Thursday, February 06, 2014


Refusing to conform, she “hid out” until her delegation had passed, then surged into the group of white women – some hostile, some not – and took her rightful place in the Illinois group. She also had to be protected from the other women in the delegation who were, ah, slightly peeved that a Negro woman dared  march among their ranks, after she had been explicitly told not to.

The point of what I am about to write is not that all white women, or all white feminists or whatever are racists.  Obviously that is not the case.  Many white women (and even white men) have struggled against white supremacy, some very heroically.  Almost no white men or white women can say they do not yet benefit from their white skin privilege (John Brown and Marilyn Buck come to mind as two who just might have been able to make that claim).  The point of my intro is that white women (like white men) as a whole have not only benefitted from white supremacy but have supported, upheld, and contributed to it.  

Sometimes we just have to face uncomfortable facts.  For the women's movement (for the left in general) an uncomfortable fact is the very clear relationship white women have with white supremacy.  The reality of patriarchy (and the struggle against it) and the lack of power of women relative to men, does not and cannot mean we should pretend that white women are somehow not accountable for their own role in the development of white supremacy and in the privileges their white skin gives them.

Poet, activist, and author Olivia a. Cole writes about slavery in an essay she penned on the blog 12 YEARS A SLAVE, 

It’s true, white women lacked the agency of their husbands, fathers and brothers, so their hand in slavery did not extend to the buying and selling of human chattel, the laws being made that called black people only a fraction of a human being. But white women whipped black bodies. They burned them. They posed next to the murdered bodies of black people who were lynched. They called people niggers. They scratched faces. They separated families. While wearing their pretty dresses, they ruined lives.

Actually, I should point out in 1815 European women owned 24% of those enslaved in St Lucia. In Barbados 40% of properties with 10 or less enslaved people were owned by women. In Bridgetown, Barbados women were the principal slave owners, using slaves in domestic occupations.  There will be more about slavery and women in the piece attached.  So lets move on beyond that for now.

Belle Kearney was a Woman suffrage leader from Mississippi.  In an address she gave to the National American Woman Suffrage Association during the fight for the vote for (some) women said, 

The enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained, for upon unquestioned authority it is stated that in every southern State but one there are more educated women than all the illiterate voters, white and black, native and foreign, combined. As you probably know, of all the women in the South who can read and write, ten out of every eleven are white. When it comes to the proportion of property between the races, that of the white outweighs that of the black immeasurably. The South is slow to grasp the great fact that the enfranchisement of women would settle the race question in politics. The civilization of the North is threatened by the influx of foreigners with their imported customs; by the greed of monopolistic wealth and the unrest among the working classes; by the strength of the liquor traffic and encroachments upon religious belief. Some day the North will be compelled to look to the South for redemption from those evils on account of the purity of its Anglo-Saxon blood, the simplicity of its social and economic structure, the great advance in prohibitory law and the maintenance of the sanctity of its faith, which has been kept inviolate. Just as surely as the North will be forced to turn to the South for the nation's salvation, just so surely will the South be compelled to look to its Anglo-Saxon women as the medium through which to retain the supremacy of the white race over the African.

Want a nasty piece of history that you don't read much about try this from Scholastic:

On March 3, 1913, as 5,000 women prepared to parade through President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, demanding the right to vote, Ida B. Wells was standing to the side. A black journalist and civil-rights activist, she had taken time out from her anti-lynching campaign to lobby for woman suffrage in Chicago. But a few days earlier, leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had insisted she not march with the Illinois delegation. Certain Southern women, they said, had threatened to pull out if a black woman marched alongside whites.

 By 1900, most suffragists had lost their enthusiasm for civil rights, and actually used racism to push for the vote. Anna Howard Shaw, head of NAWSA, said it was "humiliating" that black men could vote while well-bred white women could not. Other suffragists scrambled to reassure white Southerners that white women outnumbered male blacks in the South. If women got the vote, they argued, they would help preserve "white supremacy."
...Wells was never really embraced by the white suffrage movement. And though both white and black women won the vote in 1920, they did not do it by marching together.

Not so pretty a picture. 

Ida B. Wells was no late comer to this business by the way.  An 1894 showdown between her and temperance leader Frances E. Willard is an example of the racial resentment that had over taken the American suffrage movement.

