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What I Wouldn't Give: My Thoughts on White Women and White Womanhood
I have stopped and started this essay maybe a million times.
I have written this essay, with varying degrees of success, about ten million times.
I have justified writing this and I have justified not writing this. I have convinced myself that this idea was a good one and that I could pull it off, that I could get my point across coherently. Then, I would talk myself out of writing it at all.
What I'm about to say next cold be considered disrespectful and ignorant. It could be considered the former because it would dishonor my ancestors and all the Black women who gave their lives so that I may be free today. TRUST ME, I KNOW WHAT IT TOOK TO GAIN FREEDOM TODAY, AND IN NO WAY AM I DISRESPECTING EVERYTHING THEY DID FOR ME WITHOUT EVEN KNOWING MY NAME. What I say next could be considered ignorant or, at least, vain or self-centered, leading one to assume that I don't know my history. BELIEVE ME, I KNOW MY HISTORY - AND IT'S NOT THE WHITEWASHED VERSION THAT ALL OF US LEARNED IN GRADE SCHOOL. IT'S THE ONE THAT INCLUDES THE GENOCIDE, AND CONTINUED DISRESPECT, OF NATIVE AMERICANS; THE ENSLAVEMENT AND CONTINUED MARGINALIZATION OF AFRICAN AMERICANS; AND THE CONTINUED EXCLUSION OF PEOPLE AND HISTORIES THAT ARE NOT WHITE. DON'T GET ME STARTED.
The words that I am about to write express a sentiment I've held on to for most of my life, even before I had the words to express what it was that I was feeling. I have always suspected that something was off in this country, as well as in my own life. Maybe I would be treated better, garner more sympathy, or been better understood if my skin was a different color. It's possible that people, whether Black or White, would have found me more attractive if my skin color was different. I could be doing better for a variety of reasons, but could one of them be my race? In other words, I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I was a White woman. As far as I can see, and despite all of he news stories rolling in from various news sources, White women have it easy and have always have it easy within this nation's borders. NO matter what they say, do, don't do, or how they behave, White women will always get a pass. Black women have enjoyed this type of freedom, as I am all too aware, and I have often wondered what my life would've been like if I had been born a White woman instead of a Black one.
The Right (White) Standard
Let's face it: White women are the standard. No matter how many magazine covers a Black women (or another woman of color) graces, this fact will never change.
Put another way, White women are featured in a variety of film and television roles; they show up on the covers of numerous fashion, men's, and women's magazines; and, most high-powered women who spout feminist (or pseudo-feminist) rhetoric are White women. Basically, White women are everywhere and held up as the standard. After years of feeling otherwise, I know that I am not the only one forced to fit into an ill-fitting mold created by a White supremacist and patriarchal society. As Patricia Hill Collins states simply in her work, Black Sexual Politics: African American, Gender, and the New Racism:
"All women engage in an ideology that deems middle-class, heterosexual, White femininity as normative." (p. 193)
All women are subjected to the idea that White women are normal and everyone else is subpar by comparison. I often imagine what would happen if Black women were presented as the standard and were able to occupy the variety of space that White women occupy today. Though this idea may be stated plainly, the effects upon the minds, bodies, and souls of Black women in particular are anything but, and have devastating results that last a lifetime.
What makes the effect of White women being placed upon a pedestal that much worse is that White women are MORE THAN aware of the situation. Whenever I hear someone like Lena Dunham shrug off the role of face on her show, or Angelina Jolie hint at the idea that she thought she wouldn't get married or find love, it takes everything in me not to put my foot through a television. In Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics, bell hooks sheds light upon that fact that White women know what's up:
"All white women in this nation know that their status is different from that of black women/women of color. They know this from the time they are little girls watching television and seeing only their images, and looking at magazines with only their images. They know that the only reason nonwhites are absent/invisible is because they are not white. All white women in this nation know that whiteness is a privileged category. The fact that white females my choose to repress or deny this knowledge does not mean they are ignorant; it means they are in denial." (p. 55)
Denying one's privilege is quite patronizing, especially when White women do this. White women know that they occupy rarified space in this country, and renouncing this fact is less than progressive. In other words, rejecting one's privilege, as White women are inclined to do, helps no one. It's dishonest when White women, feminist or not a.) refuses to acknowledge her privilege, then b.) claims that she has the same problems and concerns that I have. Hearing a White woman complain about her life and her "struggles" is like hearing a millionaire or billionaire complain about their "hardship"; no matter how much you may complain, we both know that you have more money than I do.
