Late one Parisian afternoon wearing oversized sunglasses and a designer dress I walked from the Paris metro station nearby to the Opera House to join the other tourists posing in front of the historic façade riddled with the statues and names of deceased composers and take my own pictures for Instagram. Having finished I strolled slowly down the avenue passing the many expensive boutiques selling expensive brand name clothing, jewellery, and occasionally chocolates.
Deciding I wanted to journal I wafted into, not a local café or proper coffee house in the European style, but a Starbucks and ordered in French so openly terrible that the cashier rolled his eyes at me and replied in English, a grande java chip frappuccino. I found myself embarrassed, not by my failure to speak the local language but that the young woman in front of me in line, slender, lithe, and likely a ballet student had only ordered water while I was waiting for an absurd sugary drink.
Having received my drink — and the barista handed it directly to me evidently warned that my French was not suitable for even the shortest conversation — I noted that yet again, my name had been misspelled. Rather than write “Ari,” on the plastic cup they had written “Honey.” I went to prom with a handsome young man who later preferred to be called “Honey,” and often presents as a beautiful young woman, but I myself am not known by this name.
Shrugging and unperturbed I entered the sitting area of the Parisian Starbucks to find myself a table and spend a little time scribbling. The area was decorated in mid-18th century style complete with chandeliers and floor to ceiling mirrors with gilded frames. Every inch of exposed wall was painted with capering figures rosy cheeked with powdered hair and wearing clearly expensive attire.
I found a seat, opened my little leather-bound journal and proceeded to write. And that was the moment pen hovering over paper that I realized, “Dear god, I am white.”
There’s nothing inherently bad about being white or a white woman. The cashier who failed to embarrass me was Asian and it’s not like I was a jerk to him, I just didn’t have the correct French for that situation and he probably dealt with a few hundred English speaking tourists every day. I could have perhaps been a bit more dedicated to learning French but that’s not the issue here. There’s also nothing wrong with wearing a certain style of clothes or taking pictures for Instagram — although, full disclosure, I can’t afford designer dresses and although I have an Instagram account I’m terrible at it and hate taking selfies. It’s not bad that I was running around Paris in any capacity in part because if I want to be a tourist that shouldn’t be an issue as long as I’m reasonably respectful and I was actually there because I have French family I was visiting.
The issue in this instance is not with me at all, but with the privilege my white skin allows me and how it allowed me — a woman who doesn’t really belong in Paris — to have a perfectly fine silly little wander through the city while another woman who was clearly French and clearly on her way to work was verbally harassed simply because her skin was black.
You see, long as it was, I didn’t tell you the whole story. I had been turned back from the French-UK border because the UK Home Office lost paperwork and then failed to inform me of their mistake. As a result I had to stay in France and file new paperwork from there. On my way to my lawyer’s office to hand in some paperwork, I passed a homeless woman who clearly had some sort of psychological stress. She was muttering, but she did not remark on me really.
As I was returning from the office on my way to the opera house a young well appointed business lady passed me and was walking just in front of me. As she passed the homeless woman from before the homeless woman became suddenly enraged and screamed at her the n-word in French. The lady jumped, clearly shaken. I was also shocked and all I could think to do was put myself between the homeless woman and the lady. We came to a stop light together and had to halt. I wanted to say something to her or ask her if she was alright but I couldn’t think of anything to say. She was clearly upset, shaking her head and when the light changed she all but ran to the metro entrance. I slowed my pace and waited until I could see she had safely made it.
But there I was, a foreigner rejected by my own country of residence more accepted in a city where I did not belong than a woman who clearly lived and worked there. And all because of our skin.
You might say, “ah, but a crazy homeless woman yelling racial slurs in a foreign country is neither your concern nor your fault,” and I would agree with you, but it is indicative of a wider problem in which women like me can be and often are complicit. Me being able to indulge myself for an afternoon is not inherently problematic, but someone just like me but Black being unable to simply be on her way to an appointment without being yelled at is.
And it is my problem.
