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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan & Tilman Smith

The Myth of White Women’s Innocence: A Pilar of White Supremacy

When we published our book, What's Up with White Women?, we knew the cover and title would be provocative. By juxtaposing a blonde, blue eyed, white woman next to the words, “What’s Up with White Women?” we directly challenged the myth of white women’s innocence. What we didn’t anticipate, due to our own internalized sense of innocence, was the vitriolic reaction to our cover.

In addition to a few angry emails and social media posts, we also had white male radio hosts throughout the country who weren’t willing to interview us because they didn’t want to deal with the fallout of challenging white women. Ilsa had a client with whom she had worked for years discontinue their contract and tell her it was, in part, because white women had complained to their supervisor about the book cover. “If that’s what she thinks of us, why should we listen to anything she has to say?” was the essence of their reaction. This wasn’t the only reason these workshop participants were upset with Ilsa, and she recognized the multiple ways institutional racism and patriarchy played out, but this gave the women rationale to check out. Essentially, our book cover prompts the deeper question, what if you are not a good person all the time?

We continue to grapple with this question and did not come to our initial understanding easily. In fact, we had written our whole manuscript without owning our naiveite about our innocence, not recognizing this as a key pilar upholding white heteropatriarchy and supremacy.

As with many authors, we sent our manuscript to trusted friends and colleagues for critique before sending it into the publisher. Dr. Rachel Chapman, a Black woman, let us know that she was reading our manuscript very closely, and would have a clear analysis of our work when she was done. She told us she wasn’t sure we would read or believe her comments, and it was only because of her relationship with Tilman and her hopes and concerns for our readers, that she wanted to take the time and energy to provide detailed feedback.

Throughout every part of our book, she pointed out the myriad ways we had softened our own racism and subtly and not so subtly claimed our own innocence in the stories and our analysis. The most common ways in which we did this was to assert that we were unaware of the harm we were causing people of color through our actions, even when they were egregiously racist. She made it clear that for a Black woman to read story after story, have experience after experience, the idea we didn’t know what we were doing was not only laughable, but dangerous. Dangerous.

We returned to our manuscript and went through it comment by comment, talking about what we had done, and why we had done it. We had several conversations about the ways white patriarchal society rewards white women for not noticing the racist context of our actions. Patriarchy tells us our innocence will protect us, and we hide behind this, capitulating to the need for male protection, when our racism is called out. We made many changes.

Dr. Chapman agreed to meet with us after we had gone through the manuscript and made the revisions. She told us she had one more idea that she wanted to leave us with before moving on. She wanted to ask us why we thought we were good to begin with? What if we weren’t good? Would we still be willing to be anti-racist?

The opposite of racist is not "good," it is "anti-racist." Any time we approach a conversation about racism where we assert our goodness or that of another white woman, we are centering whiteness rather than working against racism. Our goodness, the assertion of our innocence, which we fight so hard to protect, is beside the point.


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