On Saturday, women from America will convene in the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington. The gathering—expected to attract as many as a quarter of a million marchers—is an audacious statement about how the country’s women feel about the policies and perspective of the incoming administration. However, it will also be an important litmus test of our ability to mobilize as one.
For many women of color, the 2016 election did serious, perhaps fatal, damage to the idea of female solidarity—across all races and classes. The fact that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump shows that some white women are more aligned with ideas of power and privilege than gender solidarity and racial inclusion. It resurfaced a simmering fear among women of color, now backed by some statistical proof, that white women were not all in on the women-oriented goals we’d thought we all agreed. In fact, it causes some to wonder whether even those who seem to support that agenda were, for lack of better term, faking it. “This election revealed that white women voted with power—for white power, that is—where racism, Islamaphobia, xenophobia, etc., was not as important of an issue as maintaining white control,” says Simran Noor, vice president of policy and programs at the Center for Social Inclusion.
Before Trump’s election, it seemed like perhaps intersectional feminism had reached mainstream status. Even the pop cultural clues seemed to suggest it—just think about all those white women singing along to Beyonce and the black women admitting they liked Taylor Swift. But as it turns out, the universality of music and fashion cannot override deeply rooted strongholds on power and privilege. The lingering fears of women of color that white women would eventually play the white card versus the female card were painfully exposed.
“The election definitely tore open the wound that was beginning to heal,” says Marion Rice, a Portland, Ore. based consultant who works with organizations to advance equity in their policy and practices. “I do think we have made strides. However, the depth of conversations I have had with women of color suggest that the results of the election were a setback.
That distrust between women of different races does not bode well for the advancement of women of color. Consider the business world, where white women can still climb the ranks in way other women cannot. At S&P 500 companies, white women make up 21% of executive/senior level official and managers, while Blacks, Latinas and Asian women each represent less than 2% of those upper ranks.
When I was in the competitive—and largely white—world of magazine journalism, it was clear to me that despite having similar educational backgrounds and training, the social capital available for me trade on was not the same as that of my white female peers. I watched them leverage their looks and sexuality to “fit in” with white men in a way that just would not work for me. My beauty was not valued in the regard, my sexuality was seen more as a dangerous threat than a tool to wield in my favor. My white colleagues’ fathers’ and boyfriends’ education and work status created pathways to the male circles of power that I could not access (my Dad put me through NYU working as a foreman in a manufacturing plant in New Jersey).
Recently, my neighbor, an African-American elementary school teacher, shared how her teaching assistant jubilantly revealed in casual conversation that she voted for Trump. My neighbor said she was unable to even speak to her colleague for days. She needed time to process how she would interact, even professionally, with someone she works with so closely now that she knows the woman’s perspective. Every day, women of color share stories on Facebook and Twitter of the shock of coming to terms with co-workers, bosses and other women—who they thought of as progressive comrades—who voted for someone they believe to be a racist and a misogynist. The blocking and unfriending is rampant.
In the non-profit world, an industry that is mostly white female-led, the work is often focused on issues relating to people of color. For years, do-gooder white women have had the ways and means to offer their time to help inner city youth and sick kids in Africa. Many white women have spent years building relationships and trust with communities of color. But it must be acknowledged that the election did damage to these relationships as well.
In my field—advocacy around breastfeeding and infant health—there was already a push for the white female-dominated leadership to diversify their ranks and acknowledge how bias and privilege has impeded the work. Yes, a large number of white female breastfeeding advocates have been intentional to do the work to better understand how their unearned privilege might create blind spots in their interactions with women of color. And that work is admirable.
However, some women of color are wondering—and I admit, I am wondering—how many of the women saying they want inclusion closed that curtain on election day and voted Trump. How many of the women that I work with every day—women who claim to want to reduce racial disparities in infant health, build relationships with communities of color, and who secure multi-million grants based on such claims—are actually of that 53%?
“It’s definitely a wake-up call, but not insurmountable,” says Rice, who is white. “It’s not going to be easy and white women, in particular, need to double down with other white women to repair the rift. We have to lead that work.”
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author and former writer at Fortune. Her new book The Big Let Down—How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding (St. Martin’s Press) will be released January 24. A graduate of NYU and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Seals Allers lives in Queens, NY with her children. Follow her on Twitter @IAmKSealsAllers.