Between 2014 and 2016, I attended several protests and rallies in Boston responding to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the non-indictments of the officers who had killed them. Although I didn’t keep a diligent count of the demographics, it did not escape my attention that visibly fewer than half of attendees were white, more than half of white attendees were women, and more than half of white people at these events presented as queer in an obvious way.
So it seems that, despite their abundance, cisgender, heterosexual, white people – especially men – are a rarity at Black Lives Matter events in Boston.
But the few cis-het white men who did show up? Wow, did they enjoy leading chants.
In the proximity of a cis-het white man, we rarely if ever experienced more than a few seconds of relative quiet without him bellowing a chant and expecting the crowd to follow along. Cis-het white women were similar. Often, chants initiated by white people would interrupt and ultimately drown out a chant led by people of color.
This is a problem.
It’s a problem that we white people didn’t show up when the Black Lives Matter movement needed us, and it’s a problem that those of us who did felt that our voices needed to be heard more than others.
Why? First: Black Lives Matter exists because white people have systemically ignored black voices for a very long time. We do nothing to help the cause if we show up only to speak over them yet again.
Second: chants led by people of color were different from chants led by white people. White people raged against racist police; people of color decried white supremacy and a corrupt system. That difference matters.
Then there were the white people who happily joined or started chants that we have no business shouting, such as “I can’t breathe” (yes we can – we aren’t the ones that systemic racism is oppressing) or “Whose streets? Our streets!” (Yes, they are our streets. That’s the problem!).
All this to say, the few cis-het white people who do show up for Black Lives Matter consistently fail to listen to the voices we are trying to support.
Which brings me to the the Women’s March.
Anyone who hasn’t avoided the news for the past several weeks has likely heard about the overwhelmingly-well-attended Women’s Marches around the world on January 21st. News sources disagree on how many people attended, but minimal estimates count millions of people at marches in all 50 US states, at least 60 countries and all seven continents. Everyone except Sean Spicer seems to agree that the D.C. Women’s March alone was better-attended than Trump’s inauguration.
This fact on its own is fantastic. My girlfriend and I attended the Boston march with some friends and the experience was powerful and moving.
Unfortunately, after the march I heard and read too many stories about black women, indigenous women, Muslim women, disabled women, and trans* people being ignored or outright disrespected by well-meaning white marchers. So there’s a few issues that we white people need to address before we become too complacent about our role in improving the world.
Congratulating ourselves on organizing a protest that resulted in zero arrests.
Again, this is an objectively good thing. Peaceful protests are meant to be exactly that, and the fact that organizers managed to keep all events free of rioting or aggression is a feat to be commended.
That said, we as white people can’t take all the credit for this. In the days following the march, I witnessed a trend of self-congratulatory posts gradually evolving into white people wondering why, if we managed it, the BLM and No DAPL protestors couldn’t avoid violence. Why couldn’t they just do what we did?
This is where white people need to stop and check our privilege.
At every BLM protest in Boston, I saw long lines of mostly-white-cis-het-men police officers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, staring straight ahead with blank expressions, occasionally resting their hands on their guns. Full riot gear was rare in Boston, but I did see it from time to time. As instructed by march organizers, we ignored the police and kept to our route, but the tension was palpable.
At the Women’s March, the atmosphere was completely different. Police officers still lined the route, but they were visibly more relaxed than any of the officers I saw at BLM events. Many of the officers at the Women’s March were smiling. Some made eye-contact with people in the crowd and nodded. One or two even cheered. I didn’t personally witness this, but there are videos of police high-fiving marchers in other cities. I saw no riot gear in Boston. No officer’s hand was anywhere near a gun.
It is unfair for white people to claim credit for the difference in police response to the Women’s March. Many of the marches changed their routes at the last minute (which they are not supposed to do), and at Boston alone I saw tons of people ignoring requests that the police had made before the march: holding signs with wooden pickets, wearing backpacks, and carrying bags that were not at all transparent. Meanwhile, BLM marches in Boston showed zero threat of violence on the part of the marchers, no weapons, and no engagement with the police. Like the Women’s March, BLM events had volunteers specifically present to make sure that attendees followed all of the rules.
In short: the palpable difference in how the police treated us had nothing to do with attendees’ behavior.
Police felt more comfortable with the Women’s Marches because they consisted primarily of cisgender-heterosexual-white women. People of color and LGBTQ+ people were present, yes, but cis-het white women were the clear majority, and this prevalence put the police at ease. White women are not a threat. White women are “on their side.” Events consisting primarily of people of color marching for their lives feel more threatening to the police, and as a result they are treated differently.
So think twice before you say something smug, comparing the Women’s March to the BLM or NoDAPL movements. Acknowledge your privilege and the role that it played. Sit with that. Process it. Feel uncomfortable with it.
Then use your privilege for good.
How do we do that? The obvious answer is to attend more events supporting people of color. I have frequently seen or heard people of color asking: “Where were all of you when we marched for Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown…(etc)?”
In general, we weren’t there, but we can change that. We can attend protests and rallies supporting people of color, Muslims, refugees, and indigenous people. We can show up for marginalized people and pester our friends into joining us, and it will do these marches good. The increased presence of white people – especially cisgender-heterosexual-women, will likely help the police to feel less threatened. It’s sad, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s true.
