Confessions of a white feminist

By Nicole D. Johns

For most of my life, I have been what some disparagingly (and accurately) refer to as a “white feminist”. I cared about my reproductive rights and paid family leave. I argued about “opting out” and “having it all”. I was blind to my privilege in the most fundamental ways. I tripped over that privilege all the time. I still do. Regularly.

The difference between now and then? Now I understand enough to see my privilege and how it benefits my family. Well, I see it some of the time. I know I know nothing. I know there are some things I can never know no matter how much I read or listen. I now shudder at some of the thoughts, opinions, and actions of my past. I regret missed opportunities to do better. But I didn’t know better then. But I do now. With that knowledge comes responsibility. Now I must do the work of dismantling my privilege and the oppressive systems that created and sustain it.

It’s not enough just to say “I’m a privileged white woman”. I must actively seek the destruction of that privilege and white supremacy. This is not passive work. This cannot be done by reading some essays, liking posts on Instagram, and buying the right t-shirts. I must do more than call myself an intersectional feminist. I must work to support the leadership and centrality of women of color and queer women in all the feminist and social justice work I do. I must give financial and other resources to people and organizations doing this work. I must understand when it isn’t my place to speak or even show up.

So what does that work look like? For me it looks like:

Shutting up and listening to women of color talk about their lives and experiences. Seeking out opportunities to hear and learn from others different myself; whether that is a public meeting, a storytelling event, or community-building exercise. I am reading books and articles I might not have otherwise read, seeking them out from lists curated by feminists and thinkers. I am listening to podcasts by people of color. I am seeking out activists and journalists on Twitter who write about race, gender, and social justice. I am supporting artists, creators, and activists with my money and my eyeballs, ears, and attention. I am explaining to white feminists why Delco NOW is focusing on the issues of economic and racial justice, rather than reproductive justice. (Although, you and I both know that there is no reproductive freedom without economic and racial equity, but you know, others aren’t as hip to social factors of health and well-being as we are).

My ability to have productive discussions about racism with others is a work in progress. I’m working on dropping the ‘shaming and blaming’ that comes so easily to me, but often slams shut hearts and minds. A few months ago, I confronted my mother about a racist assumption about a neighbor. That went well because I approached it as an opportunity for her to examine her own prejudices and assumptions. I didn’t call her or what she said “racist”. Best to avoid that word if you want people to listen to you. The avoidance shouldn’t be to protect their fragile feelings, but because we really want to change hearts and minds, not just win an argument. I no longer worry about white people’s hurt feelings about being called out. I care immeasurably more about the oppression of people of color than I do about my cousin’s hurt feelings. That’s on him.

I’m not perfect. I’m not even close.

I know that all of this is nothing. The least I could do. No great sacrifice of my time, resources, or privilege. I know. This is a journey that requires much work. And part of my work is thinking a lot about allyship and true solidarity. Much of the “allyship” we see online is performative. It’s meant to signal to other white people and people of color that the individual white person is “not all white people”. It’s about their identity as a “woke” white person and not about the advancement of the ideas and power of people of color and other marginalized peoples. I fear becoming such a performative ally. I fear that I am at times , however unintentionally.

Is being loud and proud of your activism inherently performative? Is there a way to be outspoken without being the center or subject of the attention? Is there a way to amplify without attaching oneself to the message or catching the spotlight? Is there place for white people in Black-led anti-racism movements? How can I use my privilege to protect others and/or amplify their voices?

Part of my work to un-learn racism is to contemplate and ask these questions of myself and others and to be open to the answers, even if they hurt. We have to dig deep and shine light in the darkest and most shameful parts of ourselves if we are to grow in solidarity and increase justice and peace. There is no easy way.

I have tortured myself and navel-gazed about how to be a true and helpful ally. It’s embarrassing how tortured I can be with all the hand-wringing and second-guessing. I know this self-examination is also a kind of performance of my “wokeness”. It’s my white guilt stepping out from around it’s dark curtain of shame.

In this time spent thinking and reading, I have come to believe (or is it hope?) that as long as my intentions are true solidarity and I stay open to feedback and self-reflection, even if I make a big mistake at least I will have done my best. It is far better to do the work and make a mistake than it is to stay at home in my quiet cave of white guilt and fear of offending anyone. My friends of color have no choice but to be in the world. Having the option to “opt out” of social justice work is a part of my white privilege.  So the first step to solidarity is to ‘woman up’ and step out of the protective cover of this privilege. I am strong and compassionate. I cannot let the fear instilled in me by the racist and sexist systems silence and disempower me. I will not allow it. My risk of embarrassment and discomfort is nothing compared to the oppression of billions of people. I am not that important. I am not a special little snowflake. I am not that fragile.


As Maya Angelou taught us:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better then do better.”