In my Contemporary Civilizations class a few weeks ago, we encountered our first female authors in the course, grouped with Enlightenment authors of the 18th and 19th centuries. The discussion focused on Haitian revolutionary texts, Frederick Douglass’ works on the problems of the American chattel slavery system, and texts from the emergence of first wave feminism.
The Seneca Falls Declaration, written partially by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was included in the texts for the discussion of the day. The class put this feminist text into conversation with abolitionist texts, since abolitionists and first wave feminists were contemporaries and had in-person interactions. Stanton and Frederick Douglass had conversations about both of their respective platforms and actively supported each other during their time. However, knowing background information on the problematic relationship between abolitionism and first wave feminism, I knew something was lacking from the historical framing of our discussion.
So, during our classroom break I took it upon myself to find a quote of Stanton’s criticizing the American government’s decision to give newly freed black men the right to vote: “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?” First wave feminism was a mess, as seen from Stanton’s quote. It was a big, hot EC-on-a-Saturday-night mess of 19th century liberation, and these interactions say a fair amount about how white women acted in relation to black people in the past, which contextualizes how they act in present day.
My first interaction with white women was with the teachers at my schools growing up. A lot of them were married white women who had gone to college and were looking to have a career in my small town. Due to disproportionate amounts of white women who had the opportunity to go to college and meet the requirements to become a teacher, almost all of the teachers at my predominantly black, low-income school in rural Georgia were white women. This isn’t to say that we didn’t have the occasional black teacher—my own mother was a public-school teacher for part of my life—but for the most part the teachers at my schools were white.
So, my education was heavily influenced by the white women of my town. They were the majority of teachers that I had during my life and are thus entrenched in my history with academia. Because of this, I’ve gotten used to interacting with white women and the small things that white women do, knowingly or unknowingly. They tend to perpetuate a two-dimensional idea of progress solely tied to gender equality. They neglect the reality that sacrificing racial equality for the attainment of feminist goals isn’t the actual attainment of anything. As a black woman, I can testify this mindset just ends with white women placing themselves in a deeper place of privilege, distancing themselves from the concerns of their counterparts of color.
When white women in the classroom, on campus, and in the world engage in activism, issues also arise with their need for constant validation that they are doing the right thing. White women tend to want some type of applause. They fish for this by making you acknowledge their theories on race in class, or telling you how much they love black hair, or even going as far as telling you about the black romantic and sexual partners they’ve had in the past.
However, all of this means nothing to me, because it places me and all other black women in a position that requires us to validate white women for attempting to do the bare minimum and that includes an added component of giving them emotional labor.
This need to validate white women is emotional labor that isn’t fair for us. I simply want to be treated well, without having to validate someone for treating me well. In spaces like the classroom, academics at large, and the world outside of academic context, I just want to be treated well from the get-go. I want to bypass any redemption arcs or learning processes, like when a white person expects to be congratulated for their role in undoing anti-blackness. This provides people with non-marginalized identities (cis, male, white, heterosexual, etc.) with too much energy from marginalized people. This is what I deserve as a person—respect and representation. It would be a disservice to myself for me to read Elizabeth Cady Stanton and not expect Sojourner Truth to already be on the syllabus.
Sabina Jones is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in English. Her column Transatlantic Trade runs alternate Fridays.