Navigating a ‘Crooked Room’: Reflections From Black Women on Their Experiences in Progressive Spaces

Black women do not expect much from those whose inhumane social, political, and economic interests challenge our human rights, but we do expect respect, support, and trust from our progressive allies, who supposedly are on our side.

Pittsburgh organizer Julia Johnson and Jasmine Burnett (right) Jasmine Burnett

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Historically, and still today, politically progressive spaces in the United States have focused on maintaining middle-class values, meaning that people who are working class, working poor, and poor are typically not centered in these conversations. As a strategy, progressives are also committed to reforming local government and using it as a tool on the range of issues that address gender, class, and health-access disparities. In theory, this broad strategy sounds good; however, when practiced, it tends to either omit the grassroots political bloc of women of color, LGBTQ people of color, and youth of color in leadership, or it perpetuates systemic issues that affect these communities when those interests become politically and economically viable.

Black women do not expect much from those whose inhumane social, political, and economic interests challenge our human rights, but we do expect respect, support, and trust from our progressive allies, who supposedly are on our side.

Yet when called upon to join progressive spaces, resilient groups, particularly Black women, typically find themselves navigating psychologically violent and racial microaggressions in what Melissa Harris-Perry describes as a “crooked room,” in which Black women manage “to get themselves more or less upright regardless of how crooked the surrounding images [of their humanity] were.” This is an ongoing process for Black women of “carving out a life that suits [our] own desires rather than conforming to the limiting and soul-crushing expectations that others have of [us],” writes Harris-Perry in Sister Citizen. These microaggressions come in the form of coded language delivered by well-intentioned, yet problematic allies whose “self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings is challenged when they realize at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.”

A mindful ally knows that their “ally card” expires at 11:59 p.m. every night, and that every day there’s the opportunity to be a stronger ally and build more meaningful relationships. However, allyship is not a process for the weak-willed or faint of heart, neither is it for people of color to work with progressives and allies who themselves are complicit in the oppression of people who are marginalized.

The conversation around people of color and our experiences with progressives doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Following Patricia Arquette’s comments backstage on Sunday that blew the lid off white privilege in white feminism politics, sparking a broader discussion that unsurprisingly led to vocal opponents being called “divisive” for rightly expressing criticism, Elon James White of This Week in Blackness shared on Twitter: “This is why [people of color] don’t always enjoy engaging in progressive spaces. It’s really progressive right up until it really isn’t”and the tension is typically a miscomprehension of race at the intersections of class, gender, and sexuality. As Alicia Garza further explained on Facebook, “[It’s] 2015 and white feminists are still throwing us under the bus. ‪#‎ThisBridgeCalledMyBack ‪#‎NotTodaySis‬,” giving voice to the varied documented experiences that women of color continue to encounter with white feminist allies.

This has been an issue “since well before Sojourner Truth stood up and declared ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’” Imani Gandy explained in a recent blog post.

Local reproductive justice activists, in Pennsylvania, are working to increase the visibility of women of color, who exist at the intersections of racism and patriarchy, by bringing them to more political spaces, and issuing a call to action in these spaces to further increase the visibility and work of women of color leading on progressive issues that center their experiences.

The opportunity for the progressive political movement is ripe here considering that the Democratic National Convention will be in held in Philadelphia in 2016 and there is a liberal governor in position and progressive legislation on the bench like the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, which expands health access to all women and protection where access has been limited, at best, for cis, queer, and transgender women of color. The Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health focuses on issues such as ensuring workplace accommodations for pregnant women, sanitary conditions for nursing mothers in the workplace, equal pay legislation, and increased eligibility for breast and cervical cancer screenings. Led by New Voices Pittsburgh, the Women’s Law Project, the Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, and Keystone Progress, the Campaign of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health serves as an organizing tool for women’s health and equality organizations and a priority for the state legislature.

