There’s long been a relentless stain on the American feminist movement. It reared its head when Susan B. Anthony threatened to cut off her arm before she would “ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman,” and again when the “#MeToo” movement was attributed to every famous white woman but its true creator, Tarana Burke. And who can forget its appearance when Donald Trump ran for presidency on a platform that alienated Muslims, women, and people of color, yet successfully secured 53 percent of white women’s votes? This mark, easily the biggest hindrance to women’s fight for equality, is white feminism — and Rachel Cargle is here to make it a thing of the past.
An activist, writer, and entrepreneur, Cargle works ardently to educate white women about privilege, allyship, and the necessity for intersectional feminism. Her mission has been shaped by her experience as a Black woman and rearing by a mother with a disability, but also by her upbringing in an all-white suburb in Akron, Ohio. It was after she realized how many of her white peers from her childhood were Trump supporters that she was spurred to action to share her perspective, but when she created her “Unpacking White Feminism” lecture and offered to cover the costs of admission for people from her hometown, she didn’t get a single response. “Seeing so many people be willing to walk away from the opportunity to learn about their ‘friend’ and her experiences as a Black woman shows me so much about the discrepancy between nice white people and confronting the racism that exists in this country,” she says.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before her efforts would gain widespread attention thanks in part to a viral photo of herself and a friend at the Women’s March earlier this year, holding up signs calling for feminism that represented all women. Riding that momentum, she created a digital syllabus, “How to Be an Ally to Black Women,” became a regular contributor to Harper’s Bazaar, and is currently touring to deliver her lecture around the country while studying anthropology and women’s studies at Columbia University.
There are lessons to be learned from Cargle’s personal life too. After marrying during her sophomore year of college and living a lifestyle with Real Housewives-esque comfort, something told her that she would be better fulfilled elsewhere — and she listened. She and her husband divorced, she moved to the East Coast, took five months to travel the world, and took advantage of her freedom to explore her bisexuality. “Trusting my gut was the best thing I could do for myself,” she says. “When I was in my marriage I thought there was something out there for me, and now that I’m here and I know what that something was, I’m so grateful that I listened to my gut.” (With Salty having been created with Cargle’s teachings in mind, frankly, we’re grateful too.)
Even with Cargle’s triumphs, being vocal about the black woman’s experience inevitably invites blowback — it’s not uncommon for white women to get defensive about Cargle’s teachings, or for black men to chastise her stance. But these are mere blips on the radar considering the cruciality of the conversations that Cragle inspires. Here, we touch on the topics of those same discussions and more: from allyship with Black women, to rejecting society’s “timeline” for women, to Cragle’s understanding of her own bisexuality.
Salty: What personal experiences inspired you to give lectures about intersectional feminism?
Growing up in an all-white community and then us becoming adults and seeing those same friends vote for Trump, I realized I had all of these white friends who still weren’t able to grapple with my identity as a black woman and what that looks like in America. It made me realize that white people can be nice and still shitty; kindness and niceness don’t equal lack of racism.
Salty: For people who do want to become allies with black women, what are some unique aspects of our experience that they’d have to keep in mind?
One of the biggest issues with people — specifically white women — who want to be an ally to black women is recognizing our place in society. You can’t be an ally if you’re denying white privilege, white supremacy, or the very real history of the relationship between black women and white women that comes with grappling with the statement, “I am a white woman.” And with that comes the societal realities that are available to white women but not black women. I truly think that that’s one of the first parts of allyship: grappling and coming to terms with your whiteness, and seeing what that means in relationship to the black women you’re looking to be an ally to. When you scroll through your Instagram page, are you just looking at a bunch of white women who look and experience life just like you? There’s no way you can be an ally if you’re surrounded by similar experiences because then you can’t speak to, or understand, or admit to the things that black women are experiencing. So you have to look into really listening to the voices of, reading the voices of, and watching the stories of black women. When you build that understanding and empathy, then that can push you to actions. And actions look like who you’re voting for and how you interact with your own family. Are you calling out your racist grandma at the dinner table? Or actually calling out a coworker when they say something racist at the company picnic? Are you standing up for the black woman who’s being slighted at work? Be sure that you’re taking action based on the knowledge you have about the systemic realities of racism in the country.
