White Women: We Have Helped Make a Hell of a Mess - How We Can Start to Fix It

I have been getting messages from white women expressing heartbreak at the outcome of the election, terror for their lives and bodily autonomy, and heartsickness at being blamed for the results of the election. The recriminations are adding more stress to an already unbearable situation, and feel like being in the cycle of abuse. We’re all triggered by this lunatic autocrat, and yet we’re being blamed for having elected him. Why? How?

The blame is ours (white women who didn’t vote for Trump) because we haven’t historically done anything to stop this, and have participated in the system that created this. I will break it down for you and tell you how to fix it going forward, even under this tyrant’s rule.

(Before I start, though, if you are having swirling panicked thoughts and can’t get the hairpiece’s victory out of your mind and body, here is my story: I was feeling really jumpy and twisted and stuck in the experience of finding out that Trump won the election, so I did a little EMDR on myself and I’m feeling much calmer and able to deal. EMDR works really well for short-lived traumatic events that happen in adulthood, so I did it. I put myself back into the period of realizing he was winning and felt the feelings and physical sensations, and didn’t try to overlay a narrative, just felt the things as they came to me. At the same time I watched this video and followed the light with my eyes. Ten minutes later I was feeling much better. If you do this, either watch the video on your laptop or orient your phone horizontally. Your pets will hate the noise, so get them out of the room first.)

The fact that 53 percent of white women voted for the bloviating sphincter is crushing, isn’t it? How did this happen? How did the 47% of us not matter?

It’s because we have been conditioned to act in certain ways and have not questioned that. I am guessing that by now you are comfortable with the idea that although you personally didn’t participate in slavery and maybe your ancestors didn’t either, you benefit from the inequitable system caused by slavery that’s still in place now. This is just a few levels deeper than that. Stay with me.

For centuries, white women have been fighting for survival in harsh, patriarchal systems. And the way to ensure our survival and any degree of safety has been to play nice with men and invest ourselves in those systems and structures. It wasn’t safe to be a woman alone, and a woman alone with a child was dead meat. Without the protection of a man, you were dead. So we went along to survive. Women who did not play nicely enough with men to earn their protection died. (See: Lily Bart, Fantine from Les Miserables, any non-comedic opera ever, and thousands and thousands of actual dead women who couldn’t play along.)

Because these systems were so closed and we were raised in them, we didn’t see this as anything unusual, so we learned to play the game really well. Really well. And that included proving our loyalty to men and to systems by scapegoating anyone who threatened our relationships to them, even in a solely perceived way. WE DIDN’T ASK QUESTIONS.

(Right now I have part of the confession sequence from the Lutheran worship service in my head: “We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”)

Black women have always been our first choice of fall guys, because they were easy prey. White men told us they were animals and we willingly accepted that. This became entrenched in our culture during slavery, when white slave-owning women blamed black women for having been raped by the white women's slave-owning husbands. How much more horrible can you get, to blame someone who was literally owned by her rapist for the rape? But white women did it to solidify their positions in the family and as owners of humans. They leaned in hard to a vicious system that favored white men. This has spiraled into the present and we still have pervasive ideas that black women are oversexual predators and white women are hardworking and plucky. At this very second in feminism, white women shouldn’t be slut-shamed for anything they do, but black women are fair game (even when they’re talking about sex with their husbands). This is generations of us talking ourselves into believing lies to make ourselves feel better, at the expense of other women we then had to dehumanize further to justify our thoughts and behavior.

Women will cooperate with each other and create enough for everyone together, in clever and easy (meaning “with ease”) ways. Unless there is scarcity, in which case we switch to competition so we can feed our children. Men know this, and they know that this is the way to control us. All they have to do is create false scarcity and we go after each other and they have us at their whims. White men have easily weaponized white women against black women simply by putting the notion of scarcity in our heads.

At any single second in which you think you need to compete against another woman, especially a black woman, pull back the curtain and look for the mechanisms and figure out if there’s actual scarcity or if that’s simply manipulation. Hint: Our public schools and corporate culture are all deliberately designed to feign scarcity.

In a lot of ways this is just a never-ending series of rounds of Prisoner’s Dilemma (a game with a setup designed to create scarcity via punishment), with you and another woman as the prisoners. If it was just one round, and the other prisoner was on the same footing you are and had the same privilege, this wouldn’t be a big deal—eventually you’d either get good at game theory and amass a supportive group of women friends or you wouldn’t. But this is happening on a large scale multiple times per day and your opponent is black women as a group, and that’s the cancer that eats us individually and caused those 53% of white women to vote Trump.

