White Women’s Trump Card
By Sarah J. Brazaitis
White women were decisive in delivering Donald Trump the presidency. A majority of white women (53 percent) voted for him. As a white woman myself, I can’t say I’m surprised. Saddened, angered, disturbed — yes, all of those — but not surprised. This is who we white American women are and have been throughout history. We have chosen white privilege over gender equality repeatedly and we did so again on November 8.
I know some are quite surprised by the white women’s vote in this election. Why wouldn’t white women want a white woman as the leader of the free world? Why wouldn’t white women want to cast their vote so as to break the ultimate glass ceiling? Why wouldn’t white women be an assured powerful voting constituency for Hillary Clinton? Given that the alternative was a man who has expressed not just blatant sexism but actual misogyny and has done so repeatedly and publicly, given that alternative — why would a majority of white women not vote for Hillary Clinton?
Of course, some would argue that white women did not want Hillary Clinton as their president due to her political positions, her email scandals, her Wall Street speeches, how she spoke about Monica Lewinsky, her personality, any number of factors. And I know that voters don’t vote for a candidate solely based on social identity variables such as race and gender. Even so, while race and gender may not be the only factor in the voting booth, they are relevant variables.
Our race and gender unquestionably contribute to who we are and the decisions we make, as do the race and gender of our political candidates. For two decades, I have studied the interplay of race and gender in groups and organizational systems, with a particular focus on white women. Here is some of what I’ve learned.
White women are in a unique position in identity politics. Indeed, every social identity group has a specific position in race relations and each group is related to and influences each other in particular ways based on its position. White women’s relatedness to white men and to women of color shapes their interactions at every level of society. White women are critical in maintaining the status quo of race relations. That is, white women are uniquely placed to protect — or disrupt — white male privilege and power.
For white women to speak out against sexism and misogyny — to deny a vote to Donald Trump — is to break from their alliance with white men, 63 percent of whom voted for the Republican ticket. In particular, white women who speak out against sexism and also acknowledge and eschew their unearned white skin privilege may then force white men to acknowledge theirs. White women who demand an inquiry into white male privilege necessitate an examination of conferred dominance based on gender and skin color, and as such, may no longer be the welcome partners of white men in sharing (however unequally) that dominance. White women, then, risk losing their access to white male privilege if they unmask it. White men, too, then have much to gain by white women’s complicity. If white women challenge white men by speaking out about sexism and racism, white men’s power is at risk of being deconstructed.
Deconstructing white male power entails revealing the myth of meritocracy. Rejecting unearned white privilege means debunking the idea that those who are in power have unequivocally earned their position, rather than that they have benefited from a racist, sexist society and that their conferred dominance is based, in part, on being white and male. The notion of meritocracy benefits white women as whites and as collaborators of white men. Exposing the myth of meritocracy means white women and men must question whether their power and authority have been truly earned.
In the presidential race, Clinton’s positions were decisively aligned with what American women say they support: a women’s right to choose, access to family planning, affordable and widely available health care, and environmental policies that promote a sustainable future. Trump’s positions were the opposite on all of the above. White women voted against their own best interests as they themselves expressed them. They chose their attachment to white men over what they saw as best for themselves.
White women often interact predictably with white men in groups and systems — taking on the role of being white men’s protectors and supporters. White women benefit from unearned privilege and authority through their whiteness, but also by their access to white male privilege in their relationships with white men. In 2001, Ella L.J. Edmonson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo, business professors at Dartmouth College and South Africa’s UNISA Graduate School of Business Leadership, conducted a study for which they interviewed 825 black and white women managers across the United States about race and gender dynamics at work among other things. They noted, “[White] women are quick to come to the defense of their white male supporters, often acting as their talking heads, echoing and supporting their views and values to fellow workers.” One of the participants in the study described white women’s access to white men in this way, “White women are very familiar to white men. This is someone they know. This could be their sister, their daughter, their mother or the girl next door. They are comfortable with these women.” Indeed, white women are typically the mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and lovers of white men. Pairing with the most powerful group in society (e.g. white men) is a particular, common and familiar strategy for white women.