so what happens to Black women. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson answers this question quickly in his book Why I Love Black Women:
"...the white woman defined the norm of beauty for the culture. She remained the prized erotic possession to be fought over by black and white men. Black women are largely excluded from this economy of desire, except in the crudest fashion." (p. 218)
If you don't believe me, look at Miley Cyrus's video for "We Can't Stop" or Lily Allen's "Hard Out Here".
Anyway, I digress.
Black women only show up to uphold the myth of White women's purity and desirability (and, in a lot of ways, White women's desirability and purity is a myth all on its own - more on this later.) Both Black and White men are compelled to fight over White women, an occurrence that Black women rarely encounter, if ever. As a matter of fact, this idea of White women being worthy of men fighting over them is so entrenched that I can't imagine a similar scenario involving a Black woman with her being dismissed as a no-good, sloppy Jezebel. And the idea of White women as erotic possessions is reinforced everywhere, from television shows to magazine covers to films. Everywhere I look, I see only White women (or White-looking women) elevated above others in terms of desirability. It's not all in my head after all. White women are presented as the standard of beauty for all women to follow. White women may deny this fact, but all forms of media present them as worthy of the attention of ALL men. Black women are never presented in this light without the suggestion that the women may be worthless.
The Historical Impact of White Women on a Pedestal
White women as the standard may appear to be just cultural, with no historical impact at all. If you believe this, you would be wrong. In Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins details how the White standard of beauty impacts Black women:
"Historically, in the American context, young women with milky white skin, long blonde hair, and slim figures were deemed to be the most beautiful and therefore the most feminine women. ... Under these feminine norms, African American women can never be as beautiful as White women because they never become White." (p. 194)
This is a shortened version of a longer quote, but the point is more than clear. Beauty is tied to femininity in this instance, and because Black women don't fit the mold set before them, they can never be considered beautiful or feminine. On a personal note, I can't count how many times I was told I was "acting White" or that I "wasn't a White girl", by people who looked just like me. Trust me, I didn't need the reminder that I wasn't nor was I ever going to be White, especially when it comes from -- and still comes from -- other Black people. I can see for myself and read with my own eyes that this Black body that I inhabit is practically worthless within this country. I can't help but think that the historical impact of White supremacy, in this case upholding White women as the example that every woman should follow, is the reason that I've caught so much grief for my behavior. It's like a constant reminder that I will never be so privileged to escape unjustified scrutiny, a reminder that I didn't need or ask for.
Because White women are put on such a pedestal, their actual sexual behavior was (and still is) kept out of public view. As Michael Eric Dyson details in Why I Love Black Women:
"...White women were being projected as paragons of sexual virtue and placed on pedestals of purity. White female sexual desire, as much as possible, was segregated from public view. it was exclusively directed toward the bedroom of their White husbands, whose carousing outside the home - whether in the slave quarter or the whorehouse - was for the most part exempt from ethical scrutiny." (p. 218)
White women don't meet the same scrutiny for their sexual practices as Black women do, nor is their sexuality regulated or contained (more on this later.). White men, who may have engaged in sexual activity with a number or partners in indiscriminate places, also saw their sexual behavior go unquestioned. Meanwhile, Black folks had their sexual behavior both exploited for profit, then deemed beastly in the same breath. It's a trend that continues to this day, and is only one example of many of White privilege.
