Raising Feminists: Approaching Intersectionality Within White Families

Two weeks ago my six-year-old sister came home from school, clearly distraught, not her usual vibrant self. She sat at our kitchen table not speaking, sitting in complete silence. Finally I asked her what was wrong. I was not given a response, instead my mom quietly called me into the living room where she told me that that day a boy in my sister’s class had quietly come behind her at recess and kissed her.

My sister heard us and a loud, “Mom, STOP. Don’t tell her!” boomed from the kitchen. She stormed off to her room, mortified by the prospect that we knew she’d been kissed. Even though this recess encounter may have seemed trivial, the pattern of humiliation and secrecy following stolen consent terrified me, and continues to haunt me as an older sister. 

As my six-year-old sister and ten-year-old brother come of age and grow into a country teeming with prejudice and injustice, plagued with a toxic administration, it seems absolutely integral that they are raised as intersectional feminists. Both my siblings and I are white, and with this we are not exempt from the conversation of the intersections of race and gender. Instead, we need to understand how many forms of oppression are the direct results of our privilege, and because of that, we need to be even more aware and alert. “Too young to understand,” is no longer an acceptable reason to shield them from understanding their role in society.

As I play my role in raising feminists, I must keep in mind Audre Lorde’s words when she writes, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” 

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Anita Hill testifying to the U.S. Senate. 1991. Source: James Colburn/Globe Photos

Teaching my siblings white feminism would only uphold the master’s house with his own tools because as bell hooks says, “patriarchy has no gender.” Instead, I need to instill an intersectional lens within them. This lens will allow them to see how Gwyneth Paltrow’s speaking out on sexual harassment is viewed as brave, yet black women like Anita Hill are silenced and attacked for speaking out. They need to be taught that they are growing up in a world where Brock Turner wanders free, yet 1 in 3 black males will end up behind bars at some point in their life. If they grow to only focus on the issues that only directly pertain to them, then I will have failed as a sister and a feminist, only contributing to the invisibilization of marginalized and silenced groups.

Doing feminist work in white families is a way for white people to own their responsibility by educating their relatives and peers, and coming to a shared consciousness. We must work towards removing some of the emotional burden produced when marginalized groups are pushed into the role of creating digestible explanations for their oppressors.

So often marginalized groups are put into positions where they are the ones who have to educate their oppressors. The Combahee River Collective, which was founded 40 years ago, expresses the “psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in… doing political work [that] can never be underestimated,” which is a product of always being pressured to appeal to the understandings of their oppressors.

The idea of feminist raising and parenting was illuminated to me during a school trip to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. where a group of my classmates and I met with activists to discuss education justice. It was on this trip when we were lucky enough to meet #BlackLivesMatter activist and Loyola University Maryland Professor Kaye Whitehead. In addition to being a revolutionary, intersectional activist scholar, Kaye
Whitehead also has two sons, and has published the book,
Letters to My Black Sons;

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Kaye Whitehead (source: kayewisewhitehead.com)

Raising Boys In a Post-Racial America, which explores what it means to be a parent to black children in a country that has historically and currently devalues black bodies, in the form of letters to her sons.

While I and my younger siblings are white and do not experience the specific race-based violence Whitehead focuses on in her book, her mission to raise her sons as activists and as feminists has stayed with me and pushes me to do the same with my siblings, especially in  helping them understand their racial privilege.

As a feminist, I often find that doing feminist work in my own family is the most challenging and taxing. I often feel like a translator between my progressive-thinking school and my family, trying to keep discussions going as I get home but sometimes there is some push back from other family members who believe that my brother is too young to being having discussions about gender, race, and sexuality.

When speaking with older family members like grandparents, I often feel as if I’m speaking to someone who will not change their ideas no matter what I say. Part of the appeal of having discussions on race and gender with my siblings is that they are at the age where they are still forming their opinions. There’s still time to give them information that may make more of an impact if introduced now rather than later.

As mentioned earlier, my younger sister is only six, yet issues such as bodily autonomy and beauty ideals have already shaped her. In the past three years, she has developed an obsession with brushing her hair, and will often spend the first 20 minutes of her day just staring into the mirror with a brush, even though her hair is already straight. Most of the time it is only this, but there are days where she goes to school 30 minutes late after a morning of crying in front of the mirror.

She has already internalized oppression through picking up on the idea that there is a certain image she has to fit, and by hiding her experience of being kissed without being asked, which may have now created a negative association with school. I first realized sexism impacting my experience at school around middle school, but watching her having to navigate gender even earlier has made me re-examine my own childhood. I now remember that around her age, I too had internalized oppression- worrying that I wasn’t as pretty as some of the other girls in my class, believing that in order to be appealing I had to be timid and reserved, and thinking boys picked on me because they “liked” me.

