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The Road to Structural Erasure Is Paved With Well-Intentioned White Ladies

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The Road to Structural Erasure Is Paved With Well-Intentioned White Ladies

Imani Gandy

With her words on Sunday night—whether intentional or not (and personally, I believe it was unintentional)—Patricia Arquette gave voice to a system of structural erasure that has been the gold standard in the feminist movement since well before Sojourner Truth stood up and declared “Ain’t I A Woman?”

“It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

With those words—whether intentional or not (and personally, I believe it was unintentional)—Patricia Arquette gave voice to a system of structural erasure that has been the gold standard in the feminist movement since well before Sojourner Truth stood up and declared “Ain’t I A Woman?”

That erasure assumes that all men are white men and all people of color are men. And that erasure leaves women of color wondering where they fit into all of this.

I am not going to go into some long diatribe about why Arquette’s comments were problematic. I don’t want to write it and you don’t want to read it, especially when my colleague Andrea Grimes has ably done so in an article entitled “Patricia Arquette’s Spectacular Intersectionality Fail.”

Andrea concludes her piece by saying, “Let’s not go all ‘Je Suis Patricia Arquette’ on this shit.”

Unfortunately, that’s been happening. White women, by and large, have loudly applauded Arquette’s words—lumping together her acceptance speech and her backstage interview, quoted above—leaving primarily women of color and LGBTQ women of color scratching their heads wondering whether to divest themselves of their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, or their gender identity in order to be included in the “us” Arquette implored everyone to start fighting for.

And, frankly, that’s what concerns me a whole hell of a lot more than Arquette’s comments: The reaction from the left—liberals, progressives, whatever we’re calling ourselves these days—has been, by and large, an abomination.

Sadly, however, such disgraceful reactions to the structural erasure and silencing of women of color are typical.

On the one hand, Patricia Arquette is “just an actress” and we should be happy that she spoke out about pay equity, even if the way in which she spoke out about it left something to be desired.

On the other hand, Patricia Arquette is an ally and by criticizing her we are eating our own and letting the misogynists win.

On the other-other hand, Patricia Arquette isn’t the enemy and by talking about her problematic framing of the people she thinks should be fighting for wage equality for “us” (along with her framing of who “us” is), we are shifting our focus from the real enemy—the GOP and those who would deny us pay equity.

And on the fourth hand, Patricia Arquette meant well. So really, guys, stop vilifying her.

All of these reactions are as tired as they are facile.

First of all, Patricia Arquette is not “just an actress.” She’s a talented, well-spoken award-winning actress who has done a good deal of charity work throughout her career. She clearly cares about social issues—see her work with Give Love and The Creative Coalition—and actually seems to give a damn when she could easily be rolling around in her piles of money like Scrooge McDuck.

Any claim that she’s “just an actress” is actually rather anti-feminist. It implies that she is incapable of critical thought and incapable of growth in her feminist praxis.

Are we only supposed to praise actresses like Patricia Arquette or Emma Watson—whose speech before the UN left some of us cold, as Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous beautifully pointed out—when their public comments about women’s equality are superficial? Are we not supposed to educate them about the wage disparity between white men and Black men, between white women and Latina women, between white women and Black women? Are we supposed to just pat them on the head and thank them for saying out loud “It’s not fair that women get paid less than men.” I think that does them a disservice. I have no doubt that if I were to sit down for lunch with Patricia Arquette to talk to her about intersectionality and what feminism means to me as a Black woman, that we both would walk away with a deeper understanding of one another. (Hey Patty? Call me!)

Besides, “Just an actress”? How insulting and infantilizing is that?

Second, I’m not here for kumbaya feminism. Kumbaya feminism demands that Black women take a backseat to whatever interest of the day white women deem most important. Kumbaya feminism castigates as “divisive” any Black woman who dares speak out against the White Feminist Industrial Complex. Kumbaya feminism is little more than trickle-down feminism. It posits that rising tides lift all boats and ignores the fact that the boats of most Black women (and, indeed, other women of color) are rigged with anchors. Besides, if my speaking out against centuries-old erasure of Black women in the struggle for women’s equality constitutes “eating our own,” then pass me a knife and fork and some hot sauce because I’m hungry.

Third, the notion that we cannot criticize public figures with large platforms because doing so distracts from the real enemy—those in power who would deny us equal pay—is a silencing technique. I am quite capable of criticizing Arquette’s comments while also pointing out that the GOP comprises a bunch of do-nothing anti-women ass nincompoops. In fact, I would argue that criticizing Arquette is of more value than railing on Twitter about Republicans or writing another blog post titled “Republicans Are The Worst!” At least Arquette seems to be capable of growth and critical thought.

And fourth, the notion that Arquette “meant well” is entirely besides the point. Sure, her intentions may have been noble. Maybe she misspoke. I believe her words came from a good place. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And when someone who has a platform as large as Arquette engages in the same kind of erasure that has plagued the feminist movement since Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton first became homies, then you’re goddamn right that I’m going to criticize it.

And finally, there are white folks who have never even thought about the intersection of gender and race (or sexual orientation or gender identity) in their approach to feminism. And you know what? That’s fine. It was only a few years ago, thanks to extensive reading and researching, that I was able to put the term “intersectionality” to my life experience. Not knowing all the feminist terminology is nothing to be embarrassed about. But that lack of knowledge certainly does present an opportunity. And if when presented with that opportunity, White Feminists™ choose to ignore it, then that says something about how invested they are in equality for “all women” as opposed to equality for white women.

Furthermore, I need to disabuse everyone of the notion that white women have spent centuries fighting for the rights of everyone. That’s simply not the case. The truth is far more complicated than that. Yes, there are white women who were staunch abolitionists. And then those same white women turned and found common cause with white supremacists in order to advance their own interests.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, for example, fought long and hard against slavery only to about-face and join forces with George Frances Train to campaign for women’s suffrage under the slogan “Woman first and negro last.” It was Stanton and Anthony who sought the aid of unabashed white supremacists in their struggle for (white) women’s suffrage. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, “some of the most ardent suffrage activists were outright racists like Rebecca Felton, who fervently supported lynching, and Kate Gordon who eventually abandoned the suffrage movement because a national amendment would threaten white supremacy.”

Does that mean that Stanton and Anthony were bad people? Maybe, maybe not. The history of feminism, women’s suffrage, and Black women’s place within those movements is long and complicated, and a discussion far outside the scope of this blog post.

The point is simply this: When Black women and non-Black women of color raise concerns about problems within White Feminism™, if you are inclined to argue with them, maybe take a step back and just listen instead of rushing to shut them up, or demanding that they be grateful for whatever crumbs slide off the White Feminist™ dining room table. Because we’re not shutting up anytime soon, and we are not going to be relegated to the back of the feminist bus.