As last Saturday’s marches unfolded across the country, I watched from the literal edge. My wife and I had committed to a weekend trip with some friends to the Pacific coast. I wanted to be multiple places at once, but I traveled to the ocean with the understanding that I would spend Saturday watching the marches, providing logistical support to any of my participating friends who needed help or information, and amplifying their voices by sharing their images and words on social media.
It was both powerful and unsatisfying. Powerful to be able to see from a distance what was happening in its totality across the country and around the world. Unsatisfying, obviously, in not physically being part of one of the marches.
I share that just to provide a bit of context for my own absence in the march.
What I really want to talk about is the role of white women in the march and in the movement we hope to sustain well beyond last weekend.
One of the posts I shared on Saturday was Ijeoma Oluo’s expression of grief over the marches. A black writer and activist, she had chosen not to take part, and she shared how painful it was for her, as someone who has been working for justice for years, to see many showing up for the first time in their lives now that they feared Trump would impinge on their own rights. She asked of those who were marching, particularly white women who were perhaps taking part in their first significant political action: “Where have y’all been?”
It’s a provocative question, a challenging question, and a painful question. It’s also a perfectly valid question.
It’s not an easy question to talk about, but we need to. Because the way we act in response to it will ultimately shape our movement, either as a collective of clever signs and feeling good about ourselves as we take our protest selfies, or as a resistance committed to the humbling hard work that social and political change require.
It’s a question that implies that some of us don’t belong here because we are showing up too late, because we are motivated only by protecting our own interests, because we ignored the needs of others who have been suffering for far too long until we felt under threat ourselves.
If that idea offends you or makes you want to jump to your own defense, sit with that discomfort for a moment. I know I have had to. For all my pontificating and relatively comfortable political action (donating, calling, posting and posting and posting), I have rarely shown up and put my body on the line. I’ve chosen beach weekends instead.
Ok, a momentary salvo: Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, wrote poignantly about her issues with the “Where have y’all been?” mindset this week in a piece that widens the circle and invites collaboration even though we show up in different ways:
“Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win.”
But that doesn’t absolve us of needing to show up in a respectful way. Yes, we need a movement right now that makes space for all the newcomers fired up and ready to go (to borrow from President Obama) because this is an all-hands-on-deck situation. But we also need a movement that doesn’t yield the space that others have already created. We relative newcomers need to understand and honor the progress that others, especially people of color, have made, and we need to work in service of furthering that progress.
We need to understand that our showing up now may be met with skepticism from those who have been pleading with us to join them for ages, but we can’t let the complicated feelings that may produce in us get in the way of offering assistance, of serving the cause, and of doing our part.
And yes, I wrote those last three phrases with intentionally subservient language. Because if we newcomers, especially white people, muscle our way into a movement already in progress and make it about us (even if unintentionally), the needs and concerns of those more vulnerable than us will get sidelined, and we will continue to struggle with the deeply rooted challenges that inequity has created in our country. In a post this week, A. Tsahai Tafari likened this new “sisterhood” with white women to an abusive relationship: “I don’t want to completely shut down collaboration… But will I have to get into that abusive relationship again, where my Blackness is considered a distraction from the ‘real’ fight?”
As white people, our presence changes things. It’s no coincidence that marches of predominantly white women did not result in arrests or clashes with police, because the way our society thinks about protecting the bodies of white women is starkly different from the way it thinks about controlling the bodies of people of color.
Most of my friends’ descriptions of their march experience included words like “exhilarating,” “joyous,” and “empowering.” Compare that to Myles Johnson’s description of participating in his first Black Lives Matter protest after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths this past summer:
“Nobody had ever told me how sad protests are. I was ready to be angry and active in public — but not sad. I discovered that protests feel like politicized public funerals; their sadness can’t be conveyed through pictures and videos… You feel overwhelmingly vulnerable and exposed, and you’re trying to locate your power and composure in public while police are telling you where to go and not to go.”
The fact that white people’s presence changes demonstrations is not a fault or a critique. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on what that means. It is an opportunity for us to learn. And most of all, it is an opportunity for us to serve and protect the people of color who have gotten us this far and who can lead us forward.