We Can’t End Sexism Without Addressing Racism and Inequality

You can’t work on gender justice without addressing racial and economic justice. That’s the position Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner takes in her brilliant new book Keep Marching: How Every Woman Can Change Our World and in her work as Co-Founder and Executive Director of MomsRising.org, a grassroots organization with over a million members.

Keep Marching is essentially a beginner’s guide to women’s activism. Former Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards called it “a perfect primer for women everywhere.”

Following the Women’s March, there was tremendous momentum and urgency to take action. In the nearly two years that followed, many are wondering “what’s next”. Keep Marching offers accessible, meaningful and realistic next steps.

Here are some of Rowe-Finkbeiner’s first steps to getting (and staying) engaged:

1. Be in conversation with your own implicit bias.

Recognize that in order to fight against discrimination in all forms, we must simultaneously address both structural racism (the external) and implicit bias (the internal).

“Just one way of fighting isn’t going to work. We have to look at ourselves as we also look outward.” Rowe-Finkbeiner cautions. If we focus exclusively on the structural systems of racism, it lets us off the hook for doing the work on ourselves.

Rowe-Finkbeiner explains that this isn’t easy, particularly in light of the pressure from social media to provide a perfect presentation of ourselves. Social media makes it more difficult to acknowledge our own imperfections and implicit bias – to have those difficult conversations.

Implicit bias is integrated fully into everything we experience within the US, into our very culture. “Nobody’s exempt,” she says, “Don’t be afraid of your internal implicit biases, be in conversation with them.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner’s book strives to be a starting point for her readers – particularly white women – to do the work of recognizing bias within ourselves.

2. Get uncomfortable, and know you’ll make mistakes.

Younger people regularly ask Rowe-Finkbeiner how she got to where she is today and what advice she can provide.

multi-racial group of women meet with white men in business setting

She answers readily, “I’m a work in progress. I’m a series of many, many, many failures. If dealing with discrimination in all its forms – structural, cultural, personal – were easy, we would’ve fixed it a long time ago. We need to screw up, because trying the same stuff isn’t gonna work.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner is quick to point out that we know the policies that are effective when it comes to gender, racial, and economic justice. When paid family leave, healthcare for all, pay transparency and more are universally accessible at all pay levels, she believes we’ll see tremendous differences at a structural level.

But again, she insists, we need both those external/structural changes and the internal ones.

In Keep Marching, Rowe-Finkbeiner describes her own experience with internal bias – referencing a speech she gave in which a woman in the audience pushed back on the data she shared and asked about statistics that were specific to people of color.

Rowe-Finkbeiner was mortified. She realized that because she had used aggregated data for “all women”, the far worse experience of huge parts of the population weren’t effectively captured in the data she shared.

In her words, “I realized I had erased entire communities. It was not okay. It was a big mistake and a learning experience I took into the future.” She encourages white women to acknowledge their mistakes and share them with one another.

3. Initiate conversations – a step that’s particularly important for white women.

While the book is geared toward people of all races, Rowe-Finkbeiner believes it’s imperative that white women take responsibility for their part in this work. She often uses her own identity as a white woman to talk to other white women.

Her recent opinion piece for CNN, White women like me, we need to talk (about not calling the police) went viral. To Rowe-Finkbeiner, this “Shows the need. There’s a thirst out there that I hear from white women like me to dig in deep and talk about how to dismantle white supremacy.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner asks three key questions:

  • How do we as white women recognize where gender justice, racial justice and economic justice are all intertwined?
  • How do we as white women look at our roles and take responsibility for dismantling the harm that discrimination causes in our nation and our world?
  • How can we be a part of a multifaceted solution?

In posing these questions, Rowe-Finkbeiner makes clear that these are open questions for her as well. She peppers the phrase “white women like me” throughout her speeches and conversations, demonstrating that she’s in this too.

She’s also quick to point out that there’s both a lot of work to do and that this doesn’t mean white women should always be leading or that we should be centering themselves in every conversation.

“It means looking for the leadership of women of color who – since beginning of our nation – have led many of our strongest movements and following,” Rowe-Finkbeiner explains. “It means having really difficult conversations with other white people and sometimes getting quite uncomfortable.”

When I asked her about how to navigate that discomfort, she stressed an idea that was particularly powerful – the idea of scale. Our discomfort as white women in navigating these conversations pales in comparison to the risk of violence and trauma people of color experience as a result of these systems of oppression.

4. Remember, listening isn’t the same as agreeing.

In American society, Rowe-Finkbeiner recognizes that we often stop talking at the point of disagreement. This is the point where, she says, “true openings can happen.”

When talking with someone who disagrees, she suggests you could begin the conversation by acknowledging the potential for disagreement, saying something like, “I’m pretty sure you and I disagree. I’d love to hear more about what you think and share my opinion. I’d love to talk and have this conversation even if it’s hard.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner stresses that engaging meaningfully in conversation with someone you disagree with doesn’t make you complicit. She says we need to understand that “listening and holding onto your moral compass are not mutually exclusive.”

Sometimes, a person’s perspective will be what she calls “jaw-droppingly nauseating”, but she stresses that you can listen and take deep breaths, all while holding onto your own values or “moral compass”.

There’s often a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness when it comes to addressing the magnitude of the challenges we face in American society. Far from sugarcoating the problems we face, Keep Marching provides a powerful understanding of the impact of sexism, racism, and systemic inequality.

Still the book has a powerful sense of optimism. It carries a hopeful perspective, one in which the work is hard, worthwhile, and full of possibility.