St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Americans and the Shifting Boundaries of Whiteness

Tomorrow in New York City, in Boston and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

The Trouble with Cisgender White Feminists

With her out-sized trans* visibility, retrograde politics, and gender performance, it is difficult for many cisgender white feminists to make sense of Caitlyn Jenner.

Caitlyn Cover

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(Aside: This is probably where I should disclose that I am white, sometimes identify as a feminist, and am cisgender. I also identify as lesbian, queer and femme and have a long-term partner who is GNC. I come at this critique and all my work through a lens that places critical race theory at the beginning of the analysis. This post follows on a recent one about Caitlyn Jenner, which is part of If on-going series I write called The Trouble with White Feminism, you might want to check it out.) 

In June, 2015 journalist and film producer, Elinor Burkett publishedher response to Jenner’s announcement of her gender transition, “What Makes a Woman?” in the New York Times. The piece caused an uproar. In it, Burkett confided that she, and “many women I know,” “speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves.” In Burkett’s view, the rhetoric of transitioning from one gender to another does not give enough heed to the social construction of gender, but relies on a kind of biological determinism. To make this argument, she relied on an analogy with race:

The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

Burkett’s objection seems to be that even though gender is not reducible to mere biology (breasts and vaginas), it is also not so easily changed. It is curious that she reaches to an analogy with race here. Curious because race is mentioned nowhere else in her piece, and race doesn’t seem to be a pressing concern for Burkett except as it is useful to make the real point she wants to drive home here, which is about gender. What Burkett’s analogy between gender and race reveals is Burkett’s lack of understanding of how race affects her, and how it is interwoven with gender. Burkett is a cisgender woman, not only a woman, she is also white. Her whiteness influences her perspective as much as her gender and her feminism, but it is little examined here. Her faulty reasoning-by-analogy is especially ironic in hindsight, as it was a short week later that Rachel Dolezal emerged as someone who had done just what Burkett set out as preposterous.

Burkett mis-genders Jenner throughout the piece (calling her “him” “Mr.” and “Bruce” throughout) – a practice trans* activists have dubbed deadnaming.  In Burkett’s view, the primary offense of Caitlyn Jenner was an insufficiently feminist approach to the performance of gender, she ends the piece upbraiding Jenner for a fond reference to nail polish, saying “Nail polish does not a woman make.”

Burkett’s is a nasty response, but not an unfamiliar one. For US-based, second wave, cisgender, straight white feminists, like Burkett or like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, femininity was key part of what they were struggling against. For cisgender, straight, white women who came of age at the height of Playboy culture, rejecting the trappings of (heterosexual) femininity was a crucial form of resistance.

Gloria Steinem bunny

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A Bunny’s Tale,  Gloria Steinem’s indictment from within a bunny suit of the Playboy culture and that particular form of femininity, was a touchstone for many feminists of that generation. What the cisgender white feminists tend to miss is that this form of femininity was not available to all women. This is not to diminish how oppressive some women find make-up and high heels, but this is not a universal experience. Julia Serrano, who identifies as trans*, argues that femininity has been scapegoated and should be reclaimed and celebrated. But hers is an unusual voice among white feminists. Many more agree with Burkett.

Even acclaimed scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling found herself agreeing with Burkett’s critique of femininity:

“I do not identify with the culturally feminine. I don’t wear make-up or high heels or dresses. I have always viewed the dominant presentation of the feminine woman–as someone physically weak, dependent and physically impeded by tight clothing and high heels–as disempowering…”

Fausto-Sterling then posted a series of disastrous Tweets, and sought to correct them through a longer blog post. In that post, Fausto-Sterling says:

The visual pin-up-girl presentation of the ultra-feminine Caitlyn Jenner in the pages of Vanity Fair did not fill my heart with joy. After my fateful tweets some of my correspondents directed me to Julia Serrano’s defense of femininity and I am struggling both to understand her position and to decide whether I agree with it or whether it is possible to embrace parts of it.

This is a common mistake of a white feminism. It wants to herald “all women” as sharing some universal experiences that should unify us all. It’s what was behind that hashtag, #YesAllWomen.

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This is the kind of faulty logic that is behind Madeleine Albright’s quip, “There is a special place reserved in hell for women that do not help other women.” While she was recently made to apologize for the remark when she said it at a rally for Hillary Clinton, in years past it was a favorite line of hers and even printed on Starbucks coffee cups. But, what does the category ‘woman’ mean when cisgender, straight, white feminists use it?

As the posts and graphics in support of International Women’s Day floated through my social media timelines earlier this week, I wondered who they meant. Certainly not me. As someone who identifies as queer and lesbian, the category ‘woman’ as most people use the term, barely adheres to me. French feminist theorist Monique Wittig wrote:

“for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women.”

