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Erin, Melissa, Aimée, Lily, Boyda, and Jana
A Canadian Feminist in Washington, or, I Went to the Women’s March on Washington…And all I got was a renewed sense of purpose and an upsetting but necessary encounter with my own complicity in white feminism.
I. Preamble; or the Work of Situating.
When I woke up on November 9th to find out that Donald Trump was the President Elect, I was in shock. It felt like someone had died unexpectedly and I was in the beginning phases of grief. And then I read an essay by Courtney Parker West, “On ‘Woke’ White People Advertising their Shock thatRacism just won a Presidency.” In the essay, West addresses all of those “white people whom I often love,” and tells them how “advertising your shock and surprise that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry are pervasive enough to hand that man the Presidency is a microaggression. Please stop.”
Reading her words, I had to admit that I was one of the folks she was addressing. For folks of colour, for immigrants, and Muslims, and members of the indigenous community, Trump winning the election wasn’t a shock. It was a confirmation of the racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist world that people of colour inhabit daily. As a privileged white woman, and one who lives in Canada, I had to confront just how privileged my shock was.
So I interrogated my shock and tried to figure out how to mobilize. But I felt stuck.
Overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the work ahead. And again I had to encounter the privilege of being able to inhabit a space of stuckness. I was left wondering, as Erin Wunker does in Notes From a Feminist Killjoy: “Where do we being when the work of deconstructing, dismantling, and burning down oppressive systems seems so immense?” (39). Wunker’s response to this question: “First, we situate ourselves. Then, we widen the scope of our looking. Then, we situate ourselves again. And repeat.”
There is something hopeful in the repetition of this act. And something forgiving.
When I fail at being a feminist killjoy, when I refuse to speak up when I see racism and misogyny taking place, and worse, when I say or do or think something racist, it’s all too easy to get caught in a shame spiral, to inhabit that space of stuckness. But if I can situate myself as a feminist who is striving to be intersectional,then I need to confront my shame, my humiliation, and my failure, then “widen the scope of [my] looking,” and figure out how to do better next time.
Trump’s win forced me to think about how my allyship needed to grow and shift. I decided upon two different actions that I would take:
1. The first was to educate myself.
Specifically, I would educate myself so that I could do the work of educating other white women and men. And I wanted to do that work outside of the neoliberal university that supports transphobia and racism (see: Jordan Peterson’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns; see: theanti-racism protests at Ryerson that the director of the School of Social Work to step down). I put out a call on Facebook, asking if anyone else might be interested in joining a reading group where we exclusively read work written by authors who are indigenous, black, or from other POC groups; who are disabled; who are Muslim; who are part of the queer community, especially from the trans community.
In other words, we will not read anything written by a cis white man. And if we read anything by a cis white woman, we will, as I state on the group’s page, “interrogate why that voice and not another. I would prefer that we ask ourselves how reading something by a white woman will help us become better intersectional feminists. Is that author intersectional in her approach? Does she provide us with an example of how we can live our intersectional feminist politics?”
This group is a space where we are actively working to interrogate our white privilege, where we can address the ways in which we are racist because we have been raised in a racist world, and where we can figure out what it means to be an ally. This is a space where we can say, “I’m trying and I’m failing, and I’m continuing to try.”
2. I would go to more protests.
Taking up space in the streets is a necessary act for me because it feels unsafe and thus forces me to go outside of the comfort zone of my white privilege. It means that I might have to place myself in a zone of conflict, and I don’t do well with conflict. (My brother and I had a pretty volatile relationship growing up and conflict was a constant in our home. I was taught that it was safer to say nothing than it was to stand up for myself and deal with the screaming and slamming of doors and silence from my father. I’m still dealing with the trauma.) And yet, women of colour find themselves time and time again in conflicts that they haven’t chosen, conflicts that have been forced upon them just because of the colour of their skin. They don’t get to choose this discomfort – but I can.
I decided that I would try to go to the Women’s March on Washington. My best friend and I talked about driving down together, but unfortunately the plan fell through and I basically gave up on the idea and decided to attend the sister march in Toronto. But then a woman in a Facebook group that I’m a part of posted that her bus had a few empty seats and I jumped at the opportunity. We would drive overnight on Friday, arrive Saturday morning, attend the rally and march, and then get back on the bus Saturday night, arriving back in Toronto Sunday morning. It would be an intense trip, but it felt like it was meant to be.
The reasons it was “meant to be” were much different than I had anticipated.
I thought that I would go and feel overwhelmed by all of the solidarity amongst the feminists in attendance. And that did happen. To see so many folks who support feminism and women’s rights was a truly incredible experience. And I went aware of the issues within the organization, from the fact that it first took its name “The Million Woman March” from the 1997 protest of black women, to the erasure of a line in support of sex workers from their Unity Principles.
