Discomfort is not divisive

Discomfort in many ways is similar to pain, the internal warning system that all is not right and that perhaps we need to check in or perhaps figure some things out. Ignoring our pain or discomfort often comes at a high price. Case in point, for the past several weeks, I have been physically wiped out. Despite waking up every day feeling as if a plastic bag were tied around my head, I brushed off my physical discomfort and chalked it up to allergies and stress from my day job. After all, trying to save a struggling non-profit agency is tiring.  This weekend my physical discomfort escalated to the point that I could no longer ignore it once my eyes and face started swelling up and I found myself at the local urgent care clinic on a beautiful Sunday morning. It turns out all the pesky things I had been ignoring for weeks were a low level sinus infection that has now become an acute case of sinusitis and despite my dislike of all things pharmaceutical, I am on a heavy dose of antibiotics to knock this thing out. Looking back, I am kicking myself for not noticing all the clear signs that all was not well, but I wasn’t paying attention or rather I chose not to pay attention.

In many ways my refusal to acknowledge and pay attention to my body is very similar to how many Americans view matters of race and difference.  It is uncomfortable, and no one likes to feel uncomfortable. Yet when we continue to ignore situations, they rarely go away.  Instead situations that we ignore have a pesky habit of growing into things that eventually spiral out of control.

I don’t think that America is spiraling out of control because of racial matters, but it seems clear to all that are paying attention that much of the progress that we thought we had made as a nation when it came to matters of race, was either in our heads or on paper. Laws have changed and we have our first Black president but the rate at which we hear about injustice and inequality is going in the wrong direction. The fact that so many of us do not have friends of different races speaks volumes about how we really feel. Yet whenever someone dares to bring up these issues, it is seen as divisive and it is uncomfortable, so we shut it down or block it out.

No place is this seen more clearly than in the feminist community, where mainstream, predominantly white feminists are often the official voice of all women/feminists yet often their agenda is not inclusive of all women, particularly women of color. Women of color often find themselves shut out of larger discussions and in recent days the situation came to a head with the offline and online breakdown of Hugo Schwyzer. Schwyzer is a gender studies professor, blogger and writer who had a hell of a run for quite a time but to blunt, he shat upon many of women of color in the process of making a name for himself. Without getting into the gritty details since there are players who know far more about the details than me, mainstream feminist and feminist publications often made a place at the table for Schwyzer despite knowing that his record among feminists of color was less than ideal. In the end, he was not who he claimed to be and to say that there is a seismic gulf between most mainstream feminists and feminists of color would be an understatement.

Today that disconnect played out on twitter with the hashtag that started trending globally #solidarityisforwhitewomen which was started by Mikki Kendall where many, including yours truly, posted insights about how dismissive the mainstream and predominantly white feminist community is towards people of color and how people of color are often missing from larger and relevant discussions that should involve all women. Without a doubt it was uncomfortable for many; a local Twitter user who I have met commented that “ #solidarityisforwhitewomen is making me feel like I should be ashamed to be white. Being a woman is hard enough. Why add race into it?”  Great question and really that question is the reason why I am writing tonight when I should be resting.

Too often when women of color talk openly about their experiences as women of color, white women often in an attempt to achieve solidarity are quick to mention that as women we all share a common hardship and that we should focus on what we share in common, not our differences. In theory this sounds great but the uncomfortable truth is that women of color and white women are not playing on an even playing field at this time. Even when we level the playing field and take into consideration the class factor, my reality as a college educated, middle class Black woman is still not the same reality as my white peers.   One need only look at the never-ending Mommy wars, which primarily focus on middle class and above white women. Even the Lean In discussions are primarily focused on high achieving, upper middle class mothers, most of whom are white. Sheryl Sandberg pretty much admits that the focus of “Leaning In” is not inclusive of all women.  So that means while the national discussions in the U.S. talk a great deal about motherhood and related topics, those conversations which seem to take up a lot of words actually leave out quite a few.

If our goal is to achieve solidarity as women, that will never be accomplished as long as only some women get to have a voice and others are stifled. To move forward means we have to hear all the players and allow them a place at the table.  It means the ability to move beyond our own egos and feelings and take a look at our own discomfort. As I noted before, discomfort serves a purpose and we have to be willing to examine it and not ignore it. I suspect that for many well-meaning and well-intentioned folks, matters of race and difference are uncomfortable because to truly examine that discomfort may bring us face to face with something that we would rather not deal with. However, the cost of ignoring that discomfort may eventually leave us with something larger, messier and nastier to deal with…the choice is ours.

21 thoughts on “Discomfort is not divisive”

  1. Megan, maybe these two quotes give some answer to your questions about feminism through the filter of race and the conflation f issues with feminism. From The Combahee River Collective statement of 1977: “. . . it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever consIdered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression.”
    Also: “We . . . often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.”

    WhitePrivilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies by Peggy McIntosh ) is a really great paper. It’s 18 pages long, and compares white privilege to male privilege and the oppression felt by those who are affected by it. From page 4:
    “After I realized . . . the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive even when we don’t see ourselves that way. . . . I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence, unable to see that it put me ‘ahead’ in any way. . . ”

    The author presents a long list of “. . . circumstances and conditions . . . which I did not earn, but which I have been made to feel are mine by birth . . . which . . . pertain more to skin-color privilege than class, religion . . . “, etc. “. . . .Afro-Americans . . . can not count on most of these conditions.”

    A few examples:
    I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

    I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

    I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

    I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

    I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

    I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

    There are many more.

    When I first read the condensed version of this (White Privilege:Unpacking the invisible Backpack , I was brought up short. As mentioned above, I’d lived with and among people of color for years. I’d marched and supported the civil rights movement. Who could be less racist than I? True, I’d noticed many of these things, have to be blind not to, but as the author notes in the long version, white privilege is “an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great . . . If these things are true, this is not such a free country . . . many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.” I had to own the damn backpack.

    Owning the backpack changed my entire perspective. Toward people of color, toward those who live in poverty, toward people who live with mental or physical disability. I work with LGBT kids. Though I identify as bi-sexual, I’m married to a man, thus I’m the recipient of heterosexual privilege. I forget. A lot. But I try to remember, and I hope I succeed more often than not but that’s awfully hard to measure.

    I’m going on and on, purporting to understand a reality I don’t live, but I think the problem is that white feminists have been blind to the impact of the simple fact of color and the privilege enjoyed by one over the other.

    • But again, those examples address either a gender issue or a race issue, but never both at the same time. I discussed this with my fiance last night because I thought he might have a new perspective for me – he came up with the only example I’ve heard that actually combines the two issues in an inseparable way. He mentioned that in Hispanic culture many people are Catholic and take their religion very seriously. Because Catholicism is against premarital sex, and sex education disproportionately affects women over men, we now have an example of an issue that neither Hispanic men or white women have. One could make an argument against religion in this case, too, but as my fiance pointed out caucasians are more likely to get sex education at school and, at least in the U.S., are more encouraged to be individualists.
      One more thing that you might think is nit picky – I have a problem with the term “privilege” because in most contexts, a privilege is an unearned advantage that *should be taken away*. I think we can all agree that a lot of what is generally termed as privilege in these discussions shouldn’t be taken away from the group that has it, but rather should be expected by everyone, regardless of race, gender, etc. That’s why I tend to shift the focus – it’s not what I *have* that’s the problem, it’s what others *don’t* have. Granted there are definitely examples of actual privilege happening too, and those unfair advantages really should be taken away.

  2. I guess I’ve always seen racism, and sexism as two separate issues, that overlap for some people quite directly. I am white and was raised in an upper middle class family, on top of which I have chosen a stereotypically female career – early childhood educator. I am aware that racial and sexual discrimination occur, but it hasn’t happened to me. I know that people of color are statistically more likely to be low income, so I can see how classism and the very real disadvantages of being low income relate to racism.
    Women have a cultural disadvantage, and people of color have a (bigger, in my experience) cultural disadvantage, and some people unfortunately have to deal with both. This I clearly understand. What I really don’t understand is how feminism looks different as seen through the filter of race – does that make sense?
    I also think it’s kind of confusing to mix up some of the specific issues but not all. For me, either we’re addressing injustice in general, or we’re discussing a specific issue such as inequality for women, or people of color, or low income people, or homosexuals, or… the list goes on. If I (and many others, from this whole post) could see how these two issues overlapped more directly I’m sure it would be easier to address.

    • Megan, the overlapping of identities (such as gender & race) is called intersectionality. Here’s a little background: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality

      While you may be most comfortable with only looking at one issue at a time, the reality of our world is that no one person is only affected by just one issue at a time. When we talk about issues of race and feminism, for example, to deny a person’s race or their gender so that we can focus on just one at a time is to ignore the way either one of those identities impacts the other.

      There are lots of examples of intersectionality out there, including the specific topic of race & feminism. Google can give you lots of goodies.

      A quick example for you: poor people are often looked down upon in our country, but poor White women are perceived by many to have fallen upon hard luck, to be ashamed of their circumstances and eager to work hard to better their circumstances. In contrast, poor Black women are perceived by many to have made poor choices leading to their circumstances, to have no shame in “mooching off of taxpayers” and to not be willing to work hard to get themselves into a better situation.

      Both are women in poverty but are perceived differently because of their race and this impacts how they are treated as individuals as well as how their lives are impacted by legislation created by people who hold those different perceptions of White vs Black. This translates to them having different types and amounts of access to resources and opportunities for getting out of poverty.

