The Power Of Listening To Women Of Color

Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump after all the very clear signs of incompetency and lies, even after the abhorrent “grab them by the pussy” audio. Conversely, women of color came out strong against him; only six percent of black women, 27 percent of Asian women, and 32 percent of Latinas voted for Trump.

A year later, women of color helped keep Roy Moore out of office. Ninety-eight percent of black women voted for Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate election, while 68 percent of white women voted for Moore, an alleged pedophile who has been accused of sexual misconduct by several teenagers, one as young as 14. This election seemed like a no-brainer to cross party lines, and yet white women stayed true to the patriarchy and misogyny that continuously keeps us all down. .

The disparity between white women and women of color is alarming and it’s going to take much more than just showing up for a march once a year to fix. As a white woman, I’m looking at myself and all the other white women — we need to do more. We need feminism to be intersectional, making it more diverse and inclusive, but we also need to go beyond that too. Sexism, classism, and racism are intertwined — there is oppression against religion and sexual orientation, and it’s all impacting women. If we don’t stand together, and fight each other’s fights, nothing will be accomplished. We aren’t truly free, until we are all free. We need to listen to women of color.

Bob Bland and Tamika Mallory, co-presidents of the Women’s March spoke out on this issue during a rally in Las Vegas this month. Bland said, “I’m speaking specifically to white ladies here. We need to bring our voice and our vote, not just for ourselves, not just for the issues that directly impact us and our families. But for the issues of all marginalized communities. We must vote for the Dreamers. We must vote for indigenous women who are missing and murdered in alarming numbers. We must do it for trans women of color. For sex workers. For all of our black and brown communities.” We must.

“Stand up for me, white women. Come to my aid,” Mallory added. “You say you want to be my friend? I don’t want to hear it from your mouth. I want to see it when you go to the polls at the midterm elections.” This is a call to action. The answer to fixing so much is in the hearts and minds of women of color.

Jessica Chastain stood up for Octavia Spencer when she learned of the massive pay gap between white women and women of color in Hollywood. Chastain tied her contract to Spencer’s and she ended up getting five times her typical amount. This is one example of how we can advocate for each other. There are many.

We can advocate by “passing the mic,” too. More white women need to listen to women of color, need to share their platform to get their voices heard. You may not even agree with all that is written here, but it is still important to listen, to expand our minds, to try to understand the feelings of others. And it is in that mission that I share and learn from these statements from three women of color. White women: Soak in these words because they will help us make change. They have to become our words so we may use our voices to further equality for all.

Sophia Skiles:

Sophia Skiles is a theater performer and educator who teaches in the Theatre and Performance department at SUNY Purchase. She also serves as Trustee of the Board of Education of the New Paltz Central School District, where she is grateful to be raising family. In her many roles, Sophia strives to stay critically engaged as an artist and citizen.

I hope space is made for Asian-American women — their typically forgotten but deep history of activism and coalition as well as their untapped leverage for change and action (or their specific complicity in white supremacy as a Model Minority) due to their proximity to whiteness. While as a ‘monolithic’ group, they actually earn more than white women, some sub categories of Asian-Americans are the most impoverished of all groups.

I sense the spirit of this dialogue (and I hope, call to action) is the building of real coalition, not only between white feminists and feminists of color, but between all the various communities that make up women of color.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who conceived and named the notion of Intersectionality, did so within the context of discrimination, law, and physical violence as experienced brutally by Black women. These are not theoretical inequities, but are apartheids of lived experience. So recognizing not only the differences of harm, but the specific stakes of that harm.

That said, I think that Asian-American women occupy a particularly unstable space in this continuum. There are specific and unique benefits and costs to a proximity to whiteness that has politically and typically created a wedge in a potential coalition of multi-racial women. The gender pay gap is higher generally for Asian-American women than even white women. And yet, the voter turnout for Asian-Americans in general (and talk about a wide diversity of class within that identity!) is lower than whites. And yet, again — when Asian-Americans do vote, they overwhelming vote blue with women going for Clinton at a higher percentage than Obama They/we are the fastest growing demographic with the lowest turnout. Some of the barriers they/we faced: cultural hostility in the form of demands for proof of citizenship. Mobilizing this multi-faceted demographic depends on valuing Asian-Americans and specifically Asian-American women on their own unique terms. There is a history of Asian-American women activists working in multi-racial coalition which suffers the same cliches of Asian-Americans in general: invisibility and erasure. When we don’t acknowledge and value the work of folks like Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, we rob ourselves of resources and knowledge to build a true feminist coalition and enact the change we all so desperately need.

I think there is actually value in the ‘performance of allyship’ — whether it’s statements or hopefully commitments to action on social media. Those are helpful signals. But the real value I think is doing the work when the public acknowledgement of women of color isn’t part of the gesture. I think white women calling each other in within those spaces that are still so frequently all-white is where the real sea-change can and must happen: questioning when women of color are not present and insisting on structural change to include them, as an unceasing habit. (An example: completing the picture of the gender pay gap. It’s not .79 or .80 for a (white) woman to a (white) man’s dollar; it’s .63 for a Black woman and .54 for a Latina).

I think true divestment of the benefits of white supremacy is letting go of that final transactional piece: support or work that is conditional on the need or desire for gratitude from women of color.

Showing up in the spirit of service — listen to, support and center women of color across a wide spectrum. Take action among fellow white women.

Cat Keefe-Harris:

Cat Keefe-Harris is a biracial Afro-Caribbean queer pansexual anti-racist feminist student activist based in New York. She is also the creator of a feminist podcast, which you can find on soundcloud.com/baldnbrown. Her twitter handle is also @baldnbrown, where she usually tweets political content.

