An Open Letter to White Women

Dear white women,

There was recently an incident that prompted me to reevaluate a relationship that has been integral to my life since the day I was born– my relationship with you, white women. You have been a staple in my life in a way that your white male counterpart has not, occupying a space that I believed up until these past few days was, with certain exceptions, aligned with me in our collective fight against systemic oppression. Until recently, I– being heavily indoctrinated in the ways of whiteness and its imposed supremacy as a result of spending the majority of my life in predominantly white spaces– did not have the faculties to critically examine how much of my oppression has been shaped by you. While the mechanisms of oppression detailed in this letter focus mostly on whiteness as a whole and are only at times gendered, the reason this letter is addressed to you is because you are the main forces in my life who act on me so.

To the white women in my life, the ones whom I am happy to love and who claim to love me, I want to take a moment to speak to you directly. I understand why you are this way. I do not blame you for it. You had no choice in the matter. Nevertheless, you are my oppressor. Your lack of conscious effort to act in this role does not absolve you of any responsibility for doing so. Simply put, the way you have been taught to exist is harmful to me. This letter is my way of letting you know that, and what you can do about it, if you so choose.

Many people have written on and are conscious of the way white women weaponize the perpetual victimhood to which they are relegated by the white patriarchy as a means of suppressing women of color. (This weaponization is key to what has come to be known as white feminism, a theory that posits women joining the white male colonizer as equal oppressors is how female liberation will be achieved.) As I understand it, the white patriarchy utilizes women in this way to maintain white supremacy, teaching white women that they are either victims or potential victims whose safe existence hinges on protection from men by other men. This structure allows for white men to maintain power and white women moral purity in all circumstances, as all male-female relationships are either savior/damsel or predator/prey. It is without a doubt that white womanhood has been designed to protect white male power, and clearly infringes on the rights of these women. Simply put, white women are irrefutably oppressed.

However, gender is not the only axis along which white men seek to establish and maintain power. Race is also a significant part of the larger conversation of how the supremacy of the white, able-bodied, neurotypical, rich, cisgender, heterosexual, male, imperial colonizer has become the system of power we have today. The self-perpetuating nature of white supremacy currently relies on white peoples’ ignorance of how it operates at all levels: individual, interpersonal, and systemic. This is only successful in a society where justice is doled out based on intent, culpability is seen as a binary reflection of one’s innate morality, and public opinion has come to a consensus that oppression is a moral wrong. Within such a system, the white woman, when confronted about the oppressiveness of her whiteness, can revert to victimhood to avoid the absolute moral castigation that accompanies being labelled the oppressor. She insists beyond reason her moral purity, claiming the lack of intent to cause or perpetuate harm absolves her of it. In response to what she deems an unfair accusation, the white woman holds fast to her perceived goodness at the cost of acting against the oppressive system. The vast majority of the white women in my life are guilty of this: seeing themselves only as victims of the patriarchy and therefore incapable of acting oppressively. In doing so, accountability is circumvented and the oppression remains.

But what is this oppression? How, specifically, do you act to oppress me?

Before we start, we must consider the unique position that Asians occupy within the racial hegemony of North America. The systemic racism I experience is most prominent in social settings. Unlike other minorities, Asians are typically not baselessly assigned assumptions of criminality, poverty, or physical danger to white society. As a result, when our peoples’ bodily autonomy is forcibly removed (be it by racially motivated murder, assault, incarceration, and enslavement, sexual or otherwise) it is more often individualized acts of hate rather than systemic state violence. It is well documented that these have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic.

The Asian experience of white supremacy is notably different from that of other racialized groups. We are seen as the “model minority”, a myth that at its core is a racist belief that Asians, unlike other minorities, do not need the actionable threat of violence to keep them subjugated. This notable lack of state-sanctioned, explicit violence as a means of subjugation is a key factor in what has been coined as Asians’ “proximity to whiteness”.

I want to make it clear that in no way do I claim that I am not the most marginalized, or that my experience of racism, individualized and systemic, is the same experience that all racialized groups have. For whatever reason, white supremacy has deemed myself, those who look like me, and those who share my culture as lesser humans, but not subhuman altogether. I do not have to fight every day to be recognized as human; my fight is simply for my humanity to be recognized as equal. It is without question that we must center the humanity of those who are most marginalized in the long fight towards liberation, but that does not mean ignoring discourse on the oppression of other groups.

