/Whether you know anything about the JT Whitesplains Anti-Racism to Bria Crutchfield trainwreck or not, go read this post by Sikivu Hutchinson writing at Black Skeptics first. And if you only have time/energy to read one thing about it, skip mine, and read that instead. It both summarizes the situation and gives a focused critique, and her discussion of white femininity is the impetus for my writing this.
Credit for the formative underpinnings of this post belongs to brashblacknonbeliever, bad-dominicana, Mikki Kendall, and Sikivu Hutchinson. If you like this post, you should go read their work, as they are much more knowledgeable, insightful, and able to explain these concepts clearly than I am. Also, you should consider reading this post about the role of white womanhood in George Zimmerman’s acquittal if you haven’t yet; while not directly related to the JT Eberhard situation, it explores the impact of white femininity in another context and illuminates it usefully in general./
Most of my readers will know that benevolent sexism is – surprise! – really condescending and oppressive. It goes along the lines of “Women are precious and delicate things, full of wonderful nurturing and kindness, and I should protect them, because they cannot fend for themselves, poor innocent dears.”
And in my experience, feminists are entirely grossed out by benevolent sexism, and many white or whiteness-immersed feminists (my former self included!) would get their hackles up damn quickly if anyone suggested that any part of benevolent sexism could be construed as privilege.
But that’s exactly how it manifests, in some situations – not “female privilege,” because that’s not really a thing, but “white women’s privilege,” the privilege of residing at that particular intersection of subordination and power. It is a form of privilege that particularly shows up in the difference between white women’s experience and that of women of color, particularly black women. The disproportionate effect on black women is due to the racist and damaging stereotype of the Strong Black Woman, which Mikki Kendall discusses at length here. In essence, white women are subjected to the headpats and condescension of benevolent sexism, but what black women get in place of that is indifference to their suffering, dehumanization, and violence. White women are treated as delicate and vulnerable, while black women are treated as unfeeling and inhuman.
This difference is especially visible in the phenomenon of “white women’s tears.”* When white women or perceived women are called out by women of color for racist behavior, and cry (either literally or less so) about it, white people respond more to their emotional distress at being told that they are causing harm than to the pain of women of color at being subjected to that harm. We empathize with the white women so hard we don’t leave any empathy for the women of color. And while white people of any gender need to watch out for taking part in this, white men particularly are socialized to come to aggressive defense of the vulnerable white woman against people of color, who are treated as hostile and dangerous, and who are denied vulnerability – and with it, their humanity and their pain. And so through the invocation of our perceived vulnerability, we become complicit in white male aggression and violence against people of color, even if we not-actually-nobly refrain from engaging in it ourselves. And white feminists are not exempt from this phenomenon.
So, as Dr. Hutchinson pointed out, that notion of white femininity as bestowing the need and right to be protected by gallant white men from the anger of people of color is one of the elements which is at play when JT chooses to prioritize that woman’s putative embarrassment over the pain and rightful anger that Bria Crutchfield shared with the audience that day.
While a lot of the white feminists whose work I read on the subject expressed solidarity and support for Bria, addressing the particular racist and sexist dogwhistling involved in treating a black woman as irrationally hostile and aggressive and needing to be calmed by the rational white man, Dr. Hutchinson was the first person whose work I encountered directly addressing the role of white femininity in JT’s trainwreck. And as many women of color have pointed out, that’s something white women feminists, especially those dedicated to an intersectional vision of feminism, need to work harder on seeing and speaking out about – the very specific way in which our privilege hurts people of color, and gives white men license to do so. We need to learn to be prepared to see and challenge the combination of benevolent sexism and hostile racism that is so often at play in their defense and support of us or our fellow white women, and to support the people of color who are subjected to white male aggression on our supposed behalf.
Oh, and white dudes? You have to back off. Really. You have to stop punching down and then justifying it as protecting us. We can handle learning that we fucked up, and it is shitty of you to attack the people we’ve hurt for telling us we’ve hurt them. It is possible to support us emotionally without attacking other people, without diminishing or disregarding their pain, and without telling us that we haven’t fucked up. You have to do better. So do we.
*For more information on this phenomenon, start here.
About the Wasp: Though often misunderstood due to her fearsome exterior, the Wasp may be a friendly and beneficial insect, as well as an excellent neighbor.
All the same, it’s probably best to avoid any sudden movements.