Lest you think this is navel gazing white feminism let’s just put that straight to rest right away. I’m not concerned about how I feel that that woman’s safety was violated over the colour of her skin, I’m concerned with her ability to access safely the spaces I take for granted.
I had no problem the rest of the day going out and white womaning to my heart’s content. Particularly in France, I’m perfectly safe as a white woman to do as I please. And if someone told me I couldn’t I’d be mad, and rightfully so. I’m not really prepared that there is the level of organized white supremacy in France that exists in America but there absolutely is racism. No one, not even white men, ever benefits from racism or white supremacy, but the devil’s bargain white women often pay for our basic safety and privileges is ignoring or denying the same to women of colour.
The conceit of white supremacy for white women is that the price of our lives, our relative comfort, our health, our safety and our social standing is our obedience. The idea is we can be wherever we want, have as much as we want, do whatever we will do as long as we don’t question why our spaces are so very white.
We have this idea that as long as we have good intentions, as long as our heart is pure we cannot possibly be bad or wrong or, quelle horreur, racist. And so we as white women spend so much time trying to be beautiful inside and out. We do yoga, we learn about Eastern religions because they’re exotic and enlightened, we buy crystals, and go vegan. And if we do all this stuff we can’t possibly be racist because we’re pure of heart and we’re doing all these things that the brown people do! Right? Right?
Yoga and veganism maybe don’t deserve me picking on them like this, but I’m going to do so anyway because in our pursuit of being spiritually enlightened and righteous and cruelty free we have become base, self-righteous, and cruel. Yogis — even white yogis — at this point are largely aware of the cultural appropriation that has occurred within their discipline. It’s one thing to practice yoga as a white person, but it’s quite another to claim it as a path to spiritual enlightenment and use it for profit as a white person particularly when that’s done at the expense of actual South Asians. (And we won’t even get into tantric sex.)
Veganism in principle is a great thing. Cruelty-free nutrition? Sign me up. But the problem is that that is not what most veganism is. Veganism particularly as it’s practiced in the West requires largescale deforestation of rainforest habitats and results — albeit unintentionally — in near slave labour conditions and malnutrition in populations who produce the grains many vegans prefer. Sure, the intention was that a diet devoid of animal products would not require cruel practices towards animals. But that is not the result. The result is animal endangerment and entire villages where the children are chronically malnourished. As with yoga, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being vegan and honestly, it’s laudable to at least try to reduce one’s carbon imprint or be cruelty-free. But due to mass production vegan and vegetarian food production are arguably every bit as bad as meat production.
And then there’s the gatekeeping.
This is where we return to white supremacy. People don’t buy jade eggs for vaginal insertion or practice yoga or go vegan because they’re white supremacists or racists. If they think about that at all they’re probably trying not to be. But you might notice that there’s a surprising dearth of colour in yoga. And Black vegans exist but have trouble being accepted by white vegans as real vegans. This is not because — as the excuse will inevitably go — because only white people like this stuff; it’s because white people actively keep people of colour out of “this stuff.”
You’ve seen gatekeeping before. Probably men have done it to you before. Maybe you like D&D so you go and try to buy dice or one of the books and as you’re picking out your purchase some guy decides its his sacred duty to quiz you about it. God forbid you fail but how very dare you show him up if you end up knowing more. Maybe you’re into a metal band and wear their shirt but of course some guy randomly comes up to you and demands you rattle of the names and key signatures of three of their tracks from that one album they released in 1995. Or maybe you’re just at the gym trying to get swoll and some guy gets mad when you reject his advances and outlift him. Because as bad as white women can be men, particularly white men, are inevitably worse.
Remember how annoyed you rightfully were when that happened? We white women do exactly that all the time to women, and sometimes men of colour.
Why are we like this??
Actually, that’s rhetorical. I know exactly why we’re like this and it’s the same reason men do it to us although we do have slightly better justification for it. Slightly. I mean not really because it’s terrible no matter what but when women claim spaces for themselves it does make more social and historical sense than when white men do it.
It’s punching down.
