In 2017, four confident, talented, unapologetic young women of color were elected to U.S. Congress, and everyone freaked the fuck out.
It sounds almost ridiculous to type that in this day and age, but when I think about the politics of recent years, it is as accurate a way as any to describe the fear, anger, and downright hatred many Americans have toward women of color who dare reach for political power without first capitulating to white male supremacy. In 2017, forty-five years after Shirley Chisholm was accused of playing “vaginal politics” and the words “go home nigger” were hatefully scrawled across her campaign materials because she dared to believe a Black woman could be president, and almost twenty-five years after Lani Guinier was labeled the “Quota Queen” for daring to envision an election process that didn’t disenfranchise voters of color, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley have been called everything from racists to terrorist sympathizers for daring to believe that their communities were worth representing and worth fighting for.
“Listen to Black women.” “Listen to women of color.” That has been the refrain of so many on the left since the 2016 elections. We are the group that voted against Trump more than any other. We are the ones who kept Roy Moore out of office. Almost every day I get a message from a white person saying, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” As if I haven’t been writing for years. As if Black women and women of color haven’t been saying what is wrong with this country for centuries. And right now, we have women of color—strong, capable women of color—in Congress with solid progressive ideals and good ideas, and they are being lambasted as “too radical” and “too divisive.” Right now we have women of color who are writing about what is needed to move this country forward, and they are being dismissed as “race-baiting” and “antiwhite.” And chances are, in future elections, we will again be reaching out to them and asking, “What do we do now?” “How can we fix this?”
Studies have shown that pretty much any time a white man talks about equality and justice, he is praised. It is seen as proof of his broad leadership abilities and his magnanimousness. But women of color are never praised. They are seen as bitter, divisive, vindictive, and self-serving. This view hurts women of color in politics, in the office, and in academia. We are often the most harmed by the failures of our systems to address structural in-equality; we are often the first sacrificed to political compromise; we are the vote taken for granted in every single election; we are often the only group standing between an electorate and the next white supremacist representative—and yet when we try to advocate for policies that won’t have us scrambling to save everyone’s asses in the eleventh hour, we are ignored or attacked.
When I think about the trajectory our social progress is supposed to take—the way we’ve been taught in school that it should work—and I look at how little it tracks with how we treat women of color who dare challenge the political status quo, I am dismayed. I’m dismayed not only because it appears that women of color currently working in politics are treated with the same, if not more, disdain, blatant racism and sexism, and outright hatred that Chisholm faced—but also because the status quo they are blasted for challenging has remained so unchanged. We celebrate progress, and we talk about increased diversity within our government. Yet our Congress is still overwhelmingly white and male; our presidency is still overwhelmingly white and exclusively male. And the important advances Shirley Chisholm fought for in 1972—issues like environmental protections, protection from government surveillance and invasion of privacy, campaign finance reform, and equal pay for women—are all changes we still fight for today. It’s as if when we continuously pass up the opportunity to listen to those most affected by the shortcomings of our systems, and instead continue to reward those who benefit most from those systems, we end up making no progress at all.
What does it look like to respect qualified women of color as thought leaders instead of waiting to turn to them in dire times as saviors? What does it look like to recognize that the ideas we have to help our communities might just benefit all communities? What does it look like to recognize that we are more than warriors, more than survivors—we are innovators and leaders?
White men get to be respected in every step of the political process. We look to them for fresh new ideas; we look to them for the wisdom of ages; we look to them to rescue us from disaster. And yet it is women of color who are consistently tested and proven right. I hope that we will be able to recognize the talents of our current generation of women of color to lead, and to lead with courage and creativity, before it is too late for anybody—even them—to save us.
Excerpted from Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, by Ijeoma Oluo, © 2020. Reprinted with permission of Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.
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