The day after Donald Trump took his oath of office, people came out in droves to make history and protest for women’s rights. Somewhere between 3.6 million and 4.6 million protesters nationwide showed up, according to The New York Times. But in the days leading up to, and in the days after, the march, some people of color are continuing to talk about their discomfort with the event. Jamilah Lemieux, a programming executive for a media company, wrote about why she didn’t attend the march, civil rights activist Johnetta Elzie published poem on Teen Vogue asking white women where they’ve been in the struggle for equality for black women, and Jenna Wortham at The New York Times Magazine wrote about the whiteness of the crowds, and questioned the women—including women of color—who didn’t attend.
The conversation was sparked too, by a photo of Amir Talai, a Persian-American actor, holding up a sign at the Los Angeles protest that read “I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next #blacklivesmatter march right?” I spoke with Talai about his sign, and his reaction to it going viral.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Collier Meyerson: How did the idea for that sign come to you?
Amir Talai: I’ve always noticed white people being hesitant or resistant to getting involved in Black Lives Matter. But it really struck me when, in the days before the march, I read a couple things by Jamilah Lemieux and Ijeoma Oluo and they were both like, “I support the march, I’m glad it’s happening, but I’m not gonna be there because I’m hurt over the people who have not paid attention to black pain and the Black Lives Matter movement for these years.” I really related to that.
I’ve been involved in Black Lives Matter and caring about Black Lives Matter for a year and a half or two years. That’s nothing, really. I wasn’t saying anything about police brutality five years ago. It took this movement by black people to wake me up to it. And so it felt galling that people didn’t care about getting into the streets until it affected them directly. I wanted to echo black organizers and protesters directly. I supported the march. I didn’t want to be there as an anti-march person, but I wanted to let people know people have been marching for a while. And this effort can be continually put to good use.
I was also thinking about the term “nice white ladies.” Some people thought that was condescending coming from a man. I actually thought long and hard about that. I thought about how people of color are always policed by tone. So I decided to go over-the-top nice about it, using “ladies” over women and putting in “nice.” I went far with it on purpose. I want to acknowledge that you [white women] are allies here and I’m not in opposition. I don’t want it to be aggressive or angry—it’s more assertive and confrontational—but I was trying to approach it as one teammate to another.
CM: A lot of people of color are talking about the marches they attended being overwhelmingly white. Is that how it felt in Los Angeles?
AT: Since I’m an actor, I mostly come into contact with white people. And since I live in West Hollywood, I mostly come into contact with white people. The march felt, to me, like my everyday life, which is to say it’s not diverse enough. It’s crazy, I’ll go days without seeing a black person. It’s LA. You think it would be more integrated. But in a lot of ways it’s surprisingly not. I saw plenty of people of color but it definitely felt like it was overwhelmingly white.
CM: You made an assumption about what the crowd would look like. And then it came to pass. How did that feel?
AT: The march was both exciting and inspiring, and also a let down. Inspiring in the sense that so many people got out into the streets. But what is disappointing is that an overwhelming majority of those people are not going to get back out. There are people who have been demonstrating for months and years and they will continue to do so. And there are people who never have and never will again. But you wanna get that sliver of people [who will] and mobilize them. Make them understand that their voice matters and that they are appreciated, and make sure that they keep coming out and not just for feel-good marches of solidarity but for the work that is intersectional, for the work that is more difficult and confrontational. It’s tough because we’ve all got limited resources as far as time and money and heart, so it’s natural to care more about the stuff that affects you the most directly. But there are so many opportunities to show up for other people and to understand that showing up for other people is showing up for yourself. I feel like intersectionality has to be constantly demanded because, if not, people will fall back onto looking out for themselves.
CM: What were some reactions to the sign at the march?
AT: I got a lot of white women giving me thumbs up and patting me on the back, laughing, and telling me “It’s a great sign.” I didn’t get anyone angry. A lot of friends have shared the post with their friends and told me that their friends have said things like, “I saw this sign and it really upset me, but I thought more about it and I haven’t been doing enough.” That’s really cool that they were uncomfortable in the moment and then sat on it. No one actually opposed it, though I know I must have gotten a lot of sideways glances. A lot of black people at the march told me it was great and said, “I appreciate you saying that.” It felt good to show up for them.
Some black people were mad, saying, “As a black person, I couldn’t get away with that sign.” And they’re probably right. And because they can’t, someone like me has to do it. A lot of people thought I was white and that was interesting because some were angry that a white person would have the gall to stand with a black person in that way. But a lot of other people who are black were happy to have an ally. As a person of color who is fairly light-skinned, I’m able to skate a middle ground.
CM: OK, the march happened. What’s your next move?
AT: I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m plugged into Indivisible; I’m plugged into Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero. Right now, the way I’m thinking about it is to try to dedicate two hours a day to resistance. And that’ll come in a bunch of different forms. A lot of people are getting these emails that are like “Here are four things you can do today.” I think you just have to do something. So many people are like, “I wanna get educated about the issues before I jump in.” We don’t have time for that, we have to start moving. And course correct if you need to.
Amir Talai is an actor. His next movie, The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, comes out in April.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.