On Saturday evening, before Joe Biden spoke of having been elected president, Kamala Harris took the stage to set the tone for the night. Eyes sparkling and voice steady she showed us what it looks like for a woman to break a barrier. But white women should take note: It is a Black woman who has been elected, for the first time, to the second highest office of the land. Harris lifted her voice and she told America what it so desperately needs to hear – Black women are the backbone of our democracy.
One only has to listen to the five podcasts of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 project to understand what Harris means. Black women have struggled and organized and persisted, over and over, through the history of this country. The founding fathers of this country never actually believed that men were created equal and they never included women. It is Black people and especially Black women, who have over and again led us to better and more for this country.
Let us appreciate some of the many exemplars of this phenomenon.
Harriet Tubman was tired of living in bondage. So she succeeded in the all but impossible act of escaping from slavery. But Tubman did not just free herself. She went back into harm’s way again and again to make so many others free.
Sojourner Truth, a tireless abolitionist, famously spoke at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention of 1851 and delivered the speech entitled, “Aint I a Woman?” In it, she challenged white women feminists – many of whom were openly racist – to acknowledge Black women in their struggles for rights.
The women of the Atlanta Washerwoman strike of 1881, many of whom were formerly enslaved, were so fiercely dedicated to being paid fairly that they organized every one of the Black washerwomen in Atlanta – their already poor families going hungry in the pursuit of justice – and effectively denied white Atlanta it’s feeling of entitlement to cheap labor by drying up laundry services until they were given decent pay.
Ida B Wells, a journalist, educator and early leader in the civil rights movement lived from 1862-1931. She risked her own life by documenting lynchings as a journalist. She founded the NAACP. She stood up to white feminists who sought to leave Black women out of the suffrage movement.
Rosa Parks didn’t just kick off the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus. Parks was a fiercely committed desegregationist. She worked tirelessly until her old age for civil rights.
Ruby Bridges was six when she alone desegregated her New Orleans school. As she walked in to take her rightful place as a student, she was spat upon and greeted by white protesters holding a Black doll in a coffin. But it was Lucille Bridges, her mother, who let her do it. Her mother, who had a gun pulled on her by a white man as she led her child inside. Lucille Bridges who said, “You just have to be strong and pray.”
Fannie Lou Hamer organized tirelessly for Civil Rights, firing up the Black community by saying to a church full of the faithful that “God is not going to put it in your lap.” It was Hamer who traveled with Malcolm X, sharing her experience of trying to register to vote in the South, withstanding great violence and threat by white people, who said first in a speech in Harlem and again at the 1964 Democratic National Convention , “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
In 2012, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Black teen Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors and Opal Tometti were sick and tired of mourning Black men and boys killed by police. They were tired of mourning Black women murdered too: women such as Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson. So they wrote #Black Lives Matter on social media and made a call to action. Today, a Pew Research center poll showed that the majority of Americans show support for the movement.
Stacey Abrams ran for Governor of Georgia in 2018 and may very well have won. The white Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, happened to be her opponent, and he was in charge of certifying the election. He refused to count any absentee ballots and oversaw widespread voter suppression. With the votes counted she lost by 55,000 votes, so she was denied the seat. But she didn’t concede and she didn’t back down. She turned to organizing Black voters in Georgia and now she has won the state for Joe Biden to be the next President of the United States. She could be credited with turning Georgia from red to blue for the first time in history.
The list goes on but one last person – whose name is withheld – exemplifies the way Black women fight for future generations. A Black woman in Tulsa Oklahoma, 105 years old, is leading a group of people seeking legal reparations for the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. This woman still has flashbacks of seeing Black bodies lining the streets in a historical event that white America is only beginning to register. She may never in this life, see the fruits of her labor. But as Layla Saad might say, she is a “good ancestor.”
How do we, white women, process this information? How do we take our place in history and recognize that we have so much to learn from these women? That we always have?
As white women, we are guilty of talking about the needs and accomplishments of women without recognizing the distinct experiences of women of color. And when you are a woman whose life experience is also marred not just by sexism, but by racism as well, you are suffering more. There actually is, truly, a hierarchy of suffering. Black womenś suffering – and how they have handled it – has much to teach us.
I often feel that, as a survivor of abuse by white males, I can relate to the feelings of pain and struggle that I hear Black people talk about. But make no mistake, I have never had to walk out of my house feeling fairly certain that I will be thought of, by some stranger that day, as less than human. Feeling that not only am I in danger at the hands of men, but I am also in danger at the hands of women. That there are many people in the world, white people, who wish me harm.
Black women in America live that every day. They could respond giving up. And it is only human to think that many may do. Yet, what I see in so many Black women, again and again is courage.
Black women deserve our deepest gratitude for demonstrating courageous resistance against all odds. And for pointing out to us that we white women have a certain kind of work to do in the struggle for justice. Many of us perpetuate our own racism but we most often allow racism and sexism to rage where we could resist. Our resistance has special power because we are, actually, very close to those most likely to be oppressors. White men hold much more power to harm than they are fully aware of. We, as the ones so often next to them, can influence them more than any other group can. While we might be frightened of them, we do not have to fall silent. We can persist with insisting that the white men in our lives listen.
White women can insist that white men listen to us, but not only to us. To Black people, Indigenous people, Latino people, Asian and South Asian people. We can insist white men listen to the pain and injustice of the consistent economic disenfranchisement, to the racist police brutality, to the indignity of being denied anything because of skin or hair or tone or language.
Most importantly though, we can stop acting like we white women are innocent of racism because we experience sexism. As white women, we are not strangers to dehumanization. We know that our bodies are thought of as objects, either of sexual gratification or exploited labor. We learn that our voices must be quieter, more soothing, less angry – or we will be denied jobs and advantages. We carry the fear that we will be attacked or killed because we know that so many of us are.
But we are also white. And with that we carry the ability to harm. To put down. To silence. To criticize at great cost. To deny rights and privileges. To lie about. To frighten. To look away while others harm. Too many of us are so bold in our defense of our own rights that we are unable to admit to the ways we interfere with the rights of others.
Black women are telling us that we too – white women – are hurting them. And like white men, we also do not fully face the power to harm that we possess. Like the white men that we should seek to enlighten, we should allow ourselves to be enlightened. Black women are speaking their truth. Telling us what they need from us. And we only have to be willing to accept it.
It takes courage to open our hearts to the pain we have been part of inflicting. It takes courage to see the ways we tone police, judge harshly, value white women’s voices over other women’s voices, overlook women of color, insist on our points of view, refuse to understand what they’re saying, refuse to apologize, compromise or cede the floor. It takes courage to humbly acknowledge the ways we support and even promote the racism that rages through all the systems that support us.
Will we dig deep and find the courage to see the ways we leave Black women out of our conversations about feminism? Will we step back and receive while Black women teach us a new American definition of feminism?
In this extraordinary moment, here is a way we can honor Kamala Harris’ achievement as the first Black, South-Asian and Multiracial Woman Vice-President elect. Here is a way we can honor the achievements of all our Black American heroines throughout history. The way is to look – as women – not just at our shared victimhood, but at our oppressor/victim relationship. It is time to look at the whole picture of our humanity, strengths and weaknesses, and grow.
God and Goddess Bless America.