I, racist, sexist. A letter to a Black man in America from a White woman in Rwanda.

This article was written in agreement and expansion to the brilliant article in The Huffington Post by John Metta.  If you have not already, please read it

Dear Mr. Metta,

I, racist, am a White woman living in Rwanda.  I read your article yesterday morning and have been unable to think of anything else since.  It has been a long time since I have been a tacit contributor to the racist structures that exist in my homeland the UK, many of which I believe parallel your own country and large parts of the world.  No one has benefited more from White Privilege than me.  I was able to attend one of the better (Whiter) schools that you talk of, and I lived in an affluent (Whiter) area in the UK as well.  Growing up, I did not take much notice that the people I saw on my television screen, in my novels, and in the news were mainly White and those that were Black were often ridiculous stereotypes.   Moving to Rwanda has opened my eyes to assumptions, privileges and attitudes that I did not even realise I had.

Here in Rwanda I work with vulnerable and orphaned youth and it is through them I have realised the extent to which White Privilege has been translated across the world. The experience of being a White person abroad testifies to this.  When we go outside of our home countries we are given easy access to the best jobs, our visa process is simple, we are treated with respect and as honoured guests in countries that, not too long ago, we plundered and controlled.   Even as foreigners, we are still in a position of power.  White Privilege is not just inherent within American social systems; it has been twisted into various manifestations everywhere.

I have been a silent, albeit uncomfortable, observer of racism because I was unsure as to how I could assist.  As you so rightly said, being a White person excludes me from ever understanding the experience of racism.  At the end of your article you asked White people to use their position of power to speak against the injustices many Black people suffer.   I have often wondered how I can speak with authority on a subject I know nothing of.   I believe this is a dilemma that many White people feel, unsure of what place we can take in the Black struggle.  But reading your article today, I was struck with a solution.  Yes, I am White and I know nothing of racism.  But I am also a woman, and I know all too well what it is like to live under a system that is inherently and structurally oppressive.

I am a woman and I want to tell you that the social systems in place across the world dictate our lives as they do Black lives.  They restrict our movement, the spaces that we feel safe to occupy; they shape the things that we feel comfortable or are allowed to say; they decide the amount we are paid for the work that we do and the type of  jobs that we can have; and they necessitate the measures we take to protect ourselves.   I want you to know, as a woman, I too am living with institutionalised prejudice that I cannot speak out against.  When we do speak, like you, we are called “over-sensitive”.   You become the “Angry Black Person”; I become the “Hysterical Crazy Woman.”  Like you, those who are brave enough to speak out face derision and death threats in social media and even in person.

First, let me be clear.  I do not want to tell you this as a means of taking away from anything that you have said; I am not interested in making comparisons to determine who has suffered the most.   What I am interested in is the clear similarities between the Black experience and the female one, and how I can use this as a tool to speak out against racism.  You asked whether White people will be brave enough to use their position of power to speak against the system that gave it to them. I am here to answer that today I do feel brave enough to speak out, because I recognise the inherent similarities between the female and Black struggle.

So much of what you said resonated with me as a woman.  We too have only recently gained “equal” rights in humanity’s history.  In the UK women’s property, and by extension the woman, belonged to the husband until 1882, not long after slavery was abolished for Black people in America.  It was not until the 1960s and 70s, while Black people were fighting for their basic civil rights, that many women both in the UK and the US got the right to make fundamental decisions about their bodies.  We experience slavery too; 98% of trafficked people are women and are forced into the sex industry.  Like you, we are often told to be grateful for how many steps we have taken since then and, like you, we wonder why those steps ever had to be taken in the first place.  We see today that while our countries may have righted some of those wrongs (although there are many more that have not been) there are other women and Black people whose lives and bodies are controlled in the most damaging ways imaginable across the world.

