Thursday, September 22, 2016

Why Using My Perspective as a Woman Has Helped me Understand Racial Oppression A Little Bit Better

I have struggled over the past several years with how to engage in the 'conversation' about racial oppression in the United States. I don't identify fully with any side of this conversation - my spirit was birthed and resides in white wrapping, but that same spirit was shaped in Kenya where I was raised both by my white parents and the black village I grew up. I did not first learn the ways of one skin color, and then learn the ways of another - I learned them both at the same time.

My hope in writing today is to share with you just a bit about how my process has gone, in the hopes that it helps you along yours. This is written with white people (specifically men) in mind, and I recognize it may offend, though that is not my intent. I also recognize I have much to learn, and that despite my best intentions, I may say something here that would be hurtful to a person of color. Should I do that, though I will do my absolute best not to, please know that was never my intent, and I am committed to continuing to learn.

For women, if this triggers something for you, please know I believe healing is possible. Whatever experiences of oppression you have had as a woman are entirely outside of our best design as humanity, and you are not alone.


I was recently in a group where I was asked to do an exercise on discrimination; one of the questions asked me to write a list of people groups I grew up fearing or being uncomfortable around. I sat still for a while, genuinely searching for an answer and trying to objectively and honestly run through the list of possible suspects. The first answer that came to my mind initially surprised me, and then wasn't a surprise at all: men.

I first became aware that men viewed women as objects when I was about 6; in Maasai culture, it was common for fathers and grooms to conduct the transaction of a daughter becoming a bride. Promises were made years in advance, as men staked their claims to girls who would one day become slightly older girls old enough to bear children. I don't know the number of times I stood silently by as a little girl, listening to men ask my father for me as one of their future brides. I do remember my father said no 100% of the time, and for this I am grateful.

I also remember, at the age of 9, realizing most of my age mates were beginning to prepare for the start of their menstrual cycles, and their subsequent need to be ready to become the brides they had been 'traded' as. I remember finding my refuge in books, spending hours hiding inside from the realities that faced me because of my gender when I walked out the door.

When I was in late elementary school, we returned to the US for a year. I was struck by the use of the female form to sell products ranging from cars to cigarettes to sunscreen. I realized the female form had power - but that power wasn't because the female body was valued for it's strength or intrinsic worth - instead the female body was a tool to be used for other people's benefit and pleasure. It was also, therefore, a mighty tool for manipulation.

I realized I happened to be put in one of those female bodies for my spirit and soul to do their work on this earth. I began to understand my greatest limitations actually had very little to do with me, and had already been predetermined by how others labeled my form.

When I was in middle school, I listened as some of my agemates recounted stories of abuse. I realized I was an outlier, not because of anything I had done, but because I had been lucky. And I realized I wasn't guaranteed to remain an outlier - that sexual abuse may one day become a part of my story. So far it's not part of my own personal story, for which I grateful, but I live every day with the reality that one day it might be. And I know the chance is higher for that to be a part of my daughter's story than it is my son's.

When I was in early high school, I began to perfect the "don't mess with me" face I used towards men who looked too long, or scanned up and down too many times. I also began to perfect my, "I'm not a threat" face for men in power who fear others strength. Sometimes, both are needed simultaneously.

I also sought to fight against the script that Evangelical Western Christianity had given me: that my body was intended for the Lord and for my husband, but not really for me. My 16 year old self tried to find a place for me to enjoy being in my own body and have some control over how it was viewed by others. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I failed. I learned that my body could be turned against me as a weapon if I trusted others with it, and I learned that even if I saw myself as valuable, I wasn't always perceived that way. In fact, as far as broader society was concerned, my self-narrative was secondary to the female form-narrative.

When I was in college, living in the United States indefinitely for the first time in my life, I was thrust into the throes of what is a co-ed college dorm, and was overwhelmed by the gender, racial, and socio-economic milieu. I met and married my husband quickly, and I know a part of that was because I knew I'd found a good man I always wanted in my corner of the ring. I'm so glad I did. He has been a tender partner in healing many of the wounds I picked up along the way as a result of being a woman.

