#Too Catered To and Too Self-Centered to Care: How White Women Harm Black Women Amidst Our Own Oppression

Apr 19, 2023

By Erin Elizabeth Wehrenberg

*Content Warning: This piece contains discussion of sexual violence, violence and suicidal ideation.

That feeling I have felt too many times in my life. The one of my heart hurting with the deep, ancient hurt that there is too much pain in this world for me to exist in it. The one I have felt on behalf of myself and on behalf of so, so many women, known and unknown, as we are left to deal with the results and effects of the violence which occurs to us by and because of men in this patriarchal world we live in. This is what I felt while reading Marsheda Ewulomi’s honest, powerful, and beautiful blog post, Why #MeToo Has No Place for Me…Yet: Recentering Black Women in the #MeToo Movement. Like Marsheda, I have experienced domestic violence, rapes, and countless sexual assaults throughout my lifetime. Like Marsheda, I have felt the seemingly immovable shame and confusion connected to internalized victim-blaming as I felt, re-lived, and processed through years and years of therapy the violent situations and circumstances which happened to me as a result of men choosing to be violent and choosing to take it out on me. Like Marsheda, I have felt hopeless and scared. And, most importantly, like Marsheda, I have felt the incalculable support, care, and love from women in my life who have helped me turn the tide on these impossible experiences and begin to find hope and peace again. Like Marsheda, women in my community saved my life. I am so sorry for what you had to go through, Marsheda, and I respect so much your willingness to share your story.

Unlike Marsheda, I am not a Black woman, and so after reading her blog post, I felt another familiar feeling. This feeling can be accurately summed up by Audre Lorde in her 1981 speech The Uses of Anger:

“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression, her own oppressed status, that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman's face? What woman's terms of oppression have become precious and necessary as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?”

These two beautifully sharp and piercing questions have served as a reflective point for myself for many, many years as I have questioned and challenged my own privilege and access as a white woman – as a white woman who has lived through devastating oppression, violence, and trauma myself.  What Audre Lorde so clearly asks here is for us white women to be honest about the ways our commitment to social justice tends to start and end when it only concerns issues which affect us directly. The ways in which our ability to hold space and empathize with Black women is so, so deeply limited and, usually, non-existent. The ways in which the violence we experience as white women does not automatically excuse or prevent us from harming Black women who also experience violence – more and different – under this same patriarchy. 

Systems of oppression are zero-sum games. This means that even though our access to racial privilege as white women may appear as a benefit to us, it comes at a cost: the humanity of Black women and our own humanity as well. In differing ways, yes, but still present. What patriarchy takes from us as white women is intensified in what is taken from us by white supremacy. Patriarchy steals our humanity by not allowing us to be full, multi-dimensional beings, and white supremacy steals our ability to see Black women as full, multi-dimensional beings. The things we as white women so often complain about as men doing to us (explaining or erasing our lived experiences, denying the full range of emotions, being a supportive character and not a full-fleshed out person – to name a few), we are so often doing to Black women, without even noticing, without even caring, without even being willing to reflect on how we are doing this even when it is pointed out to us time and time again. 

As white women, if we can understand that we want spaces which are only for women, why are we upset when Black women want spaces that are just for Black women? As white women, we get upset when men say, “Why does this have to be about gender?” but we don’t see how when we say, “Why does this have to be about race? Why can’t this include all women?” is the same attempt at erasure. As white women, we are dehumanized by having our anger denied and not taken seriously by men, but don’t we see how we dehumanize Black women by demanding them to be strong 24/7? As white women, we don’t simply want to be a prop and sidekick to the people in our lives, but how often do we slot Black women in that one-dimensional role of sidekick and supporter when we see ourselves as the main character?

Why are we so sightless to our own heelprints upon the faces of Black women? Why are we so resistant to self-scrutiny? To acknowledging and unlearning the privilege we do have compared to Black women? To taking action in order to ensure a safer world for Black women #too? I specifically chose the words “catered to” and “self-centered” as the title of this piece on purpose, as I believe these are the answers to these questions. 

“Catered to” recognizes that while patriarchy harms all women, white supremacy ensures women who are catered to in the role of being oppressed…are white women. This, of course, is not to negate or minimize the incredibly painful, dehumanizing, and debilitating things white women go through at the hands of patriarchy. I know. I have lived it and seen it over and over again. However, it is important to recognize that when these painful, dehumanizing, and debilitating situations do occur, white women are given the privilege of being seen as victims. In addition, our white privilege protects us from dealing with the lived realities of Black women and so we experience less manifestations of this violence. Here are some ways: 

These biases in media, access, and care are a reflection of the ways that white supremacy has shaped white women as the standard of “women” and “womanhood” - and how that is allowed to be expressed in society, as the standard of innocence, as the standard of needing protection and to be saved. To again quote Marsheda Ewulomi: 

“Due to the social, political, and legal legacies of slavery where Black women were at the intersection of not being fully human or woman, our treatment then and now results in a lack of protection.”