To build on the work of this collaborative campaign, New Voices Pittsburgh—where I currently serve as a consultant organizer—organized a delegation of women of color and allies from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to attend the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit. Held in Harrisburg, February 6-7, the summit brought together over 800 progressive activists from across the state to discuss topics concerning the shrinking middle class, income disparities, reproductive health, and jobs. With all the progressive momentum in the state, it appeared to be a fantastic opportunity for women and people of color to network and build with other organizations. Even though the New Voices delegation had high aspirations for their experiences at the summit, it became clear to them very quickly that progressives haven’t made much progress in their attempts to include Black women, women of color, or low-income youth of color as leaders in their spaces.

Before the conference, I had a chance to chat with some of Black women leaders in the New Voices delegation about their experiences with taking part in the state’s progressive movement. I found that, when asked about the levels of visibility, support, and encouragement that Black women have received, their primary concern was the marginalization of Black women’s voices within mainstream and women’s rights organizations. As Shani, 31, shared, “There is no encouragement to lead. Even if they [progressives] identify you as a potential leader, there’s this push to identify you to be invested in their organization’s mission on all issues pertaining to women of color, which I think should be strung throughout the organization so that Black women aren’t tokenized.” 

Indeed, politically progressive organizations have a tendency to lift up social justice in their mission by isolating issues pertaining to people of color to one staff person as a “special project.” Organizations and political movements typically focus on issues and not the lived experiences of the people and the ways they are affected in a real way, and how allies are complicit in that oppression.

Student organizing at universities appears to be the breeding ground for exclusionary behavior against Black women and women of color within progressive spaces. Lexi, 22, shared: “Organizing on the University of Pennsylvania campus at the Women’s Center, I recognized how …. though they started as bastions of liberation for women at the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality, ‘safe spaces’ for women of color are actually few and far between.” She added that “the focus on gender but not race or issues of sexuality for queer people of color and women of color [at the Women’s Center], was frustrating for me, and I struggled to find where the safe spaces were for women of color on campus. I recognized the need for Black women’s leadership and allies in the campus organizing spaces.” When Black women and women of color must confront a crooked room composed of so-called allies who espouse our issues, it’s always traumatizing when the experience is the opposite.

The progressive political position that New Voices takes centers the voices and experiences of women of color and LGBTQ people of color. It expands the views that limit our human right to control our bodies, sexuality, gender, work, and reproduction—the definition of reproductive justice. One of the attendees, for example, was a mother who currently receives public benefits through welfare. 

Sonja, 32, shared her experiences with progressive organizations, “people have wanted me to lead but for one specific campaign or story. They will use my narrative and that’s it.” When people are advocating and looking to talk to mothers on welfare, it would be great to follow up, follow through, and ask, how they can help beyond capturing your story for their funding or advocacy campaign. “I felt used for a campaign and for a certain narrative in a story.”

To proactively combat this feeling commonly experienced by women of color of being used, at the summit, New Voices also introduced the #RJPledgePA campaign. This pledge states, “I pledge to trust, support, and resource women of color leadership in advancing Reproductive Justice in Pennsylvania.” It was created as a call to action both for women of color to locate each other and find safe and supportive space for our activism, and to activate our allies in Pennsylvania who are invested in identifying and developing safe and supportive spaces for Black women and women of color. Of the 800 attendees, New Voices Pittsburgh had no more than 20 signatures, and even fewer people took a photo holding a sign of the pledge. 

As the New Voices delegation at the PA Progressive Summit debriefed their experience, following the summit, what started with a collective deep sigh turned into a profound conversation about how their experiences at the progressive event were not much different from their previous encounters at politically progressive spaces as a Black, female, and for some, queer or lesbian.

The experience was summed up as a series of microaggressions, a passive-aggressive form of racism, where on the surface the interactions looked harmless, with smiles and non-threatening body language, but in actuality they were riddled with bias toward the delegates based on their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity/presentation. Lexi, 22, explained the internal negotiations she had with herself while at the summit. “It’s surprising because when you’re in a place called the ‘Progressive Summit’ it hurts that much more when that is a space that is perpetuating that experience. If not that space to build movement with our allies then where? It’s important that we have a voice in this space, but to what cost?”