Wittig was writing at the peak of radical lesbian feminism and her words may seem shocking today, but they still resonate for me. The category woman as many cisgender feminists mean it, is not one that resonates for me. I am far removed – by my own design – from the dangers inherent in heterosexual systems (e.g., violence against women, unintended pregnancy, the need for abortion). I certainly stand in solidarity with those who live within that system, but it’s not my life. I am not a ‘woman’ in that way.

I also identify as a queer femme, so the kinds of insults hurled at Caitlyn Jenner for her performance of femininity could have just as easily been thrown at me. And yet, I am a cis white woman, which carries all kinds of privilege with it. This, too, troubles the simplistic category of ‘woman’ used by cisgender white feminists like Burkett.

Lesli-Ann Lewis, writing at Ebony, explains this disconnect she experiences reading Burkett:

Burkett’s White cis middle class womanhood looks nothing like my Black poor cis womanhood, and that her issues are not my issues. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a meeting and have my breasts discussed because I’m not invited to those meetings. With natural hair and a state college education, I’m not let in to make those $0.75 to a man’s dollar. Most Black women do not. She discusses periods and birth control as defining difficulties of womanhood, but the women I know have found their womanhood rooted in deeper, more communal issues. Becoming a Black woman in America means worrying for yourself and your loved ones when they go out, for fear of police.

Understanding police violence as every bit as foundational to womanhood is beyond the scope of conventional formulations of cisgender white feminism. Instead, cisgender white feminists insist on critiquing trans* women for their expression of femininity.

When Allure magazine ran a stunning, mostly nude photo of Laverne Cox, cis white feminist Megan Murphy lost it.

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Murphy called Cox’s photo a “cartoonish version” of what a woman looks like, “like any other objectified female body, sculpted by surgery and enhanced by Photoshop.” Murphy, like Burkett, critiques a trans* woman’s expression of femininity as part of that oppressive system of representation that (some) feminists want to break free from. But such a critique misses more than it offers. Here is Lesli-Ann Lewis again:

Critiquing marginalized women for embracing femininity is tone deaf as it ignores our history of being denied femininity.

Lewis is on point here. The critique of femininity by cis white feminists assumes that everyone – all women – have had femininity thrust upon them, that it has oppressed universally. But some of us have been denied femininity, or had it twisted and turned against us.

Cis white feminists critiquing the femininity of trans* women of color such as Laverne Cox are displaying a kind of ignorance that is fostered by whiteness. Accustomed to taking their experience as women, without regard to race (or class), and then universalizing that to all women, they call for a feminism that shores up whiteness. It’s a feminism I want no part of. I’ll be standing with the trans* queer and gender-non-conforming folks of all races who want to get free. Some of us will be wearing nail polish.

The Trouble with White Women: Caitlyn Jenner Edition

Caitlyn Jenner is doing quite well for herself.  Her visibility, and the responses to it, raises some troubling issues about white women and white feminism.

Caitlyn Jenner for HM Sports(Caitlyn Jenner for HM Sports, image source)

At a time in LGBTQ politics when Janet Mock, Laverne Cox (both African American) and Caitlyn Jenner (white) are making transgender women more visible, it is Caitlyn Jenner who secured the cover of Vanity Fair (photographed by Annie Leibowitz) for the announcement of her gender transition. Jenner also has her own reality-based tv show, “I Am Cait”, and is racking up major endorsement contracts, most recently with MAC cosmetics and HM Sports. While Jenner’s already-existing celebrity status – as a former Olympic athlete and an adjunct member of the Kardashians – has helped to launch her new career, it is her whiteness that has helped her monetize her gender transition.

Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump

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Since being catapulted into the media-designated spokesperson for trans* people, Caitlyn Jenner has voiced her ardently conservative views and declared her support for Republican party presidential candidates, recently offering to be Ted Cruz’s “trans ambassador.”

On a recent episode of her show, Jenner said Trump would be “would be very good for women’s issues” (although she doesn’t like his ‘macho attitude’). A group of mostly white ‘gal pals’ of transgender women try to coax her out of her support for Republicans and her misguided belief that they don’t have anything against transgender people. It’s this construction of Caitlyn Jenner in the role of “student,” or “anti-hero” in the narrative of the show that Zack Ford calls “brilliant” :

There’s something brilliant about the fact that this is a show with a cast made up entirely of transgender women who are speaking openly about their experiences and calling out problematic anti-trans rhetoric without it feeling like an after-school special. Even if Jenner plays the foil for these discussions, she’s also still the reason that they’re taking place and that hundreds of thousands of people are watching them.

Perhaps so. I agree that it’s a good thing that Caitlyn and her antagonists can discuss the dire implications of Republican policies for transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) people, such as the wretched bathroom policy in Houston, for a wide audience.

Caitlyn and pals

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Part of the trouble with  “I Am Cait”, is to join trans* identity with whiteness, wealth and a particular kind of gender identity. In her show, the trouble with white women expands the franchise to include trans* women.

