It’s 2017; why is feminist still such a dirty word?
I have identified, quite vocally for anyone who knows me, as a feminist for pretty much my entire life. I do not think that identity is shameful and I do not think it is an identity that should be shrouded in stigma atop from the stigmas already toppling me as a woman. So, why are people still so repulsed and afraid to be part of this community? So many reasons, apparently. First I would like to define my personal perspective on feminism and then I’ll delve into the greater community of non-identifiers.
When I was in college I majored in sociology. Many people then and now have told me that was a giant waste of time. Thanks for the unsolicited commentary everyone, but I would have to strongly disagree. Among many theorist I studied, Erving Goffman has the most profound impact on me. His book, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” shattered every piece of “reality” that I knew. My life was curated, premeditated; and I was simply an actor fulfilling a role that had been predetermined for me well before I even existed; pretty heavy stuff for a 19-year-old (If you have never read this book, go do it, right now, it will change how you see the world forever). But in many ways, understanding that there is no true form of individualism and no unbiased self-made me a more receptive vessel to understanding the overlay of sexism and the intersection it played in my life.
I vividly remember reading Bell Hooks, “Feminist Theory,” and really having a wake up call about how differently people experience the same world. The fact that women of different races even experience sexism and discrimination in different ways was totally new information to me. I had been completely unaware of this, because of my white privilege. But recognizing that I in fact had privilege despite the many social inequities women face, made me realize how little we as a society care about the oppression of others that we have privilege over. Understanding the power and responsibility that came with my privilege changed how I interacted with the world forever and has always been the driving force behind my motivation to help others in my life and career. I identify as a feminist because of this; recognize my privilege, and try super hard to reveal systems of oppression to others.
But here’s the thing: we never as a society are allowed to have a frank discussions about intersectionality and how race, gender, age, wealth, religion, geography and other factors determine many factors in the course of a person’s life. And so for me to hold tightly onto the “Feminist” flag has never really been a welcome thing in pretty much any of my social circles. I worked for the YWCA, a social justice organization focused on eliminating racism and empowering women, and even within the organization the word “feminist” left a bad taste in some people’s mouths. I feel like I have spent a good deal of my career working for causes that are too afraid to ruffle feathers than to make people uncomfortable with the fact that these agencies exist BECAUSE we as a society are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and all the other ist’s and phobias against various social categories. Newsflash:if these systems of social stratification didn’t exist, none of these organizations would need to either!
The act of resistance here is to examine ourselves and recognize our biases, our phobias, and our active participation in systems of oppression. No one wants to think of themselves as a “bad person,” but by recognizing that systems of oppression exist, we must also accept that we not only participate in them, but perpetuate them. I identify as a feminist but that does not absolve me from guilt. I am absolutely a perpetrator of the systems that keep people disenfranchised. I adhere to traditional Western beauty standards, I partake in heteronormative behaviors, I am cautious to give money to strangers because I am wary of my return on investment in a homeless person, I avoid talking to my neighbors because I don’t feel like spending time on people I don’t really know; which is probably true for most people, and I spend a great portion of my free time worrying about myself, my needs, my wants, me, me, me. It makes me feel like a real shit head to say those things out loud, but in order to change, you have to recognize your flaws in Technicolor.
If we choose a label it also means that we then hold responsibility, which is not something that most are willing to fully commit to. You can’t be a part-time ally as much as you can’t be a part-time sexist. We have to change our lives, entirely, and that’s a fucking scary proposition. But, you have to rethink what you know about reality and understand that it is from such a narrow and singular lens. Once you open the door to change, you suddenly learn there is this entirely larger world that you have somehow never known exists and has been operating almost like a parallel universe to your own. It’s time to make the big life leaps, it’s time to open the doors and see what’s on the other side, and it’s time to recognize that we need to acknowledge and address our behaviors. Use the F word; you might be surprised how much it changes you.