In all honesty, the last place I expected to see racist micro-aggressions was at the Women’s March on Washington.
Looking back, I can see how naïve my expectations were. I am a white woman who has never been the target of racism - which afforded me the luxury of believing that racism wouldn’t be an issue at the march. Because for me, it’s never an issue - at least, not directly.
It’s amazing how much privilege blinds us. For example, the day after the march, I wrote a post on Facebook, expounding on how proud I was that half a million people gathered in the nation’s capital and not a single arrest was made. My friend and travel partner Victoria pointed out to me - gently but entirely accurately - that a probable reason for the lack of police intervention was the fact that the majority of the march participants had white skin, just like ours. What if, she pointed out, half a million people of color had descended upon a singular location to protest? It’s very likely that the outcome would have been quite different, indeed.
Well, shit. She was right.
Intersectional feminism is hard, you guys - even as much studying as I do, I still find myself fucking up every now and again. I admonish myself on at least a once-weekly basis: bad feminist! But the reality of the situation is that we are all going to make exclusionary mistakes here and there, and all we can do is take accountability, apologize, learn, and keep trying to do better. I mean, just last week I actually found myself telling someone I needed to “man up” and accomplish something-or-other. I immediately caught myself - bad feminist! - but it’s amazing how much internalized misogyny can present itself, even to those of us who are constantly on the lookout for it.
In the same way, internalized racism affects literally all of us - because we grew up in a racist society that was founded on racist principles and still (mostly unwittingly, but no less harmfully) propagates racist ideals. Just because I am a vehement anti-racist doesn’t mean I’m immune to it; none of us are.
But in all honesty, there was one incident in particular at the Women’s March in Washington that I found deeply troubling - a blatant display of white privilege and ethnic erasure that still leaves me reeling in a what-the-actual-fuck state of disbelief.
The event itinerary stated that the rally was to begin at 10:00 am, and the march itself at 1:15 pm - meaning three hours of speakers. And due to the sheer volume of people, if you wanted to be anywhere within earshot of the monitors and screens broadcasting the speeches, you literally had to stand in one place, packed in like sardines amongst a group of strangers, unable to move save for craning your neck to try to see the screens above the sea of colorful signs and pink hats. It was a far cry from comfortable - by half past noon, my feet had gone entirely numb, and I had a persistent sharp twinge in my lower back from standing in one position for so long.
Predictably, the speaking portion of the event went into overtime. You couldn’t really expect it not to - an event of that magnitude, with that many speakers. But the clock had barely struck 1:15 when people around us began muttering - complaining that they’d had enough of the speaking and that we were here to march, so we should just get on with it.
And then, Angela Davis stepped up to the microphone - Angela Davis, a pillar of feminism, civil rights, and all-around social justice badassery - and just a minute or two in, I was horrified when the crowd began to chant. “Let’s march! Let’s march! Let’s march!” The voices completely drowned out that of the legendary black woman on stage.
As the speech continued, I saw a sea of faces - white faces - moving toward me; slowly, like molasses dripping, but nevertheless making steady progress through the thick crowd.
“Let’s go!” people were shouting, pointing toward the march route behind us. “We’re marching now! Turn around! Go!”
Slightly panicked at the prospect of this large crowd of people descending on me like a wave in slow-motion, I looked at Victoria, who was packed in next to me. “What the fuck?” she yelled to me above the chaos, echoing my own thoughts. “She’s still speaking!”
The people kept coming, and I heard a slight commotion behind me. Turning around, I saw a girl of Asian descent arguing with her white friends, who were preparing to join the early marchers. “No! I’m staying right here!” Her friends swept away with the crowd, and the girl turned to me, her brow furrowed. “They’re silencing a woman of color!” she cried, anxiously. I tightened my resolve: I was not going anywhere.
More shouts came from the early marchers, who had begun descending on us. “Go!” yelled a blonde woman, as the crowd shoved her against us. She pointed toward the march route. “We’re going that way now!”
“You can go,” Victoria told her. Planting my numb and tingling feet, I pressed myself against Victoria and the girl behind us, resisting the motion of the crowd. The three of us together were like a boulder in the middle of a river, white people flowing around us like water. I looked back up at the screen, where a woman of color was once again saying words that were falling unheard on white ears, and I thought to myself, “Isn’t this why we’re here? To show support for all marginalized groups?”
To say I was disappointed would be a massive understatement.
By two o’clock, the speeches had ended, and the march officially began. And as exciting and exhilarating and freeing as it felt to march and chant and shout, I was very aware of the fact that racism had colored the whole experience for me - even there.
So my message to you is this:
If you are a person of color, and you witnessed the disrespectful attitudes of so many of the white people at the Women’s March on Washington, my heart goes out to you. Please don’t forget that there are white people out there - myself included - who are 100% committed to fighting for your rights as well as our own.
If you were one of the early marchers - one of the people who helped to collectively silence an individual vastly more marginalized than yourself - I recognize that, most likely, your intent was not malicious. I’m not going to say “shame on you.” I know that for many of you, the Women’s March was your first display of political activism, and I know from experience that speaking out carries a steep learning curve. I applaud you for getting involved, and I don’t believe you intended to show disrespect for anyone there.
However, you’re not off the hook. Your mistakes, just like my own, are understandable - but they should not be ignored. They need to be examined, accounted for, and learned from. Impact is always greater than intent, and like it or not, that action caused a negative impact, regardless of what the intent was. You’re not a bad person - you’ve just been blinded to the persistent white supremacy that is the norm in our world.
Like I said, intersectional feminism is hard work, and there are inevitable pitfalls along the way. So what should you do when you fuck up? What should you do when someone calls you out?
Don’t give a knee-jerk reaction of “But I didn’t mean…” That doesn’t help. At all. Like I said, impact is greater than intent, and what matters is not what you meant to do, but what you actually did.
The best thing you can do?
Listen, then think about it, accept accountability where it’s due (even though you didn’t intend to cause any harm), and commit to looking out for these problematic behaviors in the future.
After I inadvertently displayed my own white privilege by ignorantly posting on Facebook about the lack of arrests at the march, I followed up with a sincere apology and an explanation of why what I’d said was problematic. And I have resolved to pay more attention and ensure that my speech is always inclusionary.
We are all going to make mistakes. The problem lies not in the mistake, but in the resistance to say, “Oh shit, you’re right, I didn’t even think about that” and learn from the experience. If we can all begin to do this, we will make steady progress in the fight for equality - for everyone, not just those who look like us.