Saturday, August 30, 2008

An open letter to white feminists reluctant to challenge sexism against Michelle Obama

The following is a response to an article called the "Cost of Silence," which is co-authored by Corinne Douglas and Jacquelyn Gray. Essentially, Douglas and Gray claim that, because black women did not defend Hillary Clinton against sexist attacks launched by the media and Obama supporters, they (black women) are to blame for white feminists' failure to protest similarly sexist assaults on Michelle Obama.


To view the original article, go to:

Ms. Douglas and Ms. Gray,

You wrote: "It is entirely unacceptable to go along with unfair attacks against women simply because you disagree with the particular woman under attack."

Who says that black women did that?

What evidence allows you to conclude that black women -- as a group -- did not resist or challenge misogynistic attacks on Hillary Clinton because 2 prominent/public black women (Valbrun & Curtis), as you point out, did not resist/challenge sexist assaults against Clinton?

Even if you -- Douglas and Gray -- meant to imply that *most* black women did not defend Senator Clinton *or* that *most* of Barack Obama's black women supporters did not defend Senator Clinton, you would still be guilty of making -- at best -- an unfair, unsupported generalization about black women's responses to the sexist assaults against Hillary Clinton -- and at worst, a racist assumption about *all* or *most* black women's responses to sexist attacks on Clinton. I use the term racist because your claim is not grounded in any defensible, statistically concrete evidence but an assumption based on your own (inevitably) racialiized perception of particular racial groups' response/non-response to the sexist targeting of Hillary Clinton.

That said, it also strikes me as entirely unproductive to rationalize, justify and excuse white women who, in response to what they believe is black women's refusal en masse to protest misogynistic assaults on Hillary Clinton, choose *not* to challenge/resist sexist attacks on Michelle Obama.

You write: "But we cannot expect white feminists to come to the defense of Michelle Obama if we deny them the ability to, at a minimum, identify their own mistreatment at the hands of the same oppressors that are victimizing Michelle."

Why can't "we"?

(And who is the "we" you're addressing? White women? Women of color?)

Women of color and white allies in the struggle against racism, racist-sexism/ sexist-racism, and institutionalized oppression in general can certainly *expect* and *ask* white women/white feminists to set aside any ill-feeling they may harbor against those who failed to identify, criticize and resist the sexist targeting of Hillary Clinton. Women of color and white anti-racist/anti-sexist allies can ask this of white women/white feminists simply because it is the right thing to do. If, as you say, women of color, white women (and, I would add, their allies in the struggle against gender & race oppression) are committed to the eradication of social injustice -- the question of whether or not to act resistively should *never* be a question.

In fact, if I apply your logic -- women of color owe white women *nothing* because 1) white women, as a group, extract (both voluntarily and involuntarily) countless unearned benefits in a context of institutional racism simply because they are white. And 2) while, historically, a minority of white women (and a minority of white feminists) have joined the struggle against institutional racism, the vast majority of white women (and white feminists) have not done so. The majority of white women and white feminists continue to benefit from the racist oppression of men and women of color, do little or no work to reduce their complicity in white supremacy, and/or remain in denial of the extent to which they enjoy white privilege and benefit from access to white patriarchal power (or white men's privilege).

Moreover, your statement about black women's inaction in the face of sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton *does not*: 1) take into account the marginal or altogether invisible voice black women have inside pop cultural institutions that are dominated by middle and upper class white men -- the same pop cultural institutions that grant white women a comparatively greater but still less powerful, minority presence than it does women of color. And 2) seems to be subtly informed (or shaped) by the belief that white women/white feminists are entitled to women of colors' support -- an expectation that many folks would identify as "white entitlement" -- even though, as you point out, women of color are disadvantaged, subordinated and oppressed (to varying degrees because of class, sexual identity etc.,) by *both* white women and white men in a society as fundamentally structured by racism as it is sexism.

Ms. Douglas & Ms. Gray, it seems far more useful and endeavor to identify (at least some of) the reasons (some) white feminists (irrespective of class status) may choose *not* to resist/challenge sexist attacks on Michelle Obama *and then* encourage them (white women/white feminists) to make a different choice. Failure to do so will only give certain women of color reason to believe they do not now and will never have allies among white feminists -- that at the end of the day, what matters to white women is their own issues and concerns -- a sentiment that is amply supported by the history of racism and classism (forms of oppression that are interconnected, which is to say that racism *does not* operate independently of classism, or sexism, etc.,) inside the feminist movement from the post-Civil War era to the present.

But to even say that alone without discussing the complexities of racism and classism within a feminist movement dominated and led by middle and upper class white women does not do justice to that history.

In any case, I believe your blog burned more bridges than it helped to build.



Thank you, Nadra Kareem, for writing the blog that drew my attention the "Cost of Silence" article.
Kareem blogs for Racialicious. To read her blog and the comments she received, go to:

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