In April, the activist Rachel Cargle debuted a lecture, “Race 101,” at American University’s inaugural Antiracist Book Festival. Over the course of an hour, Cargle — a 30-year-old undergraduate student in anthropology at Columbia University, who was booked alongside prominent names like DeRay Mckesson, Ijeoma Oluo and Imani Perry — sped through her material: how the conversation around race is really about power; how the realities of race cannot be intellectualized, despite the fact that we were in an academic setting; how race has been deﬁned and changed over history.
“Who has written the books?” she asked the crowd of 100 or so — mostly women, but otherwise split evenly between black and white, millennials and middle-aged, tweedy academics and those wearing floral dresses. “Who gets to be part of the canon? Who are knowers, and who gets to be known?”
Toward the end, she asked another series of questions, this time just for the white people in the room to consider: Whom do I talk to about race? Whom do I not talk to about race? And why?
“I don’t talk to my dad’s partner, who is very racist,” said one middle-aged white woman. Cargle asked why. “It would upset my dad,” the woman answered. Another white woman said she worried she would come across as a “superior, belligerent know-it-all.” A young woman said she doesn’t talk about it to her colleagues at work because she’s worried what they’d think.
“Okay,” Cargle said. “White people love to be the victim in the conversation about race. Worried is about your child getting shot in the street. Unless your mom is gonna stab you, I’m pretty sure you should bring it up — and even then, I bet you have better health insurance than me.”
Then there was a spitfire round of what white people in the room would feel like if they woke up the next morning black: Terrified. Aware. Nervous. Worried. Frustrated. Apprehensive. Careful. Ineffective. Exhausted. Not privileged. Burdened. Confused. Lost. Unsure. Threatened. Angry. Stressed out. A black woman sitting in front of me made quiet, guffawing noises after each word.
“This is a room of really aware white people,” Cargle said. “So why don’t you do more?”
Cargle’s activist origin story begins with a photo taken at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. In the photo, Cargle and her friend Dana Suchow, also an activist, are standing in front of the U.S. Capitol. Both women have raised left fists in the air, reminiscent of the famous photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Suchow, who is white, is holding a poster that reads, “Protect: Black, Asian, Muslim, Latinx, Disabled, Trans, Fat, Poor, Women.” Cargle is holding one that reads, “If You Don’t Fight for All Women You Fight for No Women.” The photo went viral, and Cargle went from being an unknown budding activist to an educator and writer who uses her rapidly expanding social media platform to talk about racial politics.
Now, 2½ years later, she deploys this photo at the start of “Unpacking White Feminism,” her consistently sold-out lecture that covers the racism ignored by the mainstream feminist narrative. Her signature message is one of tough love for do-gooder progressive white women. Cargle’s work is dedicated to intersectionality — a buzzed-about term that means that inequalities based on class, race, gender and other identities should be seen as intersecting, rather than as separate issues. The idea of intersectionality has become mainstream and oddly fashionable. In March pop star Ariana Grande tweeted, “it ain’t feminism if it ain’t intersectional.” Activist-writer Flavia Dzodan’s 2011 quote “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bulls—” is printed on T-shirts. On Etsy, you can buy tattoo-inspired stickers that read “intersectional feminism” inside a heart, or an enamel lapel pin that spells out “intersectional” like a crossword puzzle.
Cargle’s Instagram feed is a mix of pithy quotes like “Maybe you manifested it, maybe it’s white privilege” and “I don’t want your love and light if it doesn’t come with solidarity and action” alongside photos of her dog, Professor Marley, and stacks of books on her bedside table. She has more than 286,000 followers, including comedian Amy Schumer, actor Tessa Thompson, model Karen Elson and every yoga teacher I’ve ever had. Last year in August, she wrote a piece for HarpersBazaar.com titled “White Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels”; it performed so well that she now contributes a monthly column to the site. She’s even ventured into the world of influencers, doing sponsored Instagram posts for the clothing brand Lafayette 148 New York.
