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'Every Woman Knows a Weinstein': Political Whiteness and White Woundedness in #MeToo and Public Feminisms Around Sexual Violence

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Abstract

This article explores how whiteness shapes public feminisms around sexual violence, using #MeToo as a case study. Building on the work of Daniel Martinez HoSang (2010), Gurminder Bhambra (2017) and others, I theorize political whiteness as an orientation to/mode of politics which employs both symbolic tropes of woundability and interpersonal performances of fragility (DiAngelo 2011), and invokes state and institutional power to redress personal injury. Furthermore, I argue that the ‘wounded attachments’ (Brown 1995) of public sexual violence feminisms are met by an equally wounded whiteness in the right-wing backlash: acknowledging the central role of race exposes continuities between both progressive and reactionary politics dominated by white people. Political whiteness stands in contrast to the alternative politics long articulated by women of color, and black women in particular. However, these alternatives may encounter different problematics, for instance intersecting with neoliberal notions of resilience which are also racialized. Challenging political whiteness is therefore not simply a case of including more diverse narratives: this must be done while examining how sexual violence is experienced and politicized in the nexus of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism, in which gender, race and class intersect with categories such as victims and survivors, woundedness and resilience.
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Cite as: Phipps, Alison. 2019. “Every Woman Knows a Weinstein’: Political Whiteness and
White Woundedness in #MeToo and Public Feminisms Around Sexual Violence. Feminist
Formations 31(2): 1-25.
Every Woman Knows a Weinstein: Political Whiteness and White
Woundedness in #MeToo and Public Feminisms Around Sexual Violence
Alison Phipps, Sussex University
Abstract
This article explores how whiteness shapes public feminisms around sexual violence, using
#MeToo as a case study. Building on the work of Daniel Martinez HoSang (2010),
Gurminder Bhambra (2017) and others, I theorize political whiteness as an orientation
to/mode of politics which employs both symbolic tropes of woundability and interpersonal
performances of fragility (DiAngelo 2011), and invokes state and institutional power to
redress personal injury. Furthermore, I argue that the ‘wounded attachments’ (Brown 1995) of
public sexual violence feminisms are met by an equally wounded whiteness in the right-wing
backlash: acknowledging the central role of race exposes continuities between both
progressive and reactionary politics dominated by white people. Political whiteness stands in
contrast to the alternative politics long articulated by women of color, and black women in
particular. However, these alternatives may encounter different problematics, for instance
intersecting with neoliberal notions of resilience which are also racialized. Challenging
political whiteness is therefore not simply a case of including more diverse narratives: this
must be done while examining how sexual violence is experienced and politicized in the
nexus of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism, in which gender, race and class intersect with
categories such as victims and survivors, woundedness and resilience.
Keywords
MeToo / sexual violence / public feminisms / race / political whiteness / intersectionality /
neoliberalism / Brown, Wendy
1. Introduction
In 2006, black feminist Tarana Burke created an organization to help victims of sexual
violence, particularly young women of color, find pathways to healing. Reflecting the key
principle of empowerment through empathy, Burke named her movement Me Too(Burke
2018). Eleven years later, this phrase went viral as a hashtag, following a tweet by white
actress Alyssa Milano and the input of other white celebrities and politicians (Mendes et al.
2018). In December 2017, Burke and Milano participated in a joint interview on the US
Today show. However, Milano was criticized for speaking over Burke, interrupting her
answers to questions and taking up most of the airtime (Chavez 2017). This interview
functions as a metaphor for the broader Western feminist movement against sexual violence.
Public feminisms in this area, as in many others, have been demographically and politically
dominated by white women, who have often ignored or co-opted the experiences and
contributions of women of color.
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The #MeToo hashtag had global reach, trending in at least 85 countries (Thorpe 2017). There
were also allied hashtags such as #YoTambien in Spain and Latin America, #BalanceTonPorc
(expose your pig) in France, and #RiceBunny in China where the original hashtag faced
censorship (Devex Editor 2018). Google’s repository #MeToo Rising contains information on
various initiatives inspired by the movement, in countries across the world: for instance, in
India it caused a resurgence of mainstream concern not seen since the gang-rape and murder
of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012 (Roy 2018). However, except for Burke, most key figures in
the movement were Western, white and privileged (Harris 2017; Tambe 2018), reflecting the
dominance of occidental feminisms that position themselves as both universal and neutral
(Thapar-Björkert and Tlostanova 2018), and the dominance of white bourgeois women within
these. This shaped the demographics of disclosure: as African-American actress and anti-
sexual violence activist Gabrielle Union said on Good Morning America, I think the
floodgates have opened for white women(in Chavez 2017).
Analysis of over 600,000 Twitter and Facebook posts tagged with #MeToo showed they
varied between sharing personal stories, re-posting articles, expressing support, discussing
offenders, and offering general commentary (Manikonda et al. 2018). However, perhaps
supported by the declarative nature of the hashtag and the testimonial media cultures in which
it was shared, #MeToo was generally viewed as a movement of mass disclosure. Such
‘speaking outis central to feminist politics, from Sojourner Truths 1851 speech to the
Akron Womens Rights Convention, to the testimonial activism of black women in the US
Civil Rights movement (McGuire 2010), to the phrase the personal is political (Hanisch
1969) which illuminated the consciousness-raising sessions of Women’s Liberation (Allen
2002, Baker 2007). The widely-held association of speech with freedom is amplified here,
due to the many ways men have silenced women (Houston and Kramarae 1991): although the
symbolic order itself has also been theorized as masculine (Hedley 1992, 40), which
generates ongoing complexity and debate.
Testimony has been particularly fundamental to public feminisms around sexual violence
(Serisier 2018), a form of information-sharing used to authorize social and legal interventions
(Heberle 1996, 63). Such speech also has a deeper function: to share and legitimize feelings
of violation (Baker 2007, 174) and avoid patriarchal oppressions solidifying into pathology.
