Pussyhats in the Street and Elephants in the Room at the Women’s March on Washington: 3 Notes from a Recovering White Feminist

Like many of us who marched on Washington DC yesterday, I’m still processing. This is probably because I’m tired (being a revolutionary is hard work!) and possibly because I’m a bit hungover too (like I said, hard work!) but also because the Women’s March— like Trump’s Election– revealed the good, the bad, and the ugly about America.

And we’ve got to address three elephants in the room before we can keep moving forward.

Elephant #1: The Women’s March is NOT “just the beginning.”

On our way home from D.C., my husband and I stopped to get gas at a rest stop on 95. In front of us was a van with Massachusetts plates. It’s occupants (all white) wore matching headbands and it’s windows read, “DC or bust! The Women’s March is just the beginning!”

On one hand, I felt the same warm fuzzies I’d felt in DC the day before: there were millions of us, all across the country, and we were ready to fight.

But on the other hand, the more “woke” part of me said, “Wait a second. Just the beginning?”

Really?

If they’d written this sentiment in their window to remind themselves (and others) of the need to follow up on the events of the weekend with direct actions, phone calls to elected officials, perfect attendance at the polls in all future elections and donations to progressive causes, awesome. We all need these reminders.

But the suggestion that the Women’s March was “just the beginning” ignores, well, pretty much everything that came before it, from the the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights era (how quickly we forget MLK during this week of all weeks…) to the Water Protectors of Standing Rock who are, as we speak, still trying to defend their ancestral lands.

Yes, it was the beginning for some of us, and it was historic, and even though I’ve been going to protests since I was 17, I’ve never been as awed by the shear amount of people as I was this past weekend. But when you go around acting as if you’ve “started” something, without acknowledging that you’re part of a bigger legacy, you’re asking to be called out.

And… since it’s usually easier for white people to listen to other white people (never mind that we can’t expect women of color to constantly play the role of our moral compass, nor to bear the entire burden of educating the rest of us) consider yourself called out.

I’d give you a hug and a glass of wine if I could because believe me, I know that this sort of thing isn’t easy to stomach. And if you’re not ready to hear this right now, it’s okay– come back when you’re ready. For now, feel good about what we accomplished this weekend, enjoy your bragging rights and go ahead and post your protest selfies to help you remember how empowered you feel right now, because you’re going to need the reminders when the going really gets rough…

But don’t forget that there is more work to be done and we owe a huge debt to those who have been fighting the good fight long before last year’s election.


Elephant #2: Intersectionalilty matters. And if you don’t know what this means, YOU need to find out.

I spent nearly an hour stuck in the bowels of the L’Enfant station on Saturday morning. There were so many of us coming for the march that it took ages just to get out of the metro and up to the street.

A number of chants washed over the crowd as we waited, but when it came time for “Water is Life!” hardly anyone joined in.

This is in part because the mainstream media has done such a deplorable job of covering the work of the indigenous Water Protectors and their allies in attempting to stop the construction of the Dakota Pipeline that even people who care enough about their country to make the trek to DC didn’t know that “Water is Life” has become shorthand for indigenous rights and environmental justice.

But it’s our fault as well: very few of us have bothered to educate ourselves about the many forms of injustice that we now face, because we rarely see (or recognize) how they affect us.

The problems our nation now faces didn’t begin with Hillary Clinton’s defeat, and they wouldn’t have ended with her victory.

Which brings me to my next point: the “Black Live Matter” chant fared better than “Water is Life.” But ahead of me I saw a young man and woman exchange a look of utter surprise as the words caught on. Why the surprise? Well, they were both people of color, and their surprise made me feel ashamed, even though they eventually smiled.

They shouldn’t have been surprised. And if they were, it was the fault of white America– myself included– because we haven’t done a good enough job of showing up for them. We need to do better.


Elephant #3: Let’s imagine the Women’s March as a dinner party. White women, you’re a little late.

I say this as a white woman who has also been late plenty of times. And while I’m not proud of this fact, I’m willing to admit it.

But… if you’re late to a dinner party, you apologize to your host. You bring a bottle of wine and offer to help do the dishes. You don’t expect everyone else to wait for you, and you don’t jump to the front of the line at the buffet, and you certainly don’t expect your fellow party-goers to praise you just for showing up.

