What one white woman thinks: iLIVE

17 March 2015 - 14:31 By Caitlin Spring
Image: Gallo Images / Thinkstock

I am white. I am a woman. I am privileged. I am oppressed. I don’t know what it’s like to be black, but I do know what it’s like to experience 'subtle', 'unintentional', 'institutionalized' sexism.

I know what it's like for people to tell me how I feel, and how I should respond to gender inequality. I know what it's like when people tell me to ‘get over it’, to ‘just be mature’, to ‘stop making an issue where there isn’t one’.

But there is an issue.

There are many issues.

And on Monday, 9 March, some black UCT students had enough.

On Thursday, 12 March, UCT students mobilised to voice their anger at an institutionally oppressive campus. Voices belonging to black skins were finally given the opportunity to speak truth about their pain without being shushed, without being dismissed. But there were voices that belonged to white skins too. Why were there voices that belonged to white skins?

This movement does not need white voices to legitimise it. A white voice doesn’t need to stand in front of Plaza and tell the black voices that they have a right to these feelings. There is a right to these feelings. This is justified. These spaces are not a place for our empathy, guilt, emancipation of whiteness… These are not the spaces for us to prove what we are or what we aren’t. These are not our spaces. This is a space where I must listen, where we must try to understand an experience that our racial privilege has rendered invisible to us.

In bringing our voices into the spotlight, we are actually doing harm to the movement. I know this is a strange thought. When have we ever not been allowed to speak? When has a space never been catered to our voice? History is full of what the white man thinks (not the white woman, yes) and it is time for us to take up less space, it is time for us to stand on the sidelines, it is time for us to be cheerleaders and not the players. We must take a step back.

So what is my role? As a white women, what can I do? How do I decide what I'm comfortable with? And how do I reconcile this with what a black person would want from me in this movement. Well, I think about my own experience. I think about my own oppression. I think about the gender inequality I experience and what I would want from men. I want men to listen. I want men to call out other men when they propagate slut-shaming, misogyny and gender-based bias. I don’t want men to dictate my hurt, to legitimise it, to do me the disservice of telling me I have a point to feel this way.

I have a right to feel this way just like black people have a right to feel how they feel. And perhaps what I need from men and what black people need from me is the same. My white voice does not need to speak of black pain – it’s insulting to think it does. It's infantilising even, to think I can add paternalistic legitimacy to these ideals and emotions I know nothing about.

So, I know what I can’t do, but what can I do? I need to fight against the space I can take up, I need to make myself small. I need to call out white people who say, even the most subtle of racist sentiments. I need to explain white privilege and white ignorance. As a white person, if  you understand these concepts, it is our responsibility to educate other white people.

How frustrating for black people to have to repeatedly do this, that’s a burden we can take up. We need to know when we must be quiet, we need to know when to be loud and fight for this ideal that we also hold – for this future world we want to live in too – but we must do so from our own experience, we must draw on what we know.

Finally, we must know that black people know what they need, that they are able to fight for what they need. We must help where and when we are asked. We can offer our skills and bodies when that is what is needed from us. But we must not be arrogant enough to think that we are essential to this fight. That’s what the imperialist, paternalistic racist ideology we are fighting against says. And that thinking has no place here.