racism

Join the Fight for Reproductive Justice!

Like many of you, I am enraged and overwhelmed by the recent abortion bans. The politicians who have proposed and passed these bills are certainly not pro-life; if they were, they would instead be passing bills to increase access to prenatal care, to address the horrific fact that women of color in the United States are 2 to 6 times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy than white women, and to allot more money for social services for new parents, such as paid parental leave, affordable childcare, lactation support, and postpartum doulas.

In fact, these recent bills, with inclusions like limiting birth control options and mandating scientifically impossible surgeries, aren’t even focused on ending abortion. If that were the true motive here, we would instead be seeing legislation that addresses the root cause of abortion: unwanted pregnancy. But addressing this root cause would require acknowledging the fact that pregnancy happens only when a man’s semen is ejaculated into a woman’s body. Women can’t get pregnant from their own orgasms. Women can’t even get pregnant from having intercourse with men. Women can only get pregnant from men ejaculating inside of them. But how dare I suggest the passing of any kind of law that would regulate a penis?

So no, the intention is not to support life nor end abortion. The intention – which is being shouted loudly and clearly and with pride – is to control women, especially women of color, and to overturn Roe v Wade. It feels like a war has been waged on us.

kyhealthjusticeBut now is not the time to give in to anxiety and hopelessness. There are fierce people on the ground across these key states taking huge risks to fight back and do the work. We must support them. Here are some organizations and clinics to consider donating to or volunteering for:

  • NARAL – nationwide but heavily involved in GA, OH, and AL
  • Planned Parenthood – providing essential health services to women at low costs across the country, plus here’s a link to their “Get Involved” page which recommends other great actions to take
  • NYAAF – based in NY but helps women across the US find access to providers
  • National Network of Abortion Funds – nationwide, provides funding for abortions and transportation to offices and clinics
  • Women’s Health West Virginia – one of the few, maybe the only, women’s clinic in WV that provides abortion services
  • KY Health Justice Network – developed by women and people of color, providing support, education and outreach to Kentuckians to build reproductive justice, and includes services geared towards transpeople
  • Arc Southeast – provides support (financial assistance, lodging, travel) to those in need of reproductive care of all types, in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee

Another great way to fight back is to support progressive women running for office in the middle and southern states. You can donate and volunteer for campaigns even from the other side of the world. Here are some names to keep up with as they run for reelection or office for the first time:

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  • Stacey Abrams (GA; pictured) – narrowly (and suspiciously) lost the election for GA governor, she’s amazing and definitely one to follow, the best way to keep up with her right now is on Twitter
  • Kelsey Coots (KY) – ran for KY State Auditor but lost the primary, we are now awaiting her next move
  • Lauren Underwood (IL) – recently elected to US House of Reps, let’s keep her there
  • Amy McGrath (KY) – not running right now but narrowly lost in 2018 and is expected to run for something in 2020 (maybe a McConnell opponent??)
  • Brigid Kelly (OH) – current representative in Ohio’s state house, let’s keep her there

Also stay tuned to Emily’s List, a great organization working to get pro-choice, Democratic women into offices across the country.

While there is plenty of work to do, please remember to take care of yourself. For many of us, this war on women is frightening and triggering. But we have to be in it for the long haul, through the 2020 election and beyond, which means pacing ourselves and practicing self care every step along the way.

If reading the news feels like too much, don’t read it. Instead, if you’re financially able, consider setting up a monthly donation to one of the above organizations so that you can contribute regularly to the fight without stressing yourself out. And if you need to check out for a day, a week, a month, do it. But please, come back ready.

 

Photo Credits:
1. Reproductive Justice, taken from Reflections Journal
2. KY Health Justice Network logo
3. Stacey Abrams, by Audra Melton

A Message to White Progressives

We call ourselves progressive, but what are we actually doing to progress our society toward a more just and equal future?


Too many children across our country open their history textbooks to a page like the one pictured above. I understand that most parents want to protect their children’s innocence for as long as possible, but when we use language like “brought millions of workers” to teach our kids about this country’s history – about the way white people kidnapped people of color, stole them from their homes and forced them to work in brutal conditions for masters who committed horrible atrocities against them – we are not protecting our children’s innocence. We are not making them safer. We are not helping them. Instead, this language – this lie – is protecting, saving, and helping white supremacy. And in teaching these lies over and over, we have created generations of adults who don’t understand how our history connects to our present, how the fact that our country was established on the idea that white people are inherently better than everyone else means that our black and brown neighbors are still being systematically oppressed and murdered.