I truly think that that’s one of the first parts of allyship: grappling and coming to terms with your whiteness, and seeing what that means in relationship to the black women you’re looking to be an ally to.
Salty: How can a black woman address a friend or romantic partner whose privilege is getting in the way of their relationship?
There’s this quote that I’ve seen floating around Instagram directed toward white women, and it says that if you have black friends that don’t talk to you about race, then you don’t have black friends. If someone of any marginalized group isn’t comfortable talking to you about that marginalized group, there’s no way that they consider you a friend. Because if there’s black men being shot in the street and I can’t confide to a white friend who happens to be there the moment I hear the news, then they’re not my friend. I don’t know the answer to that because I couldn’t fathom calling someone a friend who isn’t already aware of and willing to confront the issues that are happening. And there’s no way that a group of friends of any race right now in history could not be talking about racism. I can’t imagine how surface your relationship has to be for you not to be grappling with these things with the people in your world.
Salty: We tend to talk about white women’s allyship with black women, but what about black men who are seeking to be better allies to black women? I think there’s an assumption among black men that they understand our experiences, but that’s not quite the case.
Black men need to acknowledge black women’s work on this front, for generations. At this point they really need to put all of their weight behind the black women who are doing this work so selflessly, not just for other black women but for the black community as a whole. And until we have that full support that strips them of this odd patriarchal authority, and really allows black women to speak and lead and be heard and take actions and make change, black women will keep having to lift the weight of both white supremacy and patriarchy from black men, and I don’t have time for it anymore. I’m only here for black male feminists.
Salty: Black women have this unique position of being affected by black issues and women’s issues, but there are also problems that only we have — like the higher mortality rate of black women during maternity. I hadn’t even heard about it until Serena Williams spoke about it. When did you learn about it?
The first time I approached this topic was when Erica Garner died. There was lots of conversation around the way young Black activists are dying just because of the physical ramifications of doing this work, but also that she had just had a child. She was a victim of the Black experience in America, and that was the first time I really dove into it and did my own research. Black women [in the U.S.] have a worse survival rate in maternity than some developing countries. [Editor’s note: The World Health Organization reports that Black American mothers die at about the same rate as those in Mexico and Uzbekistan.] This is mostly attributed to underlying, racial biases within the healthcare system. So this type of conversation is crucial not only for the health of our country and our need for racism to be completely dismantled, but because it’s literally killing the bodies of Black women. While we see Black men being shot in the street, Black women are dying in what has to be the most natural thing on earth — which is to birth a child. Black [mothers] are dying at four times the rate of white [mothers]. Serena mentioned it, and then Beyoncé talked about it in her piece in Vogue, the way that Black women aren’t believed when they’re talking about their pain.
There was a piece I read that said a lot of maternity clinics are closing in rural areas, so Black women who are in these poor, rural areas have to travel three hours to get to an OB/GYN to deliver their baby or to get their necessary healthcare. It’s just an all around fucked-up situation, where Black women are dropped in this hole. Something I talk about in my lecture is this intersection of being Black and a woman. There’s an anthology, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, that talks about this black hole that Black women fall into by not being white women and not being Black men, being dismissed by the patriarchy and white supremacy. We really have to scream at the top of our lungs to be heard or seen as Black women, and that’s showing in so many areas — the biggest one being maternal healthcare. It’s so disheartening knowing that, in the moment that’s supposed to be the start of a life. How are we so far behind and so left unseen even from the beginning?
We really have to scream at the top of our lungs to be heard or seen as Black women, and that’s showing in so many areas — the biggest one being maternal healthcare.
Salty: I wonder if that’s why friendship and sisterhood is so important among Black women — only we understand each other fully. How do you see this in your own circle?
It’s honestly the safest space for me — for any Black woman I believe — to be in a room of Black women who really see you and really hear you, and really understand you on a level that no one else on the planet could. It’s so imperative, on a level of mental health, to be able to talk about that experience that other groups don’t believe, but Black women will say, “Yes, that’s happened to me!” When Serena wrote that piece, it was healing for so many Black women who were like, “I, too, wasn’t believed when I told [doctors] I was in pain, or when I told them this is what I needed.” One of the biggest perks of social media is that when stories are shared, healing happens. That’s when people become stronger and more courageous in living their life, knowing that they aren’t alone.
