When the results came in during the election of 2016, the country collectively learned that nearly 50 percent of white women had cast their votes for a man who bragged about sexual misconduct on tape. All of my fellow white feminist friends were horrified, as was I. But what disturbed me as well, perhaps more, were the number of women who I’d seen posting on social media that their homes were divided: split between Trump and Clinton under the same roof. These were the white women who didn’t vote for Trump, but lived and shared children with someone who did. I couldn’t fathom how a woman could love someone who voted so violently against her and countless others—and for that matter, how could he claim to love her? I started to fear that I, too, could wake up one morning and discover that my intimate partner had the capacity to think, act, and vote against my interests and those of so many others. What I didn’t realize in 2016 was that I was already living it.
My ex—we’ll call him Mark—was not a Trump voter. But he couldn’t understand why I was depressed after the election, or why I was overreacting to something that, he maintained, would be of no real consequence to anyone. He told me he thought Trump was “a buffoon and an idiot,” and that he wasn’t happy about the results, but as I lay next to him in bed and cried, he told me he didn’t get why I was so emotional. When I emphasized Trump’s numerous sexual assault allegations, something that was very personal to me as a survivor of abuse, he replied, “Well Obama was accused of a lot of things.” It didn’t occur to me to say at the time, but Obama has not been accused of sexual assault, and had one white woman said a fraction about him of what they said about Trump, Obama’s career, his life as we know it, would have been over. But at the time, desperate for comfort, all I asked was for Mark to hug me. He sat uncomfortably for a moment before he said, “I can’t hug you if I don’t know what I’m agreeing to.” We then sat in an icy silence and I stared through the window, feeling stung and embarrassed for having asked in the first place.
I grew up in a moderate-sized town surrounded by small towns, in the dead-center of flyover country. Many marry straight out of high school or college, have children within a year, and stay either in their hometown, or live within a few hours of it—that is, if one of them doesn’t enter the military first. I don’t say this in a negative way; many of my good friends have followed this path and they’ve been very happy. But I always felt that this created a culture of “not being too picky” when choosing a mate, especially as a liberal, educated, pro-choice, non-religious woman. You find someone who mostly aligns with your personality and activities, and whatever exists outside of that, you accept, because the alternative is to risk being alone. The idea that one would break up with someone because of their politics, I always perceived, was frowned upon. Why do politics have to come into it? You don’t want to be closed-minded. Some disagreement is healthy—it keeps things interesting!
The idea that one would break up with someone because of their politics, I always perceived, was frowned upon. Why do politics have to come into it? You don’t want to be closed-minded. Some disagreement is healthy—it keeps things interesting!
Under these criteria, when I was 19, I found my perfect pairing. We met doing regenerative, local farm-to-table work, we were both artists, neither of us listened to country music, he handed me the power tools. These things were all important to me. Once we made our relationship official, our futures became intertwined, and it started to look like I might have that Midwest path.
Then 2016 happened, which set me off in a new personal direction. I, like many of the white folks around me, had thought on some level that the election of Obama meant the end of large-scale racism in America. I knew that racism still existed, but I had always subscribed to the thinking that it was just a few individuals and had no larger means of existence. Mark shared this belief, but after Trump, only one of us started to adapt our thinking.
I started to become more outspoken on social media. For a developing activist, social media is the catalyst for finding our voice and discovering new viewpoints to expand our thinking. It was this newfound expression of mine that quickly became a source of arguments in my relationship, although I could never figure out what the actual argument was about. All I knew was that Mark would see something I posted or even something I liked, and within moments, we’d be shouting back and forth to no avail.
One of these arguments took place in response to the riots that had broken out across the country in the wake of Trump’s election. I was in support; Mark was starkly against.
“The reason Martin Luther King Jr. made change was because they were never violent. For the sit-ins, they took the abuse, they sat there while people pounded on them, and that was how people saw how awful it was,” he said. “These people need to know that violence alienates the rest of us who would want to help them. When they do stuff like this, it’s all noise and people like me tune it out.”*
*Editors’ Note: This is an example of a microaggression. The Everygirl Media Group does not condone this type of speech. To educate yourself on microaggressions and how to combat this behavior, click here.
This became the running theme. Emotion, anger, frustration, ‘acting out’—all of these things caused the movement to fail at what Mark proposed was its single purpose: to get people like him, ‘moderate white America’, on board with Black liberation. He threw MLK and his ‘passive resistance’ in my face at every turn, and I responded by publicly sharing Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which King states, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Mark responded by saying I was intentionally trying to hurt him by turning his hero against him, and that I was mis-interpreting MLK due to context. I didn’t know the phrase ‘white fragility’ then, but Mark was textbook.
