I think the first time I truly grasped the gravity of white feminism was when I was ten years old. I was in grade five, and my dad had left us for a life in another province. My mom worked evening shifts from 3pm to 11pm so, me and my sister needed adult supervision after school. My sister must’ve been three. Babysitters were usually hearty housewives in nearby neighborhoods.
They were white, bubbly, and almost caricatures of the suburbanites you’d see on vintage sitcoms. But their caretaking was more costly than communal, which meant lucrative business as I learned later that most knew each other and settled on a median price so as to ensure everyone got paid.
These women were essentially smart and intent enough to ensure each of them got a fair share, even if that meant they were to abide a price and not barter for better business. Of course, I didn’t know this right away. My mom didn’t either. We were a Black modest, but middle-class family who could afford a lunch buffet but balked at the dinnertime prices.
I was probably more critical and sensitive according to the many parent-teacher meetings which saw a number of white teachers subjecting me to armchair pseudo-psychoanalysis because I didn’t feign interests. I took things too literally and confided in my journals that I felt bored and displeased at the unchecked bullying, racial disparities, and lessons I felt wouldn’t be useful in the long run.
I was chastised from home and school for this attitude, and resolved to suppress and sublimate it to something productive (like A’s and story-writing). I’m sure there’s some unresolved issues with my dad that could’ve catalyzed my pessimism and disbelief in interpersonality that is largely institutional, but that’s a conversation I’ll hammer out elsewhere.
The point is that I was aware the inconsistencies I had to ignore weren’t just individual, but systemic. My mom was likely too overworked and old-fashioned to understand the entirety of that, but I’m pretty sure my teachers and those babysitters knew what was up. They knew the game, and they knew how to play it. Moreover, they knew how to win. They were resolved to win. Anyway, back to the babysitters: my mom had left me and my sister with one who’d already committed to watching several other children.
This woman had less of a business than a circus, and I could even see as a kid she’d been juggling a lot. I think she was overworked too which made her somewhat careless and dismissive. My mom got this impression as well, which is why she thought it’d be best to move me and my sister to another babysitter who looked after only one other child and lived on the next block.
We met this woman, this woman who was supposed to be our new babysitter, and thought everything would be fine. She was a gracious host to my mom and offered me cookies. Her daughter and my mom even shared the same name, and I was even in her class. They reminded me of Rosanne, except her daughter was less cynical and jaded than just a brat who liked to play Angel around the adults, but Mean Girls on the playground. I understood why she was like that days later, because her mom had sent her with a nearly illegible note for me to deliver to my mom.
Despite all that song and dance, all that assurance, she had said she couldn’t babysit us. She hadn’t really said why, and I couldn’t read why; but my mom must’ve been able to make out the rest of the note alluding to her knowing the other babysitter and feeling it just wasn’t right. I realized later that she’d known that other babysitter for years before we’d ever met her; she’d likely known who her clients were as well, well in advance. And as opposed to telling us upfront that she felt some kind of way for whatever reason, she opted to indulge pretenses and make promises she had no intention to keep; all the while, gossiping and cackling with that other babysitter and God knew who else.
Thankfully, my mom had been resourceful and had a backup (who happened to be a distant Black relative, albeit living farther from our home yet closer to her workplace) that could watch us. I ended up seeing more of that woman’s daughter over the years, and she never outgrew her that dour dichotomy of Angel-Mean Girls even when it came to high school. And the teachers never intervened or checked her (or her sort) whenever they audibly clucked in their cliques of like-willed, like-minded white girls; all of whom grew to identify as feminists or claimed to support/embody feminist ideology.
I don’t know if those women still live in that neighborhood, if they’re still coordinating their babysitting hustle so as to cut particular people out. What I do know is that white feminism isn’t coincidental. It’s incidental. It’s toxic and collaborates to privilege the priorities of the privileged; and it is innately disingenuous.
And, that is why it will always lose.