I’m not saying we need to share every gruesome detail with our eight-year-old kids. But we do need to tell them the truth in terms that they can process. Let’s start with “enslaved people” instead of “workers,” for example, and “stole” instead of “brought.” I understand the desire to present our children with a world full of peace and love, but instead of pretending like that’s true, let’s make it true. Right now, eight-year-old children of color are being forcefully separated from their parents. They are starving in cells where they’re held without reason. They are witnessing the violent shootings of their fathers and uncles, often committed by police officers who are supposed to be protecting them. Compared to this reality, using words like “enslaved people” and “stolen” when talking to young white children is nothing.

The fact that we recently elected such a diverse Congress filled with various races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual orientations is thrilling to me. Representation matters, and voting for these candidates was huge. I do believe our children will benefit positively from growing up with this. But y’all, we have so much more to do! Voting in diverse people was step one. Now we need to demand legislation to end gerrymandering and reform our election processes – two ways in which the U.S. government currently operates against BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color). We need to call the principals at our kids’ schools and review the way slavery and race relations is taught. We need to write emails to textbook publishers and explain why pages like the one above are not acceptable. In an age where so many of us are always on our phones, there’s no excuse for not regularly calling, emailing, or posting on social media about these issues.

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Original t-shirt available now at Black on Black.

We also need to recognize that while these actions are important, altering our system from within isn’t enough. In order to be true allies, we need to put our bodies and our money where our tweets are. We need to show up at Black Lives Matter protests, patron local businesses run by BIPOC, donate to their organizations, read their books, visit their art exhibits, buy their music. Don’t think of these efforts as a one-and-done situation, but rather plan out how you can incorporate this into your regular routine. Maybe Sunday brunch can be at a local, black-owned restaurant like Daleview Biscuits and Beer. Or maybe all your friends can get birthday presents from a company like Black on Black. Or maybe instead of going to the same club every Saturday, you can try a new place featuring DJs of color. Taking action doesn’t have to feel like work.

But you know what does, and probably should, feel like work? The self-analyzation that needs to come along with these external acts. Healing our country requires that we white people look honestly inside ourselves, that we dig deep to figure out what’s buried in there from our own childhoods. A good starting point is to think back to what you were taught about the discovery of our country, our founding fathers, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, and/or the Great Migration. What did your textbooks say? Hell, I wasn’t taught about Jim Crow or the Great Migration in school, but when I think back to my elementary social studies classes, lessons on slavery were definitely brief and always ended with how Abraham Lincoln, a white man, was a savior. Lessons on our founding fathers similarly focused on their positive traits, how they were strong, smart, and brave. And the pilgrims were to be heralded as the bravest of all because they fled persecution in their homeland, found a new home, fought for it, and flourished.

Now, let’s reframe these lessons using more honest words. For example, the pilgrims didn’t just fight for their new home, they actually committed genocide, or, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group” – i.e., the Native Americans. And our founding fathers may have been strong, smart, and brave in some ways, but they were also terrorists, as in, they “advocated and practiced the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.” Diving further into Merriam Webster, terror is defined as, “violent and destructive acts committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.” What was slavery if not violent and destructive acts – beatings, lynchings, rapes – committed by groups of white people in order to intimidate a population of black people into granting their demands to work the fields, cook dinner, clean the house, have sex, etc?

For many of us, this process feels wrong. It goes against everything we’ve been taught, and it feels blasphemous to think this way about George Washington, our great American hero. But we can’t let our discomfort keep us from doing the work – remember, BIPOC are still being systematically murdered because we white people don’t want to feel uncomfortable about the reality of our country’s history. Instead of running from or explaining away our feelings, we need to be in and examine them. No one is saying you owned slaves or committed genocide. We so easily get defensive and start tossing around blame instead of being in our own emotions. The wrong-doing here isn’t the act of applying the word “terrorist” to our founding fathers. What’s wrong is that we’ve been taught to worship these white men while ignoring the rest of history. We as a country have never implemented a collective practice to reconcile our past with our present, to decolonize our society, to dismantle white supremacy. In fact, we celebrate it! And because we’ve never truly addressed what our white forefathers did to the African Americans and indigenous people, much less tried to amend it, we are incapable of fully addressing and amending what is currently being done to these populations.

NiaWilson

Eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson died on July 22, 2018 after her throat was slashed in a hate crime.

