Content warning: This article includes references to racial violence against Emmett Till.
In a recent live stream on Instagram, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) relayed her harrowing experience within the Capitol on Jan. 6, where white supremacists stormed the building and brought about destruction, pain and turmoil. She narrated the terrifying ordeal she experienced and even stated that she “thought [she] was going to die.” Even as Ocasio-Cortez expressed her terror and trauma, her Republican opponents in Congress, such as Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), have attempted to discredit and invalidate her experiences surrounding the insurrection.
White women, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), are able to achieve higher office despite their white supremacist views and active work against democracy, supporting claims that high-profile Democrats could be executed for their “treason” against the government. Armed with extremist views, they are given national platforms to spew conspiracies related to QAnon and disrupt the legitimacy of our government. They are active white supremacists within Congress, and their position threatens the accountability of Congress as a whole.
Then and now, white women in the U.S. are active and passive participants in white supremacy.
The Women’s March, which began in 2016 after former President Donald Trump’s election, is an example of how womanhood has become synonymous with anti-Trump rhetoric. During the march, women wore “pussyhats” as a visual statement against Trump’s sexism and in support of women’s rights. However, the assumption that women oppose Trump is not always true: even after his sexist, racist and homophobic statements, 47% of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Several key members of Trump’s team are also white women with extremely anti-feminist opinions, such as former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. Sarah Huckabee Sanders upheld and defended Trump’s racist rhetoric at the press secretary’s podium. Even white women who tout progressive and leftist politics can use their platforms to further white supremacist narratives.
In today’s politics, Trump promoted white supremacy and many female members of his administration contributed to his violent and hateful rhetoric. For instance, Conway was the talking heads for Trump’s entire agenda; Sanders defended jokes Trump made regarding police brutality. No matter how discriminatory, white women contributed to hateful rhetoric throughout Trump’s presidency. Yet they are not held as accountable as other members, such as former Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose racist remarks led the House to condemn white supremacy in 2019. It is sexist to assume white women are not responsible for the racism, sexism and discrimination of the Trump administration. They are just as complicit in white supremacy.
Throughout slavery’s abominable history within the U.S., white women owned enslaved persons and committed brutal violence against them similar to their male counterparts. Marie LaLaurie, a white female slave owner in New Orleans, Louisiana, tortured and murdered the enslaved people she owned. Up to 40% of white women owned slaves during the height of American chattel slavery, and many abused them extensively. These white women were complicit in the foundations of white supremacy in the U.S. After the abolition of slavery, white women have continued to perpetuate white supremacy throughout the U.S., even in the fight for their own civil rights.
In the early 20th century, the suffrage movement was divided along strict racial lines. When the 15th amendment enfranchised Black men before white women, white suffragettes advanced their cause with racist rhetoric geared to place themselves ahead of other people of color. They focused more on traditional views of womanhood, specifically white womanhood, which completely erased women of color from the fight.
After the 19th amendment, white women became an essential enfranchised group who were able to leverage their white supremacy politically. Many did so during Jim Crow, opposing school integration efforts and civil rights for people of color within the U.S. White men justified the despicable and abhorrent lynchings of Black men by claiming to be protecting white women. Weaponizing their voices, white women added to the abuse of Black, Indigenous and people of color across the U.S. Emmett Till was just a 14-year-old Black boy when a white woman’s lies led to his brutal and violent lynching in Mississippi in 1955. Over 50 years later, Carolyn Bryant, the white woman at whom Till allegedly whistled, recanted a major portion of her testimony. Nothing happened to Bryant. Instead of facing any consequences for her lies, she continued to live in peace. Till was an innocent boy, robbed of his life due to a white woman’s lies, but he was not the only one lynched for the alleged protection of white women. These matters are not trivial or merely historical. Racism still exists throughout the U.S. and remains entrenched within the highest forms of government.
The civil rights white women advocated for in the 20th century and continue to fight for today are often centered around capitalist and patriarchal ideals. White women have and continue to raise their own status within this system rather than focus on destroying structures that affect all marginalized groups, thus ignoring the intersections of their gender, race, class and sexuality that skew the axis of privilege. White feminism aims to place white women on equal footing with white men, disregarding other factors of oppression overlap with gender. Issues that broadly and deeply affect all women often affect women of color in more intense and multiplied ways. White feminism perpetuates the ideas of choice feminism and individuality as feminism, rather than undoing the systematic facets of oppression that many Black and Indigenous feminists seek to address.
As we work to undo the foundations of white supremacy in the U.S., we must acknowledge the extant white supremacy within our current structures before we can begin to address it. White women need to understand how they can and have historically perpetuated white supremacy and need to actively fight against these systems. White women: do your homework, walk your talk, go beyond white feminism and understand how the intersection of identities affects women of color beyond the difficulties you face. Understand the history of oppression and be a listening ear. There is so much outside of the Women’s March that is necessary to learn and understand. It is your responsibility to amplify women of color and listen to their lived experiences.
Rachel Broun (23C) is from Carrboro, North Carolina.