Feminism is a work in progress. And it’s complicated. It is also dialectical. Two steps forward, one backward. Three steps forward, two backward.
First Wave Feminism (1900-1930) was about getting the vote. It was white upper and middle class women operating from platforms of privilege. None of these feminists are alive today.
Second Wave Feminism (1970-1990) was about access to “the system” so that educated and skilled women of all colors could work outside the home and contribute to society and the general economy far beyond the boundaries of motherhood and the kitchen. This is the feminism of my generation and today most of us are over 65, many in our 70’s and 80’s. Our two main objectives were professional childcare and the Equal Rights Amendment. And we failed to get both.
Third Wave Feminism (1990-now), often referred to as radical or intersectional feminism, is more individualistic and highly influenced by postmodern academic scholarship. It’s about women of color, (WOC) gender diversity and physical disabilities. This wave of feminism, dominated by these marginalized groups, operates under the premise that white feminists are irredeemably racist. Apparently, we are like fish in a fish bowl that can’t see the water we’re swimming in. We benefit from systemic racism whether or not we actively contribute to perpetuating it. And all this is invisible to us because we’ve never had to think about it.
This is hard stuff for us older white feminists. We hate it when we’re called out for being less than we think we are and to many of us, it sounds like reverse racism. Is it? I don’t think so. This is because racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. Let’s be clear about this. Racism is about the assumption of superiority. When a POC calls us out and reacts negatively, it is not racism. It is visceral defensiveness. Pure and simple. Authentic reactions to offensive behavior.
So what are we older white feminists - predominantly cis-gendered - supposed to do?
First, ditch the color blindness. “I don’t see color, I just see people,” we say. Embracing the mentality that color doesn’t matter diminishes the humanity of POC because it fails to give recognition to their daily experience in a white culture. Ditching colorblindness means acknowledging the unearned privileges that whites are born with. It means recognizing that white apathy and passivity are not just part of the problem; they are the problem. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, author Jody Picoult reminds us that “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” So next time there’s a Black Lives Matter march, make sure you’re there!
Second, listen and learn! One place to start is Everyday Feminism. This space is a well of information. You won’t like everything you read on it, but check your privilege every time you feel misunderstood. Chances are you’ll come out the other side a bit wiser.
So far so good, but it isn’t enough. This isn’t satisfying to us old ones who are used to exchanging ideas, challenging one another and moving from one level of consciousness to another. We need to talk about this.
Can we talk about it?
Apparently not. Whenever we older white feminists try, we are systematically told to shut up and listen. I recently lost a good friend because I wanted to talk about racism but she painfully informed that my very questions and concerns were offensive, so offensive that she no longer wanted to be friends. Furthermore, she doubted if we had ever really been friends. (This hurt me to the core and I miss her.)
In her novel Small Great Things, Jody Picoult says white liberals and POC are not communicating. Why? Because we do not speak the same language. Small Great Things is an attempt to close the gap, but it’s just a beginning. What I wish with all my heart is that radical and intersectional feminists would cut us some slack. Yes, we can listen but listening inspires conversation and we want to share ideas, get feedback and learn.
Is this insulting? Is it offensive that we want to talk to you? Do our very questions sound like we feel superior? Is this the barrier we fail to understand?
Let’s start with cross-cultural borrowing or what is called cultural appropriation; “tone deaf” insults that offend and demonstrate disrespect. E.g., non-African-American women wearing their hair in cornrow braids. OK. Point taken…maybe. We need to hear more. Are other WOC allowed to wear their hair in braids? What about Native American women? Or mestizos from Honduras? Hawaii? Madrid?
And please talk to us about white jazz musicians. What about Art Pepper, Jerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bix Biederbecke or Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Shelly Manne, etc. Should we boycott these white guys because jazz is not theirs/ours to play? Are modern dancers who happen to be white committing cultural appropriation, if they move their bodies to African rhythms?
These are not disingenuous questions. We really want to understand your thinking. Is there room for discussion on these and other similar issues? Can we consider nuances? If we cooperated in organizing a conference, would you come?
And here’s the big question. Can we push the liberal agenda and move forward in solidarity? In sisterhood? Or has the systemic oppression you’ve experienced all your life been too painful? A lot of you don’t want to be our “sisters” because there must be therapeutic value in keeping us at arms’ length. We are old, much older than you. Maybe it’s too late for us. Maybe we will never be able to talk together and transcend this bitter and acrimonious alienation. Maybe you want us - not just to be quiet - but to disappear.
But wait! Please! The brutal “war on women” in America has been rekindled and the feminist movement needs all of us. On this you must agree. Or maybe not.
Comments welcome, please.