For more evidence of the scrutiny that greets displays of Black women's sexuality, look no further than this passage from Melissa Harris-Perry's Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America:
"In his 1785 text Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson [concludes] that white women are clearly superior to black ones. The proof, he argued, was that black men preferred white women "as uniformly as is the preference of the oranootan for the black woman over his own species"". (p. 55-56)
Even Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father of this country, judged White women superior to their Black counterparts, going so far as to claim that a Black woman had a better chance to bed an orangutan than a man of her own race. However, considering the fact that he was a slaveholder, his attitude doesn't surprise me. It's becoming more obvious to me each passing day that this attitude has persisted to this day, regardless of the fact that Black women are achieving various degrees of success in various areas in their lives. Need an example? Just listen to the way that Rush Limbaugh has talked about First Lady Michele Obama. He's never called her an ape, but the fact that he's never talked about Laura Bush in the same manner speaks volumes.
White women have been placed on such a pedestal that their actual sexual behavior is never up for discussion, and is only ever talked about as a model for others to follow. Simultaneously, Black women's sexuality is demeaned and given as a cautionary tale, an example of what not to do as well as the cause of ALL of the ills this country is currently wrestling with.
White Women, Sex, and History
Yes, I am going to talk about sex, so if you are squeamish about discussions regarding human sexuality and sexual mores, you can skip ahead or navigate away from this page.
Personally, I have always been somewhat envious of White women, especially in terms of sexual attractiveness and desirability. Sure, I thought that personality mattered more than looks or body type, but I have always felt pressure to be MORE THAN beautiful and attractive, like I had to transcend this body to matter. White women, on the other hand, could just be themselves. They could be as sexually open as they wanted without losing face or respect. Black women, in other words, could never be as pure as their White counterparts.
White women's perceived purity and innocence has had devastating effects on the Black community. It's so much more than double standards and what White women are allowed to do. If it was believed that a White woman had been attacked, threatened, or intimidated by a Black man, then White men had more than enough reason to destroy Black communities and to take the lives of numerous, unnamed Black men, women, and children. As Patricia Hill Collins notes in Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism:
"...the controlling image of the rapist appeared after emancipation because Southern Whites feared that the unfettered promiscuity of Black freedmen constituted a threat to the Southern way of life. In this situation, beliefs about White womanhood helped shape the mythology of the Black rapist. Making White women responsible for keeping the purity of the White race, White men 'cast themselves as protectors of civilization, reaffirming not only their role as social and familial 'heads' but their paternal property rights as well'". (p. 101)
Because White women were held responsible for the "purity of the White race", White men could cast themselves as White knights (no pun intended), necessary to protect White people from the onslaught of Black folks suddenly free from bondage. Look no further than the (deplorable, incredibly racist, and highly inaccurate) film Birth of a Nation. The reasoning behind White female helplessness and Black male rapaciousness for White women didn't take into account basic human attraction. It's a stretch, but just go with me on this. Did any of the White men consider the fact that White women and Black men may actually choose to be together? That hey may choose to be in a relationship because they were attracted to each other? I know this is faulty analysis because I am viewing a situation through twenty-first century eyes, but bear with me. Such a relationship would be impossible, but any obstacles could be maneuvered around. Just my theory.
