You Become an Anti-Racist Feminist

April 22, 2013
By

By Cori Mattli

When you are 18 and in college, you take a class that introduces you to feminism. You like thinking about feminist theory–it gives you answers to the questions you’ve had about your world. It tells you why you shave your legs. It tells you why you counted calories when you were ten. Feminism seems like a good antidote to starvation. Something to inspire you better than the scrapbook of emaciated women that you left at home, in the back-top-corner of your closet. It feels like you’ve found the answers.

You remember sitting at a desk in your dorm room, the sunshiny rays of light illuminating your textbook, and reading about the branches of feminism: Liberal, Radical, Eco, Marxist, Multicultural/Global, etc. You wondered which branch would claim you. Maybe a combination? Except, Multicultural feminism felt (selfishly, immaturely) like something that doesn’t concern you. These are not my stories, you thought. They do not reveal my pain.

You want something familiar–something white, something heterosexual, something cisgender, something relatively middle-class.

You take more of those classes. You write more of those papers. You sew the threads of feminism into your days like you are patching old wounds. Sexism is everywhere. You have a trained eye to spot it. With a fillet knife and a flame, with precision and patience, you carefully cut the inner-misogyny out of your thoughts. You try to love your body. You tell yourself your ideas are meaningful, smart.

Later you become something of an advocate. You live in a house where you organize events around gender and sexism on campus. You show movies and facilitate discussions. You wear wool skirts in the winter and experiment with letting your leg hair grow. You start to feel confident in your voice as a feminist. You know the words. You know the theories.

And then one night, there is a dinner and discussion at your house–a class project about immigration and the media. You arrange copies of magazine covers, like place mats, on the dining room table for discussion–they show Latino people, the shadows of their eyes dark. The illustrated faces squished into hard stares and grimaces. Their creators, through ink and gloss, try to communicate to you (you young white American woman you) that these faces wish you harm. You think that this sort of media does not affect you.

At dinner, you stumble and you choke over words. Institutional racism isn’t something you’ve been asked to talk about before. This is your house, but you feel not at home. These are not my stories, you think. A smart, eloquent Latina student takes hold of the conversation. Her voice booms. She talks about her family. She talks about her studies in unfair, racist immigration policies. You are happy just to listen. You realize there is much to learn from just listening. But, you also notice the white people in the room–they are looking at their shoes and in unison, they breathe a deep grateful sigh.

Afterwards, you remember reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera in your class. You struggled to understand the Spanish in her essays. You remember her words: ““Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar.” You wonder at the meaning of this.

When you are 23, in a new city, you feel older and wiser, but the register of your voice reflects your youth. You look for people who have had your same experiences, who have read the same books. You still ache to learn.

You find a community of like-minded people who call themselves white, anti-racists, which intimidates you, but intrigues you. You remember Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Audre Lorde. They whispered poetry into your memories and compelled you to do better.

You are amazed at the collective humility of this group. This group of white people who talk about race. There are deep pauses in their group conversations. They all are thinking and hearing and reaching outwards. You take their workshop. You join their cause.

Together, you read the history of Anne Braden and the essays of Tema Okun. You tell each other your privilege stories: speeding tickets avoided, jobs granted, money from your grandmother, public spaces where you felt safe. You talk about the stories of your Irish or German ancestors–you talk about the history of your country that was built on genocide and slavery. How these are old, condensed words for sprawling pain and poverty today.

And then you dig deeper.

You tap that well again, and you find there is pain and grief that you didn’t know existed. It comes out as shame. It pours out of your heart and settles like iron in your gut. Your memories reveal when you were younger and well-meaning, but hurtful. You remember hearing the hate and judgements of white people and saying nothing. You remember racist thoughts that flew through your own mind. You think you are done with guilt, but it bubbles up from your stomach again.

You realize your body is the place where you’ve tucked your shame and grief for the world.

You take that fillet knife and start on the racism that has been poured like wax into your mouth, blown like music into your ears. It has found its way into your body and you cut it out like cancer.

