Many years ago, I was having a conversation with my mother, where I was explaining a situation I had been facing in a work environment. I had been harassed by a male boss in an incident that involved all sorts of illegal, unethical, awful behavior and had gone through the proper channels to seek out an apology, recognition, anything that would acknowledge the situation, only to be met with well, nothing. I spoke of this incident to my mother, with rage and frustration. She quietly listened on the other end until I had finished spewing every detail of the entire incident that I had bottled up in my body, only to release a deep sigh and a response I had a difficult time swallowing. “You can’t let people hurt you with their meanness.”
My frustration with her response grew ““ how could she perceive it as just being mean? “Yeah, but you can’t speak to a woman or anyone like that. It’s not professional and it’s sexist and its wrong and it’s not okay,” I countered. She replied, “I know. But it’s not going to stop. Never. So you might as well find a way to deal with it.”
For so many years, I was unable to understand this view. If anything, it made me run away from our conversation in anger, rather than exploring what words like that really meant and moreover, what place they were coming from. I would scream across the divide and only hear my words come back at me. My youth and the inherent selfishness that comes along with it read my mother’s words as treating these issues as being secondary,my words as being ridiculous. I made all the assumptions in the world I could make without actually asking myself what they meant or moreover, asking her what they meant.
I come from a relatively working-lower middle class background, albeit one that evolved over the years and has undeniably had its privileges. I never suffered and if we did have to go “without,” it was always disguised exceptionally well, a talent mastered by the women in my family who had indeed, gone without. This, mixed in with southern roots, lends itself to why exactly my former situation, and many more like it, is perceived by my family the way it is.
Growing up with my mother and my grandmother, the value of having a good and stable job was the key to being self-reliant. It didn’t necessarily matter what kind of job it was or what the conditions if it were, it was that bootstraps idea that if you just had it and could pay those bills, put food on the table, maybe even put a tiny bit aside, you were golden. They knew that the people they worked for were greedy, were wrong, and were cowardly. But they just worked.
Of course, my mother views this differently. It’s not that she doesn’t think its wrong or bad, it’s just that she has resigned herself over to the fact that it’s just the way it is. Her response was, like many things, to act as if nothing could even come close to penetrating the deep shield the surrounds my tiny little ego and act as if I would never be affected. She is aware of the injustices of this world and she is aware of the injustices that affect her everyday existence. It is all on her radar. Yet instead of taking the expected course of action that is now instilled in my brain, she has always just let things go, putting her head down and getting back to work.
A lot of this comes from the inherent pride that women of my mother’s and even of my grandmother’s generation have from doing it on their own for so long anyway. To them, “feminism” wasn’t necessary because they had been dealing with things for many years on their own in the way that aided them in surviving and keeping themselves independent. It wasn’t that they needed the title or the label of feminism; it was just perceived that it wouldn’t aid them in their everyday struggle. Why name it when it’s already there?
In many ways, it reflects a still flagrant rumor about feminism’s necessity and in many ways, it reflects an all too well-known truth about whose lives feminism actually helps.
In a way, many of the things I would gravitate towards in feminism and social justice were reflected in what my grandmother had fondly called, kitchen table wisdom, a part of my family’s tradition of gathering and sharing around meals. Every Sunday, my grandmother would huddle into the kitchen with my mother, my sister and I, pop open the cheap box wine and begin speaking on the things they knew most about. I first gained the nameless bits of information that would inform me so much on the harsher aspects of life, the little injustices that they had swallowed in the name of a paycheck or it being the way it was. It’s where I learned about sex, about mental illness, and about the sacrifices that came along with well, being a woman. No questions, no what ifs, just the way it was.
Of course, once I did go out on my own, it was different. I knew things could be changed, that things could be different. I knew there was power in telling stories that weren’t singular, but communal. My views changed on the courses of action I could take on not only being self-reliant, but actively trying to help propel change.
To this day, I still have frustration to those responses that echo more self-protection then active change. Steve Biko’s words come to mind when he said that “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” But to say that also feels false, like not giving credit to the women in my life who struggled and knew they were getting a raw deal and were just making ends meet.It also assumes they considered themselves “oppressed” or assumes that they just needed to be “educated,” one of the more problematic obstacles on what happens when we assume we always know best for everyone. Coming to grips with this and the constructions that surround them, making my mother and grandmother the people they are lifted many of the things I originally wanted them to cast off. They were whole, complex beings who made the choices they did for reasons they stand by. They did what they thought was best. They did not grow up with the things I often take so for granted, the things that have been at times self-righteous and better than, rather than part of a natural growing process.
Looking back, in a way, my mother was right. While I still believe that every action is indeed, about making the playing field equal for everyone, it also became clear that do that, you also had to be able to in some ways resign yourself to the fact that there would always be people who succumbed to aspects of themselves, who resist ideas of joining “the cause,” for multiple reasons. In her case, that meant looking out for her and for her family since that’s what she could control. Maybe that can be viewed as giving up or even selfish, but I have come to view it as a sense of being able to accept many unsavory aspects of our world and choosing the parts that can be changed, that can be bettered.
There is a quote, of which I do not know who to give credit to: Freedom is the space between what happens to you and how you react. This of course, is easier said then done and can come from a place of privilege. But in many ways, it is solid in its truth. Of all the inherently messed up, horrible, saddening and enraging things that happen to and the world around us, the only thing we have any sort of control over is our own selves. Figuring that out after many years of trying to change things, change people and not understanding why it seemed right or why I still felt frustration and anger, was a process that required me to look head on at the truth of only being able to change myself. Like yelling into the gap, instead of my echo coming back at me, I could now just stand there and look at all the things I had yet to even understand. It gave me understanding of my own behavior, as well as an understanding my mother and grandmothers actions. It made them feel less distant. Isn’t that what this is about? Feeling less distant from one another? Creating things that work for everyone? Can things work for everyone at this point in our history?
I’ll finish with one last quote, which might be able to wrap up the still evolving feelings, the conflict and as of yet maturation I have on all of this.
bell hooks once said, “I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility. Not this, “In order to love you, I must make you something else.” That’s what domination is all about, that in order to be close to you, I must possess you, remake and recast you.
I’ll start there.