White supremacy has made white women the standard because whiteness protects itself by being invisible to those who have it and simultaneously erasing the importance of cultural, ethnic, and racial existences which differ from whiteness. This is why white women can look in the mirror and see a woman, while a Black woman looks in the mirror and sees a Black woman. Whiteness caters to white women by making us believe our experience is the standard and norm for all experiences of womanhood, and Black women “should exist around that as the center” and “desire to exist like that” as well. It is not. They should not. And they do not. 

White supremacy has allowed us as white women to be self-centered to the point that we do not need to care about the oppression of Black women in order to, not only work for our own rights, but to also live comfortable lives in white supremacy. Whiteness allows us to believe that the white woman experience is the experience of all women and therefore what is relevant for us is what is relevant for all women, and the rights and ways we want to exist should be the ways all women should want to exist. Again, it is not and they should not. 

After centuries of being catered to and being self-centered, you can imagine the entitlement which has resulted for us as white women, on the institutional and interpersonal levels. As Marsheda addressed in her blog, the #MeToo movement was started by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, because of the lack of support for Black and Brown women who have experienced male violence. However, now, it has been co-opted and morphed into yet another source of support for non-Black women. This is just one example of the hard work and labor of Black women to create a safer and more just world that is taken by us as soon as we see it can benefit us. Just one example of what Black women create and pioneer that is lifted by white communities while erasing completely the work, creativity, and labor Black women put into this world. More examples?

Christen A. Smith started Cite Black Women in 2017 in order to push-back on all the stolen intellectual property of Black women. The movie Bring It On explores this as well, as the plot revolves around a white cheerleading squad who discovers all their “original” cheers are actually stolen from a neighboring Black cheerleading squad. In a more subtle example, the 2001 movie Save The Last Dance featured a white woman, Julia Stiles, who is very overwhelmed adjusting after a move from a predominantly white neighborhood and school to a predominantly Black neighborhood and school. The movie follows her as she not only uses Black culture to enhance her personality, grow personally, and to appear “cooler,” but she is taught this by her Black woman peer, Kerry Washington (aka “a sidekick”). She is rewarded for this appropriation by ending up with a boyfriend, Sean Patrick Thomas, who coaches her in hip-hop culture and dance. This ultimately leads to her getting admitted into Juilliard, her dream dance school, via her performance of a ballet and hip-hop dance combination. To quote Morgan Breon, “If a Black girl did a hip-hop dance at her Juilliard audition, would she get in?” To be clear, this is not an issue with culture sharing. This is an example of co-opting: white women are rewarded for putting on Black culture, the same Black culture Black women are punished for. The examples are, unfortunately, endless, and simply paying attention to the day to day world in which we live will reflect back all the manifestations of this uncredited labor. 

As I close this blog, I do want to reiterate that I am in no way saying that white women should have less support, less resources, or less rights in regards to us reaching liberation from patriarchy. I am saying that as white women, we should be dedicated to working and ensuring Black women have more: more support, more resources, more rights, more humanity, more grace, more connection, more sisterhood, more credit, more rest, more safety, more care. White women: we do this by, despite whatever other oppressed identities we may possess, taking a look at our heelsprints. Taking a look at the ways we are resistant to self-scrutiny. Taking a look at what parts of our white privilege have led us to the comforts of being catered to and being self-centered. If we are to claim a desire for justice and women’s liberation, we must be willing to do the uncomfortable and necessary work of examining and unlearning the way white supremacy has tricked us into harming our Black sisters amidst our own oppression. Then, we must be willing to commit to living in a way which embodies the opposite. 

If any part of this blog post resonated with you, upset you, confused you, made you feel guilt or shame, or brought out any other emotion in you, I encourage you to attend the course Marsheda and I are co-teaching entitled Allyship vs Sisterhood: How To Actually Show Up For Black Women. I invite you to attend this course and continue the conversation with Marsheda and me. The course is open to everyone and will explore the dynamics of how white supremacy contributes to the dehumanization and exploitation of Black women – interpersonally and systemically. Content of the course will include resources, strategies, and practical examples of how participants can disrupt problematic systems and honor Black women and their labor daily. Participants will reflect on the following questions: (1) What is allyship? And should it be the goal? (2) What is sisterhood? How do we get there? 

The course will be offered on Wednesday, May 17, 2023 and you can register HERE.

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