Thursday, March 27, 2008

Women's History Month blog carnival

Come together? Maybe not

by Latoya Peterson

I wish hearing the words "come together" didn't make me cringe so much.

After all, it's a kind-hearted exhortation. Come together means to unify, to place our differences aside for a few moments.

But alas, I can't.

"Come together" to me now sounds a bit like a curse. For you see, the people who keep asking me to come together keep asking me to check my opinions and identity at the door.

We can come together as long as I am willing to toe the line. We can come together unifed as women as long as I am willing to silence myself about how race impacts me and how people in this group perpetuate racism. We can come together as long as I help block the door against transfolk. I can be in the circle if I hold my tongue about my real opinions on sex work.

These kind of feelings are what makes me like feminism, but stay away from it formally. The way my life works, I tend to take heat about my race first, with gender stereotypes influenced by those racial assumptions. And for some reason, no matter how much I discuss these things, I still don't feel heard or understood.

It is this feeling that causes me to retreat, into the company of people like myself who understand these issues, who may not embrace the mantle of "feminist" but care about equality for women.

Now, I can hear the protests rising - if we don't communicate, how do we change things? If we each retreat to our respective corners, how will we ever bridge that divide? And it's true, it is hard to bridge a divide with a wall between us.

However, it is also hard to continue to deal with same situation, over and over, always being expected to be quiet, polite, and non-frustrated, even if it's the 400th time you have to explain to someone why a certain situation may be more complicated than it appears.

And, I would be more inclined to reach out if I saw a change, saw a difference in behavior. All too often, people - particularly in feminist circles - say they want alternate viewpoints and diversity, but actively do and say things to undermine this effort. If a person of color points out these mistakes or slights, they find themselves either (1) burdened to explain over and over again why something is this way, (2) dismissed outright, (3) endlessly told that they aren't understanding the situation.

Look, I know feminists aren't perfect. No one is. Even the most well meaning people can screw up. There was a situation where I wanted to inform our readership about Islamophobia and I ended up correcting a Muslim woman about her tone.

Like I said, it happens - even when you're well meaning. Even when you're trying to understand.

And I understand being on the other side of a bad situation, feeling attacked and put upon when I didn't mean it that way and not understanding why someone is freaking out over something I said.

I understand being angry, and wanting to tell your critiques to fuck off, and feeling self-righteous and indignant about the whole situation.

But that doesn't help anything.

That doesn't solve anything.

And the longer you sit and fight without really thinking about it, really putting yourself into someone else's shoes and trying to understand what they heard rather than what you said.

It took a while to understand what the woman I offended was getting at. And it took a lot more, of me, instead of dismissing her and retreating into the tender words of my allies, to actually try to hear what she was saying and understand that while I was just trying to help, I was being offensive. And I needed to apologize.

Luckily for me, it only took about four exchanges of comments for me to come to that understanding. And luckily for me, the person I offended choose to keep talking instead of writing me off. And eventually, I got it through my stubborn head to listen, instead of being defensive.

(If you're reading this Nadia, thank you.)

So, while I keep hanging out in feminist circles, I rarely ever comment. I've seen the 200-comment long threads where no one is listening but everyone is talking. And I don't really want to be a part of that battle - especially as I am already busy with my own causes.

But I keep reading, in hopes that some people will eventually start to hear and understand. And one day, when we all get over ourselves and start listening instead of trying to press our own agendas forward, we can start having real, life-transforming conversations.

And then, we can truly come together.


Ferocious Kitty said...

Latoya, so much of this resonated with me.

One thing that I noted in what you wrote was an element of humility. I think if more people embraced that, half the battle of truly coming together would be won.

Sometimes I think people falsely view humility as somehow anathema to holding strong personal convictions and true commitment to the struggle (be it anti-racist, feminist, or whatever).

nosnowhere said...

humility-- exactly. we don't have to know everything. there are too many people in this world for us to know everything about everyone. being humble enough to admit this is hugely important in coalition building.


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