The Tricky Exceptionalism of 'Fellow White Women'

The Tricky Exceptionalism of 'Fellow White Women'

In a time where easily sharable video provides weekly, if not daily, evidence of America’s violent racism, a constant cacophony of individual voices respond in real-time. At the beginning of this week, the conversation-provoking event was a video of a white woman, Amy Cooper, calling the police to claim her life was being threatened by Christian Cooper, a black man peacefully watching birds in Central Park. That news was followed quickly by the excruciating footage of the police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. These videos have sparked protests, demands for America to address its deadly racism, and a certain kind of social media scolding, often openly addressed to “Fellow White Women.”

For as long as social media has provided a platform for activism, slactivism, and sometimes outright grandstanding, the phrase has popped up. But since the 2016 election, when white women proved to be the tipping demographic in the election of bigoted game show host Donald Trump as President of the United States, it seems to have come into heavy usage.

A widely circulated HuffPo opinion piece from November 9, 2016 declares “My Fellow White Women: We Fucked This Up.” (Its first line reads: “Fellow white women, I’m done with you.”) A recent Scary Mommy headline proclaimed, “Fellow White Women: We Must Support the Fight for Reproductive Justice—Especially in the Time of Covid-19. An episode of the podcast Democracy in Color is titled “Political Writer Julie Kohler Has a Message for Her Fellow White Women.” A Twitter search for “fellow white women” turns up hundreds of results in the past 24 hours alone, many of them from verified accounts.

In the nearly four years since Donald Trump was elected president and “my fellow white women” has become prevalent in headlines and as a social media turn of phrase, the words are usually an indicator that some instruction for white women is about to follow. For example, a May 26 tweet ostensibly in reference to the Amy Cooper video from the anonymous, widely-followed Twitter account “Feminist Next Door” reads: “Fellow white women: understand that the supremacy you may seek from racism will never be afforded to you by the white men who reinforce it. You are a useful instrument in an abhorrent institution that will never protect you from those it empowers. Safety only exists in equity.”

The author here is tackling the work of addressing white supremacy, which absolutely should be called out and condemned loudly and frequently, and the tweet is earnest in its sentiment. But the salutation “Fellow white women,” serves two purposes: It identifies the writer as a white woman, but also sets her apart. She is an exceptional white woman, one who is battling white supremacy by educating others.

She is an exceptional white woman, one who is battling white supremacy by educating others.

“My fellow white women” echoes the presidential address cliché; “My fellow Americans” as an easy shorthand for the sentiment of “We’re all in this together.” One of the first recorded usages of the phrase “My fellow Americans” comes from the 1933 inaugural address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as he reassured a country aching from the hardships of the Great Depression that he, too, felt their pain. John F. Kennedy used it when he told Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Nixon invoked it in his Vietnam address. “Fellow” indicates fellowship, equal standing, and a president addressing his constituents as peers linguistically puts them in league together, even though, rationally, we may know that is not the case.

But the tic of addressing millions of white women as “fellow” before offering second-person warnings about patriarchal white supremacy or sharing some advice for how to avoid becoming an Amy Cooper—a purportedly liberal white woman using supremacy to make life worse for everyone else—does the opposite of what FDR, JFK, and Richard Nixon did. Instead, the word “fellow” coupled with the second person “you”—rather than the collective “we”—creates distance between the author and the addressee, indicating that the author is not, in fact, a fellow of the white women upholding the American legacy of racism, one vote and menacing phone call at a time. Followed by the word “you,” the word “fellow” acts as a Band-Aid rather than a bridge and leaves out entirely the idea that all white women are complicit in racism by benefitting from its privileges even as we denounce its existence.

For example, in sharing her very well-researched and thorough history of white women’s contributions to systemic racism in America, Buzzfeed culture writer and editor Shannon Keating with a tweet reading “wrote to & about my fellow white women.” But in the (very good) attached essay, she doesn’t remove herself from the narrative, even if common Twitter parlance separates white women into two groups: faultless observers and complicit participants.

It’s not that white women shouldn’t be scolded, it’s that we should all be included in that scolding: no exceptions. And the problem with “My fellow white women” isn’t that white women are speaking out against racism on social media, it’s that the phrase too often performs allyship and reaps rewards from that performance with no risk to the writer, who likely already knows her audience agrees. There’s nothing wrong with condemning racism on social media. It’s a small act that all white people can contribute in the greater battle against the uniformly unfair position of anyone who isn’t white in America. But there is a difference between a large audience, primarily of self-proclaimed feminists, on Twitter, and a small audience of real-life acquaintances on platforms like Facebook. It’s a difference of risk versus reward, along with a difference in who the message actually reaches.

And this kind of performance isn’t relegated to city feminists with giant platforms. We—white women, myself included—are all guilty of trying to absolve ourselves of involvement in the brutal history of American racism and firmly establish that we are not Karen, Becky, or Amy Cooper. But there are also times when social media support does come with some risk. I am from a very small and very racist town in Louisiana, and nearly every day, I see the same two white women I went to high school with posting their support for those standing up on behalf of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and so many others killed for being black in America. Their livelihoods are tied to the community and their platforms are small. They are not addressing their “Fellow White Women” anonymously on a social media account with hundreds of thousands of followers; they’re talking to their own mothers, their bosses, their co-workers, and their friends. It’s probably impossible for any white person to publicly express support for marginalized communities without at least some measure of performance, exceptionalism, and absolution-seeking, but the stakes seem higher when arguments are not with faceless internet racists in the comments and the authors are talking to an audience of just a few: people who will remember their “Say His Name” posts in the aisles of the town’s only grocery store. The difference is not that they deserve more, or any, praise because no one deserves a pat on the back for pointing out that murder is bad and racism is wrong, it’s that thousands of likes and retweets by like-minded followers are a pat on the back of sorts and getting them seems like a reward for giving the best opinion.

Another popular social media shorthand of the Twitter age is “Silence is compliance,” meaning that those who say nothing are complicit in police-sanctioned murder. But not tweeting is not the same as saying nothing, and too often “my fellow white women” is tag intended for the author and their followers, not the imagined audience. It’s an acceptable way to write “not all white women” alongside a more quiet implication of “and certainly not me.”

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