Not only is Black History Month the shortest month of the year (seriously!?), but Black women are regularly left out of big conversations and decisions, and their achievements are overlooked. However, white women allies can be co-conspirators to disrupt this trend—allies in ensuring Black women are equally recognized during Black History Month, Women’s History Month and every damn day of the year.
According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, just 40 percent of white people and 25 percent of people of color have a close friend of another race. Thus, we—a Black woman and a white woman, colleagues, friends, feminists—have been reflecting on how white feminists can be allies during Black History Month and the rest of the year, past Valentine’s Day and into eternity. Our cross-racial authorship recognizes the solidarity struggle between Black feminists and white feminists—that we must be in this together. As a result of our friendship and feminist work, we have settled on six simple ways that white women can be feminist allies:
1. Listen First
Simple. White women, if you are going to start speaking, pause—do not take center stage immediately. Listen for the stories, struggles, suggestions and triumphs of Black women, and let the first reaction from your lips be one of support, not of questioning their truth. White women, before you talk about how you’re an ally, about all the Peggy McIntosh you know, how you’re been to the White Privilege Conference every year, just hold on. Ask questions that are open and honest; ask towards understanding, not to challenge. Don’t add your opinion of the truth that is shared; sit with the uncomfortability and don’t cry. Black women don’t want to see your tears. We want to see your solidarity.
2. Fall Out of Love with Horizontal Hostility
If you’ve been a feminist for a minute, you’ve seen, read or tweeted about infighting within feminist groups. Sociology provides us some language in the term “horizontal hostility,” where marginalized groups turn against each other or engage in infighting, lacking access to real power. Instead of looking up towards a hierarchical system of inequality and working together to disrupt that system, these groups look to the horizontal—fighting with each other while neither have enough resources, power feels scarce and meanwhile “the man” on top receives no critique.
We see examples of horizontal hostility in many modern Civil Rights movements, where factions splinter off and criticize or police the work of sibling groups doing similar work for justice. Horizontal hostility is a byproduct—a symptom of a larger structure of inequality. White women need to consider how we are working with (or not) other marginalized groups including Black women, and then turn revolution and energy towards the real source of inequality: the system.
3. Work the Work
If you’re eagerly tweeting about the Emma Watson feminist book club February book, The Color Purple, then read some damn Color Purple and more of Alice Walker’s work. If you are excitedly donning your badass “audre & gloria & angela & bell” shirt, make sure you’ve worked with their work. Read it, cite it, buy it, share it, lend it, demand it be included in your courses and reading circles. If you’re attending an event with a Black feminist speaker, buy their book instead of having them sign your flyer. Honor and respect their energy and time by supporting their living. And if you’re a teacher, assign your students to do the work and purchase the book. Hear from those doing the work within Black feminist studies. Move away from reliance on the typical canon and let Black feminists show their textbook brilliance!
4. Parent it Up
White feminists, if you are parents, make sure that your kids (whether white or kiddos of color) are surrounded by imagery of Black women and girls in positive and affirming roles. Lord knows they’re not going to see those images on TV or Netflix. Don’t just bring your one Black female friend around your children every now and then or when it is convenient for you. Take a page from Loyola Maryland Professor and #BlackMommyActivist Karsonya Wise Whitehead’s book on parenting black children: frame photos of Black women leaders you admire, buy books with Black heroines, choose films featuring Black women where Black bodies are not hypersexualized. Boycott the Oscars with Jada and Will, and talk about why. And don’t forget to support other parents!
5. Midwife a Program
If you’re an activist, an educator or work for a company, white feminists gotta be midwifes. Um, what? Stay with us here—we mean that instead of taking the credit for planning the program, midwife the event so that all is prepared and goes smoothly, stick to the background and let the Black woman take center stage. If you have choosing power, paying power and planning power, then prioritize Black feminists as your keynotes, your book discussions and your composers. Don’t be like these panels. If you don’t have the funding, Skype works. Put together a system that has audiences seeing Black feminist leadership, performance, lectures and otherwise. If you can see it, you can be it.
6. Be Intersectional
Recently, actor/director Julie Delpy was charged with claiming that being a woman in Hollywood was more difficult than being Black in Hollywood. White feminists are not having that. You know why? Because you’re paying attention to intersectionality, a term coined by Columbia Law School professor and African American Policy Forum executive director Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality as allies means that we consider how the many elements of each person’s identity intersect and connect to create different circumstances and combinations of privilege and oppression. White women, let’s avoid thinking our feminist experience is universal, or that the sexism we experience is isolated. Consider how your identity as a woman intersects with your race, your sexuality, your ability, your gender expression, your class or any combination. Don’t rate and rank oppressions—name your location and assume that your experience speaks for one person: you.
Photo courtesy of Jay Morrison licensed under Creative Commons 2.0