Time to Put Away the Pink Hats, Ladies
Confessions of a former white feminist narcissist — I mourn for who I thought I was. The rebel. The iconoclast. The unique individual. The hero. The star with a cast of thousands as background characters. Special.
Growing up, I identified with rebellious white women. Women who fought against the concept that females were only meant to orbit around male protagonists. Women who wanted to write their own stories, make their own choices, and forge ahead fearlessly. To stand proud in their female power and not be ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality, their emotions. Women who took what they wanted without apology and everyone paid attention to them. THE FUTURE IS FEMALE!… Right?
At the historic 2017 Women’s March, white feminists were riding high on a pink pussy hat wave. But when uncomfortable comments and questions started popping up related to racism and trans erasure, many were quick to respond with #notallwhitewomen! Just one week later, Mariella Mosthof wrote, If You’re Not Talking About The Criticism Surrounding The Women’s March, Then You’re Part Of The Problem. Many white feminists were not ready for this level of confrontation and self-reflection, with some having to face some tough realities for the very first time.
So how can white women who want to fight for female liberation continue to feel powerful and have positive self-worth? Is there any way forward for us without being mired in self-loathing and white shame, or worse, lashing out in denial and defensiveness?
“White feminism is for white women who don’t want to examine their white privilege.” — Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro
The United States, for all of its advertisement as a glorious melting pot, was established as and remains a society that upholds white people as the human ideal, as the ‘norm’ for humanity (Dr. Robin DiAngelo). Since birth we are bathed, fed, and clothed in white supremacy. It is an inescapable fact. All children, through observation or direct messaging, understand that it is better to be white in this world. ‘I am inherently superior because I am white.’
It is so normal, that most white people don’t even see ‘whiteness’ — how can you see the air you breathe? White people have the privilege to be colorblind. People of color see us, and they are not blind. Every day they see whiteness at work, and the continued overt and covert racism that fuels this country.
Historians have detailed how the Suffragette movement left out black women, and how the 2nd wave of women’s lib struggled to find a connection between white and black feminism. In Ain’t I a Woman (1981), bell hooks wrote about one of the glaring blindspots that prevented white women from truly fighting alongside black women: narcissism.
White feminism has long suffered from “a narcissism so blinding that [it] will not admit two obvious facts: one, that in a capitalist, racist, imperialist state there is no one social status women share as a collective group and second, that the social status of white women has never been like that of black women and men.” — bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 1981
This white blindness is why the article Six Things To Know About 4th Wave Feminism written by Kristen Sollee three years ago has the glaring omission of race as a standalone feature. Although it does highlight that this current wave is queer and trans* inclusive, race is casually slipped under number 5 related to body positivity, stating 4th wave feminism empowers “different shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities.”
But if this article was written today, I hope the author would add number 7, that 4th wave feminism is intersectional. We need to explicitly recognize that the movement is being led by black, Muslim, Jewish, Latinx, indigenous, and immigrant women. White women have to ‘consciously uncouple’ from being the center of attention. My sneaking suspicion is that when this was written in 2015 that intersectional feminism was still considered as an afterthought or when talking about ‘big F’ mainstream Feminism.
There have been many recent flashpoints to jolt white women awake, from mothers of all races feeling primal anguish seeing children separated at the borders, to the fury of the #StopKavanaugh “angry mob” storming the Supreme Court steps (many of whom were “nice, suburban women” getting arrested for the first time.) As this era of 4th wave feminism continues to mature and develop, more white women are wrestling with what female liberation and female power truly means, and are searching for guidance on what to do next.
This self-reflection is painful, and on this journey white women will go through that period of white shame, guilt, and basically beating ourselves up for being white. But we can’t stay stuck within that phase. Bob Bland, one of the Women’s March founders, shared that, “There is a natural discomfort that comes with stretching your boundaries and learning, but it should feel more like a challenging yoga stretch, than the pain of tearing a ligament or twisting your ankle.” With this white fragility comes the white trauma of dealing with the enormity of oppression that has come before us, and carving out white supremacy leaves scars within white women.
For some white women, the discomfort and cognitive dissonance is too great and provokes severe backlash. When questioned, some liberal women have no problem turning their white rage on those they had claimed to support. For evidence, here is a recent comment sent by a white woman to the Director of one of the the Women’s March state chapters on Facebook:
Pro tip: Telling other women to “sit down and shut up” is not a good look. This vitriol rears its head when white women feel that a call out is a personal attack, a common reaction detailed in Rachel Cargle’s excellent piece, When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels: “It is made painfully obvious that many white women believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to be called a racist. Let me be clear, it is not.”
