The Significance of Feminist Pedagogy on my Life

“How do you explain rape without knowing the word? Sex, but in a bad way- not like bad sex– but sex that was somehow wrong. Sex with someone you’re not supposed to have sex with. Sex that is confusing, and scary, and cold. Sex isn’t supposed to be cold.”

– Charlotte Way, “The Folly of Being A Child”

This fall I had the privilege of being in Ileana Jiménez’s feminism class. Feminism was something I had always understood since my girlhood, but never had the words for until later. To start the course, we were asked to come in with a story about the messages, demands, and/or expectations around how we learned about gender roles and how they were/are perpetuated in the institutions we live in and are surrounded by such as our family, friends, school, media, etc.

The next day, I shared stories about violence in academic institutions, examples of boys from camp that tried to stick their hands up my navy uniform skirt, and how, with swelling rage, I had to watch those boys be awarded certificates in poetry by the teacher I reported them to. Then I brought up anecdotes of sexual harassment at the high school that I attend, and how those reports too, went unaddressed. To summarize, I was taught that being a girl meant being silenced, be it by your friends, family, or school. Being a girl meant that the reputations of my male peers were more important to these institutions than my safety. Being a girl meant my voice wasn’t valid, and that my body wasn’t worth protecting.

Black radical feminist Barbara Smith
Photo Credit: Illinois Wesleyan University

When asked to write why we were taking the feminism class, the first sentence I wrote down was “because I need it.” As defined by Black radical feminist Barbara Smith, “feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women– as well as white, economically privileged women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”

I was already aware of the need for liberation within the context of institutional violence against women’s and girls’ bodies, however, I was curious to know the history and legacy of intersectional feminist activism and theory, and how this liberation may be achieved. So, my first question was, “what does this idea of ‘liberation’ mean, and how do we begin to heal from institutional violence?”

To answer this question, I reflected on my first few years in high school. My first attempt at spiritual healing came from a place of separation. My first instinct was to cut off any external expression of femininity, as if it was femininity that was the root of the problem. I tried to dress more masculine. Instead of my colorful summer dresses, I decided to hide in grey shapeless t-shirts. I switched to clear lip balm and wore only two coats of mascara. However, this left me feeling like a shadow of myself. Deep down I missed my feminine style: thigh high boots, fit and flare dresses, bright lipstick, lace underwear.

Toni Morrison
Photographed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Coming into my first Ileana English class in tenth grade (with my teacher Ileana Jiménez), I was truly terrified. I had heard all of these rumors from upperclassmen that she was one of the strictest teachers in the school, and that she took every piece of work seriously. But I quickly learned that that was good! I enjoyed the challenge of her classes! What I found to be most important was our reading of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. In studying Morrison’s novel about institutional violence against women and girls of color, my eyes were opened to the fact that my experiences with violence was not a case of rare phenomena or some family curse; that I wasn’t alone in my trauma.

It was because of this class that I was first introduced to the hierarchy instilled in white patriarchy, and was taught Morrison’s difference between being “touched” by a piece of fiction and being “moved.” As Morrison explains in her forward to the novel, “to be ‘touched’ is to allow emotional investment with the character of Pecola; to be ‘moved’ is perhaps to allow the text to disturb and prompt response.” The Bluest Eye moved me in how it pushed me to examine myself as a white girl in the harmful patriarchal hierarchical construct. I began to question the role of white patriarchy in my life, and specifically identify it in my experiences.

During my junior year in high school, I decided to challenge myself in Ileana’s memoir writing class. Three times a week, my peers and I would come into class with personal, meaningful, and moving stories about our families and experiences. Halfway through the trimester we were asked to come in with a story about our childhood, and I decided to take a risk. Terrified, I came into class with a personal story about sexual violence and censorship from my girlhood, and as I finished reading the last word of that draft, I was met with a comforting wave of respect and support from my class. When the memoir class participated in a school-wide assembly, my friends and peers encouraged me to share a section of my childhood piece, and after some thoughtful consideration from myself and Ileana, I agreed. I was terrified, except this time, I had the support of my class and my teacher.