With White women upheld as pure and to be protected - nay, worthy of protection - Black women were considered beneath humanity and undeserving of physical protection from physical harm or sexual abuse/rape. As White men lynched and mutilated Black men and boys, they raped Black women and girls throughout the country, not just in the South. If you don't believe me, pick up Danielle L. McGuire's work At the Dark End of the Street, which details the violence doen to Black women at the hands of White men, as well as how this forgotten history undergirds the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
As White women were held ups as pure, innocent, and chaste, Black women were derided as immoral, sexually deviant, and incapable of controlling their sexuality or fertility. The Black Jezebel was born and plagues Black women to this day. With that being said, the co-authors of Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America have uncovered something very important. Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D., may have finally negated the myth of Black female promiscuity, and have called attention to White female sexual behavior that has been hidden away from public scrutiny. As the authors observe in Shifting:
"Research indicates, too, that Black women's sexual practices are typically more conservative than those of White women. In Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Black Our Lives, Gail E. Wyatt describes the findings from her in-depth research with two representative samples of women in Los Angeles County. She found that while Black women were slightly more likely than White women to have an extramarital affair, White women tended to have more sexual relationships during adolescence, were more likely to initiate sex with their partner, were more likely to engage in cunnilingus, fellatio, and anal sex, and were more likely to engage in sex with more than one person at a time. These findings are in no way presented as a criticism of White women's sexuality, but rather to point out that the stereotype of Black women as oversexed and sexually promiscuous is unfounded." (p. 31)
Black women, whether due to external pressures (i.e., respectability politics) or internal choices, are more sexually conservative than their White counterparts. However, just because this paragraph and the facts contained within it exist, that doesn't mean that White women will be knocked from their pedestals anytime soon. Racist stereotypes regard Black female sexuality are too fixed to be affected by this kind of information. Besides, sex-positive feminists - especially, White sex-positive feminists - have spun the sexual behaviors described in this passage ("cunnilingus ... fellatio ... anal sex ...sex with more than one person at a time...") into the markers of sexual freedom and sex positivity. There is no mention of the way that Black women are harmed by sexual stereotypes alienating them from the sex positive movement. In other words, White women have turned behavior that would cause Black women to be judged harshly into a tool they can use and behavior they can exploit for some kind of gain.
The double standard of White and Black female sexual activity, as well as the two completely different reactions to similar sexual behavior, is best demonstrated in reactions to teenage pregnancy. In her eye-opening and heartbreaking exploration of the slut myth, Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, author Leora Tanenbaum details the sympathetic reaction to White teen mothers, and the downright racist reaction to Black teen mothers. (The following passages are found on the same page, but for the purpose of contrasting the two reactions, I have separated them.)
Tanenbaum details what White, unwed teen mothers faced:
"Control was at the heart of the public response to unwed pregnant girls and women. But because white and black females were thought to have entirely different kinds of inborn sexualities, they were controlled in different ways. Unwed white girls who became pregnant in he postwar years were considered psychologically disturbed but treatable, whereas their black counterparts were presumed to be biologically hypersexual and deviant. Historian Rickie Solinger demonstrates that in the 1950s an unwed white girl who became pregnant could go to a maternity home before her pregnancy showed, deliver the baby and give it up for adoption, and return home to her community with no one the wiser. (White parents concocted stories of their daughters being given the opportunity to study for a semester with relatives.) She then could resume the role of the "nice" girl." (p. 45)
Control of female sexuality was - AND REMAINS TO THIS DAY - at the heart of slut-shaming in this country. However, depending on the color of your skin, the level of control and severity of the consequences following a perceived sexual transgression differed. White women, specifically white teen girls, were given every opportunity to rectify a broken or damaged reputation. She was given every excuse and avenue out of a bad situation, with both her family and the government helping her out of this unfortunate circumstance. The same could not be said for unwed Black teen mothers.
Now, check out this reaction to Black teenage pregnancy. If you don't find a less supportive response to this situation, read it repeatedly until you do:
"Unwed pregnant black girls, on the other hand, were barred from maternity homes; they were threatened with jail or with termination of welfare; and they were accused of using their sexuality in order to be eligible from larger welfare checks. Politicians regarded unwed pregnant black girls as a societal problem, declaring - as they continue to declare today - that they did not want taxpayers to support illegitimate babies, and sought to control black female sexuality through sterilization legislation. The virgin-whore sexual script, then. applied only to white girls because even though all unwed pregnant girls and women were considered sex offenders, whites alone were thought capable of avoiding sexual behavior." (p. 45)
Black girls and women were - AND STILL ARE - demeaned for the same behavior White women engage in. Tanenbaum is correct in noting that the dismissive attitudes of politicians continue to this day, and is best exemplified when conservatives rail against welfare policy. Black women are automatically assumed to be engaging in sexually deviant behavior and punished harshly. White women, as demonstrated by the quotes, engaged in the same behavior and ended up in the same situation, but are let off with more help and receive more care. In other words, White women are allowed to move on from a mistake, but Black women are degraded for the same behavior.
