Working Together While Apart
by Jennifer of Mixed Race America
Conventional wisdom often says that people get more conservative as they get older. But as I find myself in my late 30s, I have to say that I have moved more and more to the left of center, or perhaps more towards a liberal-progressive politics than I had started with in high school or college.
In fact, it was graduate school in Boston that seemed to reallly help me turn the corner. For the first time I found myself away from the West Coast of sunny California and in an urban metropolis where showing up to a graduate seminar in shorts and a t-shirt with white keds marked one as very "unhip, uncool, not-from-here."
Two experiences in graduate school have shaped my desire to work with all women (all people really, because lets face it, we need male allies too), but especially women of color, towards social justice issues. The first was my first day in a mixed undergraduate/grad seminar on Feminist Theory. I had taken Women's Studies and Gender Studies courses at my undergraduate alma mater, and was eager to plunge into a "theory" course. The first day was spent having us go around the room and describe what feminism mean to us and whether we considered ourselves feminists. One by one, the young women in the room (predominantly undergraduates) of various racial/ethnic backgrounds, explained that they were "feminist but" as in "I'm a feminist but I shave my legs" or "I'm a feminist but I date men" or "I'm a feminist but I'm not angry."
When it was my turn, I said, "I'm a feminist because I believe in equality between men and women." There was no qualification. And that's when I realized that I really meant it--I was proud to claim the identity of feminist, and I really believe that it is about equality. I know feminism is more complicated than that, and as I started to learn about the relationship of "traditional" feminism to women of color, especially African American women, I understood the appeal of a term like "womanist" and learned to think carefully about the intersections of class, race, and gender when thinking or theorizing about identity categories, especially the category of "women."
The second experience I had was at a talk that bell hooks gave when she was on a book tour promoting KILLING RAGE. Ms. hooks was so powerful that night--really voicing her frustration and concern over the racism she saw and documented in her writing. She largely framed her talk around black-white issues of racism and anti-racism, and during the Q&A I got up the nerve to ask a question (I was still a first year graduate student and very much in awe of a living, breathing writer and feminist icon). I queried Ms. hooks as to the place of Asian Americans and other non-black racial minorities in advocating for change and working towards anti-racism in our society. Ms. hooks, asked my name, and then said, "Isn't that an interesting question that Jennifer just asked. How about if we turned it around and instead of asking what she, as an Asian American woman can do to end racism--that she should take on an African American identity in solidarity with anti-racist work and try to work with African Americans to end racism."
I am paraphrasing from memory, but the gist of Ms. hooks response to my query was to basically tell me that what I could do to help work towards ending racism was to take on a black identity in solidarity with African Americans in their struggle against racism.
I was, of course, puzzled and also troubled by her response. On the one hand, I understood or thought I understood her annoyance at my question. She had just spoken for 40 minutes about the history of racism and the survival, emotional, mental as well as literal, of African Americans in this country and had advocated for white Americans to try to understand that history and to work towards change. I was, potentially, co-opting her conversation--asking "What's in it for me?" even though I thought what I was asking is, "Where is the place of Asian Americans in this discourse and how can I be part of this change?"
For obvious reasons, I felt and still feel, that it's not practical or necessary for me to embrace an African American identity in order to work towards an anti-racist agenda and practice. But what I took from Ms. hooks response was the difficulty of trying to have conversations with women or even just people across racial boundaries (and we can add a host of other categories here--like religious and sexual orientation and class and region). I don't know if she mis-interpreted my question--if she was tired of the way that Asian Americans had been used as a "wedge" in issues of Affirmative Action and other discourses where African Americans were disenfranchised (and the model minority myth and achievement gap seem to be other such issues in which Asian Americans are, indeed, used as the "good" minority group" against other "browner and blacker" racialized groups) or if she simply wanted to concentrate her Q&A and talk about black-white racism.
But the truth is, racism isn't a black-white issue--it never was and it still isn't. And for those of us who do want to work to end oppression, we need to see that we are all in it together. Not in a simplistic "It's-a-small-world-after-all" leveling of differences or a ranking of racism and oppression (as in which was worse, the transatlantic slave trade or American Indian genocide)--I mean that we're all in it together because racism is bad for everyone and people of color may experience different forms of racism depending on whether they are African American or Asian American, but they do experience forms of oppression none the less. And racism is bad for white Americans, in the same way that sexism affects men as well as women. Sexism is also intimately linked to racism--and understanding that link will help women of color to be united with white women in working to end both sexism and racism and their intertwined oppresions (and I'd add sexuality as well since along with class oppression, those also impact our "identities" and the ways in which power has been used to marginalize and dehumanize certain groups).
As an educator commited to working to end various forms of oppression (gender, but also racial, sexual, class), I understand that I need to find a way to have dialogues and discussions with others, especially other women of color--to figure out a way to work together while apart. Because we all have our own particular set of experiences and expertise. But for those of us who see an end to oppression and the opening of equality to be a greater social good that we want to work towards, well then, we have got to find a way to work together, because only together will we be able to accomplish this huge task in front of us.
Jennifer is a 30-something professor who teaches and researches in the field of Asian American studies. And she does, indeed, identify as an Asian American woman. She blogs at mixedraceamerica.blogspot.com
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