Jennifer Uleman

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Balloons, an Innocence, and Its End:

Some Whiteness at the NYC Women’s March, January 20, 2018

The one-year anniversary Women’s March was all the things you read in the Guardian or The New York Times — energized, midterms-focused, etc. — at least as far as I could tell from where I was in New York City. It was crowded. There was a lot of standing around on 72nd St., for instance, to be let through barricades onto the official march route. There were lots of homemade signs, some recognizable from last year, some clearly new, some with Hamiltonlyrics. There was some shivering, but not too much. There was trouble sending messages and posting photos due to overloaded circuits, there was talk about bathroom breaks, there were power bars and dried mango.

The group I was with from my neighborhood in Queens was mostly white and mostly women — not overwhelmingly, but mostly. (Me: one of the white women.) We mostly didn’t really know each other. We met in front of a Famiglia Pizzeria near the subway and E, the white woman leading us, brought a big bundle of hot pink helium balloons on which had been written the name of our neighborhood and “Resist!” People tied them to wrists and backpacks and even a hairdo with bright pink gift-wrap ribbon. The balloons made the subway ride in feel like a party and were brilliant for helping us keep track of each other in the eventual crowds. A few eventually got loose and flew beautifully in the bright blue sky over Central Park.

Besides balloons, E, who wore a bright pink thick-knit pussyhat with lipstick to match, brought signs. Hers, in white type against a black background, read: “This nice white lady has had enough of America’s racist BS!” and had a pink arrow pointing down. The reverse said something like, “Ever wonder what you’d have done about slavery, the holocaust, civil rights? You’re doing it now!” The sign she’d brought for a mutual friend, T, who is also white, read, “When I’m not marching, I’m taking a knee. Black lives matter.” The flip side said, “The revolution will be intersectional AF.” I don’t think of either E or T as all talk. I’m sparing you all caps, but much of each sign’s text was, as befits a sign, all caps.

All day, for me and E and T and another white woman (D?), the people with whom I talked the most — talked, and pointed to signs, and joined in chants, and followed along in thought and attention all day — for us, all day, there was talk and thought about race. Attention to race and racial politics is now, if it wasn’t before (as it wasn’t so much at the Women’s March last year, as far as my bus to DC was concerned, anyway), a thrumming part of our conscious and subconscious attention and was, on Saturday at the march, one of the unspoken (if also spoken) organizing principles of our collective awareness. There is a longing to see, to know, to do and say and think the right things, an urgent longing that borders on anxiety, but isn’t, at least not that day, because it’s a happy day, we have balloons, and it’s a good march.

As we were standing around on 72nd Street, a Southeast Asian woman in our group, N, noted that the “immigrants are welcome here” chant, which we had just been hearing, is irritating. It feels patronizing and off-base, since the people chanting are almost certainly immigrants too, she said. Once we were moving, an older white woman holding a “Humanitarian Judaism” sign caught up to ask T what “intersectional” meant (as in, “the revolution will be intersectional AF”). We started to say and a young black woman behind us jumped in, friendly, helpful, adding to our explanation. Did she know what “AF” means, T asked the Humanitarian Judaism woman? That she got; smiles. Smiles all around, affirmations that it’s always good to ask. The woman’s quick offer to explain Humanitarian Judaism did not get taken up: I think we thought we knew, and we may well have, but anyway the crowd moved and we drifted apart.

T and I have been talking again about pussyhats. She’s teaching an art history course on craft and craft movements, which of course if you think about it for a minute are very political, and has been rereading all the pussyhat stuff from last year in anticipation of trying to talk about the hats again this coming week. She’s wearing a red beret; I am hatless. I wanted a pussyhat last year, but never found the chunky-knit, dusty-rose one I thought I could live with, and the critiques kind of shushed the desire. Back at the march, one of our small group volunteers that she wouldn’t have thought anything about the “immigrants are welcome here” chant if N hadn’t said something. The things we know and the things we think we know and the things we know we don’t know but don’t know how not to know, don’t know how to be without knowing.

Earlier in the day, I send pictures of us on the subway to friends. I send a friend who is black the subway pictures and also another that I take later. I secretly hope the pictures will prove that the march is not racist. The picture that I take later is of a middle-aged black woman holding a Dr. Seuss cat-in-a-hat image with the verse: “I do not like your racist fans / I do not like your twitter hands / I do not like your bigotry / Nor your Nazi sympathy / I do not like you in our lives / I do not like you, Forty-Five.” The woman is wearing a black pussyhat with white whiskers, and in my picture she’s smiling; a free hand holds a take-out coffee cup. I broke ranks to catch up with her, to ask if I could get a picture of her and her sign. Earlier, I carefully compose a picture of our group on the subway: there’s my white friend T, displaying the taking-a-knee sign; she’s flanked by P, a Latino man we’ve just met, and by L and H, a white woman and her young biracial son. I make sure they are all in the picture. I think of Marvin Lemus’s satirical “DVRSE App: Black Friends When You Need Them” video promo. The app inserts pictures of black people into your photos, making (white) you look more “cultural” and “interesting,” and winning you social points on Instagram and dating apps, improving chances of grad school admission. (It’s very good and very funny.)

I know I’m doing this, trying too hard to prove something, but I don’t stop myself. I think about it later. I liked the march; it made me ebullient. It comforted me, excited me, affirmed me. I wanted to share all this, to share my liking, with my friend, but I didn’t want her to think my liking was racist. My friend is a smart woman, and she also knows from women’s marches, so in reality of course I am not proving anything to anyone. This is my own psychic need, my own eddy, my own effort to confuse myself so I can push ahead and like unabashed. But I know full well women’s marches can be kind of racist, not in KKK-rally ways but in liberal, white, middle-class ways, unintentionally-intentionally exclusionary ways, false-universalizing ways, alienating-environment-creating ways: “immigrants are welcome here” ways, ways that go gung-ho on hats but don’t think about hair, that rally around pink but don’t consider how the aesthetics, meanings, resonances play outside white minds, ways that reclaim vulgarity but forget that public vulgarity is not universally fun and comfortable, and that then, online and elsewhere, when reservations are raised or complaints are made, refuse to take in, preferring to eddy-up, to muddy, to defensively self-confuse. I know, I think.

I smile, with rue. I feel silly and I sigh. I don’t want anything that comforts, excites, or affirms me to be racist, not even a little. Writing the words I feel it again; I kind of laugh, I shake my head, I feel nauseous: gah. The longing for innocence — the longing to have everything that comforts, excites, or affirms me be good and pure — the longing would be endearing if it weren’t so stupid. I wonder: is endearingness along with stupidity built into chagrin? I think about the concept of chagrin a lot, for all kinds of reasons. Anyway, Collette has a line somewhere that likens forcing bulbs to destroying innocence, and clearly approves both. I quoted the line, or my mangled memory of it, to a boyfriend once as I crushed an eggshell: I wanted more from him, he who was fairly chaste. Besides chagrin, I think a lot about whiteness as willful ignorance, faked innocence. I smile ruefully, and hope my friend who is black didn’t pay attention to what I was up to, though she is a smart woman. I hope our temporary pink balloon sorority, my thoughts, and all the talking and thinking and attending of the day, will help me quit my own hard-wired longing for innocence, which is to say ignorance — my longing for myself as pure good, which is to say not of this world, not even girlish pink but white as the driven snow.