The Strange Comfort of Victimhood

The Strange Comfort of Victimhood

This time last year millions of angry and impassioned women across the country were preparing to march—in Washington, D.C. and beyond—for women’s rights and in protest of the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump. Others (even those who supported the cause, generally speaking) were declining to participate after the march refocused itself to include an array of issues experienced specifically by women of color. A selection of white women, it turned out, were feeling indicted by this and were considering staying home.

As Jennifer Willis, a 50-year-old from South Carolina, opined to the New York Times last January, “This is a women’s march. We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand black women’?”

The obvious answer to her question is that white women don’t understand black women’s issues, and frequently (if not always) don’t seem to care about the inherent differences between their issues and ours. Throughout the history of feminism, we have continually focused the movement on our equal pay, our marriages, and our reproductive rights—only demanding alliances when it suits us and failing to show up and fight when it does not (something we saw glaringly during the #BlackLivesMatter protests over the past several years).

The obvious answer to her question is that white women don’t understand black women’s issues.

Of course, the march, even with its carefully crafted diverse leadership (and its absence of Jennifer Willis), was still flawed—not because it was intersectional, but because it wasn’t intersectional enough, leaving many, particularly women of color, feeling rightfully suspicious of what this showing of solidarity could mean for them. As my former colleague Kara Brown wrote on Jezebel after attending the march in Los Angeles:

I don’t trust most of the Women’s March participants to show up again. I don’t trust the resolve of their concern. I don’t trust that all voted for Hillary Clinton or recognized the unprecedented threat of Donald Trump. I don’t trust that they understood this was an election to do everything in our power to keep him out of the White House—too important to throw a vote away on Jill Stein or write in your mother’s name on the ballot.
What I do trust, however, are bigots. I trust bigots to remain bigots. I trust them to continue sending me gloating, racist emails and harass John Legend and shoot black people for as long as they continue to get away with it. I trust them because there’s evidence. History is riddled with proof. Their hatred has always persevered.

In the months following the election (an election in which 53 percent of white women voted for Trump) and the march itself, white women faced greater public scrutiny as oppressors than ever before. (About time, considering that, as a group, we are consistently awful.) Sure, we could still comfort ourselves with the reminder that we’re not as bad as white men, but still, it was becoming consistently harder to lie to ourselves about the myriad of ways that we have profited from and advanced white supremacy.

it’s possible to fight for myself while recognizing my own privilege in our nightmarish white supremacist culture.

But it’s hard to be introspective and admit that you’ve had a hand in another’s oppression, to face the terrifying notion of change and the relinquishing of social power, when instead you can hide behind your own victimhood. Self-pity can serve as a means of absolution, a balm that convinces us that, because we too are victims of a white supremacist patriarchy, we couldn’t possibly be oppressors. It is true, of course, that women of all races and social classes have been subjugated in some ways, but no one more than white women have been weaponized (often gladly) as a tool for racists. The promise to “protect our women”—weak and fair—has existed as an excuse to carry out violence against people of color long before and long after 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Still there are white women who deny our hand in any of this, who believe that somehow—if we were ever to blame to begin with—these crimes were expunged by our own misfortune and then again by the sisterhood of feminism. As if eugenics never happened, and hate crimes were no longer committed on our behalf.

Self-pity can serve as a means of absolution.

But why stir the pot now, a year after the march? Well, because Weinstein happened and once again white women have reclaimed our victimized narrative, while women of color have been shoved to the background. White feminist celebrities are eager to rally around each other, wear all black to the Golden Globes, and say, “Time’s up!” But they’re not so willing to examine the ways they’ve enabled this system to continue to exist. Few seem to recognize that while Gwyneth Paltrow was exceedingly brave to come forward against Harvey Weinstein, a black actress like Lupita Nyong’o’s account will come with twice the risk and half as much credit. In fact, when biracial actress Aurora Perrineau came forward to accuse former Girls writer Murray Miller of sexual assault, Lena Dunham—one of the most prominent voices of white feminism in the entertainment industry—saw fit to speak out against Perrineau, accusing her of making a false accusation. (Dunham and her writing partner Jenni Konner later apologized.)

To be a white victim of misogyny (in the day-to-day sense and in more overt cases) is still a deeply painful experience that I personally explore and struggle against every single day. Also worth taking into account is that “whiteness” covers a swath of cultures and to deny bigotry against white (and non-white) Jewish women, queer women, or women with disabilities would be both harmful and neglectful. But I also try to remind myself that it’s possible to fight for myself while recognizing my own privilege in our nightmarish white supremacist culture. Suffering isn’t a competition, but it is a hierarchy where some people’s pain is continuously prioritized over others, even (or especially) in cases where women are trying to support each other.

Suffering isn’t a competition, but it is a hierarchy where some people’s pain is continuously prioritized over others

This weekend, many will again take to the streets to mark the one year anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington. Worth considering as we prepare our signs and put on our pussy hats is what exactly we’ve accomplished in the past 365 days. Quite a lot, actually, when you consider the #MeToo movement and displays of courage that’s arisen from it. But still, as much as that merits pride, we’re leaving too many women behind in favor of self congratulations and the strange comfort of our own victimhood.

Perhaps we know how to rage and push back because the version of feminism on clearest display at this moment has given us the language and tools to do so. Of course, no one wants to be a victim in theory, but even among liberal white women, I often observe that they are much more confident when it comes to being stepped on than they are at realizing they’re stepping on someone else.

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