The March both produced a feeling of solidarity and it revealed just how divided feminism is – and just how much more work I need to do if I want to consider myself an ally.
II. Learning How to Do Better
i. The Future is…Female?
Okay, it’s called the “Women’s March” and so automatically we’re talking about a particular gender identity, one that doesn’t account for those gender-queer and gender non-conforming individuals who don’t identify as “woman” or “man”, “girl” or “boy,” “male” or “female.” I put these words in scarequotes because, following Judith Butler, I believe that these gendered and sexed categories are products of the social world that we live in and that they are not fixed categories.
And yet I packed my “The Future is Female” sweatshirt for the March – a slogan that I love and feel ambivalent about, for it privileges the biological category of “female” over the socially and historically constructed category of “woman.” I’ve tried to tell myself that it just sounds better to say “female” (I can’t count the amount of times I’ve tried to write a sentence using “woman” instead of “female” and felt frustrated by the ways in which “female” reads much more smoothly). But this ambivalence over the trickiness of language is trumped by what I see as the slogan’s utopian vision: a world that isn’t run by the patriarchy.
It is this utopian vision that was at the forefront of the Women’s March, a vision that is desperately needed in the face of a President who has openly promoted rape culture with the words “Grab her by the pussy.”
Throughout the March you saw signs that read “Not this Pussy” or “Pussy Grabs Back.” And all around you was a sea of pink and red Pussy Hats. I was one of many wearing a Pussy Hat. My decision to wear one came about by accident. My friend’s mother was making one for herself and asked if I wanted one and I said “sure, why not?” It wasn’t until after the March that I started to read people’s criticisms of the hats for being transphobic: because trans women do not have pussies – biologically speaking – and because pink is a highly gendered colour.
While I’m all for utopian visions of the future, especially ones in which the patriarchy has been dismantled, I think that we need to take a moment and realize how utopias can be exclusionary. It is useful to think of queer scholar José Muñoz’s definition of abstract and concrete utopias. In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Muñoz argues that abstract utopias are “are akin to banal optimism,” while concrete utopias “are the realm of educated hope” or what Muñoz calls “critical idealism” (2-3). In not thinking about how all of the pussy signs and hats were exclusionary, all we have is an abstract utopia, one in which banal optimism evokes utopia’s definition as a “no place.” And those on the margins are forced to occupy the “no place” in very real ways.
One way that we can think about the different between abstract utopia and concrete utopia is by looking at this viral photo taken at the March.
Angela Peoples holding sign (photo by Kevin Banatte)
The three white women in the background can be read as representing the abstract utopia, in which it’s enough to show up to the March, put on a pussy hat, and call it a day (to be fair, I know nothing about these women and their lives and so I speak of them, in this moment, as representing the white feminism that refuses to be critical of its own complicity in racism).
Angela Peoples, who stands wearing a hat that says “Stop Killing Black People,” holding her sign that reads “White Women Voted for Trump,” presents us with a different form of utopic vision, one that is critical of the current state of things, one that calls attention to the truths that white women would rather not acknowledge.
As Peoples explains in an interview, most women responded to her sign by saying, “‘Not this white woman,’ or ‘No one I know!’ I’d say, ‘[Fifty-three percent] of white women voted for Trump. That means someone you know, someone who is in close community with you, voted for Trump. You need to organize your people.’ And some people said, ‘Oh, I’m so ashamed.’ Don’t be ashamed; organize your people.”
I’d like to turn back to the pussy hats. In an essay for The Establishment, Katelyn Burns explains her own response, as a trans woman, to the overwhelming presence of pussies at the March: “I understand the impulse to use your vagina as your protest image, especially in the face of a president-elect who has boasted about grabbing vaginas, and an administration seemingly hell-bent on stripping women of their reproductive rights — but the fact of the matter is that when you do so, you subtly let trans women know that their place isn’t in your protest. You’re letting trans men know that you don’t see their gender, because your idea of gender is seemingly based exclusively on genitalia. Wearing pussyhats, or chanting about vaginas, lays out a hierarchy based on genitals that is exclusionary and painful.”
In other words, in the pussy-filled landscape of the March, there is no place for those whose genitals do not match their gender.
Upon realizing just how exclusionary these symbols were, I felt horrified.
How could I, as a queer woman and educator, who has been with gender-queer folks and has many trans friends, have not realized how this symbol was trans-exclusionary and therefore transphobic?
When I attempted to process these feelings with a friend of mine, she very gently pointed out how my question could be read as another version of the claim “I’m not racist because I have X number of black friends.”
Ouch. Necessary truths hurt.
