Commentary Race

Calling in Nancy Pelosi: Letter From White Women Asks House Minority Leader to Apologize to Maxine Waters

Jodi Jacobson

More than 3,700 white women have signed a letter calling on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to apologize for recent remarks aimed at silencing Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Since Monday morning, more than 3,700 white women have signed a letter calling on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to apologize for recent remarks widely viewed as intended to silence Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA). The letter is printed in full below.

Waters has been a persistent and vocal critic of President Trump and his administration, repeatedly calling for Trump’s impeachment. In June, as the ramifications of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, including the separation of immigrant children from their parents, became clear, and as several administration officials faced public protests, Waters suggested that her constituents also publicly confront and shame administration officials wherever possible.

“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd,” Waters said at an event in Los Angeles. “And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

In response, and amid calls by Democratic House and Senate leadership for “civility,” Pelosi apparently chastised Waters via Twitter on June 25th. At a time when the president of the United States and his supporters are seemingly doing everything they can to stoke racial animus, Pelosi’s criticism of Waters was not kindly received.

“When you attack a Black woman for speaking out about injustice, and when you call for ‘civility’ in the face of blatant racism, you invoke a long history of white supremacist power,” the letter to Pelosi states. It continues:

Why should Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen get to walk through a ceaselessly accommodating world, unchallenged by the public, never being forced to grapple with their daily complicity in what will be—what is already being—judged as a particularly dark moment in the history of our country? They are white women backing racist, xenophobic policies, and to ask that your colleague act “appropriately” at a time like this only serves to sustain white supremacy.

Full disclosure: I am a signatory to this letter.

“It was fully predictable that Rep. Waters’ political opponents would demonize and denigrate her,” Jessica Arons, a lawyer and one of the drafters of the letter, told Rewire.News. “But it is unacceptable for progressive and moderate leaders to criticize Waters” for her response to the racist policies of this administration. “Maxine Waters was speaking truth to power,” said Arons. “For Pelosi to criticize Waters like that not only undermines Waters’ authority and makes her more vulnerable in a hostile and violent political environment, it impedes the ability of the citizens of this country to hold members of the Trump administration accountable for the gross human rights violations they are perpetrating.”

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The impetus for the letter originated with Lindsey O-Pries, a consultant, who convened a small group of colleagues via a group chat to express her dismay with Pelosi’s words and to brainstorm about possible actions. The letter was signed by the original ten women convened by O-Pries and sent to Pelosi’s chief of staff on Monday morning, July 2. As of today, with the number of signatories approaching 4,000, Pelosi’s office has not acknowledged the letter, much less responded.

Sabrina Andrus, executive director of If/When/How (a network for law students and legal professionals working for reproductive justice), said in a phone call that the letter was intended to provide a public statement of “frustration and anger and a means of white women ‘calling in’ another white woman who made a serious mistake in trying to silence a Black colleague. We wanted to make a public statement that would start a conversation, and hopefully lead to a public apology from Pelosi.”

“It’s both a call-in and a call to action,” said Andrus about the letter.

“Calling in” is a term used by those in the progressive community who want to address a problem or mistake through education and dialogue, rather than shaming. “The difference between calling in and calling out is one of tone and of intent,” said Andrus. “It’s supposed to be the starting point to a conversation.”

“I tend to see ‘calling out’ as more performative,” Andrus continued. “When I think of the difference between calling in and calling out, the latter feels like a performance and makes me question the intent of the person; is it just to show you are ‘woke,’ or are you trying to have a dialogue and actually do the work of addressing the issues or problems?”

“The letter was the most effective way to create accountability in a public venue,” Arons added. “It opens an opportunity for dialogue and hopefully becomes a teachable moment.”

What is the goal? “We hope we get what we asked for,” said Andrea Grimes, communications and development manager at If/When/How and a former Rewire. News reporter, “which is for Pelosi to respond in a positive and supportive way to Maxine Waters.”

“We are asking her to offer an apology and even further to think about how her civility comments are situated within the wide context of white supremacy,” Grimes said. “And since I am a constituent of Pelosi’s, for me it is a very practical ask of someone who is my voice in Washington. I really want her to be better about this. She is the person I have to rely on for that voice. I would love to see her offer that apology and promise to make change. Getting a meeting with her office to discuss this would be ideal.”

“There is tremendous power in admitting you’ve made a mistake,” Andrus said. “And that you’ve learned something and have been educated. We are all fed up with politics as usual and politicians as usual. It could be very powerful for Pelosi to apologize and say publicly, ‘I’ve messed up. I’ve learned why and what it means, and I will do better going forward.’ It seems like we’ve lost the ability to admit when we’ve made a mistake.”