Sure, we’ve outlawed slavery (except in prisons, which are disproportionately filled with black people working for little to no pay), we’ve granted people of color the right to vote (then created tons of obstructions to purposefully block them), we’ve passed the Civil Rights act (then did not enforce it), but these amendments have been treated as an end rather than a beginning – a measly beginning, at that. And now here we are, feeling defensive and claiming “not me,” or “I’m one of the good ones,” or “It’s not fair to lump all white people into the same category,” basically refusing to get past our own egos, insisting that our immediate reaction is more important than whatever anyone else may feel, thus blocking ourselves from truly examining how we benefit from and even contribute to white supremacy, no matter how unintentional it may be. And because so many of us white people keep getting stuck here, people of color keep getting murdered. No, I am not the one who shot Maurice E. Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in a Kroger store while yelling racist slurs, nor am I the one who stabbed Nia Wilson to death in her car. But I am a part of a society that allows this to happen. I am a part of the race that perpetrates it. And as long as so many of us continue to deny our role, nothing will change.

It’s okay to be ignorant. It’s okay to not understand. But it’s not okay to stay like that. Our kids are watching us – all of us, including those who aren’t parents. We have the resources and the power to change things, so please, let’s do the work and make some real progress toward a better future.

Resources for Learning More and Taking Action:


Instagram Accounts to Follow:

There’s an inspiring and educational dialogue happening on Instagram about race relations, art, music, gender identity, American history, and how this all intersects. Do not follow these accounts if you have not already started on your own work. It is not okay to go into their spaces and be disrespectful or to center the discussion around yourself. This is a wonderful opportunity to listen to and learn from others. Don’t waste it.

 

Images:
1. McGraw Hill textbook via Diversity Inc.
2. Black on Black original design.
3. Nia Wilson via CNN.

Writer’s note: A previous version of this post used the word “slaves” instead of “enslaved people.” I have since learned about the phrase “enslaved people” and prefer it to “slaves,” as it demonstrates the idea that slavery was done to a person rather than the idea that a person’s identify was being a slave. However, others feel that “enslaved people” is too polished, and that it glosses over the dehumanizing experience of slavery. Yet another testament to the importance of language.

The Moral Obligation of White People

Last week’s project of discussing racism and feminism with women of color proved way more challenging than I expected, and left me grappling with my own racism and white privilege in ways that made me very uncomfortable. This was ultimately a good thing – a tough, emotional, soul-searching kind of good thing – and I made myself stay in this space and examine it. I felt it, thought about it, talked about it, wrote about it, and now that I’ve emerged, I am absolutely positive that more white people need to be doing this.

For those of you just tuning in, a few weeks ago I shared my thoughts on the modern feminist movement’s inclusivity problem in the essay Still a Feminist. In an effort to promote a more diverse dialogue and a culture of listening, I posed two questions to women who I thought identified as people of color, then shared their responses in two follow-up posts, Part 1 and Part 2. As I said above, this project ended up being much more difficult than anticipated, but even though there are so many complicated facets to racism, so many emotions, so many questions without answers, I feel that I – we – must continue this dialogue. So here goes.

I’ve hated labels for a long time. In my youth I viewed them solely as words that divided us, but now I see that humans are inherently tribalistic, thus rendering labels unavoidable, and that labels actually bring us together in solidarity as much as they allow us to discriminate and differentiate. After the experience of talking with a few women of color last week, I also now see how important labels are in identifying ourselves to ourselves and to the world around us. I’m reminded of an activity in a college class I took, “Race, Music, and the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean,” when the professor, Raquel Z. Rivera (pictured below), instructed us to make a list of words we used to describe ourselves. I was one of two white people in the class, and we were the only students who didn’t include race or ethnicity on our lists. I wrote female, daughter, sister, friend, student, but I didn’t write white, American, or even Kentuckian. However, the other students, all people of color, included their race or ethnicity as their first or second words. I was fascinated and perplexed by this difference, and I spent a long time thinking about it. Ten years later, I’m still thinking.

When looking at my experiences through the lens of white privilege, I find that I don’t have to explain or defend myself nearly as often as people of color do. Perhaps because of this difference, words commonly used as racial and ethnic identifiers don’t have the same personal connotations for me. I tend to view them from the cerebral space of dictionary definitions as opposed to what they mean on an emotional level. As a writer, I do also consider the cultural and personal meanings of words in general, but this consideration obviously comes from my own white perspective. I’ve always thought of “people of color” as all people who are not white, and the Oxford Dictionary agrees with me, saying that a person of color is “a person who is non white or of European parentage.” I’ve struggled with this term because it can be so widely applied to such a large swath of folk and doesn’t allow for cultural differentiation, but at the same time, it’s better than identifying people with the negative prefix “non.” However, I didn’t realize that other people might see this term as meaning African-American or black, and that Latinos, a group of people I’ve always assumed to be included under the “people of color” umbrella, might struggle with having it applied to them. I also didn’t realize that it doesn’t actually matter if the dictionary agrees with me or not; what matters is listening to people and using the terms they prefer when talking and writing about them.

