Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Marching as a Woman Of Color

This is Essay #4 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new essay each week during 2017.

Since Saturday, I've written about 3000+ words (that's about 12 pages, double-spaced, but probably more) about the Women's March. Some words were addressed to certain people in emails, some were words written in my journal to process what I experienced. And here I am, writing more about it.

I've started this post at least four different ways. Probably more.

Why? Because there's just so much. So so much.

About a week before the march, I decided to participate. This, after two months of saying I wasn't. (Read here for more on why I changed my mind.) And so I made the preparations necessary. First up: I needed a marching buddy. Second: I needed a sign to carry. Third: I needed an organization to march with for safety reasons (I wanted to be sure someone official could account for me should something happen.) This was by no means my first protest.

By Friday night, the night before the march, all was in place. I was marching with my friend, Samara, who is Iraqi-Anerican and her friend, Jennifer, a black woman. Three other friends from their neighborhood were also going to be part of our group -- three white women.

I went to Staples and had them enlarge a poster created by artist, Molly Crabapple, that quotes Audre Lorde: "Your silence will not protect you".  My sign, bold and colorful and fierce, was ready.  A friend commented: Damn, that is badass. Yes. Yes it is. It's Audre Fucking Lorde. Expect nothing less.

Another friend got me registered with Sanctuary for Families -- organization affiliation? Check.

I was ready.

At least as much as I could be.
There are always unexpected things for which we cannot prepare.

On the train into the city, there were a lot of white women jabbering away, holding their signs, wearing their pink pussyhats. You'd think I'd be excited by this, by this showing of women who were willing to go to the streets and protest this new administration. But I wasn't. I was suspicious. I hate to admit this --and maybe this is cynicism, but maybe not-- but I looked at these women and wondered: are you doing this because it's trendy? Because it's the cool thing to do? Where were you on November 8th? Did you actually vote? Or did you stay home thinking she had it in the bag? And now that you've woken up from your dream, do you think marching for one day in the streets of Manhattan is going to actually change things?

I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but if history is any indication, I worry that this is a one-time thing. Activist for a day. And then hashtag the shit out of it. And then disappear.

I pushed those thoughts away. Or at least I tried. I wanted to give this demographic of women the benefit of the doubt. After all, if we're going to incite real change, we need their help.

But I couldn't ignore the fact that in the massive crowds of women --and men! There was quite a good showing of men-- that there were very few people of color. And this is New York City where I'm used to seeing so many brown faces. All I saw, aside from my two friends, was a sea of white. With pink-capped heads. (Which, by the way, bugged the shit out of me because it felt like an empty gesture, a symbol without real meaning or significance. It was a gimmick. I'll admit that initially, I thought: oh, how cute -- maybe I'll make one too. But then: what the fuck?? Cute?! We're talking about people's rights to fucking survive, to fucking LIVE, preferably without fear. A hat isn't anything. What does a hat symbolize? Not a goddamn thing! A raised fist means fight. A hat? A fucking hat?? Uggghh! And it's fucking PINK. Must we continue to reinforce gender constructs with PINK?!? Come on!! Uggghhh!!!)

As far as the signs people carried, there were very few that had messages demanding racial equality & social justice. I felt like my sign was the most radical with Audre Lorde's face looking out at you severely, demanding you to speak.

A few folks told me they loved my sign, which I appreciated. Others snapped photos of me & my sign, which I wasn't comfortable with. I had a battle in my head about this.

It's a protest. Of course, people are going to take pictures to document this moment. But why did I respond differently to different photographers? A woman of color took our photo and talked to us while we marched. She wished us luck as she headed on to her next photo opportunity. A white-haired white woman took my photo as I marched by as if I were a specimen in my natural habitat. Like an animal in the wild or something. She was detached --an observer-- and not engaged at all. It was weird. I wanted to turn around and tell her to delete my photo from her camera or to tell me where she was planning to share that photo or if she had a form for me to fill out and give her permission to take my photo. Or even just ask her what she thought of my sign -- why did she like it enough to snap a shot? Does she know who Audre Lorde is? Then I had a moment of panic: what if she was working for the alt-right, looking for shit to skew into fake news / alternative facts, and make me part of that disgusting narrative? Ugh!

I tried to ignore these observations. I tried to stay focused on my purpose: to show up and make it known that I am here and that I am demanding to be heard.

That was really hard.

It's hard to do that when white women carry themselves as more important than you, when they take up space in ways that tell you you are not as important.

At the beginning of the day, we were in the holding area on 47th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, waiting for the police to open the barricades so that we could join the flow of the march at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. It was crowded, packed like sardines. I was doing my best to sustain a positive energy, to not think about exit strategies in the event of an emergency (would I get trampled?), to take deep breaths. We had been standing there for about two hours with very little progress. I made an off-handed comment to Samara about people's patience running out (because, well, that's human nature), that they needed to let some people into the march to release this build up of marchers. It was more an observation than anything else. Then this white woman in her late sixties decides to insert herself into our chitchat by saying, with a tone of condescension: no, that's not going to happen -- just take deep breaths. I gave a look to Samara that said: who the fuck is she to tell me what to do? Up until that point, I was fine, breathing, staying patient. But now this woman is telling me what to do (as opposed to making a suggestion) and my patience was close to breaking. I didn't respond, tried to turn away from her (though I couldn't fully do that -- it was that packed), and took a deep breath. This white woman then made efforts to wiggle her way forward to join her friend a few inches ahead. Because, you know, we weren't going to the same place for the same purpose or anything like that. I reached into my bag and whipped out my lavender oil. I offered it to Samara and Jennifer as well. I listened for the echo of my protection chant in my mind (Earbuds in, I had played it all morning while I got ready at home). I needed to strengthen my personal forcefield. And to calm down.

