When I was in the fifth grade, I wrote a report about Title IX, the law that granted women equal access to all aspects of federally-funded education, including sports. As a basketball player, I was passionate about sports, especially since the WNBA had been founded just two years earlier, but I was also really into girl power. (Thank the Spice Girls for that.) Hillary Clinton was a name I recognized and I was learning about Susan B. Anthony. But as I marched in Atlanta this past weekend to protest the current administration's blatant disregard and disrespect, all I could think was that I was finally facing my white feminism — and I was ashamed.
Confused? I get it. I was, too. I'm a white woman. I'm a feminist. Am I supposed to be ashamed of these two things? No. Of course not. But being a white feminist doesn't mean I have to promote white feminism. According to FEM Magazine, white feminism is described as the belief system of "white, heterosexual, cisgender feminists." The term focuses on the things most women in this category are concerned with — equal pay, rape culture, and "crushing the patriarchy."
I read article after article from women of color. The first few were upsetting. They claimed I didn't really know what fighting for equality meant. They suggested white women were more of a problem than a solution in a lot of cases. They asserted I knew nothing of being uncomfortable, of being scared to march, of being afraid. They said I practiced white feminism. And you know what? They were right.
Are those things important? Of course they are. As I read sign after sign in Atlanta about "a woman's place is in the resistance" and "my body, my rules," I felt inspired. I was pumped. I thought about how I was taking up the attitude my ancestors left behind. I was fighting for equal rights, just like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — you know, the suffragette who didn't want equal rights for all women, just the white women. I took selfies with my best friend, both of us in our homemade shirts. Hers said "Feminist AF." Mine said "Taking Up My Space." We recorded moments of the march for Snapchat, high-fived the Atlanta police officers lining the barricades, and repeatedly said things like "OMG, this is too much fun," and "let's get in formation."
Thinking of these things now? It's embarrassing. A day or so after the marches took over the country, I read article after article from women of color. The first few were upsetting. They claimed I didn't really know what fighting for equality meant. They suggested white women were more of a problem than a solution in a lot of cases. They asserted I knew nothing of being uncomfortable, of being scared to march, of being afraid. They said I practiced white feminism. And you know what? They were right.
After about the third article, I let my guard down. I could feel it — I was defensive, I was quick to shout, "not all white women voted for Trump, "and I wanted to yell, "I believe in Black Lives Matter, too."
In short? I sounded like a white man who didn't recognize his privilege. If I was going to learn anything, I needed to listen first.
My privilege is something I've taken notice of — I know I've been afforded different liberties because of the color of my skin — but it took the march to notice the white feminism I was following. While a local lawyer shared a Facebook status that offered his services to anyone if they were arrested at the Atlanta march, I scoffed. "If you aren't doing anything illegal, why would you be arrested?" I asked my best friend as we marched side-by-side, totally unafraid of the policemen lining the sidewalks or the ones on top of the state capitol.
While I shouted "this is what democracy looks like" as I marched and updated status after status on Facebook about fighting for what I believe in, arguing with friends and colleagues and family about what the march meant to me, I didn't have to worry that someone was going to stereotype me as "the angry white woman." I could leave my social media feeds public knowing no one was going to look at them before hiring me and thinking me a liability. Nobody was going to passive-aggressively comment I was strong and brave for standing up for myself.
I want equal pay for women and men. But did I know that the pay gap for women of color is even larger than the pay gap between white women and men? No. I want comprehensive sex education in schools; I want women to be able to determine what they do with their own bodies. But did I know that the abortion rate for black women is almost five times higher than it is for white women? No. I want convicted sexual offenders like Brock Turner to pay for their crimes; I want all men who sexually assault, regardless of their color or social status, to be known as sexual predators. But did I know that Native Americans are twice as likely to experience rape and/or sexual assault compared to all races? No.
Instead of thinking about how "cool" it was to march for what I believed in, did I take any time to think about how tired women of color are of marching?
The answer, again and again and again and again, was no. No, I didn't know this; no, I didn't know that. I was standing up for a cause I thought I wholly understood — but what, if anything, did I really understand except the boxes I could check that affected my own life?
This is white feminism. I can say that I support Black Lives Matter all day, but when I'm faced with issues of equality and injustice, am I looking at all races, religions, and sexual orientations? Or am I seeing only women who look like me — white and cisgender? Instead of thinking about how "cool" it was to march for what I believed in, did I take any time to think about how tired women of color are of marching?
White feminism is what you see when your social media feeds are filled with white women asking, "What are these women actually marching for?" It's the cousin at Thanksgiving who says, "I thought women already had equal rights." It's the woman in line at the grocery store who says, "These women don't know what oppression is."
If I really am as committed to my feminism as I claim to be, I can't stop marching when I make as much money as my male colleagues — I have to keep going until all women make as much money as their male colleagues. I can't stop marching when Planned Parenthood is safe and abortions remain legal — I have to keep marching until all women have access to birth control, to quality healthcare, and to insurance. I have to keep marching until it no longer feels "cool." And even then, I still have to keep going.
It's everywhere and I realized, also in me. And I am so, so ashamed of it.
I chanted "love trumps hate" as I marched the streets of Atlanta. I'm terrified of Trump's presidency because I can't stand the thought of refugees being turned away, of a giant wall shielding us from the "bad hombres," of incredibly short-sighted white men legislating on a woman's body, of a woman who knows nothing about education making decisions about our country's schools, of Trump supporters gleefully shouting racist comments at people of color because they can. But I'm a white woman. And I'm not nearly as terrified as women of color, as immigrants, as refugees, as the LGBTQIA+ community, as people living with disabilities — I have no idea how they feel. I will never be able to comprehend that.
And looking that right in the eyes, and noting that no matter how much I want equality, I'll never know what it's like to not actually have it, is necessary. I realized that if I really am as committed to my feminism as I claim to be, I can't stop marching when I make as much money as my male colleagues — I have to keep going until all women make as much money as their male colleagues. I can't stop marching when Planned Parenthood is safe and abortions remain legal — I have to keep marching until all women have access to birth control, to quality healthcare, and to insurance. I have to keep marching until it no longer feels "cool." And even then, I still have to keep going.
In Atlanta, as I pushed my blonde hair out of my face for a Snapchat-filter selfie with my best friend, I heard a roar from the back of the crowd. We turned and I immediately screamed — it was Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, a civil rights activist, and an incredible hero to so many. We all reached out to high five him as he pushed through the crowd and I immediately began crying. How many marches has this man pushed himself through? How many times has he had to say, "Let's go, it's time to fight"? How many speeches will he have to give about equality, about the rights of his fellow citizens, about people pulling together to make a change?
My white privilege is my responsibility. And it's about damn time I did something worthwhile with it.
I have no idea. But I do know that if I am going to be an advocate and ally, I need to march and stand up and advocate even when the issues don't affect me; even when it's not my rights at risk; even when the President of the United States has not taken aim at me and my body, I need to stand up for the people he has. I need to march, to be loud, and most importantly, to use my privilege to empower those around me. And with so much uncertainty still looming in the air, that is one thing I know, without a doubt, that I can focus on.
Noting my white feminism, making a conscious effort to change it, and marching right alongside men like Lewis, no matter how uncomfortable or scary it may seem, is one of the best ways I can contribute right now. If I'm going to be a feminist, I need to keep in mind exactly whose equal rights I'm fighting for — not just my own. My white privilege is my responsibility. And it's about damn time I did something worthwhile with it.