To Do: Find and Practice Responses to Casual Racism

Much of the personal growth I’ve made over the last couple of years has been related to speaking more honestly and directly. Whether it’s in conflict resolution, support for friends who are hurting, working with kids, or just having a real conversation, saying what I feel and calling what I see have been hugely important new skills for me.

It’s been all about separating what is happening from what I’m afraid might happen, getting over that internal shudder of anxiety, and trying as hard as I can to just plain say what I’m thinking.

Good job, me.

However, these confrontations I’ve learned to handle so well should include dealing with the conversational racism that pops up every once in a while when interacting with my family or my more hipster-y white friends. I’ve not held myself accountable to the same direct speech that I use interpersonally (or in many cases to speaking at all), or even when I encounter casual sexism.

Part of this is related to the types of learning I’ve done about racism–mostly I read books. I follow blogs like racialicious and angry black woman and share little antiracist youtube videos on facebook. Resources upon resources exist for learning how to conduct yourself as a person of privilege in conversations expressly about oppression — but I’ve only found Jay Smooth for advice on how to confront other white people about their racism. I’m actively trying to manipulate my patterns of activity to include more than just white people and to not shy away from conversations about race, but part of Being White means that like many others, my first acknowledgement of oppression came from intentional learning rather than from experience.

The other part is that–guess what!? I’m a white lady, both oppressed and oppressor, and turns out the oppressor part is a lot harder to disentangle from my daily life. (But I suspect it’s not only harder to confront racism than sexism because of my particular orientation to these axes, but also because current popular culture seems to be addressing sexism much more frequently and directly.)

Things I want for my birthday:

More Opportunities for Actual Conversations
I discovered meetup.com recently, and while there are heaps and heaps of meetups for feminist discussion or sustainability or community service, I found no groups for my area for people who want to talk about race (starting one). Like most white people, I have a whole lot of white friends who are really good at steering conversations away from race. I am also a little reticent to abuse the non-white friendships I do have for this: “Hey, you’re black. Speaking of which, let’s talk about racism now!”

More Specific Examples
Reading material about racism is overwhelmingly abstract and theoretical. Theory is not  a bad thing–I love to get to the truths and connections at the very bottom of things– but I would love to see more authors/bloggers/commenters working through specific experiences and considering the possible reasons, reactions, and responses to casual racism when it arises.

More Guts
It wasn’t very long ago that I was hearing little misogynist things in conversations all the time and not saying anything. I’m hoping this ends up being just like that, and that I’ll soon make the discovery that it’s not so hard after all (not that I’m a pro at patriarchy-smashing. but at least I say things sometimes) to take my Internet Activism and fold it in to my real life.

**
Stay tuned to watch the development happen in subsequent episodes of Confronting Casual Racism!

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Being White

I posted this on a different blog, so this feels a bit like cheating. Oh well:

As a white lady who has recently decided her life’s calling is racial justice work, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my knowledge of race issues, necessarily, comes second-hand. I spend a lot of time wondering whether I, as a white person, am the right sort of person to be inserting my voice on something I don’t have real experience with, whether I shouldn’t just leave all the racism talk to those who know these issues first-hand instead of from books and college courses. Some folks have told me as much, saying Critical Race Theory is just another way for white people to self-righteously act like they know what’s best for people of color.

It’s not enough to say that whites have more power and capital, and therefore the anti-racist cause needs white people working on it in order to be successful. That belittles the power people of color do have, and makes it seem like the role of white anti-racists is to speak on behalf of people of color—as if the goal is to silence their voices further by completely replacing them with our own.

So on the one hand, I don’t want to speak on anyone’s behalf, and on the other hand, I’m wary of falling into “white guilt” and just doing nothing. In the middle is this place where I can work my ass off for justice and be proud and secure in who I am and what I’m doing. That’s what I’m working to find.

I think it lies in acknowledging fully what it means to be white—something white people aren’t forced to think about, but is crucial to fully understanding exactly where my place is in this work.

