I have been wrestling with this too, as a white woman. I've been involved in a project where we keep a "racial diary" to write down how we interact, confront, reproduce white privilege in day-to-day interactions. (I posted on it here and there are some subsequent posts you can find too.) There are both white women and women of colour involved in this project, and we're presenting our results at a conference soon. Here are a couple of thoughts that I have considered as a result of the project...

I think one of the first things white feminists can do is stop saying "well, I have my hands full trying to understand gender, so race is just going to have to wait" or "I don't think about race that much so I don't have much to say on this." Part of why we don't think about race is because we don't *have* to, which is part of what the idea of white privilege is about. Part of dismantling white privilege is starting to see whiteness as a race, and white privilege as a force that a) impacts everything in our lives, and b) we can make some choices about confronting.

Another thing we could do is start exploring our own racial histories - not only our individual histories, but also how did people from different parts of Europe and Asia and even elsewhere become classified as "white"? How has that changed over time? How does that vary across the globe today?

One more thought. It is not okay or fair or right to rely on people of colour to educate us; however, we then risk trying to learn about race through our own stereotypes. In this sense, white people are probably going to anger or offend people of colour in their path to learning more about race. And what's more, white people are going to have to be able to sit with this tension, because the ability to avoid it is an invocation of white privilege again. Make mistakes, have people be angry at you, and LEARN from the experience.

At least, that's what I think. Hope I haven't made anyone angry. (<--joke!)

As for what women of colour can do, one of the other participants (who is of colour) who has also identified the emotional drain of feeling like she has to educate people all the time, said it hadn't occured to her that she could *get angry* at people expecting her to educate them. She said she usually rolls out a long explanation when people ask about her dreads, but then she saw a white woman with dreads respond very differently to similar inquiries: "I am not your damn encyclopedia! Go and look it up yourself!" (or similar.) Of course, she also recognized that her getting angry would be read very differently than a white person getting angry, and hadn't worked out what to do about this...

I'm looking forward to reading other comments on this.


Wow, the racial diary sounds like a fab idea.
Also I can understand to some extent the drain felt about educating people, as a bisexual woman I feel like I'm constantly trying to educate people about sexuality but that I'm not quite up to the task and it gets well frustrating when nothing seems to change! But I'm diverting this away from race, so I'll stop...anyway, we really do need to examine ourselves - just like we feminist women are constantly wishing men would examine themselves in their attitudes to women!


thanks to skookumchick for summing up a lot of important points about white privilege.

on that note i will continue a little bit about that, speaking as a white 20-something UU.

something i've come across in UU young adult conferences when there is anti-racism or anti-oppression programming is the "but i'm oppressed too!" sentiment among white UUs who are women, queer, left-handed, etc. sure, this is true, there are many oppressions. but it should not get in the way of realizing that we live in a US that gives us white privilege.

i think this is a big part of how much feminism is white. because many people are busy being activists about what affects them, and what affects white women most plainly is sexism. and it takes a lot of personal work and realization to understand that there is still a lot of racism in the world, and that i have benefited from that, because of my whiteness.
i grew up in a feminist household, so i was going to pro-choice rallies, etc. when i was 12 years old. it took until i was 23 to realize that there is this thing called white privilege, and by not fighting against it i was perpetuating it.

at this point in my life i'm more likely to identify as a woman who is a white anti-racist than a femninist. because in a lot of feminist circles there is a lot of unaddressed privilege that's hard for me to deal with. it's not a contest as to whom is the most oppressed, as many activist circles make it seem, by trying to show their issue is the most important.
there are so many hurtful things in the world, it is hard to decide where to put one's energy. and so each person puts it somewhere, and should not insist that their cause is the only one out there, but work with others in any way possible to address issues and oppressions together, because they are all related in a lot of ways. most oppressions are about power, challenging power structures is a basic concept that takes a lot of work.


