Tales of White Feminist Fainting Couch: An Opinionated History of the Racial Conflagrations in American Feminisms Part 1


In past Black History Months, I have posted profiles of black women heroes, and figured my obligation to Carter G. Woodson was done. But the recent white feminist attacks on the growing online activism of Women of Color, has made me feisty. During this month I will demonstrate that recent white feminist claims that disruptive black women are destroying the delicate fabric of feminism with our recalcitrant demands and are also really, really hurting their feelings is a deeply, historically embedded trope in the history of white feminism.

This January has been a banner month for white feminist #FAIL. It began with Ani Di Franco’s painfully slow realization that as a feminist, having a retreat in a place where black women were systematically raped, tortured & worked to death for centuries probably wasn’t a good move. Di Franco accused black women critics & their allies of “high velocity bitterness.” After three apologies she was still whining “that it was an upside down world when your sisters cut you down and Fox News defends you.” Note to Ms. DiFranco: I am not your “sister.”

DiFranco’s caterwauling is really par for the course, but it was her defense of having her retreat at a plantation that really made me stabby. She declared that she:

know (s) that pain is stored in places where great social ills have occurred. i believe that people must go to those places with awareness and with compassionate energy and meditate on what has happened and absorb some of the reverberating pain with their attention and their awareness. i believe that compassionate energy is transformative and necessary for healing the wounds of history.

This statement is deeply problematic. The Nottingway Plantation is not a memorial to inhumanity of slavery, it is a resort hotel that white washes the brutality of slavery, so that whites can relive the romance of the antebellum South.  No one goes to this plantation with a desire to meditate on the pain of the men & women who were enslaved there and who the hell told this woman that my ancestors should be used for her pseudo enlightenment? Di Franco’s new age platitudes would have not changed a damn thing and she was deeply self-centered to think that strumming a guitar and composing a few ditties would do anything to diminish the vicissitudes of slavery.

To and insult to injury her white male defender Buddy Wakefield declared that we “venomously” insulted Ani in an effort “to eternally ‘shackle’ her to this oversight.” Shackle, yeah, I see what you did there. Not funny. He labeled our concerns as hateful approaches/vitriolic statements/narrow understanding even before Di Franco issued her first petulant apology.

In order to understand why this oft repeated of claim that white feminists suffer at the hands of bitter Women on Color, one must look at the deeply conflicted history of white women and black women in the United States. When black women were first imported to these shores they were chattel. When white women migrated to America, the nascent cult of white womanhood protected them from the rigors of the “new world.” White women were seen as delicate fonts of civility & domesticity that needed protection from the harsh world outside their doorsteps. Although white women had diminished legal and ownership rights, the one item they could possess was slaves. Enslaved black women were not only a source of income but also their reproductive capabilities offered the potential for even greater wealth. The myths concocted by the earliest European traders around the hypersexuality of African women became the rationalization utilized by western powers to create a system that depended on the rape, forced breeding and involuntary concubinage of black women.

White women also believed in the ‘hot constitution’d” African women, and voiced their concerns about the power of Negress to lead white men down the path of immorality.  While the narratives of enslaved women were replete with the stories of the sexual demands made by white men and the murder trial Celia, illustrated what happened to slaves who defended themselves against rape, the diaries of slave mistresses put the blame of their husband’s and sons blatant sexual exploitation squarely on the shoulders of black women.

Mary Boykin Chestnut, the wife of a wealthy South Carolina planter who kept a diary during the Civil War declared:

Under slavery, we live surrounded by prostitutes, yet an abandoned woman is sent out of any decent house. Who thinks any worse of a Negro or mulatto woman for being a thing we can’t name?…… Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds. My disgust sometimes is boiling over.

Harriet Jacobs detailed how her slave mistress ignored her pleas for protection from her husband.

Mrs. Flint possessed the key to her husband’s character before I was born. She might have used this knowledge to counsel and to screen the young and the innocent among her slaves; but for them she had no sympathy. They were the objects of her constant suspicion and malevolence.

Widowed plantation mistress Kesiah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard wrote at the beginning of the Civil War that “I own many slaves & many of the females are of the lowest caste – making miserable their own fellow servants by meddling with the husbands of others. I am not excusing the males, but in the world they are not so degraded by such conduct as the females.”

After reading a sample of the denial & contempt slave mistresses had for enslaved black women, I find it especially ironic that a so-called activist who lives in what was once one of the nation’s major slave trading hubs can state that she is “..not unaware of the mechanism of white privilege or the fact that i need to listen more than talk when it comes to issues of race.” She is part of a long tradition of white women who cannot see beyond her own self-interest and narcissism, a practice I will continue to explore this Black History Month. My next piece will compare how a certain Upper East Side New York yogalini’s racism harkens back to the fact that the American suffrage movement kicked black women to the curb so the Southern white women didn’t get the vapors. Be on the lookout for my next tale from the white feminist fainting couch.

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