joked last night about how you felt like Oprah (it’s a joke I’ve made a time or two in my department). I’m sure you know that and in doing so you pointed to the very narrow space women of color are allowed to occupy in the sphere of white feminist dialogue: we are either objects of pity and sympathy or expected to offer insights into how white women can feel better about their lives and their choices.

    In neither of those roles can we offer substantive critiques or challenge the sacred tenets of feminism. I suspect this is why your spot-on critique of “having it all” hit such a nerve. It had about it the same criticisms I’ve seen Melissa Perry Harris make of white feminists, and it threatens one of the sacred tenets of Women’s Studies feminism–that research and op-ed writing must be in the service of upper-class white women’s narratives and aspirations.

    1. I hear you, Tricia. But, then I don’t want to be in service to the distinction between acceptable and non-acceptable inquiry. You know what I mean? I have a few personal constitution items. One of them is you can hate me or use me but you cannot do both. Not sound all neo-liberal about it but I do not know what I’d get from accepting the warm reception to a critique of NSR and CHE when I know the very same people were so vicious to a tame critique of feminist media.

      And, yes, I use the Oprah thing quite a bit. I’m very, very, very uncomfortable with the idea of becoming that, metaphorically.

      1. I don’t blame you one bit. I still remember that turn from warm reception to viciousness, and it was quick and shocking. I think you’re right to be wary of Women’s Studies culture. Women’s Studies should be organized around an interdisciplinary model, and your work would be such an important contribution, but I fear the culture doesn’t allow for it.

  3. And defensive digital dialogue continues (I’m talking about your respondents, not you). I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that the response was to attack the findings rather than write a post (or spend time) actually expressing outrage about Q. or at least discussing the ways intersectionalities drive public discourse (white female G’town student v. Black female 9 year old). And that give the history of women’s studies, anyone would expect racial divides to somehow magically be bridged in 2013. Anyway, as a white feminist completely outside of women’s studies, I just wanted to lend some written support (if I lived closer, you could have my vodka!) The onion’s unacceptable remark on Q was under-protested overall, certainly by feminist orgs as well- and good for folks for saying so. To me, I think a step that’s missing is for women to think “and if that was me/my daughter?” Hell NO.

  4. FWIW, I completely agree. White feminists need to own our amazingly crap track record dealing with the intersection of racism and feminism, and recognize that we haven’t fixed (or stopped screwing up long enough to let other people fix) that shameful and glaring deficit. Privilege is a pernicious little demon. Thank you so much for talking about this.

  5. I’ve often wondered where white feminists were (are) when Serena and Venus Williams’ are attacked.

  6. Tressie, that your careful analysis was perceived as ideological threat by people who should know better is deeply disheartening. I hear your weariness and wariness and hope that these don’t prevent you from continuing to do the deep work you do.

  7. As a white feminist I don’t understand how other white feminist can’t take criticism. We (white feminist) expect ppl we criticize to “take it”.

  8. This is the first time in a long time I’ve read such heartening and encouraging comments in reply to a blog post touching on racism/discrimination. I know this is months old but I’m glad I read it and hope that your operating space widens. You’re doing a terrific job.

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