The weekend of Jan. 21, I attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and was lucky enough to be surrounded by over 500,000 like-minded, democratically active citizens. Legions of pink hats and clever signs overtook the National Mall in downtown Washington. I felt empowered and powerful in spite of the previous day’s inauguration of our new president. After the march had finished, reports marveled at the lack of arrests. While many women took this as a sign of peacefulness and respect, others raised concerns about the racial implications of this phenomenon, especially in light of racially charged police aggression in the recent past.
The perception of “a harmless white woman” pervaded the march, and police officers wearing pink pussy hats and shouting affirmations of safety and love at marchers were signs of this racial bias. The successful peacefulness of the Women’s March is certainly positive, but it is critical that white women recognize the privilege we have and apply that to our role in activism.
A lot of march attendees took to social media, claiming that this event was “just the beginning” of modern political activism. However, while many of these injustices feel new to many of the white women who attended (myself included), feelings of political inequality have long been a reality for minority communities.
The importance of representational diversity in the realm of political and social activism cannot be understated. The University of Michigan is home to many liberal-minded, politically active students, but these students are overwhelmingly white, educated and upper-middle class. I do not intend to shame anyone for holding these identities, but it is imperative, now more than ever, to understand one’s ability and role in activism.
Political and social activism have historically been popular among white people, and as a result, women of color have been excluded from and marginalized in various major moments in activist history. Many movements toward gender equality almost exclusively catered toward the ideals of heterosexual, middle-class white women. This dissociation led to the creation of “womanism,” a term coined by Alice Walker, which focuses on issues unique to women of color. Despite social progress in the past few decades, the involvement of people of color in activism has elicited feelings of discontent among certain white Americans. Many white women claim to feel threatened by the supposed “attack on unity” resulting from the focus on intersectional oppression. This has generated significant debate as to what the purpose of protesting should be and also the importance of recognizing that those who are the subjected to the deepest injustices are not white women (and never have been).
People of color have also raised criticism of this being the first instance in which so many white women have expressed outrage, our silence being broken now that our rights are under attack. Incidents of police brutality have been circulating media outlets for years, and yet very few white women have participated in the many peaceful protests that have occurred in response to these atrocities. Luvvie Ajayi, best-selling author and media icon, stated eloquently in a recent Facebook post: “Remember that you as a white person are walking in a body of privilege. You didn’t show up before but you can show up now. NOW. When the next Sandra Bland, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner etc etc etc happens, you better come out. We will need you to show up again and again, in these numbers.”
While there could be any number of excuses made for why white women (once again, myself included) haven’t shown up yet, none will suffice. The new administration has made it clear that it will follow through on the promises of the campaign — platforms that attack the rights of many minority Americans.
White women, the first step we should take is to listen and respect the opinions of women of color. Our voices have been powerful in the past, and when the time is right, we can use our voices to empower all marginalized identities. We can no longer pretend it is sufficient to post Facebook statuses and express our concern on social media. We can no longer turn the other cheek to microaggressions and daily injustice.
We can no longer avoid real activism, as Madeline Nowicki wrote in an op-ed for The Michigan Daily, when she outlined some great opportunities for action. We must utilize our privilege to help those without it. Activism is not activism if you only seek change for yourself. We are responsible for helping to safeguard the well-being of all Americans, especially those who are being threatened under this administration. And while the challenge seems insurmountable, that does not make it an unworthy or hopeless cause. In the words of Audre Lorde, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Megan Burns can be reached at email@example.com.