As generative as the conversations on her show about trans* issues may be, they do little to address the systemic racism which leads to the disproportionate murders of trans* women of color. Statistics on this are hard to come by because most federal surveys designed to estimate populations simply don’t account for trans* people, according to the Williams Institute. According to one estimate, 22 trans* women of color were murdered in 2015. The actual number is likely far higher.

Although Caitlyn says she favors the Republicans for their economic agenda, she and her pals are not talking about how this agenda affects the economic precarity of trans* people.The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 26% of trans people lost a job due to bias, 50% were harassed while at work, and 78% of trans* students were harassed or assaulted. Joblessness among transgender people is around 14%, double the national average (for 2011). Black trans* people had double that rate, 28% unemployment, according to an NGLTF survey.

Preston Mitchum notes many of these same critiques of Jenner but argues that we, as cisgender LGB people, are too hard on her. He writes:

What’s frightening is that when we reach our social justice journeys, we often expect others to immediately be on the ride, despite the fact that it takes most of us a lifetime to get where we are.

To be sure, Jenner is ‘not a perfect advocate’ for LGBTQ rights and I agree with Mitchum here. We are all on a journey, and Jenner seems to be new to thinking about social justice issues. There’s a way in which Jenner gets held to a different standard because she is in the spotlight.

My critique is less about her as an individual and what her ascendance means for the culture. What’s happening with the rise of Caitlyn Jenner as media-designated spokesperson on all things LGBTQ furthers an equation of ‘whiteness’ and ‘queerness.’

Caitlyn Jenner is now part of a larger cultural apparatus that produces whiteness. Which bodies do we mean when we say trans*,  LGBT, or queer? Often, they are white. And this affects how we view the world. As Hiram Perez writes:

“Queer theorizing, as it has been institutionalized, is proper to—and property to—white bodies.” 

Caitlyn Jenner as hypervisible trans* woman and corporate pitch-person reinforces this circuit of queerness, whiteness and property.

Scholar and activist Cathy Cohen describes the time we are living in as one of “multicultural neoliberalism,” characterized by:

a sustained attack on the basic humanity of poor black people that provides the context in which we should understand the killing of young black people, in particular young black men, and the less visible assaults on black women and the murder of black trans people.

As a response, Cohen calls for transformational politics and substantive solidarity, and urges an embrace of deviance. Juxtaposed to Cohen’s lucid naming of the moment, it’s here that we see the real contrast to Caitlyn Jenner’s politics. Based on her public persona, Jenner is not interested in a socially transformative politics nor is she interested in a substantive solidarity with black or brown or poor trans* people, nor does she seem to be interested in an embrace of deviance.

My point is not that Jenner is a less-than-perfect advocate for LGBTQ rights, but a subtler one. Part of Caitlyn Jenner’s success is her ability to fit rather seamlessly into the cultural apparatus of whiteness. It is whiteness that has also enabled Jenner to monetize her gender transition via large endorsement contracts. And, given her embrace not a rather conventional performance of femininity, she has reaped certain cultural and monetary rewards (e.g., Vanity Fair cover). 

And this is where Caitlyn Jenner poses a dilemma for cisgender, mostly straight, white feminists. Next in this series, I write about the trouble that cisgender white feminists have with Caitlyn Jenner.

White Supremacy and Property Rights: Tamir Rice and the Oregon Standoff


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In a span of just four days, news headlines in the US illustrated different aspects of white supremacy.  In one headline, we learned that the police officers who shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve year old, black child, as he played with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, would face no charges in the young boy’s death. In another series of headlines a short time later, we watched a lenient, even nonchalant governmental response to a group of white, armed, anti-government protesters as they stormed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Taken together, both highlight the importance of white property rights as a cornerstone in how white supremacy operates.

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The juxtaposition of the events in Ohio and Oregon illustrate white supremacy in the United States. .

On one hand, the killing of a child playing in a public space, the lack of aid rendered as he lay dying, and the assumption that he was much older than his young twelve years was justified through deeply established tropes that criminalized Tamir Rice’s black skin and that made him always already a suspect, even as a child.

On the other hand, Ammon Bundy and members of his white, anti-government militia, calling themselves “concerned citizens” while actively threatening to raise their arms against the federal government, are entitled to supply demands, press conferences, and a “wait and see” response by officials.

But the significance of recent events in Oregon extends beyond this obvious example of the differential treatment of racial groups by the state. We argue the events at the Oregon wildlife refuge are representative of what Arlo Kempf describes as a “colonial moment,” one that bolsters white supremacy and violence against people of color, as well as the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. settler state.

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The concept of settler colonialism emphasizes the ongoing occupation and privatization of Indigenous territories and the systems of race necessary to sustain the displacement and marginalization of Indigenous peoples. From this perspective, colonization is not an event of the past, but rather an enduring process that continuously unfolds across the landscape. Colonial moments normalize white domination and the racial status quo by obscuring histories of racial violence and exploitation and by reinforcing largely unquestioned assumptions about white settler property ownership and entitlement to stolen lands.