Double standards don't just exist between men and women; they also exist between women, specifically Black and White women. White women are repeatedly cast as the purest of the pure, while Black women are constantly fighting against stereotypes that make them over into oversexed Jezebels or shiftless Welfare Queens. While studies have shown Black women to be much more sexually conservative than their White counterparts, White women still manage to escape scrutiny. The attitudes regarding the sexual behavior of Black women, the disdain shown toward Black women with children, had influenced policy decisions, causing disproportionate harm to Black women.
Feminism, the Great Equalizer?
Earlier, I mentioned sex positive feminism. Now, I want to talk about feminism in general. As a movement, feminism has done amazing things, and has brought the concerns of women and the issues women are most affected by into discussions of public policy. However, feminism is not without its faults. For the majority of its existence, feminism has mainly benefitted White, middle-class, educated women. Just about everything, from pay parity to reproductive health, has been made available and readily accessible to White women. Feminist research isn't free from the bias toward White women, much to the detriment of women and girls of color. As bell hooks enumerates in Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics:
"Almost no attention is given the relationship between girls of different races. Biased feminist scholarship which attempts to show that White girls are somehow more vulnerable to sexist conditioning than girls of color simply perpetuates the White supremacist assumption that White females require and deserve more attention to their concerns and ills than other groups. Indeed while girls of color may express different behavior than their White counterparts they are not only internalizing sexist conditioning, they are far more likely to be victimized by sexism in ways that are irreparable." (p. 59, emphasis added)
Just because Black girls and women don't exhibit the same symptoms most associated with exposure to sexist conditioning DOES NOT mean that they aren't harmed in fundamental ways. This same attitude, that one is not harmed by some outside event/stimuli unless it fits White standards, is also found in relation to mental health. This last point is more than enough to fill an entire hub by itself.
But I digress.
This is but one example of feminism's shortcomings. Just because White women have founded and benefitted from feminist movement doesn't mean that it is just about them or that they should be the only focus of the efforts toward gender equality. As hooks' title proclaims, "feminism is for everybody". The notion hinted at in the quote, that White females deserve and require more attention than other women, is one of the many that has influenced our society. It's gotten to the point where when one hears the word "feminism" or thinks of feminist women collectively, the image called up is one of White women. This narrow-mindedness or lack of imagination - or whatever you want to call it - makes it that much harder for Black women/women of color to fight for and attain their goals or be recognized from their efforts.
In an essay titled "Where is the Love: Political Bonding Between Black and White Women", bell hooks exposes two additional factors that also work to keep Black and White women at odds instead of working in tandem toward gender equality. In the collection containing the essay Killing Rage: Ending Racism, hooks explains:
"Now... it is more evident to me than it was years ago that there are many barriers preventing black females and White females from forming close ties in White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. A major barrier has consistently been the fact that individual White women tend to be more unaware than their black female counterparts of the way the history of racism in the United States has institutionalized structures of racial apartheid that were meant to keep these two groups apart. First, there was the race/class understanding that the role of black females was to be that of servant and of White females that of the served. That servant/served paradigm continued as black women entered all arenas of the workforce since White women were usually positioned higher. Second, there was the racist/sexist division of sexual competition for men that deemed White women more desirable, more worthy of respect and regard that n black women. These two major differences in positionality ... destroy the grounding of trust that is needed for bonding. They create fear on the part of black females that White females only want to assert power over us. Concurrently, White females often fear that black females are more capable, stronger, and if given equal opportunity will surpass them and vengefully assert power over them." (p. 218-219)
Once again, White women being oblivious to the history or racism in the United States, as well as their role in it, costs the movement and everyone involved. Once again, White women's concerns, respectability, and desirability supersede those of Black women. The structures meant to keep these two groups apart have done just that. On a personal note, I am struggling with the feminist label myself. I, too, associate feminism with White, middle-class women, so I am more than a little reluctant to wear the feminist label.
