Three years ago, our daughter was a toddler, my wife and I had been married for 13 years, and I had lived in the Chicago area for the past 22 years. I had been in my current job as a Leadership Coach for just over a year, trying to impact the lived experiences and outcomes of Black and Brown students in the city of Chicago. And Donald Trump had just been elected president in a seeming repudiation of the values around which we had built our lives. On that day, so many people — mostly white people like myself — woke up to the racism and patriarchy that is baked into and so alive in our nation. On the day after the election, I posted to Facebook:
“Hooray for racism! Hooray for misogyny! Hooray for xenophobia! For those are the beliefs that won the day. But wait, you say, we are not racists! We are not sexists! Well, then hooray for cutting programs to help the poor! Hooray for driving up the number of uninsured! Hooray for barring people from our country based on their religion! For those are the policies that won the day. But wait, you say, we don’t think he will actually do those things. Well, then hooray for ignorance! Because our President-Elect has advocated for, aided, and abetted all those ideas. And if you voted for him, those are the ideas that you supported. Does that mean you are a racist, a sexist, that you don’t care about the poor? Maybe not…but in the end, the distinction is irrelevant.
“What I do want to say to my friends and colleagues who are women, who are people of color, who are LGBTQ…I am with you. I am worried about what these next 4 years will bring–for our people, for people across the world, and for the planet. But I will do what I can to stand with you as an ally in this struggle. Much love today.”
Like so many progressive white people, I was devastated at an outcome I never thought was possible. In the weeks after the election, I consoled myself through weekly Facebook posts attacking Trump. I didn’t know what to do. Gradually, I started receiving emails and seeing websites dedicated to actions that would address some of the harm being done, and I signed up for lists with names like “Americans of Conscience” and “Wall of Us”. I read about the Indivisible Groups forming in many places. And I heard about the proposed Women’s March, to be held in cities across the country on the Saturday before the inauguration.
My wife and I were unsure what to expect from the march and wondered whether it would be safe to take our daughter, but we were also excited about the possibility of being part of a show of opposition to Trump and the people who had elected him. The day before the march, we still didn’t know whether to participate. Finally, that night, we decided that we would go and meet a friend and her daughter there in the designated family area, near the site of the rally that would precede the march. We packed our backpack with snacks and supplies. Our daughter and I made a sign with a heart on it for her to hold. The next morning, we ate and got dressed, boarded the train, and headed downtown with our daughter in her stroller. By the time we arrived, the streets were already flooded with people. We tried to wind our way through the crowd to the family area, only to be told it was at capacity and we could not get in, although our friends were waiting there for us. We were disappointed, and hung about at the corner of Jackson and Michigan for a little while, wondering if we should go back home. As we delayed, more and more people arrived, and eventually, we heard through word of mouth that there were too many people for the rally. We didn’t know what this meant — was the event cancelled? Suddenly, the march marshals started encouraging us all to head down Jackson Boulevard. The crowd started moving and marching and chanting. Instantly, our hesitation transformed to participation and we joined in, marching along, chanting and singing with the crowd. My daughter wanted to see, so I hoisted her to my shoulders. After marching for a while, we decided to rest so we stepped over to the sidewalk, our daughter sitting on a barrier there while we watched the throngs of people flow by. Fifteen minutes, a half an hour, an hour, I don’t remember how long we stayed there, watching our fellow citizens showing their beliefs, opposing those who advance the racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that propelled Trump into office. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 250,000 people in Chicago alone participated that day.
This was a beautiful moment of solidarity for those of us with progressive values, a moment of positivity during a time when it felt like darkness was gathering. It was a beginning marker for many of the efforts that have occurred in the three years since to push back against the racist, sexist, classist impulses of this presidential administration. And at the same time this moment was notable for its whiteness. As I looked around at the Chicago march, most of the people I saw were white. Maybe in some ways it was appropriate that progressive white people would have a moment to protest after we started to wake up from our inaction. But in other ways, it indicated how divided we all still are. People of color and some white accomplices have been working for years to fight the system, but many of us white people have done far too little in that fight, and are still doing far too little to support and connect to existing organizations and movements for justice fueled by people of color.
The whiteness of the 2017 Women’s March and its sequel in 2018 also contrast with the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day just two days later. King, in our national mythology, fought peacefully for the rights of Black people in this nation, striving to lift them up from the burdens they had been given in slavery and Jim Crow. This mythology covers up a lot of the truth: how King was just one leader of a massive movement that started long before him and outlasted him, how white people — even liberal white people — stood and continue to stand in the way of rights for Black and Brown people in this country. The mythology also doesn’t explain how in the later part of his life, King and others started a massive Poor People’s Campaign which encapsulated their understanding that the fight for justice is a fight against racism, militarism, and capitalism, and that this fight involves people working in accompliceship across race to bring down the system of white supremacy that holds all of us back. In that light, it is disheartening that fifty years after Dr. King was killed, we still struggle to form a broad-based alliance across race to campaign for true racial, gender, and all forms of equality. It is disheartening that in the planning for the 2017 Women’s March, women of color were not included from the beginning and the work and inspiration of people of color was not fully acknowledged. Because it is not enough for us liberal white people to have woken up in November 2016 due to Trump’s villainy, then to work to defeat him in 2020 and go back to our slumber. Now that we are awake, we must join the movements that have been working for years to push for justice. What would such a commitment look like?
This Saturday, January 18, 2020, we will see the third Women’s March, including one in Chicago. This march can serve many purposes, and I would argue that for us to be successful, it must serve them all. It can energize attendees, who I expect will again be primarily white, to work for and elect a progressive president in November, defeating Trump in the process. It can push those attendees to hold the House and take back the Senate. And it can provide an impetus for newly awakened white progressives to support people of color who have been guiding progressive movements for years. These four years of defeating Trump cannot be a flash in the pan, a moment where we strive to get back to normalcy. In this nation — with its history of genocide for Indigenous people, slavery and continued oppression for Black people, and exploitation for Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, and all other people of color — normalcy means death. Instead, this time of progressive white awakening must be the springboard to something greater. It must be a starting point when masses of white people join with the people of color who have been fighting for decades, for centuries. We have always had examples of white people who gave themselves to this cause, from Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison in the 19th century to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in the 1960s to many others today. But if we are to truly transform the nature of this country, from one that privileges white people, men, and the rich over all others to one that values every one of us, we white people must get involved and stay involved in the fight for justice, and we must do so in a way that centers the Black and Brown people who have been leading this fight for years.
So I hope to see you at this Saturday’s Women’s March Chicago, but whether I do or not, I hope to see us all in the fight for justice until that fight is won. People of color have been thrust into that fight and have led it with courage and conviction for centuries. Fellow white people, let us step in, follow their lead, and continue to make our national founding lie into the truth — that all of us are created equal, and that this is a nation which acts on and toward that equality.
UPDATE on Saturday, January 18, 2020:
Attended the 2020 Chicago Women’s March today. The crowd was passionate, and it was again inspiring to be among so many advocating for progressive causes. As as attendee, it was impossible to tell how many people were marching, but as I anticipated in the essay above leading up to this march, most of those attending were white, in a moment when we especially need to be accomplices with one another across race. Success is about what we marchers do now. Do we work to defeat Trump and other regressive candidates — at the federal and state levels — this fall, or do we sit back and let things play out? Once Trump has been defeated, do we congratulate ourselves on a return to normalcy, or do we follow the leadership of people of color to take up long-term advocacy for income equality, voting rights, and prison reform? The choice is up to us.
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