Moxie makes me think

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.

5 thoughts on “Moxie makes me think

  1. Stephanie,
    I feel your pain. You’re expressing the same feelings I had as a small-town white southerner at Duke in the mid-sixties when race was the burning issue of the day. For me, the Vigil was a defining event. For you, the Moxie Project may serve the same purpose. Please don’t worry about finding your voice. As you keep working on the facts and analyzing the issues, it will find you.
    Best wishes.

  2. your honesty and your self-awareness are two enormous assets, and are already serving you well in the posts you have contributed to this project. i hope you recognize that you are responsible for yourself and your own actions, not those who have come before you, and like everyone of all colors and backgrounds you deserve to rise and fall on your own merits, contributions and actions. the only person you can truly control is yourself, though you can hope and strive to influence others for what you believe is right, fair and just. even this requires mindful treading, as there will always be others who believe differently and may challenge you to believe differently. you don’t need to apologize for what you were born with, or be ashamed of it — this is not productive and not fair to yourself. however, what you choose to do with the “privileges” you have is the question, and it influences what you believe is right, fair and just will be interesting to see even after this project is done.

  3. My first reaction is for you to use reflective listening and empathy when feelings of anger, hopelessness, guilt or disconnection arise. With these tactics, you will find your voice and the voice of others as well as manage your various feelings. At the same time, there is also nothing wrong with expressing how what you hear makes you feel. You did not choose your status or race the same way others did not choose theirs.

    With your emerging sensitivity, it’s hard to imagine you will sound ignorant or say the wrong thing. Nevertheless, it is often helpful to ask others to serve as a sounding board for your thoughts and words. They will help you articulate with compassion and clarity. You will find your way.

  4. This is a good time to think through these issues, and it sounds like you are opening up to these issues. But remember when it comes time to do your work, that your gift and challenge is to use your skills to produce the best possible fact sheets, to offer completeness and clarity so that this work product can become a reliable part of the analysis of these issues.

  5. Talk about a reflexive experience. I skimmed Stephanie’s blog at work, and then printed it out to peruse on the subway. But first I pulled out New York magazine to finish Frank Rich’s piece on President Obama. As I worked through the article I became aware that my two neighbors were surreptitiously reading over my shoulder. Now I ride the train all the way down Flatbush Ave., and once we pass the Brooklyn Museum stop, it’s not uncommon for me to be the only white person in the car. Indeed, this night my shadow readers were African-American (or Caribbean) women. Once I’d finished the article, I reached into my bag to exchange NY mag with the blogs…and I hesitated. It flashed through my mind that I wanted to protect my blogger, who was questioning feminism through a filter of white privilege, from the withering assessment of people who will never be able to experience that position. And ya know, I had a countering flash that my very hesitation was a lousy by-product of white privilege: condescension. So out came the blog for all to read. Look at the journey a single post can inspire!

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