I once had a bathroom I loathed with my whole heart. I loathed the mirrored medicine cabinet the most—an ornate golden oval with delusions of grandeur, flanked by two equally offensive sconces. The walls were painted a color so neutral that I have forgotten its name, but I remember the plaster formed tiny peaks that could prick an unsuspecting hand. And I detested the linoleum in that bathroom, which was the color of things best left unremembered. Once, in a fit of enthusiastic disgust, I found a corner of that linoleum peeling up, exposing a layer of pink and black diamonds beneath, and I tugged.
The next thing I knew, I was ankle-deep in flooring—first one layer, and then another, until there was nothing but tar paper on subflooring. Though I hadn’t consciously intended to remodel the entire bathroom, I was in too far to stop: the flooring led to the walls led to the mirror and sconces led to the vanity and even the tub. Within months I had a whole new bathroom. Fortunately, we didn’t find any problems with the plumbing or the wiring, but we could have. You never know what you’re going to find, once you start addressing the problems you can no longer stand to ignore.
That’s why feminist work is like remodeling a bathroom, especially for someone with one or more forms of privilege—you start with the problem directly in front of you, the one affecting your life so much that you can’t stand to ignore it. But soon enough, you encounter related problems, some of which might not directly affect you at all, but are inextricably tied to the one you have decided to tackle. Before you know it, you’re in too far to stop: addressing sexism in your own life means addressing sexism in the lives of other women, which means addressing racism and classism and homophobia and a whole host of other things too. At least, that’s how it should work.
Too often, both in our past and in our present, people with privilege haven’t wanted to let one thing lead to another, to remodel the shared space of our nation so that it works for everyone. Too often, we have stopped after just the first step, and let the things that are hidden to us but unbearable to others remain unaddressed. Becky Thompson articulates the thinking at the root of this approach to feminism in her article “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism”: “If the only issues that feminists deem political are those they have experienced personally, their frame of reference is destined to be narrowly defined by their own lived experience.”[i]
As a person with privilege—a white person, a middle-class person, a straight person, a male—the way you find out about the issues that don’t affect you directly is by listening to the voices of others, and believing them. These voices abound, and have for 40 years. Thompson provides insights from them—words that women of color spoke to their white anti-racist sisters, who were listening and working alongside them in the 70s, 80s, and 90s:
Cross-racial struggle made clear the work that white women needed to do in order for cross-racial sisterhood to really be powerful. Among the directives were the following: Don’t expect women of color to be your educators, to do all the bridge work. White women need to be the bridge—a lot of the time. Do not lump African American, Latina, Asian American, and Native American women into one category. History, culture, imperialism, language, class, region, and sexuality make the concept of a monolithic ‘women of color’ indefensible. Listen to women of color’s anger. It is informed by centuries of struggle, erasure, and experience. White women, look to your own history for signs of heresy and rebellion. Do not take on the histories of Black, Latina, or American Indian women as your own. They are not and never were yours.[ii]
Thompson’s summary is an excellent one: I’ve read these messages in their direct form, and recommend them as a must-read for white women working against racism and sexism. Read them in The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, and in Borderlands, as a start. Even if you don’t read these voices, read the ones today, for everywhere our media is awash in examples of women describing their lived experience to those who can’t relate, but must understand.
Read with an open mind and open heart. Read like you’ve just discovered that the plumbing problem you were addressing is connected to your neighbor’s well and you have to work together to fix them both. This, my friends, is the way forward—the only way to free us all from a system that causes physical, emotional, and spiritual pain and trauma, and has done so for generations.
[i] Becky Thompson, “Multiracial “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism,” Feminist Studies 28, no. 2 (2002), 347.
[ii] Ibid., 346-47.