Devon H.: Watching the scenes from Charlottesville last weekend was really difficult. What were your thoughts as you saw everything unfold?
Priya K.: To be honest, I didn’t watch any of the live coverage. I read plenty of headlines, followed what was happening on social media… but I opted out of deeper engagement. In the interest of self-care.
DH: That definitely makes sense. It seems like there’s so much of that kind of hateful rhetoric everywhere lately, it’s hard to remember where one event or action ends and another begins. Did this feel like just another blow as part of the larger increase in hate crimes since Trump took office?
PK: It didn’t feel like just another blow; it felt like we had turned the clocks back 70, 80 years, to a time where flagrant, vicious displays of bigotry were not only tolerated, but -- in some corners -- cheered on. At the same time, it felt like part and parcel of the Trump effect. It was only a matter of time before the isolated incidents we had seen, like attacks on Jewish cemeteries, swastikas in schoolyards, and hate crimes against Muslims, coalesced into a movement that had the tacit (and, in the case of people like Bannon and Miller, explicit) approval of people at the highest levels of political office.
What were you feeling, as you followed the coverage and read opinion pieces and calls to action online?
DH: I was feeling angry. I realize racism and bigotry are nothing new in the U.S. But to live in an age where this hateful ideology is championed and empowered by the president? Where the neo-nazis and KKK members didn’t even feel they had to wear hoods to cover their faces? And where Trump gaslights Americans by refusing to unequivocally denounce white supremacy? It’s disturbing. Seeing the counter-protesters’ bravery and reading accounts by activists of color that basically said “hello, wake up, this is not new -- this racism has always been here, but now you [white people] see it” really drove home my desire to take action. Studying the Civil Rights movement in school, I always told myself of course I would have stood up for black Americans -- joined the Freedom Riders registering voters and allies integrating public spaces, but it feels like now is time to put those convictions into action. It’s not a hypothetical anymore. So I joined a march and vigil in D.C. on Sunday.
Did you feel similarly compelled to act?
PK: I agree, it’s not a hypothetical. And, while it takes courage to stand up, the good news is that we’ve achieved a critical mass of people who firmly believe in racial justice and are ready and willing to mobilize in defense and celebration of diverse, tolerant societies. I’m glad you were able to join a community gathering on Sunday -- I imagine it was a powerful experience. I haven’t taken part in any protests (although I did briefly consider joining the rally outside Trump Tower yesterday in NYC), because I don’t feel compelled, at this moment, to find community. For whatever reason, I’ve retreated from the protest space for the time being, and am channeling my activism into other areas -- like developing a safe space/reflection time for colleagues at work.
DH: Why do you think that is?
PK: I’ve spent a lot of time this past year championing diversity and inclusivity, both in my official capacity as a member of WIN’s sub-committee on diversity, and in response to a toxic work environment in which I, and several other women of color, experienced microaggressions that were really destabilizing to us personally. On top of that, I’m in an interracial relationship, and questions of race and identity are often top of mind. My positionality, as a mixed-race, bicultural, immigrant woman of color, informs so much of how I interpret and respond to the news, and my partner and I are deeply political people who engage in intense, sometimes difficult, conversation related to identity politics all the time. Following the wave of protests I participated in last fall, winter, and spring, I guess I’m just… tapped out. And I certainly feel the way that other women of color -- friends and public figures alike -- have expressed, which is that it’s not my job to educate other people about these issues and raise my hand every damn time people are looking for intersectional feminist leadership. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to engage. I want to use my skills, my insight, to connect to others in meaningful ways to advance the causes that I care about most.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately, as I consider my own feelings and those of many in my circles, POC and white alike, is what it means to be an activist, and what it means to be an ally. What are your thoughts on this?
DH: Whew, yup, that’s a lot to deal with on an everyday basis. Let alone when an event like Charlottesville happens. For me, as a white cis het woman, the 2016 election was a turning point. I’ve really tried to grow and listen to the women of color and intersectional voices leading the Democratic and progressive movements today. And what I’ve taken away from that so far is that it’s high time we white feminist women got our people in order (remember how 53 percent of white women voted for Trump? And, as we saw, the tiki-torch parade last weekend wasn’t just white men). That means our white friends, family members and even people we interact with on the street. Women of color can’t be the only ones fighting racism and bigotry. Drawing on lessons from the first Civil Rights movement, I think being an ally means being willing to put your convictions into action. It reminds me of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The thing wrong with America is white racism. Large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” So, for white women, maybe allyship means going outside your comfort zone by joining a march, maybe it’s talking to your racist relative rather than just ignoring them, maybe it’s donating money to causes like the Southern Poverty Law Center or Life After Hate (featured by Samantha Bee). But, as you’ve mentioned, Priya, I think it’s really important for white women who want to be allies to make sure we act with humility, that we’re taking our cues from leaders of color, that our allyship isn’t built on a white savior complex and that we really take the time to read different voices and learn about the context of the issues we’re standing up for. But, frankly, I sometimes find it difficult to know how to be an ally in the right way. I don’t want to ask POC to educate me on how to do it, but I also don’t want to do something that continues to reinforce systemic racism (like, for example, taking action unilaterally without direction from the communities being oppressed).
PK: I think you raise a really important point. And I don’t have the answer -- but I think approaching our activism and allyship with, as you said, humility and openness, is key.
Priya and Devon are co-editors of Women’s Wire Weekly, a newsletter for the feminists of D.C. (and beyond!).
H/t reader Jae A. who suggested this dialogue!