You start the slow climb of Tema Okun’s “Ladder of Empowerment.” From defensiveness to guilt to acknowledgment to taking responsibility for your whiteness. You sew threads of anti-racism into your daily life like you are patching old wounds.

You realize listening is not enough. You have to speak when there are no people of color in the room. You have to flip the coin and tell stories that expose the other side of oppression: stories of privilege, the convenience of not thinking about race, of having so many feminist writers describe your story: white, heterosexual, cisgender, relatively middle-class.

You realize you must clutch that ladder and drop it horizontally across the gap. You reach your hand out to white people who wonder at what you’re doing with those books, that ladder, that thread. With humility and gratefulness, you say: I am making bridges.

______________________________________

CoriMattli-You_Become_an_Anti_Racist_Feminist-corimattliprofilephoto-1Cori Mattli holds a degree in Writing from Northland College. She is a former member of Groundwork, a white, anti-racist collective in Madison, Wisconsin. She blogs at writtenroots.com.

 

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48 Responses to You Become an Anti-Racist Feminist

  1. Sista Resista on April 22, 2013 at 10:24 am

    This was beautiful and moving. Thank you for writing it, sharing it, living it. Peace and blessings

  2. Sista Resista on April 22, 2013 at 10:24 am

    This was beautiful and moving. Thank you for writing it, sharing it, living it. Peace and blessings

  3. Sista Resista on April 22, 2013 at 10:24 am

    This was beautiful and moving. Thank you for writing it, sharing it, living it. Peace and blessings

  4. Sista Resista on April 22, 2013 at 10:24 am

    This was beautiful and moving. Thank you for writing it, sharing it, living it. Peace and blessings

  5. Alison on April 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Very strong piece – both political and personal. Thank you for sharing your journey, one I think many of us can recognize in our own lives.

  6. Alison on April 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Very strong piece – both political and personal. Thank you for sharing your journey, one I think many of us can recognize in our own lives.

  7. Alison on April 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Very strong piece – both political and personal. Thank you for sharing your journey, one I think many of us can recognize in our own lives.

  8. Alison on April 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Very strong piece – both political and personal. Thank you for sharing your journey, one I think many of us can recognize in our own lives.

  9. laura on April 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    I am crying. thank you for writing this Cori! Powerful

  10. laura on April 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    I am crying. thank you for writing this Cori! Powerful

  11. laura on April 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    I am crying. thank you for writing this Cori! Powerful

  12. laura on April 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    I am crying. thank you for writing this Cori! Powerful

  13. Daijana on April 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    That was great. I didn’t know I could be proud of someone I’ve never met.

  14. Daijana on April 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    That was great. I didn’t know I could be proud of someone I’ve never met.

  15. Daijana on April 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    That was great. I didn’t know I could be proud of someone I’ve never met.

  16. Daijana on April 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    That was great. I didn’t know I could be proud of someone I’ve never met.

  17. Addie on April 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    dear feminist wire, will u just delete my last comment? (it’s long) i guess i’m saying something interesting but it doesnt really add to the thread and I don’t want it to be published. sorry for the inconvenience. thank you. addie

  18. Addie on April 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    dear feminist wire, will u just delete my last comment? (it’s long) i guess i’m saying something interesting but it doesnt really add to the thread and I don’t want it to be published. sorry for the inconvenience. thank you. addie

  19. Addie on April 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    dear feminist wire, will u just delete my last comment? (it’s long) i guess i’m saying something interesting but it doesnt really add to the thread and I don’t want it to be published. sorry for the inconvenience. thank you. addie

  20. Addie on April 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    dear feminist wire, will u just delete my last comment? (it’s long) i guess i’m saying something interesting but it doesnt really add to the thread and I don’t want it to be published. sorry for the inconvenience. thank you. addie

  21. Richelle on April 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    It seems that my feminist journey is not completed yet. Thank you for writing this. It exudes and embeds wisdom.

    • Cori Mattli on April 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      It is a lifelong journey for us all. Thanks for reading!

  22. Richelle on April 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    It seems that my feminist journey is not completed yet. Thank you for writing this. It exudes and embeds wisdom.