In other words, putting our trauma out thereis a means to escape being consumed by it in
here.In her autobiographical narrative about recovery from breast cancer, Audre Lorde
famously asked,What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What
are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken
and die of them, still in silence?(in Desmoines and Nicholson 1978, 13). Lordes words,
recently republished in a collected volume of her works entitled Your Silence Will Not Protect
You, echo clinical principles situating narrative as central to recovery. Particularly in relation
to sexual violence, telling ones own story and having this validated is a way of reclaiming
subjectivity and control after it has been taken away (Kelland 2016, Serisier 2018). Sharing
personal experience, then, is both political and therapeutic. It is also, increasingly, economic:
in the testimonial cultures of neoliberalism (Ahmed and Stacey 2001), trauma narratives
function as investment capital (Phipps 2016, 304) in affective economies (Ahmed 2004),
and especially the outrage economyof the corporate media (Phipps 2018, 9).
However, there are on-going discussions within feminism around the status of experience as a
foundational category and its signification within man made (Spender 1980) and colonial
(Spivak 1988) knowledge structures, influenced by the post-structuralist crisis of
representation and ideas about the multiplicity of meaning and truth. These discussions have
often been underpinned by Foucauldian notions of discourse which suggest that intelligibility
is a result of specific social and cultural formations, and complicate the function of speech as
a route to empowerment (Foucault 1972, Serisier 2018). Joan Scotts (1991) work has also
been influential in shaping critiques of the effects of using experience as epistemology.
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Although the turn to experiencehas made a variety of stories and oppressions visible, Scott
argues that this has reified the category, de-historicizing oppressions and essentializing
identities. All this tells us that there is no authenticexperience unmarked by the political: a
key premise for the analysis in this article.
2. The Politics of the Wound
As well as the relationship between experience and its signification, the relationship between
signification and politics has prompted feminist debates about speaking outas a strategy.
There are continuing, and intense, contentions about the legitimacy of speaking for others, and
the drawbacks of speaking for oneself (see Alcoff 1991, 2018, 203-26). There are also deeper
discussions, again inspired by Michel Foucault (1978), who positions power and freedom as
two sides of the same coin. His work poses a key question: in protesting against womens
oppression, can we potentially produce the sexual difference we seek to eliminate (Scott
1996)? This is particularly important in relation to sexual violence, due to its key role in the
constitution of genders and (hetero)sexualities. There are on-going political and academic
conversations about whether public discourse around womens victimization (re)inscribes
ideas of feminine oppression and masculine domination. The central dilemma, as Renee
Heberle puts it, is whether the ever-enlarged map of sexual sufferingis in effect, the social
insignia of male power(1996, 63).
Wendy Browns States of Injury is a major text animating these discussions. Following
Foucault, a major problematic in Brown’s book is that of creating a politics of resistance
reliant on identity. What kind of political recognition can identity-based claims seek,Brown
asks, that will not resubordinate a subject itself historically subjugated through identity (1995,
55)?’ For Brown, contemporary political identities also tend to foreground the wounds of
marginalization, and she argues that claims made on this basis produce a politics of
recrimination and rancordue to the deep investments in victimization, pain and suffering they
require (55). As the state is invoked to redress injury, this also produces dependency on
institutions and masks the harms they create. For Brown, as for Foucault, speech is not
necessarily freedom due to the subjects entanglement in the web of discourse. In contrast to
the original feminist positioning of speaking outas a way to divest oneself of trauma, States
of Injury suggests it may be a way to ontologize it.
Although she did not tackle sexual violence politics directly, Brown interpreted feminist
consciousness-raising and the speak out’ as akin to Foucaults (1978) modern confessional
in the production of normalized and foundational narratives. Furthermore, she saw these
narratives as ripe for colonization by the various modes of governmentality which characterize
the punitive, and the therapeutic, state. Solidifying the truthof womens experience through
speaking outwas misunderstood as liberating, she argued, when in fact it was established as
the secret to our souls by those who would discipline us through that truth(Brown, 42). This
argument has not been without its critics: it has been contended that speaking ones own sins
differs from naming those of others (Mardorossian 2002, 763) and it is certainly arguable that
feminist speech between peers does not replicate (or even approximate) the context, process
and relations of modern confessionalssuch as the doctors surgery or psychiatrists office.
Because of this, it has been argued that Brown underestimates the creative and resignifying
possibilities of feminist political speech (Serisier 2018, 45-6). There are also strong links
between critiques of the politics of victimhood and the antivictimism’ (Rentschler 2011) of
the right-wing backlash, as well as continuities with contemporary ideological dismissals of
‘identity politics’ which characterize both right- and centre-left perspectives (see Bhambra).
Nevertheless, there is an important problematic here, highlighted by Jessie Kindig in relation
to #MeToo:writing and telling might be the opposite of trauma; it might not be(2018, 27).
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3. #MeToo as Natural Disaster
#MeToo is arguably one of the biggest media and cultural moments in recent Western history,
focused on sexual violence. An analysis carried out a year after Milano’s intervention
estimated that 19 million tweets had been posted: more than 55,000 tweets per day (Brown
2018). The movement was described as a floodof stories of sexual assault by CNN (France
2017) and CBC (Bernstien 2017), an avalanche in the Guardian (Guardian Editors, 2017)
and a tsunamion CNBC (Novak 2018) and in the US National Post (Blatchford 2018). Such
metaphors for natural disaster were deployed by supporters and critics alike, and have also
been used about other viral sexual violence feminisms such as #BeenRapedNeverReported
(see Mendes et al.).
