This paper is the manuscript of a keynote presented by Sylke Rene Meyer at the GEECT conference “Embracing Diversity” on March 8, 2019 in Cologne, Germany.
When I received the invitation to speak at this conference, I was immediately reminded of a conference on diversity that took place in 1979 at the New York University, commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” of 1949 (PDF). One of the invited speakers was Audre Lorde, a black, lesbian poet and literature professor. In her remarks, she called out the conference’s white demographics and refused to participate in a feminism as a predominantly white movement. Her keynote at NYU, turned into an influential essay entitled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Destroy the Master’s House” (PDF). Lorde was responding to white feminism in its institutional context, tying universities and academic conferences to the house of the master. Now forty years later, in Cologne in 2019, another conference takes place at an academic institution to address diversity.
What did we learn since 1979? What did I learn as a white feminist? This building here is perhaps a Master’s house—an educational institution forming future leaders. It used to be a cable factory, a wire mill. Generations of workers produced heavy duty cable in these buildings, some were used for transatlantic communication and run along the so-called middle passage that transported stolen people from African countries to the European colonies in North America. Our houses are connected to our history.
I didn’t believe that my whiteness shapes my identity. This place is today home to asking questions about us and our history. Questions of diversity are often–perhaps always–institutional ascriptions of identity. We are social beings, and informed by the institutions that we are part of, and of course, we also inform and change our institutions.
So, who are we? I hope you don’t mind if I ask you some questions about your identity. Who of you identifies as white? Who of you identifies as a person of color? Who of you identifies as middle class? Who of you identifies as working class? These questions are not always easy to answer. A few years ago, I didn’t identify as white. I thought I am white, but I didn’t believe that my whiteness shapes my identity. I always identified as female and queer but also didn’t identify as middle class. I didn’t see how much my privilege of being a white, middle-class person actually makes me the person that I am. Some of you also didn’t identify as white, perhaps for similar reasons. Why is that? Let’s spend a moment to look into what identity actually is.
What identity actually is
It is generally accepted that identity is a cultural construction. Identity needs a social framework. We need the other to be something else. A newborn baby doesn’t have an identity yet, the baby thinks that it is identical with mom. Eventually the child understands its bodily boundaries and its role and place in society. Our first identity is being the child of our mother. Mom looks at the child and tells the child: you are my little Benjamin or my Hannah. And often the first word that baby says is Mom, understanding that ‘Mom’ is somebody—not me—that gives me a name, and an identity that includes only two aspects: I am the child of my mom, and I am a girl or boy.
Before the Neolithic revolution, that marks the beginning of sedentary culture and the end of nomadic cultures, gender—if a category at all—was not bound to the biological sex. The Amaret in Bolivia, for example, differentiate ten types of gender based on the biological sex of the person, but also on the sex of their farmland or profession; or the Bugis in Indonesia who know five social genders, including that of the shaman, that contains all gender aspects. The concept of binary gender male/female didn’t make sense since the concept of fatherhood or paternity wasn’t known. In nomadic culture, women give birth usually every four years, breastfeeding the newborn until the child can walk independently. Of course, people had certainly more sex but sex didn’t result directly in procreation.
Hence, in pre-neolithic societies, gender was not limited to the dichotomy of phallus / non-phallus, family relationships were matrilinear, and in general, women controlled reproduction by choosing their partner.
The word woman did not appear until the Renaissance. After the Neolithic revolution, when humans started agriculture and animal husbandry, they began to generate a surplus product and private property of means of production. Since, some members of our communities own more than others, often everything, leaving nothing to others. They justify this inequality through myth that explains the unequal distribution of wealth. And they use violence. For the first time, in the history of humanity, a social order was created that was based on and is maintained with systematic violence. While as hunters we hunted wild game, as ranchers we own animals that we raise to slaughter. We have territory that we defend, we have property that we inherit, pass on to our offspring, and defend. Agriculture is labor intensive. For nomadic cultures, other tribes may have been considered enemies, but it wouldn’t have made sense to steal and enslave people. Women now gave birth almost every year, and as the population grew, so did their need for land. Concepts like nation, kingdom, war, and the patriarchal family came into being—based on private property.