When she brought “Unpacking White Feminism” to the Wing, the women’s club and co-working space in Georgetown, in May, she asked how many people in the audience follow her on Instagram. Most people raised their hands, applauded or even howled. The conversation around intersectionality, especially when it comes to feminism, has flourished online; Cargle’s account functions as a real-time workshop on racial injustice, much of it playing out in conversations happening in the hundreds of comments on her posts. An example: In August, Cargle posted that, during a conversation about racist words, someone told her to be the bigger person — essentially, to get over it. Cargle wrote that she refuses “to oblige to the various ways that whiteness demands we simply take what they give.”
Instagram, the hub for Cargle’s teachings, is an image-based platform that makes sense as a home for photos of babies and vacation selfies; it’s seemingly an odd fit for one of our country’s most significant — and heated — discussions. America hasn’t figured out a way to have a healthy, productive discussion about race, so how deep can these conversations go on an app that prioritizes responding in a few emoji from your smartphone? Simone Marean, a California-based co-founder of the nonprofit Girls Leadership, started following Cargle in 2018. “I felt like I was microdosing lessons about white privilege and white supremacy on Instagram,” says Marean, who is white. “It’s digestible, and I stay connected to it every day.” She compares her awareness of her own privilege to a weak muscle that needed to be exercised.
Instagram certainly encourages passionate and seemingly off-the-cuff arguments. And in that sense, Cargle’s account and its community are a kind of fever dream for the right, a place where people take identity politics to the extreme. A white woman whose Instagram handle was mrsdonovanm (bio: “Wife, mama, runner”) commented on Cargle’s August post: “The assumption is made that black folks need to be taught or told when to employ certain feelings, restraint, some kind of filter, emotions, remarks, responses, etc. It’s insidious. We need to be more conscious of our demands that we place upon an entire people. NEED TO BE. I would like to help do away with the soft, gentle encouragement that is friendly to my fellow WASP-woman sensibilities. F— friendly.”
But if the online discussions around Cargle can sometimes put the pitfalls of social media on display, they also don’t represent the sum total of her ideas. “I have to remind people all the time that Instagram is a tool of my work. It’s not my work,” Cargle said. “I’m a lecturer, academic, scholar. I use social media to develop communities.”
Cargle grew up in Green, Ohio, outside of Akron. Her father died when she was young, and she was raised by her mother, who has polio. They lived off her disability checks, in Section 8 housing in a wealthy white neighborhood her mother chose for the good schools. She saw her mother speak up about injustice out of necessity. “I played soccer competitively, and the field would always get wet because we would do early morning games. My mom has crutches, and she couldn’t walk with her crutches through the grass,” Cargle told me. “She demanded that the city build a cement sidewalk from the parking lot to the field so that she could see my games. And they did it.”
She was often the only black girl, except at a black Baptist church they attended and a university summer camp. She had trouble fitting in there, too. “It was really hard for me because I didn’t ‘talk black,’ so I was always made fun of,” she says. “I always ‘talked white,’ as they would say. I just wasn’t aware of some of the nuances of what urban living looked like. I didn’t know all the songs. I didn’t know all the dances.” But camp was kind of a haven, too, where she didn’t have to be the token black kid.
After high school, Cargle enrolled at the University of Toledo, got married and divorced, then moved to Washington, D.C., at 23, where she worked odd jobs. She eventually applied to Columbia University’s School of General Studies, a B.A. program for mature students, and started at 28, after a period of traveling the States and staying in hostels in Asia. “I remember being in Osaka and sitting down and hearing a boy from Korea tell me all the stuff about Malcolm X that he said he learned at school,” she told me. “And I’m like, ‘We don’t even learn about Malcolm X in school.’ ”
When the photo of Cargle at the Women’s March started making the Internet rounds, it was praised at first. “I thought it was cool,” she told me. “I didn’t think, Wow, my time has come, I’m going to be big — but something I was part of was starting conversations, and I was part of the collective memory of the Women’s March.”
