Thursday, August 15, 2013

Feminism's "white lady" problem

Often, one hears the expression "white lady," used by those of various gender and racial demographics themselves, but certainly including white women. Who's a "white lady"? She has pearls. She clutches them. She has a breakdown of sorts at an Apple store and it goes viral. She thinks it's terribly feminist to work outside the home, but never thinks about the woman she's hired to do her childcare and household duties. She has this thing about gluten - no, not celiac, she's just not doing gluten these days. Of course you'll understand.

"White lady" - goes my not-remotely-polished hypothesis - is a way to be misogynistic (and misogyny can come from women) while seeming to be engaged in a kind of racial solidarity. It's a way of giving the impression that the bulk of white entitlement/privilege/whatever is possessed by the group's women.


Britta said...

I think this comes from some of the problems of what does it mean to be treated "the same as" or "equal to" in a society with all sorts of other inequalities. UMC white women note that they are not treated like UMC white men, which is discrimination, but being treated like an UMC white man means being treated better than everyone else around. A lot of the Oprah pushback was similar. Oprah felt that, because of her race, she is not treated like other billionaires. People who aren't billionaires scoffed, noting that most people don't get treated half so well, however Oprah and the White Lady have a point. If the only reason they get treated in an inferior manner is race or gender, then that is discrimination. However, such situations can and should be helpful in pointing out larger inequalities, such as we have a global system where people can buy $40,000 handbags while a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, or that white UMC people in the US have it much better than people of color, immigrants, the working class, etc, all of which are problems. The answer isn't to shut up and put up with discrimination because you're relatively privileged but, IMHO, to work towards dismantling lots of forms of inequality.

Britta said...

Or, this can also be a situation where YPIS leads to a race to the bottom. If a woman law associate earning 100K finds out her male colleague hired at the same time and doing the same job is earning 130K, then she should fight for the same wage, not just be happy she makes more than most people. If we want to have a conversation about the abysmal state of wages in the US for the bottom 85% and the fact that real wages have plummeted in the past 30 years, then we should separately from the issue of gender equal pay.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Everything you say sounds right to me. But what bothers me here isn't so much the backlash against "white lady" feminism (which, I agree - it's like the Oprah thing - discrimination experienced by those at the top may actually highlight a broader injustice), but something more specific: the construction of the white lady to begin with.

The idea, then, is that it's somehow the ultimate in progressive rhetoric to denounce white women, but only if you use this magic word, "lady," which implies a white woman who wants to be treated in an archaic/gender-normative manner. The white "lady" is constructed as someone who benefits the most from society's injustices - more, even, than white men.

A specific example (that I'm of course not finding the link for) - there was a thread a while back, in reference to the Apple store meltdown video, among various retail workers, about how white women are the worst. And this was considered acceptable because a white lady isn't marginalized. Or something.