(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?

6 thoughts on “(How) Can White Women Understand this?

  1. I’d argue that it’s a sign of privilege to center the conversation back on one’s own experience. As a white woman, I don’t *need* a self-referential experience in order to understand the significance of Michelle Obama’s legacy and the stereotypes that she defies. I just need to listen to authors like Patricia J. Williams and learn accordingly.

  2. I don’t know if an attempt to re-center white experience is a sign of privilege so much as a protection and reproduction of privilege. However, I do think it’s worth querying the lead question. It seems posed in such a way that assumes an always desired “all-inclusive” audience. Yet, in conjunction with the caveat that one speak for one’s self, the question curtails conversation around white voices. I mean, as a woman of color, do I *need* to experience whiteness before sharing my thoughts? Am I speaking for someone else if I do?

    We all have anxieties about understanding race that we can bond over, I guess.

    But Allison implies an important question: What does it mean to relate to others only on the basis of commonalities and sameness? Does “understanding” or “knowing” lead to a form of possession over someone else’s experience? Can’t we grasp and even appreciate Michelle Obama’s importance without suffering from negative stereotypes?

    I think part of the difficulty here is the metaphor of the cage. I don’t think that stereotyping operates in such a way that some people are “in” a type while others roam freely. And while some types still haunt us, it’s important to remember that their appearance is spectral–tropes materialized out of contemporary social positions. Contextualizing some of those stereotypes might help us better understand how they shape power dynamics. On a plantation, for instance, the jezebel, the sapphire and the mammy may all operate on the same black woman’s body, and even at the same time. Further, those stereotypes tend to produce correlatives that operate on the bodies of white women: cruel mistress, frail/frigid housewife, pristine belle.

    So anyway, I think the point is not to reach deep within ourselves and find some commonality that crosses the cage bars, but rather, to realize that stereotypes do something far more complicated than keep certain folks pent up. Really, we can’t shatter the stereotypes haunting us any more than we can kill ghosts.

    Sorry to keep ranting, but I have a somewhat tangential question: Why should we assume that inclusivity is necessarily a social or intellectual good?

  3. Of course, I strongly disagree, otherwise I wouldn’t have been asking the question. Perhaps I’m not understanding what you mean by centering, but I could have thought the idea was fairly clearly to bring the inquiry back to the others’ experience. Understanding their experience is the goal.

    I had put down some reasons why I was asking what white women could understand and what could they find that would let them do so. But it seemed awfully didactic. Well, here goes:

    Very roughly speaking, we bring two sorts of resources to bring to understanding a narrative. One is something like cognitive or propositional uptake. One understands the what is said, how it goes together, and so on.

    A second understanding is something more like sensory and emotion based. It tends to draw on our own sensory and emotional experiences. It is extremely difficult to bring this sort of understanding without experience. Despite the cliche that great writers take us into emotional territory we haven’t been in before, they do draw on a great deal of common experience to succeed.

    Let me use an example: if you hear about a house robbery, you may well get how awful it would be to lose all those things, maybe especially if some are irreplaceable family treasures. You bring in not just narrative but also some experience at least of valuing things and some idea of what loss feels like. But you may miss the awful sense of personal violation that goes along with being robbed. Maybe having had something stolen from your bag on a train is enough to get that empathetic sense of violation, but it is experiential and if you haven’t had the experience you may miss the significance of any allusion to it.

    The most important thing experience brings in the sort of case under question, I’m inclined to think, is that it allows one to infer beyond what the narrative says. If you’ve had that experience of personal violation, you can get some sense of how replacement doesn’t make things all better. You might understand that what the person needs as much as an insurance agent is some way of regaining a sense of safety and security. And on and on.

    The bottom line is that we are thoroughly emodied creatures and we are limited in our ability to understand others by our own experience. But we can greatly extend what is available to bring to others’ narratives by imaginatively trying to catch at least shadows of what they’ve felt in ourselves. In doing so, we can start to add in to what has been said though it’s an awfully good idea NOT simply to assume one is getting it right. Dialogue is a very good idea.

  4. Dee Es:

    I wrote my comment before I saw yours. I’m not sure I’m suggesting commonality. It’s something more like finds atoms of experience that you can try to reconfigure into something like a semblance of what another person might be going through.