When asked how they could support Donald Trump after hearing him brag about his ability to sexually assault women at his whim, many white women have responded with some version of, “That’s how men talk,” or, “I don’t like that he said that, but I still think he would be a good president.” A majority of white women chose to vote for a man who bragged about his delight in being able to grab a woman’s genitals without consequences. In doing so, they contributed directly to ensuring the continuation of abusive, bigoted, white male power and privilege in this country. As one sign at a recent protest of Trump’s election put it: A Vote for Trump is a Hate Crime. And sure enough, eruptions of hate crimes across the country — even in middle and high schools and on college campuses — followed Trump’s victory.
Although 53 percent of white women who voted did so for Trump, 94 percent of black women and 68 percent of Latinas chose Hillary Clinton. A majority of our sisters of color voted for a white woman even when we didn’t. White women have often felt hurt and angry when women of color do not identify as feminists or do not rally around our shared cause of sisterhood. But, especially in light of last Tuesday’s result, this view seems hypocritical: We white women want our sisters of color to join us in the feminist fight while we simultaneously fail to acknowledge our white skin privilege. We ignore the reality of the intersectionality of feminism. That is, as white women, we often disregard the fact that all women do not experience oppression equally. Feminism is not a one-size-fits-all for women, but rather is multidimensional and based on the interplay of gender with race, class, sexual orientation and the like. We act as though there is a universal woman and we all come to the anti-sexism barricades on an equal playing field as women. Yet, we white women are not trustworthy comrades.
The mistrust that women of color feel about white women’s attempts to join together in fighting sexism is rooted in past betrayals. During the suffrage movement of the early 20thcentury, white suffragettes originally sought the right to vote for all women, regardless of race. As a movement to grant black men voting rights gathered momentum, however, white feminists spoke out angrily about their superiority to black males, and their inherent right as whites to participate in the United States political process. How quickly white feminists abandoned their black sisters when their white privilege was threatened.
Further, during the 1960s and 70s, while white women were fighting for job opportunities outside the home and an escape from what they saw as an oppressively limited life’s path — as housewives in suburbia — black women were struggling against racism and sexism in the workforce. The problems of white, middle class housewives were alien to many black women who had a long history in the labor force and had different needs from those of the (white) women’s movement. These events echo today. White women, who ignore their race privilege and focus solely on sexism, deny a fundamental piece of who they are and the status, power, and authority (however unearned) they have. Is it any wonder that women of color have difficulty welcoming them (us) as sisters? Yet, they turned out for Hillary in an overwhelming majority while we helped elect a bigot.
On the afternoon of November 9th, my 13 year-old son returned from school with a question for me.
“Mom, is it true Donald Trump is going to make rape legal?” he asked.
I ached to reassure him. I rushed to tell him “Certainly not!” I wanted to say, “This is the United States of America, and sexual assault will never be tolerated here!” And yet, I worry.
My (white) husband and I have two young sons. We are raising white men. I think about that a lot as a parent, as a psychologist, as an academic, and as a citizen. How do my husband and I teach our sons to be white men who disavow their own unearned privilege, who repudiate racism and sexism, who are allies of women and of people of color, and who use their resources, gifts and privileges to work for justice? I am often daunted by this task. I find it challenging on a bad day to reconcile my own white woman oppressor/oppressed status, to recognize and disavow my own unearned privilege, and to keep fighting for justice when I’d rather shut out the world and hide in the comfort of my own sweet family.
But I am motivated, now more than ever, to teach my sons how to live in our multicultural world. For one thing, we have no choice: We live in a world where we are more connected to each other than ever before, more interdependent with “the other” than at any other time in our history. Our economies, technology, food, and entertainment — our health and the health and future of our shared planet — are all inextricably linked to how we live with each other. But even more than this, a world in which we engage respectfully, compassionately, and meaningfully with each other — a world in which we celebrate each other and encourage each other’s talents and ideas and dreams — a world in which we give everyone an equal chance to succeed and prosper — is a dynamic, enlightened, and inventive world, a world where we are far more likely to solve our manifold problems (from climate change to the democracy-endangering chasm between rich and poor) than a world where we choose to recoil into bunkers of fear and ignorance and intolerance.
We either find a way forward together toward a more just and harmonious and healthier world or we partition ourselves off into feudal camps — we build walls — and risk internecine wars, cultural if not literal, that are bound to return us to darker and scarier times.
What world do we want?
White women: It’s our choice.
Sarah J. Brazaitis is Senior Lecturer and M.A. Program Coordinator for Social-Organizational Psychology
Published Monday, Nov. 14, 2016
Originally published at www.tc.columbia.edu.