Alex interned at Hollaback this summer.
The Department of Health and Human Services recently required all new health insurance plans to cover birth control for women. Annual exams, breastfeeding tools, and a host of other services were a part of the new requirements as well; and all without co-pays, co-insurance, or a deductible. Not too long ago I would have told you that the Affordable Care Act was definitely a victory for women, and it certainly is. At the same time, however, making healthcare (including contraceptives) accessible to women regardless of their income level is a victory for a larger group; anyone who believes that healthcare should be affordable and available regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. Now I don’t mean to take anything away from those who were in the trenches and on the ground pushing for this reform. My point, rather, is that we are all connected, caught in what Dr. King called “an inescapable network of mutuality.” This is also to say, the systems and institutions that oppress us are all connected. Now I’ve “known” this for quite some time, but this summer has really forced me to come to terms with this reality in a way that, quite frankly, makes me uncomfortable.
Working for Hollaback! this summer I got to see this inter-connectedness I’m referring to play out first hand. We, as Westerners, have this idea of public space and that it belongs, well, to the public. The reality is that some people in society have more access and more power in certain “public” spaces than others. Some people have no claim to “public” space at all. For instance, when a man wolf-whistles or yells an obscenity at a woman in public he is exerting his power over her. Compile all the times any given woman has been harassed in a public space and what you begin to see is that whether on the train or walking down the street, women do not “own” public space the same way men do. That is, women cannot exert the power, whether that pertains to sexual harassment or just physical intimidation, that men can. This holds across other power dynamics as well.
My heart would race every time I walked by what I deemed to be an armed officer in the city this summer. Whether he or she was on the S.W.A.T Team, a member of the NYPD, or just a security guard with a gun, I would literally watch myself being riddled with bullets at the drop of a dime every time this happened. Now you might suggest this is just a familiarity issue, and that my comparison is invalid. Well, true, its not everyday in North Carolina that I see a cluster of assault rifles being fingered around children in a park. (That’s a calamity of its own on behalf of NYC but I digress). The fact is, however, the police have more power in a public space than I do. Now you’re thinking, “Of course. They should. They protect us.” Well I won’t debate that, nor can you debate that ultimately the way the police maintain order, with the threat of violence (a result of their power), is the same idea behind a man assaulting a woman in public space, our patriarchal society has given him that power. In the case of the police, they aren’t purposefully intimidating me right? The point is, they don’t have to, that’s the power differential that I’m getting at. If I walked by a lone woman on a street anywhere at night she would not be wrong for feeling uncomfortable would she? No. There is already a difference in power that has made her uncomfortable about that situation before she ever even sees me.
My point is, and forgive me because it has taken me a while to get here, that the catcalling man on the street or the creepy guy leering at teenagers in a restaurant are directly tied to being stopped for driving while black or being called “boy” by an old white woman. It all comes back to power. And the identity of “woman” is just one that is used to confine, restrict, and deprive people of power. No, being poor, or being black, or being gay, or a woman, are NOT all the same experience. Not at all. But they are all the result of marginalization, of dehumanizing done by one group to attain power over another.
Now if you understand but disagree with my point, well, you have just helped me make it. The next most important thing this summer taught me is that power is interested in the fragmentation of the oppressed. Those in power do not want the white feminist with a J.D. from Columbia living on the Upper East Side to see what she has in common with the black teenager from Brownsville carrying a gun to school because he heard someone wants to fight him. And if my examples sound absurd, it is in fact because those in power are winning! They have disconnected and therefore disempowered us. Even as I look at feminism, I see that so many staunch feminists fail to realize that we are ALL caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
The significance of all this you ask? Well, for me personally coming to terms with this sort academic or intellectual understanding of how our world works brings up a lot of questions. Is oppression is simply embedded in our DNA? Equality is always on our lips but is it really in our hearts? Founded in pools of blood and on the bedrock of so much injustice, can America ever really be anything more than that? Will we ever begin to move forward for justice as a whole rather than just separate factions pushing each other down to get to the top? And my honest answer to these and similar questions is “No.” But it doesn’t stop there for me. What, then, does it mean for anyone involved in “social just work” that we really have no idea of what we claim to be working toward looks like?
In closing, I don’t think we can only be committed to fighting for change if we are promised it will come. There is a quote, by who I forget, but it reads, “We don’t hope because things will get better, we hope because we know that they will not.” King himself mentioned “hewing a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.” I think this summer has helped me size up that mountain and see just how big it is. Now, I imagine, I can get to the task of hewing that stone.