    • Cori Mattli on April 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      It is a lifelong journey for us all. Thanks for reading!

  23. Richelle on April 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    It seems that my feminist journey is not completed yet. Thank you for writing this. It exudes and embeds wisdom.

    • Cori Mattli on April 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      It is a lifelong journey for us all. Thanks for reading!

  24. Richelle on April 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    It seems that my feminist journey is not completed yet. Thank you for writing this. It exudes and embeds wisdom.

    • Cori Mattli on April 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      It is a lifelong journey for us all. Thanks for reading!

  25. [...] Cori Mattli does an utterly fantastic job of depicting the revolutions in thought and consciousness that happen along many of our journeys as feminists: [...]

  26. [...] Cori Mattli does an utterly fantastic job of depicting the revolutions in thought and consciousness that happen along many of our journeys as feminists: [...]

  27. [...] Cori Mattli does an utterly fantastic job of depicting the revolutions in thought and consciousness that happen along many of our journeys as feminists: [...]

  28. [...] Cori Mattli does an utterly fantastic job of depicting the revolutions in thought and consciousness that happen along many of our journeys as feminists: [...]

  29. heather on April 26, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    thank you for this beautiful post!

  30. heather on April 26, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    thank you for this beautiful post!

  31. heather on April 26, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    thank you for this beautiful post!

  32. heather on April 26, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    thank you for this beautiful post!

  33. Dan on April 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I’m afraid to say that if you never really had to think about racism or class struggle before going to college then you’ll probably never really understand it outside of a circle of well of white people doing thought exercises.

    I don’t say this to be mean but I’m so tired of upper middle class feminists who’ve never had a callous on their hand talking about discoveries through books that the rest of us lived.

    • Cori Mattli on April 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it because it helps me to see how someone without racial privilege may see my essay–it is after all, yet another story about a white woman’s experience.

      I think you pulled out a lot of assumptions about me, though, that are not correct. I never said I was “upper middle class” for instance. I also didn’t say that I never thought about racism or class struggle before college–I just didn’t have the tools or guidance to understand these things in a bigger way. For instance, I was experiencing sexism and misogyny all my life before I was 18, but I didn’t know it in those terms, or how it was playing out systematically in my world until I had teachers who helped me to understand more deeply. I learned further still through books and community organizing. I continue to learn.

      It seems like my story might have evoked emotions for you from coming into contact with other white, privileged feminists who enjoy the safety and security of just “talking and reading” about racism.

      I get that. I think we white feminists truly begin to understand racism when we start confronting racism. Many times the backlash from other white people is aimed directly at us, and it helps white people to feel it personally and actually ground ourselves in what it might be like to deal with it in MUCH greater terms everyday. The effects for us are SO SMALL in comparison, but it helps to move us from “talking about discoveries through books,” as you put it, to understanding better what it is like to live it. At least for me, it has worked this way.

      If I may ask, how is it that you have developed your feminist consciousness? Even though most men will never fully understand the simple act of walking down the street as a woman or trans person, I believe it’s possible for them to listen, empathize and to work to end gender violence. In fact, I think it is completely necessary. For me, I have to believe that people do not need to have lived my experience or hardships to truly empathize and work to change things. It gives me hope.

      Thank you starting this dialogue. It is so important.

      • Man... on April 30, 2013 at 3:23 pm

        “If I may ask, how is it that you have developed your feminist consciousness? Even though most men will never fully understand the simple act of walking down the street as a woman or trans person, I believe it’s possible for them to listen, empathize and to work to end gender violence. In fact, I think it is completely necessary. For me, I have to believe that people do not need to have lived my experience or hardships to truly empathize and work to change things. It gives me hope.”

        This sounds condescending. What really stinks about this is it really hurts your wonderful piece above. It assumes that A: Dan is a man B: that he/she isn’t trans C: lumps Cisgendered women in with Trans experience D: sounds kind of like a privilage P___ing contest. I don’t know if Dan is a POC man, but if so, he’s probably exprienced his fair share of discrimination. I am sure that your intent is not congruent with your response but diligence is kind of the point of your article.

