Truth and Dare

Last week, Jalisa, a member of WILL, shared a powerful blog post on how she was attempting to “navigate race through gender” in her WILL experience.  She wrote,

“…my experiences of racism are being invalidated… The fact that you identify with being a woman takes precedence over my identity as a person of color, and that gender biased is somehow worse than any other form of oppression.   The intersectionality of race and gender are messy, but this act of completely ignoring race as a factor of oppression reinforces the cycle of oppression.  In a group that I look to for liberation in having that shared experience of fighting a system of oppression, it is very disheartening.”

This was both difficult and inspirational to hear.

Not surprisingly, reading Jalisa’s post was tough. First, I heard this criticism on a personal level, as someone who cares.  I care about Jalisa, WILL, and the feminist movement.  To know that despite our best intentions in the group (and in feminism!) we continue to perpetuate racism and oppression was, as Jalisa expressed, “disheartening”. I also heard this criticism as the staff person who coordinates this program and who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that our work aligns with our mission and purpose.  It was challenging to hear this because it meant I/we failed.  It meant I/we let one of us down.  It meant I/we were oppressive and silencing and marginalizing, even as we were working actively not to be.    Even still.

Jalisa’s sharing her personal experience and telling her truth holds us all accountable to confront that which is so difficult to acknowledge: my/our privilege.

bell hooks breaks it down: “The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.”  (hooks, 2000; p.23)

In order to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression, we must tell our truths.   The work of feminism, of social change, is to continuously tell our individual and collective truths.  It is an everlasting story, a perpetual narrative.

And it ain’t easy.

According to the Social Change Model of Leadership (SCM), which grounds our work in WILL, there are seven principles that enable social change, that facilitate truth-telling. These principles are based in three different, interrelated, and dynamic systems: individual, group, and community.  To tell our own individual truth requires consciousness of self, congruence, and commitment.  Truth-telling in a group calls for collaboration, common purpose and controversy with civility.  On a community level, citizenship is necessary to practice truth-telling.  WILL intentionally and strategically fosters these principles—this is the work of WILL.

Here’s where the “inspirational” comes in:

Jalisa’s brave act of truth-telling demonstrates that we have created a culture in WILL where we do hold ourselves accountable to this truth-telling and to the principles that foster this practice.  It is inspiring because it means that we are doing something right, even as we’re not.  Even still.

Racism is ugly.  Revealing it is a beautiful and revolutionary thing.  Only then might we overcome it.

WILL is not alone in confronting these truths.  Just yesterday, in response to recent expressions of racism on campus and a subsequent newspaper Staff Editorial calling for truth-telling, the campus paper ran an article in which campus leaders  challenge the campus community to “Engage More, Not Less” .   Although WILL (nor any other feminist leadership program, for that matter) was not among those cited as examples of how to “engage”, WILL does stand as a model of “engaging more”.   This is precisely what WILL does–intentionally, deliberately, and with care.

Our development as feminist leaders challenges us to call out oppression and to always be looking and listening for ways in which we operate out of privilege.  We are compelled to confront this privilege so that we can dismantle it, and in doing so, challenge systems of oppression and create social change.

Always both difficult and inspirational work.   This is the work of WILL.  This is the work of feminism.

Amy Howton is the Associate Director of the Women’s Center and Program Coordinator of WILL. She can be reached at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.

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Too many thoughts in my head: A feminist analysis on, well, Feminism.

“Did I just say something that was non-inclusive?” “Am I performing my gender TOO much?” “Did I just forget to use the proper gender pronoun for that person?” “Why do I care about shaving my legs?!” “I should love my body, I should love my body, I SHOULD love my body!” “I can’t believe that person just said that about [insert minority group here]! Don’t they know better?” “Sexuality is a spectrum.” “Cocktails are on sale for Ladies’ Night at this bar? What, do ‘ladies’ not drink beer? Huh? Huh?!?!?!

