Thinking About Race at the Women’s March

Photo of Angela Peoples, by Kevin Banatte

Discomfort is an Opportunity for Radical Empathy

I was at the Women’s March in D.C. on Saturday, and it was incredible. I was inspired by the organizers’ radically inclusive vision, by the overwhelming turnout, by the passion and kindness and wit of the women and men who participated.

Not everyone felt the same. There were the white ladies who didn’t like that the majority of speakers and organizers were women of color and that their concerns were being centered. And there were Black and Indigenous women who wrote about feeling marginalized, and wondering why the white women who showed up by the millions in their pink pussy hats hadn’t been similarly supportive of Black Lives Matter marches in the past. There has also been a lot of conversation about the 53% of white women who voted for Trump — leading Angela Peoples to bring a sign to the D.C. march that read “Don’t forget: white women voted for Trump” and share a photo of herself in front of three white women taking selfies on the Mall.

A lot of white women saw that photo and recoiled. Many had the impulse to say (or did say) something along the lines of “not all white women.” They said or thought, that’s not fair; I didn’t vote for Trump, don’t assume you know me; this isn’t my fault, stop blaming me for the actions of other people. We parsed the statistics, pointing out that white women with college degrees mostly didn’t vote for Trump, so our demographic is off the hook.

The standard intersectional feminist response to that reaction is this axiom: if it’s not about you, it’s not about you. That is, if you didn’t vote for Trump (or engage in some other racist behavior that is being discussed), then you are not the target of the discussion. Just like women don’t have to include a #NotAllMen footnote in every discussion of sexism and patriarchy, Black folks don’t have to put a #NotAllWhitePeople caveat onto every discussion of racism. If it’s not about you, it’s not about you, and don’t make it about you by demanding to be recognized as the exception. Just move along.

That’s the standard response, but I want to point out something else as well. The thrust of white women’s objections to Peoples’ sign was that white women are not a monolithic group, and it’s unfair to treat them as if they are. Beside the point though that may be for the reasons above, it’s an important concept, and it’s even more important to contemplate the emotions it stirs up.

Instead of trying to squash your emotional response by force of will, examine it instead. Because this is an opportunity for radical empathy.

It’s a terrible feeling to have judgment passed on your character based on nothing but your race and gender, to be seen as a negative category rather than an individual. And this is how women of color feel all the time.

This is how your Black sisters feel when store clerks assume they can’t afford their purchases, when their points about police brutality are met with, “but what about black on black crime?”

It’s how your Indigenous sisters feel when they see “sexy Indian” costumes on the streets at Halloween.

It’s how your Muslim sisters feel when people look at them and think terrorist or victim.

It’s how your Jewish sisters feel when they can’t speak about anything without someone piping up, “but what about Israel?”

It’s how your fat sisters feel when thin women offer them dieting tips and assume they aspire to be the sweet, motherly sidekick.

It’s how your disabled sisters feel when people express surprise that they have families and romantic relationships.

It’s how your Latina sisters feel when strangers say they speak good English and ask where they’re really from.

It’s how your trans sisters feel when politicians call them pedophiles and lawyers argue that their lives are less valuable.

Being reduced to a caricature, being made to feel ashamed for the actions of other people who happen to look like you — these things are deeply dehumanizing. That’s not what’s going on with the “white women voted for Trump” signs at all. But while you’re reminding yourself that if it’s not about you it’s not about you, you can use your emotional response to foster radical empathy for the experiences of other women.

I have also seen several articles saying that of course the marches were non-violent because the majority of participants were white women. Of course that’s true, but some white women have taken offense, as if this observation is somehow questioning our convictions or undermining our message. It’s not. It’s just pointing out that the lack of arrests does not make the Women’s March more virtuous or inherently peaceful than Standing Rock or Black Lives Matter. It’s not about you, it’s about how others see you.

Don’t take this commentary as a criticism. What happened this weekend was that a rally led by women of color, at which an extraordinary majority of the speakers were non-white, was attended by a majority white audience, and the police left us all alone. This is good.

We have a powerful tool in our arsenal, and we should be using it more: white women’s bodies. When white women show up en masse, even to events that center the narratives of women of color, the whole group is protected. We shouldn’t have this kind of power, but we do. Let’s use it for good.

We should be showing up to Black Lives Matter rallies, not to prove our virtue, but to put our bodies between our Black sisters and brothers, and the police who are less likely to harm them if we are there.

The bottom line? Activism is hard. Navigating the complex intersections of race and class and gender and religion and sexual orientation et al is hard. There are going to be misunderstandings and misplaced anger and other issues no matter what. But these can be opportunities for radical empathy and deepening understanding, and for discovering how we can be of service.

It’s ok to feel shame and anger and hurt. It’s ok if you went to the march and didn’t understand all the acronyms or get all the references. It’s ok to be new to this fight. If you’re here now and you’re committed to doing the work, that’s what really matters.

As Angela Peoples told The Root, “Don’t be ashamed; organize your people.”

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