Here’s a huge secret that you’re not allowed to consider in game theory, but that the field of negotiations is aces at focusing on: There is always another option, if you are willing to detach from the system and find something that honors the actual human people involved and work together for your mutual benefit. But it is not to the benefit of the men running our systems and institutions for you to step outside of their system, so they do anything they have to, to fool you into going with your gut reaction to the idea of scarcity.

The 53% of white women who voted for Trump are simply leaning in to the same toxic, patriarchal, privilege-enforcing system that’s existed for centuries. They think that these white men are going to save them and protect them, and they’re willing to sell out anyone else (but especially black women) to lock down that protection.

The problem with that, of course, is that the system hates them just as much as it hates everyone else. Donald Trump stated on camera that he takes any woman’s body he wants. That he wants to “punish” women for controlling their own bodies. He has said in a loud voice that he is not going to protect women. But the women who voted for him have talked themselves into believing that they’re safe, even when they’re told flat-out that they aren’t. They think this is literally a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Or a red-line system, in which anyone who falls below the red line gets cut, so all they have to do is shove someone else down below them to ensure that they make the cut.

The system as it exists—our financial system, our economy, work culture and policies, social customs, male-female interpersonal relations, education—is hostile to everyone who isn’t a middle class (or higher) educated straight white cisgender man. That means that all the rest of us are simply trying to navigate survival inside this rigged system. The optimal solution to Prisoner’s Dilemma is for both prisoners to protect each other. But for prisoners who have been beaten down by previous encounters with the system, it’s difficult to trust that the other prisoner will protect them, so they act out of self-interest with bad information.

That’s exactly why we can’t play along. We need to detach from what we’ve been conditioned to think is really true, about institutions and black women and ourselves. And we need to work toward choosing other women, black women, instead of trusting a system that hates us.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on AskMoxie.org about how we’re so invested in racist systems and structures in our daily lives that we don’t even realize that we don’t have to participate in them. Think carefully about how the very structure of your life is set up to make you think you are making choices of your own free will, but you are not, because there’s only one logical course of action almost all the time, if you accept the game the system sets up for you.

The system is not going to save you. It never has. It hates you and is actively working for your harm, while telling you you’re pretty so you feel like you have to trust it. These men you thought would save you voted for Trump while telling you it was for your own good. Men know that when you create the impression of scarcity, women will compete. And they use that to manipulate us. Don’t fall for it. There is always enough to go around, for white women and black women (and all women), if we cooperate and spin gold out of straw the way we do when we’re not afraid.

Step out of the game someone else set up for you, because the house always wins. Trust people instead of systems.

This is important: Black women do not have to reciprocate. They can’t. We have been punching them in the face every day for thousands of years. If you have to say “trust me” to someone, there’s no way they can trust you. Just do the work without expectation of reward.

Also important: This isn’t about friendship. You do not have to be friends with all or any black women. It is about acting in their best interests. “I have black friends” is used as an excuse for racism so often that we know individual friendships aren’t any kind of test. You can be actively anti-racist wherever you are, just as you can be complacently racist wherever you are.

Do you need some concrete suggestions for how to dig in to other women instead of leaning in to a system that hates you at the expense of your sister? I have a few that can get you started, and you’ll start finding ways as you go. I am not good at this yet, but I have learned some things, and here they are.

1. Disengage yourself from groups, organizations, systems, structures, knitting groups, professional organizations, and any other gathering of people that doesn’t specifically and proactively welcome black women without expecting them to conform to white customs.

1a. If you have agency inside any groups, organizations, etc. that are primarily white-focused, start making changes to include and actively welcome black women without requiring them to conform to white customs and culture.

2. Cut it out with the microaggressions. Think carefully before you speak. Is what you are about to say promoting this woman? Or are you giving some kind of back-handed compliment to try to gain the upper hand? Is there a reason you need to make a comparison here? Is this your business? Would you like it if someone assumed this thing about you? Use the Platinum Rule (treat others the way they want to be treated), keep your hands to yourself, and remember that you don’t have to verbalize every thought that comes into your head.