However, when the image was posted on the site Afropunk, which has a largely black readership, the comments were less enthusiastic. “I got a lot of criticism for why I’d be part of this,” she told the audience at the Wing. “I was taken aback and completely questioned what I thought about myself in the feminist movement. And that’s when I realized there were a ton of murky waters — blatant racism I had to literally trudge through.”
“At this point I call the women’s marches ‘parades,’ with white women doing arts and crafts the night before,” she continued. “This is an event for them. It wasn’t until white women were personally affected that they came out in the millions. All of a sudden they knew how to organize. Women of color have been marching a long time.”
Cargle realized that there was a lot about race and feminism she didn’t know. “And if I didn’t know it, then there were a whole bunch of white women who also didn’t know what they needed to,” she said. She went through an autodidact phase, reading books and academic journals by black writers she had never heard of (a manifesto from the 1970s Boston-based black lesbian feminist Combahee River Collective was one major influence), watching lectures and interviews, talking to friends. “It was a lot of me posting as I learned. I gave myself permission not to be an expert,” she says. She decided to give a talk on what she’d learned, and booked a conference room in a co-working space in Harlem with 12 chairs. “Tickets were probably 12 dollars, maybe 20. But we sold around 60 and had to move it to a larger space.”
After that first talk, Cargle, who was working as a nanny at the time, started to get requests for events at community spaces like Fearless in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. By June 2018 she was able to quit nannying and focus on the lecture circuit. She charged $3,500 per private talk, or $35 per person for public ones, plus travel, and has lectured at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Tulane University in New Orleans, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. She has also done private lectures for corporations and organizations, and has added a three-hour anti-racism intensive workshop called “The Start” to her offerings. Her income is a combination of writing and speaking fees, donations from people who support her on the site Patreon, and money from consulting work, particularly around projects about art and race, most recently for the public arts organization Creative Time in New York.
Her rapid success has left room for self-doubt. “I have so much impostor syndrome when I go up and lecture,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Am I a good teacher? Am I a good researcher? Am I a good writer?’ I question myself all the time.”
Cargle usually gives “Unpacking White Feminism” to a room populated largely by white women. That’s by design. “There’s no reason for [black women] to come. They know everything I’m teaching,” she says. She uses an intentionally confrontational tone, including telling the audience what to tweet and how to talk to her after the Q&A: “I need you to think critically,” she said at the Wing in Georgetown. “These are actual facts, and you need to take [them] as that. If you have feelings about it, take it to your therapist, because this is not the space.” When she told us to take notes and forward them to a friend we didn’t bring — “not the people you feel [would be] comfortable with this” — many of the audience members dutifully took out pens and notebooks.
At the Wing, Cargle showed a slide of first-wave feminists and suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt. “Look at them: These are your heroes,” Cargle said in a mocking, babyish voice, while highlighting quotes like “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage,” from Catt, who founded the League of Women Voters — and whose likeness, along with other women, appears on the custom wallpaper that covers the entryway of the Wing.
“If the goal of your feminism is to get equal power with white men, you’re going to have to oppress a bunch of people,” Cargle said, then added: “I want you to tweet that.” A few people nervously laughed. (“I’ve never had anyone leave, surprisingly,” she told me later. “I’ve never had anyone just get up and walk away. I’ve never had anyone cry, but there are body reactions. You hear the gasps when I teach something. You see the discomfort in people’s bodies.”)
The rapid-fire hour of ideas ended with a reminder that the lecture was not meant as entertainment, but as the beginning of much more work for the white people in her audience to do. “Anti-racist work is not self-improvement for white people,” she said. The white women who attend her lectures swear they are attending not because they are masochists overcome with white guilt, but because they’re learning something, and that Cargle is a blunt but effective teacher. “Rachel’s approach is, This is for you, listen up,” Marean says. “I feel lucky to be let into this conversation because I imagine these conversations have been happening for hundreds of years behind our backs. She’s telling me the truth.”