This idea of who is included and who isn’t is at the heart of why I don’t like labels – they inherently create insiders and outsiders, and I believe we’re at a point in our country where we need to focus on bringing diverse people together and listening to voices that have previously been silenced or quieted as opposed to debating who’s in and who’s out. But through my efforts to ensure that those voices are being heard, I ended up creating a lot of anxiety for my friend Letisia Cruz, a Cuban American who participated in Part 1 of this project, because she doesn’t identify as a “woman of color” and felt that having this label applied to her meant she was usurping other women’s experiences. I looked back through our email exchange and found the origin of our misunderstanding, so in an attempt to make her feel more comfortable, I changed some language in the original post, including replacing one usage of the phrase “woman of color” with “marginalized women.” Her discomfort also sparked an interesting and important thread on Facebook, so at the end of the day, I sat back feeling pretty pleased with myself; I’d created a space for a valuable dialogue, I’d participated in this dialogue, and even though I’d messed up, I’d done my best to fix it.


“Fill in the Blanks” by Shareheads / Creative Commons

Not so fast. The following day I received an email from a different contributor who does identify as “woman of color” but was surprised by my use of the word “marginalized.” She explained, “Certainly, I’m not a member of the white feminist movement by virtue of being a woman of color but… does that make me marginalized? It’s not a word I particularly identify with, but perhaps with elaboration, it could make more sense as a framing for who you engaged in this series. I definitely identify with ‘woman of color’ and engaged the topic from there, but based on all the privileges I carry, I can’t get comfortable with ‘marginalized.'” While reading this response I thought, Dammit, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get it right! I agreed with her that “marginalized” didn’t completely get at the heart of the project, but at the same time, returning to my trusty friend the dictionary, the actual definition is “to treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral,” and I do feel that women of color across all levels of privilege have been treated as insignificant or peripheral in some capacity by the modern feminist movement.

It was fascinating to me that one woman wasn’t down with “of color” because she was afraid that having a lighter shade of skin meant using that phrase was usurping the experience of a darker-skinned woman, while another wasn’t comfortable with “marginalized” based on a similar line of reasoning, of wanting to respect and not step on the experiences of people who aren’t as privileged as her. I didn’t anticipate these differing interpretations and was flustered by it, but what struck me more was how these women were so caring about understanding their own privilege and not assuming anyone else’s experience, whereas so many white people I know make no effort to understand even the most basic ways in which their privilege affects them and others. I’m baffled and angered by the vast amount of white people who choose to stay disconnected from other people’s experiences, rather than analyzing and reflecting on these different realities.

Which brings me to a confession I’m having trouble writing out. You know how I said that while I was reading the second email, I immediately thought about how I couldn’t get the wording right? Well, that’s true to an extent, but it wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was actually, Why are they being so sensitive? It really doesn’t matter this much. I instantly regretted this thought and got straight to editing the post again, ultimately changing “marginalized” to “women whose voices we need to hear,” a phrase that explained my intentions a lot better than either term I’d used, anyway. But when I reflected on this reaction again later that evening, I was flooded with embarrassment and shame. Not only was I handing out labels as I pleased, without fully considering other people’s perspectives‪‬ (even though I myself don’t even like labels), but I was also feeling like other people should simply accept my labeling? All because the dictionary said so?

Basically, I was yet another white person telling people with darker skin who they are, and then getting annoyed and defensive when they didn’t like it.

“Shame, Street Art by Clive Punk, Windsor” by Urban Pixel / Creative Commons

I spent a good chunk of the weekend feeling like shit over this. I reread everyone’s answers in both Parts 1 and 2 and was even more embarrassed and ashamed over the questions I’d posed; I’d asked about how to make my concept of feminism more inviting to them rather than asking what they or other women in their communities are doing to battle the patriarchy or stand up for women’s rights. But you know what? I’m glad for these bad feelings because ultimately, they changed my way of thinking. White people need to spend a lot more time feeling like shit about racism or else nothing will ever truly change.

