The Need to Understand Myself as a Cis-Gender Woman of Color

I’m an anti-racist scholar and yet, to my shame, I have been resistant to understanding myself as a cis-gender woman. While I’ve publicly embraced the social reality of my cis-gender-ness — and taught my students about the need to be aware of cis privilege — I’ve done these things while feeling resistance. Privately, I concealed the fact that I did not actually want to refer to myself as cis-gender–that I was doing so begrudgingly.

In fact, it was during my first year of teaching a graduate seminar on race three years ago that a (white, male) feminist student pushed me hard on my undertheorization of gender. From that moment on, I began to make a concerted effort to take intersectionality more seriously in my own pedagogy and research.

To that end, I increasingly acknowledged (my) cis privilege in explaining axes of oppression to students, but could not admit to them the discomfort I sometimes felt while doing so.

I knew that this resistance was regressive, that it was grounded in the wrong politics–that it was undeniably ignorant. Yet, knowing all these things, I could still not deny it.

I could not deny that I privately felt attacked when trans activists and educators indirectly reminded me that my claim to womanhood was tenuous.  I could not deny that I felt resistance to acknowledging how afraid I’d been of trans people while a student at Wellesley–a “women’s” college whose policy was (and still is) officially transphobic. I was, incidentally, also afraid of openly lesbian and bisexual women on campus as a closeted woman in my early twenties. [Note that Wellesley is only now initiating a campus-wide dialogue on transgender inclusion and Mt. Holyoke just became the first of the 'Seven Sisters' colleges to admit trans women].

Rather than ignore, suppress or justify my resistance, I made a conscious decision to regard my own regressive politics with curiosity–even as I sought to unravel them. I also “came out” about this internal work, speaking with others about my desire to more clearly identify and transcend my own transphobia. In so doing, I committed myself to making visible the unexamined assumptions, emotions and thoughts that explained my resistance. Why did being ‘told’ that I was ‘cis’ (a term I did not know until a few years ago) bother me so? Why did I feel uncomfortable being ‘labeled’ as cis? Why did I feel uncomfortable labeling myself in this way? What explained my enduring attachment to the fiction that my physicality – especially my breasts and vagina – somehow made me a woman (and by extension, made all women “women”)–even as I began to teach others that this fiction was untrue and a source of violence? What privilege was I trying to protect? What was it that I could not yet admit about myself? And what was it that I didn’t know about other experiences of womanhood that I needed to know to see my the specificity of my own experience — and my specific role in perpetuating the oppression of trans people?

It was clear to me, as I posed these questions, that I was, in fact, going deeper into the work of challenging my own transphobia. And I was terrified of admitting this–to myself or anyone else. I did not want to acknowledge how ignorant I was of gender, or further probe the hateful ideas I’d absorbed from a society that at once denies the existence and humanity of trans people. I did not want to admit that I was still very much part of the problem.

But I knew I had to begin with this admission—of being ignorant and regressive—in order to begin the difficult work of becoming less of an idiot. I decided to try to become as conscious of my own transphobia as possible, following the trail of my transphobic ignorance right back to its roots. Through practices of mindfulness—conscious attention to my inner life and reactions—as well as an effort to educate myself on gender and trans issues, I began, very slowly, to see many things about gender that I’d been socialized not to see, and that I am only beginning to see after a lifetime of ignorance. All the while, I paid attention to my ego’s reactions, judgments, frustrations and defensiveness.

And so I read scholarly and popular work by trans* scholars, writers and activists. I discovered trans inclusive feminism. I watched speeches, documentaries and shows highlighting the experiences of trans people–yes, including the highly problematic OITNB. I learned, with horror, about the ruthless and unpunished murder of Islan Nettles.

I tried, at times, to follow debates among trans activists, but later realized that these conversations were not meant for me.

I noticed how annoyed I felt seeing cis “allies” pretend as though they came out of the womb knowledgable about trans issues — with immaculately conceived politics — almost never admitting the (long) process of confronting and challenging their own transphobia and ignorance.

I noticed how my body felt when I read “intellectual”, mean-spirited rants written by trans exclusionary radfems (tense, sad, contracted, stressed, angry, hurt).

I also noticed how my heart broke open with compassion as I learned about trans people’s lives—and the disgusting, violent costs of transphobia.