In my late teens/early twenties, I also began to experience the onslaught of unsolicited feedback a woman in American can expect simply for stepping out of her home. Whether it was through advertising, the media, or social interactions, I received a lot of feedback on what it meant to be a woman, and a lot of feedback for my particular take on the role. Runs around campus were marked by how many catcalls I received - not because I'm particularly worth calling at, but simply because I had the audacity to show an interest in the health of my form. Comments were made about my appearance, my body, and even my food intake, "are you going to eat that whole burrito? That's hot. I love girls who can eat."

I began to recognize that to enjoy my own form, simply by dressing it in a way that made me feel beautiful, or decorating it with simple things like earrings or mascara, somehow sent a signal that I considered my body an art piece I had put on public display, apparently with a comment box. And the comments rolled in, unwanted, but each one leaving an impression.

As I entered pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering, I realized how many systems were stacked against me. Maintaining a career was harder, caring for a young child in public was isolating, and once again, advertising and the media quickly intervened to let me know what my role was as a mother, and how frequently I was failing.

As I've navigated through young motherhood, and am emerging into young-middle motherhood, I've found I have a bit more time on my hands - time to go out for drinks with friends, curl my hair, and go to the gym. It turns out my comment box is still fully operational. I was most recently (ie - 3 weeks ago) approached by a man at my front door, after he had completed the grocery delivery I'd placed online:

"you seem really fun," He said, glancing at my legs in shorts that suddenly felt too short. "Want to hang out sometime?"
"Oh, thanks," I said (because I didn't want to let my frustration show; I didn't know how he'd respond if I told him how wildly inappropriate it was for him to be hitting on me in the doorway of my home, while my son sat on the couch inches away. My husband wasn't home, and I didn't want to anger the man leaning possessively against my door frame), "but I'm married and have two kids." (men respond better when I'm already possessed by someone else, better than if I honestly say 'I didn't ask for your attention. I simply ordered milk online.')
"That's ok," he responded, looking directly at me, "I'm not looking for anything serious."

I've never felt more relieved when my husband came home than I did that day, even though I knew the reality was, I wasn't in any real danger. It was just a man who felt entitled to presenting his interest in me after a milk delivery. But it was an event smack in the middle of the backdrop of my life - where I've experienced dozens, probably hundreds, of micro-aggressions that have assured me I am not as safe as those who weren't born into the gender I was. Whether it's cat calls, being followed around a store, being called "sweetheart" and "honey" by men older than my father when I'm at a bar, or being unable to concentrate on the conversation with one of my girl friends because the man sitting directly behind her keeps eying all  of me...each interaction becomes a part of the canvas that sets part of the backdrop for every day of my life. That's how, I think, micro aggressions work. They slowly corrode and shape like a steady stream of single drops of water in a cave.

But the unjust treatment I've experienced as a woman isn't just about my physical form or 'how fun I seem", it's also about who I am. I can't count the times I've been laughed at, discredited, or held as exceptional when I've offered to do things like change a tire, take apart an appliance to fix it, or lead a group. I've been, on more than a few occasions, described as stubborn, opinionated, pushy, dominant, and intimidating by both men and women. But when I watch men engage in the same ways I do, they are described in the way I see myself: strong, leaders, confident, visionaries, full of ideas.

There isn't really a conclusion to this story, because it's still ongoing. I still wouldn't walk downtown at night by myself, and I still lock the doors as soon as I get in the car at the shopping center. I still am aware of every man around me, and know I'll have more moments where I pretend to get a phone call to avoid interacting with a man who's been eying me as I walk through Target or Trader Joes. I'll still pretend to ignore the lewd comments directed at me or other women when I take the bus. I'll still inwardly cringe every time I hear a crass word for one of my body parts used as insult. I will still see the way some men look at women when that woman isn't watching. She might not be, but other women see it, and so even if we don't always see it when it's directed at us, we sense the gaze on us. And yes, it makes us feel unsafe.