" Better whiskey and more of it' is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs," Willard said in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice.   "The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities."

Wells was incensed by that and other statements coming out of the mouths of temperance leaders and some suffrage leaders.  She said that Willard, "... "unhesitatingly slandered the entire Negro race in order to gain favor with those who are hanging, shooting and burning Negroes alive."  Wells wanted to know   how influential white women could continue to turn a blind eye to the white mobs who threatened black lives.

Even earlier, In 1870, the suffragists found themselves on opposing ends of the equal-rights battle when Congress passed the 15th Amendment, enabling black men to vote (at least, in theory) -- and not women. That measure engendered resentment among some white suffragists, especially in the South.

I am not going to continue through history.  Let's move on.

When black women feminists complain about racism some white women within the feminist community, writes the blog Dear White Women, respond saying something akin to:

The blog goes on to point out accurately:

This may sound reasonable on the surface, especially with comments like “women of all races and classes” giving a nod to the idea of inclusion, but what it really amounts to is, “When you complain about racism in the feminist community, you cause divisions. So shut up and don’t complain.” We wrap ourselves up in all these cries for unity as if the division itself were the root of the problem. As if the problem is women of color having a problem with racism, and *not* the racism itself. It’s a way to sideline the issue of racism and shift the blame to the WoC who point it out. That way we never have to address it and actually fix it.

I know I am bouncing all over the place here, just sort of throwing darts out there, so let me try to bring this a little more together.

Too many just assume that white women are natural allies of Black people in the struggle against white supremacy.  If only it were so, but it isn't.  As Chauncey DeVega has pointed out eloquently:

White women were members of the KKK. White women owned black people as slaves. White women raped, tortured, and abused their African-American human property. White American women struggling for the right to vote in the early 20th century leveraged their status as “white” citizens, and the “offense” to the white racial order that was (ostensible) black male voting-citizenship, in order to win the franchise.

 But the fights against the White inferiority complex masquerading as White supremacy and white privilege are not perfectly congruent with the struggles by White women against the sexism faced by their group. Here, Third World Feminism, Womanism, and “White Feminism” are not always the same struggles.

The nomenclature and broader language attempts to capture that reality. The language of “allies” and “natural” must also be deconstructed and challenged. Would White women see their struggle as more aligned with Black women than with White men? And would they make that choice–again emphasizing the word “natural”–as a given and a default against the collective and group self-interest of Whiteness as a political and social force?

Among anti-racists, progressives, liberals, as well as those who are invested in “social justice” in the United States and elsewhere, one of the standing rules is that we are not allowed to “rank oppressions.” Sexism, racism, homophobia, able-ism, classism, and other types of inequalities and discrimination are all considered equal.

Such a rubric is a practical concession; in many ways it is also rooted in lazy thinking.

Based on empirical data, we can most certainly rank oppressions. Race and gender are social constructs that do not necessarily reveal with any precision or truth a great deal about how individual people fully locate themselves in society, approach politics, or go about their daily lives. Of course, race and gender remain real. Yet, this is true in relative, local, and absolute terms.

Ani DiFranco is a White woman who enjoys the benefits of both racial and class privilege in the United States. What does her plantation misstep tell us about sexism and racism? And as I signaled to above, are White women as a group any more (or less) committed to anti-racism, and fighting White privilege, than are White men?

The answer is no. There are exceptional White women who have fought, and continue to fight, the White inferiority complex masquerading as White supremacy in the United States and the West. There are White men who have done the same. Whiteness remains a powerful social drug which promises unearned material, psychological, and economic privileges for its signatories and beneficiaries.

White women have signed that contract in much the same way as White men.

An allegiance to White privilege and White racism (more often than not) unites White men and White women together This is one of the ugly, dirty, little secrets that those on the anti-racist Left are afraid to confront.

White conservatives are deeply invested in White supremacy. They are honest about it. By comparison, there is an ugly strain of White Liberal Racism, that while in comparison to the Right, is very different in how it is expressed. But Liberal Racism shares many of the latter’s racist assumptions about Black people…as well as an investment in maintaining and protecting White privilege.

Liberal and Conservative racism both do the work of White supremacy in the United States during the post civil rights era. Unfortunately, the public discourse in the United States has not matured enough to confront such a troubling and challenging social fact.

Why write all this?  Why go here?  

