Race relations: Women included

Sunday was the 167th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, which, as you may know, is where a handful of future feminist heroes (including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott) got the ball rolling on what would become the women’s suffrage movement.

Of course, this group was primarily concerned with white women’s right to vote – and according to historian Lori Ginzberg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in particular, was “quite dismissive of black women’s claims,” though she thought them somewhat better than black men, for whom she had little to no tolerance.

Now, I’m not usually one to knock imperfect projects that have good intentions, and I’m not going to now. Cross my heart. Should the women’s suffrage movement have been more racially inclusive? Yes. But does the fact that it wasn’t mean that it didn’t produce good fruit? No. That being said, however, I do want to point out that for all the strides we’ve made since 1848, we still aren’t immune to this same dynamic – sometimes blatantly so.

Some of you may remember when #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen briefly took over the Internet in 2013. The discussion was about intersectionality – that is, the idea that as double minorities, women of color have distinct experiences that may not always be adequately represented in the broader conversations about race alone or gender alone. I was thinking about this over the weekend when #SayHerName posts started popping up on my social media timelines following the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman, while she was in police custody.

#SayHerName is an Internet movement that seeks to bring the same amount of attention to the black women and girls killed by police officers or while in police custody as the black men whose names – at least these days – become instant memes. Most of us now Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. We’re less familiar with Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd or Kindra Chapman. Why don’t we know these women’s names? I don’t think there’s a malicious media conspiracy to devalue the lives of black women, but I do think that when people say “race relations” today, they almost exclusively mean the relationship between American society and black men. And when they talk about feminism and women’s rights, they still, for the most part, are talking about white women’s rights. These are our defaults, for a whole host of reasons.

I probably would have had been thinking these same things about Sandra Bland even if I hadn’t spent the week before as I did: talking to Oblate Sisters of Providence about what it means to be both black and women religious. But it certainly didn’t hurt. It’s striking to me that at the same time that the Religious Formation Conference was breaking barriers of all kinds in women’s education, little girls in Baltimore were being told they couldn’t grow up to be Catholic sisters because they were black.

(On a side note, I’m still processing, transcribing and asking follow-up questions about what I heard last week, but I promise I will write all about it soon.)

The world is a messy, broken place full of messy, broken people; it’s unreasonable to expect perfection from every group and/or movement. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent, that we shouldn’t use our perspectives and experiences to help others grow in their understanding of the world.

So, hooray for the women of the Seneca Falls Convention. It’s not impossible that we can celebrate their efforts while simultaneously not mourning for the women they did not include, and who still need us to #SayHerName.

We can do it. And we should do it. 

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is Global Sisters Report staff writer, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_cherie]