      An example related to feminist action: White, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied women are encouraged to Lean In, i.e. be assertive and demand respect and opportunity . . . but when Black women do it (even when they do much less) they are labled angry and aggressive.

  3. thanks for this post, I’m finding myself thinking about it repeatedly.
    I have an incident to relate, and I think this may be a place I could share it and perhaps fellow readers or BGIM could help me to process it… because I’ve also found myself thinking about this incident repeatedly.
    I live in Maine. The week after the decision in the Trayvon Martin tragedy an older woman and two children were crossing my yard, close to my house to get from a side street to a main street. I asked if they needed help and the woman smiled and said “Oh, I’m just cutting across.” I looked at her and said civilly “Most people do not cross my yard without permission.”
    At that time I immediately thought “she has white privilege syndrome.” BTW, I am also a white woman ca. 50 yo, and I have a son who is a young black man. Would a young black man have crossed my yard and assumed I would be alright with it? Would an older WOC have assumed that I wouldn’t mind a stranger crossing my yard?
    I have many questions, and try to be open to learning new ways of thinking, of living, of understanding… I still don’t understand why that white woman (who I assume is a good human being) crossing my yard and her assumption it would be okay exacerbated my pain over the death of a young black man.

    • I don’t know whether you live in town or the countryside, but I know that where I live, we don’t worry much about cutting across one another’s property. And it’s a long time ago, now, and far away, but when I was a kid, I left my house, crossed the road, and never stepped foot on a piece of public property again until I was across the street from school, a journey that took me through at least a half dozen yards. So, it may just be the way it’s always been for that woman. For sure, I don’t know, but I just flashed back on all of us running right past the Eldridge’s kitchen windows, waving and shouting hello. And maybe, if that’s what people have always tended to do there, people of color might have done the same. They did when I was a kid.

      • Thanks LIs, I’ve either lived in towns or in the countryside… never in a situation where one could or would walk directly across someone else’s property. I appreciate having a fresh perspective on this incident.

  4. I’m not trying to be an ass here, and I’m prefacing this with that for clarity’s sake. I’m just trying to understand.

    I keep seeing white women and women of color discussing this disconnect between white and black feminism, and I don’t really get it. I would like to, but so far, no one I’ve read really has a clear explanation. They just say, basically, “Things are different, and WOC are being excluded/silenced.”

    Outside of reading and listening to personal accounts from people of color, I obviously can’t understand what it’s like to be one (and I’d argue that POC can’t understand what it’s like to be white, though I’ll concede that one is less desirable than the other because of society’s current condition–I realize that might be putting it lightly), let alone being a woman in that culture.

    So what I’m wondering is what differences are there between the things white women and women of color are hoping feminism will achieve? And how, exactly, are white feminists excluding WOC from the conversation?

    If you’ve explained this somewhere already, feel free to link me to it. I won’t be offended in the least. And I hope I haven’t offended you. 🙂

    • IMHO, the women’s movement, by and large, has not addressed the issues of class or race. I guess it’s human nature to look at the world from where you are. The people who are most heard from in the women’s movement are well educated, and come from that perspective. E.g., if your problem is that you’ve hit the glass ceiling in your profession, you tend to see that as the issue, rather than getting the education to get a job in the first place, thus poor women are excluded form the conversation. If you’re white, and don’t face the constant “othering” imposed on POC, you don’t see that as the issue. I’m assuming WOC want the same thing anyone else does. Respect, opportunity, etc., based on their character and ability. To ignore the issues faced by those who are not just like us is to leave them out. To not work proactively to change these things is to leave them out. I’m not trying to be snarky, but this much, at least, seems clear to me without a link to anywhere. If even Oprah, for pete’s sake, is seen as just another black woman who isn’t up to snuff, what must ordinary people go through on a daily basis? And that extends into the women’s movement. (And I’ll shut up, now, and let the people who actually live this have their say.)

      • Are you seriously irritated that I’m trying to understand the situation? I mean, really? Isn’t that…counterproductive?

        This, too, is counterproductive: If you’re white, and don’t face the constant “othering” imposed on POC, you don’t see that as the issue.

        At the risk of sounding cliché, you don’t know me, and I’ll appreciate you not lumping me in with whatever ideas you have about how white people approach racism.

        I lived in the ghetto for most of my adult life and have witnessed first hand (second hand, maybe, since I was watching it happen…and standing up for those it happened to) how POC are marginalized.

        I’m not denying there are issues. I’m trying to understand those issues so that I can properly advocate for finding resolutions. I thought that was the point. Maybe I was mistaken.

      • Those examples seem to me like examples of injustice for low income people, or for people of color, and not specifically issues for women, in the sense that those problems exist for low income men and men of color, too. I think it’s important to have discussions about equality and justice in the broad sense, but if we’re specifically addressing feminism then it seems like bringing in issues that affect both genders kind of muddies the water. If I’m wrong I would love to be corrected, but it doesn’t really follow for me right now.