As I read and heard stories of trans survival, I struggled to understand experiences I had never even imagined…only to realize that I did not need to understand someone’s experience to know that they deserved to be alive, to be loved, to have their dignity affirmed and their welfare protected.

I learned that trans women and trans men are subject to to unfathomable forms of violence and institutionalized disadvantages that disproportionately affect trans people of color. I cried, hearing that yet another trans woman of color had been murdered, her killer unpunished.

According to the Transgender Violence Tracking Portal, in the first four months of 2014 alone, there were 102 reported violent crimes against transgender people.  This number, which only reflects acts that were reported, include these horrific realities: “An 8-year-old boy was beaten to death by his father .. A 14-year-old was strangled to death and stuffed under a bed .. Two 16-year-olds were shot to death .. Three 18-year-olds were stabbed to death, dismembered or shot .. An 18-year-old suffered two violent attacks by a mob and survived ..”

n-ISLAN-NETTLES-large

Islan Nettles, trans woman of color, died on August 22nd 2013 following a transphobic, murderous attack.

I learned that transgender women of color comprised “two-thirds of the victims of anti-LGBT murders in 2013″.

Confronting this horrific reality, I observed my own feelings of shame realizing that I’d been looking away from these terrors– turning away from the experiences and realities of trans women and men and compromising my own humanity in the process.

* * *

With humility, I began talking with LGBT activists and trans folks who were willing to meet me right where I was, in my embarrassing ignorance. Of course I bought and read Janet Mock’s historic and groundbreaking Redefining Realness. I learned about the contributions of trans people to social justice movements, following Monica Roberts’ important pedagogical and grassroots activist work. I learned, with great interest, about non-binary forms of gender throughout history and sent in a contribution for dream hampton’s film project TransParent. I discovered the amazing work of organizations like TransFaith. I talked about these issues with my partner, who has been involved with LGB and trans activism in New York. I met Anna Klonkowska, a Polish researcher who was visiting scholar at Stony Brook last year, and is working on transphobia in Europe. I looked into the vital activism of the Audre Lorde Project. I sought resources and best practices for educators seeking to build trans inclusive classrooms–and shuddered as I realized mistakes I’d made in the past.

I connected with trans people of color, confessing my transphobia and asking how I could be less of an ass. They shared with me their insights, at times validating some of my questions and confusions by generously sharing their own perspectives, trusting that we could engage each other in a context of mutual care and respect. But they also challenged me, with unbelievable grace, to be a better, more informed, less ignorant human being.

I felt inspired and awe-struck by the fierce pride and courage of trans people – especially trans women and men of color – who refused to be shamed into silence. I observed how shutting up and listening to trans stories of survival and brilliance humbled me. I noticed, unexpectedly, that I could feel myself expanding in self-love and acceptance as I witnessed trans folks’ love for and acceptance of themselves.

What became very clear to me in this process is that much of my own transphobia was tied up in anxieties over my experience of white supremacy, anti-blackness, homophobia and patriarchy as a queer black woman. Living at the intersection of these oppressions meant that I experienced my womanhood as subject to myriad, on-going forms of violence. I experienced trans people’s invitation to view myself as a cis-woman as another form of violence—yet another reminder that, in the eyes of most people in this society, I am neither a full human being nor an unmarked woman, much less both.

I could not see that by not accepting the invitation to see my cis-gender positionality clearly, I was perpetuating the very same bullshit that I call out in my critique of white supremacy on a daily basis. Not a day goes by that I do not—in my scholarship or in my ‘civilian’ life—challenge white people to see their whiteness.  And I make this challenge, not just to elite white men, but also to working class whites, white women and so on.

Increasingly, as I saw a variety of folks I respect, including anti-racist cis women of color and black feminists, standing up loud and strong for trans justice, I wondered: What the fuck is my problem? Why am I resistant to embracing my difference? Why am I holding on to this immoral claim to an undeserved privilege, the denial of which renders trans people’s suffering invisible? Could it be that some fearful, wounded part of me wanted to believe that imagining womanhood in exclusionary terms could protect me from misogyny and anti-blackness? What would it mean to wholeheartedly relinquish this myth and recognize the violence believing it visited upon myself and others?

