OK white ladies, now let’s get in formation. At the back of the line. And then once we’re there, let’s stop quoting Lemonade. Also, put your fists down. Jesus, please just be still for like… a nanosecond.
It’s time for some tough love about how we can help the women’s movement and how we’re actually really not currently doing that.
This past weekend’s Women’s March on Washington was like high-fiving a million angels for many of us. Most white women hit the streets of D.C. with beautiful intentions and zero added risk. As a parent bringing a kid to march, I was concerned about some random nutjob doing something violent — a concern that also happened to be shared by almost every other parent, regardless of race. But I never once had to worry that I would be targeted because of my skin color if the crap hit the fan.
Leading up to the march, from the podium that day, and in its aftermath, women of color pointed out a need for white women to listen and understand the damage they can do with their implicit bias. They pointed out how many white women voted for Trump. They asked and demanded that white women not claim equal grievances, even when discussing the same bone of contention.
I’m going to be completely candid. When I’ve heard similar arguments in the past, I’ve basically had this reaction:
Because it’s a hard thing to hear when you’re a committed progressive and working to make change. Phrases that often pop to mind as one is stamping one’s dainty foot include: “But my work makes a difference so why am I being criticized?!” and “But I’m affected, too!” and “That’s unnecessarily divisive!” and “But I like Beyoncé, too, and Lemonade is a really good album!”
On Saturday, Women’s March co-chair and social justice activist Tamika Mallory uttered what I considered the most compelling words of the day, because they contained an elegant and stinging warning on the danger of this whining. Mallory welcomed white women to their current feelings of anger and fear and gnawing sense of injustice — something black women have gotten several hundred years of a head start on:
“When you feel that we are not taking care of each other properly, put your feelings aside, put your pride aside, and stand up for the most marginalized people in this society. Because if you stand for them, you stand for all. Dr. King said, ‘I will not remember the harsh words of my enemies. I will remember the silence of my friends.’”
It’s the pride part that gets our knickers all knotted up, isn’t it? The thing that sends heat creeping into our cheeks when someone’s telling us we are not bringing the change they seek.
So let’s try this, white women. Let’s think about this in terms of triage, and we’ll use gender-based pay disparities as an example.
Pop quiz: In this effed up world in which we live, how much does a woman earn on the dollar, compared to a man?
If you answered somewhere in the neighborhood of 78 cents, you are almost certainly white. Because black women earn about 65 cents on the dollar. Latina women earn only 58 cents. Yet when we, the committed, concerned white progressive activists talk about this issue, we almost always use white lady math as the default.
I have quite concretely done this myself in the past in my writing, without even giving passing thought at the time to the damage it would do. I have gone so far as to put the even shittier statistics for women of color IN PARENTHESES with some bullshit rhetorical connective tissue like, “(And it’s even worse for black and Latina women…)” FUCKING PARENTHESES.
I am a dope.
Because if we think of the modern women’s movement’s needs in terms of triage, we should always — always — be hammering on behalf of those most critically devastated by the inequities that bind us together in the fight. We should use the statistics about Latina and black women as our starting point every time we talk about the gender pay gap. We are doing the women’s movement a disservice if we establish white women’s struggles as the default, the norm, and those getting more severely decimated as pageant runners-up. When someone thinks about the gender pay gap in this country, they need to think 58 cents on the dollar, not 78 cents.
Triage. When there are three patients on the ground, you don’t start with the one hemorrhaging the least. We need to start fighting hardest for the hardest hit.
I know. It’s uncomfortable to feel your worth and contributions are being devalued. It hurts to feel marginalized. It’s hard to not get validated all the time for your noble efforts. It’s difficult to hear, “Nope.” from people we consider friends and partners.
Guess what? Women of color live much, much worse than not being validated every day.
So white women, let’s strengthen the ranks of this women’s movement — this marathon, this seemingly unending march — from the rear. We’re not here to get on stage, spout our grievances, and drop the mic. We’re here to pass it to women of color and then walk to the back to make sure the sound tech’s got that thing’s volume jacked up.
UPDATE: This interview with Angela Peoples, the activist in the photo above, offers insight.