The spread of the hashtag followed closely upon allegations of sexual harassment, assault and
rape made by more than a dozen women, including actress Ashley Judd, against film producer
Harvey Weinstein. These allegations were quickly followed by similar ones from more than
forty others, including a number of celebrities. As #MeToo progressed however, its founder
Tarana Burke expressed frustration that the conversation was dwelling too much on
individuals such as Weinstein (in Adetiba and Burke 2018). Indeed, one of the movements
most memorable media headlines was Every Woman knows a Weinstein (Vice 2017), an
assertion echoed, in a number of forms, in a variety of outlets.1 Articles written under this title
did not necessarily focus on Weinstein: most of them covered experiences of everyday
sexual harassment and boundary-crossing. However, the use of Weinstein as a cipher for a
range of sexual violence experiences is significant.
Read through the lens provided by Foucault and Brown, #MeToo could be interpreted as a
textbook spectacle of male power and female victimization. The natural disaster language
used to describe it evokes Jungian archetypes and is interesting both in terms of the scale of
trauma it insinuates, and the implicit construction of sexual violence as a force of nature,
which taps patriarchal myths about rape as the inevitable outcome of uncontrollable male
desire.2 The use of individuals such as Weinstein (and other high-profile men such as Roy
Moore and Larry Nassar) to frame discussion of a variety of behaviors is both symbolically
and affectively meaningful. In symbolic terms, this created forms of equivalence, as the
crimes of these high-profile men were evoked alongside other disclosures. This appeared to
have deep affective resonance: as Rebecca Traister (2017) wrote in The Cut:
The rage that many of us are feeling doesnt necessarily correspond with the severity of
the trespass: lots of us are on some level as incensed about the guy who looked down
our shirt at a company retreat as we are about Weinstein, even if we can acknowledge
that theres something nuts about that, a weird overreaction.
As Tanya Serisier highlights, #MeToo and other hashtags encourage such equivalence,
functioning as collective narratives which imply that the stories, whatever their
particularities, share a sameness of content and meaning (2018, 66). Indeed, in #MeToo in
particular the hashtag on its own often acted as a synecdoche for the stories people wished to
tell (Serisier, 66). At its best, Serisier argues, this creates powerful forms of solidarity: it
could also be seen as cathartic, giving permission for those with sexual violence experiences
dismissed as minorto express their anger and grief. This brings to mind Liz Kelly’s
continuum of sexual violence, which posits that all forms share similar functions and effects,
as elements of the abuse, intimidation, coercion, intrusion, threat and force men use to
control women(1988, 76). This continuum, now a staple of feminist theorizing, activism and
service provision, has usefully challenged distinctions between more seriousand less
seriousforms, and perhaps partially explains the emotional reaction Traister described.
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However, it may be a misuse of the continuum to conflate the structural with the individual
and imply that our experiences of everydaysexual harassment mean that we all, in fact,
know a violent serial rapist such as Harvey Weinstein. Indeed, speech acts such as Every
Woman Knows a Weinsteinmay inhibit discussion of how intersecting forms of power
facilitate a range of behaviors, instead creating an individual logic which highlights the
similarities between acts in order to expose a proliferation of bad men. As Burke said, no
matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege, they keep bringing it back to
individuals(Adetiba and Burke 2018, 32). The labeling of large numbers of men as
predatorsas part of the spectacle of #MeToo may, unintentionally, have worked to obscure
the structural framings of sexual violence and its everyday, normalized nature.
4. Backlash: Wounded as Wounding
If the #MeToo revolution has proved anything, wrote Barbara Kingsolver in the Guardian
(2018), its that women live under threat. Not sometimes, but all the time.Statements such
as this provided fertile ground for the backlash, which brought together conservative
commentators with libertarian feminists such as Germaine Greer (Flood 2018), many of
whom argued that #MeToo was perpetuating victim culture. This antivictimismis a key
orthodoxy on the political right (Rentschler) and often emerges in response to public
feminisms around sexual violence (Phipps 2014). It co-opts ideas about womens
empowerment and sexual freedom within neoliberal frameworks emphasizing individual
responsibility, repackages discourse as fiction and agency as ‘choice’. This turns nuanced
analyses of how sexual trauma is socially constructed into accusations that it is made up
(Phipps 2014, 38).
In these facile terms, women feel victimized because feminism has brainwashed them into
renaming their unsatisfactory sexual experiences as rape (Mardorossian 2002, 748). They
may also crave sympathy: critics of #MeToo interpreted it as an unedifying clamor to be
included in celebrity suffering (Williams 2017). The solution is easy: one can choose to be a
victim or not. As Melanie Philips wrote in the Times (2017): Female emancipation was all
about giving women control over their own destinies. Now they have that control, they are
presenting themselves once again as powerless victims of male oppression, even while
benefiting from being presented as sexual objects.
Despite its antivictimism and claims to repudiate identity politics(Bhambra 2017, S217),
the wounded attachments(see Brown) of this backlash are strong. Indeed, the wounds of
the political right, exemplified in Donald Trumps election as US President and the Brexit
referendum in the UK, as well as other issues such as the debate about the marginalization
of conservatives on college campuses (Phipps 2017b), have come to dominate Anglo-
American public discourse. In the backlash against #MeToo, there was a strong concern for
the accused, those overtaken by the #MeToo tsunami, [for whom] there [was] no recovery
(Blatchford 2018). Worries were also expressed about critics of the movement, seen as
subject to its vengeful currents.
