Growing up, my parents always told me I could do whatever I set my mind to. They never pushed needing to be “girly” and never told me I couldn’t do something because it was too “boyish”. I was a proud girl scout and soccer player. I went to an all girls’ Catholic high school and happily touted “GIRL POWER” and “We can do it!” a la Rosie the Riveter (not yet aware of the origins of her image).
I felt confident and powerful in my sisterhood , not yet critical or aware of the fact that they were all white upper middle class too. I listened to my teachers who taught lessons on the objectification of women in the media, but never discussed how race also plays a role in gender stereotypes. Our teachers instilled a sense of our rights over our own bodies, but never discussed how access to healthcare or lack there of, affects certain groups of women from being able to have that choice. We were taught about racism in the context of the Civil Rights movement and as a thing of the past, but we never discussed how racism still persists in almost all institutions within the US. We were taught that every child should have access to good education, yet the small minority of girls of color in our school were never represented in the curriculum we studied or their cultures celebrated.
We took field trips to Skid Row to hand out donations to the homeless, but no one ever brought up the fact that POC and Black people are overrepresented in the homeless population compared to the overall population. And I believed them so much so, that I will admit that I once said, “I don’t see color” when talking about race. I had not yet heard the word “privilege” in the way we use it today. I was not yet aware that even though I was oppressed in certain ways as a woman, that did not mean I hadn’t been complicit in oppressing others, even if unintentionally. Add to that that Catholic school had instilled the White Savior sentiment in me that would lead me to believe I was doing so much good. It would be another almost four years till I recognize the problems in all this.
The first time I heard the phrase “White Privilege” wasn’t until my junior year of COLLEGE. Keep in mind I grew up in diverse, “liberal” Los Angeles. It wasn’t until a semester abroad with a program that focused on problems with globalization and development did I get shocked into the invisible scheme of white privilege. You want to know the statement that felt like the biggest face-palm of all time? It was a line from Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and it said “46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.” Bandaids were FUCKING RACIST (or rather the companies making them). Though it seems trivial, it was representing a bigger issue that day to day things are exclusive, and it made me reflect on what other billion “little things” were inaccessible to a huge group of people? My brain literally went *I’ve NEVER thought about that!!!!” and it made me wonder what else I’ve never really been forced to think about or consider. Recognizing the little detail, was for me a lightbulb for the bigger institutionalized systems of racism and oppression.
Yet I still held on to being a proud feminist, but now, with a little more knowledge of racial politics and still that drive to be a “good person”. And it wasn’t until now, an almost 30 year old, that I learned about the problems of the origins of the feminist movement in the United States. The fact that highly regarded suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, although abolitionists fighting against slavery, did not believe in the vote for Black people and in fact actively spoke against Black suffrage. I only recently learned, though reading Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class* did I learn of Frederick Douglass’s allyship with the suffragettes who believed in the need for equality for ALL and the power of all oppressed to work together against the male white supremacy patriarchy that kept both groups disenfranchised though in different ways. I didn’t think about how companies were starting to jump on the “feminism is cool” bandwagon to capitalize on proclaimed '“Girl Power” consumers, but whose board of directors, owners, bosses, designers, etc were still incredibly monotone and whose factories have human rights violations and pay poverty level wages.
Reflecting on all these things, made me think, do I really want to be a feminist? And if I say I’m an intersectional feminist, what ways do I need to challenge my white fragility and privilege so that I actually “practice what I preach”? So I began to consider calling myself a Reforming White Feminist. I chose to say “reforming” rather than “reformed” because I am not perfect, and I don’t claim to know everything about racism, sexism, oppression. I am, based on how many big face-palm/lightbulb moments I’ve had up till now, still learning. Educator, writer, and scholar Rachel Cargle talks about the Ally Equation being education + action + empathy. Sadly, it took until I am almost thirty years old to really deeply look into my own privilege and educate myself. I know I always had the empathy and action part down, but without the education and knowledge, I could only perpetuate what I believed to be right, which from another person’s perspective might not be helpful or possibly harmful.
All of this was the catalyst to me reflecting on my artwork and the line between tokenism and inclusivity. On capitalism and making money off of “trendy” social justice buzzwords without really doing the work to promote and support BIPOC and LGBTQ folks. On how to use my privilege to be a real ally. My hope is to continue to reform my feminism and to share the process with others who may be thinking the same things or who have never even had to think about it. The systems in our country aren’t broken, they were created to be the way they are by those who want power and control. But if we stop fighting for just “our” needs (as a specific group) and start fighting together for “ALL” needs, we can perhaps make a real ruckus and a new system. As Assata Shakur once said “It is our duty to fight for freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” We’re in this together.