Alaina Mauro, a children’s book publisher who started following Cargle soon after the Women’s March photo went viral and who has attended her talks, says, “I’m trying to expand my horizons and not see the world from my own perspective, because it can be so skewed. Part of it was a reaction to the election. I just felt like I never wanted to listen to a white man tell us something ever again. I am a white woman who grew up in New York — my worldview is exactly what you think it might be — and I’m always asking how do I learn more.”
There’s a growing awareness around anti-racism in the culture at large, with critically lauded books like Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.” “Historically, whiteness has remained centered by being unnamed,” says Robin DiAngelo, author of the 2018 bestseller “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” “This is an interesting time, with the intensity and explicit permission given to express white racism, and the violence that goes with that. The ways white nationalists are recruiting are very open now, in a way that it wasn’t before, but so is the challenge to those things. There is a sense of urgency to the conversation and a receptivity because it is so clear. We are past this post-racial nonsense we had during the Obama years. That’s off the table.”
One of the most oft-quoted passages of DiAngelo’s book reads, “It is white people’s responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible.” Cargle and DiAngelo, who is white, have never met; DiAngelo says she isn’t familiar with Cargle’s work. Cargle calls “White Fragility” “incredible” but adds, “I have my feelings about a white woman making a profit off racial discussion, specifically one in which she is part of the privileged group. It’s like a man having a book tour about rape culture or something. … I just hope some of the profits are going to the communities that she claims she’s being a voice for.” (DiAngelo responded: “I can assure her that I am in my integrity in terms of accountability. A percentage of my income goes to racial justice organizations led by people of color. Two-thirds of net income raised from my public workshops go directly to local racial justice organizations led by people of color, so I am not making more than those local organizations I am donating to.”)
During the Wing Q&A, someone asked about how Cargle takes care of herself. It’s one of her most frequently asked questions. The modern definition of “self-care” was popularized by the black feminist Audre Lorde, who wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Maybe people love asking because the concept is more popular than ever, though it has become commodified and diluted into ways to sell sheet masks and juice cleanses. Or perhaps it’s just a less scary topic to broach than one’s own racism.
“My biggest form of self-care is being in a space with other black women,” Cargle said. “I have a lot of conversations about what self-care looks like. If a middle-class white woman decides to go to the spa, it’s just ‘self-care.’ If a poor black woman decides to take a day off work, she’s being irresponsible. Who deserves to care for themselves?” To mark her 30th birthday in November, she started a GoFundMe campaign to benefit women of color seeking therapy; she raised nearly $250,000, named her burgeoning nonprofit the Loveland Foundation, and brought on a consultant to help her grow. More than 460 women have signed up so far.
Cargle is always swarmed after lectures, forcing her to set rules. “I refuse to listen to white women cry about something,” she told me. “When women have come up to me crying, I say, ‘Let me know when you feel a little better, then maybe we can talk.’ It’s like a man coming up and crying: ‘Oh, this whole patriarchy thing is so hard.’ Like, no, we’re not going to do that.”
People bring her cards and gifts — “teas and candles,” she says — and even cash, which she accepts. After one talk, I watched Cargle compliment a pair of statement earrings a white woman in Gucci slippers had on. The woman took them off and pressed them into Cargle’s hands. It was Christine Bronstein, founder of a publishing company called Nothing But the Truth, which focuses on publishing women of color. “She has inspired me to take a much more holistic understanding of the issues,” Bronstein said. “I’m trying to be a better human and especially open my eyes to where I’m upholding systems that are oppressive.”
Cargle likes to observe the way that white women treat black women after her lectures: “A black girl told me that she walked out, and white women parted so she could get through. Like there’s this hyper-awareness of honoring black women based on what they understand about the feminist movement and the racism.”
In “Unpacking White Feminism,” Cargle talks about an interaction she had online with a white woman, which is saved on her Instagram stories highlights. The white woman wrote to Cargle saying she had one thing she wanted Cargle to hear: “Yes, I’m white and privileged but that doesn’t take away from where I’m coming from spiritually,” the woman wrote. “I’m sure you can relate to someone assuming to know something about you.”