So how do we package and sell this to the masses? No one is gonna raise their hand and be like like, Sure, sign me up for an exhausting weekend feeling bad about myself! I have no real answer to this question, but I keep coming back to the idea that it’s a matter of morality. The relationship between white people and people of color in this country is based on that of master and slave. We can’t keep pretending like slavery is some far away story told in a textbook. It is our moral obligation as white people to confront our country’s history of slavery, segregation and racism, and all of the horrible feelings that come along with it. And we have to recognize that this isn’t a one-and-done situation. Last year, when the police murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the same awful week, I felt such an intense, guttural reaction that I wrote an essay in a single sitting about my white privilege and how I finally understood systemic racism. It received a lot of positive feedback and I thought that I’d done my work, that I had an easy path ahead of me. But now I’m seeing how anti-racism is an ongoing, evolving process that we must stay committed to.

After all of this introspection, I have been left wondering if I spend too much time trying to find the right language and not enough time protesting or marching or going to meetings. These thought loops and discussions feel very cerebral and not quite tangible. But perhaps this analysis of words is a form of revolution in itself; if thought shapes language, then language can also shape thought. Listening to different people’s ideas about language can serve as a window into understanding their way of thinking, which can ultimately (hopefully) result in more empathy. Language isn’t simply a form of communication. It’s a way to identify ourselves, our culture, our traditions and creativity. It’s how we tell the world who we are. It’s our natural form of expression. What might seem like a semantic debate to me may feel to someone else like a debate over who she is and what value our society places on her and her culture. As a writer, perhaps my role is to facilitate these conversations and to model my own process of battling racism. Language gives us power. Not enough women, especially women of color, are being heard, and the whole point of this project was to give them a format to speak. I reached out to my friends and neighbors via email and Facebook, and the people who responded are all women who are already expressing themselves in some capacity. It’s crazy and depressing and utterly enraging to think about all of the people out there who don’t feel empowered enough to even speak up, much less fight to be heard.

“Speak Up” by Sara Deming / Creative Commons

In the end, this project was a good lesson for me in many ways. As a writer, I’m reminded that it’s always better to be clear and to choose my own descriptions rather than looking for the “right terms.” As a white person, I’m developing a clearer understanding of how culture and race affects the way we interpret words, and I’m more deeply committed to listening and trying to understand perspectives that differ from my own, and to tackling my white privilege. And as an activist and educator, I am reaffirmed in my commitment to help other people improve their language skills. Literacy is a right, and if we truly want a more just and equal future, we’ve got to give everyone the power of language.

Many thanks to all of the contributors for being a part of this project and for engaging me in this way, and thank you, my dears, for reading. This has definitely changed the way I view my role in the struggle. I’ve always loved language and believed in its power, but I’ve approached the importance of words from a writer’s perspective more than an activist’s perspective. My mind is spinning, in that tough, emotional, soul-searching kind of good way.

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Further reading material:

What Makes Someone a Person of Color or White in America? by Daniel Rivera, Fusion Magazine

The Term “People of Color” Includes Asian-Americans by Frances Johnson, The Ithacan

The Journey from “Colored” to “Minorities” to “People of Color” by Kee Malesky, NPR

Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter by Jeffrey Renard Allen, The Evergreen Review

Anything by James Baldwin

Women of Color on Feminism Part 2 – “Can It Be That Your Tent Ain’t It?”

Two weeks ago, I shared my thoughts in Still a Feminist? on the feminist movement’s inclusivity problem and the danger of defining what a feminist is. I began by describing my experience of feeling criticized for of my choice to embrace domesticity, then concluded with the incredibly pressing issue of racism in feminism. White feminists have been talking about the movement’s race issues for over a decade now, but this conversation hasn’t changed anything at all. Instead, we need to be listening to people of color, practicing more empathy and open-mindedness, offering not only our ears and support but also our willingness to change. In an effort to promote this type of dialogue, I posed two questions to women whose voices we need to hear: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I received some incredibly thoughtful, smart, and important responses from these women, and shared the first two in a post yesterday. Here are the final three today. PLEASE read and respond and share freely. It is time for us to listen.

Twisting It Up.jpg“Twisting It Up” by torbakhopper / Creative Commons

Abdula Greene, Civil Rights, Family & Criminal Lawyer:

I liked your article. I’m glad it pointed out that one can be a feminist and still embrace being either a working woman or a homemaker. Too often women are categorizing and excluding other women based on their political or religious beliefs. To me, being a feminist means not being afraid to accept a man’s help or compliment and to enjoy being a woman, knowing that I deserve to be treated equally in employment and status and not being afraid to acknowledge that there are just some things I’d rather leave to men! As to your second question, it is too complex to answer in this short format [a Facebook neighborhood group]. However, to sum up my answer to your second question, white women and black women have different issues. It would be a great task.