My surprise, to borrow the words of Wunker, “is an example of just one of the ways myopias work” (30). Wunker continues: “Situating your knowledge means that you have to start recognizing the ways in which your knowledge has been shaped—for better or worse—by external social forces. It also means opening yourself to the truth that you don’t have access to every experience” (30).
As a friend of mine phrased it, racism and transphobia are so deeply internalized “that when they come up it’s almost like you’re vomiting.”
I want to take a moment to admit that I’m struggling with where to go from here, from this knowledge that the pussy hats and all of the signs depicting women’s reproductive organs are transphobic.
I’m left wondering, is there a way that I, as a cis woman who had an abortion, can connect with these symbols without excluding others? Is it okay to read “pussy” more figuratively? Can “pussy” be detached from its literal connection to the female body and be read differently, as a representation how patriarchal violence is enacted upon cis and trans-gendered bodies? Can “pussy” serve as a metonym for the bodies that have experienced violence at the hands of men?
I ask these questions earnestly, and from a position of privilege: I am a queer woman and a literature scholar – two different forms of privilege – who thinks about the ways that we can queer language, can shift and change the meanings that oppress into meanings that can challenge those systems of oppression.I ask this question and I acknowledge that I’m not the one who has the right to answer it.
For Katelyn Burns, “maybe womanhood is more about the fight and not about the flesh. Maybe vagina symbolism can be more symbolic than exclusionary.” But before that can happen, she notes, we need to focus on creating language that is trans inclusive, we need to acknowledge how the right to surgery that would enable a trans woman to have a pussy is one that we must continue to fight for.
First we situate ourselves: I wore a Pussy Hat. A hat that is meaningful for me as a woman who has experienced sexual assault and who has long thought of the word pussy as a dirty one because I was taught that my body and my sexuality were dirty.
Then, we widen the scope of our looking: I failed to think about how these symbols are tied to female genitalia, and thus work to exclude trans women.
Then, we situate ourselves again: It is my privilege as a cis woman that enabled me to not see how there is more than one way to read this symbol. I can do better. I must do better. I will do better.
ii. Unity versus Intersectionality: A False Binary
The scene is this: I’m standing in a crowd of people during the rally. I’m many blocks away so I have to rely on speakers and jumbo screens. Based on my location I can’t see the speakers, but I can hear what they’re saying. Beside me there is a short stone partition, and on it stands a sea of white bodies that are able to see one of the coveted jumbo screens. They can see and they can hear. The people standing are mostly women, but some men. And I think, with so much anger, “Don’t these men understand how their choice to stand on this ledge is the perfect manifestation of their white male privilege? Why don’t they get the fuck down and offer their spaces to other women?”
And yet I said nothing.
An hour or so passes and an interruption occurs: a Muslim girl finds her way to the top of the porta potties on the other side of this stone partition. And then this happens: the sea of whiteness protests. “Get down from there! You can’t be up there! You’re blocking our view!”
And I begin to run through all of the reasons why their protests are totally effed up:
1. This is a rally, not night at the opera! You are choosing to stand on the stone wall, thus blocking other people, and so she can get up on the porta potty.
2. Could you be a better example of white supremacy??? This Muslim girl spends her whole life being blocked from seeing, being silenced, being called a terrorist. And now she faces the threat of the Muslim registry! And you’re telling her to get down?!??!
This scene reminds me of Sara Ahmed’s theorization of walls on her blog feministkilljoy.com. She discusses how diversity work can feel like you’ve come up against an institutional brick wall, because the institution (in this case the university) does not want to acknowledge that it is racist. For Ahmed, a wall “is what you come up against. It is a physical contact, a visceral encounter. When I write this, I might not at first be talking of literal walls. A wall is an effect of coming up against.”
This girl jumped over a literal wall that was being created both by the porta potties and by the white people who stood behind her, who told her to get down. And then she stayed up there. She tried to figure out how she could position her body so as to not totally block the sightlines of the white sea behind her – but she still stayed up there. She turned herself into a wall: “a wall as material resistance to being changed by force.”
She was this force all on her own.
I, the person who saw the racism she was experiencing, said nothing.
And this is what it looks like to be complicit in racism.
The day after the March I read a Twitter thread by Sydney Rain, in which she describes “one indigenous woman’s take” on the Women’s March on Washington, “in a sea full of white women.”Rain describes how when she left the prayer circle she was a part of, white women (WW) snapped photos of her and best friend, Ashley, in their regalia without asking permission. When Rain and Ashley started to chant, “You’re on stolen land” she tells us how “WW shot us ugly looks. One shouted in her face, ‘We know but it isn’t our fault!’”
