by Sharon Kyle
The photo shown here, taken at the Women’s March, is causing quite a bit of discussion on social media. At issue, for many, is the message on the poster. Some commenters have called this woman a racist. Others feel that her message is inaccurate, not factual, or out of place.
The photo was brought to my attention in a private Facebook group I belong to called “Calling ‘In’ White Women“. The group was created after Trump was elected to provide a space where women could talk about and gain a better understanding of the huge disparity between the way that women of color voted and white women voted in this last presidential election—especially when one considers that the candidate who got the most votes from white women has openly admitted to engaging in sexual assault against women (likely white women).
The majority of the women in the group are white progressives trying to bridge the racial divide. They’ve all signed up for a nine-week course exploring the disconnect between white women and women of color. Those of you who know that I am black might be asking yourself why I’m in the group. I’m there because I taught one of the classes.
My take on the photo is that the message is factual. I think it caused a stir for a few reasons. One reason is that the woman holding the sign is black. I suspect that some sense she is breaching one of our many unspoken but closely adhered to rules—she is addressing the intersectionality of race and gender—out loud!
Sociologist and author Allan G. Johnson talks about the taboo of calling something what it is and when that taboo is most likely to be invoked. He says this issue often comes into play when a group from a lower social rank calls into account the negative behavior of a dominant group.
In the case of the photograph at the women’s march, the reality is that when you count just the women who voted for Trump, more than 80% of them are white. It is therefore reasonable to assert that when speaking of the women who voted for Trump and viewing them from a racial/ethnic perspective, it is white women – more than any other group of women – who got Trump elected.
The question is whether or not a factual statement such as this should or should not be interpreted as divisive. This is where issues of privilege come into play.
The question is whether or not a factual statement such as this should or should not be interpreted as divisive or racist (which is what many are saying). This is where issues of privilege come into play.
According to Johnson, one of the characteristics of white privilege is that white people have the luxury of removing themselves from racial issues. Discussions of race or racism are generally relegated to internal discussions preferably had by all the other racial groups. Whites generally don’t get into the racial thing. In other words, the others have to deal with race. Whites have the privilege of not being racialized. In the United States it’s as if they’re seen as the default humans. I have had white friends tell me that they feel that they are generic as if whiteness itself is devoid of unique characteristics. In fact, the study of whiteness is relatively new. Millennials reading this will likely know the term but many white boomers have no idea what it means.
Although the rules of this game remain unspoken, most of us, regardless of race, know the score. We generally don’t mention the word “white” even when we are talking specifically about white people. This is particularly true when the speaker or writer is also white.
Here’s an example. A frequent LA Progressive writer who happens to be a white man recently submitted an article about the attempts to pass healthcare legislation in the past. Speaking of the past failed attempts, he said, “But lawmakers from the South blocked the measure, because their constituents were afraid they would have to share doctors and medical facilities with racial minorities.”
I contacted him to get clarity because I knew, based on my understanding of history, that the lawmakers “constituents” he referred to were white. Their whiteness is germane to the story. In fact, the story only makes sense when the word “white” is added to modify “constituents”. When I mentioned this to him, he agreed so I edited the piece to include the constituents’ race. I could offer many more examples of this type of racial omission. One thing that is striking is that the word “white” is regularly omitted but the race of everyone else is commonly pointed out even when their race is not germane to the story.
In my experience, just calling a white woman a “white woman” can usher in feelings of awkwardness, resentment and even fear—especially when it is a black woman who is calling the white woman white. As a nation, we are racially fractured but we are so ill at ease with race talk.
But here’s the problem. Racism, race, racial issues, race talk — all of this must be dealt with if we are to mount a serious united front to tackle bigger issues like war, climate change, and a whole host of other things. As a nation, our racial illiteracy is crippling our ability to develop strong coalitions, to have empathy for each other’s issues or to see how our actions can maintain systems of privilege even when we’re unaware of our role in it.
So, no, I do not believe that the message in the image is racist or even offensive. I think it’s time for all of us to learn a lot more about intersectionality—thank you Professor Kimberle Crenshaw (she coined the term)! You can learn more about intersectionality by clicking the video below. And if you like this article, PLEASE SHARE. Thanks in advance.