Imagining Oppression- A Losing Battle

Perhaps one of the gloomiest yet significant conclusions I’ve drawn from our various moxie conversations, my work with Sadie Nash, and my personal attempts at changing the minds of men around me, is that oppression is not easily explained or imagined out of thin air. While open minded people may choose to lower themselves into the pit of pain to peak through the lenses of the oppressed, the minute they climb back into the daylight of effortless privilege, that urgency of outrage dissipates and they go about their merry way, often feeling elated and self-satisfied at the noble effort they put forth to understand the “other half”.  I’ve witnessed this tendency throughout my childhood as I’ve taken groups of donors down to visit our school and women’s cooperative in the poorest areas of Nicaragua.  Each year further confirms the observed pattern of privilege crashing into oppression. It commences with incredible discomfort and guilt- often leading to intense defensiveness of ones lack of privilege, or legitimizing of one’s accomplishments. Some simply choose to disengage at this point, resisting the meeting of privilege and oppression as they cling to the ledge of the pit of pain, using only their “that’s just the way the world works” to maintain grip. You see, when faced with the harsh reality of young children unfed, living like animals in dirty stalls, without access any form of privilege or escape, it takes no meticulously constructed explanation on my part, or vivid imagination on the part of others. Oppression is real, present, and unavoidably before our eyes. Pragmatically speaking, this is why we bring donors in the first place. Because without truly facing the intersection of our own privilege with the overwhelming oppression of others, we are conditioned to disregard, cast-off, and live in the comfortable confines of our blissful, privileged bubbles. No one wants to feel discomfort, guilt or angst with his or her place in the world. We all want to believe in some divine rationale behind the inequalities of a world which we so deeply “care about”, as long as this caring does not extend into our daily lives. We carve out time, like our one week service trip to Nicaragua, as an appropriately removed experience of injustice which we can fully experience, and then place on the back burner for dinner party conversations and occasional reflection. I would love to say that bringing groups to Nicaragua changes this tendency to avert eye contact, and run from reminders of our personal privilege over others, but sadly I cannot. Each year, at the end of the trip, donors leave moved, jazzed, and impassioned to make changes in the lives of this impoverished, oppressed Nicaraguan community. They sign up to host fundraisers, donate 10% of their income, and bring every other philanthropic friend they know. They consistently mention how “meaningful” the week was and how they’ll never be the same. But weeks pass. Life goes on. And, like it or not, the oppression of one is not the oppression of another. When no longer immersed in the suffering and daily injustice of another group, it is almost impossible to maintain one’s fury and outrage. In short, it is the sheer inescapability of oppression that makes oppressed peoples the only true advocates for social change.

As mentioned before, my experience as Sadie Nash, discussing gay activism with moxies, and in my own social sphere, further confirms this disheartening realization. I have always viewed myself as an advocate for the voiceless, and marginalized. I personally know many homeless people in Seattle by name, and constantly seek to work in oppressed areas. I suppose, in my life, these small choices have been my personal rationalization of privilege over others and, while I’ve occasionally felt the torment of insufficient action, I generally cast off these guilty feelings and allow myself to continue living the undisturbed life of immense privilege and physical comfort with which I was born. Because I always imagined myself to be an advocate for all marginalized peoples, it was not until this summer that I truly came face to face with my own hesitancy to crawl into a pit of pain which does not pertain to my own experiences or personal encounters with injustice.  I have set up camp as a feminist activist, knowing now at age 21 that female empowerment is my calling, yet, even activist me, has been resistant to truly facing the oppression of minorities, homosexuals, and other oppressed peoples. I find myself mirroring the Nicaragua-syndrome I’ve seen so consistently over the years where I let myself feel the outrage of injustice, and then quickly retreat back to my comfortable privilege once the image is no longer in front of my eyes. At Sadie Nash it is leaving work and going back to a life of careless, unobserved racial privilege. It is a release of pressure walking out the doors and knowing I am no longer responsible for being of any race at all. I can become colorless as I walk down the busy streets of 14th in a way that none of my co-workers ever can. It is the same release that donors feel in returning from steamy, “dangerous” Nicaragua, back to their comfortable lives of privilege. And the result is the same as well. We no longer care about the world’s injustices when we are not forced to live in them without escape.

The point I’m slowly arriving at is that, while men are theoretically capable of representing women’s issues in government, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the only true advocates of oppressed peoples are those being oppressed themselves. I cannot fault anyone for this inconvenient reality, as I now understand both sides intimately. Just as I cannot be trusted to advocate ceaselessly for black empowerment, neither can I trust a man to feel as invested in female inequality as I am. This does not mean all women are female advocates my any means, nor that male allies in the movement are not crucial, but I now believe that government requires the presence of women themselves, if any strides towards gender equality are to be made.

