Sister Outsider: On the limits of protest and white feminism at the Women's March

I conducted a poll among some of my friends, all young professional women of color, to see how many of them planned to attend the Women's March on Washington. Crickets. Of the dozens of women polled, one or two seriously considered attending the march. The major consensus of my local community—and the greater black social media cadre—planned to sit out and give a glaring Michelle Obama side-eye to the whole event.

The reasons varied. Some sat out because they had followed the traumatic stories of women of color organizers who participated early on in the planning of the march (all of the original organizers were white). Candice Huber, a former Louisiana state administrator with the Women's March, shared on her website post "The Problem with the Women's March on Washington and White Feminism" that when women of color called appropriation of the event name "problematic," those women were "blocked from the secret FB group and their own event pages and their comments deleted." Other women, like Huber, expressed through blog posts and essays that they were offered leadership positions (a seat at the overwhelmingly white founder table) only to be silenced by that leadership and other white organizers when they voiced black concerns—one being that the organizers had appropriated the names of black resistance movements, such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom/The March on Washington, and the 1997 Million Woman March (The Women's March on Washington was originally named the Million Women March). With the use of those names, a digital erasure of the original histories had occurred, and, by extension, the march's organizers had participated in the erasure of black history.

Other women of color opted out of the march because they felt betrayed by white women. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, displaying a historic trend of waning solidarity with the concerns of people of color—including the Muslim registry, Black Lives Matter, stop-and-frisk practices, voter suppression, immigrant rights, and general movements against white supremacy. They did not trust white women to align en masse with women of color when the issues did not have direct effects on white women's lives.

But women of color were expected to quiet any concerns thought too marginal and stand in solidarity with white women to promote feminism. This concern does not come out of left field—the omission or suppression of women of color's concerns toward a greater consideration of white feminist agendas has marred the alliances and solidarity of women of color's and women's freedom movements for more than 100 years. Any review of Sojourner Truth's speech "Ain't I a Woman" and the split over support for women's rights or abolition that began in the 1850s, or womanist versus feminist critiques articulated by Alice Walker and Audre Lorde in the 1960's, '70s, and '80s, reveal white feminists' exclusionary and preferential patterns which, in turn, prompt immediate concern and distrust from women of color.

Despite this history, and after much debate, I decided to attend the Women's March on Washington and listen to speakers share possible strategies to address what the organizers considered the principal concerns for American women. The phrase "Women's Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women's Rights" in the first sentence of the Unity Principles on the event's website attempted to promote a broadly inclusive platform. Many women of color—myself included—wondered if white feminists were interested in expanding "women's rights" to include the multiple forms of systemic oppression that primarily affect women of color.

I went to the march hoping for complex perspectives. I was greeted at the College Park Metro station by hordes of white women adorned with pink "pussy hats" who filed into the crowded downtown-bound subway. The subway cars overflowed with self-proclaimed "Nasty Women," children, and masculine-presenting allies who squeezed themselves into every crevice and corner, offering laps and breasts to lean on, and hands to catch those thrown off balance. Those who fell were repositioned upright, shoulder-to-shoulder in formation until they were released onto the streets of the Nation's Capital. My friend and I talked with a few of the women crammed next to us who had traveled all the way from California. Two days into the new Trump era, white women from all over the country sought respite and a radical alternative to inauguration festivities. One early-20-something white woman said that she hoped the march would fill a sadness in her, and occupy a void left from the recent election. I wondered if other white women were moved to action by a similar sense of despair, a devastating, unfamiliar feeling of injustice.

USA Today estimated that 2.5 million people across the country marched in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington. The D.C. rally lasted nearly five hours before people began to march down Constitution Avenue and later Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. A dizzying roundup of organizers and celebrities spoke about their specific desires for women in the world. Gloria Steinem, a veteran activist and one of the original "Nasty Women," proclaimed to the ecstatic crowd, "Sometimes we must put our bodies where are beliefs are." As others screamed and whooped with applause, I remained still, quietly ruminating. I figured that Steinem had to be addressing white women, because every day marginalized bodies are at risk; every day the freedoms and lives of people of color, LGBTQ, Muslim, and black bodies are in flux.

History has proven that the protection of our bodies is never guaranteed. At the D.C. rally, Janelle Monáe reminded us of this truth when she sang the protest anthem 'Hell You Talmbout' with the women of Mothers of the Movement, calling on the hundreds of thousands of marchers to say the names of their sons and daughters: Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, and other unarmed black men and women who were murdered by police and racist violence. Monáe's performance reminded me why so many people of color had opted out of the march: Many of them can no longer afford to put their bodies or the bodies of their children at risk.

While I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the rally speakers (from organizers to celebrities), I was disappointed that very few provided a clear call to action. Although the perspectives of women, particularly women of color, were welcomed and presumably used to orient the march's platform, very few of the speakers pushed that further. This lapse weakened the march's lasting power. A more strategic structuring of time and talking points would have allowed space for a deeper analysis, and stronger illumination on the intersections between human rights and women's rights. A true bridge of understanding, aligning white women to systemic oppression affecting specific marginalized communities—black, Muslim, LGBTQ—was never built. Participants were left weary and dangling at the fringes, chanting "march, march, march" over the speeches of those marginalized populations, oblivious and inconsiderate of the myriad backs on which the march will tread.

Many of the speakers called on white women to be allies but offered them no tools, no resources, no metrics or guidelines to engage in bridge building. Ironically, at the D.C. march, the only speaker I can recall who did charge protesters with the mandate to call Congress everyday was Michael Moore, a white man. How telling that an unprecedented event that gathered hundreds of thousands of women together was unable to leverage the attention and passion of the masses into sustained direct actions.

For what it's worth, the Women's March on Washington and the sister marches that echoed throughout the world have become the largest recorded act of civil disobedience in history. That is nothing to scoff at, but we must consider the missed opportunities that oversight presents. While some would argue that it is not the responsibility of women of color to teach white women how to dismantle oppressive systems, it is the responsibility of anyone who leads a platform to offer whatever she can to sustain and activate the visions of that platform to all those who are willing and able. All of those women could have gone back home with a mandate to be followed to trigger deep changes throughout the country. Instead, all of those women went home with a good feeling, a thought that their presence was enough, that a symbolic act of disobedience and a performative display of dissent and distaste about the current election would be enough to save them, and the country. Sadly, it is not enough. It is powerful, it is wonderful, but by itself, it is just an ephemeral symbol.every day marginalized bodies are at risk; every day the freedoms and lives of people of color, LGBTQ, Muslim, and black bodies are in flux.

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