(I have to take a moment to mention those of us Asians who hold tight to the belief of Black, brown, and Indigenous inferiority– as well as the necessity of state violence against these groups that is the continuation of this logic– as a way to assuage the cultural and ethnic insecurity that white supremacy has installed within us. Our liberation is collective and justifying the white state will get us nowhere.)

Now, allow me to introduce Mimi Schippers’ theory of hegemonic femininities. Building off the earlier work of R. W. Connell that theorizes the existence of hegemonic masculinities, Schippers posits that femininities are stratified based on adherence to the idealized state. In other words, the white patriarchy has defined the ideal femininity in interracial terms. Femininities that deviate from this are seen as lesser than, and, as racialized femininities are innately deviant, refusal of full womanhood and accompanying legitimization of oppression ensue.

Before the days of third- and fourth-wave feminism, the ideal femininity was slavery to the man. Yet as white women have built social, political, and cultural power, they have been able to shift ideal femininity to those who are able to simultaneously serve men and pursue their own individual interests. This had to have been predicated on the general popular consensus that subjugation based on gender alone is immoral. Upon recognizing gender parity between white men and women as a just goal to strive for, white Americans used their newfound moral superiority to legitimize their ongoing racial superiority. It was twisted into yet another argument that cultures like mine, ones that unfortunately have deeply entrenched patriarchies, are less developed, backward, mistaken. Not only that, but our people are therefore incapable of the same moral reasoning at which white people have proven themselves to be so adept. This is why you subjugate me. Because without you, I’d have no means of creating an equitable, civilized society. It’s an exchange: I get to be rescued from the throes of inferior nonwhite attempts at self-governance, you get my labor.

You see, white supremacy is incredibly complicated and operates based on several assumptions. One of the key ones is that white people and white culture are the most morally correct, which allows for what I call moral security. This works in tandem with the white person’s insistence on being comfortable, as it’s hard to live comfortably with the knowledge that your actions are immoral. The world is all about you, or, more precisely, your experience of it. Whatever mental gymnastics you must do to justify you being at the center are executed flawlessly and, in large part, subconsciously. This is the connection to earlier: the position of the perpetual victim and the moral purity it provides for you lead to a worldview where you have no need to take others into account, or in which others are a mere afterthought.

I was not afforded this luxury. When you grow up in a world that was clearly not made for you, that allows for your existence but does not care for it, the first thing you learn is to think of others before yourself. It is impossible to be a person of color living in North America and not be constantly thinking of others. What I mean by this is that the white perspective is spoon fed to us from the moment we come into contact with our society. We come to view ourselves as you view us. We must attempt to balance this with how we view ourselves, and our lives turn into a constant negotiation between what we know to be true about ourselves and what we have been told is true so that we can best serve your needs.

Let’s take me, for example. The Asian woman holds value within North American society because I am purported to be the perfect slave. Quiet, docile, deferential, all in an easily dominatable frame; the lotus blossom is the white man’s dream. He takes my exoticism as an invitation to relegate me to the position of a mere sexual object, installing himself as all-powerful. To you, the white woman, domination over me as a sexual object isn’t viable, but socially you are free to act with impunity.

The Asian femininity assigned to me is not deviant enough from the idealized femininity to justify revoking my femininity altogether (akin to what is often done to Black women). Instead, I am exotified, placing my culture (and by extension myself) as inherently mysterious, freeing you from any requirement to actually understand it or approach it as valid and equal. In my interactions with you, I can feel your search for evidence of the cloud-shrouded Orient, your constant observance of my actions to test the degree of my assimilation. Unfortunately for you, my actions are not executed to serve as an initial data set from which you can poorly extrapolate generalized truths about the way those who look like me operate in and experience the world. I do not exist to better your understanding of different peoples and cultures. In treating me like this, you make my life one where my ethnicity is a kind of performance that is tailored to your comfort.

