Women of color who support Sanders have been erased despite being his most ardent supporters. This is rooted in a long history of voter disenfranchisement.
By Nashwa Lina Khan
Feminism like any theory and practice changes as it travels, it can also be weaponized to create reductive arguments that support the oppressions it intended to combat. When feminism is used to intentionally suspend any nuanced discussions or as a way to silo and reject the voices of non-white women, its weight shifts into fragmented identity politics. This election, in particular, has illuminated the ways candidates and their supporters virtue signal while not offering platforms with any substance for the marginalized people they perform theatrical gestures towards. Without substantive policies that offer real changes in people’s socioeconomic status and wellbeing, evoking identities to persuade a vote leads to hollow categories of little social significance or change. Further, this election cycle has and continues to exemplify the ways identity politics ignores intragroup differences.
Feminism, when taken up in this election cycle has been arguably used as a way for those pushing a centrist agenda and by extension a state agenda to discipline Black, Indigenous, and other women of color (BIWOC) who are not aligned with Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. Perhaps more jarring and deeply painful is the resonance of the idea that women of color are subaltern.
This is particularly clear when we look at the construction of a narrative of Bernie Bros as white men. An androcentric worldview that posits white male supporters as the norm reminds us that regardless of how BIWOC mobilize and how vocal we are, we are still not included in the construction of who voters are unless we fit the narrative that makes sense to liberals who have no authentic intent except to use us as a monolithic arguing point. Thus, in advocating for our values and our voices to be valid we must reject this false idea while being wary of the weaponization of such language against us.
A constant false construction and formation of a white bro base beyond being factually disingenuous works insidiously to remind us who is a proper civic citizen. What is the damage done when you begin to believe your vote and opinion do not matter and furthermore that you do not exist? In a social world where you are deemed to be akin to a white man for holding a view you individually hold while simultaneously bearing witness to powerful women of color like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Talib frequently erased in the constructed narratives of Sanders endorsements. Although we may not always aspire to political positions, the fact that even with high standing political platforms and vocal support of Sanders, these women are erased and it leaves little promise for the rest of us to be respected or recognized.
This moment urges us to attempt to unmask the biases that historically underpin the current obstacles against us, deliberately constructed to erode and erase the supporters of Sanders that do not feel palatable to liberal self-soothing punditry. Revisionist in approach we must recognize how this renders invisible the desires, work, voices, and needs of Black, Indigenous and other women of color. We also must reckon with the intentional neglect and disinvestment in the voices and work of BIWOC who support Bernie Sanders and his campaign. Constructing the most diverse coalition and supporter powered movement, that of Bernie Sanders supporters, as a homogenous group of white men perpetuates validity as only belonging to cis het white men. There is a betrayal of the ideas establishment democrats hope to eternalize by claiming they dislike Sanders solely based on his supposed monolithic supporter base, augmenting white supremacist heteropatriarchal dominance in society. Again, we are reminded of being subaltern. Those who chip away and gaslight, dogmatizing our opinions or stances, wondering whether women of color can vote for Bernie for their own intellectual amusement have no sincere intent or desire to actually recognize our views or us.
Beyond being made insignificant, when women of color are taken seriously as Sanders supporters, we are often countered with condescending explanations of how the Vermont Senator and Warren are similarly progressive. Narratives that falsely conflate both politically are dangerous. For example, Sanders on immigration policy alone is drastically different from Warren, offering the most progressive plan on immigration. The question of ICE is one of many policy points where Sanders diverges from Warren and other establishment nominees. Sanders is the only candidate who wants to abolish ICE, whereas Warren wants to continue to fund ICE.
Another point of divergence that should not be overlooked is Sanders being the lonely voice amongst the democratic nominees to believe that incarcerated people deserve the right to vote. Disfranchisement is an intentional method of preventing specific groups from voting, dating back to the violent founding of America as a nation-state when wealthy landowning white men only gave themselves the right to vote. It was also used from preventing working-class solidarities, wealthy white landowners believed that poor white people would vote with people of color. With such origins, part of reckoning with racial justice is extending the right to vote to incarcerated people. Disfranchisement is often described as civic death and while incarcerated people cannot vote they are counted as part of the population for determining the number of elected officials in an area. These are just two of many differences that matter and disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, and people of color. To say that both Sanders and Warren are politically similar is to diminish what the differences in very real policy impacts both have on people’s lives and the systems that grind us all down in different ways.
