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Feminists take on race and police conduct post-Ferguson

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After two weeks of protests in Ferguson, Mo. over the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, blogger Miriam Zoila Perez noticed a shift in the online conversation among white feminists.

In her experience, white feminist commenters prioritized gender above race when it came to pushing forward reproductive rights and income inequality. But as tensions rose in the Midwest and drew nationwide coverage, Perez saw responses from white women that centered 100 percent around race.

Compared to the responses of black women soon after the shooting on August 9, the personal essays with titles like “thoughts on ferguson as a white woman” and “Feminism Is Not Just About Women’s Oppression” came relatively late. But to Perez, it demonstrated a significant shift.

“In feminism, I don’t think you get a lot of people talking about whiteness and privilege in such a high level way,” she said. “People felt called to voice something about what happened. It’s very emblematic of the crisis we face and because [the situation in Ferguson] is so racialized, they have to call that out.”

For Ohio State University English professor Koritha Mitchell, Ferguson brought to light issues that black American women face every day but that aren’t seen as “women’s issues” in the cultural sphere.

“I can post something funny on Facebook about what’s going on with me and my partner and it will get 150 likes from all over the place,” said Mitchell. “When I post something about how people of color are under siege in their own country, the silence is deafening.”

“How is it safe for women to speak publicly about relationships but not about safety in the public sphere?” she asked.

For black women like Mitchell who have studied race, gender and sexuality in U.S. history, there is no dichotomy between issues regarding race and gender. To her, black women have not had the luxury of neatly separating the issues; they live the combined reality every day.

While white women are now combining issues of race and gender in mainstream feminist spheres, Angela Hattery, women and gender studies professor at George Mason University, says their predecessors did the opposite.

“Between 1865 and 1890, at least 10,000 black men were lynched and the justification was almost always the rape of a white woman,” said Hattery. “You needed the white woman to be complicit in the narrative to justify the lynching.”

To Hattery, the breakdown between white and black women came when white suffragists like Susan B. Anthony surveyed the landscape in the late 1800s and saw that the fight for voting rights would only work for one group at a time: women or blacks.

“They made the decision to put their eggs in the basket for votes for women and votes for Blacks would come later,” said Hattery. “To look back at things like that gives us a powerful perspective on why women of color don’t trust white women. We haven’t done a good job. We haven’t helped black women protect their husbands and sons ever.”

Even after women won the right to vote in 1920, it took a decade for white women to organize against lynching as the Association of Southern Woman for the Prevention of Lynching. The group came nearly 40 years after black women originally asked for assistance, said Mitchell.

To Mitchell, the upswell of white feminist responses to the issues raised by Ferguson — police conduct, racial discrimination — reflect the times white feminists have had to play “catch up” to issues black women have grappled with for generations.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the activists who have those [traditional feminist] platforms took as seriously the right to raise a child as they did their right to have birth control?” posed Mitchell.

Second wave feminists who made careers out of fighting for reproductive rights and access to birth control are now figuring out what that means.

Noted white feminist activist Gloria Steinem took to Facebook two weeks after Michael Brown’s shooting to post a pointed column by Guardian columnist Rebecca Carroll that demanded more protest from white Americans on the issue of racism.

“I hope women, who have a different but parallel reason for understanding a danger that is located in the body — and racial opinions that are measurably different in public polls — will lead the change,” Steinem wrote.

Although Steinem has vouched for a more intersectional feminism that includes issues of race as well as gender, her comments on race in America still puzzle some.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Sommers, author of “Who Stole Feminism?,” told She The People that young men in the United States, especially young men of color, are “far more vulnerable than their sisters,” but Steinem’s remarks on Ferguson counter the criticism she has launched in the past.

“We now have hundreds of special programs for girls and young women, but almost nothing for boys. But when the White House recently initiated a small program, My Brother’s Keeper, to help vulnerable black and Hispanic young men, there was an angry reaction from many feminists, including Gloria Steinem.”

Police relations with the black community is not the only issue pushing to the forefront of mainstream feminism. After U.S. border patrol apprehended nearly 63,000 unaccompanied minors at the country’s southwest border this year, immigration reform surfaced once again — this time as a women’s issue.

Andrea Mercado, co-chair of We Belong Together, an organization mobilizing women for immigration reform, said that in order to rebrand the issue as essential for women, all she needed to do was share immigrant women’s stories.

“They speak for themselves,” Mercado said. “When the vast majority of employment visas are given to [male immigrants], the women who come with them are left in a position vulnerable to domestic violence and exploitation.”

“These stories resonate with women’s organizations,” she said.