Katie Roiphe, whose book The Morning After was a key text in the backlash against activism
around campus rape in the 1990s (see Phipps 2014, 37), penned an article in Harpers
Magazine entitled The Other Whisper Network (Roiphe 2018). While objecting to
#MeToos discourse of overwhelming fearRoiphe simultaneously echoed it, claiming that
the movement’s detractors were so afraid of recriminations they could not speak openly. This
assertion is easily challenged by the variety of nuanced perspectives on #MeToo, some of
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which are cited in this article, and by the high-profile platform she was afforded to write
about being silenced. However, her ability to claim silencing from this platform speaks to the
influence of declarations of woundedness across the contemporary political spectrum, such
that they can operate alongside evidence of significant political and cultural power and
privilege.3
Critiques of victim feminism share themes with, but vastly simplify, Brown’s work and
similar work by others. The connections may expose what Alcoff calls the ‘Pandora’s Box of
potential relativism that Foucault presents feminism with (2018, 16), and also reveal the
slippage between attempts to appreciate the nuances of an issue and a denial of its existence,
in a polarized political context. There may also be a shared conflation of victims and their
representation: for Rentschler, Browns work comes perilously close to the backlash because
her critique of victim discourse, which reflects what is sayable in the current political
moment, can slip into a critique of victims themselves as stuck in bad consciousness(216-
17). In contrast, Rentschler argues that victims cannot be reduced to the discourses that
concern them and through which they speak. This is an important point, though complexities
arise because subjectivities, experience and discourse are not separate but intimately
intertwined. In other words, what is sayable in the current political moment (which includes a
rejection of victimhood as well as its appropriation by various modes of governmentality)
constructs the experience as well as the politics of victimization. While acknowledging the
space for resignification, it seems important to avoid reinstating experience as foundational
and separatingvictim discoursefrom victims themselves.
There is a difference between a general antipathy to victimsand a specific analysis of how
the category of victimis constructed and what it does. However, it is possible that the
connections between attempts to appreciate the discursive framings of victimhood and the
antivictimism of the backlash have been both politically and existentially limiting. When we
can only attack victims or defend them, repudiate the wound or embrace it, to be successful in
our politics and validated in our trauma we cannot allow uncertainty. This may frame
contemporary defenses of victims, which are often politico-affective ones: for instance, victim
identities can be emancipatory (Rentschler), victims have a right to be angry, and emotions
(and especially anger) are politically useful and constructive (Ahmed 2015). I would not want
to contest these points. However, there is a risk of situating emotion as the purecounterpart
of politics, when our emotional repertoires are also discursively and structurally shaped and
interpreted (Ahmed 2004). There is also a risk of conflating politics and emotional needs,
reducing the former to the latter. Most importantly for this article, both the critique and the
defense of victims can be homogenizing, of victims as a group and victim politicsas a
movement and a position. In any analysis of public feminisms around sexual violence, we
must ask: whose wounds constitute politics, and what are the implications?
5. Me, Not You
This question is not easy to answer without making moves towards homogenization myself. I
have already argued that the Western feminist movement around sexual violence is dominated
by bourgeois white women: however, I am aware that defining ‘the movement’ as largely
white and privileged risks (re)constituting it as such. In arguing that the wounds of particular
women tend to constitute politics, my intention is not to (re)universalize those wounds, but to
signal the much greater diversity of survivorship, scholarship and political action which tends
to be erased. The fact of this diversity, as well as many of the insights contributed by
feminists of color, sits at the root of my critique of Western public feminisms around sexual
violence.
For instance, Ida B. Wells’ political work on the lynching of African-American men is
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foundational to black feminist understandings of rape, and anti-rape activism, as inherently
racialized. Postcolonial feminists have similarly exposed the central role of acts and
allegations of sexual violence in terrorizing colonized populations, a theme also pertinent to
sexual violence in contemporary conflict (see e.g. McClintock 1995, Lugones 2008). The
scholarship and activism of prison abolitionists such as Angela Davis highlights how the
carceral systems favoured by white feminists are grounded in, and perpetuate, racist and
classist violence (see e.g. 1983). The principle of intersectionality, defined by Kimberlé
Crenshaw (1991), provides an overarching framework for understanding how all these
oppressions are co-constituted. My article is situated in two central insights of feminism(s) of
color: that while white women may be positioned as victims of violence, we are also
positioned as its perpetrators in relation to people of color; and that both acts and allegations
of sexual violence can be used to uphold the intersecting systems of racial capitalism,
colonialism and patriarchy.
Like Tarana Burke, black women and other women of color have also often been the first to
put issues on the agenda, and #MeToo is the most recent in a long list of high-profile
movements in which white bourgeois women have co-opted this work. The activism of black
women against rape in the US Civil Rights movement (McGuire 2010) was built upon,
usually without acknowledgement, by second-wave white feminists (Phipps 2016). Activism
by women of color (and Professor Anita Hill in the US in particular) has been crucial in
naming and fighting sexual harassment, but white academics and lawyers have tended to get
the credit (Baker 2007). While the work of women of color is co-opted, white feminist
outrage has tended to overlook them (Rentschler, 7). #MeToo was no different in this regard,
with Anglo-American commentators noting a focus on the victimization of privileged white
women in domestic contexts (Harris 2017) and an inattention to others such as the black girls
and women abused by R Kelly (Tillet & Tillet 2019), or the Rohingya women raped in
Myanmar (Ahmed 2017).
Indeed, #MeToo could largely be interpreted as a conversation between white people: the
privileged white women ‘speaking out’ and the privileged white men with platforms to
defend themselves, or those (white men and women) who led the backlash. Furthermore,
while there are distinctions between the social media publics in which hashtags such as
#MeToo circulate and the mainstream media in which they are reported, there is a tension
between views of social media as a more democratic and diverse space and the
acknowledgement that it continues to be structured by access to time and resources
(especially for those in lower-income countries), as well as deeper ideas about whose voices
count (Cottom 2016, Daniels 2016). These structural conditions mean that speaking outcan
easily become speaking over in mainstream and social media publics. The tendency to speak
over may even be magnified in public feminisms which coalesce around emotive issues such
as sexual violence. While it is now acknowledged that womens experienceis not universal
(Crenshaw, Mohanty 1984), this is likely to be forgotten when politics bears the affective
intensities of trauma.