In America, as you said, Black people are prey to a violence that is allowed to exist by the very systems which are meant to protect you.  So are we. When I hear of a rape or a murder of a woman, I know that its location is not random, that it could have been me or any other female anywhere in the world.  I do not see it as a one-off incident because it is not, just as the tragedy in Ferguson was not. It is a manifestation of the structural violence that is directed at women and Black people across the globe, albeit in different forms and different outlets.  In her book “Men Explain Things to Me”, Rebecca Sotlin said that every 6.2 minutes there is a reported rape in your country and 83% of girls aged 12-16 have experienced some form of sexual harassment.  Across the globe around one in ten women will experience forced intercourse in their lives.  Similarly, in America, Black people are 4 times more likely to be murdered than the national average.

Patriarchy, like racism, manifests itself in more nuanced ways.  Women are taught from the earliest ages that it is more important that we are wanted than to want anything ourselves.  We are told to measure our self-worth by how many men see fit to pursue us, how quickly we can secure one of those men, and how long we can hold onto him for.  Masculinity is the “norm” in the worlds of business, sport, and sex.  Laurie Penny in her book “Unspeakable Things” speaks of the desperate balancing act many women in the business world play; the thin line between dressing and acting feminine enough that we are not threatening, but not so much that we are taken as stupid.  When you see your television screens dominated by White people, we see ours dominated by men -with women rigidly typecast as the mothers, the wives, the girlfriends, the lovers, the objects that are there for men to chase.

Nowhere is it more apparent that the struggles we are facing are the same as in the Black female experience.  It is here that the parallel structures intersect and become one.  In America, Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate that is 35% higher than White females.  Other ethnic minorities suffer the same; Rebecca Sotlin reported that one in three Native American women will be raped, and 88% of those are committed by non-native men.   133 million women and girls have suffered from female genital mutilation across the world predominantly in Africa and Asia. Here in Rwanda, a country where gender empowerment is celebrated and the cabinet has one of the highest female proportions in the world, 31% of women have reported domestic violence. I watch females  struggle against the patriarchy that holds them down every day.  I listen to my students say to the girl who plays basketball, “But you will have to stop that once you get married.”  I hear men tell my women that females are biologically not as clever as them but, not to worry, we can give birth and raise children.  And Rwanda is a success story.  I do not even need to tell you that elsewhere Black and other women of colour do not even hold basic rights like the ability to drive a car, or vote, or make choices about their sexual health.

Just as discourse on racism is framed to cater for White people’s feelings, discussions on women’s rights protect men’s egos.  We focus on what women can do to avoid rape (don’t go out at night, don’t wear tight clothes, don’t drink too much) rather than saying the truth, the simple truth, that rape would not happen if men did not commit it.  We as women are also to blame for the continuing existence of sexism in our countries, for our fears of speaking to men about our experiences.  We have been raised to please men, and this hinders our ability to speak out against sexism.  We buy into ideals of what women should be; should wear; should say; how many calories we must eat, how – despite everything else we may do – we are still a failure if we cannot get a man.  Sexism exists because of our inability to externalise our experiences to men, just as you cannot externalise yours to White people.

But, as you said to me about racism, sexism also exists because men perpetuate it just as White people perpetuate racism.  I say to you, as you said so truly to me: that men, every single one of them, are complicit in this sexism because they benefit directly from it.

I am not saying this to separate us; I am saying it to bind us. I am writing this to you because I want you to know that, as of today, I no longer feel that I am unable to speak out against racism.  In the early beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, women and Black people worked together.   We drifted apart because we were unable to see that it is the same fight that we are engaged in, although it manifests itself in different ways.  It is the fight of groups that have long been oppressed through nuanced structures in our society that deny our ability to self-realisation.  It is the fight for equality and the essential nature of what it means to be human.  Your article helped me to realise this today. You started your address by quoting the wonderful Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I would like to end by quote her talk “We Should All be Feminists”:

  “Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry.  Anger has a long history of bringing positive change.  In addition to anger, I am hopeful, because I believe in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.”

Racism is a grave injustice as well. I am not afraid of being angry any more. I am not afraid of whether it is my place to speak out for Black people.  I, racist, and you, sexist, stand at opposite ends of the world fighting separately for something that should be fought together.  Together, we have an avenue to speak to and for each other – you as Black men and women, and us as White and Black women.  Together, we have the ability to remake this world, and ourselves, for the better.

