“Woman is the ni**er of the world.”
Jasleen Kohli was at Saturday’s Women’s March in Los Angeles when she saw a white demonstrator holding a sign emblazoned with that phrase.
She was taken aback by this bold display of a racial slur. The saying turned song lyric was initially made famous by the seemingly well-intended artist Yoko Ono, and later adapted by her white husband, John Lennon, more than 40 years ago. Aside from the obvious painful associations, the slogan has long been criticized for its embedded assumption that “women” doesn’t already include women who are already called the n-word and its failure to contemplate the ways in which black women are doubly oppressed.
Kohli, who is South Asian and directs the critical race studies program at the University of California Los Angeles’s school of law, says she expressed her concerns to the sign holder, who promptly dismissed her with instructions to “think about it.”
This experience “reaffirmed the limits of non-intersectional feminist solidarity quite clearly,” said Kohli. “She must have marched for quite some time without being confronted by enough people to even consider how offensive it was for her to carry such a sign.”
To be clear, there’s no indication that signs bearing racial slurs or conflicts between white women and women of color participating in the hundreds of Women’s Marches around the world were at all common. Quite the opposite: By and large, attendees of all backgrounds said they reported feeling unity and solidarity.
Still, the exchange echoed a tension that has simmered alongside the sense of triumph that the Women’s March created for so many. During what University of South Carolina Beaufort sociology professor Deborah J. Cohan characterizes as “a moment of potential racial reckoning, for feminism and for the larger culture,” a question loomed over the march’s planning and lingered in its aftermath: Is the mainstream feminist movement finally ready to treat the perspectives and experiences of women of color with the same gravity as those of their white counterparts?
Among some black, Latina, Asian American, and Native American feminists, cautious optimism mixes with deep cynicism on this topic. For the women who harbor doubts, these reservations are based less on what happened at the recent marches and more on the many demoralizing lessons of history — some of them as recent as the last presidential election.
When it came to planning and programming, the Women’s March became a model of intersectionality
The public discussions about the relationship of women of color to the march have centered on the term “intersectionality.” As Lehigh University's Monica Miller has explained it, "An intersectional feminist approach understands that categories of identity and difference cannot be separated and doesn't abandon one category of analysis such as gender or sexuality in favor of (over)analyzing others such as race, and class."
In this context, the concern that’s surrounded the march specifically has had to do with whether it — and the movement some hope it will ignite at the dawn of the Donald Trump administration — prioritizes the unique issues facing nonwhite women. That’s something that, historically, has not often happened in the United States.
When it came to the question of whether the march would live up to this ideal, there were some significant early hiccups. Bob Bland, who conceptualized the event, and all of the other original organizers were white women. This raised concerns about whether the march’s agenda would speak to women who weren’t. The diversity deficiency was largely addressed when three prominent women of color and experienced activists — Tamika D. Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour — signed on as national co-chairs.
Even still, small fault lines were revealed, as the New York Times reported in early January that some white women were put off by discussions of race and racism on the march’s Facebook page and decided not to attend.
But when the official policy platform — a four-page document titled “Guiding Vision and Defining Principles” — was released the week before the march, there was little to criticize. Progressive feminists of a range of backgrounds were pleased to see that it made painstaking and explicit efforts to be inclusive of all racial groups, economic classes, and gender identities. It repeatedly emphasized the arenas in which sexism can be especially harmful to women of color and named black, Latina, and Native leaders among the past leaders whom the event would honor.
The official program of the main march in Washington, DC, echoed this stance, with a diverse lineup of speakers, several of whom delivered hard-hitting commentary on race. Angela Davis told the crowd, “Inclusive and intersectional feminism ... calls upon all of us to join the resistance to racism, to Islamophobia, to anti-Semitism, to misogyny, to capitalist exploitation.” She listed “resistance to the attacks on Muslims and on immigrants, disabled people,” “state violence perpetrated by the police and through the prison industrial complex,” and “institutional and intimate gender violence, especially against trans women of color,” among her priorities for action.