    Of course, why I’m worried about is that a lot of people may be facile in their self-congratulations as non-racist because they are proud of Michelle Obama. Or, perhaps worse, they think they really feel with people of color on this. I wanted to suggest some work needs to be done before (many? most?) whites even get started on understanding. And your comment makes me want to say that it would be foolish to try to disengage understanding from dialogue and action.

    Sadly, I’m pretty sure we can’t escape relying on our own experience, at least the elements of it, to understand others. That’s why, for example, it can take so much effort to try to understand what it is like to age, and why younger clinicians sometimes try to reduplicate aspects of the aging experience. It’s also why understanding another’s grief can feel pretty bad; e.g., we are drawing on our own capacity to feel grief.

    Maybe fortunately, it’s pretty clear that for quite a range of emotional experience, most people react emotionally to another’s story the way they do to the experience itself – though usually, but not always, not as strongly. The 18th century philosopher David Hume was pretty clearly aware of it, but all sorts of recent empirical work makes it very clear. So, for example, smelling a disgusting odor and seeing others react to smelling one causes much the same brain reaction. We are fellow feelers, bizarre though that might seem.

  5. JJ:

    Those last two posts really help clarify the structure of your thinking and pinpoint exactly what’s at stake in the original question. Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

    Your concern about white people exempting themselves from racism based on gleeful support of Michelle Obama is certainly valid. However, it seems that such an idea of racism gets quite easily caught up in questions of individual interaction and the ability to empathize or sympathize.

    Sure, Don Imus-type slurs are harmful and hurtful. We might even want to describe him as racist. But he (along with his comments, along with certain stereotypes) is a product of racism. Kicking him off the air does not end racism any more than Michelle Obama’s prominent image in the news ends racism.

    I find a Foucauldian approach to conceptualizing racism quite helpful and Saidiya Hartman very clearly summarizes what that means in her newest book, Lose Your Mother:

    “Racism, according to Michel Foucault, is the social distribution of death; like an actuarial chart, it predicts who would thrive and who would not. Blacks are twice more likely to die than whites at every stage of life and have shorter life spans [than whites]. In my city, black men have life spans twenty years shorter than white men’s, and the infant mortality rate among black women rivals that of a third-world country.”

    I guess I’m skeptical of the idea that understanding racism, even if that means truly sympathizing with another person’s experience of it, will ever end racism. However, I’m not sad that we can’t escape relying on our own experience to foster understanding between people. That’s exactly the sort of evidential register that feminists fought to introduce and legitimate in the social sciences! I do think, though, that we always have to be aware of where that experience stands in a larger social order, that we have to try to make that social order more visible, and that we should keep an open ear toward experiences from many different positions in an effort to find ways of making changes where and when we can.

    I think that Allison’s larger point was getting at the idea that when we set a goal of reaching out to people across racial divisions by understanding “their experience” we tend to obscure the fact that experience itself exists within a social order that privileges whiteness as a basis for comparison. That sort of blindness in theorizing, in turn, may inadvertently reify the very social order we were hoping to put into question.

    In any case, I think you’re absolutely right to say that mutual understanding must be the product of engaged dialogue and thank you for posting a question that is producing just that. I would, though, also add that with dialogue always comes power dynamics and assertions of authority that must also remain open to question. That’s my Foucauldian position, anyway.

  6. Thanks, Dee Es, for some great observations. I’m not sure that understanding WOC’s experience of Michelle Obama will do much for lessening the grip of racism, but she has become a nearly unavoidable object of attention. Besides, she is at the center of something very important for most of our lives.

    I think your criticism of my ignoring the fact that the white woman would still have her experience filtered by power structures is important. I do think that’s a very difficult issue. I don’t know what to say. I guess I think one reason why dialogue is going to be essential is just the distortions we bring along.

    Let me mention another point. I hope I’m not just substituting another issue for one’s we’ve discussed. I mean it to indicate how very difficult these issues are. Williams discusses the “hand on the back” incident with the Queen and MO. She – along with everyone else I’ve read – doesn’t mention a pretty obvious interpretive possibility. I bet there is a class of people the queen easily touches; it includes children and quite possibly WOC. So has Williams not thought of this ugly possibility or has she deliberately chosen instead an interpretation that places the interaction in a different matrix? Or could there be some of one thing and some of another? Or do we even want to say that there is some truth of the matter to be found?

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