This anger and defensiveness goes hand in hand with the self-centeredness of whiteness that we so firmly believed while growing up. When we are forced to confront our core racist beliefs, our first instinct is to strongly deny it. Emma Lindsay describes her own journey of discovery in White Guilt is Actually White Narcissism: “Narcissism is usually a cover for a fundamentally poor self image. Someone who secretly believes she is a bad person will be more motivated to do things to convince herself she’s a good person.”
And I think there is a secret that a lot of white women have, including a part of myself, that we are deeply ashamed to admit. Looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, we are all hoping and praying that the Democrats can gain control of the House and the Senate in a glorious blue wave. And then, we secretly hope that maybe, just maybe, we can finally breathe a sigh of relief and go back to the “way things used to be” before that awful 2016 election night. Before the world turned upside down.
But if that’s our only motivation, we might as well wear pink ballcaps that say “Make America Comfortable Again.” I hope that enough white feminists have woken up to the idea that hate is not the only tool of racism. That white supremacy is also maintained everyday through politeness, civility, and convenience.
For people of color, there is no “end” to this nightmare, and so fighting against oppression doesn’t stop after one march or one election. Now the test will be if white women can commit long-term to the intersectional feminist movement and lift up other voices, or will they leave it up to their daughters or granddaughters to continue the fight.
So how does a white woman emerge on the other side, to reclaim the narrative of her own story, and use her white privilege for good? Part of it is accepting that we are going to have to let go of parts of our power, and tear down the familiar white supremacist structures we have thrived in. It will be difficult and involve a lot of rude awakenings, but as DiAngelo says, “Being nice is not going to end racism.”
The co-chairs of the Women’s March are “constantly driving their members toward intersectionality — the liberation of women, people of color, the LGBT community, and other oppressed communities are all tied together.” They have worked hard to educate and stretch the perspectives of their predominately white cisgender followers. There was even a breakout session at the followup Women’s Convention called, “Not all pussies are pink and not all women have pussies” to delve into these issues. No one can force white women to ditch their pink hats, but it is important to listen to and respect the voices of those women who declare, “Not my pussy hat!”
Be ready to make a lot of mistakes along the way, as Dr. Jennifer Harvey described in her excellent analogy, For White Women Learning Calculus in a School Building on Fire. I am thankful for famous white feminists such as Emma Watson, Anne Hathaway, and Natalie Portman who are using their celebrity to educate not only themselves, but others, and to continue to push the conversation of white privilege. It is easier for white feminists to start changing their perspective when they have role models to look up to.
“How attached are you to the idea of being white?” — Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, Seeing White series
I highly recommend the podcast series, Seeing White, as a jumping off point for both white men and women. In episode 14, Transformation, John Biewen and Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika talk about how even if we somehow got rid of every individual white supremacist, we would still exist in a structure that at its foundation was built on white supremacy. DiAngelo is also a guest on that episode, and she emphasized that it is “critical that white people use our positions to break with white solidarity and hold one another accountable.”
Maurice Cook, a DC-based co-organizer with the March for Racial Justice, takes it one step further and says, “I’m only down with two types of white people… white traitors and white spies.” Cook elaborates on how one can be a white spy:
“The ability to pretend you’re down with white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, ableist shit that most white people experience every day and say nothing about, but subversively be connected to liberation fighters and white traitors passing along all that intel strategizing to dismantle white power and influence. Double agents!”
Whether your path is a white accountability partner, a white traitor, or a white spy, figure out the part you are going to play in this story. Be a co-conspirator in your community and catch yourself when you are being a white enabler. Personally, I know I can make a difference by not being the one with the microphone, but handing it over to the raised up brown and black hands, amplifying their messages, and listening and acting on what they ask of me.
And what to do with my pink hat? It is well-loved and battleworn, fraying at the edges. I have packed it away in storage as a relic of a specific point in history, to be able to bring out someday and show my grandkids — I was there, children. But it is inanimate, it is a snapshot frozen in time. This pink hat by itself is not a revolution. And when black and trans women said they could not trust the pink hat, I took it off. As Tamela J. Gordon writes, when you are told that something offends, “respect and correct it.”
As a recovering white feminist narcissist, although I am sad to lose some parts of myself, I am happy to let go of the negative things that held me back. The defensiveness. The desire to always be right. The arrogance. The ignorance. I ask other white women to join me in turning away from the alluring mirror. We will all see better for it.