Thank you.


26 thoughts on “I, racist, sexist. A letter to a Black man in America from a White woman in Rwanda.

  1. Thank you. I wanted to add this as well to his amazing article. This was the only ‘aside’ I wanted to mention. I agree about all of the white privilege afforded to us (in the U.S.) but I also see the similarities–how women are “over-sensitive” and “hysterical” and how when a woman in power comes into view, she is often picked apart for her looks/clothes whereas that never happens with men (unless you are weirdly tanned like John Boehner or Donald Trump’s hair). And how I always walk on the other side of the street near construction sites so guys won’t cat call. How my skin crawls when creepy older guys tell my 5 yr old daughter how pretty she is. How women are supposed to be “low maintenance” and give wide berth to men’s privilege. Its all a pain. But as i’ve gotten older, I’m done with staying silent about all of it, even if I am seen as “hysterical”.

  2. Important, but typical. Are white women being shot in the streets of England? White women enjoy a disproportionate amount of power relative to black women and black men. That is beyond you in your rush to equate racism and the oppression of (white) women. You just prove the point, that when confronted with an issue, you obviously have to make it about your suffering. Inescapable, the unbearable being of whiteness. All oppression is indeed oppression, yet somehow, you always manage to reframe the conversation. If only every time someone talked about gender and female oppression, another would say, but no, what about racism? These are intertwined, always, and as a whiteness enjoys privilege both in terms of gender, and also race.

    • Thanks for your comment and I understand what you are trying to say. White women are not shot in the streets of England, and I agree that even, despite being a woman and part and parcel of the gender discrimination faced against us, the fact that I am White still protects me from a lot of this. As I said in my article, it is Black women, Asian women, Native American women and other ethnic minorities that are at even more risk. Despite being a woman, White Privilege still wins out. Which is why I think it’s even more important for White women to start speaking up against racism. Women are not shot in the streets, but we are raped in alley ways and beaten behind closed doors by the people who we are meant to trust. Same struggle, different manifestations. But I said in my article, I’m not interested in trying to make comparisons or just say “oh look we have suffered too”. Rather this is a direct response as to HOW I, as a White person, can participate in the discourse on racism – something that I’ve always been unsure of if I can. This article was a response to John Metta who asked White people to start speaking up against the privileges we are given. What I was trying to say was that White women can use our experience in sexism as a tool to help us, as John Metta asked in his article, to start speaking out against it. I’m not looking to make comparisons I am looking to try and find a way as to how I can be an effective ally. The only way that I feel I can is through looking at it through the lens of sexism, because that is the only way I can get a tiny, minuscule glimpse of what is going on and the only way that I can challenge myself to start fighting against the racial structures that I am complicit in by virtue of being White.

    • Yes, women (of all color) get shot in the street. After they are raped. You have clearly missed the point of this letter.

    • The author does an excellent job of making this about all women, not just white women. Women are more than half the world’s population. They remain sexually and violently oppressed regardless of race all over the world. Yes, in fact, they are being killed, kidnapped, abused, and tortured in their homes and on the street, which I think the author is trying to make clear as well (England happens to be a major landing pad for one of the largest human trafficking operations in the world originating in Kosovo and exploiting Eastern European and Balkan women who are of white and mixed-race origins). Ironically, one of Obama’s recent public statements on racial oppression only mentioned men of color in incarceration. It was right before the Sandra Bland arrest and murder.

    • I think the woman who wrote this was clear when she said her understanding of her role in benefitting from racism made more sense to her because as she read the initial article “I, Racist” a lot of things registered with her due to overlapping similarities with her experience with sexism and that her realization was not meant to detract or take away from the importance of any of the points made in “I, Racist.” She stated it wasn’t a competition about who was suffering more and also pointed out very importantly the obsticles black women are up against. The author of the article she referenced didn’t read it that way and neither did I. His words resonated with this woman and also with myself. Believe it or not, there are white people who are aware or are becoming more and more aware as dialogues are taking place about systematic racism and really want to be accountable and stand up and fight. Calling this a “typical response to take away from the important issue of racism” seem belittling to progress and suggests to me that maybe you didn’t read the whole letter? People understand the world and experiences of others through their own experiences. There is no other way. If a woman can see your struggle with racism theough parallels with her experiences with sexism without trivializing the significance of your experiences, then you are bound and have an ally. An. Ally.