Icky, Unsettling, and Awesome

I would like to take a moment outside the lines of curriculum, and program structure to reflect on the reality of my experience these past three weeks living in New York, working at Sadie Nash, and learning with fellow moxies. As I move forward into the fourth week- my final week of dean training at Sadie Nash before my mentees arrive my life goes from 60 to 120 mph- I crave the opportunity to make sense of the unsettling intersection of my contrasting lives here. The best way to describe my experience is that of a cultural immersion akin to my time in Haiti or Nicaragua while simultaneously maintaining one foot in my culture of origin. In most Duke engage programs, cultural immersion is integral to the summer experience; students sleeping, eating, and living in a foreign culture. While group members are surrounded by their Duke cohort, at no point is this immersion fully broken. There is, in this way, a since of continuity in the experience. Similarly, most interns working in New York City are living alone or with friends, and working in a job setting which likely operates around a similar cultural script as that with which they were raised. This is not to discount the deeply educational or even cultural experiences which internships provide, rather to illustrate their general sense of continuity of experience between worlds of home-life, work life, friendships, etc.

In my personal experience; however, I am experiencing a full cultural immersion, while maintaining a home-life utterly separate from work. On top, I am participating in Moxie, which adds another third theory-based, academic world. Each facet of my life in New York is so utterly different that I feel almost as if I experience three or four instances of culture shock on a given day. From walking to work in my funky neighborhood, to immersing myself in a job surrounded by lower income, magnificently diverse individuals, to meeting up with high school or Duke friends after work for drinks, frozen yogurt, or similarly elitist, low-cal goodies. It’s as if I’m bouncing from starkly different realities; requiring a special set of social tools to flourish in each individual world. In addition to this sense of profound disconnect between my privileged downtown life attending apartment rendezvous with wealthy high school friends, and my Brooklyn life discussing personal oppressiveness over others like my co-workers, there is also the social contrast between a largely minority, 25% lesbian work cohort, and my mostly white, primarily privileged Duke friends. I find myself, for the first time in my life, really understanding white privilege. That is to say, in the 9 hours window of time in which I immerse myself in Sadie Nash culture, my race is a constant awareness. Never is there a point when I don’t need to feel conscious that I might be feeding a stereotype of my race, saying something to allude to my race, or acting too “white”. It’s a fascinating and powerful reminder of just how privileged I am as a white female in most environments I spend time in.

Needless to say, the experience of navigating these different types of relationships leaves me wondering where I truly view myself as most “fitting in”. In a way, I don’t want my coworkers to know how silly and mundanely frivolous my conversations are, whereas I can’t imagine walking on eggshells, constantly conscious of my race to such an extent with every friend I have. In reflecting back, I can see that my simultaneous immersion in two different cultures is causing me to question my place in society. I am uncomfortably, and bizarrely awakened to my privileged, hetero-normative, white-centric mentality, which, while questioned academically, has never felt this shaken in reality. It’s exhausting but pretty freaking cool.

Pragmatic Activism- Yes, it sucks but that’s the world we live in!

When I saw the “Pride Rally” included as one of our group activities, I wasn’t exactly sure why or how that related to feminism. Of course, lesbians are women too and should be considered in all their intersecting identities of sexuality and gender; however, “pride” itself doesn’t immediately relate in my mind. I suppose the question is, does activism of one justice issue like feminism necessitate activism of all other social injustices? Can we be “activists” without supporting all our fellow activists who similarly struggle for recognition and social change? While I personally support the gay rights movement and Pride Week, I don’t think activism necessarily translates across all genres. One, for example, can easily support ending child slavery in Haiti but that activist may directly reject demands of the pro-choice movement. In other words, social issues are not all similar enough in nature that activists would come to a common understanding. So how does feminism relate to gay rights specifically? I think the two are not necessarily connected; however they do share commonalities worth understanding. Most overtly; women and homosexual people both share defining features, which oppress them. Though a gay man can navigate modern society without calling attention to his homosexuality, he is; none-the-less, a target of oppression as a result of this crucial identity component. In both cases, no obstacle such as intelligence or inadequacy prevents forward movement. Rather, it is the structural favoring of another identity category, which oppresses them. In this way, we are all fighting to be recognized as we truly are. We are fighting to be entrusted with the worth and respect that we, as individuals, merit rather than the worth society allocates to our identity groups. In these fundamental ways, the gay rights movement is intimately tied to the feminist belief in equality of all human beings.

Another critical factor intertwines these two movements, which I had not acknowledged or contemplated before speaking with my moxie peers this week. This factor is misogyny as the primary enemy of both gay and feminist movements. I had been relating gay pride to feminism as a separate issue when, in reality, the success of one movement may actually facilitate the success of the other. In other words, if feminism fights to challenge norms established by a misogynist society, destruction of these norms should also destroy homophobia, as it is also grounded in misogyny. Perhaps gay rights and women’s struggle for equal validity and power as men both relate back to the same misogynist structure. When our program director suggested this possibility I was resistant, feeling almost possessive of my justice struggle. “Feminism is about women like me!” I caught myself thinking, “I don’t want to share the stage with gay rights movements as if the two were equal. I don’t identify with the gay rights movement.” Obviously this hierarchy of injustice is highly problematic, but I did notice a personal resistance to admitting homophobia into the feminist struggle. After thinking a little more, I pin pointed the reason I might feel so resistant to partnership of movements.