For some, the Bundys – both Ammon and his father Cliven – have become folk heroes for their efforts to reclaim federally owned and regulated land and for resisting the overbearing, ‘tyrannical’ federal government. However, as the chairperson of the Burns Paiute Tribe, Charlotte Rodrique, has explicitly stated, the Paiute peoples had been living on these lands for thousands of years prior to the arrival of white settlers. Deep ironies abound as the militia members demand that the federal government return the land to ranchers, loggers, and miners after claiming the federal government had usurped their rights.

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Though it’s quite easy to dismiss the Bundys, their followers, and other white militias in the American West as a “radical fringe” group with a poor understanding of U.S. history, we believe that to do so would be ill informed. Not only is the Oregon standoff part of a much broader political, economic, and social movement rooted in individual private property rights and undergirded by white supremacy, the event – and popular reactions to it – sustain particular understandings of whiteness and land ownership that render invisible the displacement and exploitation of people of color that enabled white settlement and the acquisition of federal lands in this area in the first place.


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Though Oregon is popularly known as one of the whitest states in the nation and parodied for its left leaning politics and liberal views, less widely known is how the state’s contemporary racial geography was forged through racist policies at a variety of scales (municipal, state, federal) that facilitated indigenous land appropriation, racial exclusion and marginalization, and labor exploitation. Through federal homestead policy and land acts that transferred lands appropriated from Indigenous peoples to individual white settlers, and aided by Indigenous dispossession and genocide, Whites assumed ownership of the area’s most productive land and built their local infrastructure and economy with Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican immigrant labor.

The Oregon Donation Land At (1850), for example, allowed free land only to whites. In Oregon, 10,513,945 acres (17 percent of total lands) were homesteaded following the 1862 Homesteading Act and its subsequent iterations. Racial exclusion laws passed in 1849 and 1854 prevented blacks from living in Oregon Territory. These exclusions were written into the state’s first constitution in 1859, which made Oregon the only free state in the Union with a black exclusion clause Furthermore, when Oregon statehood was declared, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were prevented from owning land or holding mining claims. Oregon’s 1901 anti-miscegenation statute nullified and criminalized marriage between whites and people of color, making the offense punishable by imprisonment.

As is clear, discourses about land rights in the American West continue to obscure and naturalize the ongoing displacements of Native Peoples and policies of racial subjugation and exclusion that produced the racial and class makeup and patterns of land ownership in contemporary Oregon. As a colonial moment, the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge shores up this racial framework. Bundy’s sense of history and his “right” to claim land on behalf of “the people” demonstrates the continued centrality of settler colonialism and white supremacy in the United States.

Thinking about the killing of Tamir Rice together with the Oregon standoff reveals the contours of white supremacy and the ways in which social condition of whiteness – what it means to be white in America – is so deeply entwined histories of violence, marginalization, and dispossession that have rendered some lives more valuable than others.

White men making claim to their “private property” rights are “patriots”, while black children playing in public spaces are reasonable threats to life and property.


~ This post was written by Anne Bonds and Joshua Inwood.  Bonds is and Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research focuses on gendered, raced, and classed inequality and the politics of economic development. Inwood is an Associate Professor of Geography and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee. His research focuses on race, racism and the continuing significance of white supremacy for understanding the US.

Review: Trouble with White Feminism

Looking back on 2015, there was plenty of trouble for white women and white feminism. From HIllary Clinton to Rachel Dolezal to the film about the suffragettes to Hollywood taste-makers, there were new incidents, but old patterns.

"every woman is white" tweet about magazine cover

Back in January, 2014 I started a series about the trouble with white women and white feminism. Since then, I’ve written about 18 posts, for a total of around 35,000 words – or, half a book. Here, I’m collecting them all in one place and re-ordering them by theme. There’s more I want to say on this subject, but I wanted to collect the writing I’ve done so far into one post because people often request this, and because it’s another step toward crafting this into a full-fledged book project. As I continue to add posts to the series, I’ll include them here, so drop a bookmark on this page if you find it useful.


I opened with something of a personal note, that some of my closest friends are white women. I, myself, am a white woman.  I have been helped in my career by white women, many of them white feminists. And, perhaps predictably, I come from a long line of white women ancestors, whose lives were constrained by gender. I found feminism and a way to a different life.  But what I observed at the outset is still true: There’s a consistency to the way white women behave and white feminists respond that is both troubling and requires critical attention.

Part I. White Women in the Early U.S.

In this section, I try to parse “white women” from “white feminism.” The overall point here is to look at there are ways in which white women have played a significant role in shaping white supremacy and benefiting from it. Sometimes, this is separate from feminism (by white women who don’t identify as feminist), sometimes it’s consistent with feminism. Not all white women are feminists, and historically speaking, feminism is an idea that early white women lifted (you could say “stole” and you wouldn’t be wrong) from Native American women.