  3. The sheer fact that White women can so easily go to Rwanda as aid workers, researchers, journalists, missionaries, managers, even as wives of Rwandan men, points to the blatant inequality that exists between White and Black women. Do you see Rwandans so easily getting visas to western countries? The disparity is huge and without question racist. White people are welcomed and treated as superior in countries like Rwanda, compare that to how an African is welcomed in a western nation, “go back to where you came from”, they are taunted in the streets. As a White woman I can never compare my suffering to that of any African woman or man. Even though I grew up in a “lower” class family, and even though I was raped by a white man I never knew, and sexually violated numerous times throughout my life I have no right to talk about my suffering being on the same scale as Africans, African Americans, or Indigenous Peoples. Even though these things have happened to me I have had opportunities, privileges, chances, people believe in me and trust me because I am White. I have earned a PhD from my work in Rwanda. This very achievement makes me complicit in the systemic racism that exists globally because I benefit directly from it. “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned… until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes…” I must always know and face up to my complicity in racism as a White woman. It would be really nice (for me) to wash away the guilt and say that I too have suffered so let me stand alongside those who are subjugated and fight their fight. So long as I can get my passport stamped at the borders of African countries without fear of being turned away and never told to go back to where I came from I must own up to the fact I belong to a so-called superior race, as much as it shames me. It is far too easy to say a White woman’s suffering earns her the right to be guilt-free of racism and the effects it has on people’s lives.

    • I’ve thought a lot about my motives for writing this article, and whether it was fair for me to link feminism and racism being as I am White and can never understand racism. I did it because I want to use feminism as a lens to working towards fighting racism. As I said in my article, the fact that I have lived in Rwanda and the experience of White people abroad only confirms White Privilege is global. I do recognise that that I am complicit (in fact probably even more than complicit as I live here in Rwanda) in the racial structures that oppress Black people. I didn’t write this article to absolve my guilt, I actually think guilt or shame is not a helpful focus in these conversations. When I shared this article with John Metta (the author of I racist) he wrote back to me and told me that he didn’t want White people to feel guilty, he wanted us to feel angry. Anger is what will create effective change, not guilt. What is helpful is harnessing a sense of anger and injustice and, personally for me, viewing it through the comparisons with feminism can help me do this.

    • Your response is spot on for me. Both articles. the original and the one form Rwanda, I believe give a lot to think about and if taken to heart could actually open thoughtful dialogue.

      I am one of those white women married to a Rwanda and living in Rwanda. We own and operate our own business here and it was pretty damn easy to do. In part the ease of it was that I can be in Rwanda easily. Not as easily today as when I arrived the first time in 2006, the Visa rules have changed. Now even US visitors need a visa at the gate. Where as my husband had a very hard time getting to the US. It is not easy for us to move as a couple. I on the other hand live with great honor to hold a US passport and can pretty much go where I want when I want.

      I on the other hand notice my whiteness and my privelege here every single day. I notice it in my home and my office with the help we pay for and recieve from Rwandan’s that don’t have what we have. At times it is comforting to have the help and at times it is incredibly uncomforatable. Would it be different if I had help like this in the US and the help was white? Maybe and maybe not. But probably.

      My husband and I have had many conversations about the safety of Rwanda compared to that of the US. He does notice the difference – he feels the difference even when jogging down the street. He is overtly aware of his blackness in the US as I am of my whiteness in Rwanda. The difference is really how safe he does and does not feel. He knows that he can be stopped for driving in the US for being black. Years ago when I lived in Rwanda with my white kids even they noticed we did not get stopped at road blocks at night. When asked why – the response was we are white- that is our privlege to not get stopped. But they were smart enough to notice.

