Accepting the Messiness: A Reflection on the Women’s March and the Importance of Vulnerability

Angela Peoples with her sign (Kevin Banatte)

Last Saturday like millions of people across the nation and globe I attended a Women’s March. I was scheduled to work and needed the money, but I decided the evening before, feeling pressed upon by months of dread come to fruition and wanting a moment of comradery, that I would call off to attend. Although I was unsure of whether its impact would be lasting, the sheer size of the crowd (I attended in Chicago) felt powerful and heartening. It was a bright spot — a slight tonic after a year that was marked among other things by unchecked police brutality, the cover-up of contaminated water in Flint Michigan, the poorly reported and callous displays of power leveled against water protectors at Standing Rock, and the belittling, misogynistic rejection of Hillary Clinton, a highly capable if somewhat flawed woman, in favor a bombastic and callous man with overblown and unearned confidence.

In the days following the march I read a proliferation of articles by women of color expressing anger that white women had waited until they were personally threatened to begin showing up, expressing frustration with their experiences at the march, or explaining why they had not attended. These articles filled me with a kind of amorphous mix of sadness, gratitude, and frustration. I was grateful that these women were willing to push the conversation forward with the understanding that they would receive pushback. I was sad that we had not done better — that these women had been unsupported and unheard. I was frustrated that the comment sections were full of anger and defensiveness.

Then I encountered a photo from the march that had gone viral. It featured Angela Peoples, an activist I was vaguely aware of — a colleague of an acquaintance of mine, holding a sign that reads “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Peoples is cavalierly sucking on a lollipop while behind her three white women wearing pussy hats text and take selfies, oblivious to the photographer. I immediately felt a strong ambivalence towards this picture. The photo feels iconic, and its message is powerful, effective, and efficient. In People’s words “it tells the story of white women in this moment wanting to just show up in a very superficial way and not wanting to do the hard work of making change, of challenging their own privilege.” However, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of pity for the women in the background who, in an age of unchecked online shaming, had suddenly become stand-ins for an entire system of oppression simply for having shown up to a march. I felt glad that the photo existed, and also a bit sad that its existence, as does the existence of many great photos, hinged upon dissociating the humanity of some of its subjects.

Now, there is an easy answer to this. The feelings of the three white women are ultimately unimportant when put into balance with the continuing oppression of black and brown people. I do believe this to be true. However, this photo evoked in me a strong feeling of sadness and frustration that has made me dwell on it continually since I saw it. I have thought long and hard about where the frustration stems from, and I have come to a few conclusions.

First: I think that it can be worthwhile to dwell for a moment in the messiness of fighting abstract systems that are made up of complicated emotion-having human beings. I don’t think it should be mutually exclusive to feel the truth, power, and necessity of a message while also taking a moment to mourn its casualties. In fact, I believe that added emotion can make the original message even more powerful.

Second: It is of utmost importance that we direct our mourning and frustration towards the correct enemy — in this case, white supremacy. The harshness of a message is not the fault of the messenger but a product of the oppressive system that made the message a necessity.

Third: It is the questions that have answers tinged with ambiguity that force us to grow the most. Complexity forces us to think carefully and at length. So, instead of fearing that too much nuance will muddy a message, we should embrace those moments of irresolution.

Last, and most importantly: It is time to be vulnerable, admit what we once did not know and what we are currently struggling to learn. It can be scary and embarrassing, but I think it is time we start showing our work. This conclusion is the reason I am writing this now.

I think this vulnerability can help us to illuminate both the process of changing one’s own mind and the process of reshaping societal assumptions. Within our own minds, as well as on a societal level, acknowledging, examining, and rejecting the myriad toxic assumptions that generations of culture have ingrained in us is messy, difficult, endless, and full of uncertainties. If life has taught me anything it is that the end point of self-examination is by its nature mutable. If history and literature has taught me anything it is that we cannot think ourselves to a place of unproblematic equity or rounded understanding free of bias. However, I firmly and whole-heartedly believe it is our responsibility as humans to continue to try. So, while our conclusions, by their nature, will continue to evolve, we can have faith that the vehicle by which we find them will remain the same.

I think it is time we illuminate and learn from the imperfect paths to change and get comfortable dwelling in the messiness. When looking to the past we cannot allow the bad to erase all the good or the good to erase all the bad. We cannot allow the process of change to be obscured by a shroud of shame because it did not happen quicker or more cleanly. We can acknowledge and feel the full weight of the blind spots of our historical idols while still admiring their triumphs. In the same way we must be able to examine in ourselves the things we once did not understand in order to have the humility and strength to continue forging forward though we know that there are many more things we have yet to learn.

So, now I write to my fellow white feminists:

Lean in to your uncertainty and the feelings that make you uncomfortable. Listen to the words of people of color. Feel frustrated. Feel disappointed. Feel angry even, but sit with those emotions. Examine carefully where they are coming from. Think deeply on them and embrace the messy uncertainties they prompt within you. This is the only way we can grow.

Post-script: Read Some Things and Feel Some Stuff

Read the interview with Angela Peoples about the photo here

Raquel Willis’s speech in its entirety here

Janet Mock’s speech here

Before You Celebrate the Zero Arrests at the Women’s March…

An Unpopular Opinion About the Women’s March on Washington

Don’t Deride Liberals Who Attended the Women’s March — Recruit Them to Radical Politics