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Waiting On A Dream

Marcela Howell

In Walk in My Shoes: A Black Activist's Guide to Surviving the Women's Movement, Marcela Howell helps young women of color navigate the turbulent waters of the white women's movement.

In 2005, I took a break from my position at Advocates for Youth to work on a series of essays about my experiences in the women's, or reproductive rights, movement. I knew that what I had experienced over some 30-plus years was still being experienced by young African American activists today. The collection of essays, Walk in My Shoes: A Black Activist's Guide to Surviving the Women's Movement, which resulted from my 15-month sabbatical, uses my experiences as anecdotes to help young women of color navigate the turbulent — and, at times — treacherous waters of the white women's movement. Even as I wrote, I hoped that my experiences would no longer be relevant to a younger generation. But, unfortunately, I knew they would be.

During my involvement with various women's/reproductive rights organizations, I've watched young Black women come and go. Most arrive at these women's/ reproductive rights organizations with idealistic hopes of what they can achieve. By the time they leave, usually within a few years, they are disillusioned with these organizations in particular and with the women's movement in general. In many cases, these young women find themselves in inhospitable and often hostile environments. They are seen as interlopers or "window dressing" to appease the Black board members or foundations that think the organization is not diverse enough. White women activists tend to see this movement as theirs, rarely acknowledging or even knowing the roles that Black women have played since its inception. Because they are unfamiliar with the history of the women's movement, many young Black women have little ammunition to push back against this misconception.

No one can argue that overt racism was at the core of the early suffrage and population control chapters of the women's and reproductive rights movement. From insisting that African American women march in the back of women's voting rights demonstrations to refusing to give them speaking roles at women's conventions to targeting young black girls for sterilization, the leadership of the early suffrage and birth control efforts made it clear that the concerns and needs of African American women were secondary to the concerns and needs of white women. And that imbalance still exists. Racism is not something you can shove off to the side and ignore; unless deliberately slain, it will rear its ugly head again. Because white women leaders have not conquered racism within their own organizations, the women's and reproductive rights movement made up of those organizations has become a breeding ground for subtle racism that fosters distrust and hostility among women of color and their white counterparts.

Overt racism has given way to subtle racism. Exclusionary policies have been masked as isolated "diversity" projects that end up reinforcing the exclusivity of the movement rather than its inclusiveness. Racism or white privilege exists within our society because those who benefit from that privilege allow it to continue.

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As they read drafts of Walk In My Shoes, friends and colleagues have asked me why I stayed involved. I've asked myself that same question. And my answer is "faith." I became involved in the women's movement because I heard something different and believed it. I still do. I believe that because women are still primarily responsible for the early development of children, they can change society simply by raising their children differently. Women can change society by choosing to not be involved with men who hate. Women can impact racism by consciously rejecting subtle racism and examining white privilege both in their professional and personal lives.

When I first became involved in women's rights, it was a budding movement born of the anti-war and black power movements. Women of all colors — black, white and brown women — worked side by side for something better. Women's liberation held a certain resonance that signified a massive new beginning. Here was a cause that was my cause.

Here was a movement that said to the Catholic Church that had denied me the right to be an altar boy — up yours! Or to the brothers who preached Black liberation, but only meant it for men — up yours! Or to the anti-war leaders who only wanted women to cook the food, make the signs and clean up after the meetings — UP YOURS!

Women talked about social justice. We were going to confront all the aspects of diss-respect and condescension that permeated every other movement. We were going to change how politics were done. We were going to demand that women be treated with respect. By changing the plight of women, we would change the world. I believed it then and I believe it now — in spite of what I know and what I've experienced. This is why I stayed. I stayed for the dream of a truly equal, socially transforming movement. I'm still waiting.

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