In this op-ed, writer Nylah Burton explains why, as a Black Jewish woman, she’s troubled by some of the criticism of the Women’s March leadership.
Recently, the Women’s March leadership has been drowning in controversy over allegations of anti-Semitism. As a Jewish woman, I’ve been hurt and offended by one of the co-chairs’ association with a notorious anti-Semite. But as a Black woman, I can understand the nuances of the situation. I don’t know if the Women’s March will be able to recover from this, but I do know that if we let the movement fail, the impact on both women of color and feminist movements would be so harmful.
Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory has made it known she has a professional and personal relationship with Louis Farrakhan, a civil rights leader for the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan has said vile things about Jews, literally calling us termites. When pressed about that relationship, Mallory said she doesn’t agree with some of his statements, but added that as a Black leader, “Wherever my people are, there that’s where I must also be.” The Nation of Islam has provided invaluable programs for its members, who are generally formerly incarcerated, low-income, Black men — programs that have worked well for people I know.
Many Black people compartmentalize the reality of what Farrakhan has said, which is necessary to survive in this world as a Black person. Most of us condemn Farrakhan, but we also acknowledge the work the Nation of Islam continues to do. I personally hate the Nation of Islam’s teachings, but I can’t hate the disenfranchised men and women of color who feel they have no choice but to turn to it for help.
The allegations of anti-Semitism against the Women’s March’s leadership have undoubtedly tainted the movement, as organizations like the Democratic National Committee have dropped their affiliation with the group. The co-chairs of the Women’s March released a statement reading, “We will not tolerate anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia and we condemn these expressions of hatred in all forms.” Still, many women — especially Jewish women — are refusing to attend the 2019 March in protest and are also calling for the resignation of the co-chairs, including Mallory, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Bob Bland.
But there is racism intertwined within the criticism of the Women’s March. Over the past few months, I’ve written about this issue extensively — a difficult task when I feel both besieged and compromised from all sides. The normalization of anti-Semitism is terrifying. But as a Black woman, I simply cannot follow down a destructive path of calling for the resignation of three women of color from a national movement they all helped build.
But when white women are criticizing Black women, subconscious and overt anti-Blackness often propels legitimate criticism past the line of accountability and into the realm of racism.
I don’t want them to resign. I want them to listen to Jewish women, and they have shown that they are doing that. If I truly believed that Sarsour and Mallory were anti-Semitic, I wouldn’t be trying to understand them, and other Jewish women of color wouldn’t be marching with them. Yet many Jewish women of color have expressed their desire to unify and work together with the Women’s March co-chairs.
It’s not wrong to criticize the co-chairs. We must always hold our leaders accountable when there is room for improvement. But when white women are criticizing Black women, subconscious and overt anti-Blackness often propels legitimate criticism past the line of accountability and into the realm of racism. I have seen it from my own friends and community members, who have called Sarsour a “cockroach” and a terrorist. I have seen Mallory consistently be portrayed as every offensive trope of a Black woman you can think of: the ignorant Black woman, the angry Black woman, the thieving/greedy Black woman, and the violent Black woman. I’ve lost friendships and professional relationships over this. And I am so exhausted.
The legacy of women of color’s exclusion from mainstream American feminism is too deep, too recent, and too traumatic to oust the co-chairs without truly taking the time to reflect on what that will mean. What message will we be sending women and girls of color if the messages we’ve been told all our lives are reaffirmed? We’ll be further confirming that society views us as disposable, our mistakes as unforgivable. We’ll be telling Black and brown girls that feminism will go on just fine without them. And the women who experience systemic discrimination the most will feel further alienated from movements that are supposed to address their oppression.
I am critical of the Women’s March. I’ve never attended one. But I would be devastated if the movement failed and even more devastated if its failure affected the opportunities that women of color were able to access. We must create spaces where we can have these hard but necessary conversations about race and ethnicity openly. But until then, we run the risk of perpetrating harmful inequities and deep divisions that will put us back decades.