Many thousands of women are expected to converge on the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington the day after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. Jennifer Willis no longer plans to be one of them.
Ms. Willis, a 50-year-old wedding minister from South Carolina, had looked forward to taking her daughters to the march. Then she read a post on the Facebook page for the march that made her feel unwelcome because she is white.
The post, written by a black activist from Brooklyn who is a march volunteer, advised “white allies” to listen more and talk less. It also chided those who, it said, were only now waking up to racism because of the election.
“You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too,” read the post. “I was born scared.”
Stung by the tone, Ms. Willis canceled her trip.
“This is a women’s march,” she said. “We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand black women’?”
In Tennessee, emotions ran high when organizers changed the name of the local march from “Women’s March on Washington-Nashville” to “Power Together Tennessee, in solidarity with Women’s March on Washington.” While many applauded the name change, which was meant to signal the start of a new social justice movement in Nashville, some complained that the event had turned from a march for all women into a march for black women.
In Louisiana, the first state coordinator gave up her volunteer role in part because there were no minority women in leadership positions at that time.
“I got a lot of flak locally when I stepped down, from white women who said that I’m alienating a lot of white women,” said Candice Huber, a bookstore owner in New Orleans, who is white. “They said, ‘Why do you have to be so divisive?’
In some ways, the discord is by design. Even as they are working to ensure a smooth and unified march next week, the national organizers said they made a deliberate decision to highlight the plight of minority and undocumented immigrant women and provoke uncomfortable discussions about race.
“This was an opportunity to take the conversation to the deep places,” said Linda Sarsour, a Muslim who heads the Arab American Association of New York and is one of four co-chairwomen of the national march. “Sometimes you are going to upset people.”
The post that offended Ms. Willis was part of that effort. So was the quotation posted on the march’s Facebook page from Bell Hooks, the black feminist, about forging a stronger sisterhood by “confronting the ways women — through sex, class and race — dominated and exploited other women.”
In response, a New Jersey woman wrote: “I’m starting to feel not very welcome in this endeavor.”
No one involved with the march fears that the rancor will dampen turnout; even many of those who expressed dismay at the tone of the discussion said they still intended to join what is sure to be the largest demonstration yet against the Trump presidency.
“I will march,” one wrote on the march’s Facebook page, “Hoping that someday soon a sense of unity will occur before it’s too late.”
But these debates over race also reflect deeper questions about the future of progressivism in the age of Trump. Should the march highlight what divides women, or what unites them? Is there room for women who have never heard of “white privilege”?
And at a time when a presidential candidate ran against political correctness and won — with half of white female voters supporting him — is this the time to tone down talk about race or to double down?
“If your short-term goal is to get as many people as possible at the march, maybe you don’t want to alienate people,” said Anne Valk, the author of “Radical Sisters,” a book about racial and class differences in the women’s movement. “But if your longer-term goal is to use the march as a catalyst for progressive social and political change, then that has to include thinking about race and class privilege.”
The discord also reflects the variety of women’s rights and liberal causes being represented at the march, as well as a generational divide.
Many older white women spent their lives fighting for rights like workplace protections that younger women now take for granted. Many young activists have spent years protesting police tactics and criminal justice policies — issues they feel too many white liberals have ignored.
*Article originally published on New York Times.