Feminism still has a lot to offer women, regardless of who the women are or where they came from. Yet, the relentless focus on the welfare and well-being of White women - AND WHITE WOMEN ONLY - has robbed feminism of much of its power and opened it to criticism from all sides. Who would join a movement whose sole intent is perceived to be the improvement of conditions for ONE demographic? I know that I wouldn't. I struggle with identifying as feminist, though I support a lot of its key objectives.
And All These Roads Lead to This...
This last section may look and sound misplaced, but it sums up a lot of what I have said thus far. The following quote from Michael Eric Dyson's Why I Love Black Women actually says more than I ever could:
"For instance, some black men claim that their preference for White women .. has to do with the relative ease with which they yield to the sexual desires of black men. The irony, of course, is that if black women give in easily, they are marked as "hos", and if they refuse black men's sexual advances, they are often seen as "bitches". By contrast, many White women who aggressively pursue high-profile black men are viewed as appropriately assertive, endearing, and supportive. On the other had, black women who are equally aggressive are viewed as "gold diggers" and materialistic hoochies." (p. 225-226)
Those double standards I mentioned before? This is what they look like in action. Black men - as ell as a lot of other men - reward White women for behavior that would be deemed "whorish" for Black women to engage in. This double standard, this blatant hypocrisy, is not just seen coming from Black men; the Black community as a whole engages and upholds this line of thinking. I've heard many Black women praise the likes of the Kardashians, but when a Black woman engages in similar behavior (that is, having a sex tape "leaked", pursuing/dating/marrying high-profile Black men), you can hear the supportive tone disappear from their voice. All of a sudden, they become more critical and more concerned with respectability politics.
All of this leads me to the real reason why I have wavered on writing this essay. Someone close to me has a friend who is a White women. Everything this woman does is right , from the way she raised her children to whatever lame-ass joke that comes out of her mouth. This could be considered slanderous or libelous, but this woman has three children with three different men (allegedly). Meanwhile, my companion remains more than faultfinding when it comes to myself, my mother, and other people we know, consistently commenting on what we should be doing. this tone is never turned toward her White friend, who has engaged in behavior that would get a Black woman just short of being stoned to death by the Black community. You see my problem?
White women are offered a lot of latitude in their behavior, and they are often rewarded for behavior that would get a Black woman labeled a gold digger and materialistic. This sanctimonious mindset isn't just expressed by Black men; Black women also uphold this standard, as I have seen with a very close colleague and her attitude towards a White women she is close to. It saddens me to know that Black women often co-sign on these types of standards.
From what I've presented thus far, I truly do believe that my life would be much easier had I been born a White woman in America. I wouldn't be seen as a drain on the government, nor would I be seen as some reckless Jezebel. My beauty would be the standard that ALL women have to achieve and be subject to comparisons to. My sexuality would be hidden for the most part, but anything that I do that would fall out of "proper" sexual behavior could be spun into an example of sex positivity and what feminism should look like. And, speaking of feminism, I could be oblivious to the racial history of the U.S. and focus the majority of the feminist movement on my own concerns, to the detriment of Black women and other women of color. Finally, Black men wouldn't judge me for inappropriate sexual behavior or the aggressive pursuit of rich men.
There is no bright side to this, so I'm not going to leave you with some insincere conclusion about how strong Black women are or how none of what just was presented doesn't matter. It all matters; all of the information I just presented matters.
What I can leave you with is the idea that maybe, as population demographics shift, White women are witnessing their pedestals crumbling underneath them. The truth about the history of this country is finally being uncovered, causing White women to come to terms with the role in the destruction of communities of color...
Then again, maybe this is just too much to ask for.
+Jones, Charisse and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: Perennial, 2003. p. 31.
+Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2005. pp. 101, 193, 194.
+Tanenbaum, Leora. Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation. New York: Perennial, 2000. pp. 45, 45-46.
+hooks, bell. "Where is the Love: Political Bonding Between Black and White Women". Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. pp. 218-219.
+ --. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. New York: South End Press, 2000. pp. 55, 59.
+ Dyson, Michael Eric. Why I Love Black Women. New York: Perseus, 2003. pp. 218, 225-226.
+ Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale, 2011. p. 55-56.