Content Warning: minimal use of anatomical slang.
This post is about me. Me and my story.
That may seem obvious, but I want to state this clearly. Because in this post I use examples that involve other people. It may be tempting to try to interpret their role, or question my interpretation, but that would miss the point. The point is, the anecdote is presented in order to provide a framework for my thoughts, my process, my story.
I was raised as a typical girl: by that I mean I was raised to be courteous and polite, particularly to authority figures and most of all to men; to respond to male anger with gentleness and coaxing; to shrink with shame in the face of another’s anger and blame; to accept their reality over my own.
I slowly learned to reclaim my own reality first through words on paper; much more slowly by using my voice. I still struggle to stand up for myself. Humility is far more comfortable. Easier to advocate for a friend; more willing to stick out my neck for others who are oppressed.
I am less comfortable speaking up for myself, or for those with whom I am oppressed – women and the LGBTQ+ community.
I am more comfortable advocating for others than for myself.
Being a student of social justice and all its intersectionalities among race, sex, gender, religion and more, I find myself confused at times by when to stand up in protest, and when to take a seat. I have seen this dilemma played out countless times with other social justice advocates.
In this dilemma, my predisposition for humility is both strength and weakness.
When anguish erupted in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, I started seeking out and listening to voices of Black United Statesians. I realized that my white upbringing – despite liberal parents, extensive travel, and a de-segregated high school – prevented me from comprehending the extraordinarily different experience it is for Black people living in this country; how extraordinarily different this country is for Black people.
For any of us, there is only one way to bridge this gap in understanding: to continuously push aside our preconceptions, and listen to as many personal stories from Black people about their experiences of living in the U.S. My humility served me well in helping to recognize that my own experiences and opinions only impede my understanding. My humility served me well in that I don’t have to wrestle with my Ego as much as some do to put aside my beliefs in order to learn about others’ realities.
This same process – put aside my preconceptions, experiences, and opinions, and start listening to others’ experiences – applies to any marginalized group: folks from the Middle East, Muslims, people with physical or mental disabilities, those who are poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, people who are obese, people who are elderly, Latino and Hispanic people, Native Americans, immigrants, women, lesbians and gays, or trans men and women.
Admittedly, it has been easier to set aside my preconceptions with some groups than with others. I struggle to put aside strongly held views that perhaps developed over a lifetime, but I believe fervently that I can only learn about others’ experience from them.
A side “benefit” of this process is that my defensiveness has diminished. Jokes or accusations about white people no longer offend. Depending on the context I appreciate the humor, reflect on the sad truth, or turn my attention inward to search out any bigotry hiding inside me. The path is continuous, the process the same, repeated over and over.
But here is where it gets complicated. What if someone from a marginalized group offends another marginalized group? What if they offend my marginalized group? I know I am not the only person who feels cautious and torn by this conundrum.
Here my humility, my training to appease and placate, does not serve me well. I hesitate for far too long before accepting that I need to stand up for those I am oppressed with, before realizing that I get to stand up for myself too.
A few years ago I helped start a local group fighting for marriage equality (same-sex marriage). Was I motivated by the dream of legalizing wedding cakes and aisles lined with flowers? Not really. Same-sex couples have always had ceremonies with cakes and flowers. But marriage rights for same-sex couples is serious business, and brings with it real life consequences. Without it, a spouse is not guaranteed the right to make medical decisions about their partner in the hospital, may even be denied the right to see them. Without it, a spouse cannot visit their partner in jail. Without it, children are vulnerable to either kidnapping or abandonment, as no law binds one of the parents. Whether children of gay parents or children who are gay, a country that does not allow marriage for same-sex couples is stating that being gay is an abomination. And in far greater numbers than their straight counterparts, LGBTQ youth suicide rather than stay in a world that believes they are abominations.
Two things happened on the day that same-sex marriage was declared the law of the land by the Supreme Court. The first was that my Facebook feed became an explosion of rainbows. (While some in the LGBTQ community felt differently, I loved being embraced by my straight brothers and sisters from around the world in a blanket of rainbows.)
The second thing, on that very day, was a backlash from a small number of social justice activists. Some said that while same sex marriage was pretty and happy and acceptable, what about the suicides and murders of trans men and women? Others said, who cares about something as frivolous as marriage, when Brown and Black bodies are still being murdered?
I kept silent, but this angered me. Same sex marriage wasn’t all pretty. It was also about life and death. And it had been a long fight over the course of many years, all across the country. This success in no way invalidated tragedies befalling the trans community, in no way invalidated the horrors committed against people of color. The comparison, the suggestion that the one took away from the other, was false. And the suggestion that this victory was trivial, inconsequential, and a distraction, hurt.
My outrage at the atrocities committed against LGBTQ people is justified. My joy at this victory, both tangible and symbolic, is justified and deserved. Trivializing its importance invalidated the real struggles of marginalized people. I wish I had spoken up that day.
So now I remind you that what follows is my story; especially for those who know personally about this situation.
Recently a social justice friend posted on Facebook. One of her friends as part of his response included an offensive description of female genitals, along the lines of, “Icky Tw@t.”
A part of me wanted to scroll on by. Several people had “liked” this comment, and no one had called out his offensive phrase. His profile pic was not of a person; the name was male. Other than that I knew nothing about him, did not know his race, his sexual orientation. A struggle ensued in my head and gut. This was shaky ground, no doubt.
Someone making an offensive racist comment? Easy to decide how to respond. A person of unknown race making a misogynistic comment? This ground felt less certain.
At the same time, I felt something build and well up inside me. Yes I’m white. I benefit every day from white privilege, white supremacy, from a country built on the backs of Black and Brown people. And I get to be offended by misogyny. It harms me. It harms women I know, women I care about, all women.
No one should get a pass for being misogynistic.
I started with a gentle comment, “tw@ts are not icky.”
He responded with something like, “maybe not to you.”
Based on that response, I wondered if he was gay. And again thoughts ran through my head. And again I came to the same conclusion, or rather, a feeling welled up from inside me: No one gets a pass for being misogynistic.
Our exchange escalated instantly, he became aggressive and swore at me, I in turn called him a misogynist. He clearly was not open to hearing that a woman took offense to women’s genitalia being described in a dirty, derogatory, and objectifying manner. I blocked him.
Later that day I found that my friend, on whose post this all occurred, had unfriended me. I was hurt and confused. All I had done was call attention to, and then call out, misogyny.
When she and I interacted about it, she presented a different perspective. What struck me most was her protectiveness of her friend who had made these comments. She was very angry with me and I thought at length about my choices. In the end, I decided that to not call out his misogyny felt like having to take it. With that thought my chest tightened, and I knew that could not have been the right choice for me.
Learning about the depths of oppression experienced by marginalized people is a lifelong process; I will always be a student. As such, it makes sense for me to listen, learn, and amplify those stories – rather than trying to raise my voice over theirs.
But what about those times that it is my voice, my marginalized voice as a woman, as a lesbian, that needs to be amplified? And what about those times that I need to raise my voice over theirs?
I am certain that any time I raise my voice as one oppressed person over another, I will make waves and lose friends. I doubt there is a solution that would be agreeable to everyone, in this convoluted system that thrives on pitting the marginalized against one another. What I will try to remember is that it is not about convincing others that I’m right. It’s about continuing to search my heart, and learning what is right for me to do.
Social justice work is exhausting. Always there is a barrage of blatant bigotry. Always there is a barrage of well-meaning liberal white privilege and defensiveness. Often among activists, good intentions end up being harmful. And sometimes any choice is fraught with harm.
And yet all there is to do is continue to listen, learn, and amplify. And maybe on occasion, to speak up.