In a small clearing amid the busloads of protesters in Washington on Saturday, a group of activists held up large portraits of black women and called out names: Tanisha Anderson, Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland.
The activists were from #SayHerName, a national campaign to draw attention to how police brutality and racial violence affect black women; the women named had been killed by police.
A middle-aged blonde marcher watched the scene in puzzlement for a few minutes before turning to her friend to ask: “Say her name? What does that even mean?”
The question illustrates the disconnect that made many women of color think twice before joining Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington and the solidarity protests that unfolded across the globe the day after President Donald Trump took office.
Too often, minority women organizers say, race-specific issues are left out of the national feminist conversation, even though women of color voted overwhelmingly against Trump and represent one of the fastest-growing voter segments.
Minority activists said they couldn’t understand how any woman could buy into Trump’s fearmongering rather than stand united against a president who was caught on video boasting of sexual assault and has a record of disparaging women and entire racial groups.
It felt like a betrayal, they said, that 53 percent of white women voters chose Trump, compared to 94 percent of black women and 68 percent of Latinas who voted for Hillary Clinton. If they did their bit to “fight the patriarchy,” the reasoning goes, why should women of color have to ask for a place at the forefront of big national events like the women’s march?
“We need a multi-issue women’s movement but, in this moment, are our white sisters going to choose to be white or choose to be women?” said Jodeen Olguín-Tayler, a New Mexico-born Chicana activist, summing up the big question activists of color have as they consider strategies to confront the Trump administration.
The election results pushed uncomfortable questions of race into feminist spaces, making for fraught conversations in the planning of the march. The first concept of “a million-woman march” was criticized as an example of white feminists co-opting the language and tactics of black activists, who staged massive marches in 1995 and 1997.
After an outcry, the name was changed and prominent activists representing different minority communities were added to the organizing committee. The march’s agenda was made inclusive of issues important to minority participants, for example calling specifically for “accountability and justice in cases of police brutality and ending racial profiling and targeting of communities of color.”
Olguín-Tayler, who works for the New York-based public policy nonprofit Demos, got involved with the planning when one of the march organizers enlisted her, only half-joking about the need for “a white-woman whisperer.”
As a light-skinned woman who can pass for white, Olguín-Tayler said, she helped to convey the concerns of activists of color to white feminist figures who “were having some difficulty with giving up space.” There were breakthroughs ahead of the march, she said, but the bigger conversation must continue long after Saturday.
“I don’t think it’s a big happy bow, but I think we’re doing the work and we’re in the place we need to be in,” Olguín-Tayler said. “I’m really hopeful.”
The changes – and the conversations that unfolded about them among white women and women of color on long bus rides to Washington – were viewed by many marchers as a good lesson in the power of honest dialogue.
“This is just a beginning coalition,” said Deborah Jackson, 62, an African-American marcher from Chester, Pennsylvania. “What I see from the Caucasian women that I discuss with is a desire to understand – a desire for understanding on our part, for understanding on their part.”
But the overtures weren’t enough for some women of color who decided against joining, out of frustration with white feminists’ reluctance to put marginalized communities at the center of the movement. This problem is as old as American feminist organizing; today’s activists of color cite the cautionary tale of white suffragists jettisoning black women from the movement to ease their own pursuit of the vote.
Minority activists are quick to remind that it’s not just ethically sound but politically expedient to be inclusive, given how women of color represent 74 percent of the growth in eligible voters since 2000, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Black women in particular have shown success at mobilizing voters and activists, yet still fight for their place in national feminist discussions. And there’s resentment that white feminists only began openly addressing racial fissures after their shock at the election results.
Black activist and social commentator Jamilah Lemieux, who did not participate in the march, wrote in a column that Trump’s election was already depressing enough without having to “feign solidarity with women who by and large didn’t have my back prior to November.”
Likewise, some white women skipped the march in part because they were turned off by women of color reminding them to “check their privilege” – a message sometimes heard as hectoring or divisive.
Molly Brown, a 20-year-old white college student in town from California, said she’d followed the racial debates swirling around the march. Rather than resent the back-and-forth, Brown said, she emerged better aware of the ways she could do more to make space for women of color.
“Coming here together now and acknowledging what you can do to be a white ally – it was definitely on my mind. What’s left to do is this,” she said, gesturing to the thousands of women converged near the U.S. Capitol. “We have to make everyone feel supported.”
Of the thousands of women of color who joined the march, many held signs that specifically mentioned racial equality alongside the traditional feminist planks such as equal pay and reproductive rights. And there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of white women who also carried placards proclaiming their support for Muslim rights, Black Lives Matter and immigrant women.
“At first I shared in the critique and wondered whether this was the right place to put my body and energy, but I do think that right now is the time for full resistance and solidarity,” said Nina Mehta, 39, a marcher of South Asian descent who wore a T-shirt in support of the Native American-led pipeline protest. “Coming together, even with those issues, and potentially working through them? I’m willing to do that.”