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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