You can call this the defining test of the Women’s March all you want, but really it’s the defining test of white American women.
I am typically a behind-the-scenes person, but I stepping out from ‘behind the keyboard’ to address the growing concern about Women’s March leaders. As the Communications Director for the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, I have seen up close and personal the ways that controversy has been thrown at us and when it has stuck. From history, I knew that successful movements to challenge inequality and oppression are always met with attempts to vilify, distort and smear the people seen at the front. As a white person, it was impossible for me to fully anticipate just how vicious and violent the attacks against the women of color I organize with and care about would be, while the white women in the space like myself would be ignored, excused and protected.
From literally the first days of organizing the march, we encountered controversy as we pushed out language that was intersectional and inclusive. Immediately, we were hit with a backlash of white women’s outrage. How dare we make this about race instead of about women? Even the New York Times went along with this narrative, publishing a critical and patronizing piece accusing us of “making white women feel unwelcome” and asking if we were destroying our own movement, like we didn’t know what we were doing.
Now, “intersectionality” is everyone white woman’s favorite word.
When millions of us showed up to march, there was a prevailing feeling among women of color, especially black women, that the white women who were showing up to march were not really ready to be allies in this fight. They brought signs with fiery quotes from black feminists and reminded us that the suffragettes didn’t want to march with Black women, didn’t care about their right to vote. The image of activist Angela Peeples, looking cynical with a lollipop and a sign about the 53% of white women who voted for Trump, went viral for its perfect encapsulation of this uneasy suspicion of the “well-meaning” white women.
This moment, with Alyssa Milano, is exactly the type of thing black women were expecting. Alyssa is acting in accordance with the tradition of white women who use the labor of women of color when it’s convenient for them, and then use their power to trash those women when it becomes more expedient. Without being invited to speak at all, Alyssa brought up a 7 month old controversy in an attempt to force women of color to do exactly what she wants them to do. Yet these things weren’t a problem for her last month, when she was posting pictures of herself in D.C. protesting Kavanaugh, at demonstrations organized in large part by Women’s March.
We must be free to ask questions and offer criticisms of each other, but it matters greatly how these questions and criticisms are framed, and who they really serve. When you attempt to put people in situations where their only option is to behave exactly as you prescribe, that is an attempt to dominate. When misinformation is being spread, when someone’s character is being attacked, it prevents dialogue and understanding because it robs them and their allies of the chance to respond from a place that is anything other than defensive. It takes away our power to speak our truth as truth — only to say “but that’s not true”.
The demand to denounce Farrakhan may seem logical and even simple, but is it? Certainly his words are anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynist, and obviously that is incompatible with our clearly stated values and principles. This is where white people stop, like this is the whole story, front to back.
If you spend any time in the poorest urban neighborhoods — which most white people do not even drive through — you see men in suits and bowties. Since the 1980s, when the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs made these neighborhoods literal war zones, the Nation of Islam has provided a stabilizing presence, reducing violence and providing alternatives for young men. Even Chicago’s first Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel, said in 2015 that the Nation of Islam had a role to play in reducing violence in the city.
If you spend any time working inside of prisons — which most white people will never even see — you would also observe the Nation of Islam providing services and support to black people who are incarcerated. Their prison ministry is focused on people getting out and becoming productive members of the black community, often through roles in providing security and peacekeeping.
Now, the Minister Farrakhan has said a lot of hateful things about white people, too, but I have never felt unsafe around the Nation of Islam. One reason is because, as I’ve stated above, I understand their self-appointed role to be one of protecting and securing dangerous environments, and in truth, they have equally protected my white body from harm. The second reason is a hypothetical, but it’s important to state: IF anyone in the Nation of Islam were to try and hurt me, our society is already set up in a way that I know that person would receive maximum punishment. Black men who hurt white women are most likely of all people to be sentenced to death.
All of this isn’t to say that hate speech doesn’t matter. It does. But white supremacists are not joining the Nation of Islam, not now nor ever. And because of their proximity to power in our society — literal access to the highest office in the nation — real white supremacists are who we all need to be focused on, together. As Tim Wise insightfully writes, there is a history here. “This shifting of attention from right-wing, white bigotry and anti-Semitism to Farrakhan is a predictable pivot… And it’s one about which most white folks don’t know very much, but about which black folks certainly do. It’s a history of white people telling black people who their ‘legitimate’ leaders and spokespeople are, or should be, and who among them is illegitimate and needs to be rejected.”
Alyssa Milano is calling for this specific kind of performative outrage, making a public statement condemning a Black man. This demand will have no impact on curbing anti-Semitism, neither in the Nation of Islam nor in our society. In conceding to her demand, the roughly 50,000 people who follow Farrakhan, plus the thousands more who work with the NOI in their communities, will also see themselves as denounced, which will have quite the opposite impact. Farrakhan will never change, but if we want the members of Nation of Islam to be more open to different points of view, then having people like Tamika Mallory — who has very clearly organized a movement that is at odds with his views — in the space as a leader is an important liberalizing influence.
Alyssa Milano and all the white women lined up behind her are actually enforcing the power of white supremacy through their misguided attempt to challenge hate speech. There are two sinister assumptions happening, which I will pose as questions. Whose power is a threat to who? And, who is worth the labor of our compassion and who needs to be eliminated?
We do have a problem, and I don’t mean just “we” at Women’s March. Because of how power operates in society, white people’s rage is a dangerous weapon. Things like this hit and we rush to appear staunchly against the “bad people” so that we are seen as the “good people”. We lose the context and we boil things down to “yes/no” choices. This is how white outrage actually reinforce white supremacy. If we are mad at someone, we feel like we have a right to destroy them. Women are easier targets for destruction than men. Women of color are easier targets than white women.
Let’s be clear that it results in violence. It does indeed compel unstable people to make real threats on their lives. It increases the verbal and physical harassment they experience on an everyday level. No one should have to be in a situation where it isn’t safe to go outside the house with their children.
It also erases and discredits the hard work that women of all backgrounds and identities across the nation are doing to stop the harmful effects of this administration’s policies on their communities. It also makes all them less safe by association.
I believe that not only is our liberation bound in each other, but also that pitting our fundamental needs for safety against each other is the oppressor’s game. We have the power to learn from history and stop this. Deconstructing the attitudes which dehumanize and create barriers between us is the necessary work we must do in order to protect each other from the clear and present dangers posed by hatred and extremism in power.
I am proud that Women’s March has become representative of a commitment to defending the most marginalized and vulnerable communities among us in this era of increased violence and hatred. We did not march “against” Trump, we marched “for” the world that we want, because we believe in the power of women in leadership as the fundamental, grassroots force for change. But in order to lift up the leadership of women of color, in the way we all agree needs to happen, we need to get better at recognizing and challenging the white supremacy embedded within our own psyches.