January 27, 2017
On the unbearable whiteness of protest
by Susan Rella
“I’ll see you nice white ladies at the #BlackLivesMatter march right?”
It was one of the most jarring protest signs at the Women’s March on Saturday, held simultaneously across the country (and, as it turns out, the world — thank you, planet Earth). And if reading that sign made your skin crawl and your conscience want to ostrich-dive into the nearest subway grate… good.
Because there is an important, unsaid truth that last Saturday’s historic protest laid bare: demonstrations made up of nice white ladies are treated much, much more civilly than protests by people of color.
This isn’t news. We’ve seen this white entitlement–law enforcement romance reinforced in the past couple years: from the Bundy brothers’ wildlife takeover to Dylann Roof’s peaceful arrest (with snacks from Burger King) and beyond, it has become all too common to see whites treated with kid gloves by our police forces. In stark contrast to the Ferguson protests following Michael Brown’s murder, as well as the Baltimore riots after Freddie Gray’s suspicious death, as well as scores of recent incidents of unarmed black men being manhandled, shot, and/or killed by the police, the Women’s March on Saturday was not only peaceful, but downright amicable. Cops were high-fiving the marchers. Some wore pussy hats. Many posed for pictures.
Perhaps the most insanely unbelievable figure, for a day full of insane stats—the largest protest in our nation’s history, a protest that, by many estimates, was over 3 million strong in the United States alone—is this: there were zero arrests. Zero. That’s a country-wide number.
It’s not a logical leap to state that this restraint was due in part to the overwhelming whiteness of the marchers.
And let’s be honest: Saturday’s protest was really goddamn white. Like, Ultimate Frisbee white. Like, holy-crap-that-family-with-the-ill-behaved-children-brought-their-nanny? white (yes, I actually saw this). And for many, that void of color was reason enough to stay home.
Yes. Us nice white ladies have a ton of power. Nice white protestors can be seen and heard without, miracle of miracles, getting arrested. And the onus is on white liberals to mitigate this racial disparity—screw it, this racial injustice—with the ridiculously easy responsibility of just showing the hell up. Because, not to put too fine a point on it, us nice white ladies are the ones who got Trump elected. That’s our contribution to the country. So, yeah. The bristle you’re feeling along your spine? It’s not undeserved. That poster was spot-on.
For helpful reading on intersectionality and feminism, I recommend Yearning by bell hooks and Women, Race, & Class by Angela Davis. And Jessa Crispin offers a trenchant diagnosis of the problems we need to overcome in Why I Am Not a Feminist, which pubs next month. These books show it’s possible to encourage intersectionality without condescension. They offer a way to get all these literal millions of white protestors, who share the same goals and demands as the Black Lives Matter movement, to show up without undermining the one goddamn thing that they do show up for. Because there must be a way to protest together.
The concept of achieving intersectionality by staying home is nonsensical. The platform for the Womens’ March is inherently pro-woman and anti-Trump, and as inclusive as our messed-up current reality allows. Staying home cannot be the liberal left’s new agent of change. None of us can afford to be smug or self-righteous. We no longer have the luxury of not participating in some cause or event that helps those other than us. And yes, nice white ladies, that includes us.
The world saw us as united on Saturday. The world united with us. What does finger-pointing show our common enemy, other than that we can very easily be divided along the same lines we’re trying so hard to erase?
Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.