In one of the classrooms where I work, there is a sign that says “know what you don’t know.” This is important. This is harder than it looks.
One of my creative writing students asked me how to respectfully represent “others” in his writing. He recognized, at the tender age of 13, that this would be a challenge for him. What I mean by “others” would be anyone who is not a white young man from a fairly privileged upbringing. The rest of my students all chimed in, voicing their own concerns.
“I’m going to teach you something that a lot of people don’t know,” I said to them, and started writing on the whiteboard the word kyriarchy. Then, drawing a series of Venn Diagrams representing things such as gender, sexuality, economic status, and so forth – I showed them the intersections. This was probably their first glimpse into intersectionality.
These kids seem to think I have all the answers now. I wish I did.
We hear a lot about “white feminism” being flawed, and I didn’t understand much about that until now. Granted, I always wanted my own feminism to represent all women – POC, trans women, etc – but I wasn’t sure where myself or other white feminists were failing. It’s hard to see from my own perspective, which is that of a white woman. While technically biracial, I speak only English fluently and was raised in a very white household. I look white. I don’t know the side of my family that isn’t white. For all intents and purposes, I am white, despite my mother’s Mexican blood. So how could I understand what it is to be non-white?
My first glimpse into the issue with white feminism was probably the rise and fall of Feminist Taylor Swift. I remember when she came out of the Feminist Closet – everyone (well, in the feminist community) was so pleased with her. So many young women idolized her that it seemed like a good thing. Then, the tides changed, and women of color began criticizing her for being feminist as a mere publicity stunt, and not respectfully representing women of color (for example, objectifying black dancers in her music videos). The problem is that she has no idea that she’s done anything wrong. She more than likely isn’t doing any of that stuff purposefully (the objectification of black women, that is) , but rather functioning in a society of semi-privileged white women who don’t know any better. This sadly seems to be the norm.
So, when I started seeing criticism of the Women’s March(es) popping up online, it mainly seemed to be either a. conservative people calling us a bunch of lovely names such as “whores” or “baby killers” or b. women who claim the march was not as inclusive as it ought to have been. Of course, a lot of people decided to dump on Taylor Swift for not marching. I guess you’re not a real feminist if you didn’t march, which is problematic because not everyone is able-bodied or can afford to travel, but I digress. This particular series of tweets that I read were really what drove it home for me:
You can read the entire thing here.
Yes, I have to say, I bristled at the “white supremacist” comment. But I also bristled at the women who reacted in anger to the “stolen lands” sign – they said it wasn’t their fault. Don’t blame us. Please, take a joke, relax.
Do they not realize exactly what they sound like? The sexist men, every time we try to reach out to them, the men who ignore us and shut us down and tell us to grow a sense of humor, it’s only a rape joke.
My bristling at the remark upon white supremacy was actually pretty enlightening to me – I wanted to say “Hey, I’m not racist, they’re not racist, they’re not the ones who stole your land,” and then I realized, I was also acting like one of those men. The not all men men. I want to be better than that, we call can be better than that. What if, for example, instead of being closed off and judgmental, the white women had taken their flyers, and allied with them? Why couldn’t they have simply stood alongside their fellow woman? As they wanted to say, their “sisters?” What if we could just say “You’re right, we’re sorry, what can we do to support you?”
In Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist, she completely eviscerates the movie The Help as a segregated South as seem through a white person’s rose colored glasses. A “magical negro” (her words, not mine) has to give her all to white children in the face of her own humiliation, or helps another white person overcome her own troubles. A black woman “dies of a broken heart” because she can no longer work for a white family. A white woman has to come along and contextualize it for us, among other things. This was a rough read for me, as I loved that movie. But I suppose that is because I’m seeing things from my own white perspective.
This Twitter feed and reading Gay’s essay happened with me in the course of two days. Which brings me to today:
We’ve had a massive dumping of snow here in Flagstaff, and I’ve had the last several days off from work due to snow days at school. I’ve been watching a lot of movies as I hide from the Hoth-like terrain outside, and I watched a movie about an hour ago called The Impossible. It came out in 2012 and is currently streaming on Netflix. It’s about a family of tourists (white, British) who spend Christmas at a swanky resort in Thailand when the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated the coast.
According to the Wikipedia page, this film received a lot of praise and various awards. I want to start by saying that Naomi Watts and Ewan MacGregor, who play the married couple, did a lovely job and it’s not their fault this movie was so whitewashed. That is something I learned these past few days – it’s not the fault of the actors, per se, it’s the hoards of moviegoers that can’t abide seeing anyone else but a white person tell them a story. Perhaps it’s more relatable that way, but where is the actual reality of it all?
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was one of the deadliest disasters on record, devastating Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. This part of the world contains some of if not the most densely populated areas on the planet. Countless Asian lives were lost.
And yet…The Impossible follows a family of white British tourists. Why?
It’s almost 40 minutes into the movie before we see any local victims of this disaster, and I could count on one finger the number of times they appeared. When they did, it was in the background. Why?
The only interactions with any non-white people involve them helping the poor, injured white tourists, from a helpful local man who saves Naomi Watts to a plucky young nurse who comforts her son. They came along to help the battered white people, as if they hadn’t suffered a blow. Literally every victim that the main characters interact with are white in this movie. The hospital beds are full of white people. The refugee tents, the crowds huddled at the bus stations, they are all white. They are all tourists. What about the hundreds of thousands of Asian men, women, and children who lost their lives, limbs, homes, and loved ones? Why?
Suddenly, I understand whitewashing. I see it where I didn’t see it before. Suddenly, I think I’m beginning to understand the problem with White Feminism.
It’s something I’ve said about men who resist feminism, and I think it needs to be said back to myself and to other white feminists – no, we don’t get it. Maybe our whole lives aren’t privileged, but we don’t understand what our own white privilege affords us. We don’t know what it’s like to live as both a woman and a woman of color. If a woman of color, or a gay person or trans woman or queer person or whoever, tries to tell us about their experiences, our own “hurt feelings” or bristling or whatnot is not the answer, because our discomfort is not the problem.
Instead of “defending” ourselves, listen. Instead of saying “well, actually, I know what racism is like because-” NO, shut up, it’s not about you. Just listen.
We just need to shut up our own stupid White Woman Egos and listen. Listen, learn, and stand by each other. This is the only way we can defeat the Trump Beast, and I don’t need to tell you anymore about him (well, maybe, but that is something I don’t even know how to write about yet).
Ladies, be you black or Mexican or Asian or gay or trans or whatever…I’m ready to finally listen to you. I’m sorry I didn’t know what I didn’t know before.
“This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don’t know what happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn’t there anymore, and this one was there in her place. It isn’t the sort of thing you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want to know. Anyway there wouldn’t be an answer.”
-Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale”