There’s been a lot going on in the world this week. Please forgive the rather circuitous route this post will inevitably take as I mosey through some uncomfortable feels.
We’re discussing military action against another Middle Eastern country. Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech.
Last week there was a hashtag trending on Twitter called #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. As I scrolled through the tweets, I felt shame. Shame because I had heard the word intersectionality without really digging into it to understand it. The word refers (understandably) to the intersections between different groups, usually disenfranchised groups. No one is part of only one group; they all intersect somewhere. For me personally, I am a lower-class woman. While I was raised in the GLBTQ community, I am straight. My economic class has changed a bit since my childhood, and I’m one of about 10% of people in my former income bracket to break out of it. (This last bit taken from some statistics I read several years ago about the likelihood of children in poverty to change their economic class, based on the income bracket into which they were born.)
When reading the hashtag, I sat back and wondered for a minute if part of that reason is because of the color of my skin. Had I been born a lower-class Black woman or Native American woman, how would those odds have changed? Would I still have managed to beat them? These questions arose not out of a sense that my skin color of its own accord would have an effect, but whether the systematic and endemic structures of the society in which I lived would have significantly altered how I moved through the world enough to change where I am right now in a major way. I don’t know the answers to those questions. I’ve thought about privilege before. Mine. The privilege of others. I definitely have it. People assume when they look at me that I am not poor. They probably assume I’ve always had a toilet. And a home. When I speak, they’ll assume I’ve had an education.
When I was teaching special education in Anacostia, my Black students thought I had money. They live in a city where the lines of class and race are drawn through the neighborhoods on the very same boundaries. My students were surprised to hear that I had lived poverty. I answered their questions with as much candor as I dared. And I asked them questions in return. They told me a lot of things that teenagers probably shouldn’t have experienced.
One boy told me how he asked a white woman if she needed help with her groceries only to have her scurry away looking frightened.
Another told me how he’d seen white women cross the street when they saw him coming their direction.
A couple girls related an experience they’d had at a deli where a white person acted as though they didn’t even exist when they politely said “excuse me” and asked to get by.
People don’t greet me with assumptions like that. That’s privilege.
Back to the hashtag.
I would have liked to be able to say that I didn’t feel any discomfort reading through it. But I did. I felt shame. Not all shame is bad, though. Some shame shows you that you have something to learn — and that you should probably pay attention. The shame I felt was because I hadn’t truly delved into what feminism means to women of color — any color. I’d done the very thing they spoke of, which was to lump all women under one banner. In mentality if not necessarily in action, I had espoused that very problematic concept that “gender trumped race”* when it came to the question of feminism. It doesn’t. Black issues, Hispanic issues, Asian issues, Native American issues — ALL racial issues are worthy of attention. The experience of a Black woman living in suburbia will be different from that of a Native American girl in Billings, Montana. They’ll both be different from the experience of a Hispanic lesbian growing up in Detroit.
Where race intersects with gender, there are important things to learn.
A big part of the hashtag admonished white women to shut up and listen. While that may sound harsh, it’s not undeserved. White women have been steering the feminist tugboat for a long time.
That’s privilege again.
Maybe this blog post is counterintuitive, because maybe I ought to just shut up. But I process things through writing, and I want to be a progressive person. I want to be an inclusive person. I want all women to be taken seriously. Not just when they use Oxford diction and have a high school diploma. Not just when their skin is the same color as mine. I want equality. I want solidarity to be for all women. Women are not a monolith. Women of color are not a monolith. I can’t speak for all women. I can’t speak for all white women. I can only speak for myself and say that I want to be better at recognizing what ought to be recognized.
The same feelings that I have when I try to explain how street harassment feels to a man who doesn’t see a problem with hollering at a woman happen when women of color try to bring their experiences to the table and white women don’t see why they matter.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the I Have A Dream Speech.
We are nowhere near where we should be. That doesn’t mean we haven’t come a long way, but it does mean there’s a long way to go. There are things I know about, and there are things I don’t. The latter outweighs the former in a big way.
I read somewhere today that in order to become an ally, you have to be willing to see the injustice that others face. It’s easy for me to see how the way some men talk to me is evidence of sexism — they’d never speak to my husband that way. He doesn’t walk down the same streets that I do. But it’s not always as easy for me to see racism as clearly.
When I watched the VMA performance that shall not be named, I thought, “Okay, this is pretty racist.” But I couldn’t articulate why. It took reading blogs and reactions from Black women for me to get a handle on it, and even then, they extrapolated things out of it that I hadn’t put into words. I’d noticed that the Black women dressed as teddy bears were used as props — I didn’t take it a step farther to see how their bodies were made into tropes and stereotypes of Black sexuality. Because I didn’t grow up as a member of a group that is stereotyped as being overly sexual, lascivious, wanton. That is my privilege. I didn’t fully grasp the cultural appropriation happening.
That’s the rub, isn’t it? The phrase cultural sensitivity comes to mind as appropriate because our experiences make us sensitive toward certain things. Without those experiences, we have to actively cultivate sensitivity. It doesn’t happen over night, and it doesn’t poof into our psyche, either.
This whole blog post is probably a jumble of thoughts. I don’t really feel like I’m saying anything earth-shattering. I do know that today of all days is a good day to listen just a bit more attentively. So I’m going to shut up now.
Here are some links if you feel like reading more about any of this.
*The quote is something Mikki said in this article: Mikki Kendall discusses where the hashtag came from
Also, everyone should watch Javon Johnson’s powerful recitation of this poem he wrote:
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