First things first, admissions. I have been both troubled and confused by the idea of white feminism for sometime. Not necessarily semantically in its discrete parts, but conceptually as the compound descriptor. My troubling confusion certainly could be tied to the fact that as a CIS gender, straight, white (confirmed by 23 & Me who are now selling my genetic data), mostly middle class (for what that is worth anymore), woman, who considers herself a feminist, I simply have not been able to see White Feminism as the thing that it is, obliviously wishing that all feminism is good feminism because Feminism.
That obliviousness is embarrassing and uncomfortable to admit. I would rather explain how I actually am aware… but it is becoming clear to me that my Spidey Sense for this sort of thing is really weak.
Admission #2: a big point of discovery around this concept, its meaning, power, marketing, and danger, has come from Instagram. Let’s unpack that, shall we?
I enjoy Instagram quite a bit, and as I moved beyond my friends and family circle, some of the first accounts I began to follow were yogis. Except Instagram yogis are very specific: they are incredibly fit (bordering on dangerously thin in many cases), seemingly of unlimited wealth for travel and attire, and they are all white. Beyond being all white, they really all look almost exactly the same; sinewy, extraordinarily low-body fat, long hair with “beachy waves”, and a lot of Pure Vida mantras, malas, and #inspo. It became pretty clear that these are not actually “yoga” accounts in terms of the actual practice of yoga (don’t misunderstand, they are legend in their ascent to asana) and the ideas behind it, these were more… “lifestyle” accounts, akin to Stuff White People Like. There is a complete overuse of words/expressions like BADASS! GODDESS! LOVE WHAT YOU DO! HAVE IT ALL! SELF-LOVE!
I also started to follow some celebrity accounts (yes, Beyonce) and some activists I like and as it goes in these environs, I would see occasional reposts from friends and others, which would lead me somewhere, and then somewhere else. Of course I have a hefty number of basketball accounts on there, a lot of Oakland Athletics stuff, a good amount of Grateful Dead related things, and OH MY GOD I AM SO WHITE.
After a while, I started unfollowing a lot of the “yoga” accounts (I mean really, they are all the same) and other accounts that didn’t really fall under any category except for the Instagram-derived “Influencer” title (gag.) I started paying more attention to the accounts that promoted ideas and platforms that I have become more and more vested in as we suffer daily under the current shitshow in Washington. Shaun King, Everytown, W. Kamau Bell, the Obamas (obvs), Deray McKesson… I use Twitter for most of my political trolling and news, but I have enjoyed seeing some of these same accounts on Instagram. [As a side note, Ros Gold-Onwude is like the perfect storm of so much of what I love: smart, funny, agent of fashion, athlete, sports commentator, all around awesome.]
Anyhow, fast forward to July 22, 2018. I am sitting in my parents kitchen and I see on Twitter that a young, black woman has been murdered at the MacArthur Bart Station. I say to my mom, “Another young black woman has been killed.” She is in a place where this sort of news is often too much for her. For me, I am compelled to read the details. As a teacher – very recently in the East Bay – these young people are my students. I must know, every time I see these stories… “Is it one of mine?” I also am a daily Bart rider during the school year and this happened in my backyard.
She was, and now is forever, 18. Beautiful. Emergent. A child.
The regularity with which these sorts of crimes are occurring in this country is staggering and disgusting. (On July 8 I received and email from the principal at my new school, letting the community know about the July 6 murder of one of their young alumni, Milan Ardoin, and her mother, Valinda Scott, in their home in Antioch, this got little to no news coverage, and I definitely did not see a lot of Insta/Twitter action and I was looking.)