6. Political Whiteness
The demographic whiteness of public feminisms around sexual violence shapes their political
grammar (Hemmings 2011) in fundamental ways. Building on the work of Daniel Martinez
HoSang (2010) and others, I propose the concept of political whiteness as a tool with which
to better understand the wounded attachments (see Brown) of sexual violence feminisms,
and which can also be applied to the backlashes against them. My analysis begins from the
premise that subjectivity is not foundational but discursive, and that white subjectivities
(including my own) are shaped by our structural positions.4 I also take the position that
whiteness is fractured, but not erased, by gender and other social relations. Therefore, I refuse
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to see supremacy and victimhood as opposed, but explore instead how they are related. I
argue that the relation between the two produces a number of characteristics of political
whiteness: narcissism; a will to power; and alertness to threat. All of these frame a symbolic
positionality of woundedness and interpersonal performances of fragility.
Political whiteness has previously been used to denote a ‘color-blind’ but implicitly ethno-
nationalist politics focused on ‘our’ rights, ‘our’ jobs, ‘our homes, ‘our’ kids and ‘our’ streets
(HoSang).5 Such dynamics are also present in Western public feminisms against sexual
violence, to the extent that their universalizing claims about gendered victimhood are based
on the experiences of white women. Critical theorists of whiteness have long highlighted the
role of narcissism in white identity, which is evident politically in the belief that white
experience can stand for that of all others (DiAngelo 2011), and the desire to center ourselves,
even in anti-racist politics (Hook 2011, 25).6 This is also key to Gurminder Bhambra’s
concept of methodological whiteness’, developed in response to academic analysis of and
commentary on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Bhambra highlights how even in
progressive scholarship, there is a persistent focus on (and universalization of) the
experiences and concerns of white people and a lack of acknowledgement of structures and
histories of race and racism in shaping the world.
Taking these insights further, I argue that the centering of the self in whiteness also produces
a focus on individual injuries rather than structural power, which is compatible with
neoliberal values. In different ways, we can observe this in public feminisms around sexual
violence and the backlashes against them, both of which are primarily framed around the
experiences and injuries (or perceived injuries, in the case of backlash politics) of white
individuals. In other words, the woundedness attached to whiteness can cross boundaries
between more progressive and reactionary politics: it encompasses both the lost entitlements
which drive the backlash and the deeply felt trauma of sexual violence. I am not suggesting
for a moment that these wounds are equivalent. However, acknowledging the centrality of
race can put us in the painful position of observing continuities between politics which may
otherwise be diametrically opposed.
Whiteness is a position of structural power which is concerned with maintaining that power
(Eddo Lodge 2017, 88): the figures of the settler and the master are emblems of conquest and
subjugation (Ware 2013). This position creates a sense of victimhood when entitlements and
powers are threatened, as articulated in backlash and ethno-nationalist forms of white politics.
However, the will to power can also persist as whiteness intersects with gender inequalities
and with individual experiences of victimization. Indeed, such experiences may intensify it.
Rape represents a traumatic loss of power and control which is at least partly (re)constitutive
of survivor subjectivity (Kelland 2016, Alcoff 2018, 12), so regaining this power and control
is often crucial to recovery (Harrington 2018). In relation to #MeToo and other public
feminisms around sexual violence, a focus on power and control is apparent in the emphasis
on taking down powerful men. Men such as Weinstein, or Larry Nassar, who was told by
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at sentencing that, if authorized, she would have ‘allow[ed] some
or many people to do to him what he did to others’. Aquilina was celebrated as a feminist
hero and icon of #MeToo (Phipps 2019).
The practice of ‘taking back’ subjectivity and control through ‘taking down’ powerful
perpetrators (ironically) shapes a position of dependence on the state and its institutions, as
they are summoned to redress injuries through criminalization and discipline. This point is
not, of course, original: Brown and others have made it, although the intersections of gender
and race have been less well explored. In #MeToo, as in similar movements, the role of the
state both reflected and potentially exacerbated the whiteness of the movement, since to
understand the state as protective, rather than oppressive, is a function of privilege (see
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Davis). As Ashwini Tambe pointed out:
We know the history of how black men have been lynched based on unfounded
allegations that they sexually violated white women. We know how many black men
are unjustly incarcerated. The dynamics of #MeToo, in which due process has been
reversedwith accusers words taken more seriously than those of the accusedis a
familiar problem in black communities. Maybe some black women want no part of this
dynamic (2018, 200).
This understanding of the state also framed the movements failure to focus on issues of
police brutality and violence against criminalized groups such as sex workers, highlighted by
a number of commentators (see e.g. Butler 2018, Gray 2018), which is characteristic of other
sexual violence feminisms as well (Phipps 2017a). Indeed, calls for state protection by anti-
sexual violence feminists have largely been focused on eradicating the sex industry (and
thereby, sex workers’ means of survival) in order to challenge male sexual entitlement and
keep non-sex-working women safe. This has usually involved supporting policies which
criminalize sex workers (or indirectly criminalize them, for instance via the Nordic Model of
“ending demand”).
Due to its investments in power, whiteness is highly alert to threat (Riggs and Augostinos
2004). Whether from indigenous populations, immigrants, political correctnessor social
justice warriors, the idea of whiteness under threat has significant contemporary cultural
influence, exemplified in Brexit and the election of President Trump (Phipps 2019). This also
underpinned the backlash against #MeToo, which used the figure of the threatenedand
reviled white man to great effect (see e.g. Ferguson 2018). However, the #MeToo
movement itself, like other white feminist activism and theory focused on sexual violence,
can be read as shaped by an at-risk white femininity deeply embedded in colonial projects.
The oppression of colonized populations has often involved attributing them with
uncontrolledsexuality, set against the privileged white woman who is depicted as fragile,
weak and sexually vulnerable (Lugones, 12-14, see also McClintock). Imaginings of colonial
uprising are inherently sexualized, and rape consciousness amongst colonizers is rooted in
fear of the colonized’s revenge (see e.g. Bumiller 2008, 21). The riskposed to white women
from the oversexualized Other has been the justification for racist community and state
violence, both historically and now (Davis, McGuire 2018, Tambe).
