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.