I thought I could hang on just a little longer. But this year, I will be yet another woman of color, in a long lineage of women of color, leaving the mainstream feminist anti-violence movement.
It is a tradition that white feminists in our movement like to keep silent — I guess they wouldn’t want to bring negative attention to a social justice movement or the nonprofit sector, especially one rooted in radical feminism. But my experience is all too familiar and I could have seen this moment coming.
Fact. Many women of color do not last more than 2–3 years in domestic and sexual violence agencies at all levels — local, state, and national.
Fact. Many of these organizations are led primarily, if not exclusively, by white women, who unconsciously, though not unintentionally, maintain systems of white racism through their leadership. But this is merely called professionalism or pragmaticism.
Fact. Numerous focus groups and organizations have sought to raise awareness of the racist experiences that women of color, both survivors and advocates, in the anti-violence movement deal with on a daily basis. From these focus groups have birthed suggestions to dismantle white racism in the feminist movement, increase and sustain women of color leaders in the movement, and decolonize — or decenter the experiences of white women — in our movement.
Some of these efforts continue to exist in our movement, including leadership development cohorts for women of color, gatherings for advocates of color to network during conferences, and increasing calls for “intersectional” conference workshops that explicitly speak to the experiences of communities of color and other underserved identities. The movement has made some strides, yet it still feels like we have so far to go. And, as a woman of color, I cannot afford to reward mediocrity when systems of oppression continue to invade the walls of our own movement.
I am only 28 years old. I have been involved with the anti-violence movement since I was nineteen. First, at my university, through domestic violence shelters, two state domestic and sexual violence coalitions, and a national domestic violence organization. In every space and at every level, being a Black woman in this predominately white woman-led sector has been exhausting.
I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri — a former slave state, littered with (Confederate) Civil War memorabilia, showcased as attractions near many state highway exits. I know racism. I know what it looks like overtly and covertly. Still, my Midwestern upbringing has not been enough to lower the expectations I had for a social justice space like the feminist anti-violence movement.
White racism in feminist spaces, particularly domestic and sexual violence organizations, is a breed of its own. Knowing other women of color in this movement is all that has kept me for nine years. Speaking with other women of color in the anti-violence movement about our experiences in predominantly white spaces is its own support group. It is in these spaces that I realized I was not alone, nor was I exaggerating my experiences with microaggressions and other forms of white racism.
The anti-violence movement is not the only social justice movement or space within the nonprofit sector flooded with white racism. But it is the only one I have had a long relationship with at all levels. There is vile hypocrisy in coming to terms with a white woman in leadership at an anti-violence organization minimizing my experience with racism and knowing that our movement is rooted in dismantling systems of power and control.
I am leaving the anti-violence movement, but I will always be a Black woman in America. I am moving back to a major metropolitan area, but white racism exists beyond the sun-down towns in my home state of Missouri. In my new position and sector, I am certain that I will still have to navigate a predominately white leadership as a Black woman. I will still have to send frantic messages to the group chat of other Black women to receive affirmations and Issa Rae GIFs encouraging me to protect my energy.
My discomfort with white racism in the feminist movement comes from knowing that my grievances, my pushback, my challenges have been uttered by so many women of color before me. The words that leave my 28-year-old mouth to challenge white racism in feminist spaces are revisions of what other women of color have said to white women in this movement long before I was born, let alone knew that I would briefly take this route in my career. My discomfort, exhaustion, and departure comes from knowing that there are many white women who have worked with domestic and sexual violence organizations for more than twenty-five years, who passively listened to the words of women of color who came before me, and still have had the caucasity (the audacity of Caucasian people to so unashamedly exist in unchecked white privilege) to view my grievances with white racism — even the most covert racism — as a disruption, an entitled Millennial rant, a refusal to work, or divisive.
As a Black woman, I will always be an advocate and activist. I cannot exist comfortably in this country knowing that my humanity, the humanity of others like me, and the humanity of those with far more barriers to liberation, are constantly under attack. I do not need a career or salary provided by white racism to do this work. Especially if my compliance and satisfaction with white women doing the bare minimum are expected in return.
I may very well have a similar exodus from my next career opportunity. If my hopping around from city to city, job to job, nonprofit to nonprofit, and speaking truth to power is what it takes to ensure that social justice environments decentralize the white experience and white comfort, then that is the movement to which I will remain loyal.