Despite the fact that the majority of this campus loves to perform “wokeness,” or “empathy,” it seems like white feminists wait in the shadows for their chance to scream, “I AM A FEMINIST! WHITE WOMEN ARE ALSO OPPRESSED!” as if reckoning with their own privilege has suffocated them. We got a taste of this in a recently published op-ed in the Record, “In defense of the slutty bitch: Not letting society dictate women’s preferences” (Oct. 30, 2019). After reading this op-ed over multiple times, I took it to some of my peers to get a second pair of eyes. I was mostly unsuccessful; after scanning the first few lines, most refused to read it. It centered the author’s experience as a cis white woman in an ever-changing gendered world, and how women’s sexuality and relationships with others manifest in relation to it. By the standards of white feminism, the empathy-lacking obliviousness that was demonstrated through blanket statements and references to movements known for their exclusionary practices leads us to equality. It fails to answer a question that lingered in my mind after I read it: Equality to whom, and for whom?
I have zero patience for white feminists at Williams. I intentionally avoid that crowd: I refuse to take a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) class that is not cross-listed in an ethnic studies department, which, not by coincidence, finds me alongside few of my white peers, and thus fewer people who subscribe to a framework of white feminism. I recognize that not everyone has the same knowledge and access to language in high-academia like Williams. I leave space for this and push myself to be understanding as others were for me, and continue to be. Beyond the weight of academia, understanding our own privilege and lack thereof is a life-long journey: You cannot rush a never ending process. However, the space between learning and beginning to recognize where we stand is not without accountability. It does not absolve anybody from recognizing that even mistakes can be very harmful, that apologies are necessary even if not accepted and that comfortable allyship to those in need is not enough. The weight of our words does not come uncarried.
It is impossible to remove our identities, and yet I see a failure to recognize whiteness as inherently connected to traditional and developing ideas of “womanhood.” Conversations about any liberation, collective or individual, are worthless without the mention of those who are most vulnerable: Those with little to no access to all of the rights and newfound freedoms that the op-ed implies feminists of the past have already won us. Failure to hold this space, both unintentionally and intentionally, is inherently violent. It reads as colorblind, ableist, classist, trans-exclusionary and intersectionally oppressive. We have an obligation to be implicit with our words, and to qualify them when you speak only to the privileged, the cis and the white.
Why must we repeatedly ask white people to recognize that they cannot refer to themselves in language which encodes them as the standard of humanity? For those of us without this unchecked ability to remove ourselves from otherness are constantly gaslighted, and made to feel guilty when mentioning positionality and identity. If you think you might not share these standardized terms of existence, you don’t need to wonder where you come into the conversation; according to the op-ed, you don’t even exist. Better yet, you’re just “aggressively different,” and “crazy.”
To the Author of the op-ed: What prompted your lack of acknowledgement of the systematic powers that provided you with that extra-long, reinforced, safety-tested, diamond-encrusted ladder of privilege you used to climb on to your cushioned pedestal you put yourself on when you submitted that piece? What led you to think you needed to share with the rest of us here on the ground beneath you how the weather was all the way up there in the stratosphere? Most of us barely have stepping stools. To be an accomplice and not just an ally would mean placing your ladder of privilege within reach for those without one, and not asking for any praise in return. Then you could ask what the weather actually feels like to those who haven’t felt it. The privileged are so used to comfort they don’t even know what it feels like.
I see no need to defend the “slutty bitch,” and I see no need to destroy them either. I don’t look forward to the destruction of others. It is not my job to decide who has yet to learn their lesson and who refuses to. This work is not linear – it is both introspective, and outwardly critical. Everyone is responsible for dismantling and acknowledging oppressive systems, especially those with extreme privilege that is given through the systems that marginalized others in the first place. Instead of using a literary platform to say something we all know, and in a place that is validated by its colonial and elitist histories to talk about how much privilege your whiteness has afforded you, for once, use it to demonstrate how little others have in comparison. Now that’s empathy.
Alexa Walkovitz ’21 is a studio art and WGSS major and an Africana studies concentrator from Los Angeles, Calif.