Throwing Shade on the Women's Marches?

Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, likes to teach dog owners that preventing their dogs from focusing on trouble (a letter carrier, another dog, a trash truck) is to give her a sudden, physical distraction as soon as that focus seems likely. This might be a gentle push on her backside, or it might be a sharp tug-and-release on her leash.

After reading the January 24 New York Times article by Jenna Wortham, I think what I got was a less-than-gentle push on my backside. For sure, the tone of this article distracted me from the enthusiasm I have felt since leaving the Boston Women’s March.

I can’t quite tell whether throwing shade on the worldwide women’s marches (and those in the U.S. in particular) was the article’s intent. What I choose to believe is that Wortham wanted to capitalize on the attention being given to these marches in order to highlight the need she sees to focus on race issues. But in the process, for me anyway, the article had the effect of slamming the brakes on the momentum of the January 21 events. And I see this as a mistake.

The Shady Bits

The first point that set me back on my heels was a comment about how few people of color Wortham noticed in the various march slide shows, even though she noted how many speakers of color there were, and how many signs indicated solidarity with racial issues. Was the point that black people weren’t welcome? Was it that they didn’t feel invited? Was it that they didn’t feel like showing up? I don’t know what the point was. But stating it set me up for a blow.

Next, Wortham had a problem with “an enormous photograph of Mahatma Gandhi.” She acknowledged that he was “an icon of nonviolence [sic] resistance” but went on to say that he “referred to African leaders…as savages and kaffirs.” Okay, that’s not good, but every one of us is a product of our time and culture, including him. It seems unlikely that those sign-bearers were even aware of this racist attitude and even less likely that they intended to communicate it. So why call it out? More shade.

Several statements in the article questioned the commitment of the marchers to any cause other than the rights of white women:

  • Reference to a sign carried by actor Amir Talai that read, “I’ll See You Nice White Ladies at the Next #BlackLives Matter March, Right?”
  • The problem with the notion that “women’s rights were suddenly the most important cause in our nation”
  • The problem with the notion that “there haven’t been protests and activist movements worth attending until the election of Donald Trump”

It’s not clear to me whether Wortham was voicing agreement with these points. So… why write about them?

It's About ALL Civil Rights

It’s true that the black civil rights movement is far from over. As Wortham points out, “black women were increasingly marginalized in the fight for the right to vote,” and these was a “lack of policing at the women’s march, a luxury never granted a Black Lives Matters [sic] demonstrations.” Also, “53 percent of all white women [voters]…voted for Trump, while 94 percent of black women voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton,” and “While black women show up for white women to advance causes that benefit entire movements, the reciprocity is rarely shown.”

I agree that there is far too little reciprocity from one issue’s activism to another's. But I can’t help wondering how many rallies, protests, or marches Wortham has attended in support of specific issues such as LGBTQ rights, Latino rights, immigrant rights…there are a lot of worthwhile issues to support. In fact, it seems she showed up at the Manhattan Women’s March for only about an hour—not an accusation, just a fact.

The truth is that I am biased. You are biased. Jenna Wortham is biased. Every one of us is biased, and until we admit that we can’t begin to understand each other and move forward. We can’t let our differences slow us down.

Each of us has only so much bandwidth, only so much time and effort to put into the issues that need attention. Even Gloria Steinem, who is a career activist, told Bill Maher, “I got mad on the basis of what was happening to me [my emphasis].”

Keeping women of all colors subjugated has been a worldwide issue as long as any other issue in humanity, and maybe longer than any other. And too many women have bought into the expectations society places on us:

  • Sit down.
  • Shut up.
  • Your opinion isn’t important, isn’t valid, isn’t valued.
  • Don’t argue.
  • You can’t lead; you’re not good at it.
  • If you complain, you’ll get hurt.
  • If you get hurt, it’s your fault; you were probably asking for it.

Question Your Own Assumptions

Wortham closes her article with a disturbing anecdote about a restaurant scene in D.C. after the march, in which a truly nasty woman (not in a good way) shouted epithets at a table of people who were speaking in Arabic. The witness to this scene denigrates a nearby table of pussy-hatted “white women” who saw, but did nothing about, this treatment. It’s possible that they didn’t feel personally involved enough to intervene, as Wortham suggests, and that their ire and their indignation was only for themselves. But isn’t it also possible that those statements in the bullet list above were echoing around their brains? Isn’t it also possible that their silence had nothing to do with the color of their skin and more to do with the fear imbued in them by a society that tells women they will be hurt if they speak up?

Move Together As One

We need to capitalize on the energy flowing from the events of January 21, not pick it apart by blaming it for not emphasizing other issues enough. Because those marches weren’t just for women. They weren’t just for white people. They weren’t just for Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or immigrants, or LGBTQ, or Latinos, or people of color. They weren’t even just anti-Trump.

They were for human rights. For everyone.