Struggles and confusion, for me, arise when I contemplate the different forms activism can take in the gay pride versus feminist movements. I have always struggled personally with the identities of a “no apologies feminist”, and an understanding, moderate feminist. On one hand, I want the world to know how angry I am about the absurd injustices towards women around the world. I want to scream at men, retreat to “safe” female spaces, and cover my body conservatively in a “fuck off, thank you” sort of way. On the other hand, I don’t want to alienate myself and my voice from the very people who I’m trying to reach in the first place. Obviously everyone has to act the way they feel most “themselves”, yet sometimes embodying an activist, extremist stereotype prevents you from being heard in any way. Moving towards the gay rights movement, I find myself cringing sometimes at the vulgarity and outrageousness of their approaches to activism. Of course sexual liberation is central in this movement, and reclaiming rights to sexuality is awesome, yet, from a political perspective, I don’t find this activist approach relatable. As a feminist who is fighting stereotypes of craziness, and outrageousness, I don’t want to associate our movement with a group of men dressed in drag, talking about anal sex openly to their most close-minded opponents. I feel strongly that feminist demands, while radical in that they seek to challenge overarching societal structures, are completely and totally moderate in their logic. Any open person willing to listen to a logical, level-headed feminist woman can easily agree that demanding equal access to resources and opportunities is not wild or outrageous in nature. To me, linking an otherwise relatable equal rights movement to something like overt, public sexuality is a fast way to alienate and affirm oppositionist’s. I take a strong, yet pragmatic stance in my feminism, so I don’t always identify with the gay rights movements’ strategic approach. I personally know many gay men who also cringe at the rumors of sexual acts performed at the gay rights parades, or become enraged at the implications that all gay men are drag queen, sparkle wearing, street dancers. I would personally be irritated if a group of extremist feminists with short hair, and no bras took the streets yelling about feminist issues. It delegitimizes the humanity of the movement to the people who actually hold the power. Yes, it sucks to self-constrain in such a way, but that’s the world we live in and utopian idealism is never the best way to reach people.

Education to Action

Three days at Sadie Nash and I’m on summer internship cloud nine! My name is Phoebe, and, since first studying gender inequality my senior year of high school, I’ve made a point of identifying myself as a “feminist.” I’ve taken Women’s Studies classes at Duke, interned with homeless and abused women in Seattle, Haiti, and Nicaragua, and involved myself in activist activities on campus. While I’ve viewed myself as a feminist for many years, never has my work directly claimed “feminism” as its mantra. Sadie Nash Leadership Project is the first feminist “space” I’ve encountered where everyone is committed to, not only feminist theory, but also feminist reality.

So what’s the difference between this and domestic violence prevention in rural Haiti? With such an unequal society and larger world, the work of feminism can certainly be approached in a multiplicity of ways, from violence reduction, reproductive health awareness, public protest, etc.; yet feminism begins most crucially through the challenging of existing power structures. This means working from conceptualization of gender to action, rather than action to conceptualization. By this I mean, the change starts in us, and moves outward. Prevention of gender injustice cannot start with helping those already oppressed; rather it must prevent that oppression from occurring in the first place. I truly believe all approaches to female empowerment are meaningful and necessary; yet, I also view the only “sustainable development” to be educational expansion and internal reordering of power norms.  Every societal wound like domestic violence or poverty requires stitching; yet, the antidote comes from the restructuring of thinking about gender. Young women must believe in their potential if they are going to act to change their circumstances.

This belief is why I am interning at Sadie Nash Leadership Project.

Entering into my first day of work, immediately after arriving in New York City, I was filled with anxiety, and apprehension. What was Sadie Nash all about? What did it really mean to be working for a feminist non-profit? Logistically, how was I supposed to lead a summer program of young women when I, myself, am only 21 and very much still formulating my self-conception as an adult woman?

After about an hour surrounded by the Sadie Nash staff, all my worries were calmed and replaced by a serene excitement for the months to come. From warm smiles, to feisty bantering, the work environment of Sadie Nash speaks to the mission of promoting self-acceptance, empowerment to lead, and acceptance of diversity.  I still don’t know exactly what to expect in the months to come, but I know I’m surrounded by a group of passionate, committed, fun-loving women who want, above all else, to inspire other women to embrace their own leadership potential. I can’t wait to be a mentor to young women as we mutually explore our talents, weaknesses, and societal pressures. I genuinely want to learn from these young women about their personal perspectives on feminist issues, as I’m sure the diverse population of students will provide a vibrant and fascinating classroom environment. Basically, I’m excited, still unsure of details, but feeling confidant about the work I’ll be doing and the mentors who are leading me along the way!