On Being Problematic

Speaking as a white, cisgender woman who presents as heterosexual, I can tell you right now that, as much as I would love to consider myself enlightened, I have a lot to learn. We all do.

We will screw up, despite our best intentions (you know what they say about the road to hell), but we can always do better. And we have to acknowledge our screw ups in order to learn from them. And we have to acknowledge that other people are going to screw up and allow them to learn as well.

We are at a point in time where we, as women and, honestly, as anyone not walking around in a white man’s body, are realizing our strength and becoming vocal. We are taking to the streets, we are forming grassroots campaigns to bring awareness to causes that are important to our future, our daughters’ futures, etc. We are seeing a sense of community among women that feels unprecedented on some level even while some have been fighting this fight longer than others..

And we are products of years of programming by our parents, by our revisionist history public and private schooling, and by the media, so it stands to reason that some embarrassingly stupid shit is going to come out of our mouth on occasion. We have, regardless of whether or not we have pushed back, been programmed to take up less space, we have been programmed to say “oh, sorry” for being too loud, for being assertive. We have been programmed to feel guilty for behaviors that are taken for granted by men like asking for the appropriate compensation at work. For working hours that takes us away from our families. For choosing NOT to have children. For asking for having the audacity to want sexual gratification. These are all things that men expect and receive because it’s normal and they have been afforded the luxury of being “the default”, and these are things that women have historically shied away from demanding because of how it paints us: Selfish, brazen, unrealistic.

We are mocked for wanting equal play. How dare we? If only we worked as hard…then maybe…

We are mocked for not being polite when we speak up for ourselves. We’ve been tone policed and critiqued for the same “vulgar language” that men are permitted without scolding. If only we were more polite, then maybe someone might take us seriously.

We’ve been polite.

It’s time to push beyond this and start claiming our rightful spot in whatever arena we deem important to us. It’s time to demand equality, absolutely and without condition. We are the majority, and we need to start acting like we not only have a place at the table, that we belong at the head of it.

And as we do this, it’s absolutely imperative that we acknowledge our biases and we need to call attention to the when we see them resulting in harm to people. Because we all have biases; even if we think we don’t. We need to, in conversations about equality for women, even when we are working through all the ways women have been held back historically, we need to acknowledge the history of progress that was made for women that excluded black women, indigenous women, and all other women who weren’t privileged with whiteness.

It’s extremely easy to try to minimize how demoralizing it is for women who aren’t white with, “Well, that was in the past, you have those rights now,” but, in doing so, you’re diminishing the experience of a large part of the population you claim to be working for.

When you make declarations about women’s suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment and women gaining the right to vote, you mean white women; poll taxes and many other racist practices made it nearly impossible for black women to vote until much later. And the suffragette movement, while instrumental and painful – quite literally as women who fought for the right to vote were beaten down – to gain more ground, was steeped in racism and pushed the rights of non-white women to the background in a “you’ll get yours when we get ours” kind of way. Yes it was a step forward, but, initially, for whom?

It would be great to think white women have moved beyond that, but we haven’t. Not yet. The term “white feminism” was coined for a reason. We are still problematic. And we, as white women, need to check ourselves and check our white peers. We need to, when we kneejerk and become defensive when we hear the term “white feminism,” or any other calling out of problematic behavior, instead of saying “Well, not ME,” take a moment to reflect on how, yeah, maybe you sometimes.

Activist Ijeoma Oluo stated in an interview a few years ago, “Being anti-racist doesn’t mean that you are never racist, it means that you recognize and battle racism in yourself as hard as you battle it in others.” She expanded on this in her book, “So You Want To Talk About Race,” a book I highly recommend you pick up, writing that, “This does not mean that you have to flog yourself for all eternity.”

I believe this also goes for your missteps with anyone you unintentionally “other” with your words and actions such as LGBTQ+ folks and the differently abled.

What do you do about it?

You listen to what you’re saying to people. And you listen when they call you out on your bullshit, even when you don’t think it’s bullshit. You listen to how you’re referring to other women and what issues you’re dismissing as “not that bad.” Not that bad to who? You? Are you the default?

Same goes for issues that affect trans and non-binary women, who face a host of other obstacles that we, as cis, heteronormative women, can’t even fathom. Does that make these issues any less important? If your answer is yes, you need to take good long time to think about why it is you feel that way.

And if you hear other women or men burdening POC or non-cis/hetero folks with questions, offer to ease that burden. Just like men need to refrain from demanding the time of women to explain why something is misogynist or worse – I will happily try to help men figure it out when I’ve got enough spoons, but dammit, guys, step in if you see your brothers being a chore (and definitely step in when you see them sealioning, nobody has time for this) – white women can step in and help educate, when able, folks who are genuinely trying to figure their shit out.

And I implore you to do so rather than automatically dismiss someone as ignorant and unworthy of your effort. Conversation can go along way in bridging gaps. Not all ignorance is willful, and people who want to learn will. Being problematic isn’t incurable. And we’re all a work in progress.

We need to do the work. And we need to do better. Equality for women means all women, not just the women who look like you. Remember that.

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