As I shared in a previous post, I have been reading Colonize This! with fervor and enthusiasm for a couple of weeks now. In my WGSS Senior Seminar, we have discussed extensively the complications of reading this text as a white-identified person; I am not the intended audience as outlined in the essays, nor as defined in most women of color feminisms. However, I struggle with my alienation from these texts, because on emotionally real and visceral levels, they resonate with day-to-day experiences I have had as a feminist, as a student, and as a woman. It is too simple to merely highlight difference or draw a line where my experiences end as a white woman and where theirs begin as women of color; it is also too simple to take advantage of our similarities and shared knowledges as women dealing with similar gender-based oppressions. My professor, Sonita Sarker, assured us that this messy space between camaraderie and respectful distance is okay – and she urged us to consider that while the text may be provoking our acknowledgment of white privilege, it also might be provoking us to engage in a dialogue about whiteness as it is racialized (not as a neutral default or non-race).
So this is my attempt to speak from my position as a white, middle-class, woman, who has to negotiate the everyday experience of these identities while also practicing a feminist perspective. I want to hold myself accountable by acknowledging my privilege, but I don’t want to assume that my experiences of oppression are therefore invalid. I want to live in the mess of what it means to be a feminist, who cannot always combat sexist or racist encounters with a cool wit or charisma; who cannot always muster the courage or energy to confront people who have hurt me; who is not an expert, but a careful listener and deeply sensitive being; who makes mistakes, that I can only promise to try and learn from.
Every week for the past eight months, I have taken the hour-long commute on the 21 westbound bus from Saint Paul to my boyfriend’s house in South Minneapolis. Most of the time (maybe sixty-percent of the time, when it’s not negative blank degrees outside), I genuinely enjoy the unique solitude I find on the bus, surrounded by strangers and a self-consciousness that feels safe to explore in this setting. I find myself thinking more about my class and race privilege on the bus than I do in school sometimes, and more about how I can articulate my feminism in a way that can materialize in real-life benefits for people other than myself. Which sometimes makes getting off the bus, at a stop that is a ten-minute walk from my boyfriend’s home, a rough transition into the depressing realities of my position as a woman. And this is where I hesitate to say, “as a white woman,” but where I NEED to in order to understand how the racialization and sexualization of my body socially construct my identity – via both privilege and discrimination.
I have been catcalled or sexually harassed walking down the street more times than are worth counting; this is not something specific to me, but to all women (street/online harassment are not the focus of my musings here, but there is an abundance of scholarship and personal writings about this issue out there that I encourage everyone to explore). Usually, my tactic for surviving these situations with as much dignity as possible is pure denial; I look ahead, keep a straight face and a quick stride. But some of the most layered, twisted, and confusing harassment I have experienced is from Black men in South Minneapolis, who call me out on my whiteness while degrading and mocking my sex.