This imperiled white woman, the embodiment of respectablenorms of white bourgeois
gender, is constructed in opposition to the woman of color. The virgin/whore dichotomy was
(and is) racialized: while white women are innocent victims of sexual violence, black women
are blamed for causing such violence (McGuire 2018). This construction is also shaped by the
always-willingness attributed to Black women through the rupture between blackness and
consent in the context of slavery (Hartman 1997). These historical dynamics prevail in
#MeToo and other public feminisms around sexual violence, which foreground a
woundedness that is partially dependent on tropes of racist domination, even while
articulating the gendered harm of sexual violence. Such dynamics both reflect and perpetuate
the focus on white victims and erasure of black ones (Harris 2017): symbolically and
materially, the spectacle of threat created by #MeToo should be seen as racialized. Indeed, the
sense of ever-present threat which characterizes public feminisms around sexual violence
may only be fully intelligible when articulated by and through bourgeois whiteness.
7. Whiteness, Woundedness and Fragility
The co-constitution of supremacy and victimhood in political whiteness produces the
symbolic positionality of woundedness, as well as interpersonal performances of fragility,
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10
which underpin both public feminisms around sexual violence and the backlashes against
them. These feminisms involve speaking out about deeply traumatic experiences, which can
nevertheless be lived and politicized in ways marked by privilege. This is a difficult argument
to make without undermining the validity and importance of experiences of victimization. But
it is arguable that a sexual violence politics inflected by whiteness will emphasize personal
pain rather than structural power.
Furthermore, the personal pain of white women is culturally intelligible in a way that black
womens is not: in an article on #MeToo, Jamilah Lemieux (2017) commented, white
women know how to be victims. They know just how to bleed and weep in the public square,
they fundamentally understand that they are entitled to sympathy. In contrast, Lemieux
argued, black women know that [they] need to tuck that shit in and keep moving.This
robustness expected of black women reflects raced and classed histories: less privileged
women have headed households, performed manual and agricultural labor and endured much
harsher living conditions, including, of course, being enslaved (Lugones, 13, see also
Hartman).
Black womens assumed ability to bear the lash(to quote Sojourner Truth) contrasts with
the symbolic woundability of white femininity. This woundability is inherently sexual, rooted
in the sexualization of anti-colonial resistance, and ideas of purityconstructed and cherished
in bourgeois white supremacist culture. The sexual woundability of white women is the foil to
the black womans status as unrapeable (Hartman), and can also be set against constructions
of other women of color: for instance, that of the brown (and usually Muslim) woman as
eternal victim, often desexualized (Lugones, 13) or seen as sexually oppressed (Mohanty),
which has been used to fortify the white saviorism of colonial and neo-colonial projects.
These always-already wounded counterparts are spoken for by white women, while black
women are expected totuck that shit in and keep moving.
The sexualized woundability of white women may shape an emphasis on sex rather than
violence in public feminisms around sexual violence, which have been termed prudish and
anti-sex by detractors both within and outside the feminist movement (Phipps 2014, 136,
Alcoff 2018, 10).7 Although this critique can be interpreted as a strategy of dismissal when
deployed by political reactionaries, the existence and persistence (since the sex wars of the
late 1970s) of lively debates between feminists about the status of sex in analyses of womens
oppression, and especially as they position more marginalized groups such as LGBT+ people
and sex workers,8 suggests that there are important ongoing issues at stake. Some feminist
commentators on #MeToo remarked that sex appeared to have overshadowed harassment. As
Melissa Gira Grant (2018, 321-2) argued, the increasingly popular term sexual misconduct
tended to evoke the interpersonal rather than the systemic and give the impression that
women were asking to be insulated from sex rather than objecting to abuses of power. Others
were concerned about the possibility of a moral panicaround sexual behavior which could
disproportionately impact queer communities and/or sex workers, as had happened in the past
(Berlant 2018, Cooney 2018).
On interpersonal levels, whiteness has been theorized as a performative enactment of power
(Applebaum 2017). The tendency of this to produce wounds is evident in discussions of
white fragility, which reflects the positionality of privilege (DiAngelo). Whiteness is a mode
of being at homein the world (Ahmed 2007, 158, 163) which raises our expectations for
comfort and lowers our capacities to tolerate its opposite (DiAngelo). This has obvious
connections with the backlash against #MeToo and other movements, driven by the
discomfort of white bourgeois men with being held accountable. However, white fragility has
also been noted within feminist politics, often becoming obvious in conversations about race.
Lorde (1984) highlights how black women are often asked not to be too harshin these
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11
conversations, to avoid upsetting their white peers (see also Applebaum). Feminists of color
have also argued that white feminists use tears to deflect accountability in such conversations
(see for example Accapadi 2007, Srivastava 2006). In these examples, white womens
woundability is deployed to hide the harms we perpetrate through our involvement in white
supremacy. We should also acknowledge that the racialized power of white tears is still
extant when those tears are shed over genuine experiences of victimization.
The notion of white fragility can also be used as a lens on the theme of discomfort
conspicuous in the backlash against #MeToo. A significant amount of Western media
coverage was devoted to the hand-on-knee trope: this has also characterized previous media
moments, for instance the response to Naomi Wolf’s sexual assault complaint against Yale
University and Harold Bloom (Kipnis 2018). #MeToo prompted various interrogations of
whether uninvited knee-touching was acceptable, provoked by the behaviors of public figures
including Michael Fallon, Adam Sandler and Damian Green, but largely engaged in by critics
such as Catherine Deneuve, Liam Neeson and Lionel Shriver who argued that a sense of
proportion had been lost. Tropes such as knee-touchingand ‘wolf-whistling’ are often
deployed to dismiss discussion of sexual violence, positioning women as ‘over-sensitive’ and
unable to distinguish between the two. The prominence of the hand-on-kneetrope in
#MeToo can also be juxtaposed with the marginality of issues such as the rape of Rohingya
women or the sexualization and rape of black girls. Through this trope, the backlash
especially foregrounded ideas about white womens discomfort, and more importantly, the
discomfort of white men (and some white women) with the idea that ‘everyday’ entitlements
to touch might be threatened.