In these—our—post-neolithic, patriarchal societies, men control reproduction by choosing their partner and create legislation to control how women were allowed to love, enjoy sexuality, or not. Adultery became a capital offense for women. The recognition of paternity contributed to the new patriarchal order in which women became a commodity, the object of marriage, a reciprocal interchange between the father of the bride as the former owner, and the husband, as the new owner. To differentiate the various stages of this exogamous exchange, female identity was defined in relation to marriage: maiden, wife, mother, or widow. The word woman, for example, did not appear until the Renaissance.
This—our—genderized society has been created on the ascription of identity that is based on the binary phallus/non-phallus to justify inequality. Hence, a non-phallus ascription is given to everybody who doesn’t own private property but rather is private property: children, women, and slaves. Hence, gender is the result of the process of functionalizing women, children, and enslaved people in a social system in which some enjoy social privilege, and control of private property.
Individual identity didn’t return until mirrors were invented. Identities are ascribed to us through narrative, and the cultural construction of “women” within gender is a narrative that in antiquity was tied to the dominant medium of its time: theater. Women were not allowed in the theater, neither on stage nor in the audience. Yet the narrative on stage centered on women. In all 31 surviving tragedies—with the exception of Philoktet—the central character is a woman: Antigone, Medea, Cassandra etc. In theatrical performances, these women were represented by men with masks. In an almost bizarre theatrical signifier, Medea is played by a man when murdering her sons. Antigone, who resists Creon, is played by a man and so on. The construction of femininity is thus a narrative that required a male body to perform femininity, and a male audience to observe and testify. This society of men unites to witness tragedy, to plunge into ecstatic screaming and despair, a condition called catharsis, an experience that the viewer experiences through identification with the protagonist.
Greek theater was then largely replaced by Christian worship as the official spectacle of representation in which femininity is practically nonexistent. Between roughly 480 and 1000 AD, the main identity-constructing narrative was based on the Old Testament. Book illustrations from this period by no means depict Mary, but saints or kings, who are portrayed as saints. Public identity ascriptions were based on the narrative of institutionalized Christianity. Linguistically, clerical and political rulers spoke of themselves in the first-person plural: “We the king”, while the commoners spoke of themselves in the third person singular. Instead of our current grammar: “Did you hear me?”, the commoner would have been addressed as he: “Did he not hear the King?” For women however, it was impossible to say: Did she not hear the king? Instead, one talk to the man: “He shall tell his wife that she can go…” The first person singular practically didn’t exist. Different from the ‘homo sum’ of Greek and Roman thought: I am human, and I think that nothing of that which is human is alien to me. To the medieval human, the “I”, our individuality was a rather alien concept. People understood their identity in relation to group belonging—their household, their mansion, their city or community—as arranged by God. Those representing God on earth, the kings and the priests, ascribed identity.
Individual identity didn’t return until mirrors were invented. First available only to wealthy merchants and kings in the 15th century, this new understanding of who we are led to a whole series of major changes in civilization. The development of glass mirrors marks a decisive change as they allow people to see each other properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics. The trend towards portraiture grew in the 15th century and dominated non-religious art. Painters were the first to paint portraits and make self-portraits, and the wealthy women became a subject in society. Theater returned as the dominant medium of society, and women now increasingly owned property.
Women (and men) reacted with hysteria. At the beginning of the 19th century, when the mirrors became available to the average person, our gendered society changed again. Ordinary people began to record the times and dates of their births so they could use astrology to find out more about themselves in terms of their health and assets. Architecture changed: we demanded privacy. Instead of sleeping together in the same room or in the same hall, we began to appreciate our own space. In the literature, the first-person narrative, which previously did not make much sense, became a popular form. Women published novels and were the protagonists of the novel narratives.
The binary phallus/non-phallus became utterly confusing, as women were still defined as the object of marriage yet confronted with an alternative identity ascription. Since gender is based on the binary of phallus/non-phallus, the disruption of gender ascription manifests itself as castration anxiety. Women (and men) reacted with hysteria, and psychoanalysis—the cathartic method as Freud called it—came into being.
By the end of the 19th century, women were not only allowed on the public stage, but became an integral part of the visual erotic narrative. The actress, the starlet and the pin-up girl, on the other hand, are described as objects of sexual desire in photography and film. With the second wave feminism and postmodern cinema, women began to look back. Women made films, and empowered the female gaze to deconstruct the identity ascription of ”woman”. Women came into (some) power. To be certain, the male gaze didn’t lose its privilege, but it got competition.
