WRITTEN BY AMANDA GROSS
When I think of egotistical foolishness the first images that pop into my head are white business men in power suits, then secondly corporate lawyers and real estate developers, followed by televangelists, ivy league frat boys, and last but not least, politicians, definitely politicians. One in particular comes to mind who kinda embodies all of the above. Ego in these archetypes gets built on ultra-macho hyper-masculinity, entitled white privilege, inherited wealth, and those dollar signs in the eyeballs. The ego is clear, bold, arrogant, assured. It is that inflated ego that allows an elite white athlete at an elite white school to commit sexual assault with the confidence of minimal repercussions, that same athlete’s father to plead for leniency positioning his son as real the victim, and a Superior Court judge to basically agree.
But white lady ego is usually less blatant on the surface, much more refined, couched, and stealthy. It sits quietly, in the corner, legs crossed looking perfect, but effortlessly so, as in I-woke-up-just-like-this-with-hair-and-makeup-and-a-cleanly-pressed-dress-and-matching-bag. White lady ego is meant to attract but give off the appearance of not wanting to, meant to impress but with a helpless humility, meant to dominate without you ever realizing that you are under its spell.
White Lady Ego is sneaky.*
Or maybe not as sneaky as we’d like to think. Nine times out of ten Black women pick up on it.** So do many other People of Color, all, the, time. Mostly though we are just fooling ourselves (and other white people).
Here are three big white lady ego themes. (There are so many more! Feel free to share your anecdotes of white lady ego by commenting on this post.) (Also, this white lady ego break down comes out of application of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s framework of Internalized Racial Superiority (IRS). The sneaky white lady ego manifestations are IRS for those of us who have been socialized as white girls and white women.
Helping and Saving Others – White ladies are known for our helping abilities. Those of us with younger siblings or who grew up in homes with well-defined gender roles learned from an early age that helping take care of others and the house earned us the praise of “mother’s little helper” along with bonus relational time and attention from adults. I started taking care of babies when I was still practically one at the church nursery. Not only was it fun to play with the younger kids and their toys and help my parents on nursery duty, but I also got to skip sitting through the sermon and lengthy prayers. By middle school, childcare had turned into a lucrative business, one that helped pay for my first car and college. And as an added bonus, the ego boost was amazing. It turned out (white) mothers all over the country needed me! And so did their kids. I was paid and praised to help.
Being privileged enough to go to college for the intellectual experience, I struggled to choose a major. I went to a small Mennonite school where the emphasis was Micah 6:8, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” and the culture leaned towards helping, fixing, and saving the world especially through the lens of service. As we learned about the evils of world hunger, environmental degradation, “third world” poverty, and the horrors of war we were uniquely positioned to offer our services.
Today, as an adult, this plays out in the white lady-dominated helping fields of education, social work, and healthcare. Most of the youth-led anti-racist organizing I am connected to organizes around disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline***. White ladies are the main offenders at the beginning of that pipeline as teachers, social workers, and nurses bent on helping, fixing, and saving innocent kids from distressed communities. White ladies funnel children of color and children living in poverty out of classrooms and homes and into the violence of education discipline procedures and the child welfare and criminal justice systems. We justify this dynamic with our inflated white lady helper ego. We are good. We are just trying to help. We want to help! All we want to do is help others (especially those who need it/us). We are needed (by those poor/black/hungry/needy children)! We are so well-intentioned, therefore we can’t be doing anything wrong)… Wrong. Often we do the most harm when we have the best intentions. And through it all – and especially when we are not open to criticism- we end up centering ourselves at a cost to many others.
We have been taught our whole lives that we are so good at helping and that helping is so good, and so we have convinced ourselves that we have the right to help whomever, whenever, and however we choose.
