White Women, Let’s Not Repeat History After the Women’s March

Like just about everyone I know, I was exhilarated and replenished by the Women’s Marches that took place yesterday in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin; all over the United States; and around the world. After the numbing shock of Trump’s election and the crushing realization that his administration would be cruelly destructive toward the rights and even the existence of women, queer people, trans people, people of color, disabled folks, migrants, and so many others, January 21 was the first day that I felt powerful and filled with hope again.

But the day after the march, as my social media feed continued to fill up with images and messages of celebration, I noticed a disturbing trend: Friends and friends of friends, all of them white, were posting images of, and stories about, the supportive police at the marches. The fact that in many cities, from Washington D.C. to Atlanta to Portland to Madison itself, police officers were sporting pink “pussy” hats, high-fiving marchers, taking selfies, and defending the rights of the marchers to be there, was hailed by many of my acquaintance as “the best thing about yesterday’s march.”

To be clear, it’s not like I wish the police had been hostile to marchers. Of course I’m glad that they were, this time, serving their appropriate societal function of “serving and protecting” the folks out in the street exercising their right to protest. But to blithely celebrate that fact is, in my view, historically ignorant and politically dangerous. As someone who has been allied with the Black Lives Matter movement since its beginning, I cannot see the images of police offering friendly support to the Women’s Marches without feeling the cruel contrast with the frequently murderous hostility of the police to Brown and Black people in every city in this country.

Again, this is not a condemnation of all individual police officers, but of the police force as an institution that, over and over, has proved itself to be anything but an ally to people of color. Just a few days ago, one of the last acts of the Obama Justice Department was to release a report finding that the police in Chicago, the third largest city in the country, have been regularly and routinely targeting Black and Latinx people and violating their civil rights. This follows on similar reports issued regarding Baltimore, Cleveland and other communities around the country. These official findings are greeted as revealing that “water is wet” by folks for whom police violence is a constant and immediate presence in their lives.

But those of us who do not live with that constant and excruciating knowledge are by no means off the hook. As a white middle-class woman, I know that I am likely to be treated with benign courtesy by the police — even though I am also queer, disabled, Jewish, and an inveterate rabble-rouser. This is white privilege in action, and not merely white privilege, but the particular privilege of white women that has been a mainstay of our cultural and political world for centuries. If historically white men have accrued most of the power to wield various forms of violence in this country, the protection of white women has often been the justification for that violence.

I am sure, for example, that none of the white women marching yesterday would ever actively support the racial violence of lynching. But how many know that this widespread terroristic practice, exposed by Black journalist Ida B. Wells in the 1890s, was predicated on false claims that Black men had sexually assaulted white women? In the wake of Wells’s groundbreaking journalism, some white women began challenging those claims and allying themselves with the anti-lynching cause. It is anti-racist white women like that, like the Grimké sisters and Lillian Smith and Mab Segrest, to whom white feminists must look for inspiration today.

As a scholar and activist who has studied and participated in the feminist movement for the past three decades, I am keenly aware of the history of white women — like me — forging ahead with social change movements that alienate, tokenize, or leave out the essential participation of women and trans people of color. From the suffragist movement of the nineteenth century to the second-wave feminism of the 1960s to the “lean in” style of professional feminism today, there is a painful history of expecting women of color to rally to our banners while ignoring or minimizing their own central concerns, such as racism, poverty, and indigenous and migrant rights.

I call on my fellow white women not to repeat this history. It is crucially important that we avoid tone-deaf and alienating actions like romanticizing the actions of the police. We must listen, truly listen, to the concerns of communities of color. But listening alone is not enough. We also must educate ourselves in the history and presence of racial violence and exploitation in the U.S. and globally. We must realize that these are our concerns as well, that none of us can live in a world shaped by the dehumanization of racism without ourselves becoming dehumanized.

As we forge ahead, newly emboldened, we must use the privilege of our whiteness to carve out space for women and trans people of color at the forefront of our movement as they were, in many ways, at the forefront of yesterday’s march. We must put racial and economic justice at the very center of all that we do, not as window dressing, but because this is the only way to truly change the world, to take the world back from those seeking to destroy it. We know who the real enemy is. Now we need to make it clear who our friends are, and that we are in this together.

It’s not easy. It requires us to take some hard looks in the mirror. It’s a work I have not completed and that I struggle each day to do better. But I am committed to that struggle and I invite you to join me. Please. Let us become better than our history.