The fear of losing privilege
The fear of losing privilege causes aggression. Any loss of privilege leads to a fundamental identity crisis, because a formative element of our identity is being in question that we weren’t even aware of! A woman is always aware of the fact that she is a woman. As a woman in the company of men, I usually tend to worry about the guys in the room. When I talk, I try to make sure that the men in room are going to be ok, and feel safe. I add humor and lightness, when I bring up my arguments. I usually make sure that I acknowledge a man’s presence and his need to be seen. I am not alone with that. Numerous studies have shown that women use “I think”, “perhaps” or “in my opinion” more often than men. In general, women speak less, more softly, we smile, and seek agreement.
I am careful to not upset men, because I know about male fragility. I know that men feel attacked or even discriminated when women mention the male privilege. “For those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Men fear the loss of their often unconscious but formative masculine identity. They often feel existentially threatened, and respond with aggression, and violence physical or structural. Male fragility is aggressive. Once the original identity as the norm = man is lost, male fragility manifests itself in withdrawal, aggression, sometimes violence and assault. This is why women are being beaten, killed, ridiculed, demonized, belittled, and objectified.
Most men know that women are not inferior to them personally, even more so, most men worry that it is actually the other way around. A former male student told me once, that when he grew up, he learned that boys learn that they are boys, born to lead, endowed with superior intelligence. In school however, they notice that the girls are as smart, often smarter, and stronger leaders. So, as a little boy he asked himself, why am I failing? I should be better than the girls but really, I am not. To cope with this sense of failure, boys often performs exaggerated masculinity. The more insecure about their capability and masculinity, the stronger they perform masculinity and misogyny, projecting their shame and sense of inferiority on the girls, and later women.
Like male fragility, white fragility is a symptom of the struggle with loss of privilege. Same applies for whiteness. Like male fragility, white fragility is a symptom of the struggle with loss of privilege. Whiteness, white supremacy, and racism came into being in full only in the 19th and 20th century, based on the foundations laid in the 17th century in the European colonies. As discussed earlier, private property of enslaved people, women, and children, was a gendered ascription lacking the phallus and persona rights. They were all part of the patriarch’s body. Ivan the Terrible for example executed not only the bojar, the Russian nobleman that had fallen from grace, but also his wife, his children, all indentured servants, all animals, and the entire village that served him, since they were considered identical with the body of the nobleman who own them. Women, children, and servant were all considered to be the children, the body, of the patriarch. This form of private property is based on gender. Sexism emasculates every person that doesn’t own property, and is tied to the myth of maleness. We still find residues of this gendered narrative, when we look at racial biases like: black people are like children, women are like children.
Yet the gendered justification myth failed the ruling class during colonization of African, American and Asian peoples by the Europeans, specifically in North America. The concept of whiteness and so-called POC (people of color) is an invention of the gentry as Theodore W. Allen noted: “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there. Nor, according to colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” The ‘white race’ was invented as part of a ruling class to provide social control. By giving privileges to European-American working people, calling them the “white race”, the upper classes gained control over the working poor. Many scholars name the Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) as a pivotal event in the historical construction of whiteness in the United States. During the rebellion, white settlers, indentured servants and enslaved Africans joined forces to resist the ruling class and local Indian tribes. Their actions worried elites and led them to enact a more rigid racial class system.
It seems to me that the invention of the white race coincides with the invention of the middle class, as something in the middle that protects the gentry from the unified people of indentured servants, the bond servants, working poor, and the enslaved peoples. Whiteness promises “upward social mobility” the myth of the American dream, hereby separates the working classes, and stabilize the system. As American Studies scholar George Lipsitz states (PDF): “Whiteness has a cash value: it accounts for advantages that come to individuals through profits made from housing secured in discriminatory markets, through the unequal educational opportunities.”
There is no such thing as color blindness. Like gender, race is a hidden, intentionally invisible narrative to justify an unfair distribution of the surplus product. Only recently, I began to understand how my white skin color matters. I understood that there is no such thing as color blindness, and that by saying I am white, I acknowledge my privilege, and I acknowledge my racist biases. Diversity trainer and scholar Robin DiAngelo in her book “White Fragility” explains:
For people of color, the privilege of being seen (and seeing themselves) as unique individuals outside the context of race cannot be taken for granted. Talking about race and racism in general terms such as white people is constructive for whites because it interrupts individualism.
