Some of my reflections about feminism and privilege after being on the Doug Pagitt Radio show last week:
Confessions of Privilege from a White Feminist
by victoria on January 31, 2013
There is not much that screams feminist as loudly as a hyphenated last name like mine. When identifying myself as a feminist, I often feel the same way I do when revealing I am a Christian. I want to make a few disclaimers that define my kind of feminism. What I think of as my kind of feminism emphasizes the desire to make the world better for all people. I believe we are all worse off when anyone is marginalized and oppressed. While some feminists have found it necessary to separate themselves from patriarchal structures in order to create communities where women can be healthy and whole (especially those women who have suffered violent abuse), I do not share this need. In a world where a woman was recently beaten to death for riding a bus at night in India, I think feminist causes will benefit from women and men working together whenever possible. Of course, when men and women are working in community issues of sexuality and discrimination must be addressed.
For women of color, the potential for discrimination can happen on two levels due to race and gender. Our conversation with Candi Dugas on the Doug Pagitt Radio Show Thursday Jan. 24th, 2013 explored Dugas’ research about sexuality among African-American women providing insight and assistance to those looking for help in their opposite-gender relationships, especially in African-American churches. Even though I am white, I found myself identifying as a woman with aspects of Dugas’ book Who Told You That You Were Naked: Black Women Reclaiming Sexual and Spiritual Goodness. Intrigued by her definition of Womanism and its distinction from feminism, I did some research after the show to discover that, like some feminists who believe that they must separate from men to seek empowerment, some African-American women have found it necessary to create their own kind of feminism, Womanism, in order to strengthen African-American communities. White people are generally not included in such communities because of fear that their presence would oppress and silence African-American women. Additionally some Womanists believe the concerns of white feminists are distinctly different from their own. This is not a phenomenon unique to African-American women. Mujerista theology is a branch of theology created by and for Latina women to the exclusion of others. While I imagine there is not consensus about this among individuals in these groups, if my absence from these communities is the best way to make space for emerging voices, I support that. I suspect this is how some men feel regarding feminism.
My exclusion from Womanism and Mujerista theology creates an opportunity for me to consider my own privilege and assumptions about those more and less privileged than me. Sometimes I unconsciously find myself creating a secret privilege scale. On one side I stack that I am a woman and that I struggle with mental illness, which can marginalize me in some spheres, but on the other side of the scale I stack the privileges of being white, middle-class, well-educated, married to a white man, and living in the western world. Things become more complicated when I consider my two trans-racially adopted children. How do they affect my privilege scale? And what about the fact that I am shaped by growing up in a home with a disabled sibling? Does that contribute to my sense of marginalization? This practice of weighing life experiences against one another starts to feel a little silly, as if I should carry around some kind of privilege inventory for others to consider as they decide how to respond to me.
I suspect that by weighing my privileges, even if it is unconscious, I waste my energy with an unproductive focus. Conventional notions about privilege begin to feel too restrictive. I consider it a privilege to have grown up with a sister who happened to be handicapped. Even though our family was marginalized sometimes, my sister was a generous person who taught me a great deal about unconditional love. Call it a privilege or not, I would not exchange my life with her for anything. I feel the same way about my challenging life raising two adopted children as well as my struggles with mental illness. My capacity for compassion has grown from these aspects of my life, these privileges. Framed this way, a beautiful collage of privileges emerges from my experiences.
I do see goodness springing from the strangest places the way wildflowers make their way through cracks in concrete. I have always believed this is evidence of God’s work in the world: in the midst of our ugliest struggles, extraordinary things emerge. In saying this, I do not want to diminish the struggle others have had with oppression and discrimination. Nor do I want to suggest I know what it means for others to recover from suffering. I am speaking from my own particular experience. While there are aspects of my history that I would not have picked if given a choice, I find it easier to recognize and appreciate goodness in the world when I love and accept the privileges that come from my unique challenges as an educated, white, mentally ill, American, married, Christian, mother, sister, and feminist.