To make substantial changes within not only the current feminist movement, but with all other social justice movements, and their intersections, like Black Lives Matter and Palestinian Liberation for example … White women need to not only actually ‘show up’ to protests and engage in community organizing, but they need to do it with restraint. As queer low-income woman of color working in coalition with white women, I struggle, because oftentimes they tend to center themselves or only engage in activist work to ‘feel better’ about their privilege. Social justice work is not charity, it is a lifelong project, and for those like me with marginalized identities it is about our collective survival. I engage in activist work by and for the communities I am member of because my people are in danger, they are constant under attack by institutional violence from white supremacist colonialist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy. Black and Brown Queer and Trans Women, Men and Children are being killed by fellow citizens and the police daily. Indigenous people are literally invisibilized from our society, and what little land they have been allotted is being stripped from them still, in order to further environmental destruction by corporate entities. Undocumented people and people with protected residency in this country are being hunted, essentially jailed and deported to locations that cannot sustain them, or where they will be put in further danger. The people of Flint, MI, still don’t have clean water, the people in Puerto Rico still don’t have power. 

For these reasons, supporting not only women of color, but all people of color, indigenous people, queer people, trans people, undocumented people, people in prison, people with disabilities etc. is vital. It also means that white women have some work to do. They have to decolonize their perspectives, be actively anti-racist, stop contributing to gentrification, realize that their struggle under sexism and patriarchy is irrevocably connected to global capitalism and white supremacy. I recommend actually reaching out, find a white ally’s training, listen to women of color and uplift our voices, instead of tokenizing us or using us as side-pieces, like women’s liberation movements have done in the past. I also believe that white women are central to liberation for all of us, because they can actually engage white men in conversation.

Mainstream feminism can be summed up by white women writing messages on sanitary pads, taping them to a wall, and thinking it’s revolutionary … instead of purchasing sanitary products and distributing them to homeless and battered women’s shelters. Or by a company like Forever 21 selling ‘girl power’ and ‘the future is female’ t-shirts for $10, while factory workers, who are predominantly poor men and women of color slave away to create them. The Women’s March is an unfortunate example of how feminism itself has been appropriated by middle to upper-class cis-heterosexual liberal white women wearing pink pussy hats, thus denying trans women their right to womanhood, their place in the struggle. Being a woman is much more than having a vagina. Feminism is not just about women. Feminism extends to men, their struggles with patriarchy, queer people, poor and low-income people, people of color etc. Mainstream feminism must rid itself of gender essentialism, of its ties to capitalism and especially, white supremacy.

Sally A. Mercedes:

Sally A. Mercedes is a sacred artist, teacher, and healer. She’s an inspiring writer and singer. You can find her on Twitter @sallysimply and her website www.sallymercedes.com.

I keep coming to this knowing that I have a lot to say, getting flustered, frustrated, tired, or sad, and then deleting what I wrote. And, really, that’s how I feel about the entire experience of being a woman of color who identifies as a feminist, who has been an activist, who advocates and supports other women of color while also maintaining close friendships and partnerships with white women. It is exhausting. It is complicated. It is trying. It is a constant internal dialogue of, “Do I check this woman right now or let it drop? Do I have the energy to go there? Do I have the emotional capacity to be her teacher in this moment?” I once said in a public forum that I do not bring up my nationality or ethnicity because I do not think it’s worth mentioning. I also said that I’m not interested in playing the, “my oppression is worse than yours” game. Some people interpreted that as meaning that I don’t see race or some other nonsense like that. We’ve created a culture where, of course, that must be what somebody means when they say that. What I actually meant, though – besides the fact that interlocking oppressions are real and fucked up and all kinds of complicated – is that I don’t have the luxury of (and sometimes even the energy to) bring up how my identity defines my experience. 

I walk into the room as a Latina. I walk into the room as an immigrant. I walk into the room as the partner of a black man. I walk into the room as a former feminist blogger. I walk into the room as someone who identifies as bisexual. I carry all of this with me, and even if it’s not something others can see, my subconscious has internalized decades of being received as ignorant or lazy or worthless or erasable or trendy or stuck up or whatever else. I already have to do the work of clearing that for myself, of digging myself out of the hole I created by believing that crap, and that leaves very little time, space, and energy for me to then do the work of clearing that for somebody else or making them see me as a worthy, powerful, amazing woman. That’s why it is not okay to expect women of color to teach you. I had to teach myself! 

I read Gloria Anzaldua and Audre Lorde and bell hooks and Angela Davis. I have inhaled almost everything written by Julia Alvarez. I have studied Frida Kahlo. I attended lectures and classes and workshops just to wrap my head around my own lived identity. I continue to put in the work. Hell, even my spiritual path is in part a desire to uncover and deprogram this crap – the ancestral patterns, the history of slavery in the Caribbean, the fact that racism and feminism within the Latino heritage is hella complicated. I’m grateful for platforms and opportunities to speak up and share my experience, and still, I urge others to do the fucking work! 

 My circles are largely entrepreneurial at this point, so perhaps I’m speaking mostly to them, but my main message lately is, alright, cool, if you want to be more inclusive, do the fucking work. Do not expect the people in the communities you want to include to do the work for you. Do not expect them to educate you. These degrees are non-transferable. Read up on this. Ask people, “hey, this is how I experienced this thing; how did you experience it?” And then actually listen to what they have to say! Take it in. Process it. Start to pay attention to the signals and cues that are all around you that others don’t have the luxury of ignoring. Do the work. 

To quote Alice Walker: “No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” We all have to give each other the space to speak; we have to be there to lift each other up, to center our sisters of color, and help each other grow and achieve real change.