Dear White Sisters: PLEASE LISTEN TO BLACK WOMEN. They tell many truths we need to hear.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

The biggest complaint that women have about men is that they don’t LISTEN to them. And they reject women’s authority to speak truthfully about their life experiences.

There is a parallel to that among white and black feminists.

As I understand from doing my best to read and listen to black women writers and speakers, one of the biggest [if not THE biggest] complaints black women have about “white feminists” is that they have assumed sisterly solidarity with black women — despite not only limited knowledge of their lives and cultures, but, like men with regard to women, white feminists tend to instantly reject any criticisms that they have behaved or spoken to or about them in a racist way.

The worst of that is that white feminists have promised to listen — through their presumed commitments to feminist “intersectionality” and “sisterly solidarity” with black women…but rarely fulfill that promise. Instead, they presume that women’s experience across class and race is similar, and the issues that most concern middle class white women should be central issues for ALL women.

And when white women are are called out for not hearing, their nearly unanimous standard defenses demonstrate their failure to listen, loud and clear.

The story I’ve quoted from Renee Cherez at the start of this essay is a perfect example.

Truly seeing the humanity of black women forces white women to confront the ways we have contributed to black women’s oppression.

It’s a very scary view from that window. We have to hang onto our belief that we really are good people & if we “see color” we have to acknowledge the pain they have caused. A white woman [and man] must must get beyond self applause for civil rights bona fides, which supposedly mean one “doesn’t have a racist bone in one’s body.”

The defense: “But I’ve always supported civil rights! Isn’t that what this is all about?”

The protest: “sisterhood is powerful! Why can’t we just be sisters in struggle”?

No, we can’t. Not until we understand how different the struggle is for black women. If we deny difference, we erase blackness.

You have to open yourself to pain. The pain you feel when you realize you’ve caused pain to others, all the while being completely oblivious to it your whole life, thinking “but I…but I…but I…didn’t mean to be racist!”

So you have to be defensive.

It hurts soooo bad! And now y’all are acting like we did nothing at all to make your lives better! Why…why…you’re being reverse racist!

****Please note: the above is sarcasm.****

To my white sisters: good gawddess, toughen up!

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

Believe me, once you face the fact you’ve held blinders to your eyes & then let them go, you get to grow as a person. It’s actually quite satisfying & fulfilling. When you listen to people whose lives have been radically different from your own, a world of sight and insight you could never have imagined before opens up to you. And that is empowering

You get to learn. You get to listen. You get to find out how to be a real sister in struggle eventually. But you’ve gotta pay your dues. It’s gonna hurt for a while. Maybe even a long while as you confront the denial that has been so much more comfortable than speaking the truth.

It’s not the end of the world.

It’s the beginning of a new one.

This is your opportunity to be a member of new generations of white women, women who courageously remove the blinders white privilege gives them, and allow themselves to hear and see how many of their presumptions about themselves have been false & unconscious or semiconscious racism.

No one is saying you are evil. No one is saying you’re a racist monster. No one thinks you are like the torch bearing white supremacists at Charlottesville. [Tho they will be angry when you deny or try to sidestep the issues, or put your blinders back on.]

When you do that, quite frankly you reiterate the hurt they’ve experienced with white woman throughout their lives.

Believe it or not, acknowledging something you said or did could have been racist [even if you still aren’t sure how] is more acceptable than clinging to the defense that you are not and never have been racist. Because black women bear scars on the inside that prove otherwise.

You have to open yourself to recognizing the many shades and levels of racism. You have to accept that the black women who are calling you out aren’t being mean or unreasonable — any more than women raising their voices against misogynistic men are being intentionally mean or “bitchy.”

It’s long past time to break the codes of “polite racism” — those passive aggressive messages with which white women essentially tell black women they have a long way to grow before they are actual equals of middle class professional white women. A few exceptions have already made it, but…

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

We must also open our eyes to the classism in middle class white feminism. Classism among middle class white women is intricately connected to racism.

