“I did not vote for you,” Scarlett Johansson cried of Mr. Trump. “That said … I want to be able to support you, but first I ask that you support me.”
One truth that cannot be controverted in the high-octane debates about the fate of the social fire on full display following Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington is that white women were the key ingredient in the success of this mass protest. Whether or not this fact is a good or bad thing is still any person’s guess.
White women hit the streets and pavements of American cities in record numbers. They soared in attendance and enthusiasm. They sported fuzzy “pussy hats” and made biting signs. They cut the air with their cold fists and chanted and delivered speeches filled with cautions about fascism, political devolution, strengthening — not eliminating — reproductive rights and sounding the death knell of the patriarchy.
A-list actor Scarlett Johansson gave one of those cautionary speeches. And, while her remarks may have come up short in the area of creative edge — compared to that of fellow actor Ashley Judd’s spoken-word-inspired message reclaiming the term “Nasty Woman” — it more than made up for any of those petty deficiencies when it appeared to signal the white feminist biases that raised red flags for so many activists and would-be marchers of color.
Flipping through her note cards before a boisterous crowd in the nation’s capital, Johansson pleaded with the incoming president to make good on his election.
“I did not vote for you,” cried Johansson of Mr. Trump. “That said … I want to be able to support you, but first I ask that you support me.”
A generous reading of what we might call the thesis of Johansson’s oration is that the “me” she is asking Donald Trump to support is an intersectional “me” in which the issues and particular experiences of women from marginalized communities are weighed and concentrated, that the “me” is a personification of an intersectional lens.
But black Americans, especially black women activists, are not in a particularly generous mood. And that’s due to the racist and classist heavy baggage of the tortured and labored legacy of white feminism and its approach to the problems of this country’s black population.
Historian and University of Florida assistant professor Louise Michelle Newman documented this legacy in her acclaimed work White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States. I quote from this text at length:
“White women in the [suffragist] movement formulated their views on equality in the context of such highly charged debates on race and were acutely sensitive to the racial dimensions and implications of their ideologies and practices. Proclamations of white racial superiority were everywhere around them, justified in lynchings, performed in minstrel shows, and celebrated in fairs and expositions. It is not surprising, then, that white activists had a heightened racial consciousness of themselves as civilized women, contributing to and reinforcing dominant religious, scientific, and cultural ideologies that attributed to them unique moral and political roles on the basis of this identity. […] white proponents of women’s rights helped create new roles for themselves that explicitly maintained the racial hierarchies that were based on the presumption that Anglo-American Protestants were culturally, as well as biologically, superior to other peoples.”
What Newman is pointing out is that it’s impossible to understand the specific form of feminism created by white women in America without reference to how much it is the germ of racism. White women, Newman contends, have been more than willing to yank the rug of progress from under the feet of communities of color, to exploit negative black stereotypes, in their quest to guarantee basic rights, opportunities and outcomes for themselves.
Johansson’s attempt to appease Trump triggered that history, and for many black women activists, conjured up that collective cultural memory of always being exempt from the center of a feminist agenda. When she, a white feminist, insulated by social connections and financial privilege, declares her willingness to back the Trump administration, it suggests that white women will throw black women under the bus the second Donald Trump agrees to meet certain demands that the majority of them stand to benefit from.
This isn’t hyperbole. Even if we dismiss the 53 percent of white woman who flew to the polls to help Trump win the White House, there still remains the reality that a lot of white women did not begin to take a bold and active stance in America’s streets and virtual spaces until Donald Trump brazenly bragged that he could “grab the pussy” of one of their own.
When Korryn Gaines was gunned down execution-style by local police, when Sandra Bland was locked away and lynched in a southern jail, the majority of white women were closed-mouthed. That is because, for too many white women, systemic racialized gendered inequality continues to exert force and play a role in their feminist tradition.
It’s why a group of white women protestors in D.C. was almost willfully clueless about the #SayHerName campaign and could utter, “What does that even mean?”
It’s why the white turnout of the Million Women’s March, a campaign that was organized by black activists in 1995 and 1997 to address the plight of black women, was so poor.
And it’s why white women will experience defeat like their black counterparts did if they do not embrace and commit themselves to a more inclusive feminist ideology and practice.
Frankly, as I reflect on the successes and shortcomings of the D.C. march and the “sister marches” that took place in other metropolitan areas domestically and across the world, I cannot see the women’s rights movement in this country standing any chance of making strides without reassessing what issues and concerns belong in the center of its feminist agenda, and without making the Scarlett Johanssons — who might be tone-deaf to the consequences of their words and deeds — aware that their actions hold the potential to ensure that the American citizenry will grant Donald Trump a second term in office. Should that happen, everyone will lose.
Correction: The actress’ name is spelled Scarlett Johansson. An earlier version of this article misspelled it several times. We regret the error.