The underlying dynamic of our relationship began to shift after about four months of dating, when I left to attend the Women’s March. It was a life-changing experience for me, to be surrounded by people who were also experiencing the devastation I felt after the election. But my elation was short-lived, because by the time our busses left D.C. for Kansas, I was already bracing for another argument at home. Instead, I was met with no words at all, as Mark greeted me with no mention of the trip I had just made. When I nudged him, worried he was quietly simmering grievances that would erupt later on, he remarked that the whole ordeal seemed a bit silly. I asked him what seemed so ‘silly’ about the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. After some back-and-forth, I finally asked what he thought the Women’s March was for. No answer. When I informed him that it was in response to the inauguration of Donald Trump, he simply raised his eyebrows and said he’d had no idea it had anything to do with Trump. His tone was almost accusatory, as if I had intentionally held something back from him. As if the expectation that he would take a moment to look it up while I had been gone for five days was somehow unreasonable.
His tone was almost accusatory, as if I had intentionally held something back from him. As if the expectation that he would take a moment to look it up while I had been gone for five days was somehow unreasonable.
And yet, I bought in and started to believe that it had, in fact, been unreasonable. I started to think that if I could just explain things in the right way, if I could bring the answers to him, the fighting between us would stop, and we could actually work together at navigating the world of intersectional activism. He seemed so close to being on the same side that I thought I could give him that final push.
So I sent him articles, gathered materials to talk about sexism and racism and homophobia and how they all roll themselves up together to form institutional violence and oppression. He wholeheartedly refused to read a word of it, because as he told me, he ‘wasn’t that interested.’ But if this was true, why were we fighting so constantly? And why did the fighting only seem to stop when I finally broke down crying? And why did he seem incapable of expressing genuine sympathy when I was in pain? For that matter, why did talking about it hurt me so much more than it hurt him? Why did I feel like I was treading water while he was blank in the face?
At the time, I didn’t know about concepts such as ‘gaslighting’ and ‘stonewalling,’ so instead, I accepted Mark’s definitions of what I was experiencing. I kept crying during our arguments because I was simply more fragile than him, and in turn, my argument constructions were inferior to his because they were emotional. He convinced me that while he could always be objective about the things other people had endured, we would forever be un-objective after experiencing them for ourselves. Beyond this, my hours of reading, lecture, discussion, and academic study had no bearing on my credibility in our debates, because to Mark, any social or political issue was fair game to the casual viewer, regardless of the time or work they had dedicated to understanding it. As Mark’s voice became a constant passenger in my head, I struggled to feel conviction about anything at all, until I began to pull away from activist work altogether.
Mark and I finally broke up just before my college graduation, when I became too exhausted to prop up his version of our relationship. When I finally demanded different treatment, he found another way to flip it around on me: Our issue was simply that I wasn’t strong enough to take his emotional manipulations, and I needed to logically explain to him how to change without causing him discomfort along the way. I told him to pursue therapy, and closed the door for good. I then lived with his voice in my head for two years, during which time I was still too intimidated, too lacking in conviction to find my way back to my voice.
I pursued therapy for myself in the fall of 2019, where I began to tease my own voice apart from Mark’s. However, change was slow, and I still felt great shame and embarrassment when I dared to engage in activist work. That all changed in the spring of 2020, when the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked uprisings across the country, and something in me finally cracked. I found enough purpose to push through Mark’s voice and start reading again, finding books about racism and intersectional feminism, which led me to Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper. I had never seen such a fearless, honest analysis of feminism, and even though her experiences as a Black woman were different from mine, the truth she spoke hit me in waves with every chapter. She was unafraid to look at her deepest insecurities and challenge them, to confront the very real fear that all feminists have of ending up alone because we dare to demand something more from our men. In her chapter White-Girl Tears, I learned that I was not the only person asking what the hell happened with white women voters in 2016, though the answers she proposed weren’t the ones I had anticipated. She wrote of the Women’s March that meant so much to me, “Watching white women take it to the streets to protest an election outcome that was a result of white women’s powerful voting block felt like an exercise in white-lady tears if I ever saw one.” Reading this was sobering, but it helped me recognize that as a white feminist, if I wanted to create change, I needed to start much closer to home.