I N T E R S E C T I O N A L ?

We say we are intersectional? If so, where does your knowledge of the lives of the women who don’t fit into your particular set of sections come from? How many of the wonderful books that black women [and men] have written in the past few decades have you read? And how much do you remember if you did read?

Betcha NONE or very few of such books were assigned reading in high school…or college, unless you took a course specifically intended to teach the cultural and social history of Black Americans.

Look for parallels between the way white men resisting feminism have treated women whenever they’ve discounted or minimized feminist criticism of themselves. The way they insist that their behavior toward women is not misogynist. That when they insist they aren’t being sexist, they are just being “logical.”

Look at what you’ve said or may have implied to black women— any structural verbal parallels?

How about this kind of thing that women get from men so often:

“You’re overreaching. You’re exaggerating. You’re being hysterical. It can’t be that bad. What you say can’t possible be true, at least not to the extent you claim. I mean, I never see it happening! So how could it be?

I’ve really tried hard to give you what you say you want, but you don’t seem to actually know what you want. It’s all very confusing to us men. Not to mention exhausting. And so extreme.

Switching to race now…

And why do you have to be so angry all the time? Why do you have to be so divisive, always talking about how race makes black women’s lives different. Always with the white privilege. You know, I haven’t had all that much privilege in my life, either!

Exchange the references to race for references to gender. Sound familiar?

“Calm down now. Calm DOWN!”

[You know how it feels when a man tells you to calm down when you try to explain to him what he did/said wrong. So frustrating that you want to bop him on the head, but you won’t, so it just boils inside you.]

We all chose activism in women’s issues as either vocation or avocation. But to do that truthfully we need to acknowledge that “women’s issues” aren’t quite the same for black women.

Being called out on beliefs, expectations, and behaviors that are racist in their assumptions can be extraordinarily painful. I know; I’ve been there. It hurts like hell and is SCARY as hell, because if we give any credence to their claims about us, we’ll have to give up some of our pride.

But wait. No, you don’t. You just have to listen stop being defensive. Stop going into denial in order to protect your image of yourself as perfectly anti-racist. Above all, don’t discount their authority about black women’s own lives.

Just. Listen. You don’t have to agree with everything. Just listen until you’re exhausted, and listen again. Spend time thinking [to yourself, not out loud], “Ok, this doesn’t seem true to me, but probably that’s my privilege talking. So I’ll take it as truth because I know what constant denial and silencing feels like when men do it to me.

J U S T. L I S T E N.

Take time to read what black women have to say in all the wonderful books and articles they’ve written. Plenty of that material is right here on Medium.

I’ve given myself the assignment that at least 1/3 to 1/2 of my reading/audio listening must be writing from black women and other women of color, as well as some from black men.

Perhaps make your own reading a resolution for 2020…your assignment is to find out why black women are so angry with white feminism and white feminists. Write on it. Journal. If you’re a student, try to find a way to work the subject into a research and writing assignment. If you’re a writer, write.

And for heaven’s sake, let go of any obsession with trying to prove you aren’t racist. Don’t trot out all you’ve done in the past that you think, by goddess, they should appreciate. [Ever have a husband or partner or male boss pull THAT out of their hats? I went through years of it! I hated it.]

In the long run you’ll find that the enlightenment you gain from your personal research on the subject will serve you well as an activist and, well, basically it will make you a stronger woman, better activist, not to mention a truly decent human being.

The more white women come to understand how we have hurt black women, and apologize, and change our behaviors…the sooner we can strengthen and expand “the feminist revolution” with new and improved solidarity.

And the more powerful WE ALL will be.

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Retired professor, feminist, writer, photographer, activist, grandmother of 5, overall Wise Woman. Phd UIA School of Journalism & Mass Communication, 1994.

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Georgia NeSmith

Georgia NeSmith

Retired professor, feminist, writer, photographer, activist, grandmother of 5, overall Wise Woman. Phd UIA School of Journalism & Mass Communication, 1994.

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