And so it was is that I finally came to welcome the invitation to see the particularity of what it means to be a cis-gender woman of color. And I am profoundly grateful to trans people and cis allies who helped me see these things more clearly:

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color because I need to be involved in efforts to raise awareness about the specific oppression and acts of violence experienced by trans people on a daily basis.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color because I need to know that there are people who identify as women who do not (yet or may never) have vaginas.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color in order to respect the identities and perspectives of trans people who clearly see the specificity of my cis-gender-ness.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color in order to grapple with the unearned cis-privilege I have simply by virtue of agreeing with the sex I was assigned at birth.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color in order to learn from the social and spiritual knowledge trans people contribute to the world.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color in order to have a more informed understanding of how patriarchy colludes with transphobia, capitalism, white supremacy, anti-blackness, homophobia and other immoral forms of exclusion to produce myriad forms of suffering.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color because there is no anti-racism, no feminism that ignores the experiences of trans brothers and sisters.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color in order to affirm that trans men and women are beautiful, valued and worthy as anyone else.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color in order to have any moral authority whatsoever in asking heterosexuals, whites and men to make their particularities visible.

I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman of color in order to cultivate compassion for members of other majority groups who still do not or cannot admit/accept their particularity and privilege.

In short, I need to understand myself as a cis-gender woman in order to be a less immoral human being. And I need to do this no matter how uncomfortable it makes me—no matter how humbling or shameful the process may be– precisely because this is the same discomfort I ask others to willingly take upon themselves in our collective efforts to unveil and contest injustice.

Everyday, I ask white people to embrace the discomfort of admitting their whiteness — of acknowledging their contributions to inequality. Everyday, I ask men to recognize the reality of patriarchy — of their specific advantages as men. I ask heterosexual people to be mindful of their positionality. I ask people to do these things because from where I stand, at the intersections of so many forms of inequality, I can see their differences and advantages clearly. And I can also see the violence reproduced by their unwillingness to recognize and name the privileges they possess.

It is for this reason that I now more fully embrace the need to recognize the specificity of my position as a cis-gender woman of color. I also embrace the practice of examining and working through the resistance too, because it reminds me that we are all where we are–imperfect, learning, seeing only what we can see and not seeing what we don’t. When I see my discomfort at being reminded of my cis-gender specificity and privilege, I have more compassion for white folks — even well-meaning, liberal, anti-racist whites — who nonetheless dislike having people like me relentlessly point out their whiteness.  When I notice the difficulty of naming and confronting my transphobia, the glacier in my heart melts, ever so slightly, when I think of men who have a hard time accepting their sexism. And so on.

This is why we must willingly choose to engage with a diverse array of people who see things that we cannot, who experience oppression that we’ve ignored–or worse, reproduced. People who relentlessly point out our difference and our ignorance, hopefully with the recognition that they too, speak from the limitations and possibilities of their specific perspective.

This is why we must allow ourselves to be challenged, to be told we are wrong, reminded about everything that our perspectives prevent us from seeing. This is why we must be willing to look and see again and again, even and especially when we think we have already seen. This is why people committed to doing something — anything — to stand against the overwhelming weight of injustice must confess and work through our own resistance even as we cultivate our capacity to build solidarity across difference, becoming more inclusive, in our hearts, our families, neighborhoods, our politics and our praxis.

I share these things, not because I want to be congratulated for belatedly coming to terms with my ignorance. I share this because I hope more well-meaning, “liberal”, social-justice oriented white people, men, upper-middle class folks and heterosexuals will understand that when I critique you, when I challenge you, when I call you out on your privilege and our collective, shared bullshit, I do so as someone who is similarly tasked with seeing what I don’t see, welcoming the invitation to being made aware of my ignorance. I do this work as one who is open and alive to hearing that I am missing something important, that there are contours of oppression that I have been ignoring, denying or actively reinforcing, consciously or not. I share this because doing so is uncomfortable, stressful and unpleasant – but it’s also the very least I can do when I require the same of people on the other side(s) of privilege.

Indigenous Feminism/ Indigenous Feminism Without Apology

Originally posted on Like a Whisper:

asmith

In keeping with my goal of highlighting some of the major thinkers, texts, or figures in women of color feminism,today’s text comes from Nobel Prize nominated Indigenous feminist scholar, Andrea Smith. I have taught her book Conquest since it came out in my social movements, feminist theory, and race, class, gender courses. It was such an impressive and timely piece of research that I am already intrigued by the upcoming release of her new book: Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances. I was recently asked who I thought was one of the defining voices of feminist theory in the last ten years and her name immediately came to mind. Not only does she write theory but she also does some of the most extensive research I have seen in a single book in a long time, and I am a researcher who covers…

View original 5,100 more words

Bisexual Awareness Day!