8. Between Woundedness and Resilience
In some ways, my argument mirrors Brown’s: she similarly argues that injury can be
politicized by marginalized groups, or by the privileged as charges of victimizationsuch as
reverse racism (66-7). However, her framework is not intersectional: there is little space
within it for the co-existence of marginality and privilege. Indeed, Brown herself could be
charged with methodological whiteness(see Bhambra) in her critique of identity politics
which fails to acknowledge the central role of race and elides all marginalized political
discourse under what may mainly be a white grammar.9 In contrast, my analysis of #MeToo
suggests that in public feminisms around sexual violence, gendered oppression is articulated
through a position of racialized and classed social and structural power. Furthermore, I argue
that the emphasis on redress of individual injury by punitive state or institutional apparatuses,
which is also highlighted by Brown, may only be fully intelligible in the context of this
bourgeois whiteness. It is possible, then, that the wounded attachmentsBrown exposes may
in fact consist mainly of the attachments of whiteness, produced by the relationship between
supremacy and victimhood.
But what of Tarana Burke? As suggested in this article, her position in #MeToo has been
complex: she has been credited as the movement’s founder but at times tokenized and spoken
over, and has consistently acted as its conscience and critic (Rodino-Colocino 2018, 98).
Other feminists of color, and black feminists especially, have also performed this function:
for instance, using alternative hashtags such as #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and calling for
greater attention to the victimization of girls and women of color. In the US, important
questions were raised about why the black girls abused by R Kelly, recently featured in the
documentary Surviving R Kelly, were so long ignored (Tillet and Tillet). The Alianza
Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance) wrote a letter of
solidarity to the Hollywood actresses at the forefront of #MeToo, which sparked important
discussions about power and privilege. These interventions, and others, were grounded in the
long history of theory, activism and organization by feminists of color, which is situated at
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12
the intersections of gender, class and race, interpersonal and state violence, and patriarchy,
colonialism and racial capitalism.10 These interventions should also be seen as part of
#MeToo: in critiquing its political whiteness I do not intend to erase them, but to echo and
support their calls for diversity at the center of the movement.
Some black feminists also countered #MeToo’s emphasis on personal pain with narratives of
resilience. In a speech at the Black Girls Rock awards in 2018, which urged black women not
to ‘opt out’ of #MeToo because the media was not acknowledging their pain, Burke said:
Black women are magic and we rock, mostly because we are resilient. We have a long
history of taking what we have to make what we need. That’s how this movement was born
(in Vagianos 2018). In various media interviews, she also characterized herself as grounded
in joy rather than trauma (e.g. Vinopal 2018, Fessler 2018). Interviewed alongside Burke on
Democracy Now! (2017), Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza similarly described
#MeToo as being about empowering people to be survivors, to be resilient.’ Statements such
as this can be seen as an important antidote to the wounded whiteness of ‘every woman
knows a Weinstein.’
However, there is perhaps a distinction to be made between resilience and the resistance
which has been central to black activism (Anderson and Samudzi 2018). Resistance is
oppositional, while resilience tends to mean survival within the status quo (Sparke 2008).
Resilience can also tap into neoliberal notions of personal responsibility, which demand that
we rise abovetrauma (Phipps 2014, 35) in the context of testimonial cultures, post-
interventionist political debates (Schott 2013) and efforts to engage women with income
generation in precarious global economic contexts (Harrington 2018, Gill and Orgad 2018).
These notions have been particularly resonant in narratives of sexual violence, structuring the
central victim/survivor opposition (Phipps 2014). They are also ripe for commodification. For
instance, Carol Harrington highlights how on social media, the rape story has become part of
personal branding projects in which survivors take back controlof their lives, often through
neoliberal technologies or state-endorsed interventions (2018, 4).
In what Bay-Cheng calls the hegemonic institution of agency which is part and parcel of
neoliberalism (2015, 283), victimhood is rewritten as a result of personal shortcomings rather
than structural oppressions, and overcoming trauma becomes the problem rather than the
structures and cultures that produce it. Such resilience projects intersect with ideas of the
strong black womanwho is able to tuck that shit in and keep moving. However, they are
also deeply inflected by whiteness. As Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad argue, marginalized
groups can be positioned both as inherently resilient, and thus able to cope with the shrinkage
of Western welfare states, and not resilient enough as they lack the capacityfor self-
reinvention (2018, 4). In contrast, resilience is a key quality of the future girl, can-do girl,
alpha girl, together womanor amazing bounce-backable woman, which is a new norm in
neoliberal patriarchy and which is coded as white and middle class.11 This figure is also
associated with a sexual agency infused with ideas of the controlled (white) self, while
black women are positioned as over-sexualized and under-disciplined (Bay-Cheng, 287). This
dynamic highlights a double bind for women of color within contemporary oppositions
between survivorship and victimhood, woundedness and resilience. While white women are
more able to successfully curate a politics based on our wounds, we can also claim ownership
of ‘overcoming’ the wound through formulations of resilience as personal success.
9. Conclusion
This article has explored how political whiteness shapes public feminisms around sexual
violence and the backlashes against them, circulating through narratives of personal pain
which do not recognize intersecting structures, and foregrounding a concern with power and
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13
control which is a continuation of colonial values. The fragility and woundability involved in
political whiteness are similar but distinct: the former referring to an ontological state and
mode of interpersonal behavior, and the latter to a symbolic position rooted in historical
structures and dynamics. White woundability is also gendered, describing the threat of lost
white male entitlement and the assumed purity and vulnerability of white women, both of
which reflect and perpetuate white supremacy. Political whiteness is similar to the colloquial
term white feminism,used to denote feminism ignorant of the struggles, cultural output and
politics of women of color (Ortega 2006, Ferreday 2017). However, political whiteness has a
broader and deeper meaning, encompassing both progressive and reactionary politics and
denoting specific politico-affective dynamics. Acknowledging the central role of race
demands that we identify continuities between different forms of politics dominated by white
people: it also demands that we understand racism as foundational to Western public
feminisms around sexual violence, rather than as one of their unwanted effects.
