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.

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