Martyr Complex + Apologizing – Due to a history of Anabaptist persecution in Europe and a commitment to nonviolence, my Mennonite subculture smells strongly of martyrdom. This was both how we survived while striving to be consistent with following Christ’s Way of peace. Today this martyr narrative helps maintain our sense of selves as innocent righteous victims. But you don’t have to be Mennonite to have a martyr complex. White ladies are also proficient at this. Connected to helping and saving, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves AT ALL COSTS. Which makes us look really good because if we are sacrificing ourselves then we can’t very well be making it about us. (Or can we?) We want so badly to not be selfish and also to not be perceived as being selfish, that we choose the polar opposite. We choose martyred selflessness.
Now I am a huge proponent of sharing and not being greedy and being considerate of others, but there is a way that we as white ladies are acting out selflessness that is often not of pure motivation and is often reinforced by other (mostly white) people in a way that centers our white lady martyr ego. To the Peace Corps/international development/youth missions trips/MCC person, It must have been so hard for you and your family living under those conditions. You are a better person than I. To the settler/pioneer/gentrifier, Are you scared living there? You are so brave. How fortunate the neighborhood is to have you. To the workaholic/overachieving mom/overachieving student, That’s important work you’re doing. I don’t know how you do it all.
But the biggest problem with white lady martyr ego is that is DUMB and incredibly harmful to us. If we are sacrificing it all for others then we are not taking care of our selves. Taking care of ourselves is actually not selfish, as we’ve been taught to believe, but smart and necessary to not doing violence to others. If we can’t take care of our own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, then how in the world are we supposed to take care of others with any sort of awareness? We do not need desperate, exhausted, stressed out white ladies with a strong desire to help, fix or save anyone but themselves.
Apologizing is similar to playing the martyr card in terms of deflecting responsibility. If white ladies are eager to sacrifice then we are also eager to apologize – for everything and often. Even when we weren’t responsible for any harm. This white woman sneakiness is similarly about being seen as well-intentioned and uses the benefit of the doubt that privilege buys us. We didn’t mean it. Because we have the best intentions of everyone else except ourselves at heart, then we couldn’t have intended harm. And if we couldn’t have intended harm, then we couldn’t have inflicted it. Similar to being the victim, it is impossible for us to be in the wrong. We love to say we’re sorry but when it comes time to make things right all we’re willing to give up are hollow words.
I first noticed the extent to which I used white lady apologizing ego when I was a high school exchange student in France. I had learned that “I’m sorry” in French was “je regrets” which I used when I bumped into someone on the train, when I forgot to take off my shoes in the house, and when I didn’t understand what people were saying. I noticed that when I said it I got strange looks. But also I didn’t really speak French so I brushed that off until my host mom pulled me aside and told me that “je regrets” was more accurately used for when someone dies and you’re consoling their family members at the funeral or for when you do something seriously wrong. Since “M’excuse” (“excuse me“) is much more appropriate for acknowledging accidental irritants, we can save our real apologies for when we need them (and we surely will).
Damsel In Distress – Like all of the above white lady ego bits, there are histories of systems behind these themes that white ladies often did not choose. Many of these developed as responses to the violence of White Christian Patriarchy, inventing agency for white women even as our systems and culture disempowered us. The white lady damsel in distress ego is constructed on the idea that white ladies are in danger – often sexualized danger – and we don’t have agency to do anything about it. We are beautiful, weak, delicate, pure, good, helpless, and in need of a strong, capable white man/savior/father/police officer to deal with our problems. Again when we call on this narrative we, the blameless victims, center ourselves with dramatic flair.
And while a little damsel in distress may seem harmless, it has had deadly consequences. In Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis, J.M Allain describes the role of plantation mistresses in the Antebellum South, “The Southern way of life, and the institutions that defined it—white supremacy, slavery, and the planter aristocracy—were inextricably linked with the sexual regulation of women, especially upper class women; the purity of white women, when contrasted with the sexually lascivious black Jezebel archetype, served to highlight the alleged superiority of white womanhood, and by extension, whiteness (Brooks Higginbotham, 1992, p. 263). As historian Catherine Clinton (1982) observes, “If plantation mistresses could live above reproach, their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers could boast of the superiority of their civilization… The sullying influence of slavery must not touch the women of the upper class lest the entire structure crumble.” Coupled with the notion of elite white female sexual virtue was that of white female vulnerability—the idea that plantation wives and daughters needed to be protected, defended, and sheltered. Framing women in this way served as a means of patriarchal control. As political scientist Iris Young (2003) explains, “the role of the masculine protector puts those protected, paradigmatically women and children, in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience.””
