restricted access 109 What Should White Women Do?
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109 What Should White Women Do? MARTHA R. MAHONEY Focusing solely on the sexual exploitation of women hides both racist oppression and the strength, struggles, and multiple interests of women of color. The experience of being a woman of color cannot be understood in any way that sees only what is done to women generally. White people will think racially as whites without thinking "about race," because we tend to equate "race" with "non-white." We will not understand that we are thinking racially when we are not thinking about people of color. This aspect of our experience as white women will shape what we do, but it will be very difficult for us to see. So if we are building theory out of the practice of women, white women need to reckon with the ways in which some of our practice will not be addressed in our theory because it is not visible to us. This problem cannot be answered by arguing that women really are oppressed as women. Rather, if we want liberation as women, we need to explore the experience and needs of all women. We will need to hear accounts of women's experience in which whiteness itself may become visible in ways we find uncomfortable.1 The meaning of whiteness will therefore need to be examined and challenged. A white woman lives the tension between ongoing oppression and the attempt to effectuate her life as if inside a bubble of dominant culture. To most of us, the bubble is transparent . The culture we live in makes the specificity of our lives invisible to us. White interactions go on whether or not we intend to subordinate another person or to interact with consciousness of race. They are part of the meanings in the culture in which we live, and they are part of how we react to things emotionally, but since they are "normal" they are as invisible as air. Feeling unlike an agent in one's life, noticing only the ways in which one is not powerful, may be a vision of the self which depends on the transparency of the ways in which one is privileged. The dominant mentality is protected by this invisibility, which allows it to inflict pain deliberately or unawares. For those defined outside this bubble of culture, it is not invisible at all. If the point of feminist endeavor is to undertake the transformation of society and achieve the liberation of women, then it matters a great deal how we undertake this transformative work. Transformative work, which is part of consciousness-raising and is the point of feminist struggle, entails listening respectfully to those who can see what we cannot . It includes consciousness-raising of our own to try to undo the invisibility of whiteness . This work also requires understanding and paying close attention to women as social actors. From "WHITENESS AND WOMEN, IN PRACTICE AND THEORY," 5 YALE J. l. AND FEMINISM 217 (1993). Originally published in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material What Should White Women Do? 643 Marilyn Frye describes a feminist organization in which white women were criticized for their racism by women of color.2 The white women decided (after consultation with women of color) to hold meetings of white women to work on this issue. Shortly thereafter , they were strongly criticized by a black woman for thinking they could understand it alone and for unilaterally deCiding to exclude the women of color. Frye found this an intolerable double-bind-white women were racist if they didn't act, and racist if they didand felt the criticism was "crazy." But this sense of "craziness" made her suspicious, because she knew how she herself had often seemed "crazy" to people who could not see the profound structure of sexism with which she was concerned. She responded by trying to listen differently and by trying to understand the ways in which her decisionmaking reflected a white privilege to define the terms and scope of white action against racism. I agree with the many feminists who assert the necessity of feminist struggle against all oppression. We can conclude that feminism must be concerned with struggle against racism, and that white feminists need an active agenda against racism (including white privilege), by recognizing that "women" will not be free until "women of color" experience freedom. We could reach the same conclusion by believing that racism is so deeply entwined and so profoundly implicated...


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