What Does It Mean to Say that All White Feminists Are Racist? (Questions Posed to White Women/Myself about Our Part in the Dialogue with Women of Color) By Carol P. Christ


Carol P. Christ, a founding mother in the study of Women and Religion and Feminist Theo/a/logy, has been active in anti-racist, anti-poverty, anti-war, feminist, pro-gay and lesbian, anti-nuclear, and environmental causes (in that order) for many years.  All of these issues have informed her teaching, her scholarship, and her politics.

The recent posting of Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde on the Feminism and Religion blog is a correction of a piece of feminist history that is important in its own right and because of the way Lorde’s letter has shaped feminist discourse and politics up to the present day.  Knowledge of the existence of Daly’s letter and the facts surrounding Lorde’s distortion of history has been in the public domain since the 2004 publication of Alexis DeVeaux’s Warrior Poet, but when I searched the internet for a copy of “Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde” a few days ago, what came up was Lorde’s letter to Daly — not Daly’s letter to Lorde.

I often hear younger feminists say that “all white feminists” of the older generations “were racist.”  Sometimes Mary Daly is mentioned.  Setting the record straight about Mary Daly is one step in retelling the history of feminism in a more complex way. 

There is no doubt that Mary Daly was working in a racist society and that we all still live in one.  Yet I often hear that white feminists only cared about “their own white middle class issues.”  Whatever you think of Gyn/Ecology, it is simply wrong to say that Mary Daly (often cited as a paradigm for “white feminists”) only cared about white middle class women’s issues.  She wrote about genital mutilation not to “help herself” but because she hoped that her writing would help women in Africa.  Genital mutilation was just outlawed in Kenya, so perhaps it did.

In my class on Feminist Theory at San Jose State, we read Gyn/Ecology just after it was published .  Reading Gyn/Ecology with other women opened the door for a Chinese American woman in my class to speak about her own involuntary sterilization for the first time.  I know from that experience that Daly’s book did not speak only to a narrow group of white middle class women.  Yet the story that Daly did not speak to women of color and that she did not even bother to respond to Lorde’s letter continues to be told.

After Mary Daly received a copy of the letter she had written to Lorde from black feminist scholar Alexis DeVeaux , she called me one night out of the blue (we were not close friends) and asked if I could help her to set the record straight.  I was the one who gave a copy of Daly’s letter to Gina Messina-Dysert to post .  Reading Daly’s letter for the first time, one of my feminist friends wrote me, “Wow! I don’t think I ever did see the original. It’s horrible how Mary was used and abused around this.”

Musing on what happened to Mary Daly prompts me to ask two further questions:

  • What function does the story that “all white feminists were (or are) racist” play in our movement?
  • And why have white feminists allowed it to stand?

Racism exists.  There is no doubt in my mind about that.  Everyone in a racist culture is affected by racism and it lives in our collective unconscious in many and insidious ways.  The structures of racism shape all of our lives and white people benefit from “white privilege.”  White women as a group did not speak out against slavery and the racism that followed emancipation and this is one of the reasons many black feminists do not feel comfortable in gatherings where white women dominate. All of this is true.  At the same time, most of the white feminists I know are consciously anti-racist, have marched and voted against racism, have stuck their own academic necks out in meetings to speak against perceived racism from their colleagues and superiors, and have almost never included only white middle class women’s issues in their classes.  Judith Plaskow was there when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speechRosemary Radford Ruether went South in the 1960s to work in the Civil Rights movement.  I was raised in a conservative family and my awakening came later, but before I turned twenty-two, my commitment to ending racism and poverty was clear, and I have held onto it even though it created a huge and continuing rift between me and my family.  Starhawk has helped to bring social justice issues to the forefront of the Reclaiming movement.  These examples from the field of religion are mirrored in the lives of many other white feminists of our generations.

Yes, we are all living in a racist society and our work and the lives of all women are affected by that.  And yes, the actions that white feminists have taken against racism have not dismantled  racism.  And surely white feminists including Mary Daly could and can learn a great deal about the limitations of our perspectives through open and honest dialogue with women of color.  Still I ask:  Why did white anti-racist feminists not come sooner to Mary Daly’s defense? And why have we not insisted that though white women are affected by and do benefit from racist structures we did not create, many in our generations of feminists were and are consciously and actively anti-racist? The history of race in America cannot be told without evoking complex feelings of pain, anger, shame, guilt, and humiliation.  Could it be that we tell a simple story when a more nuanced one would be more truthful because we want to distance ourselves from all of those feelings?  

*See: Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde, Audre Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”, Audre Lorde’s biographer’s piecing together of the story in Warrior Poet, 233-238, 246-248, 251-253; Mary Daly’s recollection of the events in Amazon Grace, p. 22-26;  Adrienne Sere’s remembrance of Mary Daly and reflection on white feminist racism; and Gina Messina-Dysert’s blog posting Daly’s letter .