Allain goes on to explain how plantation mistresses used this notion of white female virtue to protect themselves of accusations of wrongdoing: ” Additionally, an upper-class woman under suspicion of an affair with a slave could “readily invoke images of chastity in order to allay trouble for herself”—or in other words, accuse the slave of rape (Hodes, p. 135). Because black men (like black women) were seen as inherently lustful and prone to sexual vice, for an elite woman to have illicit sex with a black rather than a white man might have been a slightly safer bet; it was easier to blame a black man of rape than a white man.”
And it has been so much easier for us, the collective of white women, to align ourselves with the narrative of being victims rather than to take responsibility for the very real pain, trauma, and death our position and actions have caused Black people and then to subsequently alter our behavior accordingly. Allain points out how white women used the tools of their own repression to abuse people who were enslaved: “Another way in which white women were able to exercise sexual control over slaves was by threatening to accuse them of rape or attempted rape if they did not agree to sex (Hodes, pp. 39, 40, 43, 46, 135).4 In doing this, elite white women used one of the primary instruments of patriarchal repression—the idea that that they were weak and in need of white male protection, and by extension, in need of control and domination by white men—to exercise racial control over slaves. Instead of attempting to dismantle the white patriarchal hegemony that oppressed both slaves and (to a lesser extent) white women, predatory white women who coerced slaves into sex through threat of rape opted to perpetuate both white supremacy and patriarchy, by reinforcing paternalistic notions of female sexuality. Why these women chose to sexually abuse slaves probably varied by situation. Perhaps some of them were simply bored or sexually frustrated. But perhaps, at least on a subconscious level, sexually exploiting slaves was a means of compensating for their lack of power in other aspects of their lives. Again, planter-class women were considered the property of their husbands and lacked considerable sexual agency relative to men. It is possible the sexual exploitation of slaves by women who had little power in relation to white men was a source of enjoyment that created a feeling of power (Bourke, p. 237).”
And lest you think us white ladies have risen above this gruesome past, the white lady damsel in distress ego is still alive and well today as we post on Next Door neighborhood social networks and call the police on our neighbors. Evoking the white lady damsel in distress ego still has serious and deadly consequences.
And as Damon Young hilariously and adeptly outlines in Very Smart Brothas (best read frequently and often), there’s always Taylor Swift. From How Taylor Swift Is The Most Dangerous Type Of White Woman Explained, (also applicable to many a white lady), “No one is better at this type of specifically White female performative faux melodrama — where status is cultivated and maintained through a state of perpetual exaggerated victimhood (which everyone laps up because “sad White woman” = “Let’s find our fucking capes and save her!”) — than she is.”
“You know that co-worker (let’s call her “Susan”) who somehow managed to use her offense at a minor breach in email etiquette (someone forgot to put an exclamation point on a sentence, which made Susan “interpret” it as a “threat”) as fuel for a raise and a promotion? ”
“Taylor Swift is Darth Susan.”
Come on white ladies, let’s not be Susans. There are so many other ways for us to be.
* Thanks to Sydney Olberg and the white ladies of WWG and debriefs with Felicia Lane Savage for input around white lady ego sneakiness and white ladies’ roles in the School to Prison Pipeline.
** This very scientific statistic is based on how frequently I’ve had Black women point out white lady ego to me with a 10% margin of error for the times they didn’t feel like wasting their breath, were trying to enjoy life without the affront of whiteness, and/or had better things to do than educate me about racism.
*** The School to Prison Pipeline describes how young people of color are disproportionately funneled through the education system into the criminal justice system due to factors like zero tolerance policies, suspension and expulsion, teacher bias, police in schools, academic tracking, the misdiagnosis of disabilities/giftedness, etc. all of which point to institutional racism.