Being white means never having to apologize.

It means getting to blame people of color for their own predicament.

It means believing in, and usually defining yourself by, a pretend meritocracy.

Being white means having to learn, in school usually, to see things that others feel viscerally from as early as they can remember.

That’s the thing. Being white doesn’t make me less qualified to fight racism. Isn’t racism a white problem? Taking classes on race issues doesn’t mean I know more than people of color—it means I now understand that to expect people of color to solve racism is to ask them to fix white peoples’ problem. The problems of never feeling like you have to apologize, of having to go to school to discover, in your twenties, the very basis on which our society operates, the problem of blaming people of color for their own predicament—these are white people’s problems. Something we have the responsibility to fix. When people of color devote themselves to this problem, it’s a generous, valuable choice and a crucial contribution. But for whites to expect that of every person of color, or to bow out of conversations because we don’t know first-hand the experiences of people of color, is to take advantage of the agency they do have and expect them to put it all to use to fix our own pathologies.

In short, being white means having the responsibility to redefine what being white means.

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365 Days of Body Hair

In July 2011, I decided to go one full year without removing a single hair from my body.

I was doing regular full Brazilian waxes at the time, shaving my pits almost daily, shaving my legs if I was planning on wearing shorts or a skirt, and (sort of) “keeping up” by tweezing and trimming my eyebrows.

I made the decision because I was inspired my a friend of mine who’d stopped shaving her legs, because I wanted to embark on an expectations-defying exercise of body-positivity, but overwhelmingly because I just couldn’t come up with a satisfying answer to the question “Why AM I shaving, anyway?”

(… in what my friends felt was a disgusting contradiction, I decided to celebrate my last waxing by getting vajazzled.)

The Outcome

Leg Hair: It seems funny, but I’m really fond of my leg hair. I would estimate it took about seven months before I had more positive feelings about it than negative–but now I love walking onto the bus in shorts and wondering whether I’m making anybody ask themselves the same question I couldn’t answer. I love the softness of it (it stopped being prickly after about two months), and I love that my legs look a little like a dude’s legs. I’m actually more prone to wear short shorts now than I ever was before this project. I plan on keeping my legs hairy for the rest of my life.

Pitstache: My armpits definitely get the biggest reaction from people. Somehow it looks dirty to them to see dark pits on a girl, when the same thing is attractive on a man. I did a little double-take every time I saw them in the bathroom mirror for a long time–and I still often get flinches from many of my friends when I lift my arms. Deodorant was an issue at first–can’t use waxy deodorant on hairy pits, you know. I had to start using the more slippery dude kind (I even bought the aerosol spray kind for kicks, but it burned). My armpit hair is probably close to three inches long now. I plan on keeping it as well, but trimming it to maybe half its current length.

The Nethers: I’ve always been on the tufty side of things (or maybe I’m just trained to think that, like everyone else). My favorite part about not “maintaining” my pubic hair is the confidence I’ve built up in a swimsuit. I like paying attention to whether I switch positions on the lawn chair to hide it, and I especially like the days when I’m brave enough to switch back. I’m not totally over all of the stigma that comes with having lots of hair Down There, but in the full spirit of positivity, I’m not going to beat myself up over the fact that I sometimes beat myself up. I think accepting little insecurities, acknowledging them, and letting them roll through you, rather than ignoring or denying them, is part of the full experience of having a body and loving it. Sex isn’t changed much–I met my girlfriend in February, so I was already a Wild Thing and didn’t scare her off :). She is totally affirming and wants me to do whatever I want to do. However, I do miss the smooth feeling of being waxed, and will probably go back to Brazilians come July. If I can afford it.

Eyebrows: Totally a non-issue. Took me about three days to stop worrying about whether people were staring. Maybe it was easy for me because my face happens to conform a little to what eyebrows are “supposed” to be–but I honestly just don’t think anybody notices eyebrows like we’re taught to think they do (I only notice eyebrows myself when they’re drawn on).

