Ain’t We All Women? by Crystal Valentine

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When Onnesha and I talked race in February, we discussed the complexities of quantifying and qualifying the role of racism in interpersonal conflicts. It was admittedly an uncomfortable conversation to have.

While I wasn’t able to completely relate to some of the experiences that Onnesha described, I drew parallels to my experience as a woman who has been on the receiving end of sexism at times during my life. When those incidences happened, I felt reasonably sure that what I was experiencing was sexism and not, say, heartburn or a bad hair day on the part of the antagonist.

I’ve drawn this parallel at other times during our discussions as well.
This “drawing of parallels” makes Onnesha uneasy…. which made me feel uneasy…. and a little defensive. “Isn’t that human nature?” I asked. “Don’t we all search for patterns to make sense of the world around us?” So we talked it out and I started to understand the downfalls of this kind of thinking.

As a woman, I may be able to find parallels that help me to understand her experiences, but if parallels are a prerequisite for understanding or, more importantly, believing the stories of minorities, how will groups who don’t experience oppression on a large scale ever relate or believe?

“Why isn’t the claim enough to stand on its own?” Onnesha asked me. (Paraphrasing here.)

My not-so-profound reply was, “I don’t know.”

When we talked most recently, we moved the subject along to a more direct discussion on the overlap between sexism and racism. How are white women’s experiences the same as black women’s experiences? How are they different?

I’ll preface by saying that I feel unqualified and out of my element talking about feminist issues in general, and black feminist issues even more so. Somehow, somewhere during my early years, I picked up the notion that being a feminist was synonymous with being a man hater and rejecting traditionally feminine traits like tenderness and nurturing.

Up until a few years ago, I hadn’t given much thought to the reality that women’s rights and liberation began before Susan B Anthony and Gloria Steinem, and that the issues faced by white women are often different than those faced by black women.

By the time white women got around to fighting for the right to hold jobs and learning to balance family with career, black women had been in the workforce by sheer necessity for decades. Movies like “The Help” (which is controversial in itself) depict the long standing reality of black women raising white women’s children, while leaving their own babies in the care of others.

The differences go beyond the work place and politics, and permeate marketing and media, where the standard of beauty is typically portrayed as white and rail thin. In one conversation on beauty, I (naively) asked Onnesha: how much control do women of any race have in shaping the narrative of beauty standards in our culture? (That’s probably a topic for another blog though.)

More than superficial beauty standards and even more than financial inequity (although it’s impossible to completely disentangle any of these issues from the other), the most striking difference along the color line is the weight of worry for our kid’s futures. Onnesha and I worry about many of the same things for our sons, I’m sure. Will they grow up to be men of character and integrity? Will they do well in school and find meaningful work in their adult lives? But Onnesha worries about things that don’t often occur to me: will my sons be labeled as aggressive by their teachers and have this label follow them from school into adulthood? Will my sons be harassed by police officers or mistrusted because of their skin color? Will my son be in danger when he leaves the house as a teenager?

I don’t have to experience these worries personally in order to take Onnesha at her word when she says that they are very heavy and very real for her.

To quote Sojourner Truth from her famous “Ain’t I a woman” speech:

“Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?”

A true women’s movement needs to answer these questions before it can accomplish progress for the women most affected by inequality.

Read Onnesha’s blog for this conversation here.

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One thought on “Ain’t We All Women? by Crystal Valentine

  1. Hello, thanks to you & Onesha for blogging about this. I have some rambling thoughts about it all and thank you in advance for glancing through & for your patience with my attempts to think these things through.

    Yesterday, my husband & I somehow landed at a similar place in discussion, where he wondered could the black “passion” re-focus on groups who are “currently” experiencing oppression, like illegal immigrants housed in Taylor, etc.
    The conversation continued & I felt my tone & pitch elevate.
    Why refocus? Their passion needs to be on the racism & racialization that exists currently against the black community!

    It’s like there’s a reverse magnet pushing (white) people away from dealing with this issue head on. They/we want to focus on everything else.
    The (white) culture has all kind of language around dismissing these concerns, minimizing, justifying, condescending. News & radio, sure, but also just casual conversation. And it all sounds real & substantial to my ears. Like, “he shouldn’t have been wearing a hoodie”. I don’t know why that resonates as truth, I think I have just heard it SO much. I KNOW it’s ridiculous now, but I have to think it through. It still “feels” true. I recognize it as part of my own recent thought pattern. Like a comfort blankie. I have to remind myself that it’s a blanket full of disease & I can never use it again.
    The constant message in culture is – why do black people want to keep talking about this?? Like they are the problem child in the classroom.

    On another note, regarding compassion. I have a personal long-time foundational belief that you can never tell someone “I know exactly how you feel.” I believe that’s less than accepting of them right where they are. I try to never say that. Instead I try to say something like, “I can only imagine & I will be praying for you…”
    But reading through Crystal’s post is also very uncomfortable in a new way. I feel myself shifting in my seat with new feelings…I suddenly want to find a way to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there!” Why??

    I’ve never heard Sojourner Truth’s speech before this morning. And I’m a woman. Shouldn’t I have heard that before? How did I miss this in my life? How can I be a compassionate, open, truth-embracer & never stumbled into the reality that black women are not equally, warmly, fiercely represented in the larger dialogue about women’s identity & rights?
    And I find myself desperately searching for some place in my heart, in my past, where I can relate:

    There was that one time a long time ago when the police came but wouldn’t defend my young children from an abusive ex…..???? That was an awful time that expanded my understanding of the horrors of what the human race is capable of. But it has nothing to do with being a black woman.
    Later in my life, having cancer at the same time I was trying to advocate as a single mom for mental health support for my daughter – completely overwhelmed by an uphill battle with few allies. But it has nothing to do with being a black woman.
    I have beautiful feminine memories of childbirth, school lunches, road trips, blending a new family, new adventures. How would they have been so different, in the context of navigating them as a black or mixed race family?

    I love women’s ministry. I love having studies & coffees & challenging the Christian female norms of overly submissive, head-hanging behavior & language. My message to all women, from my heart of hearts, is – no matter what we’ve been through, you are beautiful to God & to me. I am here to listen & embrace you, right where you are. Shame is from the enemy. Let’s live out loud!

    But now – how do I dare speak those words to a black woman today? I feel she would see right through me & realize I am not strong, and I really can have no idea where she is right now or where she has been.
    How do I relate to, and truly, humbly, love her?

    My life has been very hard in places, and I’ve been stretched & feel stronger as a result. But I simply IMAGINE the complexity of being black ALSO and I feel a desperateness. A need to relate. Who can I talk to about it (black or white) that won’t push back with defensiveness? How can I find the reality of it? How can I respect a reality I can’t even imagine??

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