A Vital, Vulnerable Conversation With the Leaders of the Women’s March

A Vital, Vulnerable Conversation With the Leaders of the Women’s March

A Vital, Vulnerable Conversation With the Leaders of the Women’s March

It’s time to fracture the white lens through which people have framed, and attacked, the co-chairs.


When I first heard the attacks on Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian activist and one of four national co-chairs of the Women’s March, I stayed silent. The need to belong was just too powerful, too overwhelming. As a black Jewish woman who was used to existing in white spaces, I walked on eggshells in my own community, feeling as though I didn’t have the same right to be there as everyone else.

But as the attacks mounted on all four women—as both Tablet magazine and The New York Times published exposés alleging anti-Semitism and financial mismanagement, and as calls rose for the co-chairs to resign—I was overwhelmed by a familiar sting of discomfort among all the chaos. In the rush to condemn, legitimate criticism seemed to have crossed the line into crude Islamophobia and anti-blackness.

This isn’t to suggest that I haven’t been disappointed by the Women’s March. After Tamika Mallory, an African-American national co-chair of the march, publicly expressed admiration for Louis Farrakhan, an avowed anti-Semite and homophobe, I felt hurt, unheard, confused, and angry. And when allegations surfaced that she and Carmen Perez had made anti-Semitic comments during an early meeting, I felt a sinking queasiness. But as people once again erupted in a frenzy of condemnation, it was hard to avoid the painful spectacle of Jewish women—in this case, mostly white—pointing sharp fingers at women of color, especially Jewish women of color who chose to defend the Women’s March leaders. And it was devastating to watch as an opportunity for real dialogue and exchange, for the hard work of truly intersectional feminism, was sacrificed to the worst impulses of call-out culture.

So I decided to reach out directly to the women at the center of the firestorm—the four Women’s March leaders, Sarsour, Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Bob Bland—to hear from them, in their own words.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the two years leading up to our conversation, I’d been fed the narrative that the Women’s March leaders, particularly Sarsour and Mallory, behaved more like spoiled, petulant children who could never assume responsibility for their actions than like leaders. I had my doubts about this line—I’d long ago grown weary of the old tropes of angry, aggressive women of color—but I was still taken aback by the disconnect between the oft-rehashed image and the reality.

During our multiple conversations, all four women readily admitted and apologized for the harm they caused to the Jewish community and to others who felt alienated by their delayed responses to concerns of anti-Semitism. Mallory and Sarsour felt that they should have responded much more quickly and with much less anger. “We responded defensively instead of listening, and we shouldn’t have,” Sarsour told me. “There were so many trolls and so many hateful attacks; it was hard to see past that…to our friends who were hurt and confused and only wanted to understand.”

In our conversations, Mallory also described her meetings with black-Jewish community leaders, who educated her about anti-Semitism, but responded to her with love and empathy. She describes these gatherings as “extremely impactful, restorative, and emotionally uplifting.”

“They wanted me to understand that they see me, and most of them, if not all of them understand…the type of work I had been committed to, how I had been working with some of the most oppressed people in our community…,” she said. “And they told me that they would never discard me [for going to Saviour’s Day with Farrakhan]…and that they also had experienced some of the very painful hate that I had been experiencing, even within their own communities.”

When I asked Mallory what she had learned from these meetings, and how it had changed her approach and perspective, she told me: “I learned about the duality of being [black and Jewish], dealing with anti-Semitism and anti-black racism at the same time. I learned how to think and speak about [these issues] better and advocate for the people who are affected by this kind of hate.”

When I asked Perez what she wished she had done differently, she said, “As a leader, I feel that I should have responded sooner. There were a lot of things happening in my life,” she added. When I asked her what those things were, she casually began to list off a cascade of crises that included caring for her father in hospice, carrying a high-risk pregnancy, and then sending her newborn into surgery at just five weeks old. At some point along the way, she also got married.

“Still,” she said, “I wish I would have spoken up sooner.”

