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Excerpted From: Janis L. McDonald, Looking in the Honest Mirror of Privilege: “Polite White” Reflections, 12 Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 650 (2003) (15 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JanisLMcDonaldWhen I look in the honest mirror of white feminist legal scholarship I see reflected back at me a failure by those of us “polite white” feminists to seriously address the substantive critiques authored by women of color in the last twenty years. It is time to develop an agenda that does more than cite to the work of these important critiques. It is time to follow their lead and work to transform our own thinking to confront personal privilege that may shape our approaches to scholarship. At the final panel of the Conference, “Why a Feminist Law Journal?”, which is the subject of this symposium, one of the professors present made a statement that went unaddressed. The bold, honest observation made by Professor Taunya Lovell Banks continues to concern me, particularly because no one really responded. She referred to the many Black, Latina, and Asian women who have pointed out that white legal feminist scholars have not broadened the inquiry to challenge the essentialist assumptions inherent in their focus. Professor Banks added that “nothing I have heard here today makes me feel any differently about this failure.”

I prepared myself for the intense discussion that would follow. As someone who works to uncover my own white privilege I waited a moment to listen to how others would respond to her very frank comment. I appreciated her honesty and wanted to engage in examining our own actions to figure out what should be done to further the dialogue about this problem. I wanted to figure out how to make those concerns a part of my responsibility as a critical race feminist. I am learning to take my part in admitting the limits of my own evolving perspective as a critical white feminist legal scholar.

Any articulation of exclusion or omission ought to be seriously addressed in an environment where all participants help to shape the nature of the dialogue. As most of the feminist scholars present appeared to identify a commitment to support critical race scholarship, I expected that we would engage in a fruitful self-examination of her point, or at least act as if we heard what she said. Instead, silence loomed large in the room for a telling moment and then the moderator called on the next person to ask a question of the panel. We moved on, congratulating ourselves for a good conference, and busied ourselves with receptions and goodbyes that did not address her concerns.

Professor Banks identified the fact that the Emperor was not wearing any clothes and we chose to ignore this critical observation. In this age when opponents of affirmative action are raising the mantle of color-blind equality, where the assumptions of white privilege remain hidden under that mantle, how can we even consider ourselves “polite” if we refuse to help uncover the hidden assumptions we perpetuate that blind us to the voices of women of color or that blind us to our own role as “polite whites”? Our willful blindness helps shield what may be under the Emperor's make-believe mantle. We do specialize, as feminists all, in trying to name hidden assumptions, do we not? If we cannot address this failure to accept responsibility for engaging in the dialogue on these tough issues that keep us separated or isolated or silenced, then we are not doing much of value. One starts with one's own house to examine whether the foundations are solid.

The critique based on essentialism is a familiar one. It is wonderfully diverse and challenging. The observation articulated by Professor Banks was not new. She made the room of feminists acknowledge, if only by our silence, as we joined together as feminist law students, law professors, attorneys, and staff, that we had not truly engaged in the real dialogue and we continued to make assumptions that reflected that same old essentialist box. Professor Banks made her comments in the place that should be the most receptive to inclusiveness and openness. Her position as a valuable member of this community meant that we needed to actively hear her concern and engage in the kind of dialogue that took her comment to heart. The conference focused on the future of feminist law journals and yet we continued to ignore a major stumbling block to real dialogue.

How could this be right when some of the panels were devoted to topics, for example, as “Moving the Margins: Assimilation, and Enduring Marginality,” “Unity and Communities: Intersectionality, Privilege, and Membership,” “Autonomy and Integration: Choosing Which Master to Serve,” and “Gender, Sexuality, and Power”? Each of these panels had been arranged with careful consideration to adding many different kinds of voices on panels that seemed to deal with these issues. Women of other colors did address and analyze the essentialist problem. I think, however, that Professor Banks's comment was meant for the “polite white” feminist crowd. That critique seems right to me. The problem is not that women of other colors than white are failing to address issues of white privilege or white color-blindness.

The silence suggested a difficulty for “polite white” feminists to either understand or give value to her view. We responded with silence and moved on. Perhaps this happened because the hour was late, the comment was not a particularly new one, and the statement came close to the end of a demanding day-long conference.

In an earlier panel, Professor Twila Perry called for meaningful dialogue in order to get beyond these difficulties. I think we have not had the kind of dialogue she is referring to because of the failure of those of us I call “polite white” legal feminists to be willing to do the honest self examination that would be required to truly enter the dialogue.

“Polite white” legal feminists still have difficulty entertaining the idea that we might be wrong, or oblivious to our own privileges, and, since it would cause such a fuss, we refuse to engage, or take seriously, the indications that all is not well in the camp of feminist legal theory. Silence is the unconscious, or willfully blind, weapon of “polite white” approaches to the issues raised by women of other colors. As “polite whites,” we tend to focus on the issues we feel we can manage and we either do not recognize or do not name those that we cannot handle. Civility seems to demand that we refuse to admit that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes. There are so many other battles to face as a feminist legal scholar that it seems all we can do to fight within our own deliberately shaped boundaries to the dialogue.

