“Token Black Girl” Part 2: What Happened Next

We disbanded. The story is kind of complicated.
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Olivia Smarr
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We disbanded. The story is kind of complicated.
My serious face.

My serious face.

The group I wrote about in my last essay no longer exists. That’s right -- it’s completely gone. We disbanded. The story is kind of complicated.

I ended my last piece by describing how diverse the group was at our first meeting of the year. The diversity was short-lived. The next week, the only new members who returned to the meeting were White women. Myself and another group member immediately realized that this was an issue and discussed why it could have happened. We talked about how in most situations it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Everyone is busy and during the beginning of the school year students are going to meetings for a variety of different clubs just to check things out. It should be expected that not everyone would stay in the group. But what made this situation different was that no women of color returned. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe there was a reason why women of color in particular were not joining the group.

This led us into a larger discussion about how welcoming the group was to women of color and whether or not the atmosphere of the group was off-putting to those who were not a part of the dominant White feminist culture. I’m omitting some details out of respect for the privacy of other group members, but something I learned was that the group was flawed from the beginning. From what I understand, the group was not founded with the intent to recognize who was already doing reproductive justice work on campus or to be welcoming towards people of color.

There is no definitive answer to the question of why women of color weren’t joining the group. Even when I asked other women of color what they thought about the group, some were at a loss for words. There wasn’t one thing in particular that they could isolate and say, “That’s it. That’s why I didn’t join the group. That’s why I didn’t come back.” There were multiple factors. And some of those factors are hard to articulate. Some people said that something just wasn’t right with the group. That the atmosphere was wrong. That they didn’t feel welcome. It would be different if these were separate incidents, but when this is the overwhelming feedback you are getting from one particular group of people it indicates a serious problem. Although I’m sure there are a variety of factors involved in why SRJ couldn’t retain women of color as members one of those reasons was definitely the atmosphere of the group. So yes, the group as a whole was partly at fault.

The following weekend at a retreat for core members, my friend and I voiced our concerns to the group. It was an incredibly difficult discussion. By the end of our meeting, some members decided to leave the group and our leadership stepped down. The remaining group members unanimously decided to dissolve the organization, with the hope that maybe one day a reproductive justice organization could be started again with better ideals and values in mind.

I’m writing this because I think I would be doing a disservice to everyone who read the first essay if I didn’t follow up with an update on very important recent developments. My last essay was filled with so much hope and optimism, and it would have been wonderful if everything had worked out exactly as I’d planned -- but it didn’t -- and that’s important to recognize. Sometimes the solutions aren’t easy. Sometimes it gets really messy, especially within activism, especially when you are dealing with touchy issues like race and diversity.

I was wrong before. I can’t singlehandedly "fix" an organization that was fundamentally flawed from the beginning. I was naïve to think that 1) it was my sole responsibility and 2) that I could do it alone. Speaking up for the final time at this meeting, the one that inevitably led to the group’s demise, was courageous of me and also very challenging. It was different from when I had talked individually with the group leaders and led the training last year. This time I was angry. I’d had enough. From the first essay you would think that everything with the group was perfect -- that we recognized issues and unanimously decided to address them without any disagreements. That’s not really how things were. There was a lot of tension within the group. This time, I was tired of constantly trying to address the group’s lack of diversity and being met with resistance. I was tired of the same issues resurfacing over and over again. And I was tired of feeling like I was the only one who cared about it.

On frustrating days I like to think that I'm who my barista thinks I am. #Scandal #ItsHandled

On frustrating days I like to think that I'm who my barista thinks I am. #Scandal #ItsHandled

I reflect on this situation as something that was both humbling and empowering; as something that has taught me lessons I wasn’t expecting. Here are some things I learned from this experience:

My feelings are justified, and I am not alone. 

Once I spoke up about my experience there were other women of color who said that they had felt similarly about the group’s lack of diversity and problematic culture.

I don’t have to apologize, suppress, or compensate for my Blackness when I am in White spaces. 

There were so many things I did to try to fit into the culture of the group. I was convinced that if I wasn’t fitting in it was my fault, and that I needed to assimilate. I was trying extra hard to not hurt feelings, to not do anything to be perceived as the “angry Black woman,” a stereotype that has persisted in this society for a long time. Now I realize that the way I do some things is different because I come from a different culture and that’s okay. Since I accept them for who they are they need to learn to do the same for me.

Sometimes issues are messy and can’t be fixed just by one conversation.

There were a lot of tears involved in our meeting and a lot of hurt resurfaced. That is to be expected. We are dealing with people’s lives and issues that are very personal. Talking about race, privilege, identity and discrimination can be very triggering and upsetting. Confronting privilege is hard. Sometimes one conversation, one training, or one discussion isn’t enough.

Sometimes it’s better to just walk away

Lastly, for the sake of your health and wellbeing, sometimes it’s best to just let it go. You don’t have to fight every battle. Sometimes people need to learn lessons on their own.

You might notice that the tone of this essay is vastly different from that of the first one. It is, and for a reason. Doing this work is incredibly frustrating. If you are new to some of the issues I have discussed, I encourage you to read more about the concept of “White Feminism.” It’s controversial, but it sheds light on some very critical racial tensions within the mainstream feminist movement. To any of you who are endeavoring to create or are already a part of a group or organization related to reproductive justice or another social justice movement that centers around the concerns of people of color, I urge you to not shy away from doing the work of confronting privilege and actually working to create change. It is not easy, nor fun, nor comfortable, but it is so necessary. I encourage you to not be afraid to closely examine your practices and analyze if there is anything you are doing that might be alienating to people of color. I implore you to actively seek feedback from a diverse group of people, not just your friends or the ones who you like. Because when you are committed to a cause, you do have the extra responsibility to commit to the values of that cause. 

This might just be a club for you, but for some of us this is our lives. It’s not just something we do at 8 p.m. on a Monday. These are the issues we deal with every day. So if you are gonna be down for the cause, then actually be down. If you are not committed to doing the work then step aside and make room for those who are.