As with the men who kick us out of Man Space, it’s due to this constructed and false idea of scarcity. Men don’t like a thing less because a woman also likes it and so their insistence that we give up the things we have in common with them is just stupid. Although, in high school I was in a D&D club. Anyway this kid joined in his freshman year and proceeded to ask all the girls out one after another. We all shot him down. So his next chess master move was to petition the club president to ban girls from the club because — and I quote — “they’re only in it to get boyfriends anyway.” So Man Space is simultaneously about constructed scarcity artificially inflating a thing’s value and misogyny.
Well, it cuts both ways. White women often do exactly this to women of colour under the false premise that “we worked so hard for this and you did nothing, why should we admit you?” Ignoring the twin facts that a.) virtually everything white women have earned was done with help to the point of leadership of women of colour and b.) we don’t lose anything at all by “admitting,” women of colour.
Note: I’m not talking about safe spaces here. Safe spaces are entirely different and they belong specifically and exclusively to the more marginalized group specifically so that group doesn’t have to deal with anyone’s b*llsh*t for a minute.
Feminism is what got us our rights. And our mothers and grandmothers fought hard for those rights. My grandmother and her sister, my great aunt were brilliant with numbers and natural leaders. The two of them worked as accountants and ended up supervising teams. But they weren’t paid as well as the men at their level and sometimes even the men they supervised earned more. So the two of them put their heads together to demand the pay that they were worth. Their own bosses couldn’t stop them because they were sisters and inseparable.
When women work together we’re unstoppable.
Which is why white supremacy tries so hard to divide us and make us fight among ourselves for artificially limited resources. White supremacy says that our rights were bestowed on us by generous men who can just as easily take them away if we step out of line. This is a lie. Those rights are ours, they belong to us, we took them for ourselves, and we only get to keep them if we continue to “step out of line.”
When you rat or rag on your sister you’ll get a pat on the head from white supremacy and they’ll protect you for a time, but only as long as you’re “useful.” We white women often exclude women of colour because we buy into the white supremacist line that they somehow “haven’t earned it,” or are “taking what’s ours.”
We white women are an entire race of pick-me-girls, and it’s just not cute anymore.
It is so bad we have lost elections over it. We have white womaned so hard we lost a United States Presidency over it. And we nearly lost two. Hillary Rodham Clinton put in a pretty respectable showing in the 2008 Democratic primary against Barack Obama. When she lost she took a day and then she got her butt to work campaigning for Obama. And a lot of her supporters followed her lead. But quite a few white women who had supported HRC did not go on to cast a vote for Barack Obama. Why? Because false scarcity. Because instead of listening to Hillary Clinton we listened to white supremacists who said there could be a Black President or there could be a woman President but there couldn’t be both. We weren’t there for the Black guy even though he was there for us. Black voters saved us from ourselves but wow did white women not help.
And then in 2016 we did it again. Instead of learning from our mistakes a majority (albeit a small majority) of white woman voted for an actual serial rapist over Hillary Rodham Clinton. And this time it just wasn’t enough for Black voters to save us. Black women voted for HRC by something like 98%. Every other minority demographic went for HRC. But white women just dropped shields and ran.
Hillary is actually a white woman. White men are perfectly happy whenever they get to vote for white peen, so why were white women turning their noses up at another white woman? Again, it’s white supremacy. White supremacy tells us that we are only good enough if we claw over our sisters. We have only succeeded if we’re the only one there. We will only get anything if we’re the last woman standing in the gantlet. If we’re not flawless we’re not good enough and if any woman is better than us we are worthless.
And that my ladies and assorted gentlemen is how we get the super-selfish, and self-righteous white woman who believes she is perfectly justified and even morally required to throw everyone else under the bus to achieve her own ends however absurdly fleeting or silly or even private they might be.
Women of colour deserve to be let into our plant-milk, sugar free, java sessions. They were there fighting beside us when we decided that’s what we wanted so why shouldn’t they reap the reward? Stop listening to white supremacy. White supremacy screws you over and claims credit for all your work. Kick it to the curb, my ladies.
Take up with your sisters, your real sisters-in-arms, and let’s get some sh** done.