Originally published on Medium and republished here with permission.
More than two months after the January 21 Women’s March on Washington, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to unpack my thoughts on the ripple effect of the march.
And, although there is a litany of elucidating articles and posts on social media written on the women’s march and what white feminism is (some of which I hyperlink), I’m hoping that adding my words will be like adding another coat of nail polish, letting the tomato sauce simmer for just a little longer, or rewatching your favorite TV series to discover all the subtext and foreshadowing you never noticed before.
This redundancy is power, demonstrating strength in numbers, and in the best case will gently introduce latecomers to the concept of white feminism.
I went to the Women’s March even though I knew it was going to be a march peopled predominantly by cishet, able-bodied white women.
A series of missteps in organizing the march very publicly communicated this was a demonstration that would sideline people of color, queer, trans, and sex worker-related feminist issues and appeal directly to mainstream liberal feminists (read: white), whether intentionally or unintentionally.
I believe it was unintentional, but negligently so – the lack of self-awareness was apparent from the original naming of the march as “One Million Woman” and its subsequent renaming as the “Women’s March on Washington.”
Both names of the march appropriate the names of marches that are remarkable milestones in Black American history.
This lack of self-awareness flowed into the hasty tacking-on of intersectionality as a core value of the march and the inclusion of accomplished women of color activists as lead organizers.
Although those remedial steps were taken, the slight of being treated as an afterthought (and perhaps with what could’ve been perceived as a shallow attempt at inclusivity) was significantly offensive as to discourage women of color from supporting or participating in the march.
The Women’s March was the first one many white women participated in, to the anguish of those who have long fought against oppression before the election of our current president galvanized activism and made it trendy.
It is this inattentive ignorance by proxy of not previously participating in activism that we mean when we say white feminism.
(By the way, I don’t exclude people of color from being capable of embodying the traits of white feminism – I’ve definitely been guilty of it before.)
But, while I had expected the majority of march-goers to be white women, what I didn’t anticipate was how I would feel inhabiting such a white feminist space.
Four things stood out to me.
1. White Feminism Was Visibly Jarring
It was immediately noticeable from the moment my friends and I stepped into a DC metro train to get to the National Mall.
The stops on the Red Line are in neighborhoods demographically not white enough to have populated the train with so many pussy-hatted women.
The garbage cans were filled with Starbucks cups, “a clear marker of the whiteness of the march,” quipped my Chinese-American friend, who was, adorably, more shocked than I was at the stark lack of diversity.
My two friends and I met up with a couple more Asian-Americans at the march. I immediately felt like we had become a monolith and yearned to somehow downplay our physically obvious Asianness.
My individuality felt robbed of me simply because of the lack of diversity.
These are not observations meant to shame white women – the overall march atmosphere was one of optimism, excitement, and solidarity.
These are just observations meant to make visible what being a visible minority feels like.
2. White Feminism Affected the Language
Many of the signs on reproductive rights, the pussy hats, even my own sweatshirt (I realized this in retrospect and apologize for contributing), and the popular “the future is female” slogan led to an atmosphere where the message was that capital-f Feminism cares about genitalia more than it does about womanhood.
(It was a play on the slogan “Yellow Peril for Black Power.” Nevertheless, it centered pussies and vaginas.)
I heard second-wavey chants like, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” led by enthusiastic and inspired middle-aged white women.
Although at first study, it seems like a cutesy way to insinuate that women don’t take shit and women rise up in the face of oppression, it’s actually pretty sexist and contributes to the trope that femme expressions of emotion are illogical overreactions.
This is a stereotype that once enabled doctors to diagnose women with “female hysteria.”
Even what Madonna said during her performance, “Donald Trump, suck a dick,” harkens back to a less enlightened feminism than the one we are capable of fostering – one that isn’t anti-sex positivity and homophobic.
And I also saw more than one white person carry a sign with “Let’s get in formation,” a lyric from Beyoncé’s song “Formation” from the seminal album Lemonade celebrating and illuminating the struggles of Black womanhood. Sigh.
3. White Feminism Reflected the Lack of Internalization of Intersectionality
The inability to think and act from an intersectional standpoint allows for counter-concepts and false equivalencies like #AllLivesMatter and #NotAllMen to exist.
