This week, I read Shabiki Crane’s “Pride From Behind,” a personal reflection on her experience growing up as a young woman of West African heritage — particularly the reactions she gets from others toward her bodily presence and her expressions of sexuality in public spaces. Reading it, I was strongly reminded of my recent reading of Queer (In)justices in which the authors discuss at length, from a legal perspective, the way in which our culture presumes certain persons (and bodies) more guilty than others — often on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, class and other non-normative identities. This happens regardless of whether the alleged deviant or criminal behaviors are related to a given aspect of one’s identity or not. For example, an individual accused of murder is more likely to be judged harshly if non-white or non-straight or gender non-conforming (or suspected to be any of these things) than a person who is otherwise read as socially normative. In Crane’s example, a black woman is automatically read by observers as more sexually promiscuous and inappropriate simply by virtue of her body being in public spaces than is a woman of European origin.
PRIDE FROM BEHIND by Shibiki Crane (pp. 77-79)
p. 77 – “I thought that feminism would save me from all this. Save me from years of growing up in an environment where sexuality and shame were considered pretty much the same things. Looks like it different. Crane’s description of body policing in her adolescence reminded me strongly of the incidents described in Hey Shorty!, which I reviewed here back in May. Like the adolescent girls who did the research that became Hey Shorty!, Crane’s feminist awareness was not enough to protect her from a culture that holds poisonous views of women and girls — particularly women and girls who are marginalized in one way or another. This points to the importance not only of awareness but also action … and not just action on the part of individuals, but on the part of groups of individuals committed to change. It’s all well and good to introduce young women to feminism as a set of ideals and personal values … but I also see it as the responsibility of older feminists to assist young women with the inevitable transition from the euphoria of first discovery to the reality of a less-than-perfect world and less than perfect feminist communities without lasting alienation and despair at the slowness of social change. I have no tried-and-true method for this, not being a community organizer type, but I do admire those who are able to encourage folks to sustain the vision. My own solution is a more private one, which I will talk about further down in this post.
p. 78 – “The guidance counsellor coyly explained to me that I should’t wear tight pants because ‘people would think badly of me.’ He even went as far as to say that Asian and white girls could get away with it because of their shapes, but on my it only looked vulgar. I felt vulgar.” Words cannot express how inappropriate this (I’m going to hazzard a guess white and middle aged) male staff member was in suggesting to a teenage girl that her clothing choices were vulgar specifically because of her body type. Just: No, dude. Never. Not okay. I can see where parents and other adult mentors might, might be able to discuss with their sons and daughters the gaps between ideal freedom to wear what you want and the constraints of an imperfect society that will judge you on unjust standards. But such discussions should always emphasize that bodies are not sites of shame and that bodies are not the problem — society is the problem. Clearly, this school official needed some remedial training in the realities of the kyriarchy.
p. 79 – “I was truly ‘done’ with women’s studies … I saw two women [one white, one black] singing, shaking, shymmying and to my horror, recognized that it would never be the same.” I try hard not to judge other folks for being “done” with a group, a movement, an identity, that has ceased to feel useful to them. Growing up, I knew lots of folks who felt apologetic about not being “done” with the Christianity of their youth despite the misogyny some Christians practice; I knew other folks who hurried to judge me harshly for wanting rid of the whole kit and caboodle.
So I don’t feel critical of Crane that she walked away from feminists who let her down, or feminist ideas that no longer seemed useful to her … but I am sad that feminists (just like any other human being) are often such poor examples of the ethics they seek to live by and share. No young woman should feel shamed for her sexuality, least of all (in my opinion) in a feminist space. The fact that such shaming happened in a women’s studies class at the hands of a faculty member is utterly disgraceful.
p. 79 – Shabiki Crane “finds the restrictions of society alarming, but is willing to find her own way around them.” So I think “I find the restrictions of society alarming!” might be my new favorite slogan. And this is where we circle back to the question of vision, and how one survives — and sustains hope — in an imperfect world. I have no ready answers, but if I was forced to come up with an argument TODAY RIGHT NOW to help folks suffering from disillusion with the slow pace of social change, I would offer a “two track” model. Don’t wait for society to change around you. Be, as the saying goes, the change you want to see in the world.
A lot of change can take place at the micro-scale, in our own relationships and families and points of daily connections. We can practice what we preach, and we can start doing so today. That’s not a complete solution, obviously: injustice is systemic and has to be challenged on a wider scale simultaneous to personal transformation. But the personal transformation doesn’t have to wait around for the world to catch up. Living out my (feminist, alternative) values as much as I can in daily life helps me to sustain the vision for broader change. Testament (and yes, I’m conscious of the religious language here) that a different way is, in fact, possible.
I love that there are so many other folks out there in the world also being the change they want to see. It’s that momentum, however disorganized and individual it may be, that gives me hope for the future.
Stay tuned next week for more poetry! This time by Robert Animikii Horton, “Male Feminist” and “Invisible Activists.”