A writer and educator who wishes to remain anonymous:

Well, as a woman of color born from women who’ve had to be mothers/providers/friends/etc, feminism for me and my two daughters (who are half white/half black and identify themselves as girls no color attached because they’re still too young to understand), it’s being able to be independent and most importantly able and comfortable with charting one’s own path as you see fit. Feminism is being able to speak out on what you believe in and stand firmly in your truth. My daughters are young, but in our house I believe in giving power to their voices and concerns and supporting everyone – even if you don’t believe in their beliefs or choices. No one has the right over anyone else to make THEIR choices.

Gosh, I really don’t know [how to create a more inclusive movement]. I think it’s important to remember that for women of color, there is always extra work involved. As a woman, no matter your shape, size, education level there is always that need to prove that you are good enough for whatever it is that you want to achieve. For women of color, there is an extra layer – to have to prove yourself because not only are you a woman – you’re a woman of color. Just be open-minded as everyone’s struggle is different.


jessicamingusJessica Mingus, Social worker, Educator, Writer and Founder of In Our Own Skin (pictured left):

In my opinion, “mainstream” feminism has become interchangeable with advancing the priorities of white, cis-gendered, able-bodied women with economic privilege. Countless women’s realities don’t fit within that framework. Because that feminist ideology is underwritten by so many sources of privilege, it gets treated as if it’s the definition of feminism. Let me be clear: Feminism with white supremacy floating around unchecked will not heal what ails us.

Do I consider myself a feminist? Yes. But do I treat it like it’s the single most important component of my politics? No. Patriarchy is everywhere, everyday and I butt up against it everywhere, everyday. But feminism is incomplete unless it incorporates how race, class, sexual orientation, ability, age, nationality, culture, religion impact our experience as women.  Feminism can’t be concerned only with gender. Intersectionality is critical.

Some of the most harmful racial microaggressions I’ve experienced came from straight, white cis-gendered women who waved the feminism flag with deep pride but had no critical consciousness when it came to their race and class bias. The more I have reflected on those experiences, I came to see that the feminist flag they waved so zealously was staked on whiteness and affluence.

My conception of “being a feminist” is propelled by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s assertion that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I try to hold myself accountable to continually deepen my understanding of what real justice would look like and to ensure that my personal fight against the forms of oppression that impact my daily life doesn’t push aside, minimize, or otherwise silence other folks’ experiences of oppression and my responsibility to take that on in addition to what limits me.  I love Cornel West’s definition that “justice is what love looks like in public.” I try to evolve my politics with that core belief at the center.

feministfist.jpg“Feminist Fist” by Eva the Weaver  / Creative Commons

So, what’s my advice to white feminists to make a more inclusive movement? First and foremost, step back from that question and examine it. What’s so essential about “your” feminism that the goal is to bring everyone else inside that tent? Is white feminism a common denominator? No way.  I encourage white feminists to ask themselves what is it about holding on to this power of invitation, this sense of entitlement to define the terms? I want white feminists to talk less about how they can make everyone “feel more included in their movement” and unpack how “their” feminism adversely impacts all the women who aren’t inside that tent right now. I think the conversation about inclusion in feminism often winds up supporting rather than subverting other sorts of oppression. Can it be that your tent ain’t it? Where would we all meet if you challenged yourselves to move outside and join the rest of us?

How can white feminists engage multiple forces of oppression in a shared struggle for equity and justice? I would caution white feminists against tapping women of color to tell them how. Authentic relationships with people that don’t look like you or live like you are some of life’s great teachers. But white feminist women must be sure not to tokenize difference or absolve them of the struggle and discomfort that’s needed to figure out a way forward. I urge white feminists to engage in continual self-reflection around privilege. Race privilege is their intergenerational knot to untie.

So…Yes: Be feminists. Challenge patriarchy every damn day. But recognize it as but one form of oppression that must be deconstructed if justice and self-realization are the ultimate goal. 

Women of Color on Feminism, Part 1 – “Every Woman is Going to Have a Different Experience”

Two weeks ago, I shared my thoughts in Still a Feminist? on the feminist movement’s inclusivity problem and the danger of defining what a feminist is. I began by describing my experience of feeling criticized for of my choice to embrace domesticity, then concluded with the incredibly pressing issue of racism in feminism. White feminists have been talking about the movement’s race issues for over a decade now, but this conversation hasn’t changed anything at all. Instead, we need to be listening to people of color, practicing more empathy and open-mindedness, offering not only our ears and support but also our willingness to change. In an effort to promote this type of dialogue, I posed two questions to women whose voices we need to hear: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I received some incredibly thoughtful, smart, and important responses from these women, and will be sharing them with you over the next two days. PLEASE read and respond and share freely. It is time for us to listen.