(It would be remiss if I did not take time to discuss my biraciality. To you, it has always been both confusing and comforting. In one stroke, it guarantees a certain degree of assimilation but also a permanent outsider position. In a society that strives for racial absolutes, I am a question mark. To all those except my family, the easiest solution is to put me in the closest nonwhite box available. In truth, I probably think of myself as more white than America does. To my extended white family, acceptance that I could be one of you is constantly thwarted by the undeniable fact of my appearance. As a result, I am granted inclusion in the family only when my Asianness is erased or subdued to palatable levels. In all other instances, it is exotified.)

In fact, it serves you better to enforce the behavior of the lotus blossom because my deferentiality will ensure that you are safe to continue centering yourself, at times at the cost of my own health and wellbeing. It allows for my needs to enter your frame of consciousness only when it is convenient for you, when they don’t eclipse your comfort. This is how you hurt me: you use my race as reason to consider yourself and only yourself, and in that process, often infringe on my rights to material stability, happiness, and self-determination.

The response some of you might have to this is that I should simply become more like a white woman. I should adopt more assertive, confident, outspoken behaviors and attitudes; make my boundaries clear and defend them with tooth and nail. The way the world works is that you have to fight for yourself, because who else is going to fight for you? How else are you going to succeed in this system unless you adopt those behaviors?

This, to me, is an issue. In a society where success and apportionment of power are contingent on assuming the role of the oppressor– on assuming a worldview that centers yourself at the cost of others– those of us without power often find ourselves trying to emulate those with it. I have spent my entire life doing this with your femininity, white woman. You told me that my femininity was a sign of a backward culture, emblematic of an oppressive patriarchy from which your femininity can free me. As a result, the way in which you are concerned with yourself and only yourself was for so long a point of envy for me. Most of all, the way in which you were able to be assertive, confident, and driven all while maintaining sexual legitimacy was something I aspired to have as well. If only I could be like the white woman, then I would be free, I would think to myself.

But no longer. Over the past year, I have begun a personal project of being intentional in the ways I create my own femininity, which has involved critically reevaluating my adoration of your femininity. One of the things that I realized about your femininity is that it provides no liberation. The male gaze persists, it just selects for different traits. Not only that, but in a society where gender roles are racialized to the extent that the performance of gender itself serves as an indicator of ethnicity, my pursuit of white femininity is a pursuit to erase (in part) my ethnicity. As long as I remain an Asian woman, I have no way of achieving your femininity, as central to white femininity is the ability to subjugate other races. Your template for liberation– joining the white man in being equal oppressors– is not one that is available to me, even if I desired it. I see no value in yearning to occupy the same place in society as the white man: I want to be free of him.

The femininity that I now strive for is one over which I have complete autonomy. Nothing about this process takes how you feel about me and my presentation as valuable. There will be parts that align with you, and what you deem acceptable, but there will also be parts that will make you uncomfortable. Your comfort is not my goal, and I refuse to orient myself around it any longer. My liberation will come on my terms, not because I try to appease you.

I choose for my femininity to be racialized, for my femininity will be a distillation of myself. Perhaps in a backlash to having been surrounded by you my entire life, I will seek to carve out my own definition of a femininity that is at once clearly descended from oppression but is in and of itself liberational. The virtues of Asian femininity– listening, intention, grace, care for others– ones that you take as subservient– these I will strive to embody. I want to move through this world with mindfulness, presence; aware and respectful of both the space that I have chosen to occupy and of the space that those around me occupy. This doesn’t come from a desire or intent to serve you, but rather because I reject the idea so central to whiteness that power over others is desirable. What I want is not to force you to view me as equal, but to be able to exist as an object no longer. Nothing more.

At the same time, I will insist on taking up the space that I deserve. I will expect for it to be taken as equal to yours; you can expect I will tell you when I feel that it is not, which I’m assuming will be often. My femininity is ultimately a project to love myself as an Asian woman living in a world that sees my identity as cause for objectification. If I operate under the assumption that my equality is out of the question, I cannot claim to be loving myself.

At the end of the day, what I desire is liberation. This is not to be confused with social status akin to whiteness. It is to be free from a social system where whiteness has power, and that power is used against me. If you wish to help me in this goal, this is the reality that you need to construct. I cannot dictate whether your whiteness will be used to harm me, only you can do that. To do this, you must be conscious of what your whiteness means, how it affects your worldview, what specific beliefs you hold create imbalances of power, and how you can take action. Unfortunately, this isn’t achievable for you. Like I said before, white supremacy is self-perpetuating because it requires that white people are ignorant of it. It is an ignorance so deeply entrenched that the simple act of being conscious that you are ignorant will not solve it: the truth remains that the experience of perpetual relegation to an inferior social position on the basis of race is something that is so outside your frame of reference it is incomprehensible to you, making it impossible to be fully cognizant of.

