The Race to Innocence
White Woman Tears and the Epistemology of Victimhood
"The quotes used in this article are taken verbatim from a Moodle exchange with the professor in question"
"Sandra, before I respond to your apparent assumption that I am "white", and also to your assumption that you know who I am and what I am about, I want to state that I do not take your essay as a personal attack. I mean this.," writes my white-passing professor in response to my essay criticizing her choice-feminism approach to pedagogy.
"I am NOT white. I am sorry you see me as such," she later insisted in the same response.
I was surprised because my mention of her whiteness constituted a very small fraction of my six-page-long essay. Yet, her feedback revolved almost entirely on my perception of her as white. Why was she so angered and hurt by my perspective? After all, it was merely an offering of my truth, one that had been explicitly requested at that.
"[...] what I find perplexing is you deciding that I am white. I actually laughed because I could not understand how you could come to this conclusion." She later continued, "[...] your essays are so interesting to read but when you deliberately attack my ability to evaluate your reading of a theorist that I have worked years on, you actually stoop to the same level that all white men stoop to when they want to devalue a woman--when they feel challenged and when this challenge makes them uncomfortable. Don't be offended. Exercise your agency. Do you have it? Don't let me affect you. Are you able to resist the offence? Are you agentic? What to do? How to respond??? Using the oppressors tool is this agency?" She clarified.
I understood then that she had been triggered at the notion that I saw myself as her equal. It disturbed the inherent sense of intellectual superiority she harboured over me.
In fighting the system and saying that she was not above me, that she had not adequately represented the teachings of bell hooks, by criticizing her approach to feminism and stating that she had not been a good educator to me, I triggered a white fragility-inducing response. A response that somehow came without any reflectivity or acknowledgment of the "wonderful intellectual rant that emerged from a standpoint of a person who is challenging the white academy." She herself described my essay to be but firmly insisted on her non-whiteness and my (intellectual) inferiority.
The rest of her response mostly constituted an attempt to compete in the Oppression Olympics against me. However, unlike her, my marginalization was never a badge I wore with honour.
During a Saturday Night Live monologue, comedian Bill Burr stated, "the woke movement was supposed to be about people of colour not getting opportunities... finally making that happen. And it was about that for about eight seconds. And then somehow, white women swung their Gucci-booted feet over the fence of oppression and stuck themselves at the front of the line.” He was right.
As my professor herself put towards the end of her lengthy response to my paper, "I will accept your perspective until I am bored and move to another perspective. Agency or not?" As my essay was pointing out, white (passing) women have a long history of yielding their privilege as a way to exert violence over groups they hold more social power over like racialized men, children and women they consider weaker than them; all through the enacting of a tear-jerking performance of distress and victimhood.
These types of women use feminism and feminist theory as a way to coerce people into offering them the sympathy they willfully deny others. Meanwhile, white women's boredom comes at the cost of our safety. Their agency costs us freedom and their tears can cost us our very lives.
We saw it in the likes of Carolyn Bryant Donham, Fannie Taylor, Amy Cooper, Jen and Sarah Hart, Eleanor Williams, Dr. Cynthia Villagomez and many others who yielded their agency to instill violence on marginalized folks but cosplayed victimhood as a shield for justified criticism and due repercussions. Such is the power of white women's tears.
This habitual practice of political whiteness was exemplified in the rise of Karens, which showcased the social construct of white womanhood: weaponized victimhood. The portrayal of white women as docile, kind, nurturing, passive people remains ingrained in our collective epistemology of victimhood, is alive and well despite the mountain of evidence pointing to its fallacy, like the concealed involvement of white women in the slave economy. This exists to uphold the lie that it is against white women's nature to be as capable of harm as their male counterparts, especially towards other women. This phenomenon is echoed in what is called the race to innocence.
The race to innocence is a term coined by professors Mary Louise Fellows of the University of Minnesota Law School and Sherene Razack of the Department of Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto. It describes the way “feminist political solidarity has failed because of what we identify as the problem of competing marginalities. These moments of conflict and political immobility seem to center around the deeply felt belief that each of us, as women, is not implicated in the subordination of other women.”
Over the years, I came to realize that I was to others what they experienced first. Most often that was my Blackness; my dark skin is seen as a weapon I may never be disarmed from. Although defining myself was internal, qualifying what I was remained external as my experience of identity is imposed on me through the treatment the perception others have of me begets. As such, I was always denied the agency to define my Blackness for myself.
Conversely, Rachel Dolezal, Carrie Bourassa, Jessica Krug, Ellen Turpen-Lafond, Raquel Evita Saraswati, and other identity hoaxers can cosplay the reality of systemic racial inequality without ever having been on the receiving end of its whip. These unremarkable charlatans appropriate the labels of marginalization to escape the boredom of their privilege and respective mediocrity.
This identity-stacking of marginalization renounces any sort of accountability for their complicity in the systems they yield power and benefit from; all while calling themselves “Muslim activist” , “Indigenous feminist”, or–my personal favorite–“woke soul sista." Meanwhile, their performative outrage is socially and financially rewarded while their whiteness affords them shelter from material repercussions.
As a result, white allyship has become a lucrative social currency that does nothing to support personal evolution, solution-driven dialogue or social justice. Instead, it promotes an undue sense of righteousness and indignation like it did with my professor. It gives more power to a post about marginalized people than actually treating us with dignity in real life; it uplifts symbolism over actions.
As I stated in my essay: "Women with intersecting marginalized identities’ voices are reduced to what white women are willing to listen to and concede to. If my agency is limited to the truth white women are comfortable with, my ability to change the discourse is nullified.”
It is crucial to understand that the labels were never the resistance or weapons used against the violence marginalized folks are subjected to. Violence is the root of victimhood. Violence is the reason why resistance is required in the first place. It was never about anything else, certainly not identity politics.
While we distractedly argue over labels, we increasingly struggle to discern those fighting for individual power from those fighting for our collective liberation. We should yield our agency to dismantle oppressive systems, not reshuffle them to our individual benefit.
Identity politics creates an environment in which attacking the harmful system is seen as a tragedy whilst attacking its victims remains tradition. But we need to evolve from a place of conscious intentionality. We have the agency to take responsibility for the feelings others bring up in us without centring ourselves. We have the agency to observe and sit with the discomfort others’ perspectives of us may spark in us rather than dismiss or violently react to it.
At the end of the day, a perspective is an offering of one's truth. It is a mere gift from one human being to another. It was never meant to be agreed or disagreed on. The weight of that perspective is in the energy behind the words chosen to explain it. Once you get reactive at the offering of another's perspective, you have to ask yourself if you're confident in the value of your own offering—in the integrity of your own walk. Are you?
This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 13, published March 7, 2023.