If you are reading this and you are a white person, please take a moment to lend me your imagination. Please imagine how it would feel for you to be the only white person in your neighborhood. Imagine how it would feel for you to be the only white person at your job. Imagine how you would feel for your child to be the only white child in their class. Imagine your colleagues assuming you are only in your position because of affirmative action. Imagine people being impressed by how well you speak your first language — your only language — because it contradicts their own biases about who you are. Imagine people ignoring you and directing their responses to your partner, because their race invites respect and yours doesn’t. Imagine people assuming you are your own child’s nanny.
Now consider this: Even that imagining is irrelevant because white people still hold the political, economic, and social power in this country. White people can be a minority in their neighborhood, but still can’t truly experience the disenfranchisement people of color experience, because as a white person, you are still a part of the ruling class of this country. Even if you’re poor. Even if you’re gay. That doesn’t mean you don’t experience oppression, but it does mean you can blend in, if you choose to.
If you are a white American, you must understand that so much about this country was built upon principles of exclusion, intended to literally keep people of color out. Out of neighborhoods, cities, and even entire states. Out of schools and universities. Out of hospitals. Out of professions. Out of the voting booth.
It may surprise you to learn that the city I live in, Portland, Oregon, did not enjoy integrated housing until 1948. To put it more plainly: Until 1948, black people were not allowed to live within the city of Portland. Even when “integration” took place, red-lining still ensured segregation. This practice was not unique to Portland. More likely than not, your community employed similar practices to ensure racial segregation and keep black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American peoples out of white communities.
What happened next in Portland has also happened in other cities across the country, from Oakland to Brooklyn: The city’s neglect of urban centers over decades led to plummeting property values, which in turn allowed the generation raised in the suburbs as a result of “white flight” to return to the cities their parents and grandparents had fled. They bought low and sold high, and gentrification swept through black and brown communities. Overnight, neighborhood markets became gluten-free bakeries and barber shops became yoga studios. And what happened to the black and brown people who lived in these communities for generations? They were displaced, forced to relocate as gentrification of their neighborhoods rendered them unaffordable for working class people.
On Saturday, January 21, 2017, I will take to the streets of my city with thousands of women from my community. We will march in solidarity with millions of women in other cities across the country, and in solidarity with the multitudes of women from every state who will be marching in our nation’s capital. We march to assert our rights to self-determination, and our resistance to any forces that seek to limit those rights.
Over the past couple weeks, much has been written about the Women’s March on Washington platform, which is now predicated around intersectional feminism. Debates have raged from coast to coast, with some — mostly white — women struggling to understand why intersectional feminism is important. They asked why we couldn’t just unite as women. They didn’t understand why the voices of marginalized women should be centered, rather than their own. Some of them are willing to concede that bad things have happened to people of color and queer and trans folks, of course, but bad things have happened to all of us. Why, they ask, can’t we just unify? These questions reveal that those who ask still fail to understand what Dr. King so famously stated: “Until all are free, none are free.” Which brings me back to segregation, and its progeny gentrification, and why I march. I draw inspiration from the national platform of the Women’s March on Washington, which states:
“We believe Gender Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice. We must create a society in which women, in particular women — in particular Black women, Native women, poor women, immigrant women, Muslim women, and queer and trans women — are free and able to care for and nurture their families, however they are formed, in safe and healthy environments free from structural impediments.”
I will march on Saturday for my grandmother, who marched alongside Dr. King in 1965 to integrate Boston’s public schools. I will march for and with my mother, who as a 10-year-old child, faced down angry mobs of white Bostonians determined to prevent her and other black children from integrating their all-white school. I will march for my own child, who over 50 years later, is still at risk of attending segregated schools.
I will march for my family and other working families, who have been priced out of our neighborhoods and are struggling to find safe and affordable housing to raise our children in. I will march for the mothers stretching their pennies to afford the exorbitant cost of child care, and I will march for the providers of that child care who are still likely to make little more than minimum wage, and struggle to afford their own child care, and are disproportionately likely to be black or Latina women. I will march for women of color, who are disproportionately likely to experience violence at the hands of the police, particularly if they are queer or transgender.
I will march for these reasons and so many others, for women of color still fall short of equity by almost every measure: We make less money than our white counterparts, receive substandard health care as compared to white women, and are more likely to see our children suspended, expelled, and eventually incarcerated as a result of disproportionately harsher penalties, from preschool all the way through the judicial system.
You may still be thinking, “But schools, and violence, and safe neighborhoods are issues that affect all women. Why do you have to make this about race?” The reason that it is imperative for us to call out the systemic racism that continues to impact women of color is because some women have steps to climb toward equity, while others of us have mountains to scale. And without recognizing that and seeking to lift one another as we climb, we aren’t truly practicing feminism. And truly, this isn’t just about women of color. This is about white feminists as well. Women of color have been active agents in our own liberation for hundreds of years in this country, and were among the first and most fervent feminists. Early black feminists were told then that equality for black women must wait until white women had first achieved equality; that they were asking for too much, too soon. That they should be patient. And women of color are still being told that, to this day. And so it is imperative that today’s white feminists do what their grandmothers and great-grandmothers did not, and recognize that all women do not experience oppression in equal measure, and be led by the truth, as stated by Flavia Dzodan, that “my feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.”
White women, this is your work to do. People of color have spent the last 400 years in this country trying to get free. But we can’t end white supremacy on our own. White people are responsible for ending white supremacy. This is your task. This is your moment. Raise your children to be anti-racist. Recognize that color-blind philosophy perpetuates racism and does more harm than good. Celebrate and value differences. Check your family members, your colleagues. Check yourselves. Call out racism when you see it, and let perpetrators know that it is unacceptable. Acknowledge your privilege. Actively work to counter your own biases. Be open to learning. Only white people can end white violence. So please — quit complaining about division as though it is something new, and do the damn work to help us create a just and equitable society for all.