On White Nonsense: An Intersectionality Primer
This week, I had the incredible privilege of marching on the National Mall in D.C. with hundreds of thousands of my sisters in what turned out to be a cathartic, empowering, exhilarating day. We marched so our voices would be heard and because too often we are spoken over and spoken for. We marched for reproductive healthcare, refugees, gun control, prison reform, immigration reform, anti-poverty policy, and dozens of other critical, life-or-death policies that simply can’t wait any longer.
Many men said this march wouldn’t change anything—that we were wasting our time. They said we should suck it up and respect the president. They said we should put our concerns aside for the sake of unity. They said #NotAllMen.
And we said hell no. We told them to take a step into our shoes, to have some empathy. We told them that we have life experiences that they couldn’t possibly understand, that they should trust women, and that we won’t wait any longer. So we marched.
I marched with elderly women who paved the way for me and little girls for whom I will hopefully help pave their way. I marched with mothers shaken out of their apathy for fear of their daughters and young women who gathered the courage to march even though their parents wouldn’t understand. I marched with all kinds of women from all walks of life; I marched with trans women and immigrant women and Black women and brown women and Native women and disabled women and LGB women and even lots of men. But mostly, I marched with lots and lots of white women.
One quiet, older Black woman held a sign that read “Stop the White Nonsense.” I marched near her for a few moments and heard two middle-aged white women tell her that it’s offensive to reduce everything white people say to nonsense and that nonsense doesn’t have a color.
Let’s take a step back. I know lots of the women in my life have begun approaching activism for the first time in the aftermath of the election, and I know that the initial approach can be really overwhelming and intimidating. It’s jarring when the framework with which you were conditioned to view the world fractures and you have to reevaluate the very lens that lets you see. So I don't expect those women to already know this. But I do expect them to learn.
So let’s talk about intersectional feminism, how white women do to women of color what men do to us, and ending white nonsense.
For those unfamiliar, intersectionality is the idea that we all have multiple identities that frame how we interact with the world. For example, I'm a woman and I'm young and I'm white and I’m fat and I have anxiety and I’m cisgender (meaning I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth) and I’m straight and I come from a middle class family. Some of my identities have given me privilege (like being white) and some have placed me in a position of oppression (like being a woman). But when I interact with the world, I interact with it as my whole self, at the intersection of all my identities. So, I don't leave my whiteness at the door when I experience things as a woman, and I'm still a woman when I'm experiencing white privilege.
What this means is that we all experience womanhood differently. I experience it as a straight, cis, middle-class white woman. Some of my sisters experience it as Black women or immigrant women or trans women or poor women or some combination of those things. When I experience workplace sexual harassment or am catcalled or experience being on the wrong side of the wage gap or am spoken over, I am always cloaked in my whiteness. It's inherent that my understanding of womanhood is only an understanding of white, straight, cis, middle-class womanhood.
So when a Native woman explains the pain and marginalization she felt marching among lots of white women, I listen because I have no idea what it is to interact with the world as a Native woman. Or when Black Lives Matter activists wonder why it's so damn hard to get white ladies to BLM protests, why they're just now willing to take to the streets, I listen and I try to understand and I make a plan to figure out how I can help. Or when our trans sisters talk about the pain they felt seeing signs at the march that centered womanhood entirely around having a uterus, I listen, try to empathize with their pain and to think about how I can best phrase my activism. Or when a non-white protester holds up a sign that says "White Women Voted for Trump," I don't yell back, "Not all white women!" I listen and I hear her point and I wonder how I can talk to my white friends about voting. Or when social media activists complain that white allies can't be trusted, I listen, wonder what it would feel like to feel like nobody is on your side and commit to trying to be a better ally. Or when a Black woman posts in a comment thread that white women should just shut up and listen for once, I do. I listen and I don't speak or comment.
