Recently, something remarkable happened: At the Women’s March in Las Vegas, outgoing Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards delivered a soul-stirring call to white women. “So, white women, listen up. We’ve got to do better. … It is not up to women of color to save this country from itself. That’s on all of us,” she said.
What Richards was saying is something women of color have felt for centuries: It is time to stop leaving women of color to do the hard work of striving for equality alone.
White women must stop siding with those who oppress women of color. The greatest example of this divide occurred during the 2016 election, where more than 90 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton and 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. More recently, in the Alabama Senate race, it was black women whose votes put Democrat Doug Jones in the Senate.
When Richards called on white women to do better, she identified the proverbial elephant in the room: the divide between women of color and white women. And she’s not the only one calling it out. Right now, a firestorm is raging in the news about the unequal treatment of women of color in Hollywood. African American actress Mo’Nique was reportedly offered a Netflix deal for $500,000 for a comedy show. As opposed to Amy Schumer, who was offered more than $11 million for the same type of show. Mo’Nique is an Oscar-winning actress. Schumer has not won an Oscar, widely considered the top prize in entertainment.
Mo’Nique’s experience is not unique. She’s a qualified black woman in her industry, with more accolades, yet, a white actress with lesser qualifications was offered a better deal. This kind of discrimination does not just happen in Hollywood or in Washington. The reality is that women of color experience the world differently from how our white sisters do. Women of color simply do not have the access, clout, or financial security of our white female peers. And when women of color do succeed — like Oprah, for example — be clear they are the exception, and not the rule.
This paradigm needs to change because America is browning. People of color will be the majority in the coming years. Women of color account for almost 38 percent of the entire female U.S. population, and almost 20 percent of the entire U.S. population.
The good news is that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, women are standing up like never before, but only having white women sit at the table is not good enough. For America to be truly inclusive, that table must include women (and men) of color. But it won’t be easy.
Historically, women of color have been skeptical of white women’s support for our challenges. White women have often been silent in the face of our pain. Sometimes because they could not speak, and other times because they strategically chose not to speak. Whether it was Abigail Adams reminding her husband, John, to “remember the ladies” as the new nation was being formed, or other women throughout history, white women could marry white men, and be their heirs. That gave them a sympathetic proxy at the table. For women of color, no such bargain existed. Hence, the scars of white women’s indifference run deep.
Just ask slave Sojourner Truth, who spoke at the 1851 Women’s Convention, why she kept repeating the now famous refrain “Ain’t I a woman?”
Or ask Shirley Chisholm, a black female House member, why no one took her campaign for president in 1972 seriously.
Ask Native American activist LaDonna Harris or Latina activist Dolores Huerta about the support (or lack thereof) they received when they were fighting for the rights of their people.
Those same fights are being fought now, just by a new generation of women of color in every industry.
The question American women face now: How can we begin to resolve this distrust?
First, it starts with leading by example. White women must show men of power that they know how to wield power equitably. They do this by being truly inclusive of other women. White women must speak out when girls of color go missing or black sons are murdered at the hands of police. They must stand up for equal pay for women of color, who, on average, make 20 cents less on the dollar. They must recognize our stories are different from theirs and that women of color also deal with racism, beyond sexism.
In turn, women of color must keep raising our voices for one another when we are treated unfairly. We must not shrink back. We must refuse to be stereotyped as “angry” simply for speaking up for what is right. And most important, we must hold our white sisters to the same standard as white men: See us, deal with us, and respect us as you want to be respected.
If women want to be taken seriously, then we must find the courage to sit down at the table together and talk about how to deal with racial inequities within gender and how we close the gap.
Only then will all women be empowered to achieve our full potential.
Sophia A. Nelson is a journalist and author of the award-winning book “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” She started the #UsToo movement for Women of Color. @IAmSophiaNelson