Sisterhood is BS

05 Apr 2017


Eight transgender women of color have been murdered in 2017. And while the recent viral Instagram post was fake news, the underlying problem was not: 36.7% of those missing under the age of 18 are black, mostly black girls and young women.

If you’re white and/or cisgender, this might be news to you. After all, traditionally, crimes against women of color, queer folks, and trans folks have gone under-reported, unpunished and unsolved. If it’s surprising, that’s because it doesn’t affect you.

In fact, missing cis white women receive never-ending ubiquitous coverage, so much so that’s it’s been dubbed Missing White Woman Syndrome.

The term Missing White Woman Syndrome describes the fact that Western media will focus on the murder, kidnapping, or disappearance of Caucasian females—usually pretty, young, and middle- or upper-class—to the exclusion of male, minority, poor, or disabled missing persons.

Chivalry still holds relevance for some, and the fact is this: only some of our sisters are the beneficiaries.

The underlying desires behind Missing White Woman Syndrome—to protect, cherish, and guard women—are protections that many women—affected uniquely by class, race, gender, and sexuality—have never been able to rely upon.

I’ve often seen privileged women—when confronted with this fact—who push back against it by arguing that this notion is, in fact, misogynistic in-and-of itself, because it is rooted in the underlying belief that women are property.

While true, this is far from the whole story. In fact, this rhetoric re-frames the conversation to cast cis white women as victims, erasing their agency in the system from which they benefit. Jayy Dodd explains:

White women use their own oppression, by white men, to absolve them from accountability.

Not all property is treated the same. Growing up, my family always kept two types of dinnerware. The fine china was used with great care, and typically was only brought out when we had guests or otherwise on formal occasions. My grandma cherished this dinnerware, and to break one was almost a sin in-and-of itself.

But everyday meals didn’t call for that. Mama never had time to do the dishes, so every night, we’d eat on paper plates and plastic cups. When we were done, we threw them in the trash—out of sight and out of mind.

If some women are fine china, other women must be paper plates.

Privileged women are far from innocent, however they are framed. Every woman has internalized what kind of dinnerware she is. Knowing that they can rely on innocence and care from (white) men, cis white women often serve as pretexts (and initiators) for racial and sexual violence against people of color and trans women.

The most prominent example of this is Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who was lynched in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The white woman in question has recently admitted that she made it all up.

White women have weaponized whiteness against Black men and other men of color in a way that exploits racist cultural ideas of criminality.

These images of black folks (and in particular, black men) as sexually aggressive, and thus prompting extreme violence, are by no means new. The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, depicts a white woman throwing herself off a cliff to avoid implied rape at the hands of a black man.

There is no reason to believe Feminist spaces are exempt from gendered and racial violence, because such violence is everywhere. In fact, white feminists have weaponized these racist images against people of color, including women of color. We have centered ourselves without regard for the plight of black women or the very real violence we initiate upon black men:

In 2014, Hollaback!, a nonprofit to end harassment in public spaces, released a viral video depicting a white-appearing woman getting harassed almost exclusively by Black and Latino men. After the internet let them have it, chapters of the organization disassociated and rebranded to be more intentional about the racial implications of public harassment. Hollaback! had already come under fire in 2013 for its association with then-mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, who supported “stop and frisk” policing; in the eyes of Hollaback!, with its focus on the safety of white women, stop and frisk evidently does not qualify as “street harassment.”

The ubiquity of these racist narratives seeking to paint black men as sexually aggressive against white women not only erase the violence inflicted on white and particularly black women at the hands of white men, but also have very a strong impact on the sentencing of those convicted of rape.

In our white supremacist society, rape has been defined as black men preying upon white women, and nothing else.

Yet the desire to “protect our women” from an “enemy” extends beyond race. Transgender women regardless fo race are cast as deviant, predatory, and as potential rapists of women and girls. In fact, this same narrative has been recycled from the days of Jim Crow to justify exclusionary policies towards trans women in public accommodations.

Many cis (and/or) white feminists (in particular, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) have expressed similar sensibilities regarding bathroom bills, prompting some to team up with the religious right to deny transgender people access to gender-appropriate bathrooms.

The rhetoric surrounding North Carolina’s law is couched in the language of TERFs: transgender women, in particular, are described as being men in disguise, either because of a psychological disorder or a pathological desire to assault women.

Yet even among trans activists, this same savior complex has been invoked for bathroom access, a type of activism which uses young, white, cisnormative transgender girls to invoke cis white men’s need to protect.

Cis white women have proven that they are incredibly unwilling to advocate for their fellow women, whether that be in conversations around reproductive justice, at the Women’s March, or when black women are being sexually assaulted directly in front of them. Writing in The Establishment, author Jayy Dodd explains:

In a contemporary context, notable white feminists are consistently absent when Black women face misogyny under the public gaze (see: the white cast of Ghostbusters staying publicly silent about Leslie Jones’ online abuse). This kind of willful ignorance directly affects Black women, femmes, and those who are non-binary.

Regarding Tomi Lahren, who was recently suspended from The Blaze for expressing pro-choice views on abortion, Morgan Mickavicz penned an article detailing how she “owe[d] Tomi Lahren an apology”.

When you said, “so stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well” I wanted to physically applaud you. Your statement was so strong, confident, and spunky. As a fellow woman, I was so proud of your comment and you unapologetic tone. And then I shamed myself. Your tone of this comment was no different than the way you express your views on other political issues, the only difference being this time I agreed with you. You are honest, raw, strong, confident, and overwhelmingly unapologetic in your “Final Thoughts” on TheBlaze, something I would praise if the show were hosted by a liberal woman. I would watch that segment every week excitedly. I realized how hypocritical I was.

Women need to stick together, especially in politics and other male-dominated situations.

It’s unclear whether Mickavicz realizes the irony of her words: how can women of diverse backgrounds stick together when you support women who express violently oppressive views? Why would we invest in bankrupt ideas of sisterhood? Liberal white women stormed social media coming to Lahren’s defense, despite her particularly inflammatory racist comments and bigoted comments about transgender bathroom access.

Before sisterhood can truly exist, justice must also exist. There is no female experience that is universal, there is no womanly experience not shaped by race, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, time, and place. As author bell hooks expounds in her 1984 book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center:

Women are divided by sexist attitudes, racism, class privilege, and a host of other prejudices. Sustained woman bonding can occur only when these divisions are confronted and the necessary steps are taken to eliminate them. Divisions will not be eliminated by wishful thinking or romantic reverie about common oppression despite the value of highlighting experiences all women share.

There is no female experience. While fighting patriarchy is in our common interest, the ways in which we fight patriarchy are informed by our intersecting identities. We can no longer afford to pretend that women are united.

Our differences are essential.


Marilyn is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Georgia State University. She studies gender, class, race, and sexuality.