I often think about Jane Eisner tweeting about how she could not fathom that women of color would vote for Bernie Sanders. She wrote, “I find it fascinating that women of color overlook female and minority candidates to endorse a white guy.” The tweet, although merely a tweet, encapsulated a reoccurring trend of discounting that women of color can autonomously think, live, and make decisions that should be respected. There is a twisted painful historical colonial harbinger in how our voices are discounted and analyzed. A violence that burgeons online and in real life. With the mainstreaming of concepts such as intersectionality, a hallmark of feminism today, we are provided with a succinct practice and way of understanding how layered the decisions we make in our lives are and urged to understand what these words and theories mean. Gloria Steinman made a different type of argument to make sense in her world of women who supported Sanders a few years ago, saying “the boys are with Bernie.”
Despite a more diverse coalition, Sander’s following is always whitewashed. There is truly a paradox in dismembering a group of individuals and parsing it down to “white bros” while often upholding a white woman like Warren who has caused harm from her policy decisions and her embodied existence and navigation of the world. Warren is a white woman, beyond that she is a white woman whose lies about her identity were not innocent and undermined the rights of Indigenous people. Her role as an attorney also gave her immense privilege and in her role, she did work that harmed other women including helping DOW chemical give minimum payouts to women who got breast cancer from their products. During her time as an attorney, she also worked on a petition to strip coal miners and their families of healthcare by defending LTV steel in hollowing their health fund. LTV contracted Warren in their attempt to avoid paying millions to the retired coal miners. Despite Warren’s socioeconomic status providing a wellspring of opportunities, she chose to be complicit in projects that harmed people in physical and material ways. Warren’s work and policy decisions historically illustrate the danger in assuming people with certain identities are aligned with a politics that represents those interests. The perversion of such an understanding that people work in the interests of their identities distorts how specific identities may be a vehicle for vulnerability while others may not be. At the same time beyond this Warren’s personal history and politics, her voter base is one that is wealthy and rather white. It is hard to imagine that this does not sway or influence her political beliefs and actions.
For many of us foreign policy matters in very personal and immediate ways. Warren’s recent revelation of her foreign policy team publicizes a pro-war roster despite her lipservice of wanting to “dismantle the military-industrial complex,” a feat arguably no president-elect could do. Warren also is malleable in her political standings whereas Sanders is dedicated and committed to his progressive politics and many lonely votes. In times of emergency and crisis, we need a fighter whose policies embody tangible iterations of what a feminist politics is, someone who will fight for justice. That fighter is Bernie Sanders.
Founded on bone-deep capitalism, this world fosters multiple conditions beyond the economic, and what arises are conditions for racism, sexism, ableism, imperialism and so much more. Policies intimately and immediately impact us, especially those of us who are marginalized in a multitude of ways by a world that is not constructed for us. History reminds us that our entry points into “democracy” are different. In fact so different that most of us know in very familiar and proximal ways that throwing paper at a pool of blood will not save us. Women of color know how we navigate the world, especially those of us who are working class. We did not start with a base where all of us were allowed to vote at the same time, in fact, white women fought to ensure some of us could not vote. Historically, we know the women’s rights movement made contemptible assumptions about women. This included debates on who was included and who was excluded in this category. Being stripped of civic participation and voice coupled with always being unseen is the experience of many BIWOC.
Revolution disrupts and discomforts normative processes. Part of revolutionary desire resides in those of us who recognize this and understand that for revolution to bloom we need to reckon with in serious ways what we all long for in a collective political project and movement for a better world that does not grind and grate us down. To eschew the race of Sanders supporters especially the women is to open a capacious world of harm. History shows us that movements are not possible without poor and working-class women. As we struggle against racism, misogyny, classism and sexism and all of the other isms used to divide us, I believe there is also so much hope. I believe it like our own recognition in this discourse it will take us decades for a movement against capitalism to reach fruition.
To consistently avoid criticisms made by BIWOC and focus on grievances with white male counterparts or speak as if only white men bring them forward is not challenging a white supremacist patriarchal society but instead cementing it. This is a movement we are part of and one which we must ground ourselves in as valid. We can recognize that our erasure is a tactic that utilizes a monstered feminism to intentionally disinvest and excises us. We must think beyond the social spheres that relegate us as non-actors in political realms we were never conceived of being part of. Sanders certainly isn’t the end game, but he’s an important start. This movement reminds us that there is work to be done for those of us working towards a world that no longer grinds us down.
Nashwa Lina Khan is an interdisciplinary community based facilitator, instructor and researcher. She is currently working on a few projects including a small chapbook of poems she never thought she would share. Her activist scholar work is presently focused on transformative education. Her graduate work uses maternal decolonial methodologies to make sense of how family law impacts sex workers, HIV positive women, refugee women, and unwed mothers in Morocco accessing healthcare services in relation to citizenship and nation. You can find some of her work here. Sometimes you can find her tweeting too little or too much @nashwakay.