  34. Dan on April 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I’m afraid to say that if you never really had to think about racism or class struggle before going to college then you’ll probably never really understand it outside of a circle of well of white people doing thought exercises.

    I don’t say this to be mean but I’m so tired of upper middle class feminists who’ve never had a callous on their hand talking about discoveries through books that the rest of us lived.

    • Cori Mattli on April 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it because it helps me to see how someone without racial privilege may see my essay–it is after all, yet another story about a white woman’s experience.

      I think you pulled out a lot of assumptions about me, though, that are not correct. I never said I was “upper middle class” for instance. I also didn’t say that I never thought about racism or class struggle before college–I just didn’t have the tools or guidance to understand these things in a bigger way. For instance, I was experiencing sexism and misogyny all my life before I was 18, but I didn’t know it in those terms, or how it was playing out systematically in my world until I had teachers who helped me to understand more deeply. I learned further still through books and community organizing. I continue to learn.

      It seems like my story might have evoked emotions for you from coming into contact with other white, privileged feminists who enjoy the safety and security of just “talking and reading” about racism.

      I get that. I think we white feminists truly begin to understand racism when we start confronting racism. Many times the backlash from other white people is aimed directly at us, and it helps white people to feel it personally and actually ground ourselves in what it might be like to deal with it in MUCH greater terms everyday. The effects for us are SO SMALL in comparison, but it helps to move us from “talking about discoveries through books,” as you put it, to understanding better what it is like to live it. At least for me, it has worked this way.

      If I may ask, how is it that you have developed your feminist consciousness? Even though most men will never fully understand the simple act of walking down the street as a woman or trans person, I believe it’s possible for them to listen, empathize and to work to end gender violence. In fact, I think it is completely necessary. For me, I have to believe that people do not need to have lived my experience or hardships to truly empathize and work to change things. It gives me hope.

      Thank you starting this dialogue. It is so important.

      • Man... on April 30, 2013 at 3:23 pm

        “If I may ask, how is it that you have developed your feminist consciousness? Even though most men will never fully understand the simple act of walking down the street as a woman or trans person, I believe it’s possible for them to listen, empathize and to work to end gender violence. In fact, I think it is completely necessary. For me, I have to believe that people do not need to have lived my experience or hardships to truly empathize and work to change things. It gives me hope.”

        This sounds condescending. What really stinks about this is it really hurts your wonderful piece above. It assumes that A: Dan is a man B: that he/she isn’t trans C: lumps Cisgendered women in with Trans experience D: sounds kind of like a privilage P___ing contest. I don’t know if Dan is a POC man, but if so, he’s probably exprienced his fair share of discrimination. I am sure that your intent is not congruent with your response but diligence is kind of the point of your article.

  35. Dan on April 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I’m afraid to say that if you never really had to think about racism or class struggle before going to college then you’ll probably never really understand it outside of a circle of well of white people doing thought exercises.

    I don’t say this to be mean but I’m so tired of upper middle class feminists who’ve never had a callous on their hand talking about discoveries through books that the rest of us lived.

    • Cori Mattli on April 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it because it helps me to see how someone without racial privilege may see my essay–it is after all, yet another story about a white woman’s experience.

      I think you pulled out a lot of assumptions about me, though, that are not correct. I never said I was “upper middle class” for instance. I also didn’t say that I never thought about racism or class struggle before college–I just didn’t have the tools or guidance to understand these things in a bigger way. For instance, I was experiencing sexism and misogyny all my life before I was 18, but I didn’t know it in those terms, or how it was playing out systematically in my world until I had teachers who helped me to understand more deeply. I learned further still through books and community organizing. I continue to learn.

      It seems like my story might have evoked emotions for you from coming into contact with other white, privileged feminists who enjoy the safety and security of just “talking and reading” about racism.

      I get that. I think we white feminists truly begin to understand racism when we start confronting racism. Many times the backlash from other white people is aimed directly at us, and it helps white people to feel it personally and actually ground ourselves in what it might be like to deal with it in MUCH greater terms everyday. The effects for us are SO SMALL in comparison, but it helps to move us from “talking about discoveries through books,” as you put it, to understanding better what it is like to live it. At least for me, it has worked this way.

