Back in November, I was not convinced I wanted to attend the Women’s March on Washington. I voted for Hillary Clinton, but I had complex feelings about what my motivations for going to the march would be, especially as it was then being organized by white women. Several of the black feminists I follow on Twitter expressed concern about whether the march would include and amplify black, brown, trans, indigenous, disabled, and queer women’s voices.
Cut to last week. A colleague sent me a profile of the march’s organizers, and I was heartened by what I saw. They were black, they were brown, they were in hijab. In the article, I read they hoped the march would go beyond the symbolic. They hoped that through “real, courageous conversations” and “really uncomfortable discussions,” we could start to arrive at a semblance of unity. That sounded like a march I wanted to attend.
As I searched a sold-out Michaels in Silver Spring, Maryland, for poster board, I thought about the message for my protest sign. Something simple and factual that would challenge both my own comfort and the comfort of other white women at the march. Scrolling through Twitter, I saw a tweet from @Tallulahs_ghost that read, “White women gather round. 53% of us voted for Trump ... We have to own this shit storm.” She was right — we did need to own it. I would start for myself by carrying a sign stating a simple fact: White women elected Trump.
A thick Sharpie in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, I made my sign Friday night alongside my mom and best friend, who had arrived together from my home state of North Carolina. Mom’s sign was of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse (a personal symbol of her now-deceased mother) and referenced liberal women being a beacon of hope in our politically embroiled state. My best friend’s sign featured a picture of a torso with uterus and ovaries and subverted a line from Trump’s inauguration speech: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of these policies. …”
On Saturday morning, armed with snacks, layers of clothing, and our signs, we headed down to the Mall. We were ready. Before we even made it out of DC’s Union Station, I started to get comments. Someone wanted my picture with my sign. Someone wanted their picture with it. During the course of the day, I got three kinds of reactions from people who chose to interact with me. Thank-yous and high-fives from black and Latina women. Ashamed recognition from younger white women. And several emotional rejections — “No WE didn’t!” or “I didn’t, I voted for Hillary!” — from older white women.
There were moments of uneasiness carrying my sign, but overall, a few meaningful interactions made it worthwhile for me. At one point, a White woman approached me and said, "Thanks for your sign. My gut reaction was to be defensive, but I see now that's your point." The sign made me uncomfortable, it made others uncomfortable, and that was good. I am learning that, like many things in life, progress is made through discomfort. Discomfort means you’re human and on the move.
On Sunday, I wrote a series of tweets about the reactions I’d gotten to my sign and my thoughts on the march. We as white women needed to get more familiar with feeling uncomfortable. We needed to recognize that black, brown, trans, and queer women have been “doing the work” on intersectional feminism for far longer and at far greater personal peril. The march had been inspiring and given me hope. But we had to continue to work and to do so with respect. Finally, I said I was looking forward to what might be possible when we white women show up and focus our energies on intersectional women’s voices and experiences.
There was an immediate and overwhelming response to my tweets. Within an hour, I was retweeted by writer Celeste Ng, activist Bree Newsom, and humorist and podcast judge John Hodgman (a personal favorite — hi, John!). By Sunday night, I was featured in my own Twitter Moment and had almost 3,000 new Twitter followers. I got a lot of the expected responses when tweets go viral — people telling me I was being racist toward white people, I was being divisive, and on and on. But I got an equal or greater amount of laud and praise. “This whole thread is perfect.” “This is the most important thing you will read about the #WomensMarch.” “Thank you for your courage.” “She’s so brave.”
As the number of retweets, likes, and followers continued to grow, I started to get a sinking feeling I was being rewarded for clearing a very, very low bar. People were celebrating me for basic self-awareness and a modicum of a challenge to my fellow white women. Let’s be real. I carried a protest sign with a very basic statement of fact to a march organized and attended by many black and brown women, many of whom had messages similar to mine. Even in my own reflective tweets afterward about my experience, I was borrowing from observations black and brown women made about the march and attempts at intersectional feminism through the decades. I was a living embodiment of “white mediocrity versus black excellence.”
I happened to have tickets to the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday before the march. It was my third visit, and I was so excited to take my mom and best friend through its hallowed halls. That morning, learning about and reflecting on the critical role that black women had played in the civil rights movement only put into greater perspective what “doing the work” looks like. White women: Simply showing to up a march isn’t “doing the work,” and holding a sign isn’t real courage. Courage is standing up for your fundamental rights when you are marginalized, disenfranchised, and unsupported. Heroism is facing, head on, agents of institutionalized racism when your life or your child’s life is on the line.
We should set the bar higher for white women “allies.” Self-awareness is a start, but let’s quickly move from awareness to action. We must view intersectionality not as some lofty goal, but as a baseline requirement for our participation in feminism. The experience of “going viral” has suddenly given me a platform I never expected. I’ve spent the past few days thinking about what moving from awareness to action looks like for me personally. I’m not an academic or an activist. I’m a project manager from rural North Carolina, now living in DC, who cares about social, economic, and environmental justice. It’s going to take a little bit for me to figure out how I plan to live up to the hype many people were so quick to give me.
In the meantime, there are a few things I feel sure about. White feminists should educate themselves and not demand to be taught. White feminists should amplify and center intersectional voices over our own. White feminists should be ready to take on leadership within our own ranks to listen, teach, organize, and show up.
I’ll close with a few voices that have greatly impacted me and my own burgeoning sense of intersectional feminism over the past few years:
- Feminista Jones (@FeministaJones)
- Raquel Cepeda (@RaquelCepeda), co-host of the Show About Race podcast
- The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (@jesmimi)
- Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia)
- Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLemieux)
- April Reign (@ReignofApril), #OscarsSoWhite originator and BroadwayBlack.com managing editor
- @NewBlackWoman, NewBlackWoman.com
- Josie Valadez Fraire (@JosieVF)
These women are brilliant and unflinching about race and feminism. The list goes on and on if you’re willing and motivated to listen and learn.
Ali Tharrington is a project manager living in Washington, DC. She hails from rural Warren County, North Carolina — home of Soul City and the environmental justice fight against the infamous Warren County PCB landfill. She lives for dance, dark liquor, and intersections of race, politics, and pop culture. You can find her on Twitter at @MsTharrington.