The white feminists who masquerade as black activism allies
In the late 1800s, change was on the political landscape and everyone was scrambling to ensure that landscape reflected their values. Among those fighting to be recognized were Christian women who banded together to form the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The overall goal of WCTU was pretty simple: spread the goals of Christianity through activism. Although one of the initial goals was to protect the prohibition movement, the organization quickly pushed forward the Women’s Suffrage movement. The WCTU was the largest feminist organization in the US at the time and accepted limited membership of black women.
Then the 15th Amendment was passed. The 15th Amendment gave the theoretical right to vote to black men at the exclusion of all women. Racism was a venomous poison that most movements weaponized to justify regression or exclusion and feminists were frequently and actively complicit in weaponizing racism to justify “progression.” Suffragette Frances E. Willard was the national president of the WCTU when the 15th Amendment was passed.
Willard was frequently perceived as a natural feminist ally to black women in part because of her relationship to the WCTU but also because her parents were staunch abolitionists. Willard accepted black allyship in order to achieve her goals but they were always her goals. Any benefit those goals granted to women of color were coincidental and inconsequential to their “activism.” After the 15th Amendment was passed, Willard prioritized courting the support of white southern women.
“’Better whiskey and more of it’ is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs. The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities,” Willard campaigned. White women would earn the right to vote by throwing the black community under the bus. That same black community who advocated on behalf of Willard now found themselves victimized by Willard because she no longer found their allyship necessary to achieve her goals.
Pragmatism is always justification for abandonment, as white feminists weaponize people of color who amplified and supported them. Willard wasn’t the only white feminist suffragette who prioritized the wants of white women but did so by hurting black activists. Famous suffragette Susan B. Anthony famously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
Inherent in this word, “pragmatism”, is the implicit message that inclusion of people of color and expanding equality to people of color aren’t pragmatic. This is a white-centric perspective. Power is white for these white feminists and their goals include acquiring some of that power for themselves. It’s not so much about equality as it is about participating alongside white men as political majorities.
Black activist and writer Ahmad Greene-Hayes wrote a phenomenal essay titled, “Hillary Clinton and the White Women Who Lynch Us” in which he warns about white allyship and how fraudulent it frequently is. Hayes draws parallels to white women who found equality in lynching black Americans by dressing as Klansmen, “Klansmen wore ‘the hood’ because that’s just what the men did, and Klanswomen wore it because it allowed them access to patriarchal privileges — albeit at nightfall.”
White women were able to gain a little power for themselves by establishing themselves among their white male counterparts by attacking black Americans. Sometimes they used their husbands’ and fathers’ white hooded robes to do so and sometimes they just learned to weaponize and malign their “allies” as we saw with the Women’s Suffrage movement.
It’s also worth acknowledging the way the Women’s Suffrage Movement is taught in schools is very white-centric. Many teachers don’t discuss how many white feminists abandoned and maligned the black community. Instead, many students are taught that the Suffrage movement was a movement towards gaining equality for women. The default woman in society is still a white woman and it’s her experiences that are taught in classrooms with little regard to the black experience.
Hayes goes on to make this salient point about how white feminism has is still what it always has been: a masquerade. In the 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton was out for blood and wasn’t afraid to unite white voters against the biracial candidate using racism. She did this through otherizing Obama, arguing the nation wouldn’t be safe, suggesting he might have been radicalized by his pastor, and calling his friends extremists.
The Clinton campaign went so far as to link to the conservative publication the Drudge Report a picture of Obama wearing Somali clothing. The purpose of this picture was to imply that Obama wasn’t like the rest of us. He was different. As the racists in the US leaned on this picture as proof that Obama was somehow un-American, the Clinton campaign spun the story trying to solidify support among black voters by pretending to not understand the controversy. The Clinton campaign defended Obama by saying they didn’t object to him wearing “his native clothing, in the clothing of his country.”
When asked about whether or not Obama was a secret Muslim, Hillary Clinton’s reply was “there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.” The implicit message here is that we must trust that he is telling the truth because she’s not aware of any evidence that he’s lying.
All of these examples may seem innocuous to white readers because our experience with these dog whistles are different. The society we’ve created defaults to white. The stories we tell through movies and novels are written from a white perspective. American history is largely white history that minimizes our roles in genocide, enslavement, and rape. American heroes tend to be white heroes whose racism is dismissed as being appropriate for their era. When pundits talk about the working class, implicit in that language is that the working class is white.
The implication here is that non-white is atypical or non-standard. As such, movements towards racial equality are inherently movements towards inclusion. To be recognized as a default American with default cultural values. This is why when Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy involved otherizing Barack Obama, it was inherently racist designed to appeal to racists. Clinton knew the significance and implications of her strategy because it’s not the first time she tried to unite white southern voters (remember when she depicted black boys as super predators?).
The story of false black allyship doesn’t end there. When Hillary Clinton lost the primaries to Barack Obama, supposed white feminist allies were so outraged that many of them refused to throw their support behind the candidate. They called themselves PUMAS (Party Unity My Ass) and cast their vote for the notorious racist John McCain. Once again highlighting that they’re more comfortable aligning with racists than to fight for black inclusion and recognition.
This is the truth about many white feminist allies: they’re allies so long as they’re leading the movement, the movement is centered around what they want, and when they abandon you for racists it’s only because that move is “pragmatic.” Pragmatism, it turns out, excludes communities of color because their future’s default setting is still white.
Hillary Clinton ran for president again and faced a humiliating defeat against white supremacist Donald Trump. Still, 94% of black women voters turned out the vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election against Donald Trump. White feminists? Well, a lot of them voted for Donald Trump.
This essay isn’t about Hillary Clinton. Clinton receives enough attention. However, Hillary Clinton is a useful example to explore how superficial and fleeting white allyship is when it comes to prioritizing and amplifying communities of color. Hillary Clinton continually received the benefit of being categorized as a black ally without having to put in the work of actual allyship and through actively hurting the black community. White women are the first to denounce strong black women like Nina Turner when Turner’s agenda no longer aligns with theirs. Allyship, for them, is a one-way street in which they are the primary benefactors.
Progress and equality cannot and will not be achieved with white feminists centering the movement around them. Further, communities of color cannot risk relying upon allyship that has a reputation of exploiting them for votes only to abandon them when it comes time to achieve progress.
Lastly, communities of color cannot continue to support pragmatic candidates when pragmatism is code for “white power” or is defined to exclude communities of color. Those candidates are only pragmatic for white Americans.
The future is “of color” with movements led by leaders of color pushing for progress on issues important to their communities.