WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross
What I learned from feminism is that my experience is a valid way of knowing. What I learned from womanism is that not all women have the same experiences. What I learned from queering these is that not all white women have the same experiences, that language matters, and that I need to be consciously deliberate when discerning when and how to name, when and how to include and exclude. I am learning the power of precision of language and also its limitations.*
We can use words to categorize and separate. We can use words to erase. We can use words to assert experience and we can use words to resist.
I believe that the naming of white womanhood as a shared identity and collective experience within the context of White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism is powerful because of the particular role white women have played in upholding these interlocking structures and because the existence of white womanhood reflects it. There is no white womanhood without White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism and there is no White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism without white womanhood.
Within the extensive humanity categorically imposed on by “white womanhood” is a range of diversity. Subsequently, resistance comes in many forms. Informed by the resistance struggles of People of Color and Women and Queer Folks of Color in particular who have embodied this wisdom for generations, my resistance emerges from cycles of self-reflection, a never-ending journey of identifying with, rejecting, and reclaiming the words attributed to me. I move through this world as a white lady. And in my thirty-two-and-a-half years in this body I have always been able to pass as status quo.**
As a generally nondescript white woman, my external appearance easily blends into the standard of white hetero-normativity. In other words, when you see my small to medium 5 foot 7 inch frame walk down the grocery store aisle, when you see my straight naturally light brown hair pulled back in a pony tail, my bare face, peppy earth tone outfit, and sensible shoes, you don’t initially think, “Now, there goes someone rejecting White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism.” A more typical response is that I am not seen because I pass so seamlessly into the seas of whiteness. I am easily missed in the branding of good little white girl and well-intentioned white lady. In my ninth grade math class the (also white) teacher could not remember my name, naming me and the other white girl in the class the same all school year long. My status quo white-womaness provided camouflage into the institutional (white) walls. Blending into whiteness offered far less scrutiny but came with the erasure of identity and self, a cancerous conformity that has infiltrated at the cellular level. There are still so many times that I mistake it for Me.
In addition to not being singled out for notice or scrutiny, I receive the general magnanimous benefit of the doubt, even when I am in the wrong. Like that one time in college I was speeding 50 in a 25 mph school zone, a police officer followed me the entire time. When he finally pulled me over, he glanced at my license and registration, looked me up and down and gave me a warning with stern politeness. I did not invoke white woman tears. I did not have to. The thing about being a status quo passing white woman is that there is choice.
Earlier this year I was summoned for jury duty. When my name was called and the attorneys asked me if I could be fair and impartial, my response, verbatim:”I don’t believe in impartiality.” An hour later I was selected as a juror. Maybe it was the sweater or the ponytail, but despite my very clear testimony to the contrary, those attorneys knew that I was the status quo white lady they had been waiting for. They had already made up their minds based on my appearance and not on my words. So that also in status quo passing white womanhood, many choices have already been made.
Passing has its added unearned advantages. I get access to spaces and am privy to conversations for status quo white ears only. I can collect intel by the water cooler, glide through security, get hired for the job, and inspire the confidence of the oblivious, the boastful, and those most intent on preserving the status quo. The white privilege I have grants me access to systems and institutions, yet even within whiteness, passing for status quo allows me greater access than, for example, my white queer siblings. This ability to pass can be a strategic blessing but also a dangerous, self-inflating illusion – just like whiteness. Harnessing this level of institutional access for anti-racist change is a critical but tremendous responsibility and requires extensive and ongoing communication, self-reflection, and accountability to People of Color and other white folks who are engaging in the work of anti-racism. How do I know and name my power? How do I use it wisely?
Recently, in conversations with other anti-racist white organizers, my language and organizing around the shared experience of white womanhood has been challenged as linear in thought with the potential consequence of further dividing white people, rather than fostering unity around the shared experience of whiteness. While I understand and strongly adhere to using the lens of Undoing Racism – especially because of white folks’ tendencies to promote our experiences being in oppressed groups as an excuse to not confront our own internalized racism – championing unity without analyzing power within whiteness does us all a disservice. This promotes a false unity rather than acknowledging the lived and embodied disunity, an acknowledgement necessary to detangling the interlocking origins of oppression. Unpacking my whiteness means combing through status quo white ladyness for the explicit purpose of deepening our collective understanding of whiteness and the work of resistance. Unpacking my whiteness means courageously recovering the knowing of my body and the knowing of my experience in order to further collective liberation.
*I learned these ideas about language and when to include and exclude from the wisdom and teaching of Cavanaugh Quick, who is brilliant.
**“What do we mean by the term “white woman”? “When we say “white woman,” we are not necessarily referring to a personal identity. We are referring to a dominant or mainstream identity with certain images, messages and narratives that have been used to uphold systems of oppression. It is an identity that many who have experienced socialization as white and female often have to negotiate with, whether by resisting, conforming, imitating, subverting or distancing. It’s this negotiation and relationship to “white women” that we are investigating, whether it is our current identity, a past or new identity, or a personal or political connection to the effects of this identity. In our dialogues and workshops we honor every body’s unique relationship to the themes explored. Even if we have never had a Barbie, we know what she looks like, what she symbolizes and what oppressions are committed in her name.”