C’mon, White Women: You Don’t Get To Be Rhetorical Slaves
I already curbed my excitement for the movie “Suffragette.” I’d made the mistake of gushing about the delicious woman-powered trailer to a friend who immediately schooled me on the fact that (surprise-surprise) brown people were once again being erased from a poignant part of history. Take the time to learn about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and the huge South Asian presence during this movement. I know that after my crash education on that, there was really no turning back to the level of enthusiasm I’d once shown for “Suffragette.”
Yet in the ever gluttonous fashion of white supremacy, why stop at taunting one oppressed culture when you can certainly go for two or five or ten or however many you can get away with today.
So, here we go with this shit—Time Out London releases its promo shots of the cast from “Suffragette.” Meryl Streep and her co-stars, one by one, haughtily donning T-shirts with boldfaced print: I’D RATHER BE A REBEL THAN A SLAVE.
Now come on, now! It’s Halloween season! I need to devote all my energy to living in a land of peace and happy-place while avoiding as much blackface as possible. I absolutely do not want to see one of my favorite actresses in a t-shirt talking about some hyperbolic slave condition bullshit.
Yes, defenders. You have made it clear that this is okay with you because the saying is actually an abridged quote from Emmeline Pankhurst (who Streep plays in the film), who cried at a rally in 1913, “I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”
And let me cut you off, defenders, before you follow up with some version of “But she’s British! She can’t be racist” or “They don’t understand slavery in Britain.” Yes, Pankhurst can be racist and yes Britain, a country that grossed a ghastly profit from chattel slavery before saying ‘oh what the hell, let’s close the trade and go colonize some more!’, most definitely does understand slavery.
Pankhurst was a leader, revolutionary, and yes–even admirable–but she knew exactly what she was doing when she made the comparison of her condition to slavery. She knew it would press buttons, light fires under asses, and get women moving because who in God’s name wants to be a Negro slave in the USA? I know I don’t, and yet I am literally the product of chattel slavery.
In the interview accompanied by the T-Shirt, Streep called herself a humanist and that I found almost comical, since I’ve watched women wear this title for a myriad of reasons, but one of the more poignant ones being that feminism has failed and continues to fail so many women of color– and make note that this is a cis-straight-woman’s perspective, so don’t forget how much feminism has failed the LGBT community.
Look, I really don’t want to bag on the shortcomings of white feminism today. I just want to fix it. I want to acknowledge the oppression white women have dealt with. I want to speak on how their rights at best were severely limited, their intelligence and importance belittled, erased, and in many ways punished by men for in essence “bringing sin into the world” because thanks Eve. But I refuse to do this at my people’s expense.
Frederick Douglass was a huge supporter of women’s suffrage, and yet he understood intersectionalism. Harriet Tubman didn’t say “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”. She literally lived it. Sojouner Truth became a mouthpiece for women’s suffrage in America with one simple question that shut down an entire male audience that argued women were too fragile to have manly responsibilities by merely pointing out that the mere existence of Black women’s role in America so greatly conflicts with White women’s role that Black women have been perpetually denied their right to define their womanhood let alone their humanity.
Feminism will not succeed as long as it continues to define womanhood by white supremacist standards because to do so is to ebb out countless cultures and leave their black and brown bodies strewn about like carnage, and my body is not your carnage. So history or not, Pankhurst or not, it is your responsibility to at all times consider the context and meaning of the words you put out into the universe.
All that to say, I’m sorry-not-sorry, dear white women of women’s suffrage, you don’t get to be rhetorical slaves.
Maybe if there hadn’t been chattel slavery, where empires like Britain hadn’t made fortunes off African backs or if the USA hadn’t continued its love affair with the rape, abuse, dominance, and strange co-dependency of those enslaved to such a degree that their children’s-children’s-children still suffer from it in new and evolved ways.
Maybe if all that hadn’t happened, you could revel in your rhetorical slave condition.
But when there were actual slaves running around whose existence you not only helped oppress, but continue to benefit from– while I can still recall my grandparents, born in the late 1890s, and my parents can recall their grandparents, describe them as quiet, perpetually in awe, and smelling of blood and earth, you are hereby dismissed from our backs and stripped of all your rhetorical slave comparisons.
Thank you for your services and goodnight.
Carol H. Hood is a writer and professor who lives in about 3 different states while working on her novel, The Misadventures of Tip and JB Turner and her graphic novel,American Witch. Follow her snark shark ways at @carolhenny.