Make black the night

Was planning a march against violence against women an inherently racist undertaking?


Tanya Shaffer
August 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

There is one person on the planet whom I can honestly say I hate. This in spite of two and a half years of lovingkindness meditation. I'm not talking about the profound yet somehow abstract hatred you feel for a brutal dictator in a far-off land, nor the reluctant half-desire, half-loathing of an ex-lover. I'm talking about the peculiarly bitter, tenacious hatred you feel for a person who once caused you an acute and unforgettable humiliation before a tribunal of peers.

Oberlin College in the mid-'80s was fertile ground for humiliation. "Identity" politics were gathering steam, and everyone was discovering his or her oppression. In the larger superstructure of both the college and society, minorities of all categories still struggled for basic parity. Our student social life, however, had become a sort of inverted universe: The more oppressed groups you belonged to, the higher your status. And the higher your status, the more license you had to publicly call people on their unconscious bigotry.

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Generally, those of us whose sole claim to oppression was gender had only white males on whom to take out our anger (and I took mine out in spades). Occasionally, however, someone could gain status through the sheer force of moral indignation and be accepted as an honorary member of a more oppressed group than her own. These individuals were always the most virulently righteous when taking other members of their own societal subsection to task for their sexism, racism, classism or homophobia.

Don't misunderstand me. I have no desire to belittle anyone's anger at injustice by slapping it with the mocking label "politically correct." College is a violently politicizing time; the sudden awareness of your personal story as part of a broader societal mosaic can galvanize phenomenal growth, courage and action. And if some tender feelings get hurt along the way, I'm not convinced that's always a bad thing, especially if those feelings have survived 18 years without close examination. Given all of that, why do I still hate her, after all this time?

"Laura" was a latter-day hippie when she arrived at Oberlin from a New England prep school in 1984. She played Woody Guthrie songs on her guitar, was openly bisexual and wore her muddy blonde hair hanging straight down her back. She seemed to frequent every political organization on campus, but was most visible in the Women's Center, where she was the primary contact for Violence Against Women Awareness Week (VAWAW) and its crowning event, the Take Back the Night March.

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That same year, I arrived at Oberlin from Lawrence, Kan., with shaved legs and lipstick, wearing polka-dot leotard and mini-skirt combos, my wavy brown hair permed in a fluffy 'fro. Like Laura, I was eager to get involved in the abundant political life of the Oberlin campus. Giddy with admiration for the feisty, articulate student activists, I focused my political energies on SANE/Freeze and Democratic Socialists of America. For a solid year I remained blithely oblivious to the Oberlin aesthetic, roundly confused when the scruffy, defensive young men I worshipped wouldn't give me the proverbial time of day.

By our senior year, Laura had become an ultra-hip leather dyke, or its vinyl equivalent (leather didn't go over too well in our largely vegetarian school). Her hair, now platinum, was short and spiky, and her acoustic guitar had long since gone electric. She was no longer involved with the Women's Center, but had become the most prominent white anti-racism activist on campus. I, meanwhile, had grown out my leg and underarm hair, gained 20 pounds, traded my polka dots for tie-dye, and become an outspoken bisexual. I was now co-chair of the Women's Center and a primary organizer of Violence Against Women Awareness Week and the Take Back the Night march. I revered Laura, but whenever I tried to connect with her, she looked at me as though I were an unwelcome pop quiz. Still, I managed to invite her to appear in our VAWAW panel discussion on "Rape and Racism," and to my delight, she accepted.

On the first day of VAWAW, we woke to find an enormous banner hanging on the Student Union bearing the words "WHITE SUPREMACY RULES." The campus community was stunned beyond belief. We wanted, needed, to believe that it wasn't perpetrated by students — that it was "outsiders," most likely a group of Ohio rednecks angry at the "commie faggot students" running around town in their ripped-up clothes. Classes were canceled. A teach-in was held in the cavernous chapel-cum-concert hall where the big-name musicians played. One after another, members of Oberlin's small student-of-color population took the stage and said that, yes, they could believe Oberlin students had done it. They told stories of the racism they'd encountered at Oberlin, the ways they'd been marginalized from the day they arrived. Oh yes, they could believe it.

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An angry gloom fell over the 3,000-student campus. Marches and rallies were held. White students cried; students of color caucused and raged. The VAWAW planning committee cancelled the first two days' events, but by the third day, when the "Rape and Racism" panel was scheduled, we decided to resume. We decided as well that Take Back the Night march should take place at the end of the week as planned. As horrific as the banner incident was, there didn't seem any point in letting our efforts go to waste. That would give the bigots too much power.

