They came. They saw. They marched. Did you?
Full disclosure: I didn’t—primarily for logistical reasons—but I watched in awe last Saturday as my social media feeds became a sea of pink pussy hats and cleverly worded signs, courtesy of friends and family attending women’s marches worldwide. As promised and in overwhelming numbers, on the first day of Donald Trump’s presidency (shudder), women—and men, and children—showed up and showed out against the sexism that has now taken a seat in the Oval Office.
Of course, it was difficult to ignore that although the Women’s March on Washington was co-chaired by three women of color, the majority of those participating there and throughout the country were white women. It was equally impossible to ignore the very valid concerns expressed by many, like writer Jamilah Lemieux, about the ongoing lack of intersectionality in the feminist movement—a centuries-old issue that would predictably rear its ugly head in some of the rhetoric and interactions associated with the march.
For instance, before boots even hit the ground, there was legitimate concern about how the original name of the event, “The Million Women’s March,” was a rip-off (with no credit given) of the black-centric event of the same name two decades prior. Even its eventual name change inevitably owed more to Martin Luther King Jr. than to its organizers.
Later, as the “pussy hat”—a direct response to Trump’s disgusting admissions of sexual assault—emerged as the march’s symbol, several women of color expressed disdain for its being pink, viewing it as a symbol of whiteness rather than of femininity, since, like our skin, our genitalia tends to come in a variety of deeper hues. Similarly, despite the presence and powerful voices of transgender celebrities and activists Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, the marches seemed to center on the notion of biological womanhood, simultaneously ignoring and perpetuating the deeply sexist marginalization and violence that plague trans communities as well.
But most disturbing were firsthand accounts from women of color who attended the march, who would subsequently report being fetishized, dismissed and outright disrespected by some of the white women they were marching alongside. While this dynamic is certainly not new, it seemed to confirm my worst fears about what the march might become, as well as why traditional feminism has rarely—if ever—functioned for nonwhite women.
And yet, despite all of this, as a card-carrying womanist, I still felt a pang of guilt for not being present. After all, don’t issues of sexual oppression and assault affect me, too? Am I not as much a woman as I am black? As Sojourner Truth said (and I’ve quoted before), “Ain’t I a woman?”
As I have marched in the street to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, wouldn’t it stand to reason that my life as a woman matters equally? And in light of the numerous and ongoing shortcomings of the feminist movement, does my absence alleviate or exacerbate them?
And most importantly: Now what?
That is the question facing the millions—approximately 4 million, to be exact—who marched last Saturday (making the women’s marches the biggest protest in U.S. history—not to mention the hundreds of thousands who marched abroad). But beyond the demonstration itself, what are we going to do about the very real problem we now face in the presidency—a problem who not only openly expresses his disdain for women (along with everyone else who isn’t white, straight, male and rich) but who defiantly reinstated the global gag rule Monday, which could have dangerous implications for women’s health worldwide?
Let’s face it: White feminists have a lot to prove right now. With 53 percent of their sisters having voted for Trump, the onus is squarely on them to educate and organize their own. However, part of this education is admitting that it was ultimately not sexism that lost them this election as much as it was racism. Donald Trump gave white women every reason to vote against him in the interest of protecting women’s rights, and yet they were willing to sacrifice their own interests in favor of protecting white supremacy. That is an undeniable fact, as aptly pointed out by marcher Angela Peoples’ much-talked-about sign. And yet it’s a fact that many white feminists continue to conveniently ignore, despite the words of their own icon, Gloria Steinem: “There is no such thing as being a feminist without being an anti-racist.”
But if this problem is indeed theirs to solve, when and where do we, as black (and other nonwhite) women, enter the conversation? I’d argue that we refuse to be excluded from it because we, too, are women. As Brittney S. Cooper observed to The Root:
While I love those signs of the two sisters who called flag on the play with white women around Trump and the election, I need everyone to be clear that the primary goal of black feminism ain’t never been reacting to white women. Never. It has always been 1) about properly articulating the material conditions that shape our lives, 2) advocating for better conditions, 3) chasing freedom.
There wouldn’t have been a yesterday without the ferment of Black Lives Matter, reinvigorating the power of protest—and, yes, Occupy and Slutwalk. But mass feminist movements always succeed movements for racial justice in this country (receipts: 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries). Let us be clear.
No, we are not their mules. And yes, there are those who will inevitably attempt to marginalize us, scapegoat us for their failings or accuse us of distracting from the movement at large with our pesky race issues. But while white womanhood may have appeared to be the face of the Women’s March, the organizers’ principles make it expressly clear that it was never intended to be so. It is therefore arguably our task to ensure—through both our visibility and participation—that those principles aren’t discarded like the litter left behind on Saturday.
Now, with both an energized base and a clear and common enemy in sight, we are in a unique position to affect the feminist movement as never before. It is up to us to reclaim it, for the sake of our own interests (think of it as reverse gentrification). Intersectionality should no longer be optional, or a request. As marcher Akiba Solomon shared with friends on Facebook:
[T]he 10 Black women I gathered with, the Native sisters out there dancing, the Latinx girls and women hollering “Si se puede,” the range of WOC repping #SayHerName were there for ourselves. We weren’t there making weird alliances with Miss Anne. We were there not ceding “women’s rights” to White women.
And as marcher and second-generation activist Laini Madhubuti noted to this writer:
When we, women of color, whitewash the history of hundreds of worldwide women’s marches, it is intimately disrespectful to the WOC march organizers, performers and marchers who made their participation count. I was there. I count us.
When this march, these simultaneous marches, become history and legend, our grandchildren will share pictures of the WOC organizers, reminding history that we were there.
And our children are indeed watching. They are learning that intersectionality is not merely an issue of race, and feminism needn’t be exclusively for white women—or women, for that matter. In the words of 11-year-old burgeoning activist Phoenix Glover, who marched alongside his brother: “This isn’t a woman’s march; this is a feminist march. We’re all feminists, but we’re not all women.”