The Myth of the Fragile White Woman
White women’s fragility is key to white supremacy.
White supremacy and patriarchy are intrinsically linked.
And white women owe it to all people of colour as well as other women to throw our not-so-fragile weight behind the cause to dismantle these twinned institutions.
(Content warning: rape.)
The more I look at it, the more I understand that the fragility of white women is a key pillar of white supremacy. So often white women are accused of centring ourselves, which I think we do habitually, because the white patriarchy taught us how. Since the days of the first police in America protecting whites from slaves and freedmen, all the way through Emmett Till, segregation, the Central Park Five, and Amy Cooper - black men have been threatened, beaten, imprisoned and murdered in the name of keeping us safe. The ‘brute’ stereotype of black men is incredibly enduring, and directly impacts perceptions and behaviour today.
So often racism has centred around the fear of black men raping white women. I suspect that plenty of white men who have no problem raping us would still scream in outrage (and do much worse) at our rape by a black man. Because, as Rebecca Solnit says, rape is about control, and putting it in its most blunt and racist form, historically, we must be controlled by white men, not by black men.
White women’s sexuality and childbearing has been a central concern for a lot of the patriarchy. Depending on a woman’s class there have always been varying degrees of rules around which men may touch her and when. When white men have prevented from touching, kissing, fondling, or fucking, often they have turned this impulse to lower-class woman, and especially where black women were enslaved, she would often be a woman of colour. She could be used in a way we could not. According to Tamara Winfrey Harris, the stereotype of black women’s hypersexuality is in part the flip side to the enforcement of white women’s purity.
The purity myth says that we must be kept safe at all times, and the fragility myth says we are weak enough to be unable to do that for ourselves. And so in our name, black men have been murdered, black women have been raped, whole families of mixed-race descendants have been ignored, and as well as all of this, our trans sisters have been discriminated against and murdered. The infamous and degrading bathroom bills are based on the premise that trans women are *really* men who are so dastardly they would sneak into bathrooms and assault us. And according to the myth we must be protected at all times. So trans women are also targets for the patriarchal ire, in part to ‘protect’ cis women from them.
This impulse to protect us, this whole shelter built to house our purity and fragility - is it a good shelter? Is it a place we want to make home?
It stifles and traumatises our experience of sex.
It encourages us to play to our physically most fragile selves - we must be thin, and we probably shouldn’t be strong or physically capable to the extent that is demanded of men.
It also means our feelings are prioritised. When black people complain about “white tears” it is because they are reminded once again that the institution that excludes them is built on protecting our fragility, and this is especially galling in anti-racist spaces.
It means men are obliged to put a significant portion of their efforts protecting us. It means they are taught to always have the answers we might need, and because they need to be battle-ready at all times, they cannot let down their guard.
The fragility myth also means when we shout for the manager, he comes running. Because for him to fail to protect us, even in a small way, means he is not supporting the structure based on our fragility. By betraying us he is betraying the patriarchy.
But here’s the thing. I’m capable. I’m not actually terribly fragile. I’m not pure and I have no desire to be. And when black people are murdered, ignored, given substandard medical care, passed over for promotion, disadvantaged in any number of large and small ways, it is done out of a subconscious desire to protect an image of me I’m not even terribly invested in. Yes, I fear rape. But I’m actually statistically less likely to be raped by some archetypal monster stranger who doesn’t exist, than by someone I know.
I want to dismantle this shelter, but I don’t know how to give up the power of my voice mattering more than a black person’s. I have been fighting the purity culture that squashed my own voice for so long I honestly sometimes find it hard to want to give up that power. If white fragility is one pillar of the white patriarchy, self-interest is another one. And so that is how I prop it up.
Is airtime finite? Are there limited seats at the table? And if it proves that there are, will I be willing to give mine up? Because the lies that tell me that I am fragile and pure and in need of protection start playing the strongest when I think about offering up my seat to someone else. As someone pointed out to me recently, the ‘seats at the table’ metaphor usually implies that the table belongs to cis white men, and the rest of us have to scrap it out to get heard.
I see so many white artists and creators recently offering their platforms to amplify black voices and assist black artists. I suspect this is one aspect of how to do it. I was inspired to write this after some of my favourite white content creators invited me to listen to the ‘Tired’ episode of Fanti and watch ‘When They See Us’ instead of their regularly scheduled programmes. And I won’t stop appreciating the work of those white creators just because for a couple of weeks, they promoted black-made content instead of white. They haven’t lost their seats at my table. Neither they nor I are that fragile.
What if there’s a world beyond the table/shelter/other metaphor propped up on our purity and fragility and selfishness? What if white women screamed out at the top of our “speak-to-the-manager” lungs and said NOT. IN. MY. NAME. We will not demonise black people or trans people or fat people or disabled people. We WILL. NOT. STAND for murder in our name. I think we might find we’re a lot stronger than the fragility myth would have us believe, and our combined weight could help move centuries-old mountains.
I like to think in the world beyond the mountain/table/I really do love my metaphors, there are black people and other people of colour flourishing in surprising ways, because they’re not wasting all their energy fighting just to stay alive and be heard. There are people all along the gender spectrums floating and playing and befriending and consensually fucking each other. There are strong women, there are women and men whose feelings and pain are listened to. There’s also probably ice cream.
Let’s dismantle that fucking shelter. We never needed it, and even if we did, people get murdered in our name, and that should be enough to let us know it shouldn’t stand. #blacklivesmatter