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.
Cori 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.