      Yes I see the strugle as a woman. I also live with the struggle of being Jewish woman in two worlds. One world I have a community – where as in Rwanda I have none. It is hard at times to be in a place where you can have not dialogue about your community or believes. It is hard at times to be in a place where I often remove myself from social engagements to avoid the overert convesations about how to fix these people with anothers relegion. And yes at times I begruge the missions that come to fix this place. But that is another diatribe. My point is, we all have places of discomfort and of belonging. We as in the original article should own up to our own racist diagogues. We all have them and until we can have discussions that are open and honest we will not get past where we are now.

      Yes I agree with the original author – White people need to stop having their feeling hurt in the dialouge. I don’t beleive that guilt is ever going to fix the problem. Get over the guilt and face the reality that YES in American African Americans are more likely to be vicitims of racism then the white folks. It is a reality that can be changed. It is a reality that in America is scary. It is a reality that in America will not change until people are willing to recognize that we still not all free. Choice is dictated still by institutional racism.

      As for the shame of our skin color – I believe we should let go of that too. My belief system tells me that I was just lucky to be born as I am, White, female and Jewish. I had no choice in that. However what I do with it is my choice. Today I can choose to speak up for injustice and to work for a kinder less racist world. And today I do choose to use my voice and at times my privelege, my racism, my place to speak out for those that sometimes many not be able to. I choose to have the conversation about racism and welcome it. I want this world to be a better place, a kinder place a more balanced place. And yes I am a dreamer idealist. I want social change – globally. And I want my husband to feel as safe in the US as he does in Rwanda.

  4. I spend a lot of time thinking about and pondering the heaven on earth we could create if we all compassionately took care of one another, not just out of the altruistic belief in the value of love and compassion. But also out of enlightened self-interest. Physicist have been proving the value and scientific symmetry, veracity and imperative of what we used to think was just garden-variety kindness and stewardship toward one another and our planet. We are truly connected molecularly-not just to each other but our earth and to other species. If we marginalize any, we marginalize all ultimately because natural selection will be a very harsh mistress to us all if we don’t get this and get it soon!! We just plain won’t survive past a certain point of continued mistakes on this one. Women, people of color, people of different nationalities, sexual orientations, political ideologies, species, eco-systems all must be included in the winning to be done or none will win. And we will cease to be a problem with our own eradication. Love is the answer to everything…..without exception.

  5. Chamunorwa,

    I find your response confusing. Confusing in the sense that I want to know what you DO want white people to do or say… Do you feel white women should not speak about how they can begin to understand minority suffering through the lens of being a woman? There is no substitute for personal experience. If someone is white, it is very hard to really truly understand the hardship of being a minority – even if one really WANTS to. I think that comments like this have more of an effect of stifling discussion that encouraging it… I would appreciate any insight you can offer into how you believe whites should interact with this topic if you find the above engagement inappropriate.

    • Claire – Thank you, my thoughts exactly. I don’t mind shutting up and listening, I think it’s critical and necessary, but a lot of these comments make me feel like I have no place in the conversation whatsoever. I’m supposed to accept that I’m part of the problem AND that I have no place in the solution?

      In-fighting and trying to figure out who can say what and who has it worse is exactly what keeps the power structures in place. John Metta called for anger at the system of oppression, not at each other. My white throat has been silenced in fear of saying the wrong thing, no matter how carefully worded, in defense of people I care about. What good is that? Is my guilty silence worth more than my heartfelt outrage?

  6. This article is horrible. The author using the word “women” when she really means white women. Racism and sexism are not two separate things in the lives of Black women.

    • I completely agree that racism and sexism are not two separate things in the lives of Black women – this is actually what I said in my article when I speak about the experience of Black women both in America and Rwanda.

  7. Reblogged this on featherheathersays and commented:
    I appreciate this article, as I often sit wondering what part I can play in the fight against racism as a white person. I am angry at white america while I benefits from it’s systems everyday. I am a part of it. I will always be a part of it. From my own position, what actions can I choose that help to break down social nuances that perpetuate racism and sexism? Thinking. Constantly. But not doing much, and I’d like to change that.