I made a Rosh Hashanah resolution to avoid publicly condemning or attacking other women of color when possible. I’m loud-mouthed and outspoken, so I’ll admit that it’s been difficult. But through that process, I’ve learned a great deal about having radical compassion and empathy for women of color. Which means, I’ve learned how to apply that compassion and empathy to myself. It’s made me a more curious person and a better writer. I no longer automatically accept as fact the information that someone presents to me. I look for unfair bias and subconscious motives.

As a larger culture, we have refused to apply this way of thinking towards the Women’s March leaders, even as we insist that we are indeed asking the hard questions. Tablet published a 10,000-word exposé on the scandal that surrounded the Women’s March. It’s a good piece, in that it touches on many elements of the controversy and is well-researched. But as I was reading it, I felt a sort of sickness in the pit of my stomach. I’ve been living as a woman of color for long enough to know when someone is viewing me through a white racial lens, and so I’m able to see when it’s happening to someone else.

The narrative of the Women’s March leaders as reported by Tablet, and then picked up by others, is one of financial theft, greed, aggression, and hate—all perpetrated by women of color, while innocent, doe-eyed white women, who are presumed to have no bigoted blind spots of their own, watch in horror and graceful protest. It’s a narrative that is so deeply intertwined with racist tropes that it would almost be comical if it weren’t so offensive. I am baffled by our refusal to interrogate this story further, to say nothing of the personalities, assumptions, and egos that might have contributed to the narrative.

It was with this sense of confusion—and curiosity—that I spent much of the last few weeks spelunking through the twists and curves of the Women’s March controversy. I read almost every article about it. I talked to countless people, including the four march co-chairs as well as Vanessa Wruble, one of the white women at the center of the allegations that Mallory and Perez accused Jews of controlling the Atlantic slave trade and “holding all the wealth.” I also read internal e-mail exchanges between some of the key players. And here’s the thing: I still feel like I’m hacking through water. Every time I slice into this story, I’m led down another path of possibilities and perspectives.

But I have come to a few conclusions. I believe Wruble. I believe that things were said that hurt her deeply and made her feel excluded. I also believe that it’s impossible to ignore the strong possibility that some white women engaged in racial micro-aggressions, or worse. And I think it’s irresponsible to assume that the conflict was one-sided, especially when we are aware of the toxic legacy of white feminism. I think the Women’s March co-chairs deserve our curiosity, not our unequivocal and unquestioning condemnation.

But here is my ultimate conclusion: The sheer messiness of this situation shows me that there are a multitude of perspectives, and that each one contains its own truth, and each one its own (perhaps unconscious) self-deception. And maybe that is the dictum we must live by: that in order to truly understand each other, we must constantly do the hard work of interrogating ourselves, especially when it is uncomfortable. It’s an idea that definitely resonates with Bland, who said that, as a white woman, she has had to embrace “remaining uncomfortable and working through that.”

In service of that idea—of complicating the narrative and cracking the white racial lens through which so much of the story has been framed—I decided to ask the co-chairs about the emotional impact the controversy has had on themselves and their families. They seemed taken aback by this question, as if they couldn’t believe anyone would want to hear. But they were willing to share their experiences with me.

Since she began this work, Sarsour said, she has become intimately familiar with the terror of death threats. On certain days, she admitted, anxiety takes over and prevents her from getting out of bed. She also avoids going out in public, especially with her three children, because it’s simply not safe.

Meanwhile, Mallory, who acknowledged that she hasn’t been exposed to the same level of visibility or danger as Sarsour, also reported experiencing threats against her safety and that of her son. The two women told me that they’re aware that most of their critics don’t intend to cause this harm, but that they may not realize the depth of the harm that is being done and how the relentless criticism can’t be separated from these incidents. Sarsour told me that the heated personal attacks “have inflicted harm on our families, on our children.”

It begs the question: How well can the Women’s March leaders move forward and evolve as organizers under the constant pressure, and hostility, that many of them are subjected to?

Still, they do want to move forward. Bland sees the future of the Women’s March as a “diverse movement rooted in intersectional analysis” where hard, painful but necessary conversations about race and injustice can be had openly. For Mallory, the realization that, as a black woman, mainstream feminism still doesn’t include or protect her is extremely painful. “But,” she told me, “I know that what we created was amazing, and that is pregnant with possibilities.”

