By Vitula Henderson
I’m struggling with this new, post-election sisterhood with white women. I feel like this relationship is moving too fast, passing over the reckoning that I feel is necessary for me to move forward with confidence. It feels like a relationship with an abuser. “Baby, I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry. You just make me so mad when you speak up for yourself. I just get upset when the balance of power is thrown off and I need to control you and this conversation. I’m used to you having no needs or agency, centering my feelings even when I’ve hurt you. I need you to control your reactions to me, no matter what I do.”
How will I link arms and march in solidarity with white women without first seeing some accountability? I don’t want to completely shut down collaboration because we could use their numbers, funds, and labor to more quickly and successfully fight for social justice. But will I have to get into that abusive relationship again, where my Blackness is considered a distraction from the “real” fight?
How can I work with white women who don’t care about Black women and think an improvement for them is the same as an improvement for me, when only the reverse is true?
I supported Clinton and defended her against sexist attacks, though I knew she didn’t have my back in return. I even voted for her, though for the first time I seriously considered not voting at all. I saw liberal white women go hard for her, defending her, campaigning for her, becoming angry when she was treated with blatant disrespect, furious about sexist double-standards. I felt all those things, too.
But these white women were silent as they witnessed racist elected officials, media outlets, and their own family and friends disparage Michelle Obama by calling her aggressive, ugly, combative, militant and unfeminine. These misogynoirstic entities compared her to a gorilla, and white women did nothing substantive to challenge these gruesome displays of anti-Black misogyny. And yet they have the fucking nerve to openly wish Michelle would run for president.
They had the luxury of seeing Michelle Obama as their mule – smart, strong, capable, ready to fight for them – without actually seeing her as a vulnerable human being who had just been through an intense and harrowing 8 years of public, personal attacks. They reduced this beautiful, professionally accomplished woman to her arms, and didn’t understand (or try to understand) the problematic history of dehumanizing Black women.
I wished her cocktails, dancing, vacations and freedom. I was frustrated when people suggested she run for president, even in jest, because even in the glory of her Black excellence, people wanted to shackle her, not free her.
Instead of leaning on women of color like Michelle Obama, some of whom identify as LGBTQIA and/or disabled, some of whom are immigrants, I want white women put their own bodies on the line. I’d like to see them standing in front of the rest of us who are already so vulnerable for once.
Simply uttering “I need to check my privilege” is not equivalent to doing work. Protecting, defending, and crediting the Black women who have already developed excellent organizing strategies, who are already leaders, and who already have a plan for working for justice is. Last weekend’s march was important, no doubt, but the police didn’t show up in riot gear and they didn’t shoot tear gas or grenades into that crowd (as they do during Black Lives Matter protest, or as they did with the water protectors) because white women are respected and protected in a way Black women are not.
Any critique of the march will upset someone. But though I believe in resistance and protest, and want to find a way to welcome folks who are new to it, the absence of this level of support as the state killed Black people was conspicuous to those of us who have been trying to make our lives matter. I’m tired of being force-fed the pablum of positivity; critique is an opportunity to make things better. Though it can be uncomfortable, it’s also instructive. Do I want these “nasty women” to keep marching? Hell yes. But I want the narrative to shift, to be accurate, to reflect all of womanhood – not just white, cis, straight women.
When he is acting like a child, I’ve often said that I don’t want to raise my male partner, and that if I wanted to raise children, I’d have had them. I feel similarly about my relationship with white women. I cannot be in sisterhood with them until they’ve done some maturing. Until they’ve learned how to slow that reactivity/reflexive self-centering. Until they’ve learned how to be wrong and commit to doing their own personal work, to checking other white women so Black women don’t have to.
The reactions and responses to criticisms are often so visceral and reflexive that they haven’t even allowed themselves time to think, to develop self-awareness, to hear themselves, or to hear others. We can’t use defensiveness. We can’t even use apologies or excuses. We could use, “I hear you. I’ll do better,” and then for them to do better.
I guess it’s cool that people traveled great distances, knitted hats, made signs, dressed up like suffragists (who also ignored Black women, so this one is deep), and showed up to the march last weekend. But this also makes me want to build a giant bonfire and burn pink hats, signs that bear the phrases “grab my pussy” and/or “nasty woman,” and safety pins. These are tired and cliché, like Hillary Clinton doing the Nae Nae on Ellen. How can I honor this one-time effort without minimizing the consistent efforts that have been underway for centuries?
We know that many of the women who showed up last weekend will not be showing up/doing work in 3-6 months, because they don’t have to. So let’s show up for each other, and march with those willing to fight for freedom for all of us and not just for themselves or when it’s convenient.
Vitula is a believer in sciences, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM), and studied history in college and cell biology in grad school. She is afraid of snakes, but loves bikes and cake.