As I prepared to drive down from New York to Washington, D.C. to attend the Women's March on Washington — which turned out to be part of the largest day of protest in U.S. history — I didn't know what to expect. After reading the website's suggestions for marching, I planned safety measures. I wrote an emergency contact number in permanent marker on my arm. I brought a bandana. I devised an exit strategy, in case my group would need to leave the area quickly.
However, the D.C. march was peaceful; not a single arrest took place there or at a number of other major women's marches. In the aftermath of the protest, many attendees and members of the media were quick to praise the women (and men) who attended for this outcome — but doing so would be a mistake. Because this praise highlights the one thing that many people are overlooking about the women's march: the power of white privilege.
Historically, white women's anger is perceived as a "joke," while black women's anger is viewed as "dangerous" — stereotyping that played out around this march. For example, Piers Morgan mocked the Women's March by saying he was going to organize a march of his own, tweeting, "I'm planning a 'Men's March' to protest the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists. Who's with me?" Indiana State Senator Jack Sandlin posted a picture of the women's march, with the caption, "In one day, Trump got more fat women walking than Michelle Obama did in eight years." To some, before the march even started it was a joke and everything about it — including those attending — was pointless.
As a non-white woman who looks very white, I know what it's like to have my anger be considered a "joke" instead of "dangerous." It's hurtful to be whitewashed — but there's an immense amount of privilege in being perceived as white.
So, when I posted plans to attend and even responded to condescending, trending hashtags like #RenameMillionWomenMarch, any backlash I received from Trump supporters (online and behind the safety and anonymity and their keyboards) who didn't see the "point" of marching, attacked my power or character or abilities. I was "silly" and "weak." I was just "wasting my time" and would probably "sync my period with those other silly women" and I wouldn't, really, be making a difference. The infantilizing of women is oppression, to be sure — I am not taken seriously because I'm perceived as a white woman, and white women are perceived as weak or incapable.
However, there is a safety in that stereotype. The protest was peaceful because of the massive amount of white bodies present. White women are protected by white culture for a wide variety of reasons, including because they're thought to be incapable, and while that can feel annoying and infuriating, it's also safe. Zeba Bay of the Huffington Post writes, "Let’s be real. A large group of mostly white women wearing knit pink hats is simply not going to be policed in same way a large group of people of color would be." At most, you stand to have your pride hurt when someone attacks your capabilities as a woman — a relatively small price to pay to leave a protest and return safely to my family.
Women of color do not have that luxury. When black and brown women protest, they're viewed as "loud" and "angry." They have to be worried about being physically attacked, simply because their bodies present a perceived threat to racists that white bodies do not. The peaceful protests of Black Lives Matter have been plagued by arrests; many streamed online, as was the case of prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson. When McKesson was among the 120 people arrested in a protest in Baton Rouge in 2016, his arrest was caught on live stream video and uploaded to Periscope. Mckesson wasn't violent, and was charged with "obstructing a highway of commerce." In Aug 2016, after the fatal shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, 309 protesters were arrested during a weekend of protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
Toxic masculinity — in this case expressed by those charged with policing and protecting the public — sometimes protects white women who are willing to play along with it, but it almost always puts women of color in real physical danger. A woman of color cannot strip her skin from her bones, roll it into a ball, and hide it in the corner of her mind order to leave a protest and return safely to her family. There is a difference, and it's not in the types of protests that white women and women of color attend.
So while these views of both white women and black women are condescending and a form of oppression, one stands to hurt a white woman's pride while the other stand's to hurt a black woman's actual body. It's "Will I be taken seriously?" vs. "Will I survive?" This, among many other reasons, including simply caring about other human beings, is why more white women need to attend demonstrations and protests led by women of color. As Gloria Steinem said at the Women's March, "Sometimes we must put our bodies where our beliefs are. Sometimes simply pressing send isn’t enough.”
We need to put our bodies between police officers and Black Lives Matter. We need to show the same devotion for inclusion and diversity and equality for all, as the 3.3 million people who attended the Women's March across the country did. We need to listen to women of color and what they're saying about the Women's March. We need to do better.