There’s a larger lesson to be learned from the mini fiasco that played out on social media platforms two weeks ago during “Blackout Tuesday.” Excessive posting of black squares meant to show alliance with Black Lives Matter activists ended up drowning out the very Black voices the campaign was designed to support. It’s a reminder that, as critical as it is for white Americans to join with the Black community to speak out against systemic racism, there are times when the most constructive thing we can do is simply listen, reflect, and learn.George Floyd’s killing unleashed an unprecedented expression of outrage from white Americans. It has also made us feel damn uneasy with ourselves. We cringe knowing that, by reacting to Floyd’s death with such horror, we are revealing an ugly truth: We didn’t understand it was this bad. Despite the mountain of evidence presented by the deaths of so many Black people at the hands of police and self-proclaimed vigilantes, so many did not truly comprehend that, as former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer and personal friend Denise Horn put it in remarks before a protest, “Black people and other people of color are fighting a different fight than white people every day.”Now that this truth has become evident, we’re in a rush to make it all better. For women in particular our instinct can be to smooth things over because, in the absence of real power, that’s what white women have traditionally resorted to doing. Much of the reflection happening, for both individuals and institutions, is inward-looking. We’re scrambling to reconsider everything from old social media posts to movies offered on platforms like HBO. This kind of processing is productive until it becomes self-absorption, more concerned with protecting our own reputations than figuring out what we need to learn and do to change things in the future. Importantly, we must not look to our Black friends and colleagues for absolution or understanding. It is too much to ask. We also have to understand that despite our best intentions, there is nothing we can post or say that will bridge the chasm between a concerned white person’s experience and that of a Black person. We can’t be spokespeople, but we can be allies.For most of American history, white women have not been good allies to Black Americans. That is a legacy we must confront, including the troubling historic dynamic between the anti-racist movement and the women’s suffrage movement. Until recently, I knew very little about the history of the suffrage movement. As I began work on a book about how to combat today’s oppressive power systems, I wanted to see what could be gleaned from the experiences of women 100 years ago. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an expert, but I learned enough to know that justice is best achieved when women band together with Black activists, and all other disenfranchised groups, to advocate for rights. It is the pitting of advocates against each other that helps keep white, male-dominated structures in place.The ugly strands of racism woven through the suffrage movement and later-era feminism are particularly disquieting considering the cause had its roots in the abolitionist movement and began with multiracial support. Were it not for Frederick Douglass speaking in favor of women’s suffrage at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights, the measure might never have made it into the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments. Women’s suffrage was considered so radical an idea that many of the women’s rights activists attending the convention opposed it. It’s reported that it was Douglass, at the time the most famous Black man in America, who turned the tide of opinion in the room to support for the suffrage resolution.
It must have smarted all the more when, over 20 years later, Seneca Falls convener Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed the 15th Amendment, which ostensibly extended the vote to Black men, because the measure did not include voting rights for women. “It becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and let ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first,” Stanton said at the time. In an early example of cultural appropriation gone awry, Stanton and fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony also tried to equate white womanhood with being enslaved, with Anthony saying that men “think of us as some of the slaveholders used to think of their slaves, all love and compassion, with no malice in their hearts.”
In chilling words that continue to resonate today, Douglass responded to Anthony, “When women, because they are women, are hunted down...when they are dragged from their houses and are hung from lampposts….and their brains bashed out upon the pavement...then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”
From the woman who falsely accused Emmett Till of assaulting her, to the one who called the police on a birdwatcher in Central Park, to the 53% of us who voted to elect Donald Trump, white women are processing all the ways our own actions, and those taken in our name, literally endanger the lives of Black Americans. We must accept that the white male patriarchy has long provided refuge to white women, which makes it all the more important that we defy it now.
In the last few years, women’s voices have been crucial. From the #MeToo movement to the women’s marches to the historic wins in 2018 elections to being on the front lines combating COVID-19, women are speaking out and engaging in the world in positive new ways. We cannot shrink from taking part in a larger fight because we aren’t sure what to do or find considering our own complicity too painful. You have to get through the uncomfortable part. I have had to reconsider some underlying assumptions I’ve always operated under in my own career. I used to think I was doing great pushing against the patriarchy. Now I see the truth is more complicated. I was not doing great in creating real change; I was doing great making the man’s world run better, helping to perpetuate the systems that block women and people of color from having real power.
Being let into the white man’s world without changing any of the underlying rules of how it operates will result in the same thing: power systems that default to white male leadership and keep systemic racism and sexism in place. White allies relatively late to the game must undertake this work with the appropriate humility. None of us is the missing ingredient that will magically transform things. We can simply show up to stand alongside those who have been fighting their whole lives to ask, “How can I help?”
Jennifer Palmieri is the author of the upcoming book She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World.