- Rereading Race and Gender: When White Women Matter
White writing is white only insofar as it is generated by the concerns of people no longer European, not yet African.—J. M. Coetzee, White Writing
The works discussed in this review confirm that the desire to deconstruct and racialize “whiteness” produces fascinating and useful testimony about conflicting power relations among race, class, gender, and sexuality. Unlike recent literary studies such as Dana Nelson’s The Word in Black and White (1992) and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992), these texts discuss whiteness as it relates to the lives of white feminist [End Page 153] activists, past and present. Beyond the Pale, White Women, Race Matters, and Memoir of a Race Traitor add invaluably to the intellectual imperative to mark whiteness by examining white women’s roles in racial politics as well as their struggles with antiracist practice.
The premise of these works is that white women are raced as well as gendered subjects. This important insight allows us to wrest the usually assumed (and therefore dangerous) equivalences between race and blackness or gender and women. Because these books align themselves with the notion that “race is socially constructed,” they become testaments to the theoretical possibility of denouncing the discursively produced identity, whiteness. All three authors have been engaged in antiracist work—Segrest as former coordinator of North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence, Frankenberg in feminist collectives in northern California, and Ware in England with interracial groups as well as internationally with ecofeminists. Collectively, they imagine a new version of coalition politics.
It is significant that these books have begun to examine the racialized gender of whiteness—to look as did Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs) at white women’s complicity with and resistance to white womanhood. It was nineteenth-century black feminists, perhaps beginning with Sojourner Truth of “Ain’t I a Woman” fame, who began to articulate the inherent whiteness of “true womanhood” that contemporary black feminists such as Hazel Carby, Ann duCille, and Kim Crenshaw have continued to theorize. 1
As part of a generation of ambivalent race-thinkers, the authors could conceivably take eminent white South African Coetzee’s statement, quoted above, as an anthem. Like a growing number of contemporary antiracist intellectuals, the authors at times feel that it is unconscionable to be white in a white supremacist world. Not coincidentally, this yearning for what David Roediger calls the “abolition of whiteness” occurs during an increase in the number of international neo-Nazi pro-white groups and the violent acts they organize and execute. As Mab Segrest’s book makes clear, the resurgence of racism makes antiracist organizing all the more dire. Although there are definite differences between the stated goals and the latent assumptions of each of these texts, they agree that race must matter to white people (and especially to white feminists) if racism is to end.
Vron Ware’s substantial study, Beyond the Pale, untangles the nineteenth-century Anglo-American roots of (white) feminism that were entangled with struggles for black liberation. Thus, three of her five lengthy chapters analyze selected moments in the history of liberation for [End Page 154] blacks and women. Ware, a British journalist, historian, and filmmaker, focuses on individual white women who were involved intimately in abolitionist movements, in colonial education, and in the international antilynching campaign waged by black activist Ida B. Wells. The ideological fissures created among Frances Willard, Catherine Impey, and Ida B. Wells around lynching exemplify Ware’s attempts to be nonreductive in addressing the complications of class, race, and gender as they were played out on the uneven fields of radical political struggle. Ware’s genealogy of antiracist activists, some of whom were racist nonetheless, uncovers...