The theme that unites feminism is victimization. I never thought about it as "white women's liberation," until I read your post, but that sounds like one suitable description. Movements must, by necessity, narrow their focus to be effective. And so you're a white woman railing against the paternalistic society you think you see, and suddenly a black woman enters the room. There must be an unspoken, even subconscious, tension there as the black woman, by her very presence, threatens to upstage the feminist’s victimization status with one her own, one that in recent times has carried a great deal of weight. Racial discrimination is going to beat gender discrimination for top public billing every time, or at least it has in modern day America. And firefighters rush to where the flames burn the hottest first.

The Happy Feminist

Richard, you don't know what you are talking about.
There may be tension but it has nothing to do with a competition to prove who is most "victimized." It is more similar to tensions between feminist women and men who don't know or care about feminist concerns, or pooh-pooh them and then get defensive when they are called on it.


I think that there's a two pronged issue when witnessing your own experience. The first, sociological, is out there for anybody to learn about: "Go read a book", or maybe more specifically, "Go read bell hooks" (or whomever best suits.) Around racism, (and as a white person who has privilege,) I have added: "..because otherwise we're going to be here a really long time and I don't have time for that: but I insist that you should educate yourself as well as possible about the fact that for a lot of people in this society get crapped on in a lot of intersecting ways."
But the second is personal. Racism and sexism express themselves in ways in society that are pretty universal, and people can educate themselves without resorting to demanding explanation: but alongside that are our personal stories, where those issues have special meaning because of our families or our individual cultures. So sometimes - with people who are interested enough to be worth the time - I think it helps to tell personal stories, in order to break up the idea of "othering". There is no hegemony around what women or people of colour want after being freed of the universal negatives, & we have different experiences of our gender or race's effect on our lives.


I try to listen carefully to criticisms without taking them personally.

I would think it's important that we do take it personally. Otherwise it's easy to turn into one of those people who's always smugly talking about how *other* white people are such horrible racists.

The Happy Feminist

Ah yes.

Perhaps better phrasing would be "without becoming blindly defensive."


The issue of white privilege and of feminism for women of color is not exactly a new one, nor is it a new debate. It has, fortunately, improved as awareness among whites in general has improved--and as feminists of color start to speak up not just about racism, but about the intersection of race and gender.


There's a certain comforting moral authority that comes from fighting the good fight. You know where you stand when you're seeking to change the system that's been unfairly keeping people down. When race enters the equation it rearranges the playing field so that white, middle-class women (I'm grossly generalizing here) who seek to end male privilege must acknowledge that they themselves enjoy privileges based on their own race and class. It's not a nice place to be when you genuinely care about equality and spend a lot of time criticizing privilege.

This results in the kind of humbling experience that the Happy Feminist mentioned in her post which most often leads to silence since we all know how easy it is to say ignorant things that betray our privilege no matter how well-meaning.

It's a tricky thing for me because as a second generation Asian woman feminism has helped me become more aware of the different ways in which sexism is expressed in two different cultures. Unfortunately I'm not up on my Asian Studies and engaging in feminist scholarship to the degree that I have leaves me sorely aware of my own ignorance of race theory. As a result, while I believe there's some authority that comes from personal experience, I'm not always comfortable presenting myself as any kind of authority on race and feminism.

Likewise, although I grew up in the shadier parts of LA's Koreatown and have thus experienced/witnessed some aspects of social inequities, my family is very upper-middle class so I feel kind of like an impostor when I talk about feminist issues as they relate to class. It's a fine line either way.

The us-them mentality seems to be a hard one to shake. The key seems to be to ask questions carefully with respect and humility. Learn from other people's experiences but do not co-opt or claim to "totally know" what it's all about, and resist the temptation to become defensive. That goes for everyone, whichever side of the privilege fence they happen to be on for whatever particular issue. Our awareness of our own privilege can make us painfully aware of the pitfalls that lie ahead in discussing that privilege, but that awareness is good because it can make us more careful and more effective learners in the end. (Sorry for rambling on--it's late and I don't get to think/talk about this issue much!)

The comments to this entry are closed.