I was raised in a sheltered, conservative and mostly white town, which made it difficult for me to understand how white, upper-class privilege affected my perceptions growing up. My parents are both agnostic and encouraged my siblings and I to think critically, which helped me avoid some of the crazytown antics of many of my peers (such as denouncing drinking and sex at Young life meetings—a.k.a. cult gatherings—before heading out for a night of drinking and sex), but I still internalized plenty of notions that were straight-up wrong. When I was younger, I believed that panhandlers were homeless because they refused to get jobs. I believed that Planned Parenthood clinics only existed to provide abortions. I believed that losing my virginity would make me “dirty” and that as a female I was responsible for fending off the advances of evil boys who were incapable of controlling their private parts (the fact that I might have felt sexual impulses myself was internalized as unnatural and suppressed).
Needless to say, I have changed my mind about a lot of things since high school, and none of these realizations came easily. They involved taking a deep look inward and actively challenging ingrained beliefs—and in the process, my very sense of self. For example, it was pretty challenging to realize that my interest in international development, which began when I was very young, was a product of my white, middle-class privilege. As much as it pained me to admit it, my background cultivated a subconscious belief that my country provided equal opportunities for everyone to succeed, that poor people across the globe deserved help more than people across town, and that all developing countries needed to end poverty was more resources and manpower from the West. It took living in developing countries—as well as working with, studying with and befriending people from different backgrounds from my own—to confront this uncomfortable truth head-on. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, sometimes it looked like this:*
I know what you must be thinking—white chicks love making everything about themselves, amiright? That’s totally fair. But I have always followed the policy of “write what you know,” because I hate being insincere. I will never be able to understand what it’s like to be a woman of color, so it doesn’t make sense for me to pay lip service to the very real concerns that #solidarityisforwhitewomen brought up. All I can contribute is my own reaction to learning about the gravity of this tension that I have only ever understood on an abstract and topical level. I spent hours combing through that twitter feed, reading black feminist blogs and watching Mikki Kendall and Tara Conley’s interview on HuffPost Live (several times)—and concluded that this issue goes way deeper than I will ever understand. Still, that won’t stop me from trying.
The most difficult part of this process for me was seeing how little confidence the women of color guiding this conversation seemed to have in the ability of mainstream feminists to change their perspective on issues of intersectionality. In the Huffington Post interview, when asked if women of color ultimately wanted solidarity with white women, Tara Conley responded, “I want solidarity with people who care about what I care about.” After some uncomfortable laughter, Mikki Kendall said, “I want solidarity with people who want solidarity with me.” The tone of these comments implied that neither woman expected those people to be white women. And after researching the backstory of how this hashtag came about, I honestly can’t blame them.
Here’s the thing: I get that the argument that masking diversity in the name of “solidarity” in feminism does not benefit women of color. Women who claim to be “colorblind” are just as ignorant as women who don’t identify as feminists but believe in gender equality, and they should recognize their hypocrisy as such. But disassociating from the feminist movement entirely is like saying, “the government doesn’t represent me, and therefore I’m not voting.” In the words of Sojourner Truth, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” The feminist movement has a lot of clout, but as blogger Flavia Dzodan points out, if it isn’t intersectional then it’s rendered bullshit. And in order for the feminist movement to be truly intersectional, women of color need to keep showing up. They need to keep getting in feminism’s face and forcing it to check its privilege. But they need to do this in a way that invites and challenges mainstream feminists to join them in sincere solidarity—not in a way that pre-emptively dismisses them for being insincere.
It’s been a few days since #solidarityisforwhitewomen really took off, and everyone (myself included) seems to have benefitted from taking time to really process what went down. In an interview with Bustle**, Kendall voiced this sentiment pretty perfectly. “I saw someone tweet to me today that it feels like an abscess that has been run, that this was a poison that had been built up, and finally it’s out, and now we can heal. I think that is absolutely the case,” she said. She also seemed to have changed tone about her take on “solidarity.” “I’m not saying that white women in the West just need to take a moment to step aside and get off the mic,” she said. “I’m saying that we need to take turns at the mic.” Amen, Mikki. Let’s get started.
*This pic came from Twitter, but I couldn’t track down the original source. If you deserve credit for it, please claim it!
**Yes, I do appreciate the irony that the brainchild of mansplainer Bryan Goldberg covered #solidarityisforwhitewomen more thoroughly than many mainstream feminist publications. More evidence that feminism needs to get its act together.