Breaking the Cycle: Confronting the Racist Legacy of Feminism from the Inside

Photo courtesy of Jumana Musa (facebook) — Women’s March DC 1/21/17

So, it’s been a couple days and I’ve had time to reflect on my experience at the Women’s March in DC. I don’t think I’ll ever fully be able to put into words everything that went through my mind or even know what to focus on. All the critiques I thought of have already been written. They are not that hard to find. Just Google it. But I must try something to get it out of my brain and into written words…and I’ve decided to speak directly to my white cis woman peers and reveal some of my thought processes.

Warning: whiteness ahead. Emergency exit is just a click away for those who legitimately aren’t here for it. I get it. I’m just trying to get my people.

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As you can tell by now, I spend a lot of time holding you and our cis male peers accountable for our privilege and fragility and (sometimes unknowing) perpetuation of white supremacy. Sometimes relentlessly. Sometimes without subtlety. Sometimes without sensitivity. I did it to the original organizers of this problematic march back in November and I might have done it to you at some point.

I will not apologize for that. Black lives are more important than white feelings. Period.

But because I do that to others in private and public, I must also publicly hold myself accountable. So, what you see from here on out in this post is a white woman talking through this, using first-person pronouns…and I really hate using first-person pronouns in my writing. It’s gross and, by definition, self-centered.

Anyway…

I’ll be doing the exact gross thing that has come to define Becky: centering myself in a conversation.

I’ll also be deconstructing and processing, intellectualizing something that has very very real and destructive consequences.

In other words, I will be unavoidably floating in my privilege for all to see. It’s gross but I really don’t know how to avoid it and get my point across here. Honestly. I don’t. Please let me know if you do.

Anyway…

I am doing this because this is it. We are here. This is real. It is all happening right now and we have to pull out all the stops, name our shit, get it together, repair damage, and help create a brand new paradigm in which the oppressed have the same power and liberation that we do. You see, in truth, we don’t lose anything when other people gain. We’ve been fed a lie. Stop believing it.

Lisa Smith-Corr (left) and I — Women’s March DC 1/21/17

I’m also doing it so that if you see yourself in me, you will know that you’re not alone. That there is someone out there with you clawing out of the darkness of whiteness and into a reality of true and complete freedom for those most oppressed now.

We must fight for the black, Muslim trans woman sex worker with the same fire you felt when you suddenly felt vulnerable and scared on Predator Trump’s election night. We must understand that opposite truths can exist at the same time. That we must see outside the binary and begin to utilize a both/and mentality and not an either/or one.

Our ancestors fucked up. Badly. We now represent them, whether we like it or not. Whether we agree with it or not. It is fundamentally true. I know this because black women have told us for decades that this is so. It is long past due that we start to listen and internalize.

I do not want a cookie. I do not want reassurance. I do not want anything except for us to unlearn what has been conditioned into us and begin to truly devote time and action to break the cycle of white supremacy in feminism.

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So, here we go:

I am white. Like white white. Like a ghost. I am fucking see-through and the sun is trying to kill me. I am from the affluent suburbs of CA. From 6th grade through HS graduation, I lived no more than like 7 miles from the Kardashians. I went to Yale University for undergrad. I lived in Brooklyn from 1999–2009 as gentrification ballooned over the borough. I, then, went to Johns Hopkins University for graduate school.

So, it logically follows that when I talk about myself, I talk from a whiteness and privilege that I live and breathe and cannot avoid. I can’t stop being who I am or change the choices I made in the past…nor do I want to. I like me, flaws and all.

If you have been reading my posts since November, you will know why it was extremely problematic from Day 1. If you haven’t, I’m not going to go into it because I’ve already done that and you can find numerous articles and posts explaining the exact same thing.

For many weeks, I felt that I could not go in good conscience. That I would be abandoning my commitment to maintaining solidarity with the voices of the silenced and oppressed. That, as a natural consequence of my presence, I would be supporting and perpetuating something that I found steeped in white privilege and supremacy…two destructive forces with deadly consequences.

Yes, I saw the leadership change and the move toward a more intersectional lens; yet, I could not let go of the fact that there was still no explicit acknowledgement of and apology for the huge fuck ups by the one remaining original organizer, a white woman. I saw a gross misrepresentation of her initial responses in major media outlets.

No, she did not receive the questions and criticisms with full acceptance. Like I said in a post at the time, she responded with All Lives Matter-esque language and not with any self-correction whatsoever. She obviously heard enough to make some changes but it is critical that when as we white people fuck up in public (and we will), we must be public about our apologies in a very explicit and reparative way. I have not seen this happen from this individual yet.

Some criticisms and questions that were posted on their wall in the early days (i.e. pre-leadership change) were deleted, most notably Brittany Oliver’s. LITERAL ERASURE OF THE VOICES OF DISSENT. And yet, she stayed and said nothing and will prosper greatly from it…exactly like our white feminist predecessors who created this fucking mess decades ago.

So, I felt that as a white woman fighting for an end to white supremacy, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t support it.