All 200 seats were filled in the classroom where we held the panel, and another 50 or so people crowded the back of the room and spilled out into the hall. The atmosphere was charged, everyone still on fire over the unsolved mystery of the banner. One by one the panelists -- three professors and two students -- spoke about the racist perceptions around rape crimes, setting the historical context of black men lynched for looking at white women and bringing it up to the present, where black men are routinely hauled in by the police on no greater evidence than the color of their skin. Each was cheered long and loud by the multiracial crowd, and I felt a stirring of pride at my role in organizing this important event. Laura was the last panelist, and the only Caucasian. She strode confidently to the microphone and waited for silence.

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"Take Back the Night," she said in a coolly mocking tone. "I can't believe this racist institution is being perpetuated on this campus for yet another year. I thought people would've gotten a clue and shot the beast by now."

A strange heat rose in my body. What was she saying?

"White women marching through black neighborhoods," she continued. "That's how this march began. You can change the route of the march, and you can try to get a few brown faces into the line, but it comes down to the same thing: privileged white women screaming at poor black men."

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I couldn't believe my ears. We had dealt with this issue! The committee had reviewed the march's history and route exhaustively. Weeks of discussions with women-of-color groups on campus had gone into creating a march and rally that would feel inclusive and welcoming to all women.

I felt a burning mix of anger, shame and fear. Laura had organized the march for the past three years! If she had suddenly gained insight into its inescapably racist nature, why hadn't she shown up at an early meeting this year and shared her discovery? Why had she agreed to participate in something she reviled?

Laura finished her speech to raucous cheering. As one of the professors rose to invite discussion, an angry buzz filled the room. Other VAWAW organizers sought my eye, expressions of mute appeal in theirs. Someone had to speak. Slowly, heart pounding, I raised my hand.

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"I understand the complaints against Take Back the Night's history in Oberlin," I began, fighting to keep my voice steady. "But I can't accept that a march against violence against women is an inherently racist event." As an inexperienced freshling, I explained, I had found the sensation of marching through darkened streets with hundreds of other women profoundly empowering, even life-changing. That experience made me an activist! It was true the march had attracted mostly white women in the past, but every effort had been made ... And I had to maintain that even if only a few women of color chose to participate, the march was still a valid event. White women were still women, still victims of violence. Was it better to do something, however imperfectly, or to do nothing at all?

At this point in my monologue, my voice began to crack, and tears came into my eyes. I concluded hurriedly and sat down.

Laura returned to the microphone. She paused for a moment, then began, "It's always an interesting thing when white women cry in front of women of color."

I don't remember the rest of Laura's response. At that moment, I disappeared into a kind of fresh red hell, where I could see and hear nothing but the blood trundling through my head. I was convinced that Laura was the incarnation of all things evil, dumped onto the earth in human form to quash any impulse toward constructive action. She had betrayed me, not just as a woman, but as a fellow activist. She knew my heart, I was sure, knew my intentions, but had sold me down the river to bolster her own image. Laura's fear of the racist label was so intense that she pointed the finger, not just at me, but at a community and event she had championed passionately for the previous three years.

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When I returned to earth, one of the professors was at the podium. The buzz had died down, and the discussion had apparently shifted from the Take Back the Night march to the need for more ethnic studies courses. A gentle hand was rubbing my back, and I turned to see a gorgeous African-American woman whom I recognized from my course on "Women in Development."

"Hey," she said simply. "Hey."

It was a moment of grace, a divine reminder of the power of kindness. Her simple "hey" had the power to crush an army of evil Lauras. I smiled.

Take Back the Night proceeded as planned. The percentage of women of color at the march was not far off the percentage of people of color at the school, which was minuscule. In a small way, we considered this a victory.

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Looking back, I have to ask myself again the reason for this lingering bitterness. I have no trouble forgiving the kids who called me a Martian in the seventh grade because I wore too much green. Was Laura's behavior really so different from theirs? A painful desire for acceptance and an excruciating fear of exclusion drive adolescent cruelty. As we get older, this same insecurity fortifies itself with an arsenal of political jargon. Those who mocked their classmates' hairstyles in junior high can viciously attack their politics in college. The schoolyard bully turns rallies into riots. (A friend once suggested to me that the cause of war is hurt feelings. Absurdly naive as that sounds, I think it harbors a grain of truth.)

What finally becomes obscured in all of this ego-shuffling is the issues themselves, as well as the actual lives that give them meaning. When bigotry becomes an insult to fling at the terminally uncool, we lose the power to name it when it's really there. We frighten potential allies into silence, and hand those who maintain bigotry doesn't really exist a perfect target for their ridicule.

Maybe that's what really burns me about Laura all this time. Or maybe I just wanted her to like me.


Tanya Shaffer

Tanya Shaffer is a writer and actress who lives in San Francisco. Her most recent solo show is "Let My Enemy Live Long!"

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