When Pink Hats Are Not Enough: Appropriation and Whiteness at the Women’s March on Washington

pussy-hats

By Nina Murray

January 21 2017 drew nearly 160,000 people to the National Mall in Washington D.C. to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. The Women’s March on Washington was not specific to D.C. but rather spread to nearly every major city in the U.S. and even overseas. For some, the Women’s March was the ultimate articulation of grassroots organizing for gender equality. Yet for others, the Women’s March was simply an appropriation of black activism and a parade for white feminism.

The Women’s March on Washington was problematic for many reasons. For example, the march was initially called the “Million Women’s March,” though the organizers ignored the fact that a Million Women’s March had already taken place—in 1997. The black women who organized this march focused on black women’s experience in the U.S. Once this was brought to the attention of the organizers, they quickly changed the name from Million Women’s March to Women’s March on Washington. Yet this name was still appropriative of black activism as it is implicitly references the March on Washington, another march organized for and by black people, which took place in 1963 and famously featured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream.”

It soon becomes clear that the Women’s March was intended for a primarily white audience, particularly when examining the Women’s March’s “Unity Principles.” They read:

We believe that Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights. We must create a society in which women – including Black women, Native women, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, Muslim women, lesbian queer and trans women – are free and able to care for and nurture their families, however they are formed, in safe and healthy environments free from structural impediments.

White women are not mentioned in this excerpt because whiteness is implicit in their use of “women,” while any other race of woman must be articulated in strict terms. This sentiment is invokes that which is normal is white. In his article “Hiring Quotas for White Males Only,” Eric Foner argues, “The ‘normal’ American is white. There are firemen and black firemen, construction workers and black construction workers” (25). With this perspective, it becomes easier to see how whiteness is normalized and naturalized in this excerpt of the Women’s March Unity Principles. For them, there are women’s rights and black women’s rights; white women’s rights are inherent in the term “women’s rights.”

Further, the Unity principles do not mention intersectionality. The principles do mention disability rights, reproductive rights and LGBTIA rights, but they do not interrogate or explain how these markers may be intertwined or affect one another. Additionally, the March’s Unity Principles appear to privilege gender primarily by acknowledging it first (Women’s Rights are Human Rights) and implying that race (Black, native, poor, etc.) simply complicates a fundamental gender oppression. Yet without an intersectional approach, or an approach that acknowledges the multivariable and intersecting ways in which people’s experiences of oppression may be mediated by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity (to name a few), the reproduction of colonial power structures, including white supremacy, can take place.

Acknowledging that the Women’s March on Washington was driven by white ideology and identity is only the first step. In “The Transparency Phenomenon,” Barbara J. Flagg recommends that “whites adopt a deliberate and thoroughgoing skepticism regarding the race neutrality of facially neutral criteria of decision. . . skepticism may help to foster development of an antiracist white racial identity that does not posit whites as superior to blacks” (222). To further her point, I believe that integral to antiracist white racial identity is the rejection of whiteness as neutral and blackness as abnormal. Using Flagg helps us to understand that whiteness not only played a huge role in Women’s March, but that whiteness was further couched in invisible or transparent terms.

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