1.     White Women and U.S. Slavery: Then and Now

2.     White Women & the Defense of Lynching

3.     The Racial Origins of Feminism

Part II. The Rise of the Professional, Managerial Class of White Women

The trouble with white women and white feminism is rooted in a particular class politics. There is a sociological literature on the rise of the professional-managerial class (PMC), as a distinct class position, which has grown significantly in the US over the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. These include jobs like teachers, social workers, engineers, managers, nurses, and middle-level business or government administrators, jobs where white women are disproportionately represented. This class position available to some white women overlaps with particular racial identity formation, in which “management” of one’s self, one’s body, one’s family is part of success. Taken together, these make a particular kind of feminism appealing to white women of the professional-managerial class.

4.        Learning to be a White Woman 

5.       White Women, White Motherhood

6.       The Second Wave: Trouble with White Feminism 

7.       “Leaning In” to (White) Corporate Feminism

Part III. White Women + Institutional Racism

White women create, actively participate in maintaining, and benefit from, institutional racism. (This is easily the section I’d like to work on more, and there are bits of this in other posts.)

8.        White Women and Affirmative Action: Prime Beneficiaries & Opponents

9.        Hillary Clinton: Good for White Feminism, Bad for Racial Justice

Part IV. White Women in Popular Culture Representations

Representations of white women in U.S. popular culture are pervasive, problematic and largely lacking in a sustained critique. Here, I make an effort to launch such a critique in contemporary popular culture.

10.  White Women in American Popular Culture 

11.   White Women Warriors, Tourists and Saviors   

12.   Lena Dunham and the Trouble with (White) ‘Girls’

13.   Rachel Dolezal and the Trouble with White Womanhood

Part V. Contemporary Feminism, #Hashtags and the Continuing Trouble

Easily the most important contribution to the revitalization feminism in the last fifty years has been Kimberlé Crenshaw (and other black feminists’) idea of intersectionality. That is the notion that ‘woman’ is not a unified category in which all women share the same interests, but rather ‘woman’ is intersected by race, by class, and by sexuality and (cis)gender identity. Second to that theoretical and political contribution to feminism, the most important contribution in the last fifty years is arguably the Internet. In some ways, these two advances – – intersectional feminism and the Internet —  have been on a collision course.

14.    Roseanne Arquette’s Oscar Speech 

15.    White Feminism and V-Day 

16.    #Hashtag Activism and Viral Videos

17.    Slut Walk and more #Hashtag Activism

18.    Erica Jong + Why Critiquing White Feminism is Necessary

19.    Trouble with White Women: Caitlyn Jenner Edition

20.    Trouble with Cisgender White Feminism

One of the key themes that runs through this work is that white women occupy a particular structural position that enables them (/us) to access more resources (relative to women and men of color): education, jobs, houses, health care, leisure time. This structural advantage creates an affinity for ‘gender only’ feminism and a kind of dissimilitude with intersectional feminism.

To the extent that white women take up feminism to advocate for equality to white men, that feminism is consistent with white supremacy. For me, personally, it continues to be important to critique white feminism because I want to disrupt white supremacy in all its forms, including when it manifests as white feminism.

I also think it’s important to critique white feminism it harms other women and perpetuates racism (causing more harm). My critique is meant to interrupt the harmful cycle of ‘gender only’ feminism that replays in generation after generation of feminists. This cycle is a kind of ignorance that’s painful to other women, especially women of color, and also queer, gender nonconforming and transgender women of all races.  It is the antithesis of feminism.




Jeb Bush: Latinos’ Candidate?

Jeb Bush finally announced his candidacy for President of the United States as a Republican. According to a reporter, Jeb portrays himself as

[A]n executive animated by big ideas and uniquely capable of carrying them out, pointing to his record in Florida of introducing a taxpayer-financed school voucher program, expanding charter schools, reducing the size of the state government by thousands of workers and cutting taxes by billions.

He also portrays himself as near-Latino.

One of Bush’s campaign major strategies is the pursuit of the Latino vote. It centers on Bush’s claim to Latinos that “I’m close to you, I understand you”: I speak your language, I embrace your culture and I know firsthand the immigrants’ experience. He says nothing about issues of importance to Latinos.

Bush’s repeatedly emphasizes his fluency in Spanish. He also asserts that Spanish is important in his family: He and his wife speak Spanish at home and their children are bilingual. OK Bush, it’s nice that Spanish is important to your family, but how does that help Latinos? Does that mean that you’ll champion immigration justice or accessible health care for poor Latinos? If not, which is certainly the case, your Spanish is just for show.

Bush also proclaims a deep attachment to Mexico:

Here in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has become a day where we celebrate our ties with Mexico and the great contributions of the Mexican-American community in the U.S. In my case, this relationship is very profound. My wife Columba was born in Mexico, my family has always had strong ties with Mexico and I have great respect and affection for our neighboring country.

What Mexico are you talking about, Jeb? The Mexico of Mexican elites? I doubt that you are speaking of the large number of people that would need your help the most: the undocumented poor who experience exploitation in their jobs and racial profiling on the streets.

