Gangsta Lean

Stop it with the feminist whitesplaining

Lord, protect me from the attentions of well-meaning white women.

Yesterday afternoon, I watched with some satisfaction as talented Daily Show Correspondent/Comedian/It Girl Jessica Williams dressed down “The Billfold” writer Esther Bloom for her recklessly-delivered reactions to Williams’ admission that she doesn’t feel qualified to host the soon-to-be vacated The Daily Show.

— Jessica R. Williams (@msjwilly) February 17, 2015

There’s no doubt that Bloom meant to be encouraging, but her comments were less constructive criticism, more boiling cauldron of feminist theory, casual racism, and misplaced causation. Feminists may complain about mansplaining, but feminists of color regularly contend with whitesplaining, often in the form of the unwarranted advice that doesn’t fit a certain situation. And we’re sick of it.(Which is probably part of the reason that Jessica Williams’s tweets are still being passed around some 24 hours later.)

Last week, Forbes contributor Ruchika Tulshyan outlined the issues women of color face at work when we try to speak up:

  • Black women face “the angry black woman” stereotype, leading many women to self-silence to avoid coming off as intimidating or combative
  • Asian American women battle images of submissiveness while being both praised and penalized for raising their voices
  • Latina women are often stereotyped along existing pop cultural lines and are often assumed to be non-native speakers of English

The exhortation to simply “Lean In” misses the point – women of color are constantly playing a game of double dutch in professional spaces, and leaning in without looking around is a good way to get hit with the rope.

I know of what she speaks: The feminist sisterhood has attempted to whitesplain me as well. The first time was six years ago, during a training at the Women’s Media Center when a white woman asked me what I did for a living. After I began to tell her about Racialicious, the small blog on race and culture I oversaw, she cut me off.

“See, this is what I hate about women – we never play big,” she announced, before launching into all the reasons I should feel proud of myself and emphasize my achievements.

I get that women have a tendency to minimize their accomplishments. I get that this is a problem. But I also get that there is a certain order to the media landscape and ecosystem. Yes, the work we were doing at Racialicious was vital and important, but the ways in which our tiny labor of love operated were laughably different than that of Jezebel, which I was writing for just as it was hitting a peak as *the* female-focused website in the United States. (It was even featured on the television show Gossip Girl.) I had never felt so thoroughly condescended towards in the name of feminism than when some woman attempted to “uplift” me when I was actually good, thanks.

Impostor syndrome is a real thing, but it isn’t something that lends itself to the wave of an arm, a pat on the back or an armchair diagnosis. Raise your hand if you ever realized (with either horror or a strange sense of freedom) that you did not want your boss’s job. From where I sit, the open seat at the Daily Show desk is one of the most frightening jobs in media to fill right now: The next host will serve as the main face, anchor, and brand of an immensely popular show and have to maintain or exceed the previous host’s ratings while also trying woo the audience to accept his or her vision of the show. That opportunity (and that paycheck!) is the epitome of heavy lifting – a golden opportunity that could also easily become a pair of golden handcuffs.

Jessica Williams is killing it right now – she doesn’t need advice from randos on the internet. And this kind of well-intentioned, misguided advice can be disastrous for women of color. There are huge differences between glass ceilings (a term where women can see the top but can’t break through), concrete ceilings (where women of color can’t even see a path to the executive suite), and glass cliffs (where women and people of color are often brought in to rescue a failing enterprise). I have no idea what Jessica Williams’ day is like – but I have been on the end of the particular mix of racialized and gendered hubris that leads white women who know nothing about me to inform me of solutions to problems I don’t actually have.

Part of this is cultural – almost every black woman I know put their hands up at that moment in the third season of Scandal where Oliva Pope’s father Rowan hollers at her in an airplane hangar, “You have to be WHAT?”

How can we make white women understand a concept like “twice as good?” How do we make white women understand that they, too, are the “them” Rowan warned Olivia about? All women are equal, but some women are more equal than others.

Our lived experiences as women may have some notes of similarity, but race makes the realities too different to apply a one-size-fits-all solution. And that’s something white women are going to have to understand, instead indulging in advice drive-bys in the name of “the sisterhood.”

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