(How) Can White Women Understand this?

Prologue:  When I wrote this, I thought it might be liable to what  seems to  me to be a misunderstanding, namely that I was trying to recenter the  discourse or make it a white woman’s thing.  I decided wrongly that it wouldn’t be so interpreted.

In fact, this question arises immediately in comments.  So let me urge readers to engage with them also.


Drawing on Deborah Gray White’s book, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Patricia J. Williams iterates  the archetypes of black women that confined slave women in the plantation South

–the brazen, sexualized Jezebel; the domineering, emasculating Sapphire; the dependable, selflessly neutered mammy; and the perpetually loveless, suicide-inclined, tragic mulatta. These tropes haunt black women still: from the adventures of Flavor Flav and Strom Thurmond to the depictions from Don Imus and the minstrelsy of Tyler Perry.

As Williams remarks, it isn’t easy to inherit such an  iconicity.

That’s why so many minority women are so smitten by the work that Michelle Obama performs, if at a purely symbolic level. She defies the boxes into which black (as well as many Latina, Asian and white) women have been caged; she expands the force field of feminism in ecumenical and unsettling ways.

Williams’ remarks are inclusive; not just black women are caught and held  by such stereotypes.  In addition, surely many, many white women feel some joy at the sight of the remarkable  Mrs. Obama in the White House.  But can white women understand what it must be like to have someone like her shatter images that have badly constrained lives?

Of course Michelle Obama is not a complete media anomaly, but her current status is  so very unprecedented.  While there is some formal recognition that black women are unfairly stereotyped, surely the opposite messages must also be replete in a white dominated society.

So  back to the lead question, what  in white women’s experience might they refer to in order to get some grasp of the experience their sisters of color are  now having?   Of course, there isn’t some one white experience, so for those who are white,  it might be worth trying to answer this question for oneself, if not generally.  And for some the answer might be readily available, while others might find it harded.

What do you think?