The power of gazing, and the hierarchy of who is allowed to look or be looked at is a pivotal element of identity making especially for us as filmmakers, as we create images that affirm or overwrite existing power structures. Gaze is power and privilege. Like gender, race is an identity ascription, that needs the gaze of the other to confirm identity. For example, bell hooks writes in her seminal essay “The oppositional Gaze” (PDF):
White slave-owners punished enslaved black people for looking. …the slaves were denied their right to gaze. I [bell hooks] remember being punished as a child for staring, for those hard, intense direct looks children would give grown-ups, looks that were seen as confrontational, as gestures of resistance, challenges to authority. …Yet, when punished, the child is told by parents, ‚Look at me when I talk to you‘.
Slave owners feared the gaze of the enslaved. The same applies to the servants that had to lower their heads, and were not to dare to look into their master’s eyes, or women that are/were expected to lower their eyes in the presence of men. In reverse, many men fear the female gaze: the petrifying gaze of the laughing Medusa, the castrating laughter of the female gaze. Yet to be looked at is also a privilege. Invisible Man (PDF) is the title of a novel by Ralph Ellison about an African-American man whose skin color makes him invisible. Middle-aged and old women are invisible, non-existing in patriarchy as they have become dispensable outside their function as commodities in the patriarchal family.
I refuse to see my racism
The feminine and masculine, straight and queer, white and non-white originate as part of a binary system. Male is normal—female is the derivation, active is normal (male)—passive is the deviation (female), the master is norm (male)—the slave is the other, white male sexuality is the norm, the other is either desexualized or oversexualized (like black people are being described as animal-like in their sexuality), honor (male) is the norm—disgrace the female deviation and so on. White is the norm, which is why white people often believe they are colorblind. For people of color on the other hand, colorblindness is impossible as they are confronted with racial discrimination at every moment of their lives. A black person for example has to see color because a white person means oppression, and sometimes death. A black person receives less resources while growing in her mother’s womb, is more likely to die in the process of being born, in the process of going to play, going to school, living her life. Color-blindness could kill her. Women are still always aware of the fact that they are the object of male subjection, as shown by the current debates around #metoo, or recently the French misogyny scandal around “la league du lol”. So, when white people say: “I don’t see colors, I see only people”, they actually say, “I refuse to see race, I refuse to see my racism”.
Until very recently, in the US, black characters in film were gangsters or addicts. Members of “Black Lives Matter”, a movement against police brutality in the United States, have pointed out that the legal argument that allows cops that killed black men and go free is based on their justified feeling of fearing for their lives. They were right to kill innocent people in their apartments, backyards, while walking for coffee, because they were right to be scared, simply because they saw a black man with a or without a hoodie. Informed by narrative media, the white gaze in filmmaking looks at the black man as a violent murder and rapists. Hence, the police murders were justified, because they were right to fear for their lives. They saw a black man, thus there is danger, they had to kill him. They write police reports talking about the murdered man as the suspect not the victim. I don’t have any statistics but I am certain that the German police receives a large number of emergency calls by white people, reporting suspicious behavior that turns out to be just a Turkish, Muslim, black, or “südländisch” appearing person minding his or her business.
A white person on the other hand, enjoys the privilege to not be reminded of her whiteness. In 1988, American scholar Peggy McIntosh published her today seminal essay, “The Invisible Knapsack” (PDF) where she asks her white readers to think about the privilege they enjoy. I will read just 8 out of 50 privileges that Peggy Mcintosh listed, and I ask you to please consider each one for yourself, and be reminded that none of these privileges are available to most people of color.
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented. When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization’, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer emails, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household. I will feel welcomed and ‘normal’ in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
Many of these privileges also still apply to (white) women in respect to men. We also cannot feel safe (#metoo), we also experience embarrassment or hostility, we are also isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, and unheard. Same goes for queer people, or even for poor white men, not able-bodied white men. Yet while some of us are also experience discrimination, we also enjoy the privilege of being a white person. You can be a victim of sexism, and at the same time you display racist behavior. More often than not, our identities are composed of both, oppression and privilege. While I understand my oppression, I am often unaware of my privilege. I display racist behavior, sexist, even homophobic, and ableist behavior. We all do. We live in a world that wired through thousands of years of its cultural messaging to be racists that serve the ruling class to stay in power. In the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw, author of the landmark essay on intersectionality “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (PDF): “The better we understand how identities and power work together from one context to another, the less likely our movements for change are to fracture.”