It is often difficult to admit to our failures with regard to other feminists; as “polite whites,” we engage in perpetuating the myth that all feminists share at least a core set of agreements about the underlying assumptions of the feminist critique. Any discussion of differences based on race are difficult and, too often, laced with defensive postures that act as a barrierto real learning. We avoid the hard discussions because we are human and we want to be civil and we can only maintain a facade of civility if we choose not to engage. That is a privilege we need to abandon.

I wanted to take Professor Banks's comment to heart. Upon my return to my own law school I started rereading articles by scholars, including Professor Banks, who have continually raised this essentialist critique in both feminist and mainstream journals. My search focused on the following question: is there evidence in the feminist legal theory literature that “polite white” feminists are engaging in the dialogue about issues raised by feminists of other color? After a review of the scholarship it is my opinion that the following ideas have not been adequately addressed by those of us who need to look into the mirror and figure out how our own privileges, assumptions, and lack of engagement contributes to closing the dialogue upon which the growth of feminist legal scholarship depends.

Feminist law journals, in addition to other forms of published scholarly work, need to dedicate in-depth attention to the lack of response from “polite white” feminists to the substantial insights provided by women of other colors. “Polite white” legal feminists need to discard the mantle of “politeness” and report on the reflection we see in this important mirror we have ignored. Leadership has been provided by women of other colors that could help us as “polite whites” inspect our own color and what it brings to us that is hidden. Before we can progress and shed the not-so-polite silence, we need to spend a good amount of space to the following problems, among others that should be identified.

1. “Polite whites” operate from a position of safety with respect to race and this contributes to the amount of ignorance and willful blindness of our relative positions of power. What is the full extent of our position of safety? How is it protected by us and by the law? How do we personally benefit from that position of safety? Our decisions about what has to be important are often shaped by the assumptions of neutrality we make about that position of safety we occupy; before we can dialogue with others in a meaningful way we have to come to terms with our own privilege of safety vis-à-vis women of other colors or cultures.

2. “Polite whites” are good at rationalizing away the differences and experiences brought up by women of other colors when the differences or experiences do not resonate with our own experience based on unexamined and privileged assumptions.

3. “Polite whites” participate in denying and dismissing the truth of the experience of others based on our own lack of acceptance of a responsibility for familiarity with these experientially-based truths.

4. “Polite whites” often characterize the claims or harms perceived by women of other colors as “hypersensitive” based on our own reaction or ignorance of the harm identified. “Polite whites” sometimes prioritize our own sense of harm over the harms of other women or we equate an isolated harm to a systemic harm without giving hard consideration to the relative sense of power we have retained as white feminists.

5. “Polite whites often omit or deny recognition of any difference amongst feminists on basic assumptions of feminist theory.”

6. “Polite whites,” whether consciously or unconsciously, often resort to silence as a weapon of dismissal when we fail to understand or refuse to accept statements made by women of other colors. Where is the scholarship that responds to the points raised by women of color from white scholars? Although citations are made to the work of these scholars there is little substantive engagement of their ideas by white women legal scholars.

7. “Polite white” feminists continue to believe in a form of neutrality that fails to take into account differences which do not resonate with our own experience. The critique of essentialism is shifted from the points made by the critique to a defense of the substance of the “feminist” contribution of the “essentialist” author.

8. “Polite white” feminists display a conscious or unconscious disinterest in what Patricia Williams calls “affirmative hearing” or listening to women of other colors.

9. “Polite white” feminists cling, consciously or unconsciously, to the staying power of middle class white perceptions even in helping to form a feminist world view.

10. “Polite white” feminists insist on the priority of safety zones for ourselves as women at the expense of a reliance on faulty racial stereotypes and assumptions.

11. “Polite white” feminists become defensive when we do not understand the critique that is addressed to us by women of other colors.

12. “Polite white” feminists still render our own color invisible.

13. “Polite white” feminists still insist on being considered “the good guys.” We consider ourselves the experts on feminist theory. We shut down when we are not viewed as leaders of the movement.

[. . .]

Feminist law journals, in addition to other forms of published scholarly work, need to dedicate in-depth attention to the lack of response from “polite white” feminists to the substantial insights provided by women of other colors. “Polite white” legal feminists need to discard the mantle of “politeness” and report on the reflection we see in this new mirror we have been provided. Leadership has been provided by women of other colors that could help us as “polite whites” inspect our own color and what it brings to us that is hidden. We might even discover our own true colors hidden underneath the layers of unexamined assumptions and unearned privileges.

Associate Professor of Law, Syracuse University College of Law.

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