Today, September 23rd, is Bisexual Awareness Day–a day that I, a bi-sexually identified person, didn’t even know existed until a few weeks ago.  In honor of this occasion, I’m sharing a few reflections on a post I wrote last year, “On Being Openly Bisexual in Academia”.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that I should have contextualized my personal narrative in the data we have on the experiences (and considerable disadvantages) of bisexual people more broadly.  While it is indeed true that being open about my sexuality has mostly been met by colleagues with a collective yawn, I also realize that I possess a number of privileges that may protect me from some of the more pernicious dangers and dilemmas that many bisexual people face in coming out in their own work spaces. And even for me, it has not always been easy. I know that acknowledging my sexuality comes with a cost, even within the so-called “liberal” enclaves of academe.

As this informative article published by GLAAD makes clear, bisexual people are not only less likely to be out at work (and to health care providers) than lesbian women and gay men, but they also experience higher rates of poverty and poorer physical and mental health.

  • Approximately 25% of bisexual men and 30% of bisexual women live in poverty, compared to 15% and 21% of non-LGB men and women respectively and 20% and 23% of gay man and lesbians”
  • Nearly half of bisexual people report that they are not out to any of their coworkers (49%), compared to just 24% of lesbian and gay people.”
  • 20% of bisexuals report experiencing a negative employment decision based on their identity, and almost 60% of bisexual people report hearing anti-bisexual jokes and comments on the job.”

And this, from the Bisexual Resource Center:

Bi health disparities BHAM

More than half of the United States 9 million LGBT people identify as bisexual — but many do not feel comfortable or safe acknowledging their sexuality to people in their lives. This discomfort should not be minimized. Many people do not understand bisexuality and bisexual people are often targets of stigma even (and perhaps especially) within the queer “community”. Further, people who are bisexual but in relationships with people of the “opposite” sex are almost always rendered invisible and find it very difficult to challenge that invisibility. It is important that we-individually and collectively-raise awareness about these issues and affirm the moral principle that people should be valued and cared for no matter the gender(s) of the person(s) they love.

In the ten months that have passed since I wrote my post, strangers have written me long emails to thank me for being open about myself and others have sent private messages on social media, admitting how difficult it is being bi. Colleagues have thanked me personally, at conferences, for sharing a story that resonated with them, a story they sometimes do not feel comfortable expressing themselves– for all the reasons I’ve outlined here. I also heard from a group for Bisexual Women of Color who build community on Facebook. I feel honored and grateful that folks have reached out to me in this way, as it allows me to know that I, too, am not alone.

Over the last year, I’ve also had an opportunity to re-think the politics of bisexual identity.  Being in my first long term relationship with a lesbian-identified woman — and being perceived as lesbian by people who see us together — means that I have developed a deeper understanding of the fact that bisexuality can co-mingle with queer and lesbian identities. Most people see me as a lesbian because I’m in a visible relationship with a woman — and this has reshaped the contours of my own identity. Sometimes I see my sexual identity as queer, as lesbian and bi-sexual — these things coexist for me — yet I continue to find it politically and personally important to highlight my bisexual identity, if for no other reason than the fact that if I don’t, this important aspect of my identity will be ignored.

But the contextual recognition of my bisexuality has raised odd questions, sometimes from intimates and sometimes from perfect strangers. I usually don’t mind the (earnest, respectfully phrased) questions, as it sort of comes with the territory for one who engages in the politics of identity, but I’ve occasionally been taken aback. There’s the time, for example, that I was queried – by a straight friend – as to why I would ever talk about being bisexual when I’m currently in a serious relationship. Does recognizing my bi-sexuality suggest that I am not really committed to my partner? This question surprised me – although it should not have – because it implied that people’s sexuality in fact depends on their relationship status.  The reality, too, is that same sex relationships are very often trivialized and seen as less serious than heterosexual unions–perhaps especially when one or both partners are bi. I asked my friend whether his sexuality changes depending on whether he’s single or partnered. It was in that moment, I think, that he understood that my sexuality is my sexuality no matter who I’m with (or not with), just as his sexuality continues to be his sexuality whether single or partnered. It is obvious to me that my sexuality is not just (or even mainly) about who I relate to in my romantic life. My bi(sexuality) is, in a fundamental way, part of the lens through which I see myself, the world, and my place within it. This more expansive understanding of sexuality (as more than just who you are with at the time) is more or less tacitly accepted for heterosexuals, even if it is not explicitly acknowledged. The truth, however, for people like me is that when we are silent about our sexuality, it is rendered invisible by the assumptions people make regarding the gender of the person we have chosen to love.