My delivery was liberating; each word spilling out from my lips with intention, grace, and twists of cynical humor, and when I stepped off that stage in a roar of applause, I was warmly taken in by the arms of my friends. I felt completely untouchable and free. I had taken a painful part of my past and turned it into a beautiful piece of writing and an inspiring experience I’ll never forget.

But this moment of celebration didn’t last long. The next morning I came into school and was told that the principal of the high school was upset, claiming that my teacher had forced me to share my story and demanded that I speak with the school guidance counselor. He argued that the content of my story was too sensitive for the freshmen class, and that my story should not have been shared. He wanted me silenced. He wanted me censored. He instituted a procedure to “preview” all future assemblies. It stung, but I wasn’t shocked to see that even though the story of my memoir piece was in the past, its themes were still relevant in my present.

Audre Lorde
Photo Credit: Spelman College

It is theorized by radical Black feminist Audre Lorde (“The Lorde” as Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Aishah Shahidah Simmons refer to her), that achieving feminist liberation starts at the personal level, through self-examination and emotional understanding, or as she calls it, understanding and feeling our lives through “the erotic.” Lorde defines the erotic as “a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings,” as it is the ever important and ever silenced part of ourselves that gives us true power. It is in the ever present awareness of one’s individual experience in context with the world around you and in having access to a personal voice that effective self-transformation and external activism is made possible, and ultimately, in being in touch with the erotic within ourselves, we are able to reach towards a liberation from all systems of oppression.

As The Lorde explains, “our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within,” but cannot happen without emotional investment.

The Kitchen Table Press
Photo Credit: Lavender Menace

In reading “The Black Feminist Statement by The Combahee River Collective in Ileana’s feminism class in this final year of high school, a clear distinction was made between “equality” and “liberation” in terms of understanding the goals of feminism. The idea of “equality” follows the same white patriarchal notion that oppresses marginalized groups; how, in order to be “equal,” those lower groups must rise to meet the status of white cisgender men. Historically, this is what white liberal feminism has wanted. “Equality” is not “freedom,” as merely toxic masculine capitalist values reign. Equality lacks an actual solution to systems of oppression.

As Audre Lorde says, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, the “goal” of feminism does not come from the continued use of white patriarchal systems and expectations, but instead the complete destruction of it. When using an intersectional feminist lens instead of a white feminist lens, it’s clear that different marginalized groups need different kinds of liberation, due to people experiencing systems of oppression from multiple sides at once. 

I realize now that my memoir piece during my junior year was an example of my own experience with the erotic. I had spent so much of my life trying to hide my femininity and my emotions because I thought they were the root of the violence in my experience. In taking Ileana’s classes these last few years, which regardless of their content, are all feminist in nature, I was slowly able to open my eyes to an understanding of institutional violence and how this violence came in between my coming to an awareness of my own voice. For, as Audre Lorde writes, “the dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic—the sensual —those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared.” In the memoir class, by exposing our most vulnerable sides of ourselves, we created a safe space with each other, all under the umbrella of Ileana’s radical feminist pedagogy.

As Ileana has said, “a feminist pedagogy is one in which issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, age, ability, politics, and human rights—among others—inform a teacher’s philosophical vision that shapes not only content but also action, both that of the teacher as well as the students in the classroom and beyond.” My experience with an intersectional feminist curriculum has helped me grow and recognize my newfound identity and grow into a strong, educated, intersectional feminist, woman, writer and friend. Now as I approach the end of this high school feminism class, and ultimately graduate at the end of this school year in June 2019, I’m sad because this impactful and meaningful part of my life is over. But my work and feminist practice will continue. I’m excited to ask myself knew questions and see how I go about turning my self motivated work against oppression into tangible action.

Ileana and I touring Smith College in Northampton, MA, where I will be attending college next year and where Ileana also attended college over 20 years ago. 

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