Categories: Feminism, Foremothers, Herstory, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Mary Daly, Racism

Tags: , , , , ,

20 replies

  1. Thanks so much for your post, Carol. It has almost become “feminist myth” that that the movement as a whole (or individual white feminists) either did not care about or seriously consider the interests, concerns, perspectives, etc. of women of color until the third wave. Such a claim, as you do a good job of pointing out, cannot be sustained.

    In these and other debates, I often find myself occupying an interesting space. As you probably know, Asian Americans in the U.S. often serve as a buffer between whites and blacks (n.b, clearly there are more races than these two, but American discourse still often defaults to these two categories): we are often considered “white” (in terms of counting as “privileged” and thus not being eligible for minority scholarships or affirmative action programs), though we are often counted as “black” when businesses or institutions of higher education want to brag about how racially diverse they are.

    In class on Wednesday, we were running out of time as we discussed the series of exchanges that did happen between Lorde and Daly. What I wanted to say to my class (but forgot to do so), was that I wondered how my own embodiment (as neither a black, nor white feminist) would affect the students’ perception of how their exchange was being taught. Perhaps we can revisit that issue when class resumes next Wed.

    Thanks again for your post.

    Like

  2. Interesting you say that you feel left out or in between Grace, I remember being in an unlearning racism workshop years ago that was so focused on black and white that when they asked if you had any friends who were …(can’t remember if they said black or of a different race) that I didn’t even mention that one of my very best friends is Chinese and one of my best friends at the time was Latina and another close friend was American Indian. Yet in California, the black-white dynamic not the only one.

    Like

    • Carol – indeed (hooray for California)! I logged 6 years in Virginia and the dominant paradigm for race-relations was still black-white. Also, I didn’t mean to (merely) personalize when I spoke about Asian Americans – it is not so much about FEELING left out or in between, but about people like me commonly BEING structurally positioned as buffers as it suits the purposes of those doing the classifications. Fortunately, in the professional organizations of which I’m a member, I usually have not been personally treated as either an “honorary white” or a de facto “black” (for they have been sophisticated enough to realize the inappropriateness of either label).

      Like

  3. Interesting and complex. I have to add that what I hear suggested often among contemporary womanists – less so among black feminists – is that “white feminists are anti-male” even as they are racist, privileged, etc.

    It takes real courage and patience to work through these kinds of accusations: how much easier is it to wield ideological weapons in one’s self defense than to deal with those “complex feelings of pain, anger, shame, guilt, and humiliation” that occur – and I must insist on this here – on both sides?

    Like

  4. Carol, I so appreciate your post. As a white feminist I struggle with these issues on confronting racism. What is my role as a white feminist? How can I work towards ending oppression and not overstep? How can I be a good sister? I think about these questions often and generally am unsure how to approach them.

    I think this post is very courageous and I think many will be impacted by it, myself included. Thank you!

    Like

  5. As always, the story is more complex. I was often perplexed at the accusations thrown at Mary Daly for her racism. And when Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde came to the light of day, I saw Daly’s silence in the face of Lorde’s outright lies as an act of sisterhood. Daly believed that we have more in common with women of all races, and that her book Gyn/Ecology tried to chronicle the global nature of patriarchy. Focusing on attrocities against women by men is a hard thing to do.

    I don’t see racism as something that has gone unchallenged within feminism, but I do see gradations of change generationally. For example, in younger lesbian groups, I see racial solidarity between young black, white and Asian women. In groups of lesbians over 50, the rooms are almost always all white women. Not all white middle class women, because lesbians of all social classes mix well together. Bring in het women and you have more of a problematic situation in my opinion.

    The irony of the charges of classim against Daly was that she came from a very modest working class family. Her backgound of working class Irish heritage was a strong motivator in her super human studies.

    I do think black women get tired of the lip service of white women, the “liberal” patronizing attitudes. I often feel this around het women, and get tired and irritated at their clueless homophobia… it’s very common. It does take a lot to have a true dialogue about race, class and sexuality within feminism. And when our primary anger is doesn’t always fit in well with another woman’s experience. To find common ground and really mean it is a challenge.

    And as feminists, we need to be realists as well… we need to know how male supremacy functions and how racism works. The mechanics of this in daily life. And if you have power or privilege, it’s very easy to simply not see what other women are going through. Mary Daly decided to not call Lorde a liar. She kept silence in the face of all the abuse and attacks, having faith that the truth would come out. And I’m so happy that female genital mutilation in Kenya is now outlawed. Daly was one of the first women in America to write about it.