The experience showed them, and showed me that no one but other Black women will hold our hands when we experience harm, or will ask if we’re OK after noticing we’ve been (unintentionally or not) disrespected, and that even fewer people believe that consideration is needed, except for other Black women.

“It’s always frustrating when you want to speak and you’re constantly silenced, especially when you’re trying to make a contribution,” Josie, 25, said, “but no one wants to hear you or they try to reframe your thoughts by trying to tell you what to think and what to say.”

“You go to a certain [progressive] space and you assume there will be a level of acceptance and there’s not,” Josie added. Acceptance doesn’t come from the environments we are subject to in progressive spaces, but more from “the Black women and women of color who carve out space for our visibility,” she added. Far too often, Black women come to each other’s aid as they always have, because only we can be counted on for each other.

Shani explains, “The fact that New Voices even reached out to me is the only reason why I was able to be there [at the PA Progressive Summit]. … We walked in as a collective, and because of that, there were protective factors involved.” She went on to discuss how rare it is that Black women feel safe in progressive spaces, “so often we are in spaces like that everyday, and we don’t have protective factors, but [at the summit] we walked in as a unit and we supported each other all day—and that sisterhood means everything to me.”

Shani was especially taken by New Voices’ workshop, Building the Movement for Reproductive Justice, of which I was part. She explained that unlike other trainings at the summit, the New Voices workshop reflected the lived experiences of Black women in Pennsylvania. “No other workshop spoke directly about our lives, or made it a point to speak to our plight,” she added.

New Voices conducted research on the life circumstances of Black women in Pittsburgh and I helped present those statistics at the workshop. Among other things, New Voices’ research found that

Black women in Pittsburgh have the lowest life expectancy rate in the United States, comparable to the life expectancy of women in developing countries; Black women are the most likely to be murdered out of all women; Black trans women are 50% more likely to be murdered than white transwomen; 40% of Black girls do not complete high school; Black women in Pittsburgh have, on average, a net worth of $5.00 and; Black women are evicted at rates mirroring the incarceration of Black men; to name a few violently disproportionate statistics.

Remarking on what she felt upon hearing these statistics at the workshop, Shani said, “I cried as those statistics were being read, and part of [the reason for] my tears was the recognition of Black women and our experiences, and the fact that I felt safe to cry about it. There was a point at which…I wiped my tears, but then I thought, if [we as Black women] don’t cry for ourselves, who will?”

Organizations tend to believe that because they bring in record numbers of people for a conference that it was a success, as was the case with the summit organizers in Pennsylvania. However, if the people of color who attend these spaces leave feeling uncomfortable and unsure about whether or not they will return, then the event was not successful.

The progressive movement stands to benefit both electorally, in future elections and over the long term, by expanding its base to reflect the diversity of the Black communities across the state. Black people represent the largest racial ethnic group in Pennsylvania, where in Philadelphia County alone they represent 44 percent of the population. Black women locally and nationally do not waiver on voting in the interest of their lives, bodies, families, and communities, nor are they discouraged from being in progressive spaces that have historically reflected the interests of white working and middle-class progressives.

There is an opportunity, then, with the Democratic National Convention (DNC) coming up in Philadelphia ahead of the 2016 presidential election, for political allies to learn from these reflections and improve their relationships with this voting bloc to capture it in the next election. The DNC organizers would do well to listen to what we have to say and consider the following:

How can we as a movement be expected to a) WIN, and b) thrive in partnership within allied spaces where there’s no fundamental respect for the lives of the people who are most marginalized in the United States? And how can progressives and allies shift the model for engaging Black women, women and youth of color, and LGBTQ people of color from charity to empathy?

While Black women, women of color, and Indigenous women will always hold leadership within our ranks, it will take all of us, including problematic allies, working together to address the increasing level of political hostility and lack of protection directed at our environment, bodies, and communities. I speak for all Black women and women of color who wholly reject the notion that ill treatment from anyone is a consequence of our race, gender, or class. We will continue to demand more from society and our progressive allies.