black lives matter

Say Something: White Feminism’s Silence on Police Brutality

We have long known that US feminism has a shadow side: the racism, race apathy, and white supremacy that have historically compromised the integrity of its mainstream (i.e. predominantly white) organizations and campaigns. 

Last year, these critiques were amplified through a debate involving the #FemFuture report on online feminism, the backlash that characterized the report as racist, and the controversial article that called that backlash absurd. Though this heated conversation was painful for both sides, it called attention to these age-old critiques, compelling white feminists to consider them anew. The optimistic among us would like to think that the renewed focus on race would reveal that white feminists and the organizations influenced by them have learned to approach race more honestly and earnestly. I am one such optimistic, white feminist, but I was sad to observe that we did not display much improvement. The so-called Twitter wars of 2014 saw a lot of talk about race and how white feminists engage it, but white feminists and the organizations we represent failed to put those words into action: by the end of 2014, the country was in a crisis over race, and most mainstream feminist organizations were saying nothing.

2014’s epidemic of police brutality against African Americans reminded the US that its shameful past is not as far behind us as many would like to think. The shootings of Walter Scott in North Charleston, SC, Jerame Reid in Bridgeton, NJ, Naeschylus Vinzant in Aurora, CO, Tony Robinson in Madison, WI, and Anthony Hill in Chamblee, GA have made clear that the epidemic is still raging in 2015.

Yet, in stark contrast to the heavy chatter on race that came from white feminists during the Twitter wars, when it was time to defend ourselves, this crisis was largely met with silence from white feminists and their camps. (It is of course messy to categorize organizations as predominantly white, when no organization aims to have mostly white leadership. For the purposes of this discussion, I am defining predominantly white organizations as those that began with all or mostly white leadership.) Large and historic feminist organizations could have used their platforms to galvanize contingencies to participate in the marches that took place nation-wide, gathered signatures for the petitions circulated, encouraged their bases to give money to the groups doing hard and expensive work pushing for accountability, or at least expressed outrage. Instead, many of them continued with business as usual. The day after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, NOW sent out an email, but it was about safeguarding abortion rights. Emily’s List did not issue any statement  (though the organization’s president, Stephanie Schriock, did tweet a prayer for Michael Brown’s parents). The Feminist Majority Foundation issued a statement after Wilson’s non-indictment, but they have not commented on police brutality since.

This is, of course, not to say that no white feminists or organizations responded. Eminent feminist thinker Judith Butler was interviewed by the NY Times about the Black Lives Matter movement. V-Day, founded by Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler, solicited signatures for the African American Policy Forum. But the majority of mainline, predominantly white feminist organizations did not act on police brutality in a meaningful way. This is in contrast to the three Black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — who started the Black Lives Matter movement, the two Black Feminists –Synead Nichols and Umaara Iynaas — who organized the MillionsMarchNYC that gathered over 60,000, and the organizations run by feminists of color that made police brutality an organizational priority. Many have lamented the dissipated energy around the Black Lives Matter movement, reflected in the much quieter response to the killings of Robinson and Hill as compared to that of Brown and Garner in 2014. Instead of being thought leaders and cultural catalysts, mainstream feminist organizations have been a part of this trend of silence by virtually ignoring the Black Lives Matter movement.

While many white women may wish to say more about the race issues that have recently been forced to the front of US consciousness, it is challenging and maybe even not advisable for us to write about race. We have been called out in the past for our tendency to appropriate others’ experiences and make them our intellectual possession, and we’ve been accused of using the written word as a way to prove that we’re ‘the good kind’ of white feminist. The fear of saying the wrong thing, or saying the right thing for the wrong reasons, keeps many from publishing their outrage about police brutality. Then of course there is the unwillingness or psychological unpreparedness to deal with racism in our communities’ past and present. To address race would be to confront our history as co-conspirators in a nation founded on slavery and trenchantly dependent on racial inequity, and our implication in the ways that that inequity continues. As a community whose identity revolves around being committed to justice, our psyches can’t handle the potential rupture of acknowledging our complicity with the racism around us. White feminists as a collective have been psychologically immature in this regard. We have not addressed this central contradiction in our identity and it is holding us back from fully doing our part in the feminist movement. This psychological immaturity manifests itself at a time like this, when the country is in tumult over racism and our organizations are largely silent.

While we develop the psychological tools to authentically approach our past, and while we navigate the trickiness of speaking about something we don’t fully understand but in which we are fully implicated, we do have an immediately available option: action. The sides in the police brutality scandals are clearly demarcated and it doesn’t take much reasoning to know where a feminist committed to ending systems of domination should stand. While many debates about race and white feminism, like the 2014 Twitter wars, revolve around ambiguities such as political correctness, with police brutality the discussion is about young Black men and women who were alive and no longer are because of state sponsored bullets that entered their bodies.  We may not know exactly how to speak about the intricacies of structural racism and white supremacy, but we know what to say about the murders of Brown, Garner, and so many others.  And we must say it not just with our keyboards but with tangible, organizational action in support of efforts that are seeking an end to police violence against Black bodies. Anyone who has seen the videos of Eric Garner’s murder or the shooting of Walter Scott knows they have seen a modern day lynching. I pray that white feminists don’t turn their backs the way many of our foremothers did the first time lynching swept the country. This has got to stop and everyone is needed to stop it. Anything less than concrete commitment is less than feminist.

Header image credit: Politics Revealed

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Feminist, minister, disciple of Jesus, realist on a desperate and constant search for hope.

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