Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sisters Should Do It For Each Other, Too

When I was in high school we had a debate in History class.  I forget the specific topic now, but it had to do with race.  I was debating an African American classmate who said that my ancestors had oppressed hers.

Furious, I countered that in fact while her ancestors were being enslaved in America, my ancestors were in Ireland being oppressed by the British, and how dare she make such an accusation.  I thought I'd really made my point.

Technically I was correct: my maternal grandparents arrived in America in the 1930s, my father in 1960. I don't know of any earlier ancestors of mine being here at all.  But that wasn't the point. 

I was wrong. 

I didn't see it then.  I only looked at the literal argument and not the larger context.  In my offense at the suggestion that I and/or my ancestors had benefited from being white, I had dismissed the point my classmate was trying to make about the generations of difference between our experiences as Americans. 

I don't know if that classmate remembers that exchange, but I think about it a lot.  It's embarrassing to me that I said something so short-sighted and defensive.

Fast forward to today.  After last weekend's marches all over the world, the takes have been coming hot and fast:  first we celebrated the unity, the activism, the peaceful protest.  Then other voices piped up:  those who pointed out that police don't react to protests the same way, that women of color and trans women felt excluded. 

And a lot of us didn't like hearing that.  Feminism, controversial in general for reasons I will never understand, has its own internal controversies as white women forget to include others in our movements when we should be working together.

But we need to confront that:  will we be at the next BLM march?  Can we own that white women voted over 50% for Donald Trump? Will we listen when trans women, women of color, disabled women speak about the issues they face? 

Unless we can say an enthusiastic "YES!" we're burying our heads in the sand just like I did in high school. 

If we really want a movement that makes change, we can't just expect that everyone will come together and sing with joined hands while we state the terms.  We need to listen.  We need to show up for them the way we expect them to show up for us.  We need to confront our own biases and learn from our mistakes. 

I don't believe in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And I think the Women's March was a good thing – the sight of women coming together all over the world was incredible and inspiring and I spent all day wishing I was there instead of at work and thinking about what I can do to be a part of the change I want to see in the world.  It wasn't perfect – but what that means is we have the chance to be better.  We can listen, and we can learn.  And we can be better. 

Because if we want to be taken seriously as voices for progress and change, we need to stop being held back by our own fragility and privilege.  We need to face the hard truths and stop shutting down criticism because it ruins our good feelings.  And honestly, if we want to really get anywhere, we need to listen to the people who have been struggling against systemic problems for generations already.  They probably know what they're talking about.  

Post title bastardized horribly from the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin.

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