The path to unity requires honesty, or Beyond the march

As the date drew closer for the Women’s March on January 21, I found myself having a mini existential crisis: To attend or not? Given the intersection of activism with my job as executive director of Community Change Inc., along with my writing and speaking on race and oppression, I am sure many would assume that I would be in attendance. If not at the Washington, D.C., march, then surely at one of the sister marches. But the truth is the decision to attend or not attend was far more complex. In the end, an upper respiratory infection showed up Saturday morning and pretty much took the choice out of my hands.

So I spent most of Saturday laying in bed and watching my social media feeds and all the wonderful pictures being shared by friends and colleagues both locally and nationally. By all accounts, it was an amazing day as turnout exceeded organizers’ expectations to the point of altering actual march plans and routes.

I also noticed on my feeds many women of color who also sat out the march or attended with reservations and realized that there was a very common theme. For many women of color, especially Black women, marching is not new. (This is not to say that other women have not been politically involved or to take away from their work.) Yet for my fellow women of color there was a shared sense of weariness. In the past several years, we have been on the streets, we have been at the rallies when yet another Black or Brown person has had their life cut short at the hands of law enforcement. Such as…

  • Michael Brown
  • Sandra Bland
  • Tamir Rice
  • Trayvon Martin
  • Miriam Carey
  • John Crawford
  • Freddie Gray
  • Eric Garner

These are just a few of the names that I have cried over, wrote about and marched for in the past several years. It takes a toll on you. It also makes you look critically at who shows up and who doesn’t show up. What many women of color noticed was that while Saturday’s Women’s March was a multicultural affair, it was heavy on white women. White women who are rarely seen at protests when the issues involve people of color. Many of whom also chafe when women of color bring up issues of feminism and women’s rights that are specific to non-white women.

Naturally, many people have noted this and in the past few days there have been some solid pieces written and expressed via pictures about who showed up on Saturday. Given that I have had nothing but time to sit on social media seeing as I continue to battle the ick, I have also noticed a bit of the pushback too.

Specifically on the BGIM Facebook page, I received several comments after sharing pieces that referenced the racial divide asking that I focus on unity and not divisiveness. Yet if we are truly to work for a unified goal, we need to make sure that we have a shared vision and goal and that starts with understanding the role of intersectionality and how it plays out in our respective lives. We may all be women but our overlapping identities impact the way we experience oppression and discrimination.

A middle-class white woman may experience discrimination based on her gender but has white skin privilege; as a Black woman with working-class roots, I face discrimination based on not only on my gender but my race and my class. The intersections grow as the identities do. Yet when we are asked to come together as women, too often the framing of that experience does not allow for multiple identities. In fact, a frequent problem in feminist circles has been a tendency to center the issues, voices and agendas on white women and their priorities (and also to marginalize and revile people like sex workers). The problem is that when we don’t acknowledge the various intersections that exists and when we don’t create space to honor various identities within the context of being women, we aren’t working towards a shared goal of women’s rights and equality. Truthfully, we thwart our own efforts. Instead, we are forced into a framework that only serves one type of woman, typically a middle-class white woman.

Saturday’s march was hailed as a success on multiple levels, including the peaceful nature and lack of arrests and violence. Given that women, specifically Black and Brown women, have been the drivers behind the Black Lives Matter movement and many of the local marches and protests in recent years as well as Native American efforts in North Dakota at the North Dakota Pipeline, it’s hard not to notice that with a majority of white women involved in the Women’s March, law enforcement in the various locales had a vastly different approach to the marchers. Instead of the heavy-handed approach and militarized weaponry that shows up too often when the protesters are of a darker hue, none of that was present. And considering the Women’s March efforts were bigger than BLM efforts and pipeline protests and there was neither police aggressiveness nor arrests to speak of (in D.C. or any of the sister marches in other cities), one has to look to what made it different. And the one key difference was the overwhelmingly heavy presence of white skin among the protesters/marchers.

None of us knows for sure what we are facing with a Trump administration, but it’s abundantly clear that it will not be business as usual and as hard as it will be, it is also a time for us to come together. But that requires trust, and trust isn’t going to happen until we can break down the barriers that have prevented white people (progressive white women among them) from truly hearing us. We can’t fight for the right to make choices for own bodies without being honest about the racial health disparities that have existed even before the Trump administration, for example. Much of what we are fighting to save has not been equally accessible to all women.

Criticism is part of growth, not a slap in the face, and for far too long the divisions that have existed between white women and women of color is the inability for some white women to hear the reality of women of color. Now more than ever, it is time for our white sisters to hear us and not stifle us. Instead of asking us to not be divisive by pointing out differences in treatment and access to rights, recognize that when you ask a woman of color to be quiet and go with the majority flow, you are saying that our needs don’t matter. We live vastly different lives and if we are to work together, we need our white sisters to recognize that and honor it.

Historically, women of color have been asked to stifle ourselves and maintain the status quo. But in this moment, if we are serious about change, we need to resist the urge to do that and instead listen to all women and all our truths so that we can work together. The road is long and the work will be hard but it is not impossible. As painful as this moment is, it is also an opportunity. But will we have the courage to sit with the uncomfortable topics and uncomfortable moments and use it as a catalyst for real growth and change?
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Calling all white people, part 5: Misusing MLK

Calling All White People, Part 5

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Misusing MLK…Every Day
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

By God, we sure do like to invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a.k.a. MLK) a lot, don’t we? And by “we” I don’t mean the collective “we” of humanity—I mean we white people. And by “invoke,” I mean mostly posting MLK quotes online.

