The Women’s March on Pittsburgh, and Why Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional
Note: This article quotes various deleted posts from the original event page for the Women’s March on Pittsburgh. All quoted material is reproduced from screenshots captured prior to their removal from Facebook.
From its hive inception last November, the Women’s March on Washington has been criticized for its appropriation and lack of inclusivity. Activists Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour have since joined Bob Bland as national co-chairs, and on January 13, the March released an intersectional platform for all “women — including Black women, Native women, poor women, immigrant women, Muslim women, lesbian queer and trans women.”
Numerous sister marches across the country have received similar criticism, including Portland’s, which similarly underwent a change in leadership after the NAACP pulled its support from the march due to the marginalization of women of color and trans people. Last week, community members raised concerns regarding the lack of diversity in the steering and planning of the Pittsburgh march. Celeste Scott, a black femme activist, asked: “is this a white feminism thing?”
Celeste was not alone in raising this question. Several others, including LGBTQIA community leaders, echoed this concern, but found their comments were not appearing at all; admin approval was suddenly required prior to posting, when previously the page was public. Meanwhile, one of the March organizers, Jess Kimbell — a young white woman — met the original question with hostility. She soon deleted her own inflammatory response, and then blocked Celeste’s account from the event page altogether, as well as the accounts of anyone pressing the question of inclusivity.
The thread was eventually deleted entirely, but not before other March organizers — also white women — responded to Celeste. Anna Marie Petrarca Gire replied: “[F]eel free to call me and let’s work together. I am aware of the problems that we as white women have with this issue and would welcome your input.” “We are trying very hard not to have it be [a white feminism thing],” explained Laura Horowitz. “Anna Marie posted a public invitation for anyone who wanted to help her plan… All the women who showed up were white, and we all know that this is just not what we want for this event.”
White fragility often gets hung up on good intentions. Many [white] people are more inclined to defend, forgive, and continue to follow those who mean well. I won’t dispute the organizers’ intentions, but I will say this: intention is a colossal roadblock to the lengths we have yet to go to dismantle discrimination and intolerance. Responses like this do nothing to help people of marginalized communities, but rather put them in danger.
If a march claiming to support all women is initially organized by a group that only reflects a section of the whole (i.e. white women), it will fail to attract, engage, and effectively protect all of the women it presumes to represent. It is already privileging the needs of white people. It maintains — regardless of its intentions — an unequal distribution of visibility and power, favoring from the outset those who have always benefitted from feminism’s gains: white, heterosexual, cisgender, and middle class women.
White organizers cannot expect people of color to enter such a space without apprehension (or at all) because it intends to be intersectional; nor can they expect black organizers to fix their diversity problem for them.
After account bans were lifted, Kimbell posted an apology and noted that she would “step down” (though she would remain a page admin). She did not, however, explicitly acknowledge that women of color and allies were silenced and excluded for suggesting the march was not inclusive. Instead, she stated the following: “This thread got ugly very quickly, and many things were said on both sides that do not reflect what we are trying to stand for… The women volunteering to organize this event are working hard and when our moral character was questioned, I became very upset… I thought this very jarring and negative thread on our page would dissuade others from attending, and so I removed it.”
This statement goes one step further in its injury: it frames the act of calling attention to race as negative, as disruptive and contentious. It places blame on women of color for identifying the symptoms of white feminism in the first place.
Experienced and effective organizers know that accountability and transparency are integral to maintaining the trust, support, and safety of their people. Erasing these conversations endangers everyone involved: it harms those who might have benefitted to learn from these exchanges. It negates the time and emotional labor put in by black women and allies to educate their peers. It also allows the oppressor to control the narrative.
Celeste’s question would never be addressed directly; the organizers reiterated that they were “trying.” From then on, they agreed it would be important for discussions about inclusion and intersectionality to occur without censorship.
Several experienced black and LGBTQIA activists offered suggestions as to how to repair trust with community members. A recurring suggestion was that the march route be changed, from Downtown to East Liberty, where the 19th Annual Summit Against Racism is scheduled to occur throughout that day; participants could then attend and support both more fully. (Let me restate that one: a march claiming inclusivity was originally planned in ignorance or disregard for a decades-old anti-racism summit, which takes place every Saturday after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in honor of Jonny Gammage, a black man murdered by Brentwood police in 1995.) This suggestion was rejected: a permit was already secured, and the time would not be changed, because the “march here is on the same day and time [as the March on Washington]… As it should be.” (Sister marches are actually taking place at various times across the globe.)
In other words: the Women’s March on Pittsburgh was still absolutely a white feminism thing.
Poet, artist, and activist Joy KMT offered the following (quoted in full):
“I’m not writing this to discourage this March, but I am writing this because for too long women of color, specifically the Black women that I know in Pittsburgh have been organizing and marching and protesting and writing think pieces and doing this work. In Pittsburgh, Black women have among the lowest life expectancies in the United States and among the lowest quality of life. I’m writing this because I’ve seen the majority of white women in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas say nothing and do nothing while we devote our lives to this work that you are just now becoming aware needs to be done. I am glad that you are angry now. I am glad that you are alarmed at what is happening. Open your eyes and ears to the reality that is and had been Pittsburgh and this country for many of us for a very long time. If you are truly committed to Intersectional work it does not mean to invite a few token Black women to work with you, rather get behind and invest in the work of Black women, Black queer folk, Black trans folk and what we have been doing in this city and in this country.”