In recent years, my brother has come to me, wanting to know about the activism I’m participating in. He refuses to be told that he needs to wait until he’s older, clearly the product of three feminist older sisters. He comes with us to get our nails done even though his friends often ask, “Why do you paint your nails?” (to which he responds, “Why wouldn’t you?”), and always wants to know what’s happening in the news. We’ll often have dinner conversations on topics ranging from how socio-economic standing impacts abortion access, to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.

One night he and I were talking and gender pronouns came up. I was explaining to him that some people’s pronouns are they/them. He joyfully replied, “Oh Heidi (our other sister) already taught me this. Gender is fluid.” My brother has been extremely receptive to feminism, and it has been relatively easy for him to grasp many ideas about social injustices, yet as he approaches being a teenager, my question has become: How does one protect male vulnerability?

In middle school, when a friend and I made a feminist social media account, some boys in our grade found it and left an array of crude comments on some posts. At the time my analysis went as far as, “They are mean and clearly intimidated,” yet now I see that feminism is threatening to many boys because for many who have internalized notions of toxic masculinity, feminism can be perceived as emasculating.

For some men and boys, feeling empowered is about taking power away from women and girls; this is the very origin of violence. How do I make sure that as my brother ages he doesn’t see feminism as a threat to his masculinity? How is this possible when the rhetoric of being a “real man” or a violent one is so prominent?  

The only thing I can do from here is to continue to provide him with the tools for having a feminist analysis about the injustices we see around us and to ensure that he speaks up from his position of white male privilege. Not because he has four sisters, but because he is a feminist.  

Raising feminists is also a form of healing. Audre Lorde writes, “Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.” Lorde illuminates that when women re-empower themselves after having power taken from them, they reach a state of true joy and awareness. This ultimately begins to heal the trauma that has already occurred and prevents it from happening again in the future.

Starting from age twelve and continuing to today, there have been many instances, many of which have been at school, where I have experienced gender-based harassment and stayed silent. I will never forget when the teacher humiliated me because of my skirt length in front of the whole class in sixth grade, or when my leg was touched on the subway by a stranger, or the time I was dehumanized for a male individual’s social capital, and the countless instances where I have been yelled at on the street while walking to school.

I agonize over the fact that I never stood up for myself. Not even against the men who call themselves feminists and walk the halls of my progressive school with faux activist egos. I feel buried by my silences as Lorde writes, “We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” 

Through raising my sister as a feminist and equipping her with the tools needed to protect herself, I begin to heal my younger self. I cannot go back in time to stand up for myself when I should have, but I can prevent these instances of pain from happening again to her or at least point out to her what she is experiencing is actually part of a larger cycle she is not aware of, and I can teach my brother to respect the women and girls in his life so when he enters male spaces and hears something he can intervene and break the cycle.

As I do this integral work with my siblings, I have continued to heal my current self through combating sexual harassment at my school, which currently does not have a sexual harassment policy. This past year I have worked with the feminism club I co-lead

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Me and my classmate Sophia presenting our proposed policy to our school. (Photo credit: Ileana Jimenez)

to create 14-pages of policy recommendations that calls for the school to hire a Title IX Coordinator and to have a documentation process for student-to-student and teacher-to-student harassment, in addition to many other recommendations that all involve creating an intersectional policy that prioritizes student safety.

The club presented our recommendations to the administration and while our work was acknowledged, it was met with resistance. Hoping that our policy would not die after this presentation, my friend and I presented our work to the entire school during our feminism class assembly.

I asked the school, “Who is your silence protecting?” and gave an update, hoping that if students knew the extremity of this issue, they would join our outrage in our school’s lack of a policy, and ultimately join us in responding through action. In empowering students to be join us in being vocal and taking initiative, I too continue to be empowered.

Doing activist work both in familial and academic spheres is emotionally draining and often the results can appear smaller than the pay-offs. Feminist activism is always personal and never grants breaks, instead it is a constant responsibility I strive to uphold in all the environments I exist in.

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Audre Lorde (Photo credit: Dagmar Schultz)

However, it was not until recently through reading Lorde’s work that I realized that it is okay to take a step back at times to evaluate the toll this work has on me. I am allowed to grieve in the fact that no matter how much I learn I may always be accused of pumping false ideas into my siblings’ heads about a world I don’t “understand,”or that a year’s work of policy creation can be belittled in the matter of moments. 

When I feel myself most exhausted and losing sight of progress, I think of the Lorde when she says, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” I then build myself up again, knowing that as I educate the other side and spread inclusive, revolutionary visions to those around me, I am simultaneously healing and standing up for myself.

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