 

Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I like the thought that some women may be inspired by the sight of my leg hair the way I was inspired by my friend’s. In the (surprisingly few, actually) conversations I’ve had about my body hair in the past year, women I speak to either say “you’re way more brave than I am” or “I wouldn’t go THAT far maybe, but I do wonder why I still put the time and effort into shaving.” My wonderful girlfriend has joined me (see 1st comment here) and I’m hoping it’ll bring the same feelings of truly liking her body hair that it brought me.

(And in what I’m sure is still a disgusting contradiction, you bet I’ll be celebrating July 2012 by getting vajazzled.)

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Religion and Accountable Talk

Welp. So much for coming out being easy.

My mother flew down here the day after I told her I had a girlfriend. Yesterday she bought a plane ticket to head back a day earlier than planned.

The worst is over, I know. But I can’t escape the frustration I felt from talking to her all weekend.

It is very easy for religious people to escape the accountability of conversation. Everything I said had a pre-packaged answer that snaked its way around logic:

Me: “It hurts my feelings when you say that.”
Her: “What’s worse; hurting your feelings or watching you burn in hell?”

Me: “Why can’t you just let it go and pray about it? Can’t God do this on his own?”
Her: “I am his hands and feet.”

Me: “What you’re saying isn’t logical.”
Her: “Of course it doesn’t seem logical to you, because you’re deceived by the devil.”

Me: “What if you’re the one who’s being deceived?”
Her: “I’m not, because I feel it. I know this is the truth.”

So there was literally no conversation to be had and no progress to be made. It was like trying to have a conversation with Stacey Pritchard.

If she would just engage in this like a real person, I would be willing to listen. I can see how she’s in a really tough position of believing something so hard that she doesn’t need it to be logical, especially when it comes to the salvation of her daughter. But this is exactly why people think all religious people are stupid and hateful, and it’s just too bad.

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Out!

I’m not sure what I thought I’d feel after finally coming out to my mom, but I expected something along the lines of “no big deal.” I figured I knew exactly what she’d say (and I was right: “I kinda figured, and I abhor it with every fiber of my being” and “I want you to know that I love you”), and I knew I’d reached a place where all I wanted to do is live honestly. I think I was also a little wary of making up pain for myself by donning the tired Coming Out story—the huge ordeal with tears and hurt feelings was too cliché and wouldn’t be me. Mostly, I knew the very Christian “love the sinner, hate the sin” would be there at the end, so any coming-out-pain would be nothing compared to the abandonment and abuse many others face.

But the night after my mom and I talked about it (even though we didn’t truly talk about IT for more than two minutes), I felt much smaller and more hurt than I wanted to admit.

My friends have always been my real family—I made a big deal out of this for a while, until I realized that’s the way I like it—but I guess it’s still going to hurt when your mother spends two hours pathologizing your very personality and quite actively Not Listening to you.

Let’s just say I CAN’T WAIT for the day Christianity finally realizes God loves gays.

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Who is more oppressed? (or, Oppression 201)

I recently read TransActivist’sMy message to those who would attend Radfem 2012” post (AND its comments—it all took me almost an hour) and learned more than I have from a blog post in a long time. I highly recommend reading the entire thing and then doing some pondering.

I’m happy to have gotten the hang of most of the Oppression 101 basics—you know, how to “unpack your knapsack,” that there’s no such thing as “reverse racism,” and what “derailing” means— but it’s still inspiring when I find something new to chew on. That “something new,” for me, is that there are real, live feminists who feel that it’s important for non-trans women to have a feminist space separate from trans women.

Two More Important Lessons from Oppression 101:

A separate space
The lessons I learned while learning the basics tell me that it’s good and necessary for oppressed folks to have space separate from their oppressors. I remember, when I was learning this for the first time, feeling a little conflicted—“if a white person isn’t allowed to go to a racism conference for people of color, isn’t that unfair and racist, too?” “Why can people of color exclude whites but whites can’t exclude people of color?” But I am a white person, and thus didn’t (don’t) fully understand the silencing effect a white person, an oppressor, in the room can have on the voices of others. The need for a separate space is real and important.