Regardless, the pain — and love — was not registering for some attendees. Confronting such a truth, for the sake of that love, would require sharing in that pain.
White women repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to permit continued dialogues concerning racism, with “unity” as their mandate. “To those of you still trying to make this a black and white issue, you are doing exactly what those in power want-continuing to keep the people divided. WAKE UP and realize this is about all people uniting.” That thread was eventually deleted, too — this time by the non-organizing participant who created it. Many instructive, however uncomfortable, discussions about racism and intersectionality disappeared — including approximately one hundred comments beneath Joy’s post. Threads rewrote themselves as seemingly misdirected accusations of intolerance by “hysterical” and “divisive” women of color and their allies.
Sue Kerr, founder of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents and the #AMPLIFY project — and among those initially blocked for raising concerns about the March’s inclusivity — explained: “Organizing is messy. After this election outcome, of all things, expecting people to just fall in line and appreciate ‘intentions’ versus outcomes is missing the whole point. We aren’t remotely okay, nor are we unified or standing in solidarity. Pretending to be otherwise to make some people comfortable is a tactic of control and dysfunction, not a show of strength.”
Troll accounts eventually joined the conversation to specifically antagonize women of color; one attacked Celeste personally for having “caused the whole drama.” But it’s not drama to call out bigotry and white supremacy. A collective lack of accountability, privileging the feelings of white women who felt threatened by criticisms of bigotry, caused the whole drama.
Meanwhile, March organizers failed to moderate aggressive and exceedingly racist and homophobic commentary; they did, however, delete more of Celeste’s comments, and again blocked her and other women of color from the page as arguments intensified.
A woman who identified herself as a teacher posted a longer comment, which eventually landed here: “You are losing sight of the goal. It’s time to get yourself out of the equation. Remember Dr. King’s speech the night before he died… ‘we’ve got to stay together and maintain unity’.” After using Dr. King to admonish women of color (and refusing to entertain why that’s stunningly offensive, not to mention a conveniently narrow representation of his views), she later insisted: “I don’t want to shut you up, I want to redirect you to the real enemy… That’s how he works, by deflecting away from the real problems with petty ones.”
Translation: I don’t want to silence you, I only want to control you.
This is a white feminism thing.
White feminism is inherently racist, and therefore negates the ultimate goal of feminism: to eliminate the exploitation and oppression of all women. It refuses to recognize and honor our unique experiences of gender, that all our problems are equally real.
Consider bell hooks: “As long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realized.”
It’s not enough to be united in our fight against sexism. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, and xenophobia make greater monsters of our oppression. Those at greater risk, in greater danger, with fewer rights require the immediate support, protection, and care of those with privilege. (This is the point missed by those who would rather argue “All Lives Matter” over “Black Lives Matter.”)
So I offer this to my white sisters, young and old, who truly want to live according to an intersectional feminism that works for us all: if we make fighting white supremacy secondary to fighting sexism, the “real enemy,” amidst the possibility of diminished rights and safety of all women, is us.
Consider Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
The greatest “problem” we now face is not that our next president routinely dismisses the concerns and dignity of women and marginalized communities; it’s that he mirrors the society we’ve submitted to live in. Those of us who have participated minimally (if at all) in politics and reform are moved to do something more, and this newly activated energy is needed. We should remind ourselves: it was needed before.
Non-white and non-cis folks have never stopped resisting. The energy we have right now is best devoted to listening to them, amplifying their voices, and following their lead. Sometimes it will require our anger. Sometimes, our sorrow. But also: our joy. And also: our survival.
Sisters need to lift each other up, before they can march forward together. And we will.
So let’s get this right:
From the beginning, the primary concerns raised by black, queer, and trans women were dismissed, silenced, and met with unchecked abuse. The feelings of white women, who were more upset by being called out for their racism than by their racist actions, were privileged. And this, all for the sake of turning out in a show of numbers against the “real enemy.”
Despite all that took place online throughout the week, black femmes and women of color, in the end, showed up to the next planning meeting on January 13. Their demands, in return for “unity” — for help in steering, planning, and securing sponsors for the Women’s March on Pittsburgh — were that the leadership be rebuilt to include more women from different backgrounds (including local black activists), and a formal denunciation and dissociation of Kimbell from the event, for insulting and censoring women of color. The March organizers, who had earlier invited them to “help,” declined to work with them on these terms.
Later that night, as the Pennsylvania state chapter stepped in to intervene and investigate the Women’s March on Pittsburgh, plans were already set in motion for an alternative march on January 21. Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March and Rally is set to begin at the same time, beginning at the Penn Plaza Apartments in East Liberty, and ending at the Theological Seminary, where the Summit Against Racism is taking place.
There are now two marches taking place in Pittsburgh. After all this, to me, one march represents a statement, and that statement has more to do with power in numbers than the dignity and power of its presupposed principles.
The other march, though, represents a movement.