This is the first of a two-part reflection on the global Women’s March that occurred on 21 January 2017. This discussion expands on a post first published on 10 January, eleven days prior to the global protests. It reflects the tensions between the initial goal of the Women’s March in Washington, which aimed to be inclusive of intersectionality, and the White women who wanted to attend the March, but objected to this aim.
Despite many positive outcomes, the issues discussed here that centre on Whiteness continued to affect the attendance, experience and discussions of the marches after the event. This post examines the attitudes of White women as discussed in an article by The New York Times, which reflect the broader dissent expressed by White women who continue to oppose intersectional conversations about the Women’s March.
The issues here remain relevant not simply as women around the world reflect on the racism and exclusion they faced at the marches, but also because one of the co-organisers, Linda Sarsour, is currently facing racist backlash only days after the event.
The second part to this discussion is forthcoming and it will be a visual reflection of my attendance at the Sydney March.
“But if your longer-term goal is to use the march as a catalyst for progressive social and political change, then that has to include thinking about race and class privilege.” – Historian,DrAnne Valk, speaking about the
Solidarity to the organisers of the march who have consciously made the march about intersectionality (the connections between gender, race and other social inequalities), and to the other women of colour who are working hard to keep that focus in conversations.
There are so many problems with the recent article on the Women’s March published in The New York Times, despite covering an important issue. It mentions the “tone” of women of colour who are challenging White women to think about racial divides, but not tone policing which is in abundant display here and on social media. One White woman says:
“How do you know that I’m not reading Black poetry? The last thing that is going to make me endeared to you, to know you and love you more, is if you are sitting there wagging your finger at me.”
This passage reflects the overall problems with White feminism. The term White feminism describes feminist practices that ignore, erase and silence race in scholarship and activism. White feminism also undervalues the history, contributions and experiences of women of colour in advancing women’s rights. It shows how White women benefit from, and are complicit in, racism and class inequality, through their behaviours and attitudes, or through inaction.
White feminism is exemplified by the White women who believe the word “women” in “Women’s March” should reflect their interests above Others.
White feminism deflects the structural inequalities of racism by refusing meaningful engagement with people of colour. (I could have read Black poetry but I haven’t, and I will act indignant about this!) White feminism is the prevailing idea that White women should lead “women’s events” and that these actions should be structured around their comfort. White feminism is a sense of entitlement to gender equality, qualified support for women of colour, and threats. (I’ll withdraw my “allyship” if you keep asking me think about racism!)
The idea of feeling “unwelcome” is peppered throughout this article, reflecting White fragility, but there is no discussion of the institutional and everyday ways White women exclude women of colour.
“White women” are specifically referenced by the New York Times as having fought for “workplace protections.” So have women of colour – for centuries; most famously by women like the Black activist Sojourner Truth who fought for equal footing in the suffrage movement, to the Combahee River Collective, who made connections with feminists in developing nations and working class movements, and much more in between and since.
This article only refers to women of colour’s achievements by evoking the recent work of the Black Lives Matter movement, co-founded by Black American women, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullor who are also queer, and Opal Tometi. The New York Times only gives this activism a cursory reference by mentioning “young women’s” organisation against police brutality.
Make no mistake about it, affirmative action in the USA has almost exclusively benefited White women. The wider adoption of intersectionality as a framework exists specifically to address this: Kimberlé Crenshaw is a law professor who used the concept of intersectionality to show how gender discrimination laws did not help Black women at work as they experience racism alongside sexism. Using case studies Crenshaw showed that gender and race laws are separate, but needed to intersect to better support Black women.
Back to the New York Times article. Intersectionality is poorly described (“it asks White women to acknowledge that they have had it easier”) rather than thoughtfully explored.
The story projected is that some White women are complaining that women of colour are “divisive.”
Are all White women who are feminists practising “White feminism”? No. (Bob Bland, the original Women’s March organiser in Washington joined her cause with other women of colour who were already doing similar activism. For the Washington march, she collaborates with Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez.) Then again being anti-racist is not simply a label. Intersectionality requires critical engagement and action for us all.
The problem with the New York Times and the views it elevates is the failure to properly engage with the myriad ways in which White feminism is divisive. The article also draws away from deep considerations of how intersectionality offers unity through mutual respect, critical reflection and shared responsibilities in the fight for gender equity.
The story should not be told through the eyes of White women who feel “unwelcome” in activism co-led by women of colour, but why some White women want to march for gender rights only of the condition that racial equality is not in their pathway.
The Women’s March is happening in various cities around the world. In Sydney, it will be held on
Photo: The organisers of the Women’s March Washington, left to right, as described by NYT: Tamika Mallory, a gun control advocate and board member of the Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit founded by Harry Belafonte; Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York; Bob Bland, founder of Manufacture New York [holding a baby]; and Carmen Perez, executive director of the Gathering for Justice.