by Zoe Samudzi
On September 16th, yet another unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, was murdered by a white police officer. The incident is, unfortunately, typical in so many ways: black man is minding his business; white police officer feels “threatened” by either the black man’s presence or “firearm possession” or “erratic behavior” ; white police officer “reasonably” uses fatal force. But this incident was a little different. This killer officer was a white woman, Betty Shelby. And rather than a near-unequivocal liberal celebration of the fact she had been charged, there were questions posed about the hypocrisy that a woman had been charged with murder whereas scores of male police officers who’d committed similar murders had not. Betty Shelby’s charge became an issue of sexism for many, a kind of feminist inequity around which we should rally; it became a pushback against “white male privilege at its finest.”
Four days after the Tulsa County District Attorney charged Betty Shelby with first-degree manslaughter, on September 26th, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump held their first presidential debate. Where the former Secretary of State was confident and composed, the former Miss USA pageant owner was pompous, obstinate, and contradicted previously held political assertions. While numbers vary, it is estimated that Trump interrupted Clinton anywhere from 34 to 51 times. A number of commentaries emerged from women about how “[I] don’t like Hillary Clinton, but as a woman I can’t help but…” in horrified solidarity with her following her disrespectful treatment by Donald Trump. Her defense became not necessarily a support for her politics, but rather a universal rallying cry for women and femmes who know what it feels like to be utterly disregarded by and spoken at and rudely disrupted by men.
Betty Shelby and Hillary Clinton comprise an interesting type of victim: the white woman with proximity to power and capital within whiteness. White women’s rallying cry for solidarity requires women with less proximity to power to abandon an intersectional framework of womanhood and marginalization in order to support these white women’s further attempts to assimilate into power structures.
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A number of white women claimed it was some kind of inequity that Betty Shelby was charged but not the many, many white men who have also wrongfully killed black people. But is that what gender equity looks like? Does it really look like the ability to similarly deal in fatal anti-black violence with impunity because our sole and unnuanced aspiration as “women” is to be treated the same as men? And what of “women’s” solidarity with Hillary Clinton and other powerful women like her? Has that solidarity ever been reciprocated?
So many different kinds of women are excluded from the boundaries of acceptable and respectable and legitimate womanhood, including (but not limited to) women who aren’t cis and/or heterosexual, disabled women, poor and working-class women, undocumented and migrant women, women in sex work, and so on. The womanhood extended to women occupying these different groups is conditional, i.e. it may or may not be affirmed depending on the spaces a woman occupies. A cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and particularly classed white womanhood, however, is the womanhood around which other marginalized womanhoods are constructed and revolve. Quite frequently, being in solidarity necessarily demands that we forget the ways in which white women are responsible for engaging in brutality against other womanhoods in their selfish attempts to gain power squarely within structures of whiteness. As I recently said and will continue to say, many white women — self-identified feminists, even — do not reject patriarchy as much as they may claim to.
These calls for solidarity with Hillary Clinton and the ways that Betty Shelby’s manslaughter charges have been seen as problematic all serve the interests of powerful women at the expense of others. And while multitasking is possible and many of the women commenting about Trump’s interruptions of Hillary Clinton were women of color, I have yet to see a black or indigenous or other racialized woman’s mistreatment, or even the unnervingly high rates of murders of black transgender women, galvanize a call for a near-universal solidarity amongst “women.” It’s no coincidence that the white women discussing how Hillary Clinton deserves a “more qualified opponent than Trump” are not mentioning that her campaign against now-President Barack Obama (clearly that qualified opponent) was steeped in anti-blackness.
In general, my most frequent frustrating encounters with white people are with white women. From white women in academia, to white women on social media retreating into their fragility, to white women touching my hair or my body “complimentarily” (but in a way apparently less threatening or demeaning because we share gender identities), I am constantly being condescended to or otherwise disregarded by white women who act like they know better than I do about what constitutes misogynoir or racialized queerphobia. I am not pretending that white men are not awful or don’t occupy even greater spaces of social empowerment because of their dominant racial and gendered identities. I am, rather, highlighting the short-sightedness of white women crying victimhood while simultaneously victimizing and pushing exclusionary politics (e.g. SWERF and TERF, or racially exclusive feminisms aka white feminism) as their liberation. It is a “feminism” that forces me, a cis queer black woman, to subsume my unique struggles under a banner of a feminism and a sense of womanhood that deliberately exclude and un-woman women like me.
Hillary Clinton will be fine whether or not she wins the election. Betty Shelby might see prison time because of her disposability as a woman despite her whiteness (or her appeal to the fragility and innocence of white womanhood might benefit her all the way to a “not guilty”). But either way, multiply-marginalized women continue to lose not only at the hands of oppressive exclusionary capitalist systems, but also at the hands of white women fighting for power and dominance within it.
Zoe is an doctoral student in Sociology living in Oakland. She studies whiteness and structural violence as they both drive poor health outcomes in ethnic and gender minority communities.
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