Before the march began, I remember calling out an elderly white woman who expressed impatience for the march to begin while Janelle Monae et al. were remembering victims of police brutality (#SayHisName, #SayHerName) with mothers of some of the victims on stage.
I’m not particularly proud of of this moment, though it marked a significant moment for me as a generally docile and conflict-avoidant person in my everyday life.
Her disrespect for those lives unjustly lost overrode my ability to see her as a woman in her eighties tired of standing.
At another moment, I remember being shocked at the amount of noise made by the crowd as Angela Davis spoke, a time during which true deference should’ve been conferred to someone who has brilliantly spent a lifetime in various liberation struggles in the US and abroad.
“Do they not know who Angela Davis is?” I asked my friend Frankie in mock exasperation. “White. Women,” she replied.
I want to believe that the majority of such moments are a result of not paying close enough attention to the issues and not fully understanding intersectionality the way someone whose life depends on it might understand it.
I get that so many of the Women’s March participants are newly mindful of politics as something that affects them personally.
But this type of ignorance, as offensive as it may feel, can be remedied via education, if the recipient is willing.
The truth is many people are comfortable with a sugarcoated feminism that unites people by choosing to ignore our differences.
Many people are more comfortable with performative allyship than with having to face the, sometimes painfully, truthful feminism that lies in exploring our conflicts.
But truthful, conflict-responsive feminism has potential to drive transformative, at-the-roots kind of radical, change.
What is most insulting to women of color, queer, and trans women is that whenever this homogenization of feminism occurs, white women respond reactively and label us as hateful and divisive dampeners of their joy in feeling a sense of solidarity, however manufactured.
A more appropriate response would be to prioritize the voices of women of color, queer, and trans women and seek advice about why prematurely lumping us all together is not only disingenuous but constitutes erasure.
This defensiveness to critiques of homogenous feminism is equivalent to the reactionary response of cis-men to any countenance of the existence of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and misogyny.
But when one is reacting defensively, one is generally not that open to listening.
4. White Feminism Affected the Modus Operandi of the Day
What most startled me was the glorification of decorum and the self-satisfied attitude about civility and nonviolence.
Praise was showered on the march afterwards for how safe and nonviolent it was. What makes these characteristics praiseworthy, in this context, is something we ought to engage in further reflection.
Manners, themselves, are a matter of social convention that require trust in bona fide – in good faith – interactions where the prerequisite is that inherent humanity is mutually respected.
White women expected niceties of each other and of people of color that are unreasonable.
I don’t feel obligated to be courteous about white supremacy when time and again, we’ve been shown our humanity is disrespected.
In itself, decency is obviously not a bad thing, but when it’s also held as a moral requirement for equality, it’s the primary force of the holier-than-thou grip that white feminism uses to tone police women of color and devalue our concerns.
And when perceived rudeness or “hate” is used as an excuse to not fight for equality, it generally says much more about the species of allyship employed – an insincere one – than it does about the “rude” individual.
I also don’t understand it as an indicator of the success of a protest when it seems to me that disruption is necessary for change and disruption generally offends.
It seems like the privilege of someone who generally gets results from asking nicely and neglects to notice that this isn’t the norm for marginalized populations.
After the march, those four observations were solidified by the very personal experience of being told that I was being divisive with my “white women name-calling,” which launched a Women’s March weekend rampage against #whitefeminism mostly carried out via my Facebook page.
During those two days, I rapidly experienced what I now realize is a pretty standard set of feelings and interactions that result from expressing anything with fervor that undermines the status-quo enforcing belief that politeness is a prerequisite for uniting against issues of oppression.
It went a little something like this.
I realized I wasn’t angry enough until a friend scripted a message for me to reply with:
I’m not sure why you feel so entitled to inbox me trying to dictate what I can or can’t say or insinuating what I sound like. White feminism that isn’t intersectional is just another facet of white supremacy.
White folks must be willing to de-center themselves and the tendency to prioritize their issues and desires over everyone else. Until that day comes, no, I’m not going to “tone it down” just to make you feel better.
I don’t exist for your comfort.
I decided to write an article called “I’m Sorry I Wasn’t Outraged Enough About White Feminism” to apologize for not recognizing the tone-policing nature of the message.
I didn’t finish, but it went like this.
Tell me one more time that my identity politics are exclusionary – that my lived experiences are less valid than yours.
Tell me one more time that we’re all on the same side – and then tell me if you can define intersectionality.