Don’t talk about me without me
I’ve also learned the importance of including people’s voices if those people are the topic of conversation. A group of men shouldn’t have a discussion about what it’s like to be a woman; a group of white people shouldn’t assume they know what racism feels like; a church shouldn’t undertake to characterize homosexuality without acknowledging the voices of homosexuals in their congregation. This is another reason why oppressors shouldn’t ever be allowed to exclude oppressed folks.

Radical Feminists hold that women born women deserve a separate space from women who were born men. Trans activist(s) maintain that a conversation about trans people shouldn’t be held if trans people are excluded. From there, we get into the specifics of each groups’ oppression. Women born women are more oppressed, because they had female childhoods and never tasted male privilege. Trans women are more oppressed, because they were marginalized for their trans-ness.

Really, it makes sense that the argument would come down to a “who is more oppressed” debate, because whoever is more oppressed would certainly have the right to exclude the other at times, or would have the right to demand the inclusion.

… but all of this is oversimplifying, isn’t it? Enmeshed in all of this are tons of otherwise respectable feminist voices claiming that trans women aren’t “real” women, that the mere existence of trans people undermines the mission of radical feminism. It appears I’ve graduated to Oppression 201 now, and I definitely have a lot more learning about both transphobia and radical feminism before I truly understand enough to comment further.

But I will end with a piece of my own comment on the post:

Because I don’t think any of us have ever been both, none of us can answer the “who is more oppressed?” question with anything more than our own experience. But when in doubt, it’s best to favor inclusion of voices over exclusion, diversity of opinion over sameness.

And I would tentatively posit that trans women, especially feminist trans women, are not the oppressors that any kind of feminism should work to exclude.

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… but really, what’s wrong with being female?

For a while in college, I called myself a man.

I honestly have no idea why; even since getting deeper into feminism post-college, I can’t quite articulate the reason for this particular silliness.
It really was closer to silliness than anything else. Conversations would go something like this:

Someone: “Aw, it’ll be like a girl’s night out!”
Me: “Except that I’m a man.”
Someone: “What?… I’m pretty sure you’re a girl, actually.”
Me: “Well, lots of people think that.”
Someone: “Are you trying to tell me you have a penis? Is there something you want to tell us about?”
Me: “No. I’m just a man.”
Someone: “Ok, you mean you’re strong?”
Me: “No. I just mean I’m a man.”
Someone: “But you don’t have a penis.”
Me: “How do you know?”

It was always a really lighthearted conversation, and I’ve always been “the weird one” anyway, so people usually shrugged it off as me just trying to confuse them. My close friends would sometimes come at me with “no, seriously, what’s with this man thing?” and my best explanation was that not all men have penises or look like dudes, and if I was a man in a woman’s body no one would be any the wiser.

(Clarification: this had nothing to do with me actually feeling that I was truly a man. This was not trans-territory, and I know talking about “pretending” could trivialize those very real experiences; for that I apologize. Nonetheless, this was me messing with people and being weird before I knew better.)

Two years out of college, I don’t pretend to be a man anymore, mostly because my feminist side started asking “but really, what’s wrong with being female?” I’ve always wanted to surprise people, though, to use my weirdness to push them to think differently. But I knew part of this weird “man thing” stemmed my obsession with strength and badassery, and I’ve started trying to separate strength and badassery from masculinity. Another part of it was me wanting to dodge being stereotyped as a girl who therefore liked girl things; I now have the desire to challenge those stereotypes, rather than dodge them.

This felt like an appropriate story for the first post on my White Lady Blog: A little weird, a little about gender, a little about learning to do adulthood the right way. (I’ll have more definitive and purposeful things to say when this intimidating FIRST POST thing is over with!)

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