Ashley Judd, reciting a poem by 19-year-old Nina Donovan, drilled down into the ways racism intersects with sexism, modeling for the massive crowd how an intersectional approach to feminism sounds from a white woman’s perspective. In particular, she emphasized the fact that pay is particularly unequal for women of color:
I am not nasty like the combo of Trump and Pence being served up to me in my voting booths. I'm nasty like the battles my grandmothers fought to get me into that voting booth. I'm nasty like the fight for wage equality. Scarlett Johansson, why were the female actors paid less than half of what the male actors earned last year? See, even when we do go into higher-paying jobs, our wages are still cut with blades sharpened by testosterone. Why is the work of a black woman and a Hispanic woman worth only 63 and 54 cents of a white man's privileged daughter? This is not a feminist myth. This is inequality. So we are not here to be debunked. We are here to be respected. We are here to be nasty.
While there’s no reliable reporting on the racial breakdown of attendees, images shared from the event suggest a largely white group that nonetheless had significant numbers of racially and ethnically diverse participants, many of whom were outspoken about their particular perspective. Among the photos that circulated widely on social media: three Native American women with a sign that read, “Resisting pussy grabbers since 1492. Indigenous women rising”; an elderly Japanese-American woman holding one that said “Locked up by US Prez, 1942-1946, NEVER AGAIN,” referring to her time in an internment camp; several young black women displaying large posters proclaiming, “America is Black, it is Native, it wears a hijab, it is Spanish-speaking, it is migrant, it is a woman, it is here, it has been here, and it’s not going anywhere.”
Notably, women of color weren’t alone in highlighting the racial dynamics of inequality and of the feminist movement. In a nod to black women’s long and often underrecognized history of activism, a white man held a sign that said, “Screw it, I’ll do it — black women” (it also included the hashtag #ThankYou). A white woman’s placard called on her demographic to “do better.” In a Mother Jones video asking attendees for their post-march pledges, one promised, “I’m going to use my white privilege for good.” During the rally, attendees were led in chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name.”
“Of the thousands of women of color who joined the march, many held signs that specifically mentioned racial equality alongside the traditional feminist planks such as equal pay and reproductive rights. And there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of white women who also carried placards proclaiming their support for Muslim rights, Black Lives Matter and immigrant women,” McClatchy’s Hannah Allam reported on the DC march.
Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communications at Northeastern University who researches the ways in which race and gender are constructed in national debates around citizenship and inequality, says all of that is significant, and a reason for optimism. “We just saw the largest street protests in US history,” she said, “and that these protests were organized with women at the helm, and in the context of a clearly articulated platform that incorporates a wide range of intersectional concerns, is something to celebrate.”
But some women of color, even those who took part in the march, are skeptical about the future. The reason: history.
Jackson said the weeks and months after the march will provide the real test of whether the intersectional approach march organizers emphasized will take hold in real life.
“Now, once people return to their homes, communities, and workplaces, that will be the test as to if these intersectional issues truly can enjoy a central place in American feminism,” she said. “The responsibility falls on women with the most privilege to ensure that they center those with less in political conversations and efforts in the future. Unfortunately, this is where many have good reason feel skeptical.”
But that skepticism, she said, is based in history.
“Historically, and today, it has largely been women of color, queer and lesbian women, poor women, sex workers, and women with disabilities whose lived experiences have been excluded from the gains of mainstream feminism,” Jackson said.
She explained that the feminist movement of the 1960s “unabashedly borrowed from strategies and language developed by members of the civil rights movement before them,” but when it came to their demands, many middle-class white feminists were “more concerned with issues like the dismantling of the ‘happy housewife’ myth and access to elite professional opportunities than the issues faced by black women and other women of color.” These women had of course been in the workforce (out of necessity and against their will) and dealing with racism and sexism for quite some time.
One piece of history that some feminists said must be reckoned with is recent: voting patterns in election that put Donald Trump in the White House. Fifty-three percent of white women voters voted for Trump, while 94 percent of black women and 68 percent of Latinas voted for Hillary Clinton.
An image of activist Angela Peoples holding a sign that read, “Don’t forget, white women voted for Trump,” has become one of the iconic images of the event in some circles.
The point of drawing attention to these numbers wasn’t to accuse the white women in attendance at the march of supporting Trump. Rather, the exit polling on race and gender is a reminder that racism can’t be ignored in the fight against sexism, said Danielle Phillips-Cunningham, an assistant professor of women’s studies at Texas Women’s University.
“Since the 19th century, black women activists, later joined by other women of color in the 20th century, have insisted on the importance of problematizing race in the struggle for women’s rights. As such, the burden of making race central to women’s social justice movements has mostly fallen on the shoulders of women of color,” Phillips-Cunningham said. “Donald Trump winning the presidency makes clear that white feminists, who were not previously committed to challenging racism, must address it moving forward.”
Kohli, who saw the “woman is the ni**er of the world” sign, said her experience was part of what contributed to her mixed feelings about the potential for a truly inclusive reemergence of the feminist movement, despite other positive moments at the march.
"I went from being a bit cynical and wary at the outset to being surprisingly teary-eyed at the metro station upon seeing the huge lines of people, back to being cynical again after the incident with this woman [with the sign], and then moved and inspired by the post-march protest outside of the LA Metropolitan Detention Center organized primarily by immigrants and women of color and filled with so many young activists as well as longtimers,” she said.
Feminist and cultural commentator Jamilah Lemieux wrote in a piece for Colorlines that she had mixed feelings about the march, and ultimately decided not to attend. Why? “That sense of loyalty, interconnectedness, accountability and shared struggle simply isn’t there” with the white women who she knew would be at the march in the biggest numbers.
The experience she anticipated was confirmed by some attendees, who reported seeing women hugging police officers, as if to distance themselves from the Black Lives Matter movement and its criticisms of racialized police violence.
Others used social media to express disappointment about the dismissiveness they observed toward black speakers from attendees who didn’t seem to know who Angela Davis was and didn’t seem interested in her remarks.
Among some attendees, there was even the critique that pink knitted “pussy hats” that became part of the march’s unofficial uniform represented a color palette associated primarily with white women’s anatomy. “For me it has to also do with these false notions of sisterhood,” said Yaba Blay, the Dan T. Blue endowed chair in political science at North Carolina Central University, who has studied the way colorism combines with racism and affects institutions. In a response that was echoed by some transgender women, she pointed out, “It is not our anatomy that would make us sisters.”
But most of the skepticism — and cynicism — wasn’t about observations from the actual march, but rather about what would happen next.
“White women who are marching, I swear to what ever Gods there are ... this better not be a one day thing. I hope you're ready,” Lemieux tweeted. Others publicly wondered what would happen in response to the high-profile death of a black woman, like Renisha McBride, who was shot in 2013 when she sought help by knocking on a door after her car broke down.
Would white women show the same level of despair and solidarity they did at Trump’s misogynistic comments? Not everyone was convinced. As one sign from the weekend’s events read, “I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matter march, right?”
What has to happen next: conversations and actions that leave “we’re all the same” feminism in the past
Phillips-Cunningham said the results of the election give white feminists an opportunity to “interrogate whiteness and patriarchy within white communities. This means, for example, that they must initiate difficult dialogues with their family members who voted for Trump. When those sorts of intimate and uncomfortable discussions take place, then feminists across race and ethnicity will be able to struggle against the presidential regime in the most transformational way possible.”
A common pushback against this kind of intersectional approach to feminism — which is easy to stumble upon if you follow social media debates about the role of race in the march — is that it emphasizes differences instead of similarities.
“Since feminism relies on solidarity, some people fall victim to the temptation to push all other issues and identities aside so that gender is primary,” explained Aviva Dove-Viebahn, an honors faculty fellow at Arizona State University specializing in women and gender studies. “But intersectional feminism — and that’s how we must move forward if there’s any hope of coalition building, any hope of real change — cannot allow for that to happen.”
“We’re going to have to fight the temptation to say, ‘We’re all the same,’ as a kind of rallying cry,” she said.
That mandate is not just about words and language. It’s the basis of a mindset that will be required if feminists are to even contemplate some of the issues the march’s statement of principles calls for, like “accountability and justice for police brutality,” “[dismantling] the gender and racial inequities within the criminal justice system,” and affirming that all domestic and caretaking work is work and that women — especially women of color — bear the brunt of that burden.
Were the weekend’s marches, with their diverse leadership, progressive speakers, and intersectional platforms, an indication of a long-awaited turning point and the beginning of a feminist movement that will truly speak to all women? “It’s hard to say,” said Dove-Viebahn. “That’s a question for historians 20, 30 years from now. I hope so.”