March 7, 2017
By Mollie March-Steinman and Marni Fritz
In solidarity with the January 21st Women’s March in D.C., sister marches began popping up in cities across the country. Here in Pittsburgh, we had two marches. One, organized originally by white women, sprang up in reaction to the D.C. march, while the other sprang up in reaction to the problematic planning of the first.
A simple question on the original Facebook event page started it all: “Is this a white feminist thing?” White women organizers were immediately on the defensive, stressing that the proposed Pittsburgh march was a feminist issue and not a race issue, completely ignoring the fact that, for women of color, feminism and race are the same issue. Women of color were shut down and blocked from the page, and their comments were deleted.
Concerns directed toward the Downtown march’s Facebook page regarding inclusion, silencing and intersectional feminism were met with both defensiveness and genuine engagement. While valid criticisms were addressed on the event page, nothing was done to reconcile them. Leadership amongst the organizers shifted, the event page was deleted in its entirety (erasing evidence of criticism or wrongdoing), and a new event was created. Fake sponsors such as the August Wilson Center and the New Pittsburgh Courier, were cited without consent form the organizations to show there was support from the Black community, while the national organizers disendorsed the local march due to the way organizers handled the conflict. (The national organizers later re-endorsed Pittsburgh’s downtown march.). In response, the Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional Rally/March was organized, centering Black women and raising awareness around issues women face using an intersectional approach.
There has been some criticism of the second march as being divisive. This criticism tends to come from well-intentioned white women who do not recognize the historical racism within feminism in the United States. They can’t understand why, during the age of Trump, women are having trouble unifying around a common goal. However, if you study the historical relationship between white women and women of color in America–particularly Black women–you will see that it parallels a story of white supremacy. Over and over again, white women have chosen loyalty to whiteness over defeating the violence of patriarchy for all women.
This demographic has intentionally excluded and hurt people of color constantly, from the suffragists in the early 20th century to the 53% of white women who voted for Trump in 2016. When Sojourner Truth stood up to ask publicly, “Ain’t I A Woman?” white women asked her to take a seat and wait her turn. White women celebrate Susan B. Anthony, and disregard her staunch opposition to the 15th Amendment. One of the techniques of the suffrage movement was to align with white men to assert their equality, while distancing themselves from people of color in order to cement their “more deserving” status. It is ridiculous for white women to feel stung by any anger that is directed toward us. We have been the “divisive” ones all along, and it is our responsibility to listen, humble ourselves, and do whatever we can to build trust with our Black and Brown sisters.
Intersectionality is complex, and it is messy. When there are so many systems of oppression in place, we may find ourselves experiencing both privilege and injustice at the same time. Kimberle Crenshaw created the term intersectionality to describe the specific experiences Black women have, which are distinct from the experiences of non-Black women and Black men. Ever since, the concept of intersectionality has been an important tool for combating oppressive institutions and uplifting marginalized communities.
White people will inevitably experience white fragility, regardless of where one is on their anti-racist journey. The key is not to dismiss these feelings because they are too hard, but rather to confront them. Anti-racist white people should not strive to be the “best” white person in the room, or to be perfect all the time. We need to commit ourselves to a life-long journey of education, listening and co-conspiratorship. Mistakes are inevitable. It is up to the individual to learn from those mistakes and change behavior accordingly. There will be times when you feel like you can’t do anything right. We urge you to swallow your ego, and fully commit yourself to a life-long promise of anti-racist learning, action, and behavior.
Don’t organize for people. If you are not directly affected by the issue you are organizing around, and you are the only point of leadership, there is a problem. It is our job as organizers and passionate people to center those most directly affected and follow their leadership. We need to build accountability within our movements. Otherwise who are we really doing this for?
Listen. When people are telling you about their experiences of oppression and marginalization, don’t get defensive. It isn’t about you. Respect this moment and learn from one another, whether you share similar experiences or not. Collectively we have so much knowledge and vital information stored in our experiences. We need to stop shutting these experiences out by talking over each other or refusing to hear what we can’t believe to be true.
Speak and act with intention. Human lives are harmed every second by individual and institutional racism. Examine your daily behaviors and habits, and consider the ways you may benefit from, or perpetuate, racism.
If you are organizing and at your first meeting you realize that the majority, if not all, of the participants are cis white women, start over. That’s not feminism. If you don’t have accountable relationships with enough women of color to create an equitable table, then step back from your organizing position. Breathe. The best apology is changed behavior. Start forming those relationships. Work in solidarity. Too much is at stake to leave each other behind.
Mollie March-Steinman is currently self-designing an Economic Justice major at Chatham University. She is passionate about promoting peace and justice for all. Mollie is an intern with the NewPeople Editorial Collective.
Marni Fritz is the NewPeople Coordinator and Director of Communications for the Thomas Merton Center.