Being black in America is hard. Being a woman in America is hard. Being a black woman in this country is an exercise in ongoing frustration and fear.
When Donald Trump was elected to office last January, I was on high alert, afraid that I was in imminent danger due to both my womanhood and my brown skin.
I decided to attend the Women’s March on Washington to oppose the election results and what the new administration had in store. My friend Dana and I chartered a bus and brought a load of around 40 women and men down to Washington, D.C., to participate in what would be described as one of the largest protests in U.S. history.
The energy in Washington that day was indescribable. I talked to women on all sides of me who were filled with passion and fire. But the criticism that the march was receiving didn’t escape me. It seemed to many that only now, when white women were afraid, was there an uprising for human rights. Only now, when white women felt vulnerable, was there a massive cry for justice and protection.
But fear and vulnerability weren’t new for black people. In the previous months, our country had gone through a deadly patch of police brutality where black men were being killed on camera and black women were being shot down in their homes. I found myself frustrated about the way white feminism was manifesting itself. Still, I thought my own feminism was essential at such a time.
Only now, when white women felt vulnerable, was there a massive cry for justice and protection. But fear and vulnerability weren’t new for black people.
Before returning to New York City, Dana and I took a photo that would soon make the rounds among feminist and women-based social media accounts. In the picture, Dana and I are standing next to each other in front of the U.S. Capitol building, each of us holding with one hand a sign promoting the inclusion of marginalized groups in the feminist movement and lifting the other fist high in the air. The image was inspired by the iconic 1971 photo of feminists Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Gloria Steinem standing together with raised fists.
When major Instagram accounts like Refinery29 shared our photo, there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction from their predominantly white audiences. We got “Cheers” and “Amen” from women who were excited about the movement, the revolution and the fact that our signs advocated for the protection of disabled, fat, transgender, Muslim and poor women, among others. It was surreal to see support from so many women who connected with the passion I had that day.
More than a month after the Women’s March on Washington, Afropunk posted the photo on their Instagram account in honor of International Women’s Day. I went to take a peek, expecting to read comments that were similar to the support I had received before.
I was incredibly wrong.
The photo was now making its rounds among a predominantly black audience. There were still “Cheers” and “Amen,” but with this demographic, the photo began to get a lot of criticism from those who were angrily questioning where all of this outrage and demand for change was when the police were killing our people. Those questioning where all of this mass organizing and commitment to disrupting the system was during the centuries of injustice and oppression for people of color.
And I agreed, even while I was being attacked. Men and women commented on the photo telling me how stupid I was for associating myself with white feminism. Black women told me that Dana was just using me for a photo opportunity. Black men expressed their disappointment in my naiveté.
This photo was all of sudden a very real representation of the double oppression that black women deal with daily. I was feeling bold and motivated, yet silenced and misunderstood, as I grappled with having a voice that would fully express all parts of me ― my womanhood and my blackness.
I grappled with having a voice that would fully express all parts of me ― my womanhood and my blackness.
In the last year, my activism has been reborn. I’ve had to dive deep into learning and introspection as I continue to carve out my most authentic space as a black woman who is fighting against the patriarchy, against a racist nation and against the realities of living in a world full of performative activism and social media allies.
Earlier this month, I was invited to be a guest on the Pantsuit Nation podcast to discuss the recent death of Erica Garner and what this tragic event meant for black women. Just a year before, I would have jumped at the opportunity. This time, I paused to consider.
Pantsuit Nation has a Facebook group where its members share stories, rally behind issues and connect over their collective concerns about the new administration. The group has been known to be problematic at times for women of color. Its moderators have at times fallen short in maintaining it as a safe and inclusive space. When I mentioned the Pantsuit Nation invitation to a group of black women I often connect with over activist issues, I got an almost immediate “No!” from those ladies.
“We have no need to go in and educate them on how to support black women. They know how, they just choose to only do it within their level of comfort. They are not our allies. They have silenced us over and over again. Don’t be their token.”
I was stuck again between the rock of meaningful activism for the feminist issues that mean so much to me and the hard place of defending my blackness.
I had ideas to share, but I certainly didn’t want to be the voice of all black women, which often is how vocal black women are perceived. I also didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to address a large audience of mostly white women on the issues that they rarely dive into ― those issues that haunt black women exclusively.
I finally decided to do the podcast. I went in with a heart ready to connect meaningfully and with a voice I wasn’t willing to let waver from its intended topic: black women, black women, black women.
I have had to grow into this space of being protective and intentional with my energy as a black woman.
No longer can I stand in majority-white spaces and bear the common burden of rehashing history to glean empathy from those who have not taken the time to understand. No longer can I allow myself to be held up against a wall in fear and contemplation about which part of me comes first. No longer will my activism and work be laced up and bowed along with the performance activism of social media. No longer will I skirt around topics to make others comfortable, nor will I be apologetic for taking a stance that caters to the two parts of me that need to have a voice.
No longer will I skirt around topics to make others comfortable, nor will I be apologetic for taking a stance that caters to the two parts of me that need to have a voice.
While I have ultimately decided not to attend this weekend’s Women’s March, I won’t be standing around quietly. I will be learning all I can so that I have knowledge to teach and share. I will continue creating spaces for marginalized voices to speak on their own behalf. I will engage in political efforts to ensure that our leaders are indeed leading us to safe and meaningful places. I will continue to live boldly as a black woman, which is a bit of a revolution in itself.
Since the photo went viral, I have done more work than I would have ever imagined in the world of activism ― work I am both proud of and excited to continue to grow into. Every day I wake up knowing that conversations around social justice and activism will be asked of me. I have decided that I am no longer going to pull myself to pieces in an anxious effort to decide which part of myself I must represent moment by moment.
Black feminist and philosopher Kristie Dotson defines black feminism as “the robust efforts to generate, continue, and/or promote activism, advocacy, research and/or theory that might change the current plight of Black people, specifically cis and trans* Black women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people.”
That is my work. She lays it out plain and simple.