Diversity discussed as co-chairs of the Women’s March visit Wake Forest University

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Melissa Harris-Perry (left) moderates a discussion with Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory.

Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez — lead organizers of the Women’s March on Washington DC — discussed the march, intersectionality and resistance with moderator Melissa Harris-Perry for the keynote Black History Month event at Wake Forest University.

Linda Sarsour echoed a statement she had expressed almost a month earlier in front of the enormous crowds that gathered in Washington DC: “If you want to know that you’re going the right way, you need to make sure that you’re following a woman of color.”

Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, sat with fellow activists and social justice advocates Tamika Mallory, former executive director of National Action Network, and Carmen Perez, executive director of the Gathering for Justice.

The three women had come together as national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21. Now they took the stage at Wake Forest University’s Wait Chapel with moderator Melissa Harris-Perry — political science professor and editor-at-large of Elle.com — to discuss their resistance as women of color.

Despite having orchestrated a great part of what collectively was the largest protest in US history, the co-chairs expressed having to first overcome their differences.

“This march could not have gone on,” Perez told the Wait Chapel audience of several hundred, “without women of color.” Her statement didn’t recognize that the march was initiated by two white women, Teresa Shook and Bob Bland, and that a march would likely have happened without the organizational help of women of color. But her words did address the rampant criticism of a protest that did not center racial diversity, one of several points of tension that jeopardized mass mobilization and that led to the inclusion of Perez, Mallory and Sarsour as co-chairs. They were an addition that some labeled a contrived attempt at diversity.

Speaking to the need for these three women to influence other women of color and contend with this criticism, Perez proposed the phrase “women of color” as a point of unification.

“We’re reshaping what feminism looks like,” she said. “What we’re doing right now is allowing for feminism to be intersectional.”

Perez, who is Mexican American, said in her experience as an activist she often asked herself: “Is anyone gonna show up for me?” Perez’s concern referred to the issues of oppression directly associated with being Latina that were not centered in other social justice efforts.

For her part, Sarsour said, “I had some selfish interest in coming to this march, and that was because I wanted to center my own community; I wanted to put my community at the middle of the table.”

And Mallory, who is African American, said that in the country’s uprising against Trump’s executive orders, the black community wondered where such protest, particularly white activism, had been after each time a young black person died at the hands of the police.

The isolation of specific injustices had often hindered the collective action that these activists desired; it kept their communities divided by “their own issue,” as Perez said.

Yet the relationship between the three women, Mallory suggested, has itself inspired the unification they seek.

“Us being together has been helpful to people for them to be able to see something outside of their issue,” she said, including that most people she talked to “had no idea about occupation and what was happening in Palestine until I started working with Linda and with Carmen.”

Sarsour, too, saw their relationship with the other women as a catalyst for greater interracial activism: “I think the reason why us three together are really powerful is because we have built a relationship together, and that no one gets to Tamika without getting through me, no when gets to Carmen without getting through me. That’s the kind of love that we need to have, that’s why… this coalition will never be broken.

“We want a collective movement that is about: My liberation is bound up with yours,” Sarsour continued. “And if you can’t see that my liberation is bound up with yours, I don’t want to organize with you.”

Sarsour pointed out that a third of Muslim Americans are black, a population that further inspires her.

“When I march,” she said, “I think about my black Muslim sisters and brothers who got to be black and Muslim in America in 2016 and 2017.” For Sarsour, being black and Muslim signifies oppression suffered because of both race and religion.

Despite the involvement of Mallory, Sarsour and Perez, one of the most common criticisms of the Women’s March is that it didn’t publically achieve its goal of diversity and solidarity. Rather, many saw the protest as a feel-good event for the white majority that took to the capital in their pink pussy hats, and that would then recede into further silence and inaction.

Mallory, Sarsour and Perez did not address that the march had been initiated by white women. Instead they gave a strong and specific message to the white community: Do your work.

As more white folks have been eager to participate recently, the organizers demanded acknowledgement of the previous absence.

“So I ask the question,” Mallory said, “‘Where were you?’ Because it is necessary for you to think back about the fact that you had not been present, so that you never leave again…. But you have to ask yourself, ‘Why wasn’t I there? Was I actually benefiting from the oppression of other people? Is that why I wasn’t there? Was it okay with me?’”

The co-chairs called those conversations courageous, and said they’re imperative to moving forward.

“America has been hostile to its people for a long time,” Mallory continued. “It did not start on Nov. 8. And it will not end in four years. And if you acknowledge that, the conversations become a little bit easier because they start from a place of truth.