His last affirmation is completely absurd:

I know the power of the immigrant experience because I live it each and every day. I know the immigrant experience because I married a beautiful girl from Mexico.

Come on, Jeb: Are you serious? What immigrant experience are you talking about? Your wife married a wealthy white aristocrat whose family includes two former Presidents of the United States. Your wife’s experiences have nothing in common with the mass of Latin American immigrants. She has almost certainly not been racially profiled in public spaces or spent years in this country without papers afraid that after years of hard work she could be apprehended and deported.

Jeb touts portions of his biography that are vacuous and not substitutes for a clear statement about how he would address as President the needs of the mass of Mexican and other Latino immigrants or the large population of poor US born Latinos. Don’t expect Latinos to vote for you simply because you speak Spanish and your wife is a Mexican immigrant. Offer them concrete solutions to their problems.

Racial Masquerades, White Domination, and Rachel Dolezal’s Racist Co-optation of Black Identity

The firestorm over Rachel Dolezal continues to hold people’s attention. As Jessie detailed in her post about Dolezal, the President of the Spokane, Washington NAACP, has presented herself in her adult life as African American (or at least as bi-racial, claiming to have an African American father). Last week her birth parents, both white, told the media that Rachel is, in fact, white – and they illustrated with pictures of her as a child with long blond hair, very fair skin, and blue eyes, a stark contrast to how she looks as an adult:

Rachel Dolezal as a young girl

Rachel Dolezal as a young girl

Rachel Dolezal Now

Rachel Dolezal Now

After some media became aware of her biological parents and the childhood photo, one reporter challenged her, asking about the man she had claimed was her father (an African American man) and asking her directly whether she was African American (at which point Dolezal walked away from the interview). Through a newly established Twitter account, Dolezal has said she will to make a longer statement on Monday.

As these incidents have become public and the issue has begun to receive a great deal of reaction and commentary, there has been much talk about race being socially constructed, about how culture affects our choices about appearance, intellectual pursuits, and ethnic identification. There has even been comparisons between Dolezal’s choices to present herself as African American and the gendered choices of transgendered individuals – this leading to considerations of whether Dolezal might be “transracial”. Most centrally the theme has seemed to be that this is a “complicated” issue concerning race, culture, and racial identity.

As a white woman who grew up in and lives in a black community and family, and as a scholar of race and racism, I received many requests to comment on the issue. At first I was dismissive, because I felt that this was a far less complex issue than many have suggested—but as the requests have continued, and the discussion about this case has proliferated, I felt it necessary to add my voice. Rachel Dolezal doesn’t represent, for me, the difficult question that many have suggested. Yes, race is socially constructed. And yes, we all take on elements of the culture in which we live and love. However, race and culture are constructed in connection with social structure, in this case a racial structure organized around white domination – a fact that is quite frequently missing from racial analyses and is sorely missing from the discussion of this woman. From my own experience I can say that being a white woman in an African American community and family, and having to negotiate my racial identity in a social structure characterized by white domination, is complex and challenging – it is challenging to have cultural elements to your life that don’t match the way people racialize you. It is challenging to have the expectations of others become a critique of your identity. It is, most importantly, challenging to know how to handle the fact that I continuously receive white privilege while those I love do not, to repeatedly see those I love experience racist oppression and even violence, and to try to negotiate that contradiction in my most intimate family relationships.

One of the most complex elements of my life is negotiating the dynamics of being critical of white supremacy, repulsed by the structural reality of white privilege, power, and authority, and at the same time being always unable to disassociate from a social structure that views me as white, and is ready to benefit me with the privileges of whiteness. But – because I abhor white domination and the racial oppression that characterizes our society, I realize that this is an essential negotiation that I must undertake, continuously and with reflexivity.

And this is NOT what Rachel Dolezal has done. No. Rachel has engaged in an act of masquerade. She has darkened her skin, she has permed and colored her hair. She has pretended that she did not grow up with all the privileges of whiteness. She has taken resources from the Black community in the form of a scholarship from Howard University, an Historically Black College/University. (And no, this is not the same as African American people passing as white so they can gain access to white resources – because our racial structure is based upon white supremacy and the denial of resources to people of color – one of the reasons universities like Howard exist). She has rejected the hard work of trying to negotiate a racial identity that sometimes makes her an outsider in the very community in which she wants to belong – and in doing that she has reified white power, she has made a mockery of the lived experiences of black women in the United States, and she has abrogated her responsibility as white woman who cares about equality. It does not matter if she works in civil rights, it does not matter what she has done for racial equity – her reification of white domination remains, and it belies all of her other efforts.

