We’ve been talking a lot about what it’s like to be a woman working in politics in Lansing – a long overdue conversation that is finally shedding some light on the sexual harassment, toxic workplaces and abusive bosses that chased all too many of us out of jobs we loved and excelled at.
And, as is almost always the case, what we have been talking about by and large is the experience of being a white woman working in politics. I’ve been working in and around Lansing and state politics since 2003. I’ve been a light-skinned Chicana my whole life. My passing gives me a position of privilege many of my BIPOC colleagues do not share – and also gives me access to spaces I would likely otherwise struggle to enter. So for nearly two decades I’ve had a bird’s eye view of the system that consistently prioritizes the needs of white women.
How does this happen?
There’s not a cabal that meets and decides to address only the issues impacting non-BIPOC women most. At least, not intentionally.
Instead, the assumptions that erase the needs of Black women and women of color from the list of legislative priorities are baked into the system in Lansing. In both chambers, caucus leaders are white. In both chambers, the staff of those leaders – especially the high level staff with influence over strategy and the caucus agenda – are predominantly white.
And this is what we get as a reliable, disheartening result: Every year, like clockwork, the proclamations and press releases recognizing Equal Pay Day provide a clear example of the subduction of the reality facing BIPOC women beneath the umbrella of “all women.” The announcements always point out that this is the day in the year when women catch up to men in wages.
But it’s really not. Black women don’t reach pay equity until months later, and Latinx and Indigenous women almost make it to the New Year before their pay catches up.
The framing and the pattern repeats for any issue that focuses on women: We hear from an expert that X policy is important because it solves Y problem impacting women. There’s usually a long explanation of the problem, a handful of bullets with some relevant data and a statistic showing how this problem has a negative impact on the economy. At the very end, tacked on, is some variation of, “And it’s even worse for Black women.”
The implication is clear: When we say all women, we mean white women, and assume it’s more or less the same for everyone else. Or, worse, we assume that any policy making life better for white women will automatically provide a trickle-down benefit for women of color. The 19th Amendment shows us how faulty – and how generationally devastating – that assumption is.
At the same time we are witnessing – up close – the creation and support of policies that won’t help our communities – and often times deliberately ignore our communities – we are also asked to give a pass to leaders who ally with white supremacists, harbor problematic viewpoints on race equity, or have caused demonstrable harm to our communities.
This is, of course, something that happens every day for women in politics. But commonly, when it’s about race, we lose the allyship of our white colleagues, and have to endure a repeat of every defense of Democratic former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, but for someone in blackface.
And that’s also a clue as to why more BIPOC women don’t go on the record when it comes to their experiences with sexual harassment, like with former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero or Democratic consultant T.J. Bucholz: We don’t enjoy the same solidarity with our white colleagues as they do with each other. The ranks don’t close around us – they close to us.
At the same time, our struggles and our crises are politically expedient for opportunistic campaigns.
Think back to the push to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan. How many times did you hear the argument that this was about social justice, about ensuring that people wouldn’t spend their lives in prison for having the cannabis equivalent of a couple beers in their backpack? It’s hard to argue against anything that could dismantle some of the hold the carceral state enjoys on Black and Brown bodies.
I wanted to be optimistic. My partner, however, called it. As soon as the votes were counted, Black folks were still sitting in prison for nonviolent marijuana possession offenses, and the mostly white folks who were using their bodies and their plights to round up support were nowhere to be found. It’s been 18 months since that election, and there still hasn’t been any substantive moves to expunge those records or free incarcerated folks. Meanwhile, the licenses to legally sell marijuana have been snapped up by, you guessed it, mostly white folks.
Working in Lansing as a woman of color is a daily exercise in death by a thousand cuts. We see our issues diminished and ignored; we are forced to help advance the careers of people who actively harm us; and our bodies are used as bait to accomplish something; and the switch means we never really benefit.
I guess you could say it’s a lot like being a woman in politics. And for Black women and other women of color, it’s even worse.