Dropping everything to go on an unplanned trip is a privilege — the kind that unfortunately permeates the conversation around the Jan. 21, Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Some Black women won’t attend because they’ve gotta go to work, literally punching the clock. But also metaphorically doing “the work” of resisting sexist, racist, xenophobic policies proffered by a Donald Trump administration.
It’s the kind of work they’ve have always done.
Black women who flocked to the polls to select the candidate who actually has a respect for humanity and a track record in governing, have already exerted so much effort, it’s exhausting. But the work didn’t end then, and it won’t end with a march. What matters more than a protest march occurring the day after the inauguration is what happens the day after the march. How will said march where nearly a quarter million women are expected in D.C., plus global sister events, create a transformation among women? Will they listen to one another? Maybe they should be given some space.
That a gathering of this magnitude has been organized so quickly is a marvel. What began with a social media post from a grandmother in Hawaii, is now a formal organization and structure that includes a multicultural slate of women — Black, Brown, Muslim and white — who are running things for next week’s march.
But optics aside, what will be different when the march is over? It was Mike Brown’s mama, Lezley McSpadden, who previously summed up our contemporary social justice challenge: “This isn’t about diversity; this is about inclusion.” The Women’s March’s mission states that diverse voices have been called to honor human rights, dignity and justice in numbers too great to ignore. But how do we ensure that the numbers include us all? The mission addresses those vulnerable to the incoming administration — Native Americans, people of color, Muslims, the disabled, sexual assault survivors. But for those who’ve got to go to work, specifics are necessary.
Activist Brittany Oliver raised an important question in November when she asked to see an “anti-racist, anti-White supremacist agenda.”
Yeah, where is that?
Early talks of the Women’s March challenged proposed names and organizing that threatened to erase the legacy of previous marches organized around Black issues. For example, there’s already been a March on Washington (1963), organized by A. Phillip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. Yes, women were there physically doing work behind the scenes and in the name, though that’s not a part of history we hear where no women keynoted.
For Black women living at the intersection or race and gender (and some others, too), even the new, improved event name is troubling. Consider that anything referred to as “women’” or “woman” in typical discourse is the default meaning White women. University of Texas at Austin professor Eddie Chambers explains it best in describing how this phenomenon manifests in the art world, his area of expertise: “Simply put, White people did not need to prefix their stuff as White art, White history, White memorabilia because history, art, memorabilia, and a host of other things carried with them” He continues, “For something to exist in contrast to these unnamed White things, they had to be labeled as Black or some other such term signifying difference.”
Marchgoers need to experience the kind of transformation that will allow them to see their lived experience, fears and hopes as similar to those not like them. But given the tendency for the default White experience to dominate conversations, cultural shifts and eventually social policy, Black women’s issues risk being subsumed, again.
The Women’s March organizers’ platform is certainly inclusive, again, in terms of optics, and says all the right things. Black women certainly can get behind criminal justice reform, and ultimately, abortion access is really health care access. But that’s all on paper, so skepticism has a home here. So is it possible to hold the line on intersectional issues? Just saying the word “intersectional” is a mouthful; fighting for it takes work.
Janaye Ingram, head of Women’s March logistics, provides some clues to the possibility of a new and different type of engagement among progressive-minded women post-march, however: “We see this as the first convening. New alliances will be forged through this effort.” And we look forward to what comes next.
As an event that will allow thousands of women to break form, this bold stand must be sustained and supported beyond Jan. 21 on days when there won’t be safety in numbers—a risk that might shock a privileged class into acquiescence. That lack of safety, even when Black women march, is also something all too familiar. In the end, engagement and cultivating alliances is righteous work; it’s women’s work. And it’s hard because it’s never done.
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based writer who teaches at Northwestern University. Lise Ragbir, a Public Voices Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, is a curator, and arts and cultural administrator.