When I first started trying to understand this intersectional world of online activism, I quickly learned to listen more and say less. My voice is very often not the most interesting one in the room (or the comment thread), and I almost always have the least number of identities that would make me marginalized or oppressed and a whole lot more privilege than those around me. Sometimes I ask questions, but whenever possible, I ask them of white folks more woke than I am—or of Google—because marginalized folks are emotionally exhausted and do not owe us their time or labor. Before I say or do anything, I try to understand how a Black woman or a trans woman or any other woman would perceive my words and what it would feel like to experience them in her shoes.
It's important to remember that when someone is talking about white people or white women, they might not be talking about you. When someone says "White people are racist!" or "White progressives don't actually do anything for us!" take a breath first. If it's not about you, it's not about you. Move on.
If it is about you, do some serious introspection. Interrogate your own biases and behaviors to understand why it brought your defenses up so quickly. Your privilege—being white—is not an evil thing or a condemnation of your character. It doesn’t mean you’ve never worked or felt pain. It's inherent to your identity and, if you do the work of understanding it and restructuring your worldview, it might even be a tool you can use to help your more marginalized sisters down the road.
Remember how it felt when men said this march wouldn’t change anything, that we were wasting our time? When they said we should suck it up and respect the president? That we should put our concerns aside for the sake of unity? #NotAllMen? That exasperation we feel when they just don’t get it because they’re limiting themselves to their own experience? In those moments, they denied the experience that we have of interacting with the world as women. They didn’t trust us or defer to us.
That’s how women of color feel when we tell them to stop bringing race into things and focus on the fact that we’re all women. When we say things like “Not all white women voted for Trump!” not only are we derailing the conversation, but we’re dismissing the reality that they experience—and the reality that a majority of white women did. Trust and defer to women of color, because they know what it’s like to exist at the intersection of their identities better than we ever will. Just as we ask men to step outside of themselves and empathize with the experience of interacting with the world while female, we must step outside of yourselves and empathize with the reality of interacting with the world as a woman of color.
When they say “Stop the white nonsense!” ask yourself who and what they’re talking about. 53% of white women just voted for Trump and a huge chunk of the rest of us—the Hillary and Jill voters—have refused to show up for intersectional feminist causes in that past.
If it’s not about you, it’s not about you. But what can you do to ease that pain? What cause can you take up or whose mind can you change? White nonsense is not the collective actions of all white people being categorically reduced to nonsense. It is the persistent presence of white people who dismiss the experiences of people of color, betray their causes, and perpetuate racism both passively and actively. White nonsense is the dangerous election of Trump by white women who just weren’t really feelin’ Hillary ‘cause she felt kinda cold and the rise of #AllLivesMatter and the refusal of white feminists to recognize the experiences of women of color as a cross that the collective sisterhood should bear. So what can you do about those things?
Marginalized folks are done waiting. We made Black suffragettes march in the back in 1913 because we figured "One thing at a time! Let’s make our cause easy and palatable!" and then many of them didn't actually have access to the vote until 50 years later. No more. We won't go back. We're not sweeping our differences under the rug. We're embracing them and we're fighting for all of them. It’s time for white feminists to march in the back, supporting and prioritizing their more marginalized sisters.
It is easy to walk away from this at first because you don't understand and because the learning curve is steep. It is harder to swallow your pride, pick up bell hooks' collected works, sit down with a friend at a coffee shop, and really dig into what your privilege means and how you should alter your activism to fight for all your sisters.
But if I'm being honest, if your feminism isn't intersectional, it's trash. If your feminism doesn’t center the most marginalized of your sisters, then what’s the point? Lower your defenses, stop centering your own emotions in these conversations, realize the immense privilege you have, and listen, listen, listen.
Let's end white nonsense, shall we?
Katelyn Giel spends most of her time in daydreams about either dismantling the patriarchy or skipping around Disneyland, both of which are equally pleasing to her. She adores desert landscapes, Netflix binges, wishing she were Hermione Granger and pretending she’ll learn to cook someday. She’s been told she probably should’ve stopped drinking the cheapest rosé Target has to offer when she graduated college, but so far she’s yet to part with it.