By the midst of the 20th century, the binary phallic/non-phallic justification myth of the Neolithic revolution that men and Freud had taken quite literary as penis and non/penis, is now being reinterpreted through Lacanian psychoanalysis, where the phallus is no longer bound to the penis but to the power. From the “le non du père” to the le nom du père, the phallus now represents order, rules, and power. And like European gentry in the Americas invented the white race as a middle class to weaken the power of the poor, it seems to me that we witness currently the phallic inclusion of women and queer men into the patriarchal system to protect the privilege of the capitalist classes against the poor.
At least in the Western worlds, rape in marriage has become a punishable offense, and with the acceptance of gay marriage (most symbolically) we should have technically ended the inequality myth, overwriting the original narrative of male supremacy and reproduction control. Yet in reality, the appropriation of the surplus product still follows the same principle, only by allowing women and queers to also have the phallus, and to no longer be a deviance or subculture, or inferior, but part of the norm. Now women and queer also fear castration. As artist and scholar Adrian Piper said: “Everything will be taken away.” White fragility is a kind of castration anxiety, the fear that the Lacanian phallus that gives us now finally entitlement and privilege could be taken away.
Understand your participation in a racist world. In Robin DiAngelo’s assessment, white fragility is in large due to this binary of racist / non-racist.
Excerpt from: Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility”. RACIST = BAD NOT RACIST = GOOD
That’s why, white people often produce a narrative explaining while they are not racist. White folks say, I grew up poor, I was sexually abused, I am a woman, I am queer—I am as discriminated. I can say that about me: I also thought of myself being free from racism, as a queer woman. But why did I think that fact that I am experiencing discrimination as a woman, or LGBT+ member takes away the fact that I am as a white person enjoying the privilege of whiteness? Because it is part of my identity of self-earned achievements that I didn’t want to kiss goodbye. Instead I needed to understand that I owe my middle-class status, and my status as an artist and educator to my white privilege.
White folks often also say, I am Jewish, or Irish, or my ancestors are Italian. As some point in the past, we were seen not as white people. In the early 20th century, Irish, Italians and many others were indeed classified as non-white, “correctly” describing their economic status as ‘have-nothings’. Yes, now you are white. So, the question is, as Robin di Angelo points out: When did you become white? Because now you enjoy your privilege. White folks also sometimes say, I am not a racist, because some of my friends are people of color, or I am married to a black person. Yet, your heartfelt friendship and love doesn’t eliminate the racist experience that your friends and family members have—most certainly also with you, since your statement demonstrates that you are unaware of your inevitable racist biases. The truth is, we are living in a racist world, we are exposed to racist representations, we are all holding thousands of years of racist biases. We have to live with our racism, and question our biases and privilege. This is what some people call woke: to understand your participation in a racist world, and, crucially, to confirm your obligation to overcome racist discrimination.
Für immer Afrika
Let’s take a look at some examples of recent TV movies in German television. All of the following examples are prime time TV from 2018 at First or Second German Television:
In Für immer Afrika (ARD), the viewer accompanies a white, German protagonist in her need for self-realization to an African country. Black people are portrayed as wild and untouched by culture. I am sure that the makers of this film would respond with defensiveness and anger if being called out as racists, saying something like: we showed the black people as being the better people. How can we be racist? Because black men serve as an erotic projection screen for white women. The postcolonial attitude towards “Africa” points to another white projection, transforming the realities and cultures of African countries into adventure playground or doll house for her leisure and pleasure, degrading black people as just pure and good and perhaps naïve and behind.
Looking at the white protagonist, one wonders: would she entrust this black man with her computer? Perhaps not, as he surely doesn’t know how to operate it properly. Women can also perform gendered patriarchal discrimination, the phallus is not bound to the penis.
In Stürme in Afrika (ARD) we see a white couple in colonial outfit, wealthy, presenting patriarchal entitlememt, as the men is presented with a possessive gesture “owing” the woman’s womb, while the “African couple” is presented as the “happy slave and domestique” cleaning for the master, and admiring their superiority.
The example of Johanna und der Buschpilot (1): Der Weg nach Afrika (ZDF) alludes to a common phenomenon often referred to as white women’s tears, and refers to an explicit female participation in racism, in which white women falsely accusing black person, often a black or Muslim man of theft, rape, or insubordinance. Like the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 years old black boy who was beaten, raped and sodomized by the husband and cousin of a young white woman. The two men pulled out his teeth, and cut of his genitals and stuffed them in his mouth. Please note the specific sexualized violence, the penis and phallus envy, white guilt and shame that this horrible crime demonstrates. They are countless cases of white women falsely accusing POC of something they actually did that results in the murder of this POC by white male family members.
