I was born in Washington, D.C., at the private, non-profit Columbia Hospital for Women in 1985. Originally founded in 1866 as a charitable hospital for the desperate, pregnant wives of missing Civil War soldiers, the hospital closed permanently in 2002—you can currently buy a one-bedroom condo for $650K in the building where I was born. A two-bedroom will set you back $1.5M.
The history I have with Washington is complicated. But it is perhaps perfectly embodied by the fact that a charitable hospital for women, one where Duke Ellington was born, is now home to rich, white, liberals who prefer to discuss welfare policy over decanted Tempranillo.
I’ve lived inside the Beltway twice, first as a child in the greater metro area and later as an adult in Northwest D.C. Both times, I left a depressed, insecure mess, buoyed only by the (false) belief I’d never return. I’d be hard-pressed to limit myself to a single essay dissecting my feelings for the city that birthed me, so for now it’s enough to admit I’ve loved and loathed her in equal measure.
Thus, I find it difficult to ascertain if my original ambivalence about the Women’s March on Washington was due to my problematic history with the city itself, or the fact that the march was shaping up to be yet another way for white people to disappoint me. Idiotic of me not to remember that in this life, the two are inevitably intertwined.
There is a girl in my fourth grade class who has made it her mission to make me cry at least once a day. She is blond and perfect and perky and my teacher, who is a racist, pets her head like she is an Aryan tabby cat. Their matching blue eyes stare at my bad bowl cut and my thick glasses with the disgusted fascination I reserve for snakes and dead things I find on my walks with my chocolate lab, Jake. He is named after a chubby boy with glasses who likes to read.
I am living in Bethesda, where my family has just relocated after living in the carriage house of a tobacco plantation in southern Maryland. My mother is working insane hours as a lobbyist downtown and I am bookish and weird and used to being by myself and I don’t have many friends. We have a neighbor who works for the CIA, which I translate to mean she kills people, and I refuse to leave my parents alone in a room with her.
The mean girl has found that the easiest way to make me cry is to physically hurt me. I won’t cry when she calls me the “maid’s daughter,” (I guess because I am brown and this is the meanest thing she can say about brown skin). I won’t cry when she says I am stupid or nerdy. I won’t cry when she says I don’t resemble Jasmine, my Disney hero princess who looks kind of like me, but without glasses or a bowl cut or this small mole on my chin.
So she enlists a group of other children who are also white and perfect to push me around on the playground. Three days out of five I am able to say my stomach hurts after lunch and go to the nurse, until my racist teacher discovers the ruse and makes me go outside. Later I find out I have the beginnings of an ulcer.
One day, I am pushed, hard, onto the asphalt while playing tag. I am banned from the nurse’s offices, so I go into my classroom and wipe the blood off my knees and palms and leave the red Rorschach paper towel at my desk. I go back outside but lurk near a teacher so no one can push me again.
On the way back to the classroom, I stop to go the bathroom and dawdle, trying to draw out my final moments of freedom. I am one of the last to enter the classroom, and there is a crowd of children in front of my desk. The ache in my stomach starts pulsing.
The mean girl gingerly holds up my bloody paper towel, which is now a stiff brown. I have already been judged guilty, but she holds the evidence against my skin and shouts, “Your blood is brown like your skin, you must be a witch! Witch! Witch! Witch!” And suddenly the entire classroom is pointing at me, calling me a witch, and my teacher walks in and does nothing.
I am terribly alone in this moment and for many years to come. Aside from my mother, I will never again have an enduring, close relationship with a naturally blond woman.
A Women’s March volunteer is directing my group around the National Museum of the American Indian. Indigenous women in full regalia are holding a prayer circle next to the museum entrance while white women take their picture without permission. The crowd continues to wind around the building’s curved pathway until we hit a bottleneck that stops us completely. There are too many people. There is nowhere for us to go.
I am marching with a few close friends, my aunt, Nuzhat, my father’s partner, Laura, and my aunt’s friend. Nuzhat and Laura were both pepper-sprayed at protests in DC before I was born—my aunt at a protest against the KKK, Laura at a Vietnam War rally. They are strong women, both looking at the size of the crowd with wonder and excitement.
At some point my aunt, a former Smithsonian employee, furiously points out that women have started trampling the carefully curated indigenous plants in an effort to see above the stopped crowd. Some of them are carrying signs about climate change. Fifty feet away, Native women are passing out pamphlets about Mother Earth, their dancing feet a last physical connection to stolen land.
I am 26. I am living with a redhead in his townhouse in Northwest D.C., in an area that was 92 percent black in 1990. He is a lawyer for the federal government and has bought the house in the midst of the recession for $365K. I am sort of employed and depressed and we do not have a good relationship, but neither of us can admit it. We get a dog.
I begin working for a white woman down the street and it is the worst job of my life. She is abusive and insane and she chain smokes in her gorgeous apartment, which is one fourth of a renovated elementary school in what used to be a very poor neighborhood. I cry all the time and gain 35 pounds, but I have a dog.
My boyfriend is from the midwest and his parents (both sets, since they are divorced) do not like me one bit. They think I am a snob, although I am only trying to win their affection by telling them things about my life or my family I think will make them like me. This fails spectacularly, but they love my dog and spoil her with gifts. They never learn how to pronounce my name correctly.
We go on vacation with his family and rent a house on the beach in North Carolina. At some point, they convene wearing white shirts and khakis to take a family photo, but no one has informed me, so I (correctly) figure I am not meant to be in the family photos, despite our relationship of several years and our shared home. The dog is invited to be in some of the pictures.
Several months later, I move home to Vermont, with the dog. The redhead marries another Pakistani girl a few years later, and all I can think is I did all the hard work with his lousy family. He sells the house in 2016 for $850K and moves to Virginia. Our old neighborhood is now 72 percent black.
Scarlett Johansson is still talking and for the life of me I can’t understand why. I have been crying, standing, or walking for six hours and I am tired of waiting to march. I am ready for her to shut her pouty lips, stat. I push my friends to start moving, although one friend says, “I don’t want to be that white girl pushing people to move when I should be listening.” I appreciate this, but my lower back is on fire and I start trying to nudge us down Independence. She can be woke when my feet don’t hurt.
Suddenly Angela Davis is introduced and I’m forced to find a spot in the moving pink sea where I can firmly plant my feet. Two black girls we have been moving alongside see my awed face and make room for me to watch the Jumbotron, a light touch ushering me towards the center of the road. A young white girl walking past me loudly asks who is speaking and we death glare her into silence.
That is the last moment I feel anything other than exhausted at the march. I am grateful to be a part of something so monumental, with people I love, but I am also acutely aware every time an older white woman expects me to make way as we march. I am aware that some of the signs are painfully inappropriate for a march striving to be inclusive. Mostly I am tired and struggling to hold on to any feeling at all other than numbness.
I head home alone, walking by myself up Virginia Avenue towards my aunt’s home in the Palisades. She calls to see if I want a ride, and as she picks me up in front of the Watergate, I’m close to tears with exhaustion. I tell her, truthfully, that I’m glad I went, if for no other reason than to have been a part of something that mattered.
It takes a full 72 hours of processing before I realize I’ve succumbed to D.C.’s political nature and started performing when people ask about the march. I’m playing to my audience with every retelling instead of telling the truth—the march was inspiring and disheartening in equal measure, not unlike this damn city.
I load my car, buoyed by three bags of frozen homemade shami kebabs from my aunt, and leave before the sun comes up.
My favorite sign at the march: “We are the granddaughters of the witches you didn’t burn.”