I’m writing this on June 2, 2020, during a Week of Action called by the Movement For Black Lives, after a series of racist murders and incidents including the horrific police murder of George Floyd, whom they initially approached over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill and who was unarmed. His murder was captured on video by Black teenager Darnella Frazier and others, taking place over eight minutes while he slowly asphyxiated complaining he couldn’t breathe.
Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old African American EMT, was murdered in her home on by police who fired several shots rapidly, after her boyfriend Kenneth Walker shot at them in self-defense. They had entered after midnight with a battering ram without identifying themselves as police, executing a ‘no-knock’ search warrant based on allegations that a drug dealer had used the apartment to receive packages.
Amy Cooper, a white woman, called police on Christian Cooper, an African American man (no relation), who had told her to leash her dog and took out dog treats when she refused. She told police that she’s a white woman and a Black man is threatening her life, dramatizing with her voice to give the impression of intense fear. Christian’s videotaping may have saved his life, and showed the incident to the world. When police came, both of them had left. Amy lost her job and had to return her dog to the shelter she had gotten it from.
As a white-privileged, Jewish woman I grew up with and internalized a lot of racist tropes and attitudes. I was conscious of white privilege mixed with upward class mobility, as protection from the horrors that I knew Black people and other People of Color were subjected to, in my segregated New York City (neighborhoods were pretty much one ethnicity or another, not very mixed): poor housing and schools, violence that comes out of poverty; later I understood that police were an occupying force in those communities. My family were marginal in Jewish communities we lived in and in the Yeshivas I attended, neither being religious nor materially successful, but being Jewish was the identity I most related to. In some sense it created a shelter that itself amounted to white privilege, though it was also a root of heritage that entailed good and bad I would have to sift through. Anti-semitism was not a daily or current matter and adults placed the Holocaust, pogroms, their own earlier poverty in the past along with the Yiddish language, though some horror images and stories percolated through.
I was also the favored child in my family, the oldest and the one with whom my mother had first experienced that sensation of falling in love with a newborn. With her injuries and traumas, I had to mother myself a lot but the experience of being favored, along with her real sensitivity to my needs at times, gave me a sense of confidence that stayed with me even after we had an irrevocable breach in our relationship. The privilege was doubled edged, however, giving me a sense of my fragility – caution, deserving to be protected in some way – and of not needing to be accountable. This family privilege linked to white privilege through my blond hair as a child, unusual in a Jewish family, and in my school I was viewed as pretty as well as smart (the latter of which I feel confident that I was in fact).
As an adult I’ve had hardships and needed to unpick and unpack all of that. But it stays with me as what I bring to a conversation about white women and racism. It’s not enough to proclaim solidarity without feeling personally implicated. As a Facebook friend posted, in the fight against racist violence there are no bystanders. Witnessing the murder of George Floyd, witnessing Amy Cooper’s blatant racist weaponizing of the police, just the latest in an unending onslaught since the first slave ships, white people have to choose justice or else be swept up in evil whether by deliberate choice or indifference. We are personally implicated either way.
I have been dismayed and horrified to see the large numbers of gender critical radical feminist white women who are turning to racism as, apparently, their true ‘identity’, looking to the extreme religious far right to save them from what they see as the greater evil of gender identity or as they say ‘transgenderism’. (I consider ‘transgenderism’ to be a slur as no transgender people use it about themselves; we can discuss the boundaries and ideological disputes between feminism and transgender activism without denying that there are people who identify as transgender and it has a particular meaning. We do not have to, and I do not, accept the view that being transgender changes a person’s sex.) Let’s think about that for a minute.
If the transgender ideology ‘won’ and transwomen could legally identify as no different from me, female, for all purposes – if that legal fiction were to be fully and dogmatically enforced in every area of life – it would make it potentially unsafe in some circumstances for me to get health care (it being important to me to have female providers for most kinds of care, and especially gynecological care), and potentially make body searches (at the airport, or if I am under arrest or in jail or prison) even more abusive and traumatizing. It would – it already has – silenced me and deprived me of solidarity among LGBTQ communities that treat me as a pariah. It could – in London and San Francisco it has – resulted in violence against lesbians and other women who profess that ‘lesbian’ and ‘woman’ are material identities and not subject to appropriation by anyone born male.
What does the extreme far right threaten me with? Race war. Assault weapons being welcomed into our capitols without a murmur – the building of white militias tolerated with a wink as ‘free speech’. Creating a hostile climate against all LGBTQ people – all of us who are same-sex-attracted and/or gender-nonconforming – while allowing some, white, lesbians to occupy a protected space if they turn against others and join the religious fundamentalists in calling LGBTQ pride a dangerous and destructive movement. Lesbian feminists have separated ourselves from ‘LGBTQ’ or previously ‘gay rights’ when it is male-centric and misogynist, and still do. But accepting a protected berth with those who want to return women to male domination (maybe accepting de-sexed lesbianism as a kind of spinsterhood so long as it upholds and doesn’t challenged their authoritarian regime) is not just dangerous for those who do it, it implicates white privilege as fragility and lack of accountability.
For me – though apparently not for all Jewish women – being Jewish puts me emphatically in opposition to white nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Anti-semitism is in resurgence, and though we’re not the main target this time, it’s not just about ‘us’ as Jews in particular, it’s knowing what this is and needing to put ourselves in the way of it – to stop it and to give it no breathing room, no aid or comfort, not an ounce of allegiance. Being confronted with the Amy Cooper video puts it very starkly to all white women: are we going to be that, or are we going to stand with women and men of color and say ‘no more genocide in my name’?
There’s a process that any white woman has to go through, to examine her own thoughts and feelings and unpick racism from what she really needs in the world. We need to defend ourselves against violence or abuse from any man, and too often we don’t get what we need – we are overpowered and the abuse happens, the police don’t come or we choose not to put ourselves through their further abuse in case of rape, too many injustices – like forced psychiatry – aren’t even criminalized. We have a ton of injustices to confront and combat. But taking power that is the power of racism and of a racist, male supremacist state, of anti-woman and anti-gay religious fundamentalists, to bring in bigger guns against someone we have a dispute with, is only empowering what is racist, complicit with a genocidal state and misogynist religions, in ourselves – it cannot empower us as women of the world, as lesbians of the world, as dykes of the world. It doesn’t stop violence, it escalates and accelerates it.
Sally Roesch Wagner, a white second-wave feminist who has studied Haudenosaunee culture and the influence of that culture on first-wave feminism in the US, recounts that a Haudenosaunee friend commented to her that white women look at their culture and think women have significant power, but to her, it was a matter of responsibility rather than power. White women need to think about the relationship between responsibility and power, and that it might be different from our own accustomed starting point – in our lives there might have been responsibility imposed on us without power, so we focus on gaining power – but in doing so, remain within our own frame of reference which is a racist, male supremacist, capitalist one. When we start from responsibility we may think we have to give ourselves up – but we can start from inside, quietly. What are we accountable for, and how can we turn that around, show up for ourselves and others in an exercise of responsibility?
And responsibility has to turn outward to the world as it is, not to an imagined one where the white enclosure is all that matters.
Join the Movement For Black Lives and participate in this week of action; see also Bend the Arc: Jewish Action to join with other Jews for Black Lives.