For about as long as I can remember, I have been embarrassed about being white.
In middle school, my embarrassment stemmed from a shallow jealousy that I—unlike my melanin-blessed friends—came from a lineage of pink-tinged Albino rat people (strange that the sun, too busy never setting on the British empire, somehow never touched the British people), but since then, as I’ve grown older, smarter, and more aware of both history and the current geopolitical climate, my embarrassment has transferred away from people of color consistently looking better than I do and settled on this very simple fact: White people ruin practically everything we get our Pillsbury roll dough fingers on. And nowhere, in recent memory, have our poisonous white attitudes been more disappointing than in our reactions to critiques of the Women’s March on Washington by women of color.
I am not immune from defensiveness, especially when I feel I’ve Done a Good Thing, and have to admit that feeling defensive was my first reaction upon reading many of these takes, specifically one by my friend and colleague Kara Brown on her experience at the Women’s March in L.A.
In “I Want to Trust the Women’s Marchers,” Kara wrote:
The election of Donald Trump to the most powerful office in the world is a terrible thing—some might even say tragic. But is it more tragic, does it necessitate a larger response, than the murder of a child by state agents? How does, I wondered, one rationalize taking to the streets for this and not that? Not donating a dime or a care to Standing Rock but throwing down a credit card for whatever shows up when you search “feminist” on Etsy. Coming out on this beautiful Saturday morning to demand basic human rights for all, while children in Flint continue to be poisoned by the most basic of resources. How does this compel you to action more than that?
For the sake of honesty, I will write out my initial internal responses to Kara’s argument:
- Why does she have to be negative the day after the largest protest in history, one that we should all be proud to be part of?
- I’ve attended Black Lives Matter protests and donated to the Standing Rock protesters. Why am I being lumped in with ignorant white woman?
- I am not going to let Kara’s anger or the anger of anyone else take away from my own activism because at least I am doing what I can with the resources I have.
I saw various iterations of these thoughts in the comments of Kara’s post and on Twitter, but having taken a minute or two to consider my reaction, I’ve come to this conclusion: If this is how I feel and continue to feel, my “allyship” and role as an activist are completely meaningless.
When you’re riding high from an accomplishment like the Women’s March, it’s hard to immediately question what you could have done better. For me, being in D.C. on Saturday was a fortifying experience, one that made me feel stronger and more prepared for the struggles that lie ahead with the Trump administration. It saddens me that my experience wasn’t shared by all and, frankly, I’ve been resistant to the idea that fault lies with the march, my activism, or the activism of white liberal women like me.
But when many women of color, despite efforts by march organizers, don’t feel included or supported by their fellow marchers, flaws abound. Sure, many of us would rather ignore this fact for the sake of optics and the unwavering stance that feminism is for everyone. But as we move forward into the fourth wave of feminism (one that, ideally, will be more intersectional than any of its past iterations), we must face-up to some uncomfortable truths: We, as white women, have historically and recently failed women of color. For the movement to be better, we must be better. And that starts by recognizing where we’ve fucked up.
This, of course, presents its challenges as no movement is perfect, but rather they are all works-in-progress. To make that progress happen, however, we must move away from absolutes and recognize that two things can be true at the same time: Margaret Sanger was an important birth control activist AND an racist eugenicist; the second wave feminist movement had an incredible influence on the current state of women’s rights AND largely excluded black women to its detriment; YOU yourself can be both proud of having marched on Sunday, while acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes and been myopic in your view of what voices are worth listening to and amplifying.
Overlooking something isn’t unforgivable (it’s human), but continuing to overlook something—or refusing to see it—after it’s been pointed out to you is unequivocally wrong. So do better and get over yourself. If your only reaction to someone feeling excluded from your cause is to get defensive and try to stop them from saying their piece, not only are you are a bad ally, you’re a weak person who can’t handle questioning your worldview. That type of cowardice doesn’t make you an activist—it makes you a narcissist, which in the age of Trump, is the last thing we need.
P.S. You should definitely read Kara’s original article because she is much smarter than me. Thank you.