    In fact, I often found all the accusations of white middle class issues strange in lesbian
    contexts. Lesbians came from all class backgrounds, and some of the most perceptive observers of social class are lesbian. The struggle between Daly and Lorde has deeper roots… a struggle between leders of a movement. Lorde quite correctly intuited being excluded from the white women’s club, and I can understand this. I often feel fed up with straight women and sick of their male pleasing. I just get tired of hearing about the damn kids and the husbands and their boy children… bored, irritated and raring for a fight most of the time. So I can feel that hair trigger anger that Lorde dealt with, or her feeling that Daly waited forever to reply to her letter in the first place.

    It’s complicated, right?

    Like

  6. Difference among women is very complicated, that is my point and glad to see it explored further.

    Audre Lorde certainly regularly felt that she was the only or one of the few women of color or more specifically black lesbians at feminist conferences and this feeling was understandably uncomfortable. However Lorde was very much part of the “club” if there was one, insofar as her books were widely taught and read both inside and outside the university context, and she was frequently asked to speak at feminist conferences.

    I believe one reason younger women are more easily able to get along across race difference is because the Civil Rights movement did change some things. Black women over a certain age were brought up in a time when lynchings still occurred, when they could not drink at water fountains or use the rest room in public places in the South, and when their parents and grandparents were kept from voting due to racist voting practices. My sense is that visceral memories of these injustices make it that much harder for black women of a certain age to trust white women and to feel comfortable around them. As a white woman of a certain age, it has helped me to understand this history and not to be surprised that I may be being judged for a history I did not create, but that I have benefited from in terms of opportunity.

    Yes it is complex and as I wrote to my online students yesterday, to tell the truth about relationships among women across races gets us involved in all sorts of “icky” feelings — and that is why we sometimes tell simple stories or as Yvonne said “wield ideological weapons” when the more truthful and complex stories are also more pain-full.

    Like

  7. Yes, Carol I really liked your above post. White women always get the benefit of the doubt out in the world. And what I find most helpful is to be in all black women’s worlds. We may think that Lorde was “one of the club” but really, if you look at her life, her challenges were very different from say an Adrienne Rich or even Mary Daly.

    We live in a better social context, mainly because social opportunities for black women and white women to be together are more wonderful than ever. However, you could say that about all women.

    It is for the person in the oppressed position to define what it “feel like” I think. It’s like men telling me that there is so much more opportunity for women… you know that lecturing boring tone of smug men who believe themselves so much better than cracker joe down the street. But to me, men don’t seem better. I think black women might not believe white women are better either.

    What exists is genuine desire for women of all races to be together… without the threat of being l
    lynched. Neighbors won’t call the police if they see white and black women walking down a street together.

    But I’ll tell you this, I hear white people saying racist things out in the world, and I see silence on the part of other whites listening. I hear men saying damning sexist things, also to no challenge from the other men who have heard them. I see supreme cowards conversationally. And that tells me that things haven’t changed that much.

    If we look at the wages, the visibility, the social power…. we delude ourselves in thinking that white women and black women are equals. And we don’t know that a black woman has a harder time finding an apartment… white women think it is different, but really be black for a day. Then you’d know. That is the symbolic legacy of Daly and Lorde.

    Like

  8. Given how much racism was very much a part of the feminist movement of the 70s and 80s, and still continues to shape so much of what happens in feminism today, I am really, really disturbed by this post and the line of reasoning that seems to underly it.

    I gave up on trying to organize with white feminists a long time ago and dont feel a tremendous sense of loss about that. I wish that people who are so concerned about being labelled unfairl would listen to the young women of color of today who feel even more strongly than I did that it is futility trying to organize with women who are white.

    They are out there, and they are speaking.

    Like

  9. Also I need to point out that I feel that this: “. My sense is that visceral memories of these injustices make it that much harder for black women of a certain age to trust white women and to feel comfortable around them” is *incredibly* patronizing.

    Like

  10. Dear Delux,
    I was trying to put the differences between white and black feminists in a larger historical context. I did not mean to patronize anyone, but simply to point out to white feminists (myself) that even if we view ourselves as actively and consciously anti-racist, we cannot expect to be viewed as “innocent” because the history of white people’s actions an inactions in creating, contributing to, and not speaking out against racism are legion. I know these conversations are difficult to have, and I thank you for responding to what I said here. I am thinking all the time about these issues, and I will certianly be thinking about what you said here. At the same time, my experience is that the white feminists I knew in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s were marching for civil rights and bringing up issues of racism and poverty and teaching works by women of color in our classes. This does not mean that we “see” or “saw” the world as a woman of color does or did, or that we prioritized the issues in the same way a woman of color would or did, but we were trying to transform the racist culture we were brought up in, and sometimes our passion to do put us at odds with our famillies and those who had hired us.
    In a spirit of dialogue and openness to learning,
    Carol

