Fellow White Feminists: Don’t Get Defensive, Get Motivated!

Women’s March on Washington demonstrations were held worldwide on January 21, and in some ways they were very successful (there were more people in DC for the March than for Donald Trump’s inauguration as President the day before, for starters). The event was a rallying cry, a way of saying NO, we are not okay with a pussy-grabbing, reproductive rights-denying, healthcare-repealing, walking ad for rape culture running the show, we do NOT support him, and we will fight him and everything his administration stands for. It was, I believe, only the beginning of a series of demonstrations against the threats to democracy, human rights, and the planet that Trump’s administration represents, demonstrations that I hope will translate into the kinds of concrete actions that right-wing conservative grassroots movements have already shown to be effective: attending “town hall” meetings on important issues. Telephoning (not e-mailing) representatives and lawmakers frequently and continuously and making sure they know what we want. Voting in congressional, provincial, state, and municipal elections. Organizing. Getting shit done and making life difficult for those who do not protect the rights and interests of the people they represent/work for. Onward!

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As we do move forward, however, we, as feminists (and now I’m specifically talking to white, cis feminists) need to take into account the criticisms made by multiple groups of marginalized** women (including women of colour, Indigenous women, trans* women, women with disabilities, homeless women, and sex workers) who, in large or small ways, experienced exclusion and oppression at the Marches. Examples of this kind of exclusion/oppression include white women telling women of colour that they were being too “divisive” when they pointed out that 53% of white women in America voted for Donald Trump, or when white women did not recognize that Indigenous women drumming, dancing, or wearing traditional dress at the Marches were enacting important and sacred parts of a living culture, not a quaint museum piece, or when the organizers of the Vancouver March excluded representatives from Black Lives Matter Vancouver from participating on the organizing committee or speaking at the event (and then removing a thread discussing this exclusion from their Facebook page), or when a white woman on the way to the march in DC tried to block a black woman from entering a crowded train by physically putting her hands on her (and then loudly complaining about the black woman, who needed to go to work and managed to squeeze into the train that obviously DID have room for her after all, throughout the whole ride and making her cry [I read about this incident in a social media thread but am unable to locate the original thread so cannot give the woman credit for her story]).

My point is that white, cis-hetero feminists don’t have a great track record when it comes to the marginalized women whose support we have historically depended on. Though the feminist movements of yore have improved the lives of women in North America through the years, it has often made these gains at the expense of, or to the exclusion of, non-white women (for example, the suffragettes did not demand the vote for ALL women, just WHITE women). Conditions improved for white women long before they began to improve for our marginalized sisters, and the gaps that still exist between my privileges and their positions in society are actually downright embarrassing in a political culture that prides itself on equality.

It’s not really surprising to me that many women from traditionally marginalized communities have decided that enough is enough. They have declared their intent to participate only in feminist movements that are truly intersectional, that recognize the complex webs of privileges and oppressions that are experienced by different women in DIFFERENT ways, rather than support a white feminism that continues to pretend that the interests and experiences of white, cis-hetero women are the norm from which all other needs and experiences deviate. These women are angry, and rightfully so, and it seems we white women can’t take it.

I’ve heard it said that women of colour, for example, are being “divisive” by demanding their rights be addressed, when what we need right now is “unity”. Bullshit. If women of colour have to ignore their legitimate grievances, but white women don’t have to change anything about OUR behaviour or goals, that’s not “unity”, that’s erasure and oppression.

I’ve heard it said that we are facing an unprecedented evil, and that the movement to defeat sexist, fascist Trump-ism in the U.S. and abroad is too important to be derailed by infighting. Damn rights. That’s why white women need to suck it up, confront our issues, and stand in solidarity with our sisters. WE’RE the ones being the problem, not them. Our cause is vital. We cannot allow it to fail because our feelings were hurt when it was pointed out to us that we are not the perfect saviors we thought we were.

I’ve heard it said that the anger being expressed by some marginalized women will “scare away” people getting involved in activism for the first time. I don’t necessarily agree with first-timers being chastised for “not being there before”, because everyone has to start somewhere, but generally speaking, white women are just going to have to grow a thicker skin. Bottom line: if you can’t handle righteous anger, you are not ready for the revolution. Besides, if inequality doesn’t make YOU angry too, what the hell are you marching for?

I get it. The Women’s March on Washington felt good (I wasn’t able to go, but still, it felt good). It felt hopeful. It felt like we were on the right side of history. No one likes to feel uncomfortable or, *gasp!*, guilty about something that may not have been their actual, personal, individual fault (after all, YOU didn’t vote for Trump or harass an African American woman the train, right?). Why did these Other women need to come along and kill your buzz? It’s not fair!

Now, before you cry “Not all white women!”, remember that it doesn’t f*cking matter if not ALL white women. Any feminist movement that allows ANY white woman to treat a woman of colour as less-than, any movement that excludes non-white, non-cis women from its organizing committees and speakers lists, is not part of the solution, it’s just another part of the problem (a more subtle, insidious part).

If you don’t want to feel guilty about something YOU personally didn’t do, don’t. I don’t feel guilty and I don’t feel the need to be defensive. I do feel a bit sheepish about my ignorance, and I do feel a new sense of responsibility to see and listen to and, if necessary, speak up for my sisters. I do feel unsure about how to do this, and I’m worried that I will make mistakes, and I know for a fact there are going to be times when I will fail. But I’m not going to let that stop me from trying, and I’m not going to let that stop me from being hopeful that I have the capacity to make a difference. I want equality. I am being shown the way by women who have never had the privileges I enjoy. If anything, I feel humbled and motivated.

Equality begins at home. Equality begins inside the movement. Let’s do better.

Let’s do this.

 

** I use the term “marginalized” as a shorthand blanket term to refer to various groups of women because these women have traditionally been silenced and pushed to the margins of both feminist movements and society at large. I do NOT mean to infer that any of these women represent a “niche” issue or “special interest” (or that their concerns are in any way less “legitimate”), only that they have not enjoyed the visibility and amplification of white feminists.

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