Some of my feminist behaviors are actually acts of white supremacy.
I’ve been on a Racism Awareness journey over the past year. Well, for longer than that, but aggressively over the past year – reading lots, talking with folks on their own journeys, facilitating conversations on race as much as they’ll let me, going to conferences on equity, volunteering as Secretary on the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee at work … stuff like that.
Simultaneously, I have been on a feminist journey: a #me-tooing of my own. This hasn’t required any books, just a clear-headed, clear-eyed recognition of life as it is and has been for me for decades.
My habitual behavior in the realm of the latter is to recognize blatant sexual assault and blatantly sexist language (and in my case to apply feminist analysis to works of literature and art), but to “deal with” the rest as the necessary burden of being female in the world. To play the game, laugh at the jokes, tolerate the piggery. Because we can. Because we are strong enough to do so. Because we can take jokes. (Unlike men. Don’t panic, guys. She’s a professional comedian.) Because we know how to “play with the big boys.” I realized last year that this is not necessarily healthy, and I’m certainly not the only woman doing it. And while I don’t regret behaving in that way, it is a coping mechanism performed out of defensive necessity. I should not have to be tolerant in the face of offense or attack or abuse. I should be able to call it out and have it redressed. That has been a difficult thing to accept, because I take so much pride in my toughness, my ability to withstand sexist bullshit, but in reality it is much braver to upend the game than to play along. I also have to recognize that I have looked down on women who “couldn’t take it,” who chose to make themselves vulnerable by calling out the crap, and I am not proud of that.
It took a bit more formal education and a bit more time to recognize that there was another destructive aspect to the persona I’ve cultivated in response to sexism. I have made it a point to be heard, to express opinions, to speak out at work, to argue and disagree and confront professors because it is my responsibility to fly in the face of stereotypes of female inadequacy and submission and deference. What I never thought to recognize is that while this might be a stand against patriarchy, it’s right in step with the white supremacist culture in which I was born and raised and live.
I have never thought of my assertiveness as consensual with white supremacy, but it is. It’s hard to say what threatens white men more – women or Black people – the threats are different and context is everything – but as a white woman I have certain privileges that Black men and Black women do not have, and I have taken advantage of that privilege more times than I can count. A big one with me is the right to be angry. While I might be described as shrill or hysterical if I openly express anger, I am not perceived as a threat and I’m not usually written off. That is not typically true for Black people in America, because it feeds into the manufactured stereotypes which I certainly don’t need to explain here.
So this idea of standing up to authority, of being what I am in spite of the powers that be: much of that has been an illusion. And coming to terms with that has been … interesting. It doesn’t mean I stop, but it means I bring a little more mindfulness to that behavior. Powerful white men have always benefited from pitting various “others” against each other, but it’s particularly upsetting when we do it without their (explicit) help.
When you start to recognize that we live in a society anchored in the bedrock of white superiority, your perspective on everything changes. The new vista isn’t always pretty, especially when you’re looking in the mirror. If you’re trying to head off another excuse for self-loathing, it helps to recognize that we are all soaking in it, and it takes a lot of work to scrub this shit off.