Tell me if you’ve read any Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and I’m naming “mainstream” ones because I’m not that “enlightened”).
Tell me if you know the names of any disability activists, if you know the names of any trans activists, if you know what queer means, if you know why the “model minority” stereotype is dangerous.
Tell me if you care about formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated people, if you know we have a caste system in the US, if you know what it feels like to be born in the United States and expected to be a cultural ambassador for another country.
Tell me if you’ve ever asked a person of color why they’re angry before you say AllLivesMatter in different words.
I came to realize why I wasn’t angry enough and said so in a Facebook post:
January 22, 2017
I told a friend that I didn’t think I had a right to be this angry because I grew up so privileged but that’s because of where I’ve been placed in the US racial divide.
I’m supposed to believe I’m white while being used as an example of minority success that other minorities “could” achieve. The millions of untruths beneath this message are heartbreaking, and I’ll have much more to say about this.
But here is his pithy response:
White folks read you as being ‘on their side’ while also treating you as inferior. Because white supremacy.
In the meanwhile, I attempted to channel my own anger in ways that didn’t compromise my right to express them, but also wouldn’t alienate subscribers of white feminism open to taking a backseat and learning.
I agree wholeheartedly with what Jesse Williams said in his 2016 BET Awards speech:
The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job. All right, stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.
And I believe that those with the capacity and emotional energy to do the important work of educating allies – to help create a critical mass of white allies who can do that important work of educating their peers – should.
That’s why I posted a video explaining that I would try my best to balance my anger with providing resources for allies who genuinely want to evolve past white feminism.
But my decision to try to balance my anger isn’t a decision that should be forced upon other people of color.
I considered – and still mull over – what personal anger means in a decentralized movement where the political is inseparably entangled with lived experiences – where progress is created by a series of approximations in the “right” direction.
When am I the movement and when am I the individual?
But the rampage already felt worthwhile because I was able to put into words what fellow people of color had been feeling.
January 23, 2017
We’ve both gotten a cold post-march but also she’s of Chinese descent. So…yea ♡ #whitefeminism is not something coined to be “divisive.” It exists because people who aren’t cis white liberal women can feel it. Because our experiences of reality have been so discarded and unspoken that we don’t know the words to be authentic while living in your narrative.
And in this instance, I also succeeded at nudging a former white feminist into the role of a learner.
January 23, 2017
If you watched my live vid or saw screenshots from the march album, you’ll know that I said someone I respect told me to tone it down with the #whitefeminism. I did the opposite.
Instead of taking it personally, she listened.
Instead of shutting me down, she said use me, name me, if it will help focus attention on injustice.
Instead of telling me how to communicate, she’s taking a supportive backseat.
She’s open to learning and listening and hearing me.
Some people will say I’m not angry enough. Whatever. Don’t tell me how to feel. Some people also say I’m too angry and divisive, remember?
Thank you for taking the first step to true allyship. This is my way of fighting white feminism.
Since that weekend, I’ve continued to be vocal about the pervasiveness of #whitefeminist behaviors within a movement that must embody intersectionality, however repetitive I sometimes feel.
My interactions have confirmed that if we have the energy and the time, we can’t overstate white feminism post-march.
The more we share about our lived experiences and their divergence from the reality assumed by the tenants of white feminism, the more we learn that:
- There are always false allies who will reveal themselves to be unwilling to accept a more inclusive and egalitarian feminism – and that itself is a victory.
- There is always someone who hasn’t yet been reached, and we can’t urge them them to catch up without creating these bridges for them to cross.
- And there is always someone who recognizes their role in allyship as one of active listening and educating their peers, who benefits from each opportunity to relate.
After all, eradicating white feminism is worth the growing pain.
Jessica Xiao a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a self-proclaimed nerd and book hoarder who is guilty of tsundoku. Often inaccurately described as Canadian, she thinks of herself more as a Montrealer with US citizenship living in Washington, DC, after having obtained her BA & Sc. in Psychology and the dark art of Economics at McGill University. She is a grant writer for the Montreal-based international women’s economic development nonprofit Artistri Sud and the former assistant editor and writer at The Humanist. She believes in empathic action and bringing our whole selves to every aspect of our lives for transformational social change. She frequently quotes Dorothy Parker and writes bad poetry at stillsolvingforx.tumblr.com