BY HANNAH ALLAM
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON — In a small clearing amid the busloads of protesters in Washington Saturday, a group of activists held up large portraits of Black women and called out names: Tanisha Anderson, Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland.
The activists were from #SayHerName, a national campaign to draw attention to how police brutality and racial violence affect Black women. The women named had been killed by police.
A middle-age White marcher watched the scene in puzzlement for a few minutes before turning to her friend to ask: “Say her name? What does that even mean?”
The question illustrates the disconnect that made many women of color think twice before joining the Women’s March on Washington and the solidarity protests that unfolded around the world the day after President Donald Trump took office.
Too often, minority women organizers say, race-specific issues are left out of the national feminist conversation, even though women of color voted overwhelmingly against Trump and represent one of the fastest-growing voter segments.
Minority activists said they couldn’t understand how any woman could buy into Trump’s fearmongering rather than stand united against a president who was caught on video boasting of sexual assault and has a record of disparaging women and entire racial groups.
It felt like a betrayal, they said, that 53 percent of White women voters chose Trump, compared with 94 percent of Black women and 68 percent of Latinas who voted for Hillary Clinton.
If they did their bit to “fight the patriarchy,” the reasoning goes, why should women of color have to ask for a place at the forefront of big national events like the women’s march?
“We need a multi-issue women’s movement but, in this moment, are our White sisters going to choose to be White or choose to be women?” said Jodeen Olguin-Tayler, a New Mexico-born Chicana activist, summing up the big question that activists of color have as they consider how to confront the Trump administration.
The election results pushed uncomfortable questions of race into feminist spaces, making for fraught conversations in the planning of the march. The first concept of “a million-woman march” was criticized as an example of White feminists co-opting the language and tactics of Black activists, who staged big marches in 1995 and 1997.
The name was changed and prominent activists representing different minority communities were added to the organizing committee. The march’s agenda was made to include issues important to minority participants –– for example, calling specifically for “accountability and justice in cases of police brutality and ending racial profiling and targeting of communities of color.”
Olguin-Tayler, who works for the New York-based public policy nonprofit Demos, got involved with the planning when one of the march organizers enlisted her, only half-joking about the need for “a White-woman whisperer.”
More work ahead
As a light-skinned woman who can pass for White, Olguin-Tayler said, she helped to convey the concerns of activists of color to White feminist figures who “were having some difficulty with giving up space.”
“I don’t think it’s a big happy bow, but I think we’re doing the work and we’re in the place we need to be in,” Olguin-Tayler said. “I’m really hopeful.”
The changes — and the conversations that unfolded about them among White women and women of color on long bus rides to Washington — were viewed by many marchers as a good lesson in the power of honest dialogue.
“This is just a beginning coalition,” said Deborah Jackson, an African-American marcher from Chester, Pa. “What I see from the Caucasian women that I discuss with is a desire to understand — a desire for understanding on our part, for understanding on their part.”
The struggle continues
The problem is as old as American feminist organizing; today’s activists of color cite the cautionary tale of White suffragists jettisoning Black women from the movement to ease their own pursuit of the vote.
Minority activists are quick to remind that it’s not just ethically sound, but also politically expedient to be inclusive, given that women of color represent 74 percent of the growth in eligible voters since 2000, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group.
Black activist and social commentator Jamilah Lemieux, who did not participate in the march, wrote in a column that Trump’s election was already depressing enough without have to “feign solidarity with women who by and large didn’t have my back prior to November.”