Around this time last week, just before going to bed, I happened to check my Twitter timeline to find it full of #solidarityisforwhitewomen. The origins of the hashtag are explained here and Mikki Kendall who started it wrote about it here and discussed it here. I want to write about my experience and how I felt it opened up a new way of discussing race within white dominated feminist movements for me. [Please note: this is not just limited to the feminist movement. Many movements have a long history of inadequately integrating race, sexuality, gender identity, disability, class and/ or gender.]
Let me be clear here. When I write about this, I locate myself firmly within the feminist movement. When I talk about feminism and issues around race, I do not see it as being separate from me. Despite the one impulse I had to write a letter of resignation to the feminist movement in 2012 (always one for the dramatic gesture), I have considered myself a feminist and part of the movement since I knew these things existed. I refuse to let anything or anyone tear me away from a movement that means so much to me – politically and personally.
I originally did not see why #solidarityisforwhitewomen was such a big deal. After all, it was full of the kind of conversations I have with my black feminist friends all the time – and even with the few white feminist friends that I know will listen. Once I started however, I could not make myself stop. In the end, I had to tear myself off Twitter two hours later in the knowledge that I would now only get 4 hours sleep before I needed to be up for work. Why did the conversation appeal to me so much?
I engage about race with white dominated feminist groups all the time. I do it because I feel I must, not because I enjoy it. Even typing the words ‘white domination’ right now, I can predict the sense of discomfort in the reader that the words are likely to produce. This is a mirror of the tension I feel whenever I say those words. That women who talk about patriarchy and male domination all the time are uncomfortable with framing their thinking and analysis in terms of white domination says a lot. The words describe a statement of fact. White people do dominate our society, as they do within many groups of feminists. Naming correctly is important.
I have forced myself to keep on engaging for weeks, months and years, and I have grown weary. Many of us struggle back and forth between engaging and not engaging. I engage because I genuinely like the people involved and I want to support them. I engage because I feel that we must. The issues are too important. I want to show my support and it is critical that the voices, realities and experiences of black women are present. One part of my internal dialogue stresses that, ‘There are always people in the room who do listen, even if they are in the minority – and Chitra – if you reach just a couple of people, that is how change is created.’
What keep me going are the white women with whom I have managed to engage meaningfully and who have truly listened. Feminists and the movement are changing. I can see it happen. Women who considered issues of race, sexuality, disability, class and gender identity as tangential to the feminist struggle beforehand are engaging critically with thinking through how a movement that works towards a linked liberation looks, feels and sounds like. Sometimes, it really does feel like we are at a really exhilarating moment on the cusp of a dynamic and inclusive movement.
Being one of the (many) ones who are trying to shift the movement does take a toll however. Often, the experience drags on me and weighs me down. I feel I am not heard. I can hear people thinking ‘This is an example of that intersectionality thing that I read about’ as if I am their feminist books come to life. My pleas for us to focus on poverty, race, immigration status, exclusion and marginality are taken very seriously – but not beyond the nods and looks of intense concentration when I speak. They seem hardly present in the discussion that follows. They seem to rarely effect long-term focus of organising and mobilising, which continues to be much as it was. As a result, I frequently feel my presence actually has had little impact, apart from to make people think ‘that’s interesting’ for a few minutes, to offer the illusion of diversity and to lend legitimacy with the melanin in my body to whatever is taking place.
When I speak in the spirit of constructive engagement, although I do understand it, I do not enjoy the immediate defensiveness and rush for excuses, rather than attempt to listen and engage in meaningful conversation. People tend to take things very personally. I spend a lot of time thinking about their feelings (while getting little indication that they ever consider mine) and how exactly to phrase things to minimise the shock of what they see as criticism and ensure they do not immediately retreat because they feel attacked.
I continually walk the tightrope of trying to be honest and make my point but doing so in the nicest way possible. I know that this (internal and external) pressure to ‘be nice’ is problematic, especially when the person with whom you are engaging does not reciprocate it. I consciously push my own boundaries of what I feel comfortable with in this regard but it has been really difficult. I am not unusual in this. A lot of black women within the feminist movement feel this responsibility and pressure. We are constantly being asked to educate, but only in ways that are positive, do not make women feel bad and do not suggest critical self-examination may be required.
For me, the conversation created by #solidarityisforwhitewomen was a way of engaging and speaking my experiences without having to worry about the reactions of white women. I could speak out about how I had been feeling and what has been happening without actually directing it at anyone in particular. I did not have to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings or alienating them but I knew white women were reading – and hoped that what was written by everyone who was tweeting led them to reflect on their own behaviour. It was a way to express what I have felt unable to within most feminist circles. It was the first time I vocalised this (without the qualifications I usually add to make people not feel too bad) outside a black feminist space that was public and where everyone could read my thoughts.
In any case, I was not tweeting for white women. I was tweeting for the other black women in a giant transnational Twitter facilitated consciousness-raising session that validated our experiences and made us feel less alone. That tweets that I sent a week ago are still being retweeted is, I hope, a sign that the impact of #solidarityisforwhitewomen will be felt far beyond the hours that it was trending on Twitter. Of course, in terms of engagement with white women, it was largely one way. Where it will get really exciting is if we can somehow find a way to take it forward into a real, genuine and meaningful dialogue that changes feminist organising so that it (finally) truly includes all women.