raquelRacquel Henry, Writer and Editor (pictured left):

“Feminism to me means the right to choose. I frequently discuss this particular subject with my students. When I ask them what they think of when they think of feminism, the response is usually something along the lines of radical women who hate men. They think of women who prefer to work and don’t want to stay at home to take care of their families. I never tell them what to think, but I try to guide them to the idea, that feminists are not radical. Men can be feminists, too. A feminist is someone who believes that women deserve to have equal rights/pay, but can also choose whether they want to be a stay at home mom or be the CEO of a fortune five company. To me, a true feminist believes in empowering women to be the best they can be without judgement and regardless of their career choices.

My advice to white women on how to be inclusive would be to understand privilege. I myself didn’t feel that I fully understood what that meant until the recent political elections. I was always fed the idea that everyone has the same opportunity. But the truth is that there’s a gray area there. In fact, despite the fact that I’m a black woman, I’ve had a degree of privilege myself. I’ve experienced a lot of racism, but I am certain my experiences are totally different from another black woman’s. And it’s not just race. Women face inequality based on sexuality or because they’re disabled. I’d like white women to understand that my experience with gender inequality is probably different from my white counterpart’s. Every woman is going to have a different experience. We need to recognize that. There is so much more that women of color have to face other than simply not getting the job because they’re a woman. If we were all to examine our privilege and really listen to each other, then I think we could make real progress.”

vivelaresistance“Vive la Resistance” by Letisia Cruz

Letisia Cruz, Artist and Poet (who identifies as Cuban American rather than woman of color):

“Many of the struggles that we as women face and have faced are, of course, rooted in the issues of our time. But they are also rooted in our culture. And our culture has largely been one of exclusion, of suppression, and of judgement toward women. Currently, many of us are divided politically. Given the recent political climate and how passionate we all feel about our positions, this can strain the most rock-solid sisterhood. In my own family, we do not all see eye to eye. It’s a challenge (to say the least); even simple communication becomes difficult. But what I’ve come to realize is that we are women first. We must cultivate love toward one another. We must practice compassion. We must accept, protect, honor, elevate, and embrace one another. There can be no presumption, no ego, no superiority. We are women first. This is everything.

So, in answer to your question about what feminism means to me, as a Cuban-American girl growing up in a typical Cuban household, I was raised to respect tradition. But what is tradition? Tradition is the ritual that we instill in our daughters. Tradition reminds us that we carry the strength and will of our grandmothers. Tradition calls us to return to our roots—so that independent of race, religion or political affiliation, we are women first. We must stand together. This is what feminism means to me.”

Leave your thoughts in the comments section and check back tomorrow for part two.

Still A Feminist?

There’s no shame in craving domestic order, only shame in genderizing its production.”
  ~Sarah Curtis Graziano

From when I was a baby until I was in middle school, dolls and stuffed animals were my favorite toys. I talked to them constantly, brushed their hair and washed their faces, made dresses for them out of leftover scraps from Mom’s and Granny’s sewing projects. When I was eight, Granny hired me for my first job of cleaning her house from top to bottom once a month for $50, and I saved up all of my profits for our biannual trips to the flea market in Louisville where I splurged on Madame Alexander porcelain dolls (the seller told me I was the best bargainer she’d ever met). I displayed all 30+ of these dolls on a shelf in my bedroom, and I’d often lie on my Pepto-Bismol-colored carpet and stare at my collection, admiring how beautiful they all were.

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This passion for taking care of things didn’t stop with inanimate objects. I regularly played with the little kids at church while the girls my age played their own games, I started babysitting when I was 14-years-old, I got my Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, I taught in a daycare after college, and I always dreamed of having my own baby one day. While the environment I was raised in may account for some of this, a large portion of it is just something that’s been inside of me ever since I can remember.

I’m gonna get even “girlier” on you now: I also love to cook, and even to clean. Some of my favorite memories are of Mom, Granny and me making big dinners together in the kitchen. I baked my first strawberry pie when I was seven then took it to a church potluck and hid near the dessert table so I could watch people eat it without them knowing I was there. The enjoyment in their faces, their generous second portions, their unsolicited compliments, all filled me with so much pride that I decided I was going to be a baker when I grew up (spoiler alert: I didn’t).