Cargle wrote her back: “Yes I can relate to people assuming things about me, but [the] difference is when people assume things about my black skin it doesn’t just end in me feeling uncomfortable … I don’t get jobs, I have the chance of getting shot by the police, I don’t get housing loans.” The whole exchange goes on at length: The white woman thinks people should be met where they are, that baby steps are important; Cargle counters that she’s being asked to do emotional labor in educating her on how to be a better ally. The white woman says, “Sometimes it feels like your posts are kind of aggressive” and wonders if she can find balance in her tone. Cargle refuses on the grounds that “I have NO interest in coddling my oppressor into listening.”
This was a common exchange at that point; Cargle used it in her talk to show the kinds of comments she often gets from white women. “I read her comments sometimes, and I just feel like so many of her followers want the result of the work without doing the work,” says her friend Christine Platt, who formerly served as the managing director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. “It’s like when I posted a picture of a ‘Be Anti-racist’ pin we made and on my Instagram people went crazy for it, and I’m like, you just want a pin.”
Layla Saad, another social media activist, who self-published a workbook called “Me and White Supremacy” in the summer of 2018 (it was downloaded by 80,000 people in six months, and Sourcebooks is publishing a version next year), is a supporter of Cargle. “Rachel has been doing some important work,” Saad says. “I use my social media platform differently: I tend not to get involved in the debates for the protection of my own energy. But that is a form of education as well, and people really learn from them. More power to Rachel if she can do it and be okay.”
The crux of Cargle’s work is contained in that exchange with the white woman: that Cargle has no easy answers to impart and that it’s not her job to tell white people how to fix their own racism. This can be a difficult perspective for even the most enlightened white women, who are finally going beyond the now-dated notion of “I don’t see color” or absolving themselves of racism, and realizing that things have been unfair, to say the least, all along in this country. Maybe it activates them, but, Cargle argues, to then turn to a black woman and ask for her advice on what next is the wrong way forward.
At the “Race 101” lecture at American University, Cargle concluded with a formula for anti-racist work: “Here’s how you can show up,” she said. “Knowledge plus empathy plus action. If you take any one away, you’re performing.” If someone said something racist, it was up to the white audience to get over their own discomfort and tackle the topic themselves. Reticence and recusing yourself is not possible in her world. “Racists should be the most uncomfortable people in your space,” Cargle said. “Racists should be terrified to be around you.”
Her work feels at once electrifying and scary in the importance she places on being uncomfortable and staying uncomfortable. For Cargle, anti-racist work means white people furthering their learning on race, assessing their own interactions, calling out racism where they might not have before — and teaching other people what Cargle has taught them.
At her talk at the Antiracist Book Festival, she wore a cashmere sweater from the brand Lingua Franca that had “Decolonize Intellect” embroidered in script across the front. “I refuse to be weathered by the American university system, knowing that I have the same intelligence, the same research ability, the same reading comprehension skills of anyone else,” she told me.
To that end, in August, Cargle decided to leave Columbia. In April a black male student on his way to a campus center was followed by university police after he declined to show his identification at the main gates of Barnard, an affiliate college. “I couldn’t stomach paying the university money anymore,” Cargle says. She assessed her options, including going to a historically black college or university, but decided to become an independent scholar outside of academia. She is currently taking courses at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and studying one-on-one with Imani Perry, who teaches at Princeton University. Cargle is also developing an online course to debut this fall, and signed a deal over the summer with Dial Press for her first book around the conversation of race and womanhood, to be published in 2021.
“I hope people are waiting to see like, ‘What’s Rachel’s next lecture about? How can we continue to learn from her?’ ” she told me. “I’m continuously thinking about how I can exist in this space in the most Beyoncé-ist style possible.” I asked her what she meant by that. “Wild level of excellence that doesn’t even f—ing make sense,” she responded.
As her American University lecture wrapped up, she began to gather her laptop and bag. “Thanks for coming to my workshop,” she said in a sweet voice. “Follow me on Instagram.”
Marisa Meltzer is a writer in New York.