black lives matter

How White Feminism Failed in the Age of Trayvon Martin

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It was the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, that opened my eyes to the racist underbelly of the feminist movement. I was so eager to be a part of what was happening that I partnered with a friend of mine to organize a busload of people to leave from Manhattan’s Lower East Side for our nation’s capital at 4 a.m that day.

I remember feeling buzzy and awe-filled while I was there. I took in the droves of women, the impassioned and witty signs and the stories being shared between cross-country cohorts about where they came from and what about the new administration made them most enraged. It was my first time as a part of a major demonstration, and I was deeply moved by the opportunity to be a part of something so full of fervor and heart.

Admittedly, it didn’t dawn on me right away. It wasn’t until weeks after the march — after I was called in by a group of Black peers inviting me to question the ways white feminism gave space for my Blackness — that I took a pause to really think it through. At the march, there was an abundance of pink pussy hats but a disturbing lack of Black people among the millions chanting. It was alarming to consider, especially since the country remained in the midst of racial unrest.

Audre Lorde once said, “I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.” Years after she spoke these words, I felt the same tense inseparability of my doubly oppressed identity. All the while, I had been both a student and participant of white feminism, to the point where I had to have my own Great Unlearn in order to recalibrate the truths behind the movement I felt so strongly for.

As I watched the hashtags for Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson, and Decynthia Clements make their way across social media, my anger and grief gave me an even sharper view of white feminists’ ignorant approach to racial injustice. I began to unravel my whitewashed understanding of historical events and characters whom I was taught to praise. The heralded Susan B. Anthony was quoted saying, “If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.” A suffragette leader insisting that her loyalty to whiteness held more firm than her loyalty to womanhood left my body feeling uneasy. Reading that Black suffragist and journalist Ida B. Wells had been relegated to the back of the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. — over a century earlier than the 2017 Women’s March — further illuminated how distorted my understanding of the movement was.

I took to social media to explore this intersection of race and womanhood with my friends and followers. At the time, it was a community of around 4,000 people with whom I shared what I was learning, my insights, and my recommendations for how they could learn too.

In the summer of 2018 I made a post regarding the vicious murder of Nia Wilson and insisted that my followers consider whether or not their most celebrated white feminist leaders found her story worth grieving, worth mentioning, worth fighting for. My followers began to tag the individuals, brands, and organizations that claimed feminism and solidarity but bypassed the opportunity to center the tragic story and demand for justice for Nia Wilson.

My comments section quickly turned into hostile ground. One woman who was tagged became particularly livid. She claimed she was bullied, offered a laundry list of the good things she’s done for Black people, and eventually began to dox anyone who challenged her — even going so far as calling the employers of her critics.

That post and its tension around the unpacking of white feminism was just the beginning of what became an ongoing battle as I continued my own learning out loud. Though the community engagement was powerful and I became a resource for others in their learning journey, I was also a sounding board for white women working through their ignorance.

Over time I was called racist and divisive. I was told that I deserved to be sexually assaulted, and one white woman described me as “the worst thing to ever happen to the feminist movement.” Each time I shared these conversations, I’d get dozens of emails asking me why I would even spend time and energy talking to these people.

My honest answer: These were the greatest tools I’d found for community learning. My strategy was to engage them, then dissect their comments in the style of grade-school grammar lessons; it was Anti-racism 101. People with varying perspectives got value from witnessing the exchange. Liberal white people were garnering tools for their own anti-racism efforts. They found language to use next time similar issues came up with their even more white and racist friends, family, and co-workers. Others saw themselves in the person with whom I was engaging. My greatest joy was when Black people reached out to me saying they felt affirmed. The posts offered them a bit of “I see you” in a world where our Black experiences and subsequent frustrations are often denied or dismissed.

In fact, we as Black people aren’t gaslighted just at our jobs or in our personal circles but by the government and other institutions we engage with every day. We are silenced by local police forces and made to feel like our response to violent state-sanctioned racism is the issue. We are told the most natural parts of ourselves — our hair, the shapes of our bodies — are inappropriate and unprofessional. This country has never seen racism as the problem itself. It was not that Trayvon was murdered, not that Sandra was murdered, not that George was murdered — the problem was our marching in the streets, our voicing our anger, our demanding justice. I spent my nights watching news coverage of violence toward protesters, all while spending my mornings fielding racist rants in my inbox. I was anxious and exhausted — the issues devoured me.

At the same time, I, along with many of my peers, began to get major exposure as liberal white America haphazardly grasped at anything that might help them distance themselves from the “R” word. All of a sudden the New York Times best-seller lists were brimming with texts like So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad. Black educators were booked solid for workshops and panels. Black creators, artists, and entrepreneurs were quickly learning how to manage the unexpected load of business and opportunity while still mourning all the vicious things that brought us to that moment.

It was the summer of 2020. The nation grappled with surviving the onset of a pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd sent us into a major racial uprising against police brutality. The combination of hyperconnectivity online due to coronavirus lockdowns and the heated tension between the public and the police force gave way to a national conversation around race that I was particularly plugged into on social media. The several years of anti-racism work I’d been doing via Instagram became a widely suggested space to learn for those who were just opening their eyes to America’s issues with race.

Summer 2020 soon rolled into the winter of 2021, and it wasn’t long before the roar of “intersectionality” reverted to its understated hum. Many in the Black community are still dusting themselves off from that storm. The white imperative to not be racist left little room for our country to make thoughtful and intentional movement away from the deeply rooted racist systems that still endure. The flurry of that summer certainly took its toll on me. I struggled to navigate the opportunity to use my voice in service of community while holding myself together even as I unravelled with each new mournful hashtag or ballistic “Karen” footage I saw.

I’ve had to take my well-being into consideration. Having poured so much into others, I now have to pour into myself. I have no tangible measurement for how much progress America has made in its anti-racism journey over the last decade. Often it feels like we take one step forward, then three steps back. Since my own awakening and entry into this public work in 2018, it’s been a slow and heartbreaking process. It’s also been a labor of deep love, passion, and community. The Loveland Foundation, an organization I founded in 2018, has offered a path to healing for thousands of Black women and girls all over the country through free therapy. In my hometown I opened Elizabeth’s, a bookshop and writing center that highlights the powerful yet marginalized voices I continue to honor and learn from.

To preserve my nervous system and prioritize sustainability in this struggle, I have pivoted to doing this work with more intention by cultivating Black joy as opposed to an insistence on white understanding.

Martin Luther King reminds us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe this. The work continues.

How White Feminism Failed in the Age of Trayvon Martin