Like other public feminisms before it, #MeToo authorizes the patriarchal, racist state through
its claims to its protection and insistence that one can be a victim or a perpetrator, but not
both (see e.g. Richie 2000, Duff 2018). Public feminisms around sexual violence (and the
backlashes against them) also legitimate the individualizing imperatives of neoliberalism, as
personal pain is commodified in testimonial cultures and the outrage economy of the media.
However, both neoliberalism and political whiteness embrace and repudiate the wound
simultaneously, constructing an opposition between woundedness and resilience which is
seen in both neoliberal survivor culture and the anti-victimism of the backlash. The shaping
of our political (and arguably, emotional and experiential) repertoires by this opposition can
potentially produce a shuttling between positions rather than the formulation of more nuanced
perspectives. This analysis also suggests that the conundrum presented to contemporary
feminism more broadly, between victimhood that can be appropriated by neoconservative
projects and agency which reflects neoliberal ones (Phipps 2014), is race- and class-specific.
Bourgeois white women may have freedom of movement between these positions, while
others may be fixed in place or excluded altogether.
In the contemporary Anglo-American political context, in which increased awareness of
sexual violence sits alongside a rise in sanctioned racism perpetrated by both states and
individuals, it is imperative to understand how race shapes the politics of sexual violence. If
we do not, powerful feminist moments and movements such as #MeToo will continue to
constitute conversations between white people about our wounds, which legitimize state and
institutional governmentalities and impede an understanding of sexual violence as produced
by the intersection of patriarchal, capitalist and colonial systems. Political whiteness is
characterized by both the exclusion of women of color from Western public feminisms, and
the erasure of violence against women in other parts of the world. The rape rampant in Export
Processing Zones, conflict zones and peacekeeping operations, femicide in Central and South
America, the ‘witch-hunts’ of elderly women dispossessed of land in Sub-Saharan Africa (see
Federici 2018), and the abuse at the end of global care chains, have no place here except
when commodified by the white savior narrative.
Tackling the political whiteness of public feminisms against sexual violence will not simply
involve including more diverse narratives (although this would be a start). There is also a
need to ask how sexual violence is lived and politicized in a nexus between intersecting
systems, in which gender, race, class and other positionalities interact with opposing
categories such as victims and survivors, victims and perpetrators, woundedness and
resilience. This is not to deny the validity or gravity of individual experiences of sexual
violence. However, it is to express doubts about the emancipatory potential of public
feminisms which do not ask these critical questions. Neither is it to deny the power or
necessity of #MeToo. However, as Tarana Burke has consistently said, we need a #MeToo in
which the experiences and politics of more marginalized women are centered.
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14
Notes
1. See for example Hicks and Dixon 2017; Phinney and Ross 2017; Ryan 2017; Yates 2017.
2. What Adrienne Rich (1980, 646) famously called the ‘penis with a life of its own’ argument.
3. Roiphe’s rhetoric here echoes that of other privileged feminists, for instance those with trans-
exclusionary politics who have claimed to be silenced, from powerful media platforms (Phipps 2019).
4. In naming political whiteness I am not suggesting that I am able to step outside my own whiteness in
order to fully critique it; nor do I intend to center myself by constructing an argument about ‘white
identity.’ However, while critiquing whiteness does not absolve us from our complicity with white
supremacy, the labor of deconstructing whiteness should not be left to people of color. Within the
framework of what Marilyn Frye (1983) calls ‘disloyalty to whiteness’, I have attempted to make a
contribution.
5. Political whiteness has also been used as a term to describe the politicization of white people in
general, specifically in Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (see Fox 2012; Ware 2013).
6. This latter is intensified by the fact that whiteness is a ‘disappearing’ category, designed to go
unnoticed (Ahmed 2007): it is possible for me to be politically aware yet continue to reproduce my
own whiteness in my politics (and I am sure I do).
7. Of course, there has been an important and influential strand of feminist theorizing and activism,
inspired by Susan Brownmiller, which has instead emphasized the violence in sexual violence in order
to argue for legal interventions (Cahill 2001). However, this can also be read as underpinned by
political whiteness in its emphasis on sexual violence as a violent crime. Indeed, Serisier (2007) shows
that Brownmiller’s understanding of rape was shaped by an explicit and deliberate turning away from
her previous understandings of its role in the constitution of race and legitimation of racism.
8. See for example Ferguson 1984; Chancer 2000; Phipps 2017a.
9. For Brown, identity politics is liberal in orientation: even though it understands liberalism’s
universal ‘I’ as constructed by power, it reiterates a sovereign and unified ‘I’ which is disenfranchised
from the universal. I do not have space for a full exploration of this position. However, it does not seem
to do justice to the spectrum of politics articulated by marginalized groups, especially those rooted in
more collectivist frameworks (for a contemporary example, see Emejulu and Bassel 2018).
10. Organizations such as INCITE! and Survived and Punished in the US are excellent examples of this
work in practice. Both organizations center the experiences and analysis of women and gender
nonconforming people of color, focusing simultaneously on interpersonal, community and state
violence. Both call for an end to both sexual and domestic violence and the criminal punishment
system.
11. See Bay-Cheng 2015; Gilson 2016; Gill and Orgad 2018.
Acknowledgements
Grateful thanks are due to my colleagues Bal Sokhi-Bulley and Tanya Serisier, for their
comments on early drafts of this manuscript. I would also like to thank the two anonymous
reviewers at Feminist Formations for their helpful and supportive comments.
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