While the Tumblr account has cut out all of the responses to Rain’s thread, there was one that summarized all that is wrong with white feminism (and since the thread has been made private, I’ll have to paraphrase): “we need unity not intersectionality.” This line has been repeated by countless others, including HeatherWilhelm of the Chicago Tribune who called the Women’s March an “intersectional torture chamber.” And an essay on Feministing cites responses to a diversity statement on Facebook, in which women wrote, “‘No woman, no matter what race you are is ‘privileged’ in this culture … This division has to stop;’ another white woman chimed in, saying, ‘I will march. Hoping that someday soon a sense of unity will occur before it’s too late.’”
I’m having a difficult time parsing how and why this false binary has been set up. How and, more importantly, why is acknowledging intersectionality antithetical to unity? Perhaps we can return to the distinction Muñoz makes between abstract and concrete utopias. The unity being proposed by all of these white women is akin to the abstract utopia wherein optimism becomes an excuse for refusing to acknowledge the power and privilege we hold. And so intersectionality is read as cynicism.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza notes how “cynicism cannot build a movement.” In a moving, and to me, a very generous response to the criticism surrounding the Women’s March, Garza describes how “Checking my social media feed that evening, I read comment after comment dismissing the march — an experience that was transformative for hundreds of thousands of people. I wondered what would have happened if, instead of inviting people in, I’d told people to fuck off and go home. Would they come back? Did it matter if they didn’t?”
Garza asks those who are committed to radical politics to hold space for those whose politics are new and thus far from perfect: “Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win. If our movement is not serious about building power, then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical.”
As Garza offers a much needed intervention in the conversation about unity and intersectionality in the wake of the March, she holds space for us to fail – without falling into a shame spiral – and acknowledges that being political is always a process of learning how we can do better.
III. Conclusion: Towards a Critical Utopia
“There’s still so much work I can do to accept my privileges, explore the opportunities I have to use my abilities and access to help myself and others. This is a commitment we can all make for our self-care – because self-care is about nourishing ourselves, not necessarily comforting ourselves.” – Dom Chatterjee, “The Healing Power in Owning Our Privileges”
Where to go from here? What does it look like for me to return from Washington with a newfound sense of my inner white feminist? How can I move forward, towards the critical utopia that Muñoz proposes?
As a PhD candidate and educator, I can use my knowledge of feminism and anti-oppression to teach others how and why we must acknowledge our privilege. I can harness my commitment to a pedagogy of non-mastery to hold space for others to be vulnerable – because encountering one’s privilege is a vulnerable act, and recognizing our complicity can feel devastating. But it need not destroy us. Our privilege can harm others and it can be used to heal others and ourselves.
First we situate ourselves: I am privileged. I can do better. And this is hard work.
Then, we widen the scope of our looking: I can educate others and myself. I can go to protests and speak up.
Then, we situate ourselves again: The work might not always feel doable, but I don’t have to do it alone.
Margeaux Feldman is a PhD Candidate in English and Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto and she holds a certificate in Community-Engaged Learning. Her dissertation, “The Hideosity of Adolescence: Refiguring Intimacy and Sexuality in America” draws upon feminist, queer, and critical race theory to analyze representations of adolescent girls in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture. Her essay “Undutiful daughters: growing up in feminism and psychoanalysis” was published in Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society in 2016. Margeaux also runs the blog Floral Manifesto, which is committed to talking about the intersections of fashion, feminism, and feelings.
I think that it’s crucial to critique the rhetoric of “things are so much better in Canada.”
This term was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” For Crenshaw, when we discuss systems of oppression, domination, and power (such as the patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, systemic racism), we MUST consider how different aspects of our identity make us more or less vulnerable than others. For a further discussion, you can checkout my blog post “Defining Our Term: Feminism 101”
In Butler’s seminal text, Gender Trouble, she argues that Butler wants to challenge the traditional feminist argument that sex is a biological category while gender is a historic and social category. Butler does not believe that sex is anatomically defined; for example, if one of the characteristics of being a female is your ability to procreate, then what do we do with those women who are unable to do so?
I shy away from using the word “empower” (i.e. “meanings that empower”) because of the ways that neoliberalism has co-opted phrases like “girl power” (see the essay “Girl power and ‘selfie humanitarianism’” by Gill et al) and the ways in which “empowerment” is the privileged cite for thinking about feminist sex, one that, as I argue in my dissertation, refuses to hold space for sex that is more ambivalent, that lies in-between sex empowerment and sexual assault.
I want to acknowledge that Chatterjee’s essay isn’t dedicated to or for white people. As a disabled trans man of colour, Chatterjee is talking to those who experience privilege and oppression, and while I am a woman, I want to be careful to acknowledge my own power and privilege as I use his words. You can find the rest of the essay here.