So often when a liberal (or moderate) white person wants to appear sensitive, progressive and enlightened, out comes an MLK quote. When someone is feeling a bit uncomfortable with Black activism and wants to “correct” Black people on the scope or level of their behavior (be they outright protests or even mild rebukes toward whitefolk), out comes an MLK quote.

Hell, when outright racists or ignorant trolls want to act the fools, out come the MLK quotes. Better yet, out come MLK quotes along with statements like “If Martin Luther King were alive today, I think he’d be supporting/defending Jeff Sessions and criticizing John Lewis.” (the former being Trump’s attorney general nominee who has a history of racism; the latter being a Black U.S. representative who got beaten up and arrested many times protesting and standing up for what’s right during the Civil Rights-era…if you think MLK would be pro-Jeff Sessions you need some history and/or immediate medical assistance).

But as so often happens, I digress. I’m writing this post on MLK Day; I know BGIM won’t be posting this until sometime after MLK Day, but still, context matters. (BGIM decided this post should run on MLK Day) 

This post was inspired by a humorous fake quote meme I saw on social media with a picture of MLK and this inset with the photo:

“White people, stop quoting me.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

The problem isn’t that MLK isn’t eminently quotable. He is. But all too often, and mostly by white people, his quotes are misused over and over.

We love to share the feel-good ones but ignore the more pointed ones like this:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ “Councilor” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direst action” who paternistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

That’s from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by the way. We white people should do a lot more reading and sharing of that and a lot less of the “I have a dream” speech.

Point is, we need to stop trotting out MLK for the most part, my fellow whitefolk. Sure, there will be times it’s meaningful, particularly when we need to put someone in their place because they’re misusing MLK and need a quote more representative of MLK’s overall and long-term views. Because so many of us who are white don’t know crap about MLK. We see him as this peaceful, soft-spoken man who wanted peace above all else.

But in truth, while he preached non-violent protest, he didn’t preach peace. He preached fundamental change. Upsetting the apple cart. Rewriting society. He wanted not just an end to racism but to reshape capitalism itself because of the way it mistreats the average worker—among other radical social views he held that would uproot most of what we’ve grown accustomed to in this country.

So, think twice before you go quoting MLK or saying you know how he would feel or act regarding some situation or issue when you have only the barest, thinnest knowledge of what he stood for. And I say this as someone who himself has a pretty low-level, basic knowledge of MLK’s  life and times. But the thing is, knowing that about myself, I also don’t go around invoking him. That said, while I may not be an expert, I am eminently qualified to tell y’all that most of you who share my “pale persuasion” skin tone know less than me and really should tread lightly around summoning MLK into any conversation, whether online or off.

And despite my lack of deep knowledge, at least I can say, unlike most white people, that I’ve read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and now, I’d really suggest most of you do, too. Right now. Peace
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Calling all white people, part 3: Stepping on toes

Calling All White People, Part 3

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Step In and Step On Some Toes
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

White people, by and large, really want Black people to fix the problem of racism. Even the ones who support anti-racism efforts or only realize in some vague way that there are still racial injustices that they can’t quite pinpoint often put the onus on Black people to educate people about racism, to organize things, to somehow be the racial repairmen. There is a feeling that if enough Black people do enough of something, with only a little help from white people, they can overturn the entire problem of racism in the United States.

Even though white supremacy and anti-Black racism was created by white people, who are a majority. Even though white people are mostly the ones who benefit from and prop up every institution, business, and process that fuels systemic racism and institutional bias. Even though most people (even when they recognize something called white privilege exists) who are white don’t really want to share and don’t want to give up any of the benefits of whiteness being utterly centered as the norm in U.S. culture and government.

Somehow, roughly 13% of the population, holding very little of the wealth and almost none of the political or social power, is supposed to do all the heavy lifting.

We white people who “hate racism” but who descend from those who created the problem by elevating whiteness, we who continue to perpetuate white supremacy actively or passively, want to just to just be spectators to the fixing of the problem. That fixing to be carried out by those who are among the most burdened and adversely affected by racism in this country.

It’s like asking the abused wife and children to fix the violent patriarch of the household and make him a better person.

No, the responsibility to make things fair (or as close as possible) and to eradicate racial biases from our institutions and societal systems (as much as is possible) rests with us white people.

Now, I know what you’re thinking already: “I can’t fix a problem that big!” (And yet you expected Black people to? Shame, shame, shame). Well, the journey of a thousand miles begins, as they say, with a single step.

So step up. Step in. Step on some toes.

Whose toes?

Your friends. Your family members. The guy at the bus stop who just told you a racist joke. Your kid’s racially insensitive teacher. The ignorant neighbor. Those people. Those other white people who may not be as aware of you are that racism is still a problem. Or who deep down know it is but don’t really care because it doesn’t impact them. Or who like white supremacy and need to be reminded they have many white opponents to that notion.

It is up to you as a white person at the holiday dinners or social gatherings to be willing to call out other white people who do racist things or make racially insensitive remarks.

It is up to you as a white person to learn about systemic racism and institutional bias and how it came to be and why it still gets perpetuated. There are too many resources and Google is too good at searching for you to be demanding that Black people tell you all this. Many of them have already written about it anyway. And once you’ve educated yourself, it’s up to you to teach other white people and to correct people when they hold on to incorrect views about race and about Black people (and to counter those who perpetuate the lies).

The problem won’t get fixed overnight. But every day you shy away from challenging racist actions directly or fail to call out a person who’s just done something racist is one more day you’ve added to the problem. One more day’s worth of shoring up a damaged system and reinforcing that wall that stands between marginalized people and justice/equity.

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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.