OPED: Why are white women the face of black and brown civil rights?

Rodlyn-Mae Banting
Tribune News Service

As I neared the southeast corner of Baltimore's Patterson Park on Saturday, June 30, the knot in my stomach had yet to untie itself. After days-long rumination over whether or not I should show up to the Baltimore Families Belong Together rally, I had finally settled on attending. But my qualms persisted.

As I drew closer to the crowd, one thing became glaringly obvious: The sea of white was not merely a result of the organizers' requested attire — I was in the minority. The range of protesters was narrow, with attendees differing more in age and poster design than in race and ethnicity.

It was for this exact reason that I had so vehemently decided against going to the concurrent rally in Washington, D.C. Aside from the general performativity that pervades any large-scale political demonstration, I had a gut feeling that I would for the most part be protesting alongside upper-middle class white women — women who had the privilege and means to drop everything and travel hundreds of miles to descend upon our nation's capital.

I had expected the scene in Charm City to be different, especially considering that the rally was to take place in Highlandtown, a Baltimore neighborhood that is predominantly black and brown (63 percent of the population combined, compared to just 33 percent white). I had expected to see more people of color fighting a fight that is, at its core, about racism. But even in this space of inclusivity and desired equality, the privilege of race prevailed.

Two days before, on Thursday, almost 600 predominantly white women were arrested during a peaceful protest at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington. The display was equal parts inspiring and unsettling. The sheer number of people who traveled to D.C. to show their disdain for President Trump's current policies seems hopeful, but also eerily reminiscent of the feminist movement of the 1960s where white women spearheaded the fight for the rights of "all women."

The white woman has again lent herself to be the face of a movement that has brown families at its center. Her civil disobedience occurs not only without consequence, but even goes so far as to be glorified. It has become sport, and there is no one to call her foul.

A handful of attendees at the Patterson Park demonstration even identified themselves as having been arrested at the D.C. demonstration. They faced only minor repercussions akin to a slap on the wrist and had come back for more.

I can't help but wonder if this same group of people would have been so eager to protest if they did not have the guarantee of safety — if, historically, they had not been celebrated for their "martyrdom" or their "relentless" zeal in fights for civil rights.

The practice of civil disobedience is one that saw its peak during the civil rights movement when blacks first began to demand racial equality. America taught us then that when people of color exercise the right to peaceful protest, they are met with oppression or, even worse, violence. Today, when people of color exercise the right to peaceful protest, it is called a riot, not a rally.

Clearly, America has defined what "disobedience" can look like and who can carry it out. In a land where blackness has become synonymous with criminality, in a city where the black population is the majority both behind and beyond bars, can we blame them for not wanting to show up to an event that, at any second, can take a turn for the worst?

There is power in numbers, but what does it mean for that large number to be made up of a small percentage of an elite population?

This is not to say that white people should be banned from standing up for those who are being oppressed. When done with full awareness and enacted through consistent advocacy, it is noble to use privilege to steer a nation's morality in the right direction.

But the necessity to confront those who have been prodded onto the performative demonstration bandwagon by a mixture of privilege and guilt remains. If we want to move forward, we as a society must think critically about when allyship crosses over into something trendy and self-gratifying, especially when a change in the system is a determining factor for others' survival.

— Rodlyn-mae Banting is a senior at Loyola University Maryland.