If white people are ever going to collectively and with real strength confront the legacy of and the power of white supremacy all whites, regardless of gender, have to  face up to reality.  White people have to become race traitors. Further, if we are ever going to confront in a real way Capital, white people, white workers, white activists, white leftists, have to do exactly the same thing.  We can't do that if we deny our (I say "we" and  "our" since I am white, too) history and complicity in all this.  A divided multitude or a divided working class will never successfully replace capital, global or otherwise, until whites deal with white supremacy and white privilege.  It just can't happen.  You can't unite a class that is in fact divided, and you can't overcome division by pretending all you have to do is shout "Black and white, unite and fight."  You must deal with the very real material conditions and privileges that are the cause of the divide and that are the basis of white supremacy.  

In my book, that is a fact.

That's why this is here.  This is just one piece of the puzzle that really isn't all that puzzling.

The following is from Racism Review.

White Women and U.S. Slavery: Then and Now

It’s Tuesday and that means it’s Trouble with White Women and White Feminism, our ongoing series meant to offer a broader context and deeper analysis of the latest outrages by the melanin-challenged.
White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the U.S., both historically and now.
While some historians, such as  C. Vann Woodward and Catherine Clinton, have argued that white women were secretly opposed to the system of slavery, scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demolished this notion with her work, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).  Fox-Genovese draws on white slaveholding women’s diaries, letters, and postbellum memoirs, along with the Works Progress Administration’s narratives of enslaved black women as her source material to make a convincing argument that even though they worked in the same households there was no “shared sense of sisterhood” among black and white women in the plantation household.  Fox-Genovese makes a distinction between white women in the North, whose urban, bourgeois culture valued individualism and the redeeming power of domestic work, and white Southern women, whose hierarchical, dependency-based culture judged women’s worth on their success in conforming to the ideal of the “lady,” rather than on their thrift, industry, and devotion to all-sacrificing motherhood. By arguing that white, Southern women’s history “does not constitute a regional variation on the main story; it constitutes another story,” Fox-Genovese joined women of color and labor historians who were offering critiques of both the white, middle-class feminist movement and the histories it produced. (See this for a much longer and more thorough summary of Fox-Genovese’s work.)
ebony_ivyIt is a mistake to believe that slaveowning was an entirely Southern U.S. phenomenon. In fact, it was the Northeast where slavery began in the U.S. and where some of its enduring legacy remains. “Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas,” writes historian Craig Steven Wilder in his, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities.  Wilder writes:
“In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters. Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slave-holding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to …wealthy families.”
Wilder paints a compelling portrait of the ways that slavery was not merely part of the “context” present at the same time as the rise of higher education in the U.S., but in fact, was a crucial element that universities relied on to build facilities, endowments and legacies of elite social environments for cultivating subsequent generations of the nation’s leaders. While it’s true that these institutions were established for the benefit of white men, white women eventually demanded and won access.
White women in the academy, and I’m one of them, continue to benefit from the system of higher education built by enslaved human beings. According to the Almanac of Higher Education, women accounted for only 31% of all tenured faculty in US colleges and universities,but of these 78% are white women, compared to just 0.6% American Indian, 4% Latina, 6.7% Asian American, and 7% African American.  Wilder’s research is focused on Ivy League (elite) educational institutions, but it has implications for those of us outside those institutions as well. I work at CUNY (not, to my knowledge, built by enslaved people) but CUNY operates within an eco-system of other institutions of higher education from which we all benefit.
“But, my family didn’t own slaves!” also, “Slavery was a long time ago, isn’t it time to forget all that?
These refrains about a distant, non-slaveholding past are a commonplace among white people. The first is meant to suggest a lack of connection to the institution of slavery, and therefore, a lack of responsibility for understanding it; and the second is meant to suggest that historical amnesia is a salve for social ills. My family didn’t own slaves either (that I know of). This wasn’t an ethical stance, they just couldn’t afford to own any human beings.
The rush to forget, to distance from the legacy of slavery in the U.S. strikes me as peculiar.  Recently, this resistance to facing history has come out in the ways that white people talk about (and don’t talk about) the film ’12 Years a Slave.’    Most often, what I hear from white women friends, is this: ”I’m not sure I can go see 12 Years a Slave. It just sounds too painful to watch, and I wonder, why would I want to pay a babysitter so I can be in agony for two hours?”
Perhaps part of this resistance is a reluctance to come to terms with the way that, as Olivia Cole writes, white women ruined lives while wearing their pretty dresses.  While scholarly works like those by Fox-Genovese or Wilder may not reach a wide public audience, this film could if people are willing to go see it. Part of what the film reveals is the cruel treatment meted out by white women situated as the plantation mistress to the enslaved women they controlled.
Plantations: Topographies of Terror or Theme Parks?
Slavery does not exist solely in the mists of some distant past, but remains with us in the here and now of the U.S.  Plantations are increasingly popular locations for weddings for white women who are convinced they can “work around the racism” of such a setting.
People who doubt the fascination we have as a society with the “plantation” theme, should watch “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which serves as a kind of cultural template for the aesthetics of this phenomenon. While some may see this as irrelevant to the contemporary milieu, the recent micro-controversies involving Paula Deen and Ani DiFranco suggest otherwise.
paula_deenPaula Deen is a celebrity who built a small empire on her southern cooking and down-home style.  Deen recently became embroiled in controversy when in June 2013, she became the target of a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination.  In her deposition, when asked if she’d used the N-word to describe African American people, she said “Yes, of course.”   Among the other revelations about Deen that emerged were the details of her “dream southern plantation wedding.”   Deen offered a tearful apology for her use of the N-word, the lawsuit was dismissed, but it may have been too late because there was already a Twitter hashtag #PaulaDeenRecipes with some truly hilarious, creative entries (e.g., Back of the Bus Biscuits #PaulaDeenRecipes). Deen had her television show cancelled by Food Network, and endorsement contracts cancelled by Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, KMart and her then-publisher Ballantine Books. However, several companies have expressed their intent to continue their endorsement deals with Deen, and fans flocked to her restaurants in a show of support.