“Walk the Walk but Don’t Talk the Talk”: Color-Blind Ideology in Interracial Movement Organization

Color-blind ideology, which developed as part of the backlash to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement promoted the idea that skin color should not matter. In contemporary society, this often translates into the belief that racism no longer matters and that those who continually point racism out are trouble-makers “playing the race card.” In this context, even those organizations that repudiate racism are pressured to use racism-evasive strategies. Ironically, M. Hughey finds that white nationalist organizations are also using this post-racial rhetoric to their advantage by arguing that everyone, regardless of color, should have equal rights, including “whites.” For the white nationalist, organizing in a color-blind society means coming up with new ways to be taken seriously, since it is no longer appropriate to argue that people are inherently unequal. For progressive organizations, it means fighting an ambiguous form of racism that many refuse to see or discuss.

My study draws on three years of field work and interviews with twenty-five members of an interracial organization and coalition, analyzing the ways in which they address racism in private and public settings. I find that European American, Latino/a, and African American activists equally downplay the role of racism internally, and while they recognize the significance of racism externally, they do not make it a central part of their campaign. One African American woman summed it up this way,

There’s a way that you can bring that [racism] out without actually saying…Everything will speak for itself. It will eventually come to the forefront. (Personal Interview).

She felt that using the word racism against their opponents or addressing it explicitly in public settings would appear “unprofessional.” People of color who noticed racism within the organization also felt it better not to address it. A Latino organizer stated,

Anglos have a way of doing things, being so conniving…They are not in the fight, in the trenches. But if the publicity is there and the newspapers are there…they’ll show up…We do deal with that. We don’t talk about it, because if you talk about it and you say racism and all that, then you can jeopardize the whole movement (Personal Interview).

Activists justify these racism-evasive strategies by emphasizing action over talk. In their view, because they “walk the walk” they do not need to “talk the talk” on racism. Activists see themselves as “walking the walk” literally through marches and rallies and working within communities of color. As a European American organizer stated:

You know I think that the [the organization] does address that [racism]…we live in a city here that’s 60% African American and Latino…disproportionately members of those communities are poor…I think [the organization] makes the point without…using the labels (Personal Interview).

These findings have both theoretical and practical implications for studies of racial ideology and progressive movements. The term color-blind racism is problematic, because it combines a number of different components—racism, colorblind ideology, and racism evasiveness—which should be analyzed as separate but interrelated concepts. I suggest that colorblindness, as an ideology, promotes a certain racial worldview and political climate that leads to racism evasiveness. This racism evasiveness is what scholars are finding when their respondents argue that “the past is the past” or explain protests as “black unruliness.” These responses have typically been referred to as color-blind racism, color evasion, or power evasion. However, what is really being evaded is a specific form of racial power and racism.

While activists view racism evasiveness as necessary to solidarity, these strategies also limit their ability to challenge racism both within and outside of their organization. In fact, an African American man who left the organization stated:

They do too much over strategizing, over thinking [in the organization]. You know, it’s almost like, ‘We want to ruffle the feathers, but we only want to ruffle them to a certain point.’ No! Let’s ruffle the feathers until that chicken is bald, naked (Personal Interview).

For the most part, activists believe that there is a dichotomy between organizations, which talk about racism and those that act on it. Their pragmatic avoidance of talk is understandable, given the failure of many organizations to translate talk into action and the problems that may arise from calling out racist situations. However, the solution to the problems with talk is to throw it out entirely and instead focus on showing up to meetings, rallies, and marches. Avoiding discussions on racism internally may prevent the organization from dealing with complaints of racism when they arise. Also, if members are only communicating problems through a class analysis, how are they to justify their demands for greater representation of people of color on the job, in access to health care, and education, all racialized issues? Some antiracist training programs stress common language and analysis of structural racism for successful community organizing. Having that common language in the organization is important, because members noted different understandings of racism. Given these varied understandings, the organization could benefit from discussing how racism figures into their work. Progressive organizations must achieve a balance between talk and action, without relying on racism evasiveness.

~ Angie Beeman is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Anthropology & Sociology, Baruch College-CUNY. 

White Feminism and V-Day

As we approach February 14, the opportunities for learning about white feminism abound. The recent dust up with Rosie O’Donnell on Twitter began with questions for Eve Ensler – who was scheduled to appear on The View – and O’Donnell’s subsequent defensive response to those questions. But, to really appreciate the context of what happened, you have to understand the background on V-Day, indigenous women’s activism, and the substantial critique of Eve Ensler’s work.

For more than 20 years, Indigenous Women in Canada have led Women’s Memorial Marches to signify the strength of decolonization and the power of Indigenous Women’s leadership. Known as the “Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” (#MMIW), the commemoration has its origins in tragic events of January 1991 a woman was murdered on Powell Street in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. Her murder in particular acted as a catalyst and  February 14 became a day of remembrance and mourning.

While this memorial commemoration was well-established in Canada, a number of individuals and organizations have chosen to link February 14 to their own lobbying for women-themed causes, most notably Eve Ensler’s campaigns V-Day and her more recent endeavor One Billion Rising (OBR). Many indigenous women in the US and beyond are not only standing in solidarity with indigenous women of Canada on February 14, they are actively resisting the Ensler-industrial-complex of events. A leader in this resistance is Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk), who writes:

We love the idea of using Valentine’s Day to talk about what respect and consent look like and how we can stand up against sexual violence. However, due to the mistreatment and disrespect of women of color, indigenous women, and queer women by Eve Ensler and the V-Day campaign, we can no longer support her work.

