I am that crazy feminist: Looking at oppression in my former program

In my experience, the hardest part about learning the Cycle of Socialization is admitting out loud (or at least in my head) that there are people and institutions I admire who played a major part in why I favor some social identities over others.

There was one group I failed to think of when completing the exercise. I am referencing a program I participated in as a high school student, three summers in a row and facilitated after college graduation. In total, I have been affiliated with this program since 2004. That’s 11 years of my life for those keeping track. In the past, the program exposed me to people of various SES and racial backgrounds and worked to empower disenfranchised youth. Probably why I didn’t think of them at first.

cycle-of-socialization

I left Colorado earlier than anticipated this past summer to make it back in time for facilitator training. This would be my first time as a leader post-SAHE and my third time facilitating in total. The couple who runs the program are known as my second set of parents and usually introduce me as their daughter. I often credit them with helping me navigate the college and graduate admissions processes, #firstgenproblems. This is not a casual relationship. When I struggled with not feeling like I belonged in college, I called them – not the parents I live with, but them. As I write this, I still have my last conversation with my second mom in my head (which was just yesterday). So this is not an easy story to tell.

A little info on the program: it’s a seven day and night program. Each facilitator leads about 10 students. This year, the total was 70 high school students. I worked with my group to teach them how to write a proper sentence and construct a persuasive argument (the rant about our failing educational system will come in a later blog post). Ultimately, they learned how to debate. The topic this year was euthanasia, or doctor assisted suicide. Cherry topic.

Any-who, on day two or three, all the facilitators received a text message that one of the young women was wearing an “inappropriate” outfit. A male facilitator, we’ll call him Junior, decided we needed to tell this young woman she needed to change. I decided to have a conversation with Junior at breakfast. I attempted to be as cheery as possible so as not to appear as the “feminist bitch”. This was ridiculously difficult because 1) It wasn’t even 8am yet and I hadn’t been up more than 30 minutes, 2) I was up late the night before trying to get the students to sleep, and 3) My make-up wasn’t even done yet. But I did it anyway. As SAHE taught me, it was my job – if I didn’t do it, no one would.

Not that it matters AT ALL. So, you have some context, the woman was wearing full-length pants. Apparently, Junior decided that the material they were made of made her a distraction to her male counterparts.

6fcc72bb3c2f49cb992d1b0a5c3c9a49

WHAT THE FUCK?!

WHY IS THIS OUR COLLECTIVE RESPONSE?

Why do we continue to teach young women and women of color in particular that their bodies are something to be ashamed of? (#LOVEYOURCURVES)

I pushed back ever so slightly and he said he knew if there was a “Crazy feminist” on staff, then there might be a problem. I said, “You’re looking at her.”

Junior seemed a little shocked. He’s known me most of life and perhaps this is not an area I have ever touted as being important to me. And that is entirely possible. Being in the early years of my SJ journey, means that many don’t recognize who I am anymore. I’m okay with that. But change scares others. As a solution, I offered to conduct a presentation that night on the Cycle of Socialization.

Throughout the day, I prepped and went over all the notes I had available to me on dropbox and articles I had read recently. I came up with examples in case it took the students a bit to engage. I focused my energy on gender and race (the program attracts a racially diverse group).

But, Junior or someone, I’m still not quite sure who, decided I was too “radical” to be trusted and a more informal conversation should be used to chat about these issues. Note, I added that language. No one actually said that to my face. I’ve been around long enough to know when I’m being snuffed.

image.jpg

Junior ended up trying to ask questions of the students around gender. The problem I had with the conversation was its dichotomy. Girls are like this, boys are like that. There was no attempt to break down the expectations placed on us by society. Instead, the group worked to keep people in societal constrained boxes. Things only got progressively worse.

My second dad and another educator who had worked in the field for some absurd number of years, played into the notion that women deserve whatever attention they receive as a result of what they are wearing. I was happy to hear some of the young women speak up and say NO. Regardless of what I wear, my body is not for you. It is for me. But when powerful and seemingly respectable older men, fathers even (neither has daughters, I should note – an interesting correlation if I say so), say you’re wrong; you deserve what’s coming to you, we contribute to victim blaming. We contribute to a world where women do not feel like they can report sexual assaults because it is their fault. IT IS NEVER THEIR FAULT. But that is what they will think if you tell them they had it coming.

