When I first started this blog I did a post about identifying bias, mostly to be transparent about who I am and what my perspective is, but also to remind myself that I cannot – and should not – ever try to write for or on the behalf of a group I can’t represent. That being said, someone proposed the question to me and several others recently: who belongs in the feminist discourse, and what roles do radically different, sometimes opposing, groups have? There seemed to be a few points of contention but they mostly boiled down to culture lines and gender lines. This post will address the former, a future post will address the latter.
A forum I regularly post in has a feminism megathread (amongst hundreds of other political talking points) , and routinely the thread is closed and derailed on rehashed and repeated arguments, one of which is what level of “education” someone posting in the thread should have and why or why not that arbitrary line is fair. It’s an odd conundrum – nobody wants to explain every page what male privilege is and that yes, it definitely does exist – but at the same time, can anyone rightfully be excluded from the discussion simply on the base of lack of academic feminist knowledge? Surely saying so implies a rather white, upper-class attitude towards the discourse.
One member proposed this: does an educated Western feminist with a degree in women’s studies have more weight in the feminist discourse than an uneducated individual campaigning against female circumcision in his or her small community in Africa? Is the second, who may or may not have any interest in “women’s rights” in a western sense at all, even really a feminist?
No, and yes. The face of feminism in the US and Europe tends to be a pretty pale one (I would argue due in large to widespread racism when modern feminism was coming to its peak in the 60s and media still preferring to center on white spokespeople in most issues today), but it’s inaccurate and unfair to suggest that women’s issues are a white woman’s affair. But why, in an era of global communication, is there still this disconnect between voices in the discourse?
We have a major cultural gap between priorities. Not that first world women’s issues aren’t issues (an argument often made by particularly right-wing anti-feminists “you’re not stoned for being raped so you have nothing to complain about!” “your vagina isn’t mutilated so you have nothing to complain about!”) – that white, upper-class women, by and large, have failed to even identify and listen to what issues face other groups of women in the discourse. So we end up segregated by lack of understanding and communication when we all have a common goal: at the root, everyone in the discourse wants women to have a safer, healthier role in the world they share with men. An end to patriarchy, even if how they view patriarchy varies wildly.
Take body image issues, for example. The body image issues that face black American women are vastly different from white American women – something I thought I understood – until an exchange and conversation I witnessed and took part in at work one weekend. One of my coworkers – a married, childless, middle class mid-20s black woman – opted to let her hair grow naturally, no weave, no straightening, just her natural hair. I remarked that it looked nice and she replied, “black men hate natural hair.”
This kind of took me aback for a second. It’s her natural hair, it’s what her body is genetically conditioned to grow, and it looks lovely, why would anyone dislike it? “Not all black men I’m sure,” I said, about to eat my own words.
A customer came in shortly after, a middle age black man. “What happened to your hair?”
“I’m letting it grow naturally.”
“You should straighten it.”
“To look more like a white woman?”
“Nappy hair is shameful on a woman.” I am not making this up or exaggerating, this is exactly what he said.
“You have nappy hair under your hat, why should I have to straighten my hair?”
“You’re a woman. It’s not ladylike.”
My cheeks burned red with embarrassment. How could I have missed such an obvious cue that she was expressing a real and very legitimate body image problem that is so embedded a complete stranger thought it was appropriate to say her natural hair was shameful? The next man in line (another middle aged black man) who had heard the exchange assured my coworker that her natural hair was in fact, beautiful, but the damage had already been done – her feeling that “black men hate natural hair” had been validated. I was stunned, I am still stunned, that the exchange happened.
And it’s because I hadn’t listened, I’d heard what she was saying, but I hadn’t listened. In her saying, “black men hate natural hair,” what I was missing was the “…because black women are socially pressured to have straight hair like a white woman and to reject their own natural appearance.”
I realized my own personal error in creating an inclusive environment for feminist discourse, and I realized that my mental lapse is probably representative of a larger issue in the global discourse: we’re just not listening. Every cultural group has a place in the discourse, every opinion has a place in the discourse, we just need to reach past hearing the words and listen to the heart and soul behind them.