The Cowardice of the White Woman

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Cultural & Political

Some questions you don’t expect to have to ask in your lifetime, let alone answer. But with the rise of Trumpian fascism, a question has consistently rattled around my white woman’s brain over the last weeks. At what point would I put my own life on the line for others? How oppressed do others have to become for me to risk my own survival?

Growing up in Britain, my notions of fighting for the resistance were informed by watching wartime parodies like Allo Allo where unwilling coward Rene Artois was roped into protecting refugees with comical accents, and recovering priceless artifacts–The Fallen Madonna (with the Big Boobies)–from the clutches of the slapstick Nazis. Some years later, I stopped laughing. Anne Frank’s diaries opened my heart as she gave voice to the persecuted, all the more poignant because I knew that she and many more like her had been killed.

Maybe it was then I first asked the question: would I risk my own life to protect the Anne Franks of this world? The answer was always yes. But hindsight is a flattering bedfellow. Even if I had understood the evil enormity of what was going on, would I have acted to save her life whilst risking my own? And will I now when push comes to shove?

We know the dark path of fascism and discrimination beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yet even with all our hard won foresight, some can scarcely believe it enough to fight against it. Many of us don’t want to believe it. Others believe that protesting peacefully is our best and only recourse. Token gestures of support, so-called allies remaining silent when confronted with hate speech, wait-and-see naysayers. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that those who have dear friends or are themselves persecuted for their race, gender, sexuality, or religion are more likely to resist or activate themselves earlier. Me? I’m a coward.

Yet despite my fear, I send money every month to my intersectional friends. I call out those who post hate and division on my twitter feed. I call in family and friends. I enter into spirited debates in forums. I force myself to read the papers. But my hands shake whilst doing all of this and my heartbeat goes into crazy overdrive. I am permanently hyperanxious. I am often emotionally beaten down simply by reading the newsfeed and whisky is my new best friend. Why?

Quite simply because fighting goes against who I am. I am a ‘fawner’. One of those whom if kidnapped would be highly susceptible to Stockholm syndrome. The good girl. The people pleaser. With powers of denial so inculcated in my upbringing, that I believe and perpetuate lies which are not of my own making. I have little access to my fight mechanism, because as a middle class white child I was brought up to kowtow to power or be outcast. Conflict or confrontation with those higher up the social scale than I risked rejection, abandonment and ignominy. My ability has afforded me enormous advantages in terms of social interaction and as a survival mechanism it has served me well in my society. But its usefulness is running out.

Yet when you have learned that the best, and almost exclusive way to survive is by diminishing yourself in order to support those in power–mainly white men–it is paralysing and seemingly impossible to enter into the fray against them. To a greater or lesser extent you have acted as an object to please them for most of your life, how now can you be expected to act? This is the inadmissable and often unconscious conundrum that many white women face deep in their core.

When looking at the four survival mechanisms–fight, freeze, flee or fawn–one of them overwhelmingly represents a net gain for a white middle class woman such as myself. Fawning, ingratiating ourselves and adapting to how society works both on a conscious and unconscious level, often affords us a better quality of life than fighting, fleeing or freezing. And we are all driven by survival. In my childhood lip service was paid to feminism, whilst we were slut shamed and taught to sacrifice ourselves for others. We were born to a society centred on training us to become the great woman behind the great man, or alternatively suppressing much of who we were and how we felt, to work harder for less money in the business world run by men. We were taught that we had a chance, you see. If we could fawn or otherwise adapt well enough, we could make it. Still we felt like frauds in the workplace, scared to claim our own abilities with anything other than self-deprecation lest we offend. We were taught to fake it, until we made it. We wore our confident masks, but we were still people pleasers, still feeling like frauds.

The rigours of our white woman role is one of Jane Austen’s universal truths. In her novels we learned the harsh lessons of the plain Charlotte Lucas who chose in the absence of any other option, to marry a despicable man and then apologized for it. Of Lydia Bennet who risked disgrace and ruin after being naively seduced by a manipuative and selfish cad. Even of Elizabeth who although spirited, was simply damn lucky. Other texts painted the same picture. Of the rather too obviously ambitious Becky Sharp who was despised, whilst her counterpart the rich Amelia Sedley was industrious and obedient, but described as a ‘tender little parasite’. We read about the abused Jane Eyre who fell in love with a verbally abusive liar, one who risked her livelihood by bigamy, and who, oh by-the-by, locked his Creole wife in the attic. We were supposed to sympathize with him because according to Bronte’s narrative Rochester was Jane’s happy ever after.

In more modern times Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In advised finding a husband who believed in equality because the most successful women have a supportive man. But murky undertones marred the superficially feminist message. Because whilst a supportive man was helpful, more helpful still was having a man at all: the most successful women in the business world, she said, are married. Western countries confer couple privilege in the form of tax breaks, social lubrication and respectability. Single women without children are stigmatized, single women with children face more stigma and an even slimmer possibility of rising in the workplace without adequate or any childcare – a truth that even Sheryl, as rich as she was, had to find out the hard way. Social stigma, guilt and shame abound but in each case the conclusion is the same. Without a man, your survival will be far more difficult. Find one, keep him or be damned.

For many pantsuited, white, middle-class women, fawning in some way to white men is learned by rote, and through example. Fighting is the realm of the less privileged and intersectional because by definition they are less able to fawn their way across race or class barriers to secure their position in a white world. Fighting is considered to be a less worthy and often lower-class response. After all, as once advocated by white male aristocrat Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the pen is mightier than the sword – but only until sanctioned by men in the form of systemic violence or war. We absorb this philosophy into our psyche, and it’s no wonder that white women have no idea how to be otherwise. Terrified to stand up and fight. Wholly unused to it and therefore ineffectual. And although cowardice implies conscious choice it is how we were built as babies, chastised as children, addled into adulthood. Some of us choose to be neutral and therefore tacitly complicit, to march peacefully – because resorting to violence would be to become no better than savage fascists, or to become feminist; disparaged, derided and attacked by many white men and women who still conform to their invisible moulds– they ‘don’t need feminism’.

Adaptation is the key to survival. But at some point, adaptation also means that you lose the ability to fight for your survival when adaptation no longer works. If that time isn’t now, it is certainly perilously close. Along with a whisky habit, I have been building my courage. It has meant years of first dismantling who I was, who I had been taught to be. The candour in my writing has risked my own sense of self, my friendships and my family’s acceptance of who I have become–a price which is increasingly heavy as I become ever more radical. That is the way of things when you critcise your kind. After years of work, I am still only able to wield the pen. But I need to be ready to act if I’m to be the person I want to be. The person who, when asked whether she would risk her own life to protect the Anne Franks of this world, would say yes and do it.