Walk on the edge of the crowd, where you will be most visible. See a woman of color holding a particularly contentious sign? Walk near her. Watch her back.
I did not come up with these suggestions, by the way; women of color have been saying all this since before the Women’s Marches took place.
Can’t show up physically? Research other ways to support people of color and their causes, whether by donating money, spreading the word, or doing something else that these movements are asking for. The Women’s March is a perfect example of how white feminists need to improve at listening to and supporting people who are marginalized in other ways.
Which brings me to my next issue:
Ignoring the needs and struggles of trans* people.
(I’m using “trans*” as an umbrella term for trans men, trans women, and everyone who identifies as gender non-binary. I did not invent this term.)
Although Boston’s pre-march program made a fantastic effort to include women of color and disabled women, at most a few cursory mentions were made to trans* people.
Worse, many marchers’ signs mentioned “uterus,” “ovaries,” and other reproductive anatomy that cisgender women often mistakenly assign to all – and exclusively – women. After the march, I heard and read responses from trans* people saying that these signs and slogans made them feel invisible, excluded, even dysmorphic.
Simply saying “trans women are women” helps no one if we’re going to exclude trans* people from our actions. Already we’re ignoring trans men and non-binary people when we claim abortion as a “woman’s right,” but using “uterus” or “ovaries” as a stand-in for “women” excludes trans women from the conversation. Trans* people are already fighting for recognition, inclusion, and safety in a country that is openly hostile to them, and for many people losing Planned Parenthood means losing access to vitally important hormone therapy. It’s unfair and counterproductive for cisgender women feminists to exclude trans* people from our cause, but unfortunately it seems to happen unintentionally.
So how do we counter it? Again, I have a solution presented to me by a person who was directly affected; I cannot overstate how important it is for white feminists to listen to marginalized groups.
Instead of focusing on reproductive rights specifically, lets fight for body autonomy for all. Let’s acknowledge the services that Planned Parenthood provides to trans* people. “My body, my choice/their body their choice” does not need to specify cisgender women. It can include trans men and non-binary people who need abortions and birth control. It can include trans women who need access to hormones. We can protest Trump’s open and unapologetic history of sexual assault without implying that only cisgender women are ever assaulted.
Beyond that, lets show up for trans* people when they need us. There’s plenty to do, especially now. If you live in a state where trans* students could be affected by Trump’s withdrawal of trans rights from Title IX, find out what you can do to fight back. If you live in a progressive state with its own anti-discrimination policies, research ways to support trans* people who need help. This article is a great place to start.
Speaking of extra work, issue #3:
Potentially quitting activism after the March “high” wears off.
I’m thrilled to see people still involved in activism more than a month after the march, but this is a problem that we as white people need to keep in mind over the next four years. Non-marginalized groups tend to lose interest in civil rights movements more quickly than marginalized groups do. White people get fired up on issues, sure, but we tend to spring into action one day and then return to our regular lives the next.
As a gay, cisgender, white, able-bodied, middle-class woman with chronic health problems in Massachusetts, I am protected by state law in the ways that my disadvantages might affect me. My privileges take care of the rest. I, like many people, have the ability to stop paying attention to issues that deeply affect minorities across the country.
But we can’t let that happen this time. There’s too much at stake.
How do we counter this?
- Stay informed. Follow reputable news sites and fact-check everything you hear or read. Listen.
- Pace yourself. I’ve heard from multiple people in multiple contexts: this is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t push yourself to every event, just more than you would have attended before. Take breaks, engage in self-care, then come back.
- Don’t get discouraged when you do things wrong. Most of the issues I’ve addressed above are things I myself have done. I didn’t protest police brutality until Michael Brown’s death in 2014, and even then I happily chanted “OUR STREETS” until the problem was pointed out to me. Acknowledge your mistakes and do better the next time. Let your attempt to self-correct be the momentum that keeps you involved.
Speaking of self-correcting mistakes:
Speaking over marginalized groups.
I mentioned that this happened at the BLM events, and it happened at the Women’s March too. As the last few speakers – all of them women of color – addressed the crowd, a chant gradually took over the audience. People – most of them white – started shouting “March, march, march!” Our impatience to walk led us to literally shout over women of color who were trying to inspire us.
I will acknowledge that the size of the crowd meant people at the back couldn’t hear all of the speakers, but that does not excuse the people around me who started chanting. It does not excuse our tendency to value our white voices over other voices.
So let’s stop and listen. There are so many ways to do this, especially in the age of the internet. Marginalized voices are speaking on Twitter, Facebook, on blogs of all sizes, at rallies, panels and public addresses. It’s time for us to listen.
It’s time to make sure our feminism is intersectional, meaning it includes people who are non-white, Muslim, poor, disabled, fat, and/or LGBTQ+.
It’s time for us to learn and acknowledge the ways that different marginalized identities interact and how their problems may differ by state, city, even neighborhood.
It’s time for us to listen to and amplify marginalized voices without speaking over them.
It’s time for me to shut up so you can start acting. Listen. Acknowledge. Keep fighting. Keep showing up.
I’ll see you there.