Abandoning White Girl Passivity as a Master’s Tool

We were sitting in a dimly lit common area in a hostel in Berlin, celebrating surviving the last week with our host families. We were in the home stretch of our summer study program and nervously debating how our final projects were coming along. My friend suddenly leaned forward in her seat and called the group’s attention: “Guys, listen to how good my Indian accent is.”

We shifted in our seats uncomfortably as she performed her racist imitation with total confidence. When she was done, she paused, smiling, waiting for the praise she felt was due. I locked eyes with another girl across the room. We exchanged distressed looks but moved on. Someone else in the group muttered, “That’s, like, not okay,” but laughed and shook it off. I quickly changed the topic back to our final papers; there were only a few days left in the trip and I didn’t want to start any drama. At that moment, I made a decision to stay silent, because it would have inconvenienced me to have said something.

Audre Lorde
Photo source: Dagmar Schultz

This kind of opting out on the grounds of discomfort and selective activism is what feeds white feminism. To me, white feminism is a form of feminism that doesn’t acknowledge issues facing women of color, while simultaneously depending on women of color to lift white women up in society. Through taking Ileana Jimenez’s Feminist Theory and Literature class, I reached an understanding that while white feminism claims to make a difference, in reality, it only perpetuates the systems of oppression that it pretends to be working against.

In Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, she talks about the ways in which choosing to be silent only further perpetuates oppression. She even touches on the wider discomfort and fear that can arise from speaking up when she says,

“Of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”

As a white woman, I have the privilege of being able to avoid much of the danger from self-revelation Lorde alludes to. For white women, the consequences of self-revelation are more selfish “inconvenience” than danger, because by attempting to work outside of systems of oppression we are finally forced to alienate the white supremacist patriarchy, a stable source of power for white women and feminists.

Throughout my program this summer I relied too heavily on this source of power in choosing whether to challenge my peers. I had no trouble calling out my guy friends for their slut-shaming, but when the same friend made a comment about “how Black girls dress,” I remained silent in fear of rejection from my group-mates. This reflects white feminists’ fear of alienating white men and boys as their source of power.

Knowing I am privileged and still choosing to stay quiet among other similarly privileged white teens, not to mention in the setting of a summer program which are so often exclusive to upper middle class kids, is a demonstration of my complacency in the use of silence and what Lorde calls a “master’s tool.”

Master’s tools are the systems and ideas that keep the master narrative – or what bell hooks would describe as the white-supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative narrative – in place. White women’s silence and disregard for the experiences of women of color only perpetuates the oppression that originates from this narrative.  

Being introduced to the language of the “master’s tools” in Lorde’s essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” was a turning point in my thinking. I had seen the term “white feminism” slowly becoming more common in my social media timeline for a few years and had come to a basic understanding of the meaning of it. As far as I knew, it was harmful and overt. I thought of it as just presenting one side of the issue, but I didn’t understand yet how it relied on and fed into systemic oppression.

Throughout the course of this trimester, I have become aware of how white feminism can be hidden behind things that seem small to me as a white woman, such as that uncomfortable silence I experienced over the summer with my friends. I was able to stay silent in that situation, and during other similar moments, because my ability to separate my gender from my race not only affected how I approached feminism in the abstract, but also what I felt the need to advocate for in my everyday life.

For example, I often spoke up when I felt that others in my group were making sexist remarks, because I felt like it personally affected me, but chose to stay silent during racist remarks, because they were removed from my identity and I didn’t want to “cause a scene,” which left an unfair burden on the few group-mates of color, who had supported me in my responses to other remarks. This mirrors the larger, systemic effects of white feminism, in its creation of speaking about gender only, that promote silence around issues of race.

I was challenged to take an even deeper look at my life while reading this specific passage in Lorde’s essay:

“If white american feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of color?”

These lines struck a chord with me as they related to my own family and the families of many of the friends I have grown up with. This passage forced me to examine the way my own family relies on women of color, and how I had never connected this to my understanding of feminism. My brother and I were looked after full-time by a Trinidadian nanny, and our house was cleaned by a Haitian cleaning woman, whose work enabled my parents to continue to both work full-time, and never take more than a week or two off at a time. Growing up, this was what I considered to be a normal situation. Almost all my classmates had Black or Latina immigrant babysitters, who cared for them almost twelve hours a day: taking them to the park, preparing their meals, helping them with their homework, while their parents became CEOs and presidents. Meanwhile many of these women had their own children and families to take care of at home. The very fact that I am able to attend this school and take this class attests to the privilege I was raised in and around.

This phenomenon is even somewhat advocated for in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, in which Sandberg tells women that gaining power in the workplace is as simple as modeling themselves after those in power, essentially modeling themselves after white men. I realize now that my white feminist activity didn’t just pertain to my conscious actions. The way I internalized messages about societal roles growing up and my complacency in accepting those messages as I got older are manifestations of my privilege and subscription to white feminism.

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s Housetaught me the larger, systemic implications of white feminism, and how it uses white supremacy and patriarchal mirroring to create a resistance to the master narrative that is palatable to white women, while actually working within these systems to get ahead for their own gains.  

Although my understanding of white feminism and its effects have deepened throughout this course, I still struggle to navigate when to use this information to inform others and call people (in/out). With my newly deepened understanding of white feminism and its effects, I still struggle with how to best use my position of privilege to help educate other white women and girls on how to make their activism intersectional.

I have to navigate my ability to inform as well as navigate my ability to step back and be informed. This means I need to know when it is my duty as a feminist to educate those around me, and when it is equally my duty as a white woman to step back and make sure that other voices take the forefront.

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