On Prisons, Borders, Safety, and Privilege: An Open Letter to White Feminists
...One night in the summer of 1996, when I was eighteen, my (white, female, ex-gutter-punk) roommate and I rushed together to call the police when we were startled by a Peeping Tom outside her bedroom window. It was like a reflex, just what you do. We didn't pause to consider other possible responses -- and, after two LAPD officers promised to put our apartment on their regular patrol for the next few weeks, we gave no thought to what that added police presence might mean to our mostly Black neighbors. I was interning with the Feminist Majority that summer, working to defeat an anti-affirmative action state ballot initiative. By the night of the Peeping Tom incident, I had been confused for weeks about why the multiracial coalition of feminist and racial-justice groups that started out working together to save affirmative action "for women and people of color" in the spring had split into two, the (mostly white) feminists in one camp and the racial-justice groups in the other. One of my co-interns had overheard a prominent leftist civil-rights attorney, a woman of color who was working with a former coalition organization, say, "The road to hell is paved with feminists." I thought our work at the Feminist Majority was good and just and concerned with racial as well as gender equality; I didn't understand....
I thought about calling this an open letter to liberal feminists, or to mainstream feminists, or some other things, but I finally decided on the adjective white -- not because race is the only defining difference between the liberal/reformist so-called feminism I'm critiquing and more radical social-change-oriented feminisms, but because I see many of the strains of this argument threading together around whiteness -- if by whiteness I can mean not only skin privilege but also straightness, liberalism, a sense of entitlement to safety (especially within existing social structures), and other markers of an identity and worldview shaped by assimilation to power. Because, of course, whiteness is no essential fact; it is a construct, a lumping together of different people and practices into a dominant, powerful whole.
I'm using whiteness here to talk broadly about assimilated identities and assimilationist politics, which undermine movements for social change. As white people in the twenty-first century, we can't undo or deny the skin privilege we have been granted via generations of erasure of cultural differences and assimilation to power. But as white feminists, if we are working toward profound social change, we can choose not to engage in political work that is about assimilation to and achieving "safety" or "empowerment" or "freedom" of movement within existing power structures -- especially when those structures (e.g., militaristically enforced national borders, the prison industrial complex) are designed to make others unsafe, and unfree.