A Guide for Progressive White Women to Fight White Supremacy
A good starting place for white women who want to level up as allies.
This article is for liberal, progressive white women devoted to their personal growth and spiritual development. Women who get tripped up on words like white supremacy and white fragility. I’m writing this for my friends and family who have told me that they feel “oppressed” or “exhausted” when they’re asked to change their behavior to reduce the harm they are causing people of color. This article is for white women who feel defensive when they are called in or called out on their biases.
I have been one of those white women. Sometimes, I still am. I sometimes find myself on a new edge of learning about white supremacy and retreat back to my defensive ways. I’m way more mindful of my reactions now, and you can be, too. This is an Introduction to White Supremacy for People Who Have Had the Privilege of Ignoring White Supremacy.
When I say white supremacy, I’m not talking about hate groups, although that is certainly the extreme. I’m talking about the culture we live in that says that whiteness is the ideal and that anyone who isn’t white is deviating from what is normal.
Before I go on, I should say that there are a lot of us white people who are not comfortable talking about white supremacy, and our habit is to get defensive when the topic comes up or when someone calls us in on behavior that assumes whiteness as the ideal and the norm. Chances are as we dive into this work, we often feel like we need to prove ourselves right. We are real committed to proving that we are good white people and that we’re right and not at all racist. Our desire to be right and good sucks a lot of energy out of conversations about race and isn’t helpful. In fact, it is actively harmful. Our defensiveness prevents us from engaging in open, honest conversations. It prevents us from learning. It prevents us from listening. It prevents us acknowledging that we can do better. And it maintains our position of power in a system of white supremacy that we benefit from daily. Our defensiveness and denial is a way that we as white people inflict harm on people of color, even though we do not intend to.
Before moving on, let’s accept that even though we didn’t personally create the systems of inequality in our society, as a white people, we do benefit from these systems and have an interest (even if unconscious) in maintaining the status quo.
It is possible that sentence made you feel defensive if you’re white. It often does. As you read on, I have one request: when you feel defensive, notice that you are feeling defensive. Do you feel it in your body? Does your defensiveness show up as a desire to interrupt and prove yourself right? Do you want to stop reading? Actively work on switching to feeling curious instead. Think about what it feels like when you feel curious. You’re more open, you’re less anxious, and you’re less hell bent on being right. One of the best ways to get curious is to ask yourself questions:
- Am I feeling defensive right now?
- What does it feel like when I am defensive?
- How can I stop defending my position and squelch my desire to prove myself right at this moment?
- What do I need I learn about white supremacy to feel more comfortable having these conversations?
- What does it feel like in my body when I switch to feeling curious?
Now that you’re prepared to notice when you get defensive and switch into feeling curious, away we go. If you commit to doing the work below, it will take about one and a half hours. You can divide up the four pieces and take one at a time. You may want to give yourself time to absorb and think about each piece: privilege with Roxane Gay, white fragility with Robin DiAngelo, intersectionality with Kimberlé Crenshaw, and advice for spiritual white women from Layla Saad.
Step 1: Learn about privilege by starting with Roxane Gay.
There are lots of kinds of privilege. Acknowledging your privilege is a good first step. White privilege is one type, and there are many. Getting in touch with the ways we experience privilege can be challenging at first; it’s usually easier to identity the ways our lives have been hard than the ways in which it’s been easy. It’s not uncommon to feeling of guilt or shame at first.
Roxane Gay says in her essay Peculiar Benefits, “Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor. There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t.”
Read the whole essay in her book Bad Feminist or here.
Step 2: Learn about white fragility with Robin DiAngelo.
White fragility is the name researcher Robin DiAngelo uses to describe white people’s defensiveness about race. It is the tendency of white people to get angry, get silent or withdraw from conversations about race. I’ve had white friends tell me that they feel oppressed by these conversations, that they feel like they’re being limited in how they can express themselves if they can’t use words or phrases that are hurtful to black people or people of color. Most often, my friends express their overwhelm about the prospect of having to learn one more thing. They’ll ask questions like, “Isn’t being committed to my spiritual growth enough?” No, in fact, it is not. Being committed to your own spiritual growth and simultaneously ignoring the systems of oppression that keep humanity locked in deep inequity is not spiritual growth.
Understanding white fragility allows us to recognize when we’re being fragile and develop new muscles and skills to have deeper, more productive conversations and, most importantly, reduce the harm we do to people of color by getting defensive (or angry), being silent, or withdrawing from conversations about race.
Take 30 minutes and listen to Dr. Robin DiAngelo explain white fragility on the podcast The Way With Anoa.
Step 3: Learn about intersectionality with Kimberlé Crenshaw.
One of the things that white women often struggle with is understanding how they can be oppressed by systems of misogyny and sexism and simultaneously be oppressors in a system of white supremacy. Like Roxane Gay said in her essay on privilege, it’s easy to engage in the Game of Privilege or Oppression Olympics. White women are quick to call out how we are affected by sexism and misogyny as though that prevents us from inflicting harm on black women and people of color. It’s much easier for us to think of how we are oppressed as women than it is to acknowledge how we’ve benefited from being white.
Understanding how race and gender intersect to create specific realities for people is your next assignment. Watch Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 20 minute TEDWomen talk from 2019, The Urgency of Intersectionality.
Step 4: Understand that your spiritual growth is intricately tied into your awareness of white supremacy.
Earlier, we accepted that even though we didn’t personally create the oppressive systems of inequality in our society, as a white person I do benefit from these systems and have an unconscious vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Accepting that white supremacy is a real thing and that as a white person, I benefit from it is a huge part of our personal development and spiritual growth.
We are drawn to personal and spiritual development because it makes us better, more connected, more aware people. We may want to make our friendships deeper and more rewarding, our marriages more kind and loving, our relationship with our parents and children more understanding. Many of us seek a greater sense of peace and calm. Some of us want to know ourselves more deeply and more truly. Some of us practice mindfulness as a way of paying attention to things in a deeper way or being more present in the moment. Paying attention to our blind spots and our reactions to conversations about race is a very fulfilling and important mindfulness practice that has unique benefits.
If you are a white person who is committed to her spiritual growth, you must commit to exploring your whiteness and white supremacy.
Understanding white supremacy and our role in it is critical for every white person committed to their own personal growth. Your final assignment is to take 15 minutes to read Layla Saad’s essay, “I need to talk to spiritual white women about their white supremacy (Part One).” And then you can read Part Two.