Excerpted by Latoya Peterson
When I joined the freedom movement in Mississippi in my early twenties it was to come to the aid of sharecroppers, like my parents, who had been thrown off the land they’d always known, the plantations, because they attempted to exercise their “democratic” right to vote. I wish I could say white women treated me and other black people a lot better than the men did, but I cannot. It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that white women have copied, all too often, the behavior of their fathers and their brothers, and in the South, especially in Mississippi, and before that, when I worked to register voters in Georgia, the broken bottles thrown at my head were gender free.
I made my first white women friends in college; they were women who loved me and were loyal to our friendship, but I understood, as they did, that they were white women and that whiteness mattered. That, for instance, at Sarah Lawrence, where I was speedily inducted into the Board of Trustees practically as soon as I graduated, I made my way to the campus for meetings by train, subway and foot, while the other trustees, women and men, all white, made their way by limo. Because, in our country, with its painful history of unspeakable inequality, this is part of what whiteness means. I loved my school for trying to make me feel I mattered to it, but because of my relative poverty I knew I could not.
I am a supporter of Obama because I believe he is the right person to lead the country at this time. He offers a rare opportunity for the country and the world to start over, and to do better. It is a deep sadness to me that many of my feminist white women friends cannot see him. Cannot see what he carries in his being. Cannot hear the fresh choices toward Movement he offers. That they can believe that millions of Americans –black, white, yellow, red and brown – choose Obama over Clinton only because he is a man, and black, feels tragic to me.
It is hard to relate what it feels like to see Mrs. Clinton (I wish she felt self-assured enough to use her own name) referred to as “a woman” while Barack Obama is always referred to as “a black man.” One would think she is just any woman, colorless, race-less, past-less, but she is not. She carries all the history of white womanhood in America in her person; it would be a miracle if we, and the world, did not react to this fact. How dishonest it is, to attempt to make her innocent of her racial inheritance.
I can easily imagine Obama sitting down and talking, person to person, with any leader, woman, man, child or common person, in the world, with no baggage of past servitude or race supremacy to mar their talks. I cannot see the same scenario with Mrs. Clinton who would drag into Twenty-First Century American leadership the same image of white privilege and distance from the reality of others’ lives that has so marred our country’s contacts with the rest of the world.
And yes, I would adore having a woman president of the United States. My choice would be Representative Barbara Lee, who alone voted in Congress five years ago not to make war on Iraq. That to me is leadership, morality, and courage; if she had been white I would have cheered just as hard. But she is not running for the highest office in the land, Mrs. Clinton is. And because Mrs. Clinton is a woman and because she may be very good at what she does, many people, including some younger women in my own family, originally favored her over Obama. I understand this, almost. It is because, in my own nieces’ case, there is little memory, apparently, of the foundational inequities that still plague people of color and poor whites in this country. Why, even though our family has been here longer than most North American families – and only partly due to the fact that we have Native American genes – we very recently, in my lifetime, secured the right to vote, and only after numbers of people suffered and died for it.
When I offered the word “Womanism” many years ago, it was to give us a tool to use, as feminist women of color, in times like these. These are the moments we can see clearly, and must honor devotedly, our singular path as women of color in the United States. We are not white women and this truth has been ground into us for centuries, often in brutal ways. But neither are we inclined to follow a black person, man or woman, unless they demonstrate considerable courage, intelligence, compassion and substance.
— Alice Walker, Lest We Forget: An open letter to my sisters who are brave, originally published on the Root.
(Thanks to Andrea for sending this in!)