    Like

  11. Dear Carol and Delux,
    Complex sure, but a most enriching discussion.
    As a Hindu, het, Taína Indian, white surface, tired of male/boys adultation and lover of the Black Goddess Kali in all women, I bask in the beauty and glory of this conversation. And still hesitate to call myself a feminist if in doing so I exclude being a womanist and a mujerista also… to add to the complexity with much love. Like Carol, my views have cost me the cozy warmth of family’s loving embrace… another hue of rejection. Do I believe that this leads me to feel the injustices perpetrated against diasporic Africans and the African holocaust, giving me a subjective sense of racism? I want my experience to give me insight into a sisterhood or how to befriend women.

    Like

  12. I feel compelled to share this discussion about race, gender and an optimistic future with the remarkable Angela Glover Blackwell and Bill Moyers (doing a good job against racism and anti-feminism). less than one hr.

    http://www.policylink.org/site/c.lkIXLbMNJrE/b.5136441/k.BD4A/Home.htm

    http://www.commondreams.org/video/2012/04/14

    Like

  13. Carol writes: “White women as a group did not speak out against slavery and the racism that followed emancipation and this is one of the reasons many black feminists do not feel comfortable in gatherings where white women dominate.”

    Sorry, Ms. Christ, but this is factually incorrect and is going to lead to even greater confusion. It is well known that emerging women’s rights leaders Lucretia Mott, a well-known Quaker activist, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the newly wed wife of anti-slavery advocate Henry Stanton and a committed abolitionist in her own right, were outspoken abolitionists.

    From http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/us/mod04_women/evidence_detail_14.html:

    “In June 1840, Mott and Stanton traveled as part of a larger group of women to London, England, to participate as delegates from the United States in the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. When they arrived, they discovered to their dismay that the Convention’s organizers neither welcomed their presence nor their involvement. Some male leaders argued that mixed-sex meetings went against British custom. Others insisted that women’s involvement in politics was un-Christian, invoking the kinds of arguments used by Massachusetts clergy against the Grimké sisters. After considerable debate, organizers told the women that they could sit quietly in a separate women-only section curtained off from the main convention hall where they could listen to — but not participate in — the convention’s proceedings.”

    This is where these women began to more seriously consider an organized movement from women’s rights in the US.

    Also trying to attend were: Sarah Pugh, Abby Kimber, Elizabeth Neal, Mary Grew, Ann Green Phillips, Emily Winslow, and Abby Southwick, of Boston, all women of refinement and education, and several, still in their twenties…

    Source:
    Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joselyn Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1 (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881), 53-54, 61-62.

    Like

  14. Carol writes: “White women as a group did not speak out against slavery and the racism that followed emancipation and this is one of the reasons many black feminists do not feel comfortable in gatherings where white women dominate.”

    Sorry, Ms. Christ, but this is factually incorrect, not to mention ludicrous, and is going to lead to even greater confusion. It is well known that emerging women’s rights leaders Lucretia Mott, a well-known Quaker activist, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the wife of anti-slavery advocate Henry Stanton were outspoken abolitionists.

    From http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/us/mod04_women/evidence_detail_14.html:

    “In June 1840, Mott and Stanton traveled as part of a larger group of women to London, England, to participate as delegates from the United States in the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. When they arrived, they discovered to their dismay that the Convention’s organizers neither welcomed their presence nor their involvement. Some male leaders argued that mixed-sex meetings went against British custom. Others insisted that women’s involvement in politics was un-Christian, invoking the kinds of arguments used by Massachusetts clergy against the Grimké sisters. After considerable debate, organizers told the women that they could sit quietly in a separate women-only section curtained off from the main convention hall where they could listen to — but not participate in — the convention’s proceedings.”

    This is where these women began to more seriously consider an organized movement from women’s rights in the US.

    Also trying to attend were: Sarah Pugh, Abby Kimber, Elizabeth Neal, Mary Grew, Ann Green Phillips, Emily Winslow, and Abby Southwick…

    Source:
    Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joselyn Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1 (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881), 53-54, 61-62.

    The fact that such a prominent commenter as yourself is unaware of this, apparently, and that you can make such ludicrous assertions as mentioned here, really bespeaks the loss of someone like Mary Daly, and really should cause great concern as to the state of feminist scholarship. I would love a response.

    Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks

  1. Mary Daly’s Letter to Audre Lorde « Feminism and Religion
  2. Mary Daly’s Letter to Audre Lorde | Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D.
  3. Mary Daly’s Letter to Audre Lorde | Fem Theologian
  4. Gyn/Ecology Chapter Five: African Genital Mutilation: The Unspeakable Atrocities « Hagocrat

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: