Stephanie is interning with the Ms. Foundation.
Realizing, reassessing and restructuring almost 21 years of how I think about my experiences, what my values are and how I act on them, is no easy task. How do you come to terms with your race when you’ve never before realized the implications and inherent privileges? How do you develop your voice when coupled with a growing fear of sounding ignorant? Lately, I find myself either constantly defensive, or angry because I don’t know how to deal with the way I am being challenged. Because that is what Ada and Erin are doing. Challenging me. All the time. And I am at constant dissonance now with how I have felt for almost 21 years, and how I feel now.
The challenges I am facing every day are perfectly illustrated in a seminar discussion we had two weeks ago. The conversation quickly turned into a discussion about privilege. This conversation really struck a nerve with me. I have never intentionally treated anyone differently based on their gender, age, color of their skin, sexual orientation, etc. I was raised better than to pass judgment or live a life that implied I was more deserving than anyone else. However, the passionate way Erin started talking about race and white privilege felt so accusatory, and there was nothing I could do to defend myself. I am white. This was the first time anyone had made me think that this was a bad thing. I realize now that at the time, I had only been hearing half of what Erin was saying. But in that moment I felt guilty, angry, and hopeless. Guilty because I felt there was nothing I could do to combat the inherent white privilege that I was born with. Guilty because I had never realized it before. Guilty for exploiting it for almost 21 years. Then I became angry. Angry because they were wrong, I’m not privileged. Angry because I was being judged for my skin. Angry because this was something I had never wanted to realize. Angry because it was complicated, and I couldn’t understand.
Hopeless, was the worst. If I had this privilege, how could I ever hope to make a difference for anyone other than white middle class women like myself, since I would never be able to relate to the experiences of others in the same way? Hopeless, because I felt I would never understand. Hopeless, because I felt that there was nothing I could say, either in my defense, or to contribute, because I felt like this silly little white girl. I felt like a cliché.
Earlier this summer, I had set a goal for myself to find my voice. And here I was, slumping into my chair, clenching my jaw about to burst with a wave of thoughts and questions, but not saying anything. Why? I am afraid of being ignorant. I am afraid of not thinking the right way. Of being not a good enough feminist. I am combating this by always trying to read more, to educate myself, but until I feel I have given myself an adequate enough learning curve, I don’t know that I will feel comfortable enough to have a voice. I feel that I only have one piece of the puzzle, and it’s not enough to have a real opinion.
This way of thinking is also proving to be a problem in my recent undertakings at work. I have been assigned the task of making a fact sheet on Women and Health, particularly Women and AIDS and Women and Reproductive Justice. Reproductive Justice largely encompasses women of color. Who am I to create a fact sheet on this? What is the appropriate framework, vocabulary, perspective? I do not know how to orient myself in these statistics, and present them in a way that does not further marginalize these women.
I hope that simply realizing these things is a good first step, but I am uncertain of where to go from here. Fortunately, some concepts that I have managed to grasp are keeping me from total pessimism. I like the idea that the individual has the power to exhibit activism every day, and every contribution helps a collective. In regards to my privilege, all I can do is to learn when to step back and let someone else’s voice, a more important voice, be uplifted. But I am still learning. It is daunting and exhausting, and I am worried that if things keep up this way, I will burn out. Life was easier in my bubble. I realize easier isn’t better, and at this point, I could not go back to my previous way of thinking now that I have started to realize this dissonance. However, I need to learn to be more aggressive in articulating this disconnect. I don’t think I can be an activist, or a feminist for that matter, and be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Maybe I need to learn to say the wrong thing and learn from my mistakes. I need to learn to take risks.
But realizing this, and actually taking risks, are two entirely different things. This is my next challenge.