In an Open Letter to Eve Ensler Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) says, in part, the following:

This all started because on Twitter, I addressed some issues that I had with V-Day, your organization, and the way it treated Indigenous women in Canada. I said that you are racist and dismissive of Indigenous people. You wrote to me that you were upset that I would suggest this, and not even 24 hours later you were on the Joy Behar Show referring to your chemotherapy treatment as a “Shamanistic exercise”.

The “Shamanistic exercise,” refers to the fact that Ensler was diagnosed with cancer and traveled to Congo, in central Africa, to seek alternative healing. She wrote a book about her experiences called, In the Body of the World.  In it, she refers to her cancer as similar to the injuries of women who had been raped, referring to it as “Congo Stigmata,” which of course, became a popular hashtag. For everything wrong with this bit of cultural appropriation, see this Storify by Mikki Kendall, or this piece by Jude Wanga, or this recap by Kelly Bennett.

Eve Ensler in Congo

(Eve Ensler, left. Image source)

Back to the  Open Letter to Ensler from Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk):

Your organization took a photo of Ashley Callingbull, and used it to promote V-Day Canada and One Billion Rising, without her consent. You then wrote the word “vanishing” on the photo, and implied that Indigenous women are disappearing, and inherently suggested that we are in some type of dire need of your saving. You then said that Indigenous women were V-Day Canada’s “spotlight”. V-Day completely ignored the fact that February 14th is an iconic day for Indigenous women in Canada, and marches, vigils, and rallies had already been happening for decades to honor the missing and murdered Indigenous women. You repeatedly in our conversation insisted that you had absolutely no idea that these events were already taking place. So then, what were you spotlighting? When Kelleigh brought up that it was problematic for you to be completely unaware that this date is important to the women you’re spotlighting, your managing director Cecile Lipworth became extremely defensive and responded with “Well, every date on the Calendar has importance.” This is not an acceptable response.

When women in Canada brought up these exact issues, V-Day responded to them by deleting the comment threads that were on Facebook. For a person and organization who works to end violence against women, this is certainly the opposite of that. Although I’m specifically addressing V-Day, this is not an isolated incident. This is something that Indigenous women constantly face. This erasure of identity and white, colonial, feminism is in fact, a form of violence against us. The exploitation and cultural appropriation creates and excuses the violence done to us.

When I told you that your white, colonial, feminism is hurting us, you started crying. Eve, you are not the victim here. This is also part of the pattern which is a problem: Indigenous women are constantly trying to explain all of these issues, and are constantly met with “Why are you attacking me?!” This is not being a good ally.

Lauren Chief Elk speaks the truth and Ensler’s work is a clear illustration of the trouble with white feminism.

Eve Ensler


Ensler, her organizations, and the appropriation of V-Day are part of what many have begun to name as “carceral feminism, much of it around claims about “trafficking.” In a recent peer-reviewed article in Signs, scholar Elizabeth Bernstein writes:

“…feminist and evangelical Christian activists have directed increasing attention toward the “traffic in women” as a dangerous manifestation of global gender inequalities. Despite renowned disagreements around the politics of sex and gender, these groups have come together to advocate for harsher penalties against traffickers, prostitutes’ customers, and nations deemed to be taking insufficient steps to stem the flow of trafficked women. In this essay, I argue that what has served to unite this coalition of ‘strange bedfellows’ is not simply an underlying commitment to conservative ideals of sexuality, as previous commentators have  offered, but an equally significant commitment to carceral paradigms of justice and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state.”

To put it more plainly, what the focus on incarceration as a solution to gender inequalities does is both insufficient to address the problems that women (of all races) are confronted with and shifts them on to another system of oppression that literally consumes the bodies of black and brown men. The blogger Prison Culture puts this succinctly here:

I’m a feminist and a prison abolitionist. I have previously mentioned that there was actually a time when prison abolition was a feminist concern. Times have changed and it’s more likely that you’ll find feminists calling for more & longer prison sentences than for an end to them. One Billion Rising for Justice seems to want to hew to some feminists’ histories of resisting the carceral state. Unfortunately, it falls way, way short.

Indeed, it does fall way, way short. I’ll be back with more about Rosie’s defense of Ensler in a subsequent post in this series.


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~ This post is part of a series, The Trouble with White Feminism. If you’re new here, this is the fifteenth post in an on-going series I began in 2014. To read the previous entries, begin with the initial post and navigate through using the “Read next post in series” link. I’ll eventually compile all these into an e-Book, for ease of reading. If you have suggestions for what to include in the series, use the contact form on this blog, or hit me up on the Twitter machine: @JessieNYC

 >>>>Read the next post in this series