Gender, Life Musings, Race & Ethnicity

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 ..”

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.

2 thoughts on “The Need to Understand Myself as a Cis-Gender Woman of Color”

  1. This is so inspiring, raw and honest. Thank you so much for sharing your path. It seems that many people today, including myself are walking a similar one, working out our own defensiveness as the LGBT rights movement gains strength (hallelujah!). I feel like maybe something similar may have happened with previous generations of whites who weren’t or at least desperately wished that they weren’t racist during the crescendo of the black empowerment and civil rights movement. It’s like realizing you’ve been infected with a virus but being in denial about it, feeling something like “No, I’m not one of them, I’m one of the clean ones”. Systemic fear and prejudice are insidious and far-reaching, but your article shows that the antidote is careful, and compassionate curiosity and self-exploration. Thank you.

    1. I don’t think this self-work is an antidote, so much as it is an important component of building solidarity across difference (rather than denying difference).. the importance of recognizing difference is something Audre Lorde and other black/feminists have written eloquently about.

      We all have to recognize that our ego’s are defensive in the face of things we do not know and realities that challenge our assumptions and especially our privileges.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your reflections!

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