Disclaimer: I’m going to say things about my mother that might seem unkind, but they are honest, and I say them with a lot of love.
I have this ongoing struggle with my family of origin about white privilege, middle class privilege, and male privilege. I am a white woman, living just above the poverty line. I am married to Big Daddy (the most amazing man on Planet Earth). I have three grown daughters, one biological and two step-daughters. I am lying in wait for word that a University wants to offer me admission to their PhD program, and about to begin substitute teaching as a way of bulking up that CV. I grew up in the middle class. It was a sort of hellish, narcissist version – one where physical and emotional and psychological abuse occurred as a matter of unspoken course. I used to get pretty angry at people who said I had no idea what suffering was because I grew up straight, white, and middle class. That’s certainly debatable, but I know suffering is subjective. I really don’t agree that qualifying something subjective is the best or most productive use of the knowledge we have accumulated in surviving our suffering – and I’m willing to acknowledge that bit of naivete might actually be some white, straight, middle class privilege.
My mother taught me that I was always free to be me a la Marlo Thomas & Co. She raised me with her liberal heart to look out for other people, to put the needs of others ahead of my own needs (which in some degrees is codependent), and she taught me to always speak up for myself even though that backfired a bit on occasion. My mother’s sisters and her mother reinforced all those lessons. They were all strong, opinionated women. They were also the real life images of what I saw on television at night. I remember seeing women marching, holding signs etched with the letters “ERA,” and my aunts were the embodiment of that struggle. My mom didn’t quite fit that image because she was married to a guy who mowed the lawn in a t-shirt that said “Vietnam Was Always Right.” She hated that t-shirt. One time she was so mad at that t-shirt, she pulled a box out of the back of a closet and gave me a beaded necklace and said, “These are my love beads. I want you to have them. Don’t tell your father.” So having a conversation with this women now about white privilege seems a bit redundant – it should seem redundant – but unfortunately it is not.
One time she pulled a Motley Cru cassette tape out of my radio and grabbed the actual tape and ripped it out of the plastic case. She told me that heavy metal music was degrading to women. Eh, I tend to agree with her, but it hasn’t stopped me from listening to it. The immature male who resides in me loves the hell out of heavy metal. I do sometimes have the musical tastes of a fourteen-year-old boy, but that boy is a whole other blog indeed. My mother was intensely familiar – after the divorce – with how harmful the male gaze is to women. We’ve talked about it at length. In fact, it was not that lovely Renaissance/Restoration professor who taught me about how idolizing women is just as dangerous as treating them like garbage. It was my mother. So how on earth is this the same woman who said to me yesterday that “That damn Beyonce and her husband need to be put on a boat…” I’m totally not finishing that sentence. It was painful to even write that part of it. I hate that sentence. Any white person with half of a conscience has heard it and hates it. So, I responded with “Does the existence of two successful and opinionated people of color scare you that much?” While I’m reading articles in The Root about how people of color are finally happy that Beyonce is making some kind of political statement, I’m listening to my mother tell me she hates Beyonce because she’s too political all the time, and why doesn’t she learn a new dance besides the hoochie dance, and how much like Miley Cyrus she is. The mind boggles. First, let’s talk about the really stupid one: Beyonce is in a monogamous relationship, has children, and earns money which she then puts back into the economy rightfully, and uses her celebrity to support others. Miley Cyrus is none of that and does none of that. That’s all I’m saying about it. Michael Jackson had a signature move. Elvis had one. Madonna had one. Why can’t Beyonce have one too? I don’t keep up on dance moves because I don’t dance, but is there even an actual dance called the hoochie, or is there a bit of slut-shaming going on in that comment as well? Probably. I think the video for “Formation” is stunning, and it makes me proud to be alive! I don’t fear it. I fear a world where Beyonce does not do the hoochie dance at the SuperBowl, and a world where she isn’t flipping the camera the double bird.
So I told my mom those were pretty poor excuses for disliking someone and wanting to banish them from the “greatest” country on earth. I told her that she is free to dislike whomever she wants but if she wants me to listen to it, then she better come up with something of substance otherwise I’m just going to call it what it is – racism. That was upsetting for her because she prides herself on being a child of the all-inclusive 60s – which weren’t really as all-inclusive as those Baby Boomers would like us to believe as evidenced by their mostly conservative, selfish political opinions, and narrow-minded worldviews. So, she says “Well Beyonce wears real fur, and I don’t like that.” This was my response:
Not liking Beyonce because she wears real fur is a more specific reason for disliking someone. (I have no idea if Beyonce wears real fur or not, and I am pretty sure my mom has no real proof either. But that’s her story and she’s sticking to it!) It isn’t about liking or disliking her, or anyone, it is about analyzing your own motives. When one says “I don’t like…” then “I” is the actor, the subject is me. I am the one acting and whatever it is that isn’t liked is the object, the thing acted upon by me. Therefore, the object of my dislike has absolutely no agency in my dislike. So the reason for the dislike comes from “I” not from Beyonce. If we can understand the way the male gaze is harmful and objectifies women by projecting the male’s fears, anxieties, desires, and shame upon women, then it takes no real effort to see how white gaze functions the same way. So when you say “I don’t like Beyonce” is it something real about her that bothers you or is it just a projection of your fear, desire, anxiety or shame? That is how you begin to uncover white privilege and its insidious invasion of our thought and speech and behavior. Imagine what it’s like to be raised by people who cannot take responsibility, even linguistically, for their own thoughts, feelings, and words.
This has now turned into a conversation about the appropriate ways to be a positive female role model, and the aims of feminism – its platforms and such like. That women who embrace their sexuality aren’t as good as women who go to space or refuse to sit in the back of the bus or any number of our female combat veterans. I say that telling women that embracing their sexuality is not being a good feminist is RIDICULOUS. It’s like telling them they aren’t doing it right and their effort does not count. Burning bras was a ridiculous idea too, I add. But really what this conversation comes down to is that whole idea I am notorious for being pissed at: binary opposition. I’m not willing to overthrow the patriarchy in favor of the matriarchy, but I do support fluid gender, fluid feminism … fluidity in general. The position of power in the binary opposition has almost always resided on the masculine side but I have seen the coming of the women, and a world where the position of privilege lies on the feminine side is not a better world. It’s just a different world. How about the position of power floats like the bubble in a carpenter’s level? How about there is no right way to be a man or a woman? In layman’s terms, DO NOT TELL ME HOW TO BE A FEMINIST. Gloria Steinem and Madelaine Albright tried that this week already, and it didn’t go well for them either. And even in this turn of the conversation, she recognizes no evidence of white privilege because now she is just arguing to argue, to have the last word. So, I let her have it. I ask her how her ankle is mending – the one she broke in eight places when she fell on the the ice in January. We agree that Queen Latifah is a good role model, so there’s that at least. I have been trying to get her to recognize her own motives for a very long time, and I’ve learned it just isn’t going to happen. The denial is strong with this one! I suppose it’s enough to know that when she has another conversation with one of her friends who thinks Obama is selling us to the Muslims, she’ll realize how she sounds to me. Maybe.