Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Guest post by Beth Plutchak: White Ladies, We Need to Talk
White Ladies, We Need to Talk
by Beth Plutchak
It’s been a ride. I’m feeling a little queasy. But honestly, we’ve been here before and we need to be prepared not to make the same mistakes. I had such mixed feelings when I first heard about the Women’s March on Washington, originally named the Million Women’s March. I thought, this is a great thing, this is going to be big, this is important, this is solidifying (at least once they changed the name from the one they appropriated from black women). I also thought, what? Now? Now, you’ve noticed that white women are under attack. What about everybody else? And where were you before the election?
I’m terrified by the profoundly anti-American changes that have happened in Trump’s White House, from his nominees for key positions, to the unprecedented types and circumstances of his executive orders, to the central role of neo-Nazi supporter Steve Bannon and the reflection of neo-Nazi ideals in afore-mentioned nominees and executive orders. My family is black, brown, queer, poor, and disabled. The people I love are under attack in dangerous and specific ways that don’t touch me as a white woman, even though I am also under attack.
I was happy to learn that sister marches were being organized for women who couldn’t make it to DC. I live twenty minutes outside of Madison, WI and expected many of my family and friends would make the Madison March. At the same time, black women started saying “Where y’all been?” It took white women no time at all to call them out for being divisive.
The whole thing had echoes of the “divisiveness” in the feminist movement of the seventies. For my white college classmates feminism was about access to birth control and legalized abortion. We were so young, so naïve. Family planning, we thought, was about putting off having children until we were settled in our careers, and managing the number of children we did have. But I got kicked out of white feminism when I got pregnant at nineteen. And all of a sudden black and brown feminists who wanted to talk about forced sterilization, leaving their children uncared for when they were at work caring for white women’s children, and the violence of poverty made much more sense to me.
White feminists, led by the National Organization for women, made a strategic decision to focus on narrow interests that centered white women’s concerns. The only family planning they wanted to talk about was access to birth control and legalized abortion. NOW’s singular focus on the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment meant burying the concerns of women marginalized across more axes than gender. It turned the focus of the white feminist movement away from radical change. Later Gloria Steinman famously quipped, “We’ve become the men we wanted to marry.”
White women didn’t want to end the capitalist patriarchy so much as we wanted to have equal access to its fruits. We took up the mantle of progressivism, promising the more marginalized that their turn would come. We misquoted Martin Luther King—“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We ignored the fact that the universe itself is amoral. The universe couldn’t care less about moral justice. That depends upon the acts of human beings. We settled for a rising tides approach to equality, and look what that got us: the Reagan revolution. Seriously, it was only a matter of time before we were fighting these fights all over again. Conservative forces learned what would satisfy white women and how easily they would betray women of color, queer, and disabled women. The Overton window was pushed further and further right. And it’s not like black and queer women didn’t warn us. They encouraged us to join the movements that they created to fight poverty, mass incarceration, police brutality. And what did we do? We doubled down. We bought over two million copies of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. We either declared the goals of black mothers “special interests” or used the tone argument on anyone who didn’t agree with us.
We, we white women, helped to set up the chain of events that got us to Trump’s America. And now there is only one way out. Inclusiveness is not the answer. We don’t need to bring more women of color into white movements.
We need to pay attention to what those more marginalized than us have been saying and what they are doing.
We need to ask humbly what we can do to help. We need to recognize and internalize the fact that our country was founded on violence against black and brown bodies.
We need to recognize that American art, literature, and music are infused with the courageous will to live in the face of genocide and slavery. We need to stop centering whiteness. After all, we are sleeping with the enemy. That enemy gave us a reprieve in return for upholding systemic racism. That reprieve is now over.
Beth Plutchak is the author of Boundaries, Border Crossings, and Reinventing the Future, just published by Aqueduct Press.