We all know a well-intentioned white lady. When George Floyd was killed by police, she started a race literature book club with her girlfriends from Barre class. She’s probably listening to White Fragility in her SUV right now, as she waits in the carpool lane outside her kid’s private school. Maybe she wants to leave the world a better place than she found it, but she doesn’t necessarily want to be a “nasty woman.” Her basic, complacent, and to some, innocuous worldviews are the perfect foil to people who are more acutely aware of — and actively trying to dismantle — systemic injustice.
But there is nothing innocuous about privileged white women, actually. The reality is that — just like in 2016 — these white women might decide who becomes the next American president and they have more influence over the economy than any other demographic.
How do we grapple with this? I conferred with Jenna Arnold, activist and author of Raising Our Hands: How White Women Can Stop Avoiding Hard Conversations, Start Accepting Reality, And Find Our Place On The New Front Lines about the trope of the well-intentioned white lady. She has some incisive ideas about what needs to change if we want to avoid season 2 of Trump’s America: The Dumpster Fire Continues.
Arnold asserts that some privileged white women — PWW, I’ll call them — are standing on the precipice of progressive politics. As a demographic, privileged white women embody a host of contradictory potential. They want to resist the stereotype that they are all complicit with oppressive systems, but it’s scary for them to jump away from the status quo and into the unknown. They seem to have particular difficulty speaking up about white supremacy, but their voices may be crucial to collective progress.
Arnold — who appears to be a privileged white woman herself — is intimately familiar with this demographic. She’s spent the past four years interviewing them, trying to figure out how they can help us prevent a repeat of 45’s election. “These women, like all of us, are searching for self-worth,” Arnold says, “and capitalism has told them they’ll find it by consuming more things. They can be so distracted by chasing societally approved benchmarks that they’re too busy to see the suffering of others — let alone how their behavior is responsible for it."
But, I ask her, aren’t PWW — at least in part — responsible for perpetuating the racist heterocapitalist culture that is currently destroying us? “Yes they are,” says Arnold. And, she says, they should have to reckon with that. “Marginalized communities have been harmed for so long by ‘well-intended’ white women.”
Arnold contends that marginalized folx (BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Americans, in particular) don’t have to choose between asking white women to own up and organizing with them. Both will be necessary to create a progressive movement powerful enough to overthrow the current regime. “Hold them accountable for past mistakes and the privileges they enjoy at the expense of others and find a place for them on some frontline,” Arnold says. “We can do both now and we should.”
But putting PWW on the frontline doesn’t always work out that well, you might be thinking. Take, for example, Susan Page’s moderation of the vice presidential debate. Page — a white woman privileged enough to moderate a major debate — has been widely criticized for allowing Pence to talk over Harris, calling Senator Harris by her first name while referring to Pence as Mr. Vice President, and generally not holding Pence accountable for sticking to the rules of engagement.
This kind of pandering to douchey white politicos feels like a betrayal; to be an ally or advocate means checking white men for their unfair or privileged behavior. One strong and direct example of how PWW can be strong allies is by physically getting between cops and Black protesters. This sounds simple, but has been shown to reduce overall violence at demonstrations.
Arnold’s not a PWW apologist — she knows that privileged white women have real work to do to build trust — but she doesn’t want to see the left pull itself apart. She argues that there is an opportunity for these women in 2020 to educate themselves and immerse themselves in communities that will help them evolve.
This means intentionally engaging in awkward and challenging conversations about race and privilege. It also means actively elevating voices of color and those of queer people, relegating yourself to the sidelines, and providing support in new and potentially unfamiliar ways.
I see the point of Arnold’s intentions, her book, and her quest. As a white femme — albeit a queer, gender-nonconforming one — I do have a lot of privilege. I went to a fancy private college and I sound like it. I also have the debt to prove it, but if you squint, I may come off as a PWW. As a result, I have frequently found myself confused about whether I’m radical enough to call myself a radical, and it has made me less likely to participate in some kinds of action.
While progressive circles can be intimidating, PWW can afford the discomfort of wading into them. White people have work to do, no matter our gender or socioeconomic status. What Arnold is trying to point out is that it is possible to acknowledge harm and work together.
So theoretically, how does a PWW evolve — and why should non-PWW give enough of a shit to help them do so? The idea of cozying up to PWWs feels a little too much like catering to their famous fragility. “I would never suggest that you have to extend compassion to privileged white women,” Arnold says, “But this is a moment of reckoning. They can, want to, and are ready to help. They’re like an army awaiting commands.”
The election is upon us and this is a truly tricky moment. It’s crucial to call out Karens — a special, particularly un-savable subset of PWWs — but equally as crucial for whoever is standing on the median to get on the right side of justice. In the blink of an eye, Arnold says, we could have what Arnold calls the most “dangerous demographic in America” questioning capitalism, dismantling systemic oppression, and fighting for equity.