  8. 👏👏👏👍Both articles are great.. I love to see thought provoked.. It gives me chills to see us start to discover that are sameness is the only true healing mechanism that we have. We are life manifesting as human beings.. Thank you so much for sharing

  9. This spoke to me. I think it’s interesting (and possibly a sad fact of the world) that some of the critique that we receive as people for talking about societal injustice and the ‘ism’s’ can work to silence us. One thing I am going to personally commit to, is to be gentle and supportive to anyone who is attempting to work for change in structural power. None of us can have experiences outside our sphere- and we don’t need to be ashamed of that – but we can have open ears. So thanks for writing. One idea that helps me is to think of my role in challenging racism as a “white” person, is to do some trail blazing- opening discussions where people of different backgrounds may not be invited, or may be more silenced. And then the next part of that role, is stepping back, to allow the privileging of the voices that have been silenced.

  10. As I started reading this, I began to get annoyed because it really does read (in the first few paragraphs) as though by ‘women’ you really mean ‘white women’. I was quite pleased to see that you have some grasp of how racism and sexism intersect for women who also happen to be black, because this creates a whole new set of oppressions that generally tend to be ignored. Black men want black women to focus only on race. White women want black women to focus only on gender. Meanwhile, black women continue to labour under the massive weight of these oppressions (and God help you if you’re a transwoman/genderqueer black person…)
    As a white woman who seems honestly committed to allyship, I guess I can only hope that you replicate yourself. Call out other white women (people) who perpetuate these oppressions, especially against black women, because they sure as hell don’t listen to us.
    I don’t know if you’ve heard about theories of womanism, intersectionality or anti-blackness, but gradientlair.com is as good a place to (respectfully) begin to ‘shut up and listen’ as any, if you’ve never heard of it and want rigorous black feminist thought *from* a (living) black woman.
    I wish you all the best.

    • Thank you for your comments. I realise that its always a minefield; a White woman speaking about feminism and racism, as we tend to ignore the Black and other ethnic minorities experience. I do want that to change though. I know Gradientlair and really enjoy her articles. One thing that I truly agree with is that mainstream feminism must be re-branded and become inclusive of Black women’s experiences in a way that has not been done yet. As Trudy says, me identifying myself as a Womanist is only another way that White people occupy and take over space created by Black women. What should be – and I can’t believe that it is not already – is that we as White women need to give more space to Black and ethnic female experiences within mainstream feminism. I think this can only start by White women recognising and acknowledging that White Privilege transcends even sexism. I’m not sure what the next steps are, apart from trying to challenge ourselves to being effective allies and, as you say, listening. I do think, however, that I can listen and also speak – as a supporter, not a leader – but I don’t accept that my voice can’t join others in calling out racial and sexist oppression.

      • It can, it should! We need your voice – we really don’t have enough. (Also, I must say that you seem very thoughtful and like a great ally.) The road is long, the work is great, so the more, the merrier. *hi-five*

  11. Pingback: “Feminism” is actually “Whitewomanism”: Why White Feminists do have a part to play in overcoming racism. | The Armchair Aidworker

  12. Hi Bex,
    Good response to John Metta’s article, yours. Thanks. I’ve attempted a response to him at my blog, and directly to him, getting a nice long form-letter from him about being overwhelmed. (I might even consider publishing mine at Medium — we’ll see.)

    I care deeply about addressing these problems in a wider forum than just locally (which I’ve done with regularity for 15 years, as explained in the blogpost which is featured at my .com blog named as heading this comment). Yes, my project has spoken mostly to black men in prison. But recognizing and incorporating the gender aspect of the problem is equally applicable, and overdue. Yet it is risky. Is my blogged contribution, asking Are You Racist? – up to the task? (Yeah, I know, I’m in whiteface, with a beard, but that won’t detract from the message, unless the reader is sexist/racist.)

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