Colonize This! Our Mothers
How do I write about my experiences as a white middle class woman? I am not attempting to deny the experiences of women of color nor am I trying to colonize them. My experiences as a woman of the dominant culture, though, are significantly different. I have not, as Kiffany said in class, had to feel afraid for my safety or even uncomfortable because I am white.
As feminists, though, we must recognize that all women have experienced the feeling of being other simply because we are women in a male-oriented society. I distinctly recall an incident from when we lived in Iowa. I was four years of age, and the elderly farmer who was my parents’ neighbor drove his brand new, air-conditioned tractor to our house to let my two-year-old brother drive it down the road. I asked Mom why I couldn’t drive it, and her response was that that was just how it was. My brother, at thirty-four, does not remember this event, but I do. I was not allowed to do something because I was a girl, and my mom could only shrug her shoulders. There was no way that old farmer, no matter how much he liked me, was going to let me touch his tractor. Fortunately, at about age thirty, my husband’s Georgia cousin let me drive his dad’s very small tractor around the yard. It wasn’t the same. But this is my experience as a white middle class woman. It was a formative experience for me, and we cannot deny or silence or colonize anyone’s experiences. We must recognize that each woman’s experience is different and not place those experiences on a continuum, valuing some women’s experiences more because they were “worse” than others.
And so, I found most of the writings in this section of Colonize This! understandable, and I could easily relate to bits and pieces. I have dealt with depression as Brooks had to (106), though it has been my own and that of my father. My mother grew up poor and was working by age sixteen and her being in the work force (Brooks 101, López 124, Im 135, Martínez 149) helped keep us middle class thus my brother and I were latchkey kids. I have also seen my mother sacrifice without complaint (Martínez 145) as a daughter to a mother who had grand mal seizures beginning when my mother was five and continuing until two years ago when Granny lived with my parents and expected Mom to wait on her hand and foot, a daughter “as social security (143). I have also seen Mom sacrifice without complaint as a mother, but I must admit that I complained plenty growing up.
Other elements, though, I could not relate to no matter how much I could empathize because my parents (Dad, in particular, with his eighty plus hour work weeks) worked very hard to ensure that we were firmly situated in the middle class. There’s also the fact that my parents and I are clearly white, though my mother and her brothers experienced discrimination for being poor and having darker skin, and my brother, who has an olive complexion like Mom and my uncles was stopped at the airport for looking Arabic.
Unlike my mother, I have never been underweight (thin, but not underweight), mistaken for a light-skinned black woman, nor did I have to start working while in high school to make ends meet. We all have mothers, though. They may be biological, adoptive, or women in our families and communities, such as in Brooks’ neighborhood (105), who step in to help raise us.
I could have very easily become my mother. I could have chosen to live my life simply shrugging my shoulders at the injustices I saw. Instead, I’ve chosen to simply live my life. I am loud, I talk a lot, and I don’t try to complete female to female for male attention (Austin 159), an act which divides women. The two times I recall competing for a boy, I lost significant months of friendship with two very close friends, and I vowed not to repeat the experience. I refuse to “display weakness that [is] comforting and safe to men”(159) and am my loud, talkative, hyper, and sometimes moody self. This led to a three hour monologue on my first date fifteen years ago with the man who became my husband. I felt ridiculous when I got home. But it wasn’t because I had been coy, which I hadn’t. It was because I had been rude and had monopolized the conversation. What a relief that he, as a shy man, was himself relieved that I carried the evening’s conversation since it kept the pressure off him.
I have continued to choose my own route, though. Mom wanted ten children; Dad wanted zero. They had me, and then Dad wanted another daughter. They got my brother. I, however, was not going to be a slave to my husband, working full time while maintaining a house on my own. I was not going to make any sort of deal with my husband where he maintains the yard and I maintain the house with it’s never ending and all seasons work. I was also not going to be a slave to ungrateful children. My life was not going to be one of sacrifice to both a spouse and children (Ballí 196). My brother and I love our mother, but I’ll be the first to admit that I did not pull my weight in terms of household duties. If he could get away with not doing chores, I certainly wasn’t going to do them. Why should I be the one to clean up after dinner when I had several hours of homework and he was simply meeting his friends? Thus, I have chosen not to sacrifice myself for anyone but myself (and my spouse, but that’s because I chose him and that is another, entirely different narrative).
And then there is Adriana López and her beloved tía. In “In Praise of Difficult Chicas: Feminism and Femininity,” López states that sex work has been demonized in the United States. According to her, sex work provides a form of self-sufficiency and power that is often not available to lower income women and that it is an acceptable form of work as long as the woman chooses it, as her aunt did (121). What a shocking thought! Perhaps I am a bit puritanical, as Americans are usually called by enlightened Europeans and Latinos who may be more comfortable with their roles as sexual beings. But how do I reconcile biblical teaching on sex with sex work? No, not even all Christians follow the Bible regarding sex as sacred only in the confines of marriage. But is sex work acceptable when there is no other solution for a poor woman to become independent? I understand the difficulties that led López’s aunt to run a brothel. But is being poor and morally pure better than having some independence while sinning? Jesus’ bloodline does include a prostitute (Rahab, mentioned in the lineage of Jesus in Matthew 1:5), but does that really make it acceptable? Does morality leave the scene when poverty enters? Does that mean that because some people are trapped in poverty that it is okay for them to sell drugs in order to survive? Or is it the fact that sex has the potential to hurt only the participants and not the bystanders as well?
Mental illness, being a difficult person, and sacrifice are all concepts that I can relate to. I have dealt with all three both by choice and by having them forced on me. But one element that I have never quite been able to be comfortable with is viewing myself as a sexual being. I don’t have the “powers of flirt and distract” (Austin 164). I do have talkativeness, inquisitiveness, and a bit of fearlessness when it comes to embarrassing myself if it means that it will relax others and help us communicate. But being coy? Not eating around men? Giggling? Pink? No, none of those are me. I had to ask Mom, Dad, and my brother if my clothes matched when I was growing up, and I have to ask my husband if my clothes match now. I don’t like pink, but I look good in pink tones thanks to fairer skin tone. Pink is much too girly. Barbies are fine, but I’d rather play with Legos or blocks or cars (my parents had to get me those and had to get my brother a Barbie because we each wanted the others toys). And I’m not going to go with what the guy thinks just to make him happy. If I don’t like something, I’ll tell him, hopefully with some tact. At an early age, I think I identified with the logical thought often associated with men. Yes, I cry when I am angry or frustrated and absolutely hate that surge in emotion, but Mom taught me to simply let her know if I didn’t like something. There’s honesty, there’s coyness (which, to me, looks like manipulation), and there’s being real (which lacks tact). I tend towards honesty.
But no matter our situation, no matter our experiences, we are feminists. We all have experienced discrimination because of who we are, and we probably always will to some degree. The point is to understand each other’s situation. Through greater understanding, we can, if not agree on an agenda, at least understand each other’s agenda or lack of one. I am a white middle class woman with a mother, but I am also a person with choices.
Austin, Paula. “Femme-Inism: Lessons of My Mother.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 157-169. Print.
Ballí, Cecilia. “Thiry-Eight.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 182-200. Print.
Brooks, Siobhan. “Black Feminism In Everyday Life: Race, Mental Illness, Poverty and Motherhood.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 99-118. Print.
López, Adriana. “In Praise of Difficult Chicas: Feminism and Femininity.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 119-132. Print.
Online Parallel Bible. http://bible.cc/matthew/1-5.htm.