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COMMENTARy | Jeneé Osterheldt

White feminism isn’t feminism. And it’s not forgivable

Mary Bono. Cliff Owen/AP/file 2011

Five words: “I don’t forgive this woman.”

That was 9-year-old Jeremiah Harvey’s response to Teresa Klein, the latest white woman to falsely accuse a black person of a crime. She then faked a call to the police.

Last Wednesday, Harvey’s backpack brushed against Klein at a Brooklyn bodega. She claimed to call the police, alleging the little boy groped her.

Video surveillance showed his backpack grazed her rear end. She backtracked and apologized.

We’re supposed to encourage Jeremiah to forgive, to peacefully process this trauma.

It seems every week there’s a white woman, be it singer Bette Midler or now-former USA Gymnastics interim president Mary Bono, trying to delete their racist and sexist wrongdoings, expecting us to move right along in the name of solidarity.


There’s a distinct difference between white feminism and feminists who happen to be white.

Some believe they can lean in on their whiteness when needed and use their gender to excuse their behavior. Feminism that overlooks racism and other forms of oppression to preserve self isn’t feminism.

“Women, are the n-word of the world,” Midler tweeted two weeks ago during the divisive Brett Kavanaugh hearings. When met with backlash, she insisted, “This is not about race, this is about the status of women; THEIR HISTORY.”

Of course, she credited it to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Woman is the N----- of the World,” as if their problematic title, well-intentioned or not, gave her a pass to co-opt and ignore black suffering.

Midler apologized for her offensive and indignant tweets claiming she’s an ally to black women — much as Rose McGowan did last year when she tweeted “replace women with the n-word” and then deleted it.

Those quick apologies were supposed to make it all good in the name of sisterhood. Because that’s what we’ve allowed — toilet paper for gun wounds.


“If you undermine my humanity in a fundamental way, abuse me in a way that occasions or perpetuates a trauma in me, that’s not a loss that can be so simply recovered,” said Matthew Potts, associate professor of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School.

No one is entitled to forgiveness. Yet people of color are often expected to give it. Empty apologies are as useful as shallow allies and feminism that closes its eyes to racism.

Even a 9-year-old knows better than that. So why do the Bette Midlers and Mary Bonos keep playing the victim?

After four days as interim president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, Bono resigned Tuesday.

Not because her former law firm, Faegre Baker Daniels, advised USA Gymnastics during the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. And not because she tweeted, deleted, and then apologized for posting an image of her blacking out a Nike swoosh on her shoe in protest of Colin Kaepernick’s ad campaign for the company.

“My withdrawal comes in the wake of personal attacks that, left undefended, would have made my leading USAG a liability for the organization,” she said in a statement about her resignation.

See how Bono centered herself? She, and, for that matter, Elizabeth Warren, are drinking out of the same pumpkin spice latte of privilege.

Rather than rely on her good politics, Warren chose to campaign, er, release a video Oct. 15, on the back of an identity she hasn’t lived. She doubled down on her DNA test to preserve family lore.


Her only regret was not noting the difference between citizenship and ancestry.

“I wish I had been more mindful of that distinction. The tribes and only the tribes determine citizenship,” she told the Globe on Tuesday.

But she still identified as Native American in a legal directory, and law schools where she taught listed her that way. Evidence shows she didn’t benefit from that, but it doesn’t change her casual appropriation of Native American identity. It’s not alright to be labeled the first woman of color hired at Harvard Law School, when you are not. Warren says she didn’t know she was thought of this way. But when you list yourself this way, you take space that is not yours.

The DNA test was meant to protect herself, not the people who have been consistently erased in this country.

“I have an election,” Warren told the Globe editorial board. “Donald Trump goes in front of crowds multiple times a week to attack me. Both of my opponents have made the same attack. I got this analysis back, and I made it public.”

On Monday, she tweeted, “I won’t sit quietly for @realDonaldTrump’s racism, so I took a test.”

Because a test is how you fight supremacy, right? That’s the real key to helping oppressed people. Come on, senator. Despite your progressive policies, this is peak white feminism.

Trump is wrong for his racist “Pocahontas” rants and a great many other acts of inhumanity. But that doesn’t make Warren any more right than Republican Senator Susan Collins.


Collins tried to hide under the ally blanket when she gave her dissertation on the greatness of Brett Kavanaugh when she pledged to confirm him to the US Supreme Court. Collins did this while claiming she believed Christine Blasey Ford was a survivor of sexual assault — but adding that, after a limited investigation, there was not sufficient proof of Kavanaugh’s involvement.

Collins claimed #MeToo was important while uplifting a system that rarely prosecutes rapists. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of every 310 rapes that are reported to police, 57 lead to an arrest, and only seven lead to a conviction.

But it’s supposed to be all good. Because Collins, a pro-choice Republican, believes in #MeToo.

This is what rape culture and patriarchy look like. Women are complicit in it, too.

When Midler tries to negate the role race plays in conversations of gender equity, she’s wrong. Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the Senate, didn’t think black men should handle her tax money and believed in lynching.

“[I]f it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts — then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary,” Felton said in 1857.

Never mind the fact that a black man could be lynched for just looking at — or being accused of looking at — a white woman. This is the mentality that led to the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. This is the racism that led to the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five in 1990.


Collins gave her heart to the speech when she asked for “the presumption of innocence and fairness” in a country that rarely rewards that presumption to nonwhite people.

This is a country that puts the dead, the raped, and harmed on trial. Last month, Botham Shem Jean was killed in his own home, unarmed, by a Dallas officer. He was then vilified by the police.

This is how we end up with 9-year-old black boys like Jeremiah Harvey being accused of sexually assaulting white women when their backpacks brush against them in a corner store in 2018.

Klein, while apologizing, claimed race had nothing to do with her reaction. Instead, she blamed his mama for escalating the situation and lied some more.

But, you know, Klein’s sorry.

“What forgiveness means in these cases usually involves demanding that the victim give up their anger, or act as if the wrong never happened, or that they reconcile with their offender,” Potts said. “A forgiveness that disappears a wrong is no longer forgiveness, but forgetting.”

In order to dismantle systemic supremacy and do the hard work of healing, there can be no fast forgiveness and erasure of wrongdoing.

Peeling back the privilege and confronting the structural oppression: That’s the show of grace these apologies need.

Until then, five words: We don’t forgive this violence.

Correction: Because of a reporter’s error, Jeremiah Harvey was misidentified in an earlier version.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.