It helped me recognize that as a white feminist, if I wanted to create change, I needed to start much closer to home.
“[T]he choice of whom to love is political. And if white feminists were honest, they would recognize that their feminism actually does demand that they interrogate the political dimensions of their intimate engagements.” This line, like so many other lines in Cooper’s book, put language to something I didn’t realize I’d been trying to say for years.
I began to view my relationship with Mark through an entirely different lens. I started to question his motives more deeply, wondering now if he was identifying with a larger power structure which was threatened by the activist movements I was engaging with. Did he truly think that social justice efforts were simply too chaotic, too loud, too disorganized to gain traction? Or was the concept that a movement could attain justice with or without his approval simply a challenge to his sense of superiority and importance? I had my answer when I realized that while Mark claimed to support peaceful protest above all else, when his girlfriend left for five days to participate in the enormously peaceful Women’s March, he couldn’t be bothered to learn why it was happening in the first place. I then realized that no matter what arguments I laid out, what research I conducted, or what efforts I made to help him understand, no message of change or justice would have ever reached him because he did not want to be reached.
I then realized that no matter what arguments I laid out, what research I conducted, or what efforts I made to help him understand, no message of change or justice would have ever reached him because he did not want to be reached.
For the first time since our breakup, I have stopped hearing Mark’s voice in the back of my mind. I feel like I finally have the vantage point to see all of the things that had been at play, which were far more than just two people standing in a kitchen at 3am, arguing over my presence on Instagram. Behind both of us were years upon years of socialization and experiences that formed who we were, and he was backed by a system that had been doing this insidious work for generations. His weapon was far more substantial, and he was far more adept at using it. But as I am now listening to Black feminist leaders who have studied this longer and more extensively than I, as I learn about the inner-workings and generational pull of this weapon, I can finally start to neutralize its effects.
White women with white male partners: We need to have a conversation about the word ‘political,’ what it means, and what we allow the men (or should I say ‘enforcers of the white patriarchy,’ because we do that shit, too) in our lives to tell us it means. We act as if politics are a dressing of topsoil over our lives, disconnected from everything else, something to discuss at dinner. In fact, what I’ve learned is that politics form the very roots that feed everything we are made of. It has taken me some time to recognize that Mark was emotionally abusive, but what is not lost on me is that his abuse was also political. And because he and I came out of a culture that told us we shouldn’t base who we date off of politics, it was the perfect shield for the weapon he brought to the table.
White women with white male partners: We need to have a conversation about the word ‘political,’ what it means, and what we allow the men in our lives to tell us it means.
I am changing my constitution allllll the way around. My relationships, from here on out, are to be a sanctuary for me in the sense that they are a safe space, and 100 percent optional. First date topics will include but not be limited to the following: Black Lives Matter, intersectional feminism, abortion, white supremacy, transphobia, religion, who you voted for in 2016, who you voted for in 2020, who you wished you could’ve voted for in 2020, Black reparations, Native American reparations, and whether or not Louis C.K. is redeemable. I refuse to act as if any of these opinions are not critical to agree upon with my future partner. We can disagree about many things—for example, I do enjoy a good dill pickle, and if they find them repulsive, then more for me. But politics and the weapon they wield are no space for compromise, and the best thing that white women could recognize in 2020 is that we no longer need to endure or carry this weapon in exchange for our security.
I believe that all white women have a Mark, whether it’s a romantic partner, a father, a grandfather, a fellow white woman who parrots the same sentiments in a higher pitch, or the simple voice echoing through our culture and directly into our ears.
So if we’re really committed to widespread liberation and equality, we need to start looking critically at the results of our alignments. I believe that all white women have a Mark, whether it’s a romantic partner, a father, a grandfather, a fellow white woman who parrots the same sentiments in a higher pitch, or the simple voice echoing through our culture and directly into our ears. They may not actively participate in oppressive systems, but they certainly won’t lift a finger to help take their weight off of our backs, and they will sure as hell judge us for trying. When our collective Marks attach onto our pre-existing insecurities, assuring us that our actions toward positive change are inconsequential, it would do us well to start challenging them at the root. One way to do this is to simply pose the question to one’s self, perhaps late at night once our Marks have gone to sleep beside us: If I break my alignment with him, what does he stand to lose? And when I venture out into a diverse community of revolutionaries, when I bring with me my tool of white privilege and the need for my own liberation, what could we all stand to gain?