As Robin diAngelo writes: “The murder of Emmett Till is just one example of the history that informs an oft-repeated warning from my African American colleagues: ‘When a white woman cries, a black man gets hurt.’” Consider a recent case in Germany, when a white (Russian-German) teenage girl falsely reported that she had been abducted and raped by three unknown men of „southern“ or „Arab“ origin. Although her story was never believable, it stirred wild protests by white people, and racist groups stormed a nearby refugee shelter attacking innocent people of color.
A last example from last year, the ARD production Eine Liebe in Afrika. Again, black people are represented as children (literally), white people are the caring teacher and good shepherd, that helps the ‘underdeveloped black’ people to advance. A special racial ascription delivers here the catholic priest. Christianity of course played a pivotal role during colonial times, and is here being reiterated as the caring priest rescuing the pagan ‘illiterate’ black man. Christianity serves today still a justification myth for inequality to discriminate Muslims, Black Surinamese, Black Antilleans, and Jewish people. Here again, Christianity equals whiteness, and the phallic norm, while the others are deviant, “not us”.
The master’s house
These examples of German TV are not only presenting racial biases, they are also interesting as they illustrate a common manifestation of white privilege that we as white filmmakers have to understand is: White people think that they can talk about everything. White people think that they can talk about other cultures, ethnicities, about other classes, because white people think they know everything. Why is that? Because we think of us as the norm, as humanity per se. We consider our experiences as “universal”. Homo sum. Over hundreds of years we were exposed to narrative with a white male protagonist. We assumed that by understanding the motivations and feelings, and desire of this white man, we have gained deep knowledge about humanity while in reality we just now know pretty much everything about the white male psyche. White folks, when making films about characters with a different class, gender, racial background, often claim that they want to give a voice to underrepresented people. Yet all people have a voice and can speak for themselves. The main reason why these people are underrepresented is that the privilege of telling the world how the world is, is in the hands of predominately white heteronormative men.
Yet in fact, only the people that have made a certain experience know how it felt, and can talk about it. White entitlement and privilege mislead us in imagining that whiteness and humanity are the same—me too: I have written screenplays and made movies about cultures that are not mine and didn’t think about it. I may have caused harm, repeated clichés, and I certainly reproduced ethnic biases that are racist. My films have helped to build the master’s house. The underlying concept of class in regard to whiteness is obvious—as it is as we have seen with gender. Gender and race serve as a justification myth for structural oppression and inequality, they have been invented to erect and maintain the master’s house. After all, as American historian Barbara Fields identified: “The slaves were engaged first and foremost in the business of producing cotton …, they were not producing white supremacy.”
Acknowledging privilege puts the privilege in question. Race, gender and class cannot be separated, which is essentially what intersectionality means. The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and gender as they apply to a given individual or group to maintain a system of disadvantage. When Audre Lorde called out white feminism and tokenism, she pointed out that the people of color are not present in the discourse, because they clean the houses and tend the children of the privileged white women sitting here engaging in an academic conference.
To return to my earlier question, why I didn’t identify as white—because whiteness is a narrative that defines being white as the norm, while everything else is deviant. I just thought of myself as being ‘normal’. I didn’t see my privilege, and also didn’t acknowledge the racist experiences that people of color have to endure. My privilege was invisible to me. And only after learning to understand my white privilege and my participation in structural racism, I can now say, I am white. So be sure to know about our privilege. Being complacent with white supremacy doesn’t make us racists (that we were before) but monsters.
If we as feminists fail to acknowledge our white privilege, we are not only racists, we perpetuate the narrative of otherness that divides the social and minority identities. And that will ultimately allow male supremacy to stay in power. I believe, that a movement like the German “Pro Quote Film” will be truly successful only if it considers all aspects of narrative otherness like: gender, race, age, education, sexuality, ability, and class. If for no other reason, we need to understand that equality for women can only be achieved, if we overcome ableist, homophobic, racist, and classist discrimination. White fragility like male fragility touches upon the core identity of white male heteronormative supremacy that hurts everyone. Acknowledging privilege puts the privilege in question.
Which brings us back to the here and now in the Master’s House, and the Master’s tools. I know that one of the most powerful tools of perpetuating racism and sexism are the masters’ stories. Yet, I also believe that it is stories that may overwrite the myth of the master, and inspire action.
Featured Image: GEECT 2019 © Heiko Specht