      If I may ask, how is it that you have developed your feminist consciousness? Even though most men will never fully understand the simple act of walking down the street as a woman or trans person, I believe it’s possible for them to listen, empathize and to work to end gender violence. In fact, I think it is completely necessary. For me, I have to believe that people do not need to have lived my experience or hardships to truly empathize and work to change things. It gives me hope.

      Thank you starting this dialogue. It is so important.

      • Man... on April 30, 2013 at 3:23 pm

        “If I may ask, how is it that you have developed your feminist consciousness? Even though most men will never fully understand the simple act of walking down the street as a woman or trans person, I believe it’s possible for them to listen, empathize and to work to end gender violence. In fact, I think it is completely necessary. For me, I have to believe that people do not need to have lived my experience or hardships to truly empathize and work to change things. It gives me hope.”

        This sounds condescending. What really stinks about this is it really hurts your wonderful piece above. It assumes that A: Dan is a man B: that he/she isn’t trans C: lumps Cisgendered women in with Trans experience D: sounds kind of like a privilage P___ing contest. I don’t know if Dan is a POC man, but if so, he’s probably exprienced his fair share of discrimination. I am sure that your intent is not congruent with your response but diligence is kind of the point of your article.

  36. Dan on April 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I’m afraid to say that if you never really had to think about racism or class struggle before going to college then you’ll probably never really understand it outside of a circle of well of white people doing thought exercises.

    I don’t say this to be mean but I’m so tired of upper middle class feminists who’ve never had a callous on their hand talking about discoveries through books that the rest of us lived.

    • Cori Mattli on April 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it because it helps me to see how someone without racial privilege may see my essay–it is after all, yet another story about a white woman’s experience.

      I think you pulled out a lot of assumptions about me, though, that are not correct. I never said I was “upper middle class” for instance. I also didn’t say that I never thought about racism or class struggle before college–I just didn’t have the tools or guidance to understand these things in a bigger way. For instance, I was experiencing sexism and misogyny all my life before I was 18, but I didn’t know it in those terms, or how it was playing out systematically in my world until I had teachers who helped me to understand more deeply. I learned further still through books and community organizing. I continue to learn.

      It seems like my story might have evoked emotions for you from coming into contact with other white, privileged feminists who enjoy the safety and security of just “talking and reading” about racism.

      I get that. I think we white feminists truly begin to understand racism when we start confronting racism. Many times the backlash from other white people is aimed directly at us, and it helps white people to feel it personally and actually ground ourselves in what it might be like to deal with it in MUCH greater terms everyday. The effects for us are SO SMALL in comparison, but it helps to move us from “talking about discoveries through books,” as you put it, to understanding better what it is like to live it. At least for me, it has worked this way.

      If I may ask, how is it that you have developed your feminist consciousness? Even though most men will never fully understand the simple act of walking down the street as a woman or trans person, I believe it’s possible for them to listen, empathize and to work to end gender violence. In fact, I think it is completely necessary. For me, I have to believe that people do not need to have lived my experience or hardships to truly empathize and work to change things. It gives me hope.

      Thank you starting this dialogue. It is so important.

      • Man... on April 30, 2013 at 3:23 pm

        “If I may ask, how is it that you have developed your feminist consciousness? Even though most men will never fully understand the simple act of walking down the street as a woman or trans person, I believe it’s possible for them to listen, empathize and to work to end gender violence. In fact, I think it is completely necessary. For me, I have to believe that people do not need to have lived my experience or hardships to truly empathize and work to change things. It gives me hope.”

        This sounds condescending. What really stinks about this is it really hurts your wonderful piece above. It assumes that A: Dan is a man B: that he/she isn’t trans C: lumps Cisgendered women in with Trans experience D: sounds kind of like a privilage P___ing contest. I don’t know if Dan is a POC man, but if so, he’s probably exprienced his fair share of discrimination. I am sure that your intent is not congruent with your response but diligence is kind of the point of your article.

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