The opposition to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is loud and widely felt. It has pushed many to double down on their feminist values. A gaggle of Hollywood stars like Amy Schumer — who was arrested during a protest Thursday — and dozens of other celebrities participated in a walkout in support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who testified that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted and attempted to rape her in 1980. Industry insiders like Kerry Washington and Samantha Bee wore all Black and used the hashtag #believesurvivors to show their support. But they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and a series of now-deleted tweets from actress Bette Midler just proved it.
Responding to the turmoil on Capitol Hill, Midler posted, “Women, are the n-word of the world.” This a quote from the title of a 1972 John Lennon and Yoko Ono song. The line was just as problematic then as it is today. Midler continued, “Raped, beaten, enslaved, married off, worked like dumb animals; denied education and inheritance; enduring the pain and danger of childbirth and life IN SILENCE for THOUSANDS of years[.] They are the most disrespected creatures on earth.”
When followers began to call her out for her misguided sentiments, she actually doubled down. “I gather I have offended many by my last tweet,” she started indignantly. “Women are the . . . etc’ is a quote from Yoko Ono from 1972, which I never forgot. It rang true then, and it rings true today, whether you like it or not. This is not about race, this is about the status of women; THEIR HISTORY.” Midler deleted both tweets and issued an apology a few hours later, after being rightfully dragged. But these statements, and the attitude that she took in defence of them are an example of everything that is wrong with white feminism as it pertains to people of colour.
At the heart of the issue — and the problem with white feminism itself — is an appalling lack of self-awareness.
First of all, Black people shouldn’t be the n-word of the world, in the way that Oko, Lennon, and Midler meant it. Underlining this quote is an acceptance of anti-Black racism as a fact or natural order of the world. Neither of the white people in question, or Japanese Ono, were using their platforms to challenge or change the bleak status of Black people in the United States or abroad. Instead, these non-Black people used the oppression of Black people to prop up the issues affecting white women. Any version of feminism that can so easily decry their own circumstances while normalising the unjust maltreatment of another group is trash.
Furthermore, the reference to “the n-word was unnecessary” from all parties. Associating the n-word with racism is a gross oversimplification that we desperately need to move away from. Black people do not fare any better or worse under white supremacy if a derogatory slur is being used as an identifier. The n-word is not the signifier for racism; the lived experiences of people of colour are. At the same time, white people need to understand that even when they aren’t using the term as an act of overt racism, it is still tone-deaf, insensitive, and appropriative. The word belongs to Black-identified people, exclusively. White feminist outrage does not give you a pass to use it.
At the heart of the issue — and the problem with white feminism itself — is an appalling lack of self-awareness. By proudly putting themselves at the top of the victimhood pyramid, feminists like Midler miss the glaring holes in their flawed arguments. In the case of Midler, Ono, and Lennon, the point they missed is that some women are… wait for it… Black. White women trying to compare their piece of the oppression pie to people of colour’s completely diminishes the interlocking systems of oppression that Black women face thanks to both sexism and racism.
When Midler boldly insisted that “this isn’t about race” despite making a reference to racism is the kind of cluelessness that only comes from white privilege. Her dismissal of race in this situation was an inadvertent admission of her unwillingness to make room for a conversation about sexism that doesn’t directly serve her, women who look like her, and her own worldview.