As I shared in a previous post, I have been reading Colonize This! with fervor and enthusiasm for a couple of weeks now. In my WGSS Senior Seminar, we have discussed extensively the complications of reading this text as a white-identified person; I am not the intended audience as outlined in the essays, nor as defined in most women of color feminisms. However, I struggle with my alienation from these texts, because on emotionally real and visceral levels, they resonate with day-to-day experiences I have had as a feminist, as a student, and as a woman. It is too simple to merely highlight difference or draw a line where my experiences end as a white woman and where theirs begin as women of color; it is also too simple to take advantage of our similarities and shared knowledges as women dealing with similar gender-based oppressions. My professor, Sonita Sarker, assured us that this messy space between camaraderie and respectful distance is okay – and she urged us to consider that while the text may be provoking our acknowledgment of white privilege, it also might be provoking us to engage in a dialogue about whiteness as it is racialized (not as a neutral default or non-race).
So this is my attempt to speak from my position as a white, middle-class, woman, who has to negotiate the everyday experience of these identities while also practicing a feminist perspective. I want to hold myself accountable by acknowledging my privilege, but I don’t want to assume that my experiences of oppression are therefore invalid. I want to live in the mess of what it means to be a feminist, who cannot always combat sexist or racist encounters with a cool wit or charisma; who cannot always muster the courage or energy to confront people who have hurt me; who is not an expert, but a careful listener and deeply sensitive being; who makes mistakes, that I can only promise to try and learn from.
Every week for the past eight months, I have taken the hour-long commute on the 21 westbound bus from Saint Paul to my boyfriend’s house in South Minneapolis. Most of the time (maybe sixty-percent of the time, when it’s not negative blank degrees outside), I genuinely enjoy the unique solitude I find on the bus, surrounded by strangers and a self-consciousness that feels safe to explore in this setting. I find myself thinking more about my class and race privilege on the bus than I do in school sometimes, and more about how I can articulate my feminism in a way that can materialize in real-life benefits for people other than myself. Which sometimes makes getting off the bus, at a stop that is a ten-minute walk from my boyfriend’s home, a rough transition into the depressing realities of my position as a woman. And this is where I hesitate to say, “as a white woman,” but where I NEED to in order to understand how the racialization and sexualization of my body socially construct my identity – via both privilege and discrimination.
I have been catcalled or sexually harassed walking down the street more times than are worth counting; this is not something specific to me, but to all women (street/online harassment are not the focus of my musings here, but there is an abundance of scholarship and personal writings about this issue out there that I encourage everyone to explore). Usually, my tactic for surviving these situations with as much dignity as possible is pure denial; I look ahead, keep a straight face and a quick stride. But some of the most layered, twisted, and confusing harassment I have experienced is from Black men in South Minneapolis, who call me out on my whiteness while degrading and mocking my sex.
This has happened on numerous occasions: I am walking my typical route, I see a group of men up ahead, and I make the conscious decision to keep walking my original path. I have a heightened anxiety of appearing to be a racist white person, even though in all actuality, I would cross the street to avoid any group of men/individual man when walking alone at night. But even that gender-based caution is tricky; it automatically says, “I am afraid of you,” and that “you have a reason to see my fear and act on it.” And, I have to add, it is impossible to separate gender from class from race from sexuality, etc. So I feel fucked from the beginning; no matter what I prioritize (protecting myself or a stranger’s ego/respect) I am doing something offensive or potentially dangerous.
So, I am walking and approaching a group of Black men one Tuesday night, and they are audibly talking about me long before I approach them. They take up plenty of space, and I have to say, “excuse me,” to pass them on the sidewalk. That’s when they say something sexually explicit or derogatory, and tell me to slow down, to stay and chat, whatever. I politely ignore them, walk past, and hear, “WHITE BITCH!” followed by some monologue about how rude I am because of the color of my skin, how I think I am better than them…
The first thing I feel is anger. I am mad that I cannot walk alone at night in a neighborhood that feels like home to me, that I have to take all of the disgusting things men say to me on the street as complimentary or flattering, and that if I don’t, I will be reduced to a racist jerk after already being reduced to a piece of ass. Then I feel guilt. I feel ashamed that I want to avoid the next group of Black men I see the following Tuesday, on the same block, laughing and having a good time on their lawn. I feel guilty that I am potentially invading the boundaries of their public/private domain, where maybe it is okay that they don’t want to see me and my whiteness. I feel guilty that I cannot think of anything better to do than to cross my fingers in the pockets of my winter coat, as I raise my chin high and walk past holding my breath and counting the minutes until I am safely at my boyfriend’s door. I feel guilty that I don’t get off at that bus stop anymore, but instead opt for the one a couple blocks further, in a wealthier part of the neighborhood where I feel safer. I feel guilty for being selfish and putting my needs as a woman before my opportunity for humility; a potential moment to deconstruct the social barriers that my whiteness insists upon keeping.
I am envious of my boyfriend; another night, we are walking in Saint Paul, when a homeless Black man who has also said vulgar things to me about my sex and race while I am alone, approaches us. Because he walks with the fluidity that being a visibly male-identified body allows, my boyfriend is happy to stop and chat with this man, to buy him something to eat from the SuperAmerica on the corner, to do his part as a good community member (this is also a complicated dynamic of race and class, and I don’t mean to simplify it or say that it exists in a vacuum of selflessness or anything). I want to cry. And later I do. Because I feel unsafe. I don’t feel that I can afford the luxury of stopping to talk with this man, even if my white body says otherwise to him.
I am frustrated by the ways that my privilege as a white person and experiences of oppression as a woman work against me in moments when I want most to shed all of these things and yell: LOOK! I AM A HUMAN AND I ONLY WANT GOOD THINGS FOR THE BOTH OF US. And I am frustrated that because of my privilege, this entire rant might come across as invalid, whiny, naïve, or less important “in comparison to” x,y, and z I am not conflating sexism and racism; but I am trying to understand the ways in which they reinforce each other, and what my role as a white woman, as a feminist, is to expose and dismantle these constructions that hurt everyone. I refuse to accept that the “race conversation” is limited to people of color; this is harmful, and reinforces whiteness as an invisible, neutral, non-race, when it is always already contributing to conversations about racism. I also want to strike the perfect balance of acknowledging my privilege and not exploiting/appropriating/consuming the experiences of people who have different contexts, while also being an ally and recognizing moments when I have experienced discrimination as a woman.
I will make mistakes. I am learning. I am learning that feminism does not mean having all the answers, or any answers for that matter; but rather, it is about asking the hard questions. I am learning that self-care is a vital part of caring for others, and is not only a personal strategy but a political strategy, too (thanks Audre Lorde). I am learning that I will inevitably isolate myself from others by sharing my feminism, that not everybody will respect or like me; but that there is peace in accepting this. I want to be communicative; I want to be an active listener. I want to be patient and gentle, while not compromising my values. I want feminism to be a process that I struggle with, reflect on, evolve with, and bend toward and away from everyday for the rest of my life. This is my attempt at honesty. This is my attempt at holding myself accountable, not only in hindsight as a means of owning my mistakes, but as a preemptive value system.