On claiming sisterhood

White women, especially middle-class white women, are raised to expect isolation from other women, a closed life within a nuclear family. We are raised to compete with other women, especially other middle-class white women who are supposed to be our nearest rivals in the all-important quest for good husbands.

When we discover feminism, we discover that this is harmful, to ourselves and to other women. We realise that we need instead to build sisterhood – to reject the cattiness, competition and isolation we were told was the natural state of things. We may make this a personal project, a self-improvement goal to which we give urgent priority. Sisterhood, it feels so good, to stop tearing each other apart.

Sometimes what we end up with is almost a reflexive negative reaction to words or actions that strike us as unsisterly. We develop an instinct against the tactic of doing another woman down for any reason at any time – we insist on focussing our attention instead on the real source of harm, on patriarchy and the menz…

But do we go too far?

I suspect that we privileged feminists are not just opening ourselves up to sisterhood. We declare* sisterhood. We claim sisterhood, even where it does not (yet?) exist. Worse, when we claim sisterhood with the women who are more oppressed than we are, we can end up insisting that they extend sisterhood to us, and we can end up expecting that this should happen on our own terms. On our terms.

(*On a related point, declaring alliance, see here.)

The trouble is that our terms, our white (often middle-class) terms may preclude honest engagement in favour of a perception that restraint must be exercised over “unsisterly” conduct. Our constructed sisterhood may silence women by denying them the space to speak their truth, their pain, to call out their challenges to our own fundamental ways of being, even to our ways of sistering.

The trouble is that our terms do not provide for power differentials – they tend to posit that in sisterhood there are no power differentials, we are all equal here, just women together… and because our terms do not leave room for the effect of power differentials that do not in fact go away just because we say they have, our terms favour those who are in fact more powerful. Us.

What does that mean in practical terms?

It means that when we come across a (white, privileged) woman who is saying something that we do not agree with, something that is racist or that supports white supremacy, we do not speak up. We are reluctant to be unsisterly. We turn a blind eye. We either move quietly away or we stay but ignore the person’s faults, focussing instead on her positive contribution to (white, privileged) feminism. Thus we tacitly perpetuate her mistaken and probably unintentional support for white supremacy.

It means that when we come across a (nonwhite, less privileged) woman who is saying something that challenges us in direct, confrontational ways – with power, anger and certainty – we experience that as an attack, as unsisterly, as Not Feminist. Instead of listening, trying to understand, engaging – we move quietly away. We do not ride out to meet the challenge that has been offered us; instead we put up defensive walls and mutter behind them about how we women are not the real enemy.

Honestly, which is more sisterly?
Striving to be heard or striving to play nice?
Striving to listen or striving to hide?

We need to be careful about claiming sisterhood with women who do not consent.

And we need to acknowledge that offering our selves as sisters means more than just dumb love. It means engagement, it means respect, and it means speaking up when something is going wrong.

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One Response

  1. I like this post. This has so much meaning for me now with Hillary and Barack dueling it out for Big Cheese of the United States. So many white women, prominent white women even, seem hell bent on demanding that WOC prove their sisterhood in voting for the (white?)uterus as opposed to voting for that icky old patriarchal (black?) penis! I admit that most times white feminists sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher to me (Mwaaaaw Mwaaaw). But because of the forthcoming election I’ve started listening again and while what I hear angers me I realize that in a historical sense it’s still “same shit, different day”. As a Southern WOC I can’t help thinking all that feminists rhetoric still sounds suspiciously like every “Ms. Anne” I’ve ever known telling me or some other poor, ignorant, non-white soul what to do! And if you don’t do what I say I’ll tell Mr. Charlie and you know what that means [Insert index finger making cutting motion against throat]! I know it’s childish but I’m tempted to vote for Barack just because white woman told me NOT to! Anyway, back to your post…white feminism definitely has a PR/perception problem (The fact that there is still such a thing as “White Feminism” speaks volumes) but I honestly don’t know how to help. When I start thinking we’ve made strides, along comes something like the example I mentioned above to show me just how far we still have to go.

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