Salty: It feels like society has this “timeline” for all women but you took it upon yourself to do what worked for you, ending a marriage when you found out it wasn’t what you wanted out of it.
There’s so much pressure for women to move along this timeline of graduating, meeting a guy, waiting for him to propose, getting a job, and having kids. I often thank younger Rachel for making the decisions that she made because it gave me so much courage to make other decisions down the line. I’m really grateful for my willingness to not need the approval of everyone all the time, and just really trusting my gut because trusting my gut has gotten me so many places.
Salty: When did you get married, and what led to your divorce?
After graduating high school, I went to the University of Toledo — well, I followed a boy there — but then I met someone else, he proposed, and I got married my sophomore year. We had a pretty good marriage, and we left Toledo and moved to Dayton. He made a ton of money. I stayed home and didn’t have to work. We were driving BMWs. It looked like what every girl dreams of. I was super comfortable for a good year, and then I was just like, “I don’t want this anymore.” So I left. I moved to Washington, D.C. and was there for three years, and now I’ve been in New York for almost four years.
Salty: How did you come to make that decision?
I just always trusted myself. I remember very distinctly, I was walking our dog and thinking in my brain, “There’s something more. This is cool but there has to be something else, and the fact that I’m thinking of something means that it’s probably there.” I just remember thinking often that I couldn’t let everyone else be enamored with this man taking care of me, define me, when I knew that there had to be something more that I was capable of. The thing is, it wasn’t a bad marriage. It was great. We had fun. But I just trusted my gut, and that decision really grew my self-trust. I have no problems trusting [myself] these days. Now, if someone invites me on a podcast and it just doesn’t feel right, I say no without questioning myself.
Salty: Were you openly bisexual even when you were married, or have you embraced it more recently?
It was after my marriage. I got married pretty young and only dated a few people, and they were all men, so I didn’t really have a chance to explore more. But once I got divorced, and especially when I moved to New York City, I was swiping on Tinder and I was like, “Oh, I wonder….”. I definitely found girls attractive but I never interacted with women in a romantic way. And so I did, and it was one of the best experiences of my life, honestly. I’m really grateful that I gave myself that opportunity to explore both her and myself, and to put myself in a situation where I could really get an understanding of my own sexuality and other women in general — we’re just such diverse, complex people. It was one of the best experiences to learn about myself, to understand womanhood deeper, and even understand who I am in a relationship — whether it’s with a man or a woman. I just got a better understanding of how I relate romantically.
I’m really grateful that I gave myself that opportunity to explore both her and myself, and to put myself in a situation where I could really get an understanding of my own sexuality and other women in general — we’re just such diverse, complex people.
Salty: Do you find that the representation of bisexuality in the media is accurate for your experience?
Something that I realized about myself — and I’m trying to see where that fits into the path of bisexuality — is that I’m incredibly sexually attracted to women, but I don’t think I would want to be in a relationship with a woman. But I definitely would have sex with a woman any day of the week. So do I get to call myself bisexual? Or is this just me being attracted to women? Is that a thing? Am I attracted to all humans but only enjoy a romantic relationship with a man? Or have I just not met the right woman?
It’s very hard for anyone to come to definitive terms about their sexuality, but I think that it definitely is so heartbreaking to see people boil down bisexuality to where I have bisexual girl friends who are married to men, and then people erase their bisexuality because they decided to marry a man. And so there’s so much complication to it, and I’m grateful that I’ve given myself the space to explore it, but there’s still so much that I need to understand. I just really hope that people just aren’t so dumb all the time. [Laughs] Sexuality is hard, why are we putting so much pressure on each other? Zero things blow my mind more — well, white women, but besides that — nothing blows my mind more than someone who cares about who someone else is having sex with. But I’m so happy that I have the opportunity to explore my sexuality in a very open way, especially as someone who grew up in a church where that was not the topic of conversation.