Soon, we got tired of waiting and decided to join the march on our own terms. We turned around and made our way through the crowd to get back out onto Third Avenue. What I kept noticing was that white women were pushing through the crowd as if their time and space was more important than anyone else's. I don't know how many times a white woman tried to push past me. It took a lot for me to just keep it together. To not shove back. To not spit some angry energy. To do that, I kept reminding myself, would not be useful. Not in this moment. Later, I told myself, later you will write about it.

Others have since commented on the "peacefulness" of the march. What struck me during the march was something I heard from different people in the crowd: the NYPD pretty much gave up on trying to keep us on the route. They shrugged and let folks walk wherever they wanted, even if it meant shutting down traffic (which we did). Now, had this been a Black Lives Matter march, there's NO WAY IN HELL the NYPD would've allowed that. Veer off course? No fucking way. So yeah, white bodies kept my brown body safe. To a certain extent. The microaggressions were still there.

What made it harder for me was the three white women marching with us.

While I'm sure they mean well and have good intentions, I couldn't be myself. Not fully, not wholly. And that bugged the shit out of me.

A day before the march, I emailed a friend of mine, a white woman, about white privilege. She had gone ahead and found me a marching buddy without asking me. She assumed that it'd be okay for this stranger to join my group. I had to tell her, no, it wasn't okay. I didn't know this woman's politics outside of wanting to march. Was she a true ally? Or would I have to babysit *and* educate? I wasn't interested in spending my time and energy in this way during the march. I told my friend that this "found marching buddy" couldn't come with me. She responded in a productive way: in a kind of tiny awakening and understanding of where I stood -- she apologized and hoped that her ignorance didn't hurt our friendship. I think she's a little bit more aware now, which is good. Also, I didn't have to march with a white woman stranger.

But now here I was marching with three white women strangers. Sure, they were friends with Samara, but I didn't know the extent of their awareness and knowledge. And while I do not like to police my thoughts when it comes to social justice, I found myself doing that to a certain extent. For a couple of reasons: self-protection (would they try to dismiss how I was feeling? What my lived experiences are? as white folks are wont to do) and energy preservation (would I need to educate them?). This, in and of itself, is exhausting.

After the march, we got a bite to eat. Once the food orders were in, someone asked: what now? In that moment, I had all sorts of feelings. What do you mean "what now"? Didn't you think about that when you decided to march? Are you asking because you truly don't know? Or because you need ideas and suggestions? I held my breath. I didn't know which way I wanted to respond. I wanted to take a moment to step back. I also wanted to wait and see what the others might say.


Are you fucking kidding me??

(I know, I know! I'm not practicing this yoga teaching: to meet people where they are. But I'm just so fucking tired of it all! Fucking. Tired.)

I took a deep breath.

Suck it up, I told myself. Here's an opportunity to mobilize these women into action. Be the fucking educator already. Just for this moment.

So I exhaled a series of suggestions on the kinds of actions to take. The Women's March itself also has a list of 10 actions for the next 100 days here. I don't know if they'll do anything, but at least I did my part by offering some knowledge.

It's the small actions that build up into bigger, longer lasting effects.

Even if it means I have to invest more emotional energy than white women.

I'm going to keep fighting for social justice, as I've always done. I just hope white women will step up beyond their activist-for-a-day and join the fight in earnest.


  1. I'm reminded of Fanny Lou Hammer..."I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

    I closed my mind and heart to micro aggressions and have decided that unless any white person in my orbit is KNOWN to have a good and open heart I'm not playing goody-two-shoes-Mister-Fucking-Chips with them. I want to see massive effort on their part. Oft handed commentary from folks gets a quick and hard clap back from me...Meditation and calming breaths aside I don't feel that much of a need to educate so they need to either hop on and hold on or read up, starting with Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" through Baldwin to Coates...cause it's just that damn serious.

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    1. Here's Rose's comment (slight glitch):

      I marched in Key West, since I could not be in DC. In many ways it was great, but I was appalled at how white and White the march was.

      Leslieann, I have the same feelings about the pussy hats. The first time I saw one, I thought: you have to be kidding me. I don't mind silliness in a protest, but I am against the trivial. I can't help but think, every time I see one or even hear about one, of the countless Native Women who are raped by men working on the pipelines. I confess that I didn't know about this until I started to read more about Standing Rock, and then started reading stuff by Winona LaDuke. But now I do know, I can't help but see pussy hats not only trivialize the issue of rape, they also focus on the Whitest part of the problem. And they bring the attention back to the nasty words of a white - or should I say, orange - man.

      I am against anything that refers back to that Creature.

      I was also struck by how empty some of the slogans we shouted seemed. I liked yelling "Build Bridges, not Walls!" I could have hollered that all the way down Duval Street and been content, since in my mind it means not only the literal wall That Creature wants to build, but the figurative Bridges we all need to build.

      But it is harder to build a bridge.