As time went by, though, I realized that this was actually the exact reason why I *must* go. THIS is my lane. Whether I like it or not, despite how much I want to avoid it, this is my responsibility as a white cis woman to work to change the minds and behaviors of my peers. To get them to claw with us through this mess and into a better reality.

With great hesitation and at great risk of burdening them, I asked a few friends of color for guidance (specifically, black and brown women and men). I honestly did not know what to do but I selfishly needed to know if they would feel abandoned by me actually going. I am grateful for their guidance and patience and I am a lucky person that they were willing to be open to my question. (I won’t tag them in case they took the emergency exit paragraphs ago.)

So, I went and this is what I saw…All of this is true at the same time:

I arrived at Union Station with crew of 4 other white people, all of us eager to spread the message of intersectionality, armed with informative flyers showing the words of Brittany Oliver and designed by Morgan Bengel.

As we walked to the Mall, we didn’t make it far because it was already packed. Like so packed that I had no idea the rally was even going on. I had no idea where the stage was or what was even said.

We eventually found a spot and planted ourselves. I kept asking, “Isn’t Katy Perry supposed to roar or something?” And people responded, “She did. You just can’t see it.” There is no blame for that. It was just so big, logistics could never account for it.

So, we made the space ours. We added to the sea of white but this is where our work is. I noticed there was no chanting. No urgency. No anger. No fight. So, I began to chant. Loudly. I drew from my time in the streets of Baltimore, where lives are literally on the line.

We said her name. We screamed her name. We screamed for Rekia and Mya and Sandra and Natasha and Korryn and India and Ayanna.

And people joined in. They did. Without hesitation.

We screamed for black lives and trans lives and queer lives and Muslim lives and women’s lives.

And people joined in. They did. Without hesitation.

But when I stopped because I physically needed a break, no one picked up after me.

Again, where was the urgency? Where was the fire? I just kept thinking, “This is not fucking Bonnaroo or whatever. This is life and death.”

But as time went on and I got tired, I felt myself get lazy. I also felt myself get comfortable because I was with two of my oldest friends and we do not live near each other. I found myself laughing at the witty signs and chanting about my pussy. And then I realized, it happened. I fell back into it. I fell right back into my privilege.

I can rationalize it and you can rationalize it but it is still true. I was able to laugh at the puns and the jokes because I can afford to. I was able to ignore some (not all) of the problematic shit on people’s signs (e.g. exclusion of trans people, despite my own non-binary expressions).

Although my body is under threat, I still have my whiteness, my ability to don femininity if I want to (which I never do but can), my pretty face and slim body, my resume, my sense of humor, my able body, and my brain.

And I found myself bouncing back and forth between the two. Between anger and privileged joy.

And then I found myself employing the both/and mentality.

And then I found myself asking if that was just me making myself feel better. Or do we just not know how to hold everything at once?

And I still don’t know.

I do know that I was happy to see more white people be explicitly anti-racist with their messages. More white women holding other white women accountable for upholding racist white feminism. Men holding signs of solidarity. White men screaming for black trans women’s lives. Young white boys excited to learn about intersectionality. Was there enough of this? No. Not in any stretch of the imagination. Was it heartening that there was at least some? Yes.

I also do know that it was absolutely NOTHING like any march here in Baltimore. There was no militarization of the police, like they had for just 20 of us in the streets a couple times.

Photo courtesy of unknown — taken at Penn-North, Baltimore Uprising , searching for #JusticeForFreddieGray

I pointed out one sniper and no one believed me. Like it was still so abstract that people couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that snipers are absolutely willing to shoot into crowds.

People were hugging and thanking cops and I asked if they would be doing that if a window broke and those same cops put on their gas masks and riot gear and started to spray you with pepper spray and beat you with a baton just because you were nearby?

*Crickets and looks of utter confusion*

You see, white privilege was on display in a way that I have not been around in years. It never occurred to them that police could turn on you in a split second. They’re trained to! But it never occurred to them. You know why?

“Because we are peaceful.”

Fuck you.

So were the hundreds of people in the streets here in Baltimore that you just didn’t see on TV. And if you believe the media narrative about what has happened and continues to happen in Baltimore, you are eating a lie. Anger does not necessarily equate to harming other people. Anger does not equal hate. Anger is not criminal. But blackness is. That’s the difference that was missed and that is the exact fucking problem.

So, all in all, it was not enough for the present. There is no doubt in my mind, that for the great majority there, this was just an event. A party. Where love without action is thought to be enough.

We’ll see in the coming years what the impact was. I will not be forcefully optimistic because there is a sophistication at work here that will lull you into comfort and then steal out from under you and take the most marginalized first.

I will cling to the glimmers of hope that I felt there and, at the same time, not live under the false impression that this will spark people into true action. I will go insane if I do anything else.

There is so much work to do, within myself, within you, and within us, to destroy white supremacy and help realize the words of Naim Ajamu, who left us too soon, “We will win.”

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This piece was originally written as a facebook post on my own wall. It has since been published on thevisibilityproject.com with minor edits for flow and to correct typos. (http://www.thevisibilityproject.com/2017/01/24/megan-kenny-womens-march/)

This version here also corrects for flow and minor errors from the original post.

Update: Hyperlinks added 1/25/17.