The Privileges of Being a White Woman

Emily DeTar, Traces of Privilege, 5

As a woman, it can be hard for me to see what privileges I earn in society. Unlike what Donald Trump argues, there’s no magical “woman card” that earns me points in our political system. However, there is a particular benefit and series of privileges I earn because I am a white woman. I see that time and time again I am given more compassion or understanding because of the particular combination of being white and being a woman.

One conversation I had with my fiancée highlighted a main privilege of being a white woman. 
She once told me that she was afraid that anytime she was assertive or even frustrated, people would assume she was an angry black woman and therefore bad for me. She knows our conflict style, and knows that in conflicts large and small I tend to grow quiet and she tends to be assertive.

I told her that being quiet and passive was how I was taught to be conflict avoidant. As I thought about it further, I admitted to her that being quiet usually worked in my favor as a white woman, because it meant I appeared “innocent” and didn’t have to face accountability. We both admitted this was bad for our relationship and could do real damage. I now actively work against my tendency towards conflict avoidance and commit to being responsible for my actions.

The fact that I could, by being demure and passive, be given the “benefit of the doubt” and portray myself as innocent across situations, is specifically a privilege I carry as a white woman.
Throughout my life being apologetic, dismissive, and avoidant has always worked to my favor, because it fits the stereotypes of being a demure white woman. Yet, when my fiancée simply states things in her usual voice, she fears people think she is angry or mean because she is black woman. Just for asserting themselves or standing up for their needs, black women get clumped into a series of diminutive stereotypes that cast them as more violent, angry, or sassy, while white women are usually given “the benefit of the doubt”.

If you think that these stereotypes are simply cast in films or tv shows, look to the incarceration of Sandra Bland. A black woman, who was simply demanding why she was pulled over and stating her rights as a citizen, was treated like a violent threat and body slammed to the ground. Would that have happened if Sandra was white? Even if the scenario had it so that the white woman was rather assertive, I do not believe any arrest would have been made.

It is hard to unpack all of this, because sexism is a huge factor. Sexism teaches women many ways of trying to survive a male dominated society. In my life, it has taught me overly apologizing, acting over polite, and even being very smiley and upbeat will usually please people enough to have my way without ruffling feathers. Others, have learnt the need to be more assertive just to be heard, and that even if people call you “bossy”, at least you stood up for yourself and demanded something. There are several ways of dealing with sexism, and they all look different across races, cultures, and orientations.  

No matter what kind of sexism I may deal with, it doesn’t automatically erase the benefits I receive. The benefits I earn in being seen as more compassionate, sympathetic, or polite because I am white and a woman, are still privileges I carry in this society even if they are shaped by sexism. If I wanted to, I could sweet talk any police officer out of giving me a speeding ticket. If I wanted to I can plead with professor to give me one last extension, and they would probably say yes. If I wanted to, I could walk into any store and ask for help in an emergency, because I appear “safe” and “trustworthy”.  No women of color are given the “benefit of the doubt”. Instead, they are treated as threats, as untrustworthy, as angry, or as unruly.  

This is why intersectionality matters when marching and fighting for Black Lives Matters
There are particular factors of sexism and racism at play that diminish the lives of black women and other women of color that need to be fought against. The particular behaviors of my upbringing as a white woman, to try and avoid responsibility or accountability and avoid problems all together, have to outright be stopped. There is no ability to move forward in the work of racial justice, without honest and authentic accountability and ownership. 

As we continue to work for a more just world, may we dare to get specific and to look at all the threads of how all of our identities play into systemic systems of privilege and oppression. May this help us fight for a world that celebrates everyone in the fullness of who they are. 

This is part 5 of an ongoing series, "Traces of Privilege," which explores privileges I possess, and what my faith as a Unitarian Universalist calls me to do about them.
See also
Traces of Privilege, 1: The UU Privileges and Purposes
Traces of Privilege, 2: Unitarian Universalism Has Class -- Meaning Economic Privilege
Traces of Privilege, 3: A Memory of Privilege and The Importance of Personhood
Traces of Privlege, 4:  The Privlege of Working for Black Lives Matter

1 comment:

  1. "May we all fight for a world that celebrates EVERYONE in the fullness of who they are!" Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Now I have to go back and read the first 4!
    Marilyn Lariviere CWU National President