What remains as the only available option is to accept that you will have to commit to a life of self-criticism with no possibility of “arrival” at true understanding. Just as a function infinitely approaches its asymptote without ever reaching it, so too will you infinitely approach this understanding without arriving at it. This process of approaching entails you first detaching yourself from that image of moral purity and adopting a readiness to view your own thoughts and beliefs as inherently flawed. This doesn’t mean your thought is worthless, it means that you must approach it with a healthy dose of scrutiny, a reasonable measure of critical distance, seeking out ways to ground your thought in both empiricism and empathy. Think about the origin of your beliefs, whom they serve, and why you hold them. Compare your answers to where and how you want your beliefs to originate, whom you want them to serve, and why you want to hold a particular belief.

Next, you must identify your “blind spots”, or facets of oppression that you had never considered before. This is impossible to do without exposure to those who experience systemic oppression. Recognize not only the harm caused by these blind spots, but why you had no awareness of it in the first place– whom your blindness serves. Observe how the inclusion of these previously excluded perspectives changes your conceptualization of oppression going forward.

Finally, consider the grounds on which you accept or reject information. This is incredibly important, as you will be exposed to a wealth of new information, and are constantly receiving coded messages from everything around you. Evaluate as objectively as you can the source of the information and its goal, making sure to first acknowledging your own subjectivity. For example, when people of color come forward with experiences of racism, they are often rejected because they do not align with your understanding of race. Conversely, false and harmful stereotypes about people of color and other marginalized identities are spread through the media and usually blindly accepted.

Throughout this whole process, be aware of your “sample size”, your end goal, and why you are doing this. Practice holding yourself accountable and creating the best mental landscape for you to progress, which can include being kind to yourself. Only engage in comparison with others when constructive, not to position yourself as better than “that racist over there”. (This is a common tactic used by white liberals to justify not engaging with their own whiteness critically.) The most important thing is to let your beliefs guide your actions. If a change in action does not ensue, reconsider why you embarked on this process in the first place.

I recognize that I haven’t given much in terms of concrete actions that you can take, but more so abstract mental processes for you to adopt. This is because without a commitment to critical analysis of the self and the society around you, concrete actions are fleeting and meaningless. When you commit to learning in earnest about reducing the harm you cause others, you open yourself to a lifetime of action.

Those of you who know me well know that I tend to view dealing in absolutes as intellectually cheap. Despite my best efforts to prove to myself otherwise, the dichotomy presented here is not false: you can either take action or do nothing. If action is too difficult for you, you don’t have to do it. You’re the oppressor; nobody will force you.

What’s more, I don’t want you to feel forced into this. I know that a large number of you feel that you are forced into antiracism work for fear of the social castigation that follows if you do not. I would much rather for the work of allies to be genuine, to be the product of their own internal revolution and love for others, and not to keep up a veneer of moral purity. To tell you the truth, white people who do not want for me to be liberated and equal are not few and far between. In fact, it’s so common it’s a tenet of whiteness. I have neither the energy nor resources to change this. However, I believe that there is a significant minority of you who want to abolish systemic oppression but have been denied the resources to learn how to do so by the self-perpetuating nature of white supremacy. I write for you.

The goal of this is not to make anybody treat me differently. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. It is to inform you that the way you treat me is actively harmful to me, and it is within your power to change that. I deserve to live in a world without the incessant infringement on my right to self-determine. Whether you do something about it is up to you. I will not blame you if you don’t, in fact, I don’t have the power to hold you to any real sort of account. We will simply both understand that to you, my pain is not as important as your comfort.

Despite the powerlessness I have over how you treat me, I want you to know one thing: I am proud of my ethnicity. To be a woman of color is an irrefutable gift. It’s one of my favorite things about myself. You may be able to temporarily delude me into thinking that I shouldn’t want this body or this culture, but you can do nothing to detract from the innate, unique beauty my identity holds.

Yours most informally,

Nola

Student at the University of British Columbia, among other things.

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