International Women's Day, #ChoosetoChallenge and White Privilege

For International Women’s Day 2021, the theme is #ChooseToChallenge: A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. This year, I choose to challenge my White Privilege. Privilege is something that White people don’t really like talking about. I think part of the problem is that we never have to think about our whiteness. I live in England where the majority of people are White. I turn on the TV and see (mainly) White people. I go out and see (mainly) White people. If I’m honest about it, I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I’ve been conscious of my whiteness. Never having to be conscious of my skin colour is, in itself, a huge privilege.

Race is a tricky and contested concept. There is no White gene, or Black gene, or any "skin colour" gene. Like gender, race is a social construct. If you want to know a bit more about this, here is a great video. But regardless of those ideas and my personal viewpoint, race is something we still need to talk about it. One problem with pointing out White privilege is that many White people get awfully upset about it, like it’s a personal attack or something we need to apologise for. White guilt often emerges and makes us feel defensive. But this only compounds the problems that exist with talking about whiteness. For a start, you can’t apologise for being White any more than you can apologise for having legs or growing hair out the top of your head. It’s there. You weren’t involved in the decision to have it. But, more concerningly for me, these feelings of personal attack do nothing but centre the conversation on the White person when the whole point of consciously approaching whiteness and white privilege is to acknowledge the impact it has on people who are not White. In the blink of an eye, White privilege has become white fragility. Call us out on our whiteness and we feel hurt. We feel threatened. We feel … well, fragile. Good. It’s about time we felt those things. And I don’t say this because I’m looking for sympathy. This isn’t a White pity party. As a woman, I have to acknowledge that being White gives me a significant advantage over women from Global Majority backgrounds. (A lot of people have asked me recently why I use that term and not BAME or ethnic minorities. I am incredibly inspired by Rosemary Campbell-Stephens, so here’s why. But I do not, for one second, assume that all people from non-White backgrounds choose to identify using that term). Anyway, As a White woman, I am four times less likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than a Black woman. As a White woman, I am seven times less likely to be stopped and searched by the police than a Black woman. As a White woman, I am more likely to be degree educated and to be employed in a managerial role than a woman of Pakistani heritage. In fact, as a White woman, I am 7% less likely to be unemployed than a woman from any Global Majority background. Just let those statistics sink in for a minute. I haven’t done a thing to earn those advantages. I haven’t worked harder. I’m not more intelligent or motivated. These statistics are not a reflection of my ability nor are they are a reflection of anybody else’s. The only difference between me and those women is that I happen to be White.

And yet, as a woman, I consider myself part of a marginalised community. I call myself a feminist. I call out patriarchy. But there’s a word missing from that, isn’t there?

White Patriarchy is what I should be talking about. And the reason I should be talking about it is because my White ancestors played a role in the systematic oppression of Global Majority women, both at home and abroad. Let me point out that there have been and continue to be allies within the White community. White people are not one homogeneous group. But while many White women may not have built the structures that oppressed, they sure as hell didn’t bring them crashing to the ground. The structures may look different today, but they still exist. For White women, a focus on patriarchy – on what we describe as patriarchy – functions as a form of social blindness, making it easy to ignore or reject the lived experiences of the Global Majority women that we claim to support. I want to remind you that this is conscious and intentional blindness. We can cure this blindness at any given moment. So, on International Women’s Day, I ask White women to step out of the darkness and choose sight. At The Herstorian, my mission is to take a compassionate and responsive approach to the past. I’m trying to refocus attention on the people and experiences that are traditionally ignored inby the mainstream narrative. But in doing that, I must recognise that inequality is far more complex than my experiences of whiteness have led me to believe. This goes beyond man vs. woman. Upper class vs. working class. It’s time to talk about our complicity as White women in the subordination and silencing of women of colour. White women vs. Black women. White women vs. Indian women. The list goes on.

Because whether I like it or not, this is truth. This is my truth and your truth and every woman’s truth. We, as White women, can choose silence. We can choose to continue perpetuating the whitewashing that taints our society. We can choose to conveniently forget that standing right beside Edward Colston was a woman who profited from his human enterprise. Every. Single. Day. She may not have liked it. She may not have agreed with it. She may have lacked the agency to do much about it. Equally, she may have been his biggest supporter. Either way, let’s stop pretending that she didn’t directly benefit from the exploitation and enslavement of Black women. She did. And so did her daughters and their daughters and so on. There’s nothing I can do about my whiteness, but I can do something about how I use it. And I invite all White women to do the same. First and foremost, to consider how you are unfairly advantaged by it. Educate yourself. Secondly, listen and (politely) ask questions. Thirdly, challenge your sources of knowledge. Move away from White historians and start supporting, promoting and learning from Global Majority scholars. Use their lens of experience as the starting point. I could end this with some well-worn cliché about how if we don’t do something now, the past is doomed to repeat itself. But that implies that the past is over. It’s not over. Those racist, oppressive practices that White people like to pretend are dead and buried are, in fact, alive and well. They are more deeply ingrained within our social fabric and institutions than ever. I invite you to recognise their existence and make the conscious choice to challenge them. And, above all, let’s stop talking about patriarchy and start addressing it as it is: White Patriarchy. It's supremacist, it's harmful and it's everywhere. Over the coming weeks, I'll be sharing details of what I'm doing to change things. I hope you'll support and join me by signing up here. My thanks to Memuna Konteh for giving me her feedback on this piece.

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