As heterosexual wo/men can still appreciate the beauty of the “opposite” sex while partnered, so do bisexual people continue being bisexual when partnered. And there is nothing about this reality that makes it impossible for bisexual people to be committed.  It is evidently clear that heterosexuality itself does not imply that people involved in heterosexual relationships are committed to each other.

I love the fact that I am partnered with a woman who is rooted and secure enough in her sexuality to allow me to be who I am without being threatened by my identity. With her, I can laugh and joke about how attractive other people are, regardless of their gender. I can talk about my experiences dating men and women in the past without fear of judgment. It doesn’t mean she always understands those experiences — but she allows them, just as I allow her the integrity of her own reality and her past, even when doing so is challenging or stretches the bounds of what I personally understand. We can do this because we allow each other to be human–and more specifically, to be the kind of humans that we feel we are.  Knowing that identities can and do change, it is nonetheless reassuring to know that we can comfortably affirm the identities that feel right for us today.

All of this to say, my relationship to bisexuality — as an identity and social reality — is changing. But what has not changed for me, is the importance of raising awareness that people like me exist and are as valuable and beautiful and lovable and fly as anyone else.

So today, and everyday, show some love to bisexual people — those you know and those you don’t yet know that you know. Do not make assumptions about someone’s sexuality based on the gender of the person they are in a relationship with. Understand that bisexuality is very often hidden — that it is not easy to come out — and that coming out for bi-sexual people is often something that must be repeatedly performed in function of the gender of the person they are dating at the time. Try to compassionately accept, even if you might not personally understand, that some of us love across gender. Having the warm support of friends and family has helped enormously during times when I experienced rejection, judgment and stigmatization from people who could not (yet) and may never accept me as I am. Every bit of compassion we share can and does make a difference.

PS: check out the hashtags #biawarenessday as well as #bilookslike on Twitter .. Here are some of my visual contributions..

IMG_4381.JPG

IMG_4378.JPG

IMG_4380.JPG

IMG_4379.JPG

Spirituality, Exercise & the Body

So I’ve decided to completely give up exercise for the purpose of changing my body. Instead, I use physical activity as spiritual practice.

This means, for me, engaging in 60- 90 minutes of walking meditation & light jogging several times a week. And listening to inner guidance from the still small voice. It means realizing that my body doesn’t belong to my ego.

I hate the idea of hitting the gym or exercising to attain a certain physical state. But I love approaching movement as contemplation and conscious union with God.

I’ve also realized that it is only possible to hate your body when you fundamentally misunderstand it.

There’s no such thing as your body and God.

If you understood your body as the miraculous expression of God/dess that it is, you couldn’t help but fall in love with it.

I relinquish my waistline to the All-There-Is. :)

I have absolutely no role to play in managing my body. If God can handle the entire Universe, She can handle my wellness.

Vegan Chipotle Chili

20140731-231633-83793144.jpg

As y’all know, cooking healthy, pleasurably nutritious meals is one of the corner stones of my self care. Here’s an easy and delicious meal I whipped up the other day in no time..

Ingredients:

- 1 cup of corn
– 1 can of beans
– 1/2 large can of whole tomatoes
– cilantro
– 1/4 cup green peppers
– 1/2 chipotle pepper (de-seeded)
– 1/4 cup “no egg” powder (thickener)
– cumin
– black pepper
– sea salt
– splash apple cider vinegar
– dash of garlic
– tofutti sour cream
– chives

Directions:

Combine all ingredients in a pot with about 1 cup of water. Cook on medium/high heat, stirring frequently, for about 25 minutes.

Serve with gluten free toast, garnish w vegan sour cream & chives.

That’s it.

Makes about 4 hearty servings. This chili has more of a smoky flavor than spicy, per se. For an extra kick, add a little more pepper – or a bit of Chipotle Cholula :) Enjoy!