Perez has taken this moment of controversy as an opportunity for deep reflection. She wants to resist the harmful pattern that has been established by ignoring or deflecting the criticism against the Women’s March. For her, when she is faced with condemnation or outrage, she hears “a deep cry to be heard.” So she wants to move forward, address the pain that has been caused, and focus on healing communities and continuing to build transformational relationships.

But will these words be enough for the co-chairs’ fiercest critics? I have no doubt that there will be many who will not be convinced, who might see these words as insufficient or even dishonest. Previous attempts at repair—such as when Women’s March leaders put out various statements (found here, here, here, and here), clearly stating that they condemned Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic rhetoric—were generally met with the same response: that this was not sufficient.

Many demanded a more heartfelt apology, a condemnation of both Farrakhan as an individual and the Nation of Islam, and the addition of Jewish women to the Women’s March Unity Principles.

Here’s the thing: Holding people of color to ever-changing, impossibly high standards is a part of racial prejudice. So is interpreting all of their actions in bad faith, allowing latent or overt stereotypes to cloud our thinking. And it has a real, devastating impact. It’s counterproductive to goals of equality and it’s the antithesis of intersectionality, which is a black-feminist theory, not a weapon that should be wielded against women of color at will.

I would urge the critics, especially those who are white, to ask themselves: What can the Women’s March leaders do to fix this situation? Has it already been done? What parts of themselves and their experiences do the Women’s March leaders have to conceal to make me comfortable, so that I can join this movement? In what ways am I allowing my bias to cloud my judgment? What do women of color—the most oppressed groups in the nation—stand to gain from my goal of getting rid of these leaders? What do I stand to gain?

When I began this piece, I was unsure of what I would find—and unsure of whether the Women’s March co-chairs were capable of leading this movement. While I felt sickened and enraged by the racialized attacks on them, I couldn’t shake the feeling that issues of anti-Semitism were entrenched in their leadership. But after speaking with the four women, I have a new faith in their ability to take us forward.

How did they earn that faith? Well, simply put, they were honest, open, forthcoming, and very vulnerable. And I suspect that it is this vulnerability that has also caused them problems, even as it has earned them my and other women’s trust. For example, Sarsour and Mallory both spoke of how “painful,” invalidating, and frustrating it was to transition from working with communities of color to a group of mostly white women. And I could see how, if one was biased against them, this comment could be used a tool to condemn, not to empathize. But I chose to empathize and try to understand. As a result, I have faith in them, because I think they’re genuine, and I can understand what they’re going through.

And yet, I still think there is room for them, as for all of us, to grow, learn, deepen as leaders. So, I would urge the Women’s March to add more members to their national leadership team—not to oust anyone, but to bring on additional leaders so that these conversations towards liberation can be expanded. To do this does not just mean adding a few women, checking a few boxes, for diversity’s sake. (After all, when diversity just becomes a numbers game, it rarely meets the ultimate goals of inclusion and equity.) Rather, if leaders are added to the team—whether they are Jewish women of color, trans women, Asian women, indigenous women, or some divine combination of multiple backgrounds—their perspectives need to be respected, their experiences used to shape the goals of the movement. As Bland said during our conversation, “Unity is not uniformity. How else are we going to transform power and learn from each other if we all have the same opinions?”

And there are exciting developments in this direction, but I want to see those translate into equity. The Women’s March has a new Steering Committee that is quite diverse: It includes two black Jewish women (Yavilah McCoy and April Baskin) and one transgender Jewish woman (Abby Stein). Some are already claiming that these additions to the team are also anti-Semitic because the Jewish women are not white and cisgender, which lends credence to my theory that, perhaps, nothing the Women’s March does will ever be quite enough.

Revolution is never easy. It is hard and messy and painful. But revolution only happens when we all assume leadership and responsibility—a challenge that I feel that the Women’s March is up to. And I urge all women—especially Jewish women of color—to assume leadership as well. For it is our movement, too.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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