These are just a tiny fraction of the questions/statements/comments/criticisms that run through my head every moment of my waking existence and sometimes in my sleep on a daily basis. I am constantly critiquing myself and those around me for not being feminist enough.

I am a second year Master’s student in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati. And I love it. I love feminism. I love the fact that there are multiple types of feminism. I love to have deep, thought-provoking dialogue about silly TV shows like Pretty Little Liars (which I am kind of obsessed with… don’t judge). I also love the fact that I am surrounded by feminist-identifying friends on a constant basis. But there is one big problem: I AM EXHAUSTED by feminism.

As a grad student, I learn SO many things about feminism. And, also as a grad student, I learn how to critique feminism and find out faults about everything every author had to say about feminism ever. My life has turned into one big critique. My weekly response papers, my final essays, and my class discussions all include finding a fault, a gap in literature, something not right. And I have now realized that this type of critique is leeching over into my daily life, and is beginning to influence the way I view myself and others.

Now, this can be a great thing. Critiquing yourself—critically examining your beliefs, ideas, actions, and values—can allow for positive growth to occur. It can help people become more well-rounded, open, and knowledgeable individuals. But too much self-critiquing can also be very destructive—not to mention overwhelming.

That is the point I’ve gotten to. This is my problem. I want to be a perfect feminist. I feel that if I am not a perfect feminist, then I am a failure.

Feminist Ryan Gosling is a great blog that helps lighten up heavy feminist theories and issues.

I have struggled with this problem for years, but now I find it’s getting worse. Sometimes, I find myself losing sleep at night thinking about what I did wrong today and how I can be better tomorrow. I get increasingly disappointed in myself when I make a mistake, no matter how big or small. Recently, I came to the realization that this seriously needs to stop. I am exhausted.

I need to stop critiquing myself, and I need to stop critiquing others. YOU—the person reading this post—are also not a perfect feminist (sorry to burst your bubble). And that’s okay. Who wants to be perfect, anyway? You would just be conforming to some idealized standard that mitigates individual differences and eventually you’d melt into an abyss of homogeneity. So there’s your feminist critique of that situation.

But, really, my point is this: I CAN fail. I cannot be perfect. I am me. You are you. You cannot be perfect. You can fail. And, as long as we are trying to be better—just a little, tiny bit at a time—that’s all that really matters. I can make mistakes. You can make mistakes. And everything’s going to be okay.

And, for that to happen—for us to be able to make mistakes together—I have to be forgiving of you and forgiving of myself. You have be forgiving of me and forgiving of yourself. We are in this together, and we all want to be perfect. But we can’t be. So let’s just give ourselves a break and be okay with it.

My participation in WILL this past year has played a crucial role in helping me come to this imperfect realization. I would always worry—and still do—about the activities I choose to facilitate in WILL as the graduate assistant of the program. Are they feminist enough? Are they inclusive? Do they relate to feminist leadership? What will people think of this—and of me—if this activity fails?

I have facilitated activities that have crashed and burned to the ground. But you know what? I think that’s okay. And I need people to be able to forgive me and to be okay with it as well. I need to be able to forgive myself. I can’t be perfect. I am a human being that makes mistakes but always wants to learn, to grow, and to be a better person.

I learned this in WILL. It’s a hard truth to deal with, because when I make a mistake I always want to go hide under my covers and ball up into a pile of self-pitying failure. But I can’t. And I don’t need other people to make me feel that way. I don’t need to make myself feel that way. What I do need are friends who are willing to forgive. Fellow feminists who can tell me, “You’re not perfect, and that’s okay—we’ll get through this together.”

I hope that WILL becomes that space for people for many years to come. We are all on different stages of our journey with feminism. We can all help each other learn and grow and become better people. But we all need to be forgiving of ourselves and of each other—because absolutely no one in this world is perfect. Not you, and certainly not me.

Mercedes Katis is a 2nd year Master’s student in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She also serves the role of Graduate Assistant to the WILL program. She can be reached at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.