“What’s the difference between feminism and white feminism?” My friend asked me in a text message. She had been looking at the Women’s March website, and she didn’t fully understand the distinction. I sat there for a while, staring at my phone, trying to figure out whether it was possible to hazard an explanation the length of a text message. I decided it was too complicated, something we needed to discuss in person.
Several days later, I found myself in a sea of pink hats, in the middle of our nation’s capital, trying to find my way to Independence Ave. When I arrived at the Women’s March on Washington, I had no idea where to go. Every street in every direction was flooded with demonstrators, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. I had to stand on my tip-toes to see the mega screen projecting live videos of the rally’s speakers—at times barely audible over the noise of chatting marchers. As I stood there, I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the event. All around me were women laughing and hugging and screaming like they were in the audience of a live broadcast of Rachael Ray. We deserve to celebrate ourselves, I coached myself, trying not to be cynical.
I tried to focus on the dizzying display of badass intersectional feminists leading the rally. Black, brown, Latina, native, disabled, formerly incarcerated, undocumented, queer, and trans women took to the stage to proclaim their truths, representing social justice organizations and movements that have been doing the good work for a long time, and will continue to do so in the years to come. When they announced that Angela Davis was about to take the stage, I nearly lost my shit.
“At a challenging moment in our history,” Angela began, “let us remind ourselves that we the hundreds of thousands, the millions of women, trans-people, men and youth who are here at the Women’s March, we represent the powerful forces of change that are determined to prevent the dying cultures of racism and hetero-patriarchy from rising again.”
March, march, march, the white demonstrators around me began chanting, drowning out the rest of Angela Davis’s speech.
March, march, march, march, they screamed, waving their pink “Pussy Grabs Back” signs and performing various renditions of the white woman two-step.
If these women had quieted down for a moment, they might have heard Angela when she explained that “This is a country anchored in slavery and colonialism, which means for better or for worse the very history of the United States is a history of immigration and enslavement.”
They might have stopped to wonder what progress has and has not been made for women of color since that day in 1970 when Angela Davis was arrested by the FBI for crimes she did not commit.
They might have considered, for a moment, who and what deserved celebrating. Was it really their pink pussies? Their privileged white daughters decked out in North Face jackets? Their collective, and questionably phrased, “girl power”? Or was it the fact that up on that stage, women of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds were bravely sharing their stories and fighting for a world where justice and equality were not only ideals, but realities for all women?
I am a cis, white woman, a lesbian, and an intersectional feminist. As a liberal-progressive woman, I am not automatically entitled to the feminist label. It is something I fight for, challenge, question, and talk about on a daily basis. And the more I consider the weight of that label, the more I believe that feminism without a radical basis of anti-racist, anti-oppression work is not actually feminism at all.
Feminism is not just “the radical idea that women are people,” it is the radical idea that all people—especially women—deserve justice.
Or, to put it another way, white feminism is not truly feminism.
I am proud of what we accomplished this Saturday. I am proud that people showed up in the smallest towns and the biggest cities, in the snow and rain, wearing their rainbow flag capes and their purple lipstick, bringing their partners, their children, their parents, and their radical politics. I am proud that the organizers of the Women’s March espoused a truly intersectional platform. I am proud that people chanted Black Lives Matter and wore American Flag hijabs.
But for all feminists, new and old, this is only the beginning of a long fight. As a white feminist, I am humbled by all the work I haven’t been doing, and energized to begin showing up—in the streets, in meetings, in my community—to make justice a reality. I hope that all those two-stepping, pussy-hat-wearing white feminists who showed up at the Women’s March will do the same.
*Cover photo courtesy of Flyah Angelou