It doesn’t matter why you were late to the party. Maybe you didn’t know there was a party, or maybe you knew but heard that these sort of parties could get out of hand and you weren’t sure if you’re kids would be safe. Maybe you’re vegan and weren’t sure the party would meet your needs. Maybe you’ve never really felt the need to party before.

And while it’s great that you finally came to the party–that you flew all the way across the country and even made a special hat to wear– this doesn’t absolve your tardiness.

When a woman of color points out the hypocrisies of white feminism, you owe it to her to listen. (And to examine your own complicity here because there’s a difference between not being racist and taking an active anti-racist stance).

When a transgender individual points out the lack of inclusive language, you owe it to them to listen too. (And to educate yourself instead about right way to use your words. And yes, you’re going to have to do your own homework here because it’s not their job to teach you.)

When an immigrant woman wonders where you’ve been all this time (weren’t you listening when Trump called Mexicans rapists?) or a Muslim woman refuses to accept your well-meaning insistence that “it will all be okay,” you (and I include myself here) need to recognize that your privilege has and will, at least for the time being, continue to shield you from the very worst of American humanity.

I’m not saying you owe these women an apology (although that would be a great place to start), but you’ve got to remember that they’ve been at this “party” a lot longer than you. And while Saturday was great, it hasn’t always been (and nor will it always be) this much fun.


I’m fully aware that this post isn’t a particularly easy pill to swallow (and I owe a big thanks to Ashley Fairbanks and Leah Roberts Peterson for their Facebook posts, which gave me the guts to go ahead and write all of this) so I’m going to try to end on a high note:

We are all at different stages in regards to recognizing our privileges and working to address the many forms of injustice affecting our world. I feel pretty miserable every time I take another step along my own personal path to “enlightenment” because it’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, if just going to the march was a big step for you, that’s great and I personally would like to thank you for showing up because it gave me more hope than I’ve felt in a long time.

But we’ve got to remember this: while critics of the Women’s March are quick to point out it’s “lack of focus,” intersectionality and real coalition building are in fact our greatest strengths. So let’s work to be better allies, shall we?

 

 

12 Responses to “Pussyhats in the Street and Elephants in the Room at the Women’s March on Washington: 3 Notes from a Recovering White Feminist”

  1. Lunar

    I was at the March in DC and I think for me the best part of it was helping my friend find people around us to interview (she was making a video for her students). We went for diversity as best we could, and everyone had a lot to say, but my favorite interviews always came from the older women in the crowd. For so many young people, myself included, we’re joining a fight that’s already begun. Some of the women we interviewed were there when Womens Liberation was just spinning off from Civil Rights and Anti-ware protests. Absolutely fascinating to hear from them first hand. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Vickie

    So I’m a white woman. I was at the march. I have been working on political campaigns since I was 15. I vote in EVERY SINGLE. Election. I am married to a black man. I live in Philadelphia, where we vote over 80% democratic. And I will say this. You are asking me to listen? I always have. Out of my closest girlfriends, one is Jewish, one is Muslim, one is catholic, one is atheist and one is Sikh.
    I would love to go to a black lives matter protest. I have tried. I have been asked why I was there. I have been accused of “stealing” a black man. This argument goes both ways! Not every white woman is the same.

    Reply
  3. addie north

    I’m grateful to you, and to everyone else who went to protest, regardless of their background or experiences that moved them to take part. As a mixed-race American, I don’t feel that ignorance is a crime–many of my white peers had different experiences than I did, and that’s not their fault. Anyone who goes through life with an open mind and listens to other points of view instead of shutting them down is living well.

    Reply
  4. trulyunplugged

    I love what you say and how you say it…I hope you always find inspiration for your bravery, because you are so utterly engaging and spot on! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reply
  5. The Prof

    Well said! It is important to acknowledge our privileged position, but it is important to recognise that maybe some African Americans also voted Trump, just like many white women did not vote for him.

    Reply
  6. Leah

    Thank you so much for this, Kat. I needed to be called out. I need to be called out a bit more often than I am.

    I need to dust off my protest signs and make myself a hat. It’s been far, far too long since I’ve been politically active.

    For this particular dinner party, I admit that I sat back and waited for my invitation to arrive in the mail. As a Canadian currently touring New Zealand, it was far too easy for me to say that the invite got lost in the mail. I should have gone looking for the party.

    Thank you, also, for the reminder that it’s my job to do my homework, not the job of others to educate me (although, you are filling that role rather nicely, at the moment).

    I will do better.
    I will bring wine.

    Reply

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