Moreover, noted Arons, “it’s not smart politics. The Democratic leadership gives a lot of lip service to appreciating and supporting women of color, especially African American women who have delivered victory time and again [in elections], yet here was an opportunity to support a Black woman, and instead she was undermined.”

Waters’ staff has seen the letter and thanked the organizers for their support.

“We showed up and we did something,” said Andrus. “So often we worry about making a misstep. Having a bias to action and showing up can be really powerful. White silence is complicity, and the fear of getting it perfect does not do anyone any favors.”

The letter is still open for new signatures. You can sign your name here

During the course of reporting, we found that a second letter, from Black women leaders, was sent to Pelosi on July 3. Rewire.News will report on this separately.

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Dear Representative Pelosi,

We are writing to you today to ask you to do better.

We, like you, are white women who care deeply about the direction in which our country is headed, and who believe that inaction in the face of oppression is unacceptable. Because we share those goals, we hope and expect that you will do the work to understand why we are so deeply disappointed and angry about your recent statements regarding your colleague, Representative Maxine Waters. We urge you to consider how you can better use your power to support Representative Waters and the struggle for liberation for all Americans.

When you attack a Black woman for speaking out about injustice, and when you call for “civility” in the face of blatant racism, you invoke a long history of white supremacist power. Writing Black women’s words off as divisive, and chastising them for raising the alarm on unjust behavior, is not merely condescending—it echoes racist tropes that have been used for centuries to dehumanize Black people and support the structures that maintain discrimination.

White women have been culpable throughout history for acting—or, just as shamefully, not acting—in ways that support white supremacy. Suffragist and first woman Senator Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton exemplified this ugly history when she used race as a tool to rally reluctant white women to the cause of women’s suffrage, saying: “I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all.”

To our great discredit, white women continue to act far too often in ways that support white supremacy, even when it is to our detriment. Time and time again, we have seen women of color show up to the polls to support progressive politics, while white women cling to the regressive, and often racist, politics and politicians who long for yesteryear.

But of course, racism and sexism are inextricably intertwined even in the America of 2018, a place where the perceived fragility of white women is still weaponized and deployed in order to initiate and justify racialized violence. This must stop, and you can help lead that charge. But when you chide Representative Waters for bravely and passionately speaking up for the most marginalized, you’re on the wrong side of history.

Why should Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen get to walk through a ceaselessly accommodating world, unchallenged by the public, never being forced to grapple with their daily complicity in what will be—what is already being—judged as a particularly dark moment in the history of our country? They are white women backing racist, xenophobic policies, and to ask that your colleague act “appropriately” at a time like this only serves to sustain white supremacy.

The concept of respect is culturally mediated; there is no single, objective standard. It is only through the lens of white supremacy that civil disobedience (which by its very name utilizes civility as a strategy for social change) or, for that matter, any disobedience, no matter how polite, is converted into “uncivil” behavior. It is why the simple act of quietly sitting at a lunch counter was seen as explosively disruptive by those “good white people” who just wanted to have a peaceful meal, uninterrupted by the inconvenient and uncomfortable truth that they were perpetuating oppression and injustice by enforcing and benefitting from segregation. Indeed, change in this country has often come only after what people of privilege have historically deemed “uncivil” behavior: Taking to the streets, boycotts, the occupation of public spaces, the refusal to remain polite in the face of both institutionalized and interpersonal bigotry.

There is a broad chasm between discomfort and death, a chasm that white folks seem incapable of seeing—and which people of color cannot avoid. Sarah Sanders was asked politely to leave a restaurant. In contrast, Representative Waters has received ever-escalating threats, some so serious that they’ve led her to cancel public appearances. Do we need to spell out the horrifying —and deeply undemocratic—implications of a Black congresswoman who cannot organize among her constituents without fearing for her life? This is what we create when we put out calls for civility and chastise marginalized people for speaking up. We make it clear where our loyalties lie.

We sincerely hope that you can take a moment and learn from this, that you offer an apology to Representative Waters, and that, in the future, you stand shoulder to shoulder with her as we work together to fix what is so clearly broken in this country. White supremacy is wrapped on the roots and branches of our story, and it is up to us to remove it.

As of July 4th at 3:45 p.m., there were more than 3,700 signatories, and they continue to come in. For this reason, we have not tried to replicate the list; signatures and the full letter can be found here.

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