Mere days have passed since the historic global Women’s March, and one of the topics buzzing around social media is the discontent some non-participants felt about the event. One view is that the march was unnecessary because women have all the rights we need and the only thing stopping us is ourselves. While not surprising, this attitude reminds me of the discomfort some African Americans feel about #BlackLivesMatter. In both cases, these minority opinions make it easier for men and White people to dismiss such movements for social change. In both cases, here’s the question that gets to the heart of the matter:
If the only thing stopping women is ourselves, why do you think nearly 5 million women took to the streets to support women’s rights? If African Americans already enjoy equal treatment and opportunity, why do you think #BlackLivesMatter exists?
In my experience, the answers to both questions are similar, regardless of who gives them. They boil down to: (1) they’re complainers who are never satisfied, and even make things up, (2) they’re blamers who don’t take responsibility, or (3) they’re power-hungry schemers.
The belief that participants in social movements are complainers, blamers or schemers uncovers the very bigotry and misogyny that makes those movements necessary, because it assumes inferiority. It assumes weakness of character – that those speaking out are too lazy to pull themselves out of their own (self-created) situation. It assumes inability – that those speaking out haven’t explored other means of addressing their problems, or are incapable of using those means. It assumes poor mental health – that those speaking out are pathological liars, or imagining experiences that aren’t real. The belief that women or people of color as a group are lazy, irresponsible, weak, incapable, crazy or dishonest – in other words, inferior – is the very definition of misogyny and bigotry.
The belief that participants in social movements are complainers, blamers or schemers points directly to the problem because it spotlights the power imbalance these movements aim to correct. First, addressing complainers with an attitude of “you’ve already been given so much, and you want more?!” reveals a paternalistic relationship where one person with power gifts it to someone with less. It’s an historical fact that men and Whites as a group have long been in the exclusive position to do just that (or not), with harmful effects. This power imbalance and its ill effects are the problem, since there’s nothing inherent in being male or White that merits them holding more power than others. Viewing those with less societal power as ungrateful “complainers” assumes they were undeserving inferiors who received an unearned gift, instead of their god-given rights to full humanity.
The belief that participants in social movements are complainers, blamers or schemers uncovers the very bigotry and misogyny that makes those movements necessary, because it assumes inferiority
Second, viewing women or people of color as “power-hungry” schemers also acknowledges the existence of a power imbalance, since someone can’t want something they don’t have. It is true that social movements aim to gain power for their constituents. However, the fear that striving for equal power means striving for “power over” assumes a level playing field which doesn’t exist, and reflects the fearful person’s own neuroses, not the goals of the movement.
These neuroses, as well as naysayer views about #BLM and the Women’s March also come from the diverse and confusing ways we think about power. While many types of power exist, in our culture we’re most familiar with the “power over” model where some hold more than others and exert their will over them, consciously or not. However, we often pretend this dynamic doesn’t exist because we’re invested in the ideals of equality and democracy our founding fathers emphasized (in writing if not in practice). No one likes to feel powerless. But this is not about feelings, or character. One can feel powerful and still not enjoy full economic, social or political equality. One can be personally empowered and still not enjoy full economic, social or political equality in society.
By most measures, women and African Americans do not enjoy full economic, social or political equality – full structural power – in US society. For US women, this is true even compared to women in some other countries. Not feeling it doesn’t make it untrue. Not believing it doesn’t make it untrue, either – in fact, disbelief is a gateway to internalized oppression. Disbelief impedes solutions.
One of the weaknesses of the United States is our amnesia, and amnesia hinders wise judgment. As a whole, our people are acutely ignorant of our true and complete history. Just like not all women support the Women’s March or a woman’s right to choose, not all women were suffragettes. Just like not all African Americans support #BLM, not all Blacks supported the Civil Rights Movement. Yet today most Americans view a women’s right to vote and an African American’s right to be included in all spheres of society as a non-issue. One day Americans will have to remind each other that at one time, equal pay for women, access to abortion care, accountability for police shootings of unarmed Blacks and ending mass incarceration were controversial.
In the meantime, ask: What would it mean if it were true? What if the women and African Americans speaking out aren’t lazy, irresponsible, weak, incapable or crazy? What if those speaking out have not created their problems by themselves? What if they have already exhausted all other means of addressing them? What if they’re not lying or imagining things?
We fear the answer. The answer would change the world.