And when I say I like to clean, I mean it – the act of it in addition to its results. This is probably connected to having OCD, but it’s also connected to those sweet memories of long Saturday afternoons cleaning Granny’s house, smelling her shirts as I folded and put them away, rubbing my fingers over her silk pillowcases while I made her bed, dragging dust rags across framed photographs of her in younger times. I remember feeling so satisfied at the end of the day, especially when Granny showered me with compliments (and yes, also when she gave me that $50 bill).

Dolls, cooking, cleaning… Some people might say I was trained to be a perfect little wifey. But you know what? Those people are wrong. I wasn’t trained to take care of a man – I was trained to take care of myself. I was taught how to be independent, to make my own choices and feel good about them. These ideas of independence, freedom, and confidence are at the root of feminism, yet I hear over and over how being domestic means I’m not a real feminist. All of this infighting and nitpicking among modern feminists is killing the entire movement, and, in my perspective, is exactly the opposite of what the movement should be about.  

So yeah, Mom and Granny did all of the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. But that doesn’t exempt them from being feminists. While they always wanted me to get married and have kids, they didn’t want me to need this. They never once positioned marriage and motherhood as opposed to my dreams of pursuing my education and being a writer. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to cook with them until I finished my homework, and they often told me to stop washing the dishes so I could go write a story I was blabbering on about.

Guess who else also had to cook and wash the dishes? My older brother. But he was so lazy and annoying about it that, while they still made him regularly contribute to the chores, they didn’t take his food to the potlucks or hire him for the big cleanings. And they equally encouraged him to get married and have kids. They just wanted us to be happy, and while marriage and parenthood isn’t the path to happiness for everyone, it actually is great for me. I love being a mom. I love being a wife. I love it when my husband tells me I’m beautiful, I love watching people eat my food, and I love when my kitchen is neat and orderly and smells like fresh mint. None of these loves of mine have anything to do with whether or not I’m a feminist.

I think a lot of this current backlash against domesticity comes from that idea that second-wave feminism in the U.S. revolved around the renewed, forced domesticity of women post-World War II. But the key word here is “forced” – the deeper-rooted issue was that women didn’t have a choice. They were shoved into a role based on their gender before the war and then again after it, and they were held back from other opportunities as a result of these forced roles. To me, feminism is about equal rights for all people, about all of us having the same opportunities and the same options to make our own choices, not about whether we as individuals are traditional, domestic, radical, or rebellious (or, crazy as it sounds, all of these things simultaneously). Women should have the same freedom as men to forge our own way. Some of us will choose domesticity, some of us won’t. That doesn’t mean that some of us are worse feminists than others. Feminists come in all kinds of shapes, colors, sizes, and forms, and it’s time that the greater movement focused on how to embrace this rather than argue over it.

Mural: Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists by Franco Folini / Creative Commons

Which brings me to a bigger issue: the modern feminist movement is SO WHITE. Like, racist white. Earlier this week, a friend of mine, Leigh Hecking, tackled this issue though analyzing Hulu’s recent release of The Handmaid’s Tale, and she came to an insightful, eloquent conclusion that sums up my sentiments exactly:

We need to approach feminism from a place of empathy, openness and inclusivity. We need to challenge our own views of what it means to be a woman (women don’t need to have a vagina or breasts, for example). We need to stop viewing other women’s lives as fiction and ours as reality.”

I LOVE the way she phrases this. Honestly, everyone in the world needs to practice more empathy right now, but it feels especially awful to hear women attacking other women over if they’re a good enough feminist or not. The fact that feminism is racist is a real issue, but you know what won’t solve it? White women yelling at other white women over what is and isn’t a feminist. You know what will solve it? Practicing this empathy and openness that Leigh is calling for. Being supportive instead of overly critical. Listening, honestly listening, to each other. And looking at the ways in which we ourselves contribute to this racism.

So on this note, I’m asking some friends of mine who identify as women of color to answer two questions: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I hope you check back next Friday for their answers, and please feel free to offer your own answers, as well – as long as you’re respectful!

“Too Black, Too Strong…”

Jeffery Renard Allen’sjeffrenardallen most recent essay is stunning. Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter is a powerful and important must-read that masterfully combines thoughtful commentary on race, politics, and economics with well-researched, academic analysis and haunting personal narrative. It’s long yet I found myself rereading sections, my brain and heart rearranging themselves with each pass (yes, this essay is simultaneously cerebral and guttural), only to return days later to read the entire piece once more, eager to gleam new insights and understandings from Allen’s poetic, painfully honest prose. Original artwork by Anthony Young using bleach and gunpowder only enhances the message, the multiple messages, Allen is giving us. It’s a valuable read for everyone, but I urge all progressive white folk out there to read it, really truly deeply read it, and learn.