DETROIT—The Facebook invite for a Women’s March had barely made it onto the internet last November before the conversation turned to race. It was the day after 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, and the name of the march was a casual rip-off of both a 1997 march for black women and a 1995 march for black men. People of color wanted to know why a bunch of white organizers were selling their protest with the intellectual property of black people. White people wanted to know why everyone couldn’t just put their differences aside and unite against Donald Trump.
In short order, three veteran organizers of color stepped in to help take the march from a hastily-created Facebook page to the largest global protest the world had ever seen, with a progressive platform that demanded, among other things, the demilitarization of American law-enforcement bodies and the end of mass incarceration. Some black activists still boycotted the march for its apparent roots in white feminist thought. Some white women boycotted the march, too, because they didn’t think issues of race and racism belonged next to issues like equal pay and reproductive rights.
The clash in perspectives had little to do with the Women’s March itself. But the march served as an illuminating microcosm of progressive American society in general, and the feminist movement in particular, which has only just begun to account for how the white supremacy of its past still affects its present. For white feminists unacquainted with contemporary discussions of intersectionality, it was an abrupt introduction to the topic.
On Friday, hundreds of white women lined up to discuss the issue, as part of the Women’s Convention in Detroit, where thousands of activists — women and otherwise — convened in an attempt to carry forward the momentum of the march. Only a small fraction were able to make it into the panel discussion, titled “Confronting White Womanhood,” making it the most popular event I’ve seen that didn’t boast a big-name headliner.
Billed as a space for white women to “unpack the ways white women uphold and benefit from white supremacy,” the panel began with a clarification. “This is not a safe space, because the world is not equally safe for all people,” one of the facilitators said. Instead, she termed it a “brave space,” where participants would be encouraged to speak honestly and suspend knee-jerk judgments against others in the group. After a brief welcome, facilitator Sophie Ellman-Golan, deputy director of communications for the Women’s March team, got right down to business: “I’m going to start things out with Emmett Till.”
What followed was a capsule history of how white women have been used (and have used themselves) to justify violence against black men. In addition to Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was killed in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of whistling at her, there was Dylan Rooff, who murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston while accusing them of raping white women. There was also Terence Crutcher, whose killer is a female police officer, Betty Shelby, who is back on duty after she convinced a jury that she was scared for her life in Crutcher’s unarmed presence.
“When white women say we’re frightened of scary black men, really bad things happen,” said Ellman-Golan. She encouraged the women in the room to reconsider their perceptions of safety, especially when what makes them feel safe may compromise the safety of others around them. Acknowledging that what she was about to say was provocative, she offered a suggestion: “Don’t call the police. Don’t do it. How dare we choose as the enforcer of safety an institution that has demonstrated how deeply unsafe it is?”
After a primer on “white savior-ism” from artist Heather Marie Scholl, the attendees split into groups of 15 to discuss how they’ve propagated white supremacy and how they might help build an anti-racist future. Sinead O’Donnell, a white 40-year-old from Denver, told her group that the panel was part of a personal reckoning that was prompted in part by the Women’s March. O’Donnell was active in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and booked her flight to D.C. for the March on November 9, shocked and appalled by Trump’s election. The day of the march was “the first positive thing I had felt since the election,” she told me. Still, the long lineup of speakers focused on racism, immigrant rights, and religious persecution had her feeling “a little excluded” by the end of the day. “At the same time, I was uncomfortable feeling that way. I didn’t want to feel that way,” she said.
O’Donnell returned to Colorado after the march and formed a “huddle” of women in her own community, at the suggestion of the Women’s March organizers. They’re mostly white women, and while they’ve learned about local political issues and intend to get involved in the upcoming gubernatorial race, a lot of their time has been spent learning about social issues like racism. O’Donnell calls it “taking a good hard look at ourselves,” as opposed to, say, blaming everything on Trump. When she first saw the Confronting White Womanhood panel on the Women’s Convention schedule, she immediately ruled it out as something that would be far too uncomfortable. “But then I thought, no, I need to feel that discomfort,” she said. “It’s been a journey this year, and even in this session, trying to address my own biases that I didn’t know existed.”
The panel was an encouraging sign that organizers and participants might be making good on the great promise of the women’s march — its big-tent approach to the concept of “women’s issues.” With such a gigantic outpouring of activist energy from women who’d never before been compelled to carry a protest sign, the march had the potential to force participants in homogenous feminist circles to confront the diversity of women’s experiences.
The 200-or-so white women who sat in circles this afternoon discussing white supremacy may have been a self-selected group; a woman invested in the narrow-mindedness of white feminism would not have spent 90 minutes unpacking her own privilege when she could have been attending a seminar on self-care. But various women in the session described the talk as “difficult” and “eye-opening,” indicating that perhaps they still had space to nudge their woke-ometers up a few notches. At the end of the session, a latecomer noted that dozens of women down the hall were milling around for substitute panels, sad they couldn’t get in to confront their own white womanhood. The organizers promised they would look into holding the session again tomorrow.