Twenty-five years ago, a group of white academic feminists worked to bring Akron’s women’s history physically back to their community in the form of a plaque dedicated to Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. These activists were white because few, if any, African-American women were involved in the contemporary (second wave) feminist movement in academia and certainly not at the University of Akron. They were too busy fighting for civil rights and survival.
The women who petitioned city government to put up the plaque wanted to promote women’s history, and Sojourner Truth was the most famous piece of women’s history that Akron could claim. It didn’t occur to them that she was more important for her stand against slavery and black oppression than as an icon of women’s history. From their perspective, from where they stood in the context of time and place, they were achieving something wonderful for all of Akron’s women. Unfortunately, and naively, they didn’t reach out to their black sisters to share in remembering Sojourner Truth—not only for her place in women’s history but also in the history of the black struggle in America.
I’m not excusing their insensitivity. I am, however, conceding that the idea of the “great white savior” was alive and well in those early years of the feminist movement and, whether acknowledged or not, it was part of our collective mindset.
But it is now 2018. The wrongness of appropriating cultural icons has been well established. Akron has a vibrant African-American leadership. And yet, last week the city witnessed another group of well-meaning and creative white women create and dedicate a tribute to Sojourner Truth without consulting the city’s black community. Good intentions are no longer a sufficient justification for insensitivity. Racism, whether overt or implied, damages progress toward a truly egalitarian and inclusive society. More than ever, we are responsible for thinking beyond good intentions.
Real inclusiveness is messy. Differing perspectives and ideas challenge us and force us to compromise; they make the job more difficult. But, in the end, we would have not just good intentions but good outcomes. “Ain’t that worth the effort?”