        • Rayne, I am going to answer you but in another post because what you are asking is something that I hear often enough that I think it deserves it’s own post. 🙂

        • Rayne, I wasn’t trying to be rude or counterproductive. I speak only from my own experience and observation. I don’t know who you are, and I didn’t think that it mattered that I spent much of my early life among marginalized people, and lived in the predominantly Black area of Boston for the better part of a decade in the sixties and seventies, but maybe it’s good that we know this about each other. When I said “you”, I meant the general you. I really meant that what we don’t see as an issue is very often the issue. The not seeing itself. That we, as white people can have the luxury of not seeing. The problems are those that you stood up against in your neighborhood translated into the women’s movement. They are perhaps more pernicious because they don’t jump right out at us, but they’re there. And the women’s movement often (not always, not everyone) seems to not see a lot.
          And, yes, #Solidarityisforwhitewomen is an education in itself!

          • “I don’t know who you are, and I didn’t think that it mattered that I spent much of my early life among marginalized people, and lived in the predominantly Black area of Boston for the better part of a decade in the sixties and seventies, but maybe it’s good that we know this about each other.”

            You’re right. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.

        • Replying here because I couldn’t get my cursor to work in a reply to your other comment. This is in response to your response to Lis, where you start, “Are you seriously irritated . . .”

          I don’t know Lis so am going out on a limb to speak on her behalf, but I didn’t see her say she was irritated, nor did I read that in her written tone. I perceived her response as very matter of fact, and that she was answering the question you asked. She gave some specific examples that directly answered your question about differences in feminism as experienced by Women of Color vs. White Women.

          So: that you perceived her response as one of irritation and that you (seem to) have ignored the specific examples she gave, by ending your comment with, “I’m trying to understand those issues so that I can properly advocate for finding resolutions.” gives me the impression that you may not be as interested in personal development as you claim. Or, that you’re allowing defensiveness to overpower your sincere interest.

          At any rate . . . if you ask to be educated, prepare to be educated. A lot of trust/patience has been lost from WOC toward WW because WW say, “Help me understand, how can I do better?” and then when WOC respond w/specifics, WW perceive it as an attack.

          An important part of the work White folks need to do to align themselves with POC in the fight against racism & injustice is to actively and consistently push down our defensiveness. It will naturally rise up because no one likes to be told they’ve done something that hurts another person, especially when they had good intentions, but it’s so important to work on responding in a different way, especially if you want to develop these relationships.

          You may have lived in the ghetto but if you have to ask about the differences between how WOC and WW experience feminism, that points to a deficit in your education and understanding of these issues. And that’s fine – no one knows everything and we all have room to grow even after we’ve become really well versed in a topic. I already said it, but: if you show that you have a deficit in understanding, and you ask for help to understand . . . try not to be defensive when someone responds.

          • You’re right. I am defensive.

            Since the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag started, I’ve been told simply the fact that I’m white makes me a white supremacist, even if I don’t have those mental attitudes. I’ve been told that white people (and especially white women) are inherently selfish and racist and classist. I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to be proud of my heritage, because even though there is no slavery or discrimination in my ancestry I’m still to blame for the slavery and discrimination that is in our country’s past. And I’ve been told I should just sit down an shut up about it by the very same people who are upset about being told to sit down and shut up.

            I probably misread Lis, and for that I apologize. To me, it sounded like they were making assumptions about me based on their past experience with other white people, and that, I thought, is the exact attitude we’re trying to do away with. However, they said they were trying not to be snarky. Often, snark is a tone used when a person is irritated, or thinks the person they’re talking to is a moron.

            I am absolutely interested in learning more about how I can be a productive ally to the cause, but I’ll pass on being branded a white supremacist simply because I refuse to apologize for who I am.

  5. Like many here, I live in Maine. Out in the puckerbrush. There are two families of color here, more than in lots of towns around. They’re both pretty upper middle, and out of my social network, but I know one pretty well from working together on political stuff, and I know some of what they’ve dealt with. Any person with eyes to see and ears to hear who can say racism isn’t rampant, who can say, “Why bring race into it?” as if it was no longer (or never was) an issue has to be blind and deaf. Deliberately so, which is what hurts. It’s true that 50 years ago we couldn’t have elected a Black President, it’s true that laws are in place, and that’s all to the good, but the depths of the abyss have reopened in parallel with Obama’s presidency, and to be unwilling to see this is. . . the place where I run out of words to describe it.

  6. Oh, how I love this: “To move forward means we have to hear all the players and allow them a place at the table. It means the ability to move beyond our own egos and feelings and take a look at our own discomfort.” Thanks for a great post that I will be passing along/quoting from/mulling over for a very long time.

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