One of the educators stood up, filling himself with importance. Good god. The smugness of his “I know better than you and I’m hot-shit” attitude made me want to violently fly across the room and cause him physical harm. But I refrained. He stood and spoke of the “importance” of what we wear. At this point, we had also briefly spoken about race. It was certainly not given the time it needed. The Charleston AME shooting had just happened the week prior. Ferguson and Baltimore were on these young peoples’ minds. If you’re going to go there, go there. Don’t short change them. We spoke of black men wearing hoodies. The need for them to not wear their hats or sweatshirts while driving because of what might happen to them at the hands of law enforcement. But we never spoke of the broken system and why those things aren’t right. They were stated as fact, not as socially constructed circumstances, which was frustrating to no end. So he’s talking about the importance of what we wear and how if you are in a court of law, it is going to matter and it is going to be your fault.

This is when I almost became physically ill and had to leave. NO! NO! NO! If a woman is raped, she should not be on trial. Her clothing should never be in question. If a black man is killed, it is not his fault regardless of what he was wearing. It literally sickened me to think of the number of students who have gone through this man’s classroom over the years and were socialized this way. How many people have been made to feel like crap because they were racially profiled or heard catcalls on the walk to and from school every day?

With tears streaming down my face, I called Jeffrey (one of Tolu’s and my cohort-mates). Despite my emotional state, Jeffrey took a second to call me fake and I’m sure some other quips. I promise he’s nice. He just pokes fun whenever possible.

I told him what happened. He was in shock. He knew how important these people were in my life story. We spoke of how disappointing it is to hear folks of color speak about other young POCs and saying they “had it coming.” It was ludicrous.  And yet, we also understood they are products of the Cycle of Socialization and unfortunately, bogged down by their own internalized oppression. Jeffrey spoke of some background that I may have been missing in terms of socialization in black churches. He was not excusing their behavior – far from it. He was providing some context for how this older generation might have gained their point of view on these topics.

So soon out of the SAHE cocoon, there were a lot of emotions I had to work through. I felt prepared to call people out but I often focused on the small nuances in experiences. I never expected ignorance and oppression to be that in my face.

Our phone call was broken up by two of my fellow facilitators who came to check on me and let me know it was over. They were both women. One understood where I was coming from and had her own interactions with misogyny. I am happy to say she is now one of my best friends. (Always the unlikeliest of places)

I sat through a 10 pm facilitator meeting. I didn’t say a word to anyone. After getting the students to bed, we snuck out to grab ice cream and other snacks. The area we were in was not the safest and we were making jokes all night about how if anything happened to us off campus, it would be our fault. I said something about forgetting my habit. As ridiculous as it sounded, the humor was a lot easier to work with than the anger and sadness.

I was simply not paid enough to deal with this kind of oppression. The next day, I sat through meetings rarely making eye contact with folks I had called family until that point. My reaction was a bit childish but I still won’t apologize for it. I was allowed to feel the way I did. They made me feel that way. Instead, I used my energy to have a conversation with my group. Yes, we needed to prep for the debates but addressing the dialogue – or lack thereof – from the night before seemed like a better use of time. The women on my floor continued the conversation before bed. I engaged them as well. I made my position clear – you are never at fault for the misogyny in the world and the actions others take against you as a result of that misogyny. If there was any light in this situation, it was getting to see how much farther women are today than I was in my teenage years. They want to have these conversations. They aren’t afraid to push back.

I am sad to say that I will not be returning to the program in the future. My newfound friend and I made a pact together. Nothing is worth what we experienced. This program was home for me for so long and to say good-bye has not been easy. I am concerned that I won’t be able to be present to have ongoing conversations with students, particularly those from marginalized groups, to be an ally and validate their experiences. But, ultimately, I will not put myself through this again. If nothing else, I feel better ready for any coming situation that may come my way after having to confront such blatant crap.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s