I'll continue to navigate what it means to be the woman I'm created me to be - strong, confident, full of ideas and passion, a leader - but I know to do it well, I have to remain aware of the gender constructs that still (many times unintentionally) remain. I know I will need to have a lot of grace and patience as so many people, men and women alike (myself included), try to navigate the understanding of these constructs and the way forward to healthier ones.

I'll keep having hard conversations with my daughter, and with my son - but they'll be different when it comes to my daughter. I'll tell her to walk a certain way, to have a strong handshake, to take care of her appearance, and to look people in the eye, "if you don't send a message that you respect your body, other people won't think  they have to respect your body either. Send a message that you respect you body, and that you expect others to do the same." That's not just about her body, it's about everything that is her - body, spirit, soul, and dreams.

I'm already teaching her to use her 'no' and to use it loudly when she feels scared. I'm already telling her that secrets that make her feel scared or hurt should never be secrets, no matter what anyone says. I'm already teaching her that she is strong, capable, brave, and important - no matter what anyone else says. I'm already teaching her that what she believes of herself is more important than any message she'll receive from anywhere else. I'm teaching carefully, doing everything I can to protect her innocence and optimism and trust of the goodness of the world, but knowing she will need a different type of internal strength to be true to who she was created to be.

And it is through this lens, as a woman, as a mother of a daughter, that I have been able to understand a bit more, and have my eyes more opened to seeing the racial injustices that occur around me everyday. I've started to see the change in facial expression on the cashier's face based on the color of the person she is serving. I've started to see the way mothers reach out to hold their children's hands more around some skin colors than they do around others. I've started to see the realities of the color map that could be laid on top of my cities geographical map, and I've become more aware of where I live in it - in the middle of my own color.

And I've become more aware of my own responses to other people, and had to come face to face with some of my own ingrained responses to people based on their skin color - even though in my head and heart I consciously hold no animosity or fear towards anyone based on anything external. Somewhere, along the way, I picked habits up, and now, it is my job to discover them and undo what needs undone.

I know this has been lengthy, but there is nothing brief about the complexities of oppression of any people group - whether it be based on gender, skin color, economic status, or sexual orientation.

My hope in sharing this, as a middle class white woman living in a safe white neighborhood, is to begin lending my voice to this conversation. Perhaps gender discrimination is more accessible for you than racial discrimination, for whatever reason. Perhaps hearing a bit of my experience as a woman, especially if you know me but didn't know this part, will help you begin to see other significant parts of other people's stories that you didn't realize you didn't know. Perhaps, if you feel some increased understanding of the reality of discomfort and threat to safety I live with as a woman, you'll have a framework for beginning to understand the threats and oppression that people of color live with. Again, I'm not saying my experience as a woman is the same as a person of color - they are different, but the lens of one helped me better understand the other, and perhaps it can help you, too.

Or, perhaps it simply helps you better understand gender discrimination a bit better - that would be valuable, too.

We all have a story with racial discrimination, because it is a part of our culture, whether we acknowledge it or not. Once we do acknowledge it, we can begin to see our part in it, and importantly, decide what part we will play in it going forward.

And, if I may gently suggest a hard thought: indecision is not a part of reconciliation and justice. Indecision is simply the decision to continue playing the same role you've been playing. And maybe that's a pretty decent role - but I know I wanted to be sure I hadn't settled on 'decent' if I was capable of more.

If the news of this week, and the years past, have caused you grief - keep grieving, but don't let your grief turn to indefinite paralyzation. You can withdraw to grieve, reflect, and even to recover. But my prayer is that you can find the perspective shift that you need to begin learning about the realities that make the truth we want to believe ring hollow: "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."

For once we learn the realities, we have a better chance of bringing about the good we so desperately want to be, and need to be, true.

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