3. Go through your friends lists and write down your black female friends’ names and what their expertise is. The next time you are asked to recommend someone for something, go down your list and recommend one of them. Keep growing your list. Keep recommending black women.

4. Be as watchful and protective of black women’s children as you are of your own. Give their kids the benefit of the doubt. Let them be young and free and silly and stupid. Teach your own children about the school-to-prison pipeline and how schools consistently discipline black children more harshly and create the false perception that black children are wild and misbehave, while giving white children a pass for the same behavior. All children should be allowed to be kids, and acting out is a sign of hurt that needs to be healed, not essential badness. Teach your kids to watch out for the black kids in their classes and report to you if they see inequitable treatment. Then push hard on the schools to make things right and protect their black kids at least as strongly as they protect their white kids. Sign up for the mailing list at BeingBlackAtSchool.org to get specific information and action points for how to advocate for black kids in school.

(Since I have the confession litany in my head anyway, I will confess to you now the only regret of my entire life: When I was going through a divorce I did not pay enough attention to the fact that my son’s white female teacher was scapegoating the one black girl in his kindergarten class and bullying her every day. I complained about it to the principal, who was not allowed to remove the teacher. I should have gone further with it and escalated to the Board of Education and the teacher’s union and done whatever I had to do to get this woman removed from the classroom. But I didn’t. I failed that girl’s mother and I failed myself.)

5. Believe black women when they tell you something about their experience. You don’t need to ante up with something equally horrible that happened to you. No Misery Poker. Just because what happens to her is consistently worse than what happens to you doesn’t mean your pain isn’t real and harmful. It just means her pain is real.

5. Look for opportunities to promote black women to your network. Pay full price. Talk them up.

6. Show up for them and sit toward the back.

7. Bring your own cookies. Don’t ask black women to approve your actions or bless your mistakes. You are going to make mistakes and you are going to do the right thing and you are responsible for your own emotions in either of these cases.

8. Be verbal with your white female friends and acquaintances about the specific struggles black women face navigating the same system. Your white sisters may have no idea, and they may also have no idea that they don’t have to keep leaning in in a way that hurts black women. You would want to know if you were inadvertently hurting someone else, and your friends do, too.

9. When you have power, use it in service of black women. This business about black women’s hair being inappropriate in the workplace is particularly horrible because the majority of HR workers are white women. We’re the policymakers here, and we’re being weaponized by white men against black women over hair. HAIR. We could stop this idiocy by making policies about hairstyles and dress that don’t police other women’s bodies and focus only on safety in the workplace. As long as her hair is not in danger of catching on fire or getting caught in a machine and killing her, why do you care? Make your official policy that people can wear their hair the way they want to, and move on to something important like schedules and leave policy that allows parents to work and also care for their children.

10. Notice and call out false notions of scarcity. Refuse to participate. When you are setting up reward systems, set them up so that anyone who achieves gets the prize, not ranking people against each other. Think of alternatives. (If this is new to you, read the first half of the book Getting To Yes to reframe the idea of negotiation from a zero-sum game to creating more for everyone.)

11. Don’t coopt black female culture unless you’re also fighting for their freedom and to normalize their experiences. Everyone wants to be black until the police come. If you’re going to a Beyonce concert you need to be willing to wear your #blacklivesmatter T-shirt to the grocery store and support legislation to end racist laws that put black women’s children in jail and put money into organizations that support black families.

12. Pay black women and people who actively support black women money. Accept money happily from the opposition and then pass it right along. Money is power.

13. Don’t allow anyone to talk smack about black women in your presence (and especially around your kids). Think about it and shift the frame of how you talk about black women to make them the subjects and not the objects. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Talk about them as you’d talk about your best friend. If you’re struggling with something involving black women, go to the internet and look for facts from reputable sources. (If you don’t know how, ask a librarian. They will be thrilled to help you.)

14. Call out your friends and neighbors when you notice them doing things that reinforce the fear of scarcity and the framing of the world as a zero-sum game. Keep talking to them and sharing stories and experiences. Those 53% of women were thinking only about themselves. Some of them will never let themselves see the truth, but if we keep sharing human stories and holding them accountable for the hurt they cause, eventually some of them will.

15. Stay focused. You are not a pawn. The entire universe is inside you and you do not have to participate in harming others in order to survive. Once you drop what you’re clenching so tightly for fear of losing it, you can open your hand to help someone else.


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