In Nia’s case, there was a lot of action on Instagram – in certain circles. I was watching because I do. Eventually I landed on this post from Rachel Cargle (who you should definitely follow.) I was not a follower (at that time) so I am not sure how I got there, but it struck me. I got to thinking, “Hmmm, I wonder if YogaGirl ™ had commented? Nope. (In fairness she has now.) I looked through some of the other “woke” white people I could think of. Not much to see. Then I started looking at who the people were commenting on Rachel’s post. This is particularly interesting because she framed it the prompt as “your favorite” white feminist, which already indicates you are tagging people who you like/look up to/follow/support. This inherently, to me, means if you tagged someone you are saying, “Hey, I like you and I think you have a lot of influence and power and I think you should consider directing it this way.” This does not seem divisive, exclusive, mean-spirited, or bullying to me. But maybe that is just the teacher in me, always trying to lead people to take their own actions…
What eventually transpired from this post was an epic Instagram comment saga the likes of which I have never seen – and was compelled to read (and it was HOURS of reading, seriously.) What emerged most prominently was that the woman behind an account I had followed for a time (but unfollowed because her use of social issues for personal kudos had started to make me really uncomfortable) began to literally lose her shit. Like, completely. I am a little bit afraid to mention this account by name because I am actually quite fearful of her and what I have seen her to do people who disagree with her under her “I take no shit” banner. However, for the sake of clarity I have to say her name, but know that it is with hesitation: Alison Brettschneider. Her 50+ hour tirade of “defending” herself (although initially the comments suggested it wasn’t actually her commenting but an assistant, though semantics were inconsistent enough to lead me to believe she was John Barron-ing us) was the window into what #whitefeminism actually is and the irrefutable damage it inflicts that I needed to see in order to really get a handle on the concept. (If you are interested you can begin the Herculean hike through the comments on Rachel’s post and her subsequent posts – one of which was explicitly providing a space for BIPOC women to share their feelings and Alison reported as hate speech and was temporarily removed by Instagram.)
As I read (for nearly three days!) the ongoing posting around this and saw how Brettschneider used tactics like name dropping, tokenizing, doxxing, name calling, and dehumanizing those in disagreement with her while rarely addressing the actual topic at hand (Nia Wilson) I was aghast. Horrified.
I thought out loud – this is what it must feel like to be a BIPOC woman every god dammed day.
This is #whitefeminism #whiteexceptionalism, #whitesaviourism, #whitetears, and all the rest. There is no way around it, it is #whitesupremacy.
I had to sit with that for quite some time.
Behind all that generic lifestyle shit overlaid with inspirational quotes and good lighting is the machine of oppression at work. Even if you think it is pretty, that is what is happening.
Am I a #whitefeminist? I desperately want to say no. I do know enough to keep my mouth shut in spaces that are created to give voice to those who have to work for that space rather than rely on the assumption it will be granted. I think I know how to be an ally, but I know that it takes a lot of work and requires hearing a lot of shit no one really wants to hear about the realities we are living in and how different they are for BIPOC people – women most significantly.
The writer Elizabeth Gilbert posted about Nia (I think as a result of Rachel’s post, tbh) and included this in her caption:
I have a friend who has worked for years as photographer for several major New York City newspapers. Long ago, he told me something horribly disturbing. He said that —when it comes to stories about murder —there is a clear racial hierarchy about which stories get put on the front page of the newspaper, and which stories don’t get told at all. If a white child is murdered, that’s front page news.
If a black child is murdered, that’s not news — unless it’s a REALLY dramatic story. If a white man is murdered, that’s news. If a black man is murdered, that’s not news.
If a white woman is murdered — ABSOLUTELY, that is news.
But when a black woman is murdered? That is the lowest degree of importance, in terms of news. So many times over the years, my friend has taken photos at the murder scenes of black women, only to be EXPLICITLY told by his editors: “This is not news. Nobody cares.”
Long before there was a social movement called #BlackLivesMatter, my friend learned firsthand on the job that Black Lives Do NOT Matter. And that NO life matters less than the life of a black woman.
Racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that we marinate in it at every level.
I eventually had to walk away from these posts because it was becoming way too heavy – and I can walk away from it. Imagine not having that privilege. I have been watching to see which of my friends follow Alison’s account. I think she is dangerous and mean – in spite of good work she does; these are not mutually exclusive concepts. As Rachel points out on her Instagram: Nice does not equal not racist.
Now, there is work to do, in measurable ways as I prepare for my 24th, or is it 25th? year of teaching, and take care of those around me, as well as in ways that are harder to see/measure/regard.
It is a lot.
And it is not optional.