All of who we are

All of who we are October 6, 2012

When I first started dating my now-fiance, I had just recently begun calling myself a feminist. I had just recently begun to look at the way the world around me privileged men and say, “Hey! This isn’t right.”

Thanks to my new found worldview, I saw Abe as having privilege over me. I expected him to be aware of that privilege, and I expected him to be extremely careful not to use that privilege in ways that might hurt me. I thought that he, as a man, was more privileged than me, as a woman.

I was right.

But I was also wrong.

There came a point in our relationship where I had to realize that I had, without even realizing it, been racist toward Abe many times. I had believed stereotypes about Asian people. I had both told and laughed at jokes directed toward Asian people. I had made ignorant, generalizing statements about them.

I was using my privilege to hurt him. I was contributing to his oppression.

Just because Abe had privilege over me, didn’t mean that I didn’t have privilege over him. And while Abe was working hard to recognize his own privilege and to make sure he did not contribute to my (or any other woman’s) oppression, I was sitting back, assuming that my status as “woman” somehow excused me from looking at my own privilege.

Abe does not fear, even in the back of his mind, being raped any time he walks alone at night. That is something I fear nearly every time I head to the parking lot after my night class.

Abe has that privilege over me.

But I never have to fear being suspected of terrorism at the airport. Because of Abe’s skin color and facial hair, that is a legitimate concern for him.

I have privilege over Abe.

Once, during a discussion about a bill being passed in Arizona that limited reproductive rights for uterus-owners, I joked that I was glad I didn’t live there (not that things are all that much better here in Michigan–our representatives can’t even say “vagina,” apparently). This was a concern that non-uterus-owning Abe did not have to share because of his privilege.

But, the discussion continued, and eventually moved in the direction of Arizona’s immigration laws. Abe stated that he wouldn’t want to live there either. “I’d probably get pulled over all the time because people can’t tell what race I am.” I didn’t have to share this concern with him and I never will.

We live in a world of binary thinking where you are a man or a woman. You are black or white. You are oppressed or you are an oppressor.

But the line isn’t as usually clear as we like to pretend it is.

I can be oppressed and I can be an oppressor. I can be both at the same time because I am white and I am a woman. Neither of those two parts of my identity are more important than the other. If I ignore my whiteness and only claim my woman-ness, I ignore the ways in which I perpetuate white supremacy.

Fellow women, just because we are oppressed does not mean we cannot also be oppressors because of our age, our race, our sexual orientation, our health, our class, or our weight.

Recognizing ourselves as potential oppressors does not belittle the hurt we may have endured because of our status as Oppressed. Yet, the hurt we’ve endured because of our status as Oppressed does not excuse the hurt we may have caused others because of our own potential to oppress.

We can embody both identities fully.

But none of us are free while any of us are oppressed, so let’s look at who we are for a moment. ALL of who we are.

Picture by my mother, Carolyn Moon
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  • Good post! It’s weird how privilege overlaps. As a bisexual, I can’t hold my partner’s hand in public without being harassed. But as a self-identified male, I don’t have to worry about people cat-calling and saying rude things to me when I’m walking down the street.

  • chris

    I appreciate your honesty. For a very long time, I was a black-and-white thinker and liked it just fine. Until a devastating abuse took place in my family and I was forced to see all of our parts in it. There is no harder truth to face than that we are all a bit of everything – oppressed, oppressor, good, evil, victim, perpetrator, right, wrong, positive, negative, nice, mean… I fought long and hard not to feel, face or admit this – you have and I applaud you.

  • The Dismantling Racism workshop I did for the Diocese of Vermont a few years ago was co-run by a white lesbian priest and a straight man of Chinese descent. It created a really interesting dynamic for the larger group, in which all the participants were freed to realize the intersectionality of their identities and admit their own privilege. I wish everyone had the opportunity to take part in such a workshop!

  • Excellent post. I haven’t tended to think in terms of privelege that much, but more in terms of freedom and oppression… I think that’s because most of the discussions of privelege I’ve been around (unlike this one!) have tended to be either really about selfish entitlement or about anger and getting even.

    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3/28 NIV)
    If the Church would take this seriously, we would live in a far different, far better world. I realize your post deals with the world at large, and I agree. I just know we should be making a very different sort of difference than we are.

  • Anonymous

    I’m also curious where you are with liberation theology and the idea of ‘God being on the side of the oppressed’?

    • I like liberation theology a lot, the little that I’ve learned of it. That and feminist theology really have saved my faith.

  • life is a curious mixture of greys, 🙂 as always I love seeing your thoughts and how they move me to reflect on myself and the world around me.

  • Great post. We humans are each a complex mixture of many “categories.” It is important to recognize our similarities and differences, and to celebrate both. Open discussion and a desire to learn and understand go a long way.