Brene Brown. Glennon Doyle. Elizabeth Gilbert. Regena Thomashauer.
These are all women who have aided me on my healing journey. They’ve provided me guidance, comfort, relief, insight.
They remind me of a mentor I had years ago: a very kind, empowered, upper class white woman. In so many ways, especially in relation to reclaiming feminine power, she taught me a lot.
But she also made problematic statements, such as how people on Medicaid eating crap & drinking soda weigh down our healthcare system. Or how there are so many resources for homeless people, that if they’re suffering, it’s a choice.
Her capacity for empathy was strong but limited to a subset of people (people who she could relate to easily, see herself in). Her own reclamation of power seemed to make her forget that many people did not have the same access and privilege she had. (She had worked her way up from lower middle to upper class, so if she could do it, why couldn’t everyone else??)
And this is the crux of my concern — that empowering people who already hold a lot of the power in society can be extremely blinding. Especially if they’re already blind to (or worse, desensitized to) the severity of other people’s oppression to start with (pretty much every white woman I’ve met, including myself).
There’s an unease that pulses through me when I read these white woman authors, because there’s so much assumed and unaddressed privilege. Which is not to say that these women have not acknowledged their privilege. In fact, I’d say most of them have. And in varying degrees, they’ve contributed to efforts to call attention and action to injustices.
BUT, I’m not talking about these women themselves, I’m talking about their readership. The insecure, overworked, underappreciated white woman who picks up one of their books to figure out what’s missing from her life.
At the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert recognizes the fact that her endeavor to travel around the world to find herself was one of privilege that few of us could undertake. And yet I question, what’s the point in acknowledging this? Because the book then proceeds to become a means of empowering a group of people who could at least imagine themselves doing such a thing.
By mere subject matter, she chooses who it is she’s helping.
And look, I’m not trying to tell these women what to write about. That would be ridiculous and futile and incredibly self-righteous.
But I do want to address my own queasiness that caused me to put Eat, Pray, Love down after getting halfway through.
Or my unintentional eye roll when I engage with some of these women’s problems.
Which is not to say they’re not real. Problems are problems no matter class, religion, race, etc. But I’d also make the argument that problems function on a spectrum. Struggling to accept your bit of extra body weight isn’t on par with choosing between paying a bill or feeding your kids. Or wondering if your son’s going to be targeted by the police.
So what’s my point? Good question, cause I’m trying to figure it out as well. I’m trying to narrow down what my issue is with these works, and this seems it: when you empower a group that already has so much power, it’s dangerous for others. Not dangerous in that these women are now going to intentionally turn around and cause harm. In fact, quite the opposite:
As white women, most of the harm we cause in society is unintentional and done from a place of unawareness and ignorance.
I’m reminded of an On Being interview with author Resmaa Menakem in which he mentions that a white woman’s tears can move a nation (and have). That’s a lot of power to wield, and to do so without understanding the context in which we function (in service of white supremacy) is fucking scary. When the narrative is pushed to white women that their feelings matter without also teaching them about the power dynamics at play in society, they can become tools for harm (hello, white lady in Central Park).
It makes me think of the Red Pill on Reddit (or Jordan Peterson or the less blatantly problematic Tim Ferriss) and the movement to empower white men who feel as though they’ve lost power in society. If you read through the posts, you’ll find people who seem genuine in their desire to be better and to help. Taken out of context, it could seem innocent, even positive. But most of us understand where this type of thinking leads.
In my personal life, it led to the radicalization of a family friend who spewed white supremacist, misogynist bullshit all over Facebook (and felt totally justified to do so).
This may seem like an extreme comparison, but bear with me. Setting aside the many Karen examples of white women acting out in hateful ways, there’s the much more insidious non-aggressive, seemingly nice & caring white woman who exerts just as much if not arguably more harm on society.
Such a woman has received her white woman empowerment training, which gives her the false perception that she is now in-the-know and understands the complicated workings of life and how to solve them (such as the prominence of the “Lean In” messaging). This white woman believes that because she’s figured herself out, she’s got a pretty good hang on life as a whole.
That level of confidence paired with unconfronted white supremacy leads to harmful behavior dressed in a (white feminist) pants suit and heals.
Look, as individuals, does each person deserve to love themselves, reclaim their power, and work through their trauma? OF COURSE.
But as individuals, we don’t function in a vacuum. We are part of a whole, a collective. And as much as I want to see everyone heal, collective healing will not happen with the people who need it the least are top priority.
There’s the sentiment that the more you work on yourself, the more that internal good extends outwards. I honestly haven’t seen this play out amongst my white woman friends who have embarked on such endeavors.
Because there’s no organic stop on the journey towards self-love in which a white woman naturally sees that she’s serving white supremacy. Such a realization is not a gentle process and sure as hell is not a practice that ultimately serves her to “better” herself. Confronting our inherent participation in a system that actively oppresses and kills BIPOC is not a self-improvement project.
So as I look around and watch white women become more comfortable, loving, accepting of themselves, it makes me feel uneasy.
It’s like that Instagram influencer who’s a 10 talking about how long it took her to “accept and love” her body. Which is not to say it’s not true — physical insecurity is woven into every women in society, even the fucking hot ones. But it’s not exactly inspiring, progressive or even helpful to the majority of us to hear such a message from her.
So the more white women boost each other up, the more uncomfortable I get with participating in such a culture. Because in my experience, I become more insulated in my focus on myself, my needs, my insecurities, my trauma. Which yes, deserve attention but not at the detriment of considering the women who are suffering in large part because of my ignorance and self-absorption.
I wonder if white women could find just as much empowerment and healing from doing work that focuses on deconstructing the workings of a society that keeps them on top at the expense of everyone else. That healing could come more so come in the form of forgetting ourselves than putting ourselves at the forefront.
And you know, maybe there’s space for both (focus on self & destroying white supremacy). I mean, looking at Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy book, I see quotes from Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Hathaway and Glennon Doyle. So I don’t want to present myself as the more woke white woman in contrast to these ladies. In fact, it may be my own personal lacking, my sense of not doing enough that has brought me to this place of distress.
But what I do know is that as I dedicate time to bettering & loving myself, I need to not lose sight of also working towards a society in which my well-being, self-love and self-care is not at the precipice. Because without the latter, self-love just feels gross.
To quote Audre Lorde,
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
As a white women in America, it is all too easy (and encouraged) to see only my struggle for freedom, happiness, satisfaction.
And so more than anything, this is a kick in the ass to myself. To remember that although I deserve a good life, I need to check myself on a daily basis to understand what that means within the context of the society I live in. Because obsessing over myself & my own well-being can go from self-care to serving white supremacy real quick.