ani_difrancoAni DiFranco is a singer, songwriter and is often regarded as a feminist icon.  DiFranco faced a controversy in 2013 when after the announcement that she was hosting a three-day artists’ workshop billed as the “Righteous Retreat” at Iberville Parish‘s Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana.  Now operated as a luxury resort, Nottoway Plantation was one of the largest plantations in the South, and features the largest antebellum mansion. Its operator and founder John Randolph owned over 155 slaves in the year 1860. DiFranco’s choice of venue for the retreat was called “a blatant display of racism” on a petition at that collected more than 2,600 signatures. On December 29, 2013 DiFranco cancelled the retreat and offered what many saw as a tepid, non-apology-apology. Chastened by the criticism that followed that first statement, DiFranco issued a second apology on January 2, 2014 in which she wrote, “..i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right – all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.” 
The public oppobrium that Deen and DiFranco faced are tied up in what Priscilla Ocen, writing at For Harriet, calls the subservience fantasy in the U.S.  The persistent cultural fascination with plantations as settings of an idyllic past positions them as locations that can be “reclaimed” as luxury resorts, wedding venues, and “righteous retreat” destinations. And, I would argue, it is not coincidental that it is white women who are fueling this fantasy.
There are other ways to approach our history. At the same time that the controversy with Ani DiFranco was roiling the interwebs, I was visiting Berlin. While I was there, I went to a museum called “Topographies of Terror,” a museum that marks the site of the former Secret State Police, the SS and the Security Main Office of the Third Reich.  The story of how the museum was created fascinated me as much as the collection itself. After the war the grounds were leveled and initially used for commercial purposes, and eventually became a vacant lot. Public interest in this site emerged gradually in the 1970s and 1980s. It was during this time that groups of citizens, historians, and activists began the work of commemorating the site and using it as a mechanism for confronting the difficult past of the Nazi regime.
In the U.S., we have very few (if any) of these kinds of monuments.  Imagine, if you will, a wedding held at a former concentration camp with a “Third Reich” theme, with the bride urging guests to “work around” the blatant anti-semitism. Offensive, right? Of course it is.  Then why is it that here in the U.S., we turn plantations – our own topographies of terror – into theme parks and luxury resorts?
As I said, I find the American rush to forget, to distance ourselves from the legacy of slavery strikes me as peculiar.  I suspect that part of this reluctance has to do with the affective, particularly for white women, who wish above all else, not to be made uncomfortable about race.  More about that in another post in this ongoing series, Trouble with White Women#tww.

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