Throughout middle school, I thought my mom’s job at Planned Parenthood and the women’s health books she bought me, like What’s Happening to My Body, by Lynda Madaras, meant that I was “woke” and a feminist. At that time, I thought that being a feminist was just about wanting equality for all women. I was the go-to source for abortion and sex education information for my classmates and friends; now I realize that the information I was sharing just applied to white, upper-class women. For example, I never connected poor women’s inability to access abortion clinics to the systemic oppression women of color experience.
My role as a feminist was encouraged at camp the summer before ninth grade, when my mom sent me the book Girls and Sex, by Peggy Orenstein to share with my friends. We read a couple of passages thinking it would be funny, but soon realized that the information about hookup culture and the sexualization of women and girls was actually relevant to us at camp. My bunk, and soon a large part of my age group, began genuinely taking interest in the book, and I soon thought of myself as a feminist who understood the issues all girls face. I even had a t-shirt that read, “Fearless, Flawless, Feminist,” and wore it proudly.
It wasn’t until later that I realized my understanding of feminism was extremely limited. In the past, I had only paid attention to issues facing white, upper class, cisgender, straight women.
My understanding of the feminist movement expanded when I attended this year’s International Day of the Girl event at the UN with my feminism class. One speaker who particularly struck me was a girl-activist named Nadia Nazar. In her speech, she explained how climate change and natural disasters impact the education of women and girls’ around the
world. I had never linked the destruction of infrastructure and power outages following hurricanes to women and girls’ inability to go to school, or how the places where climate change is felt the most is within poor communities and communities of color.
This connection between climate change, gender, and feminism astounded me because I had never realized the omnipresence of sexism in so many facets of life. I knew then, that an intersectional feminist lens could be applied to understanding all forms of oppression, not only sexism that white women and girls experience.
After this event, I began to realize that what I considered to be the definition of feminism in middle school didn’t account for the intersection of different identities and systems of oppression. What I was subscribing to was in actuality white feminism – the term used to describe “feminist” theories that only address issues facing white middle class women.
Now that I’m in high school and have taken Ileana Jiménez’s feminist theory and literature course in eleventh grade, I know that feminism is about how all systems of oppression intersect and that as feminists, we need to actively work to dismantle these systems in our day-to-day lives. Looking back, I am ashamed of my ignorance and inability to see the important and urgent oppression that my peers of color had to deal with, even as it was happening right in front of me. For example, my Colombian classmate who was adopted by a white Jewish couple would sometimes speak about his birth parents in Colombia. Other students would respond by telling him they weren’t his real family, as though it was their place to tell him that his Colombian identity was not significant and meaningful. Memories like these reflect my ignorance and complacency as a young white woman as I perpetuated white supremacy and the suppression of difference.
Reading the Black Feminist Statement by the Combahee River Collective further illuminated the need for intersectionality within social movements in the fight for the liberation of all people. The statement reads, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” This passage completely changed my understanding of feminism and activism in general. I now realize that a system that upholds one stream of oppression is an environment in which all oppression flourishes and is perpetuated. Therefore, no change can be made until all systems of oppression are acknowledged and dismantled simultaneously.
The Combahee River Collective’s words prompted me to examine how I am personally complicit in white feminism. To do this, I considered the Jewish circles in which I spend the majority of my time. Thinking about these spaces, I realized that discussions about Jewish activism and the Jewish community usually revolve around white, straight, cisgender experiences and that there is a lack of awareness about the experiences of people of color. In my grade of 16 students at my Jewish middle school, my adopted Colombian classmate was the only person of color, and we rarely talked about issues communities of color face, and never about people of color within our community. Looking back, I realize now what a completely different experience my classmate must have had compared to mine as a white person, where my history was taught and my experiences as a Jew were accounted for. The lack of a space for students of color at my school to discuss and understand their shared experiences was likely ostracizing and painful, in addition to furthering the community’s ignorance surrounding these issues.
As a result of this realization, I wanted to learn more about how whiteness was being examined in the Jewish community. I tried to research intersectional Judaism platforms online, but almost all of the results that emerged were about women and Judaism or the LGBT+ community in relation to Judaism. There was virtually nothing about intersecting race with Jewish identity. Reflecting on my experience at my Jewish middle school illuminated the ways in which not recognizing intersecting identities causes them to become invisible and removed. This separation and ignoring of identities and systems of oppression is part of the “master’s tools,” as Audre Lorde writes about.
Audre Lorde writes that women have been taught to see our differences as “causes for separation and suspicion” and not as “forces for change.” Lorde explains:
“[Survival] is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
The “master” here refers to white patriarchal society and the “master’s tools” are the ways in which that society is upheld. By using the same tools of silencing and oppression on other women, white women are only upholding the system that is keeping them down. In order to achieve liberation, we need to work outside of the system completely. The last line of this passage illustrates how dependent white women have become on the “master’s house,” and how it is seen as white women’s “only source of support.”
This dependence on the patriarchy manifests itself in many ways, but one modern political example is when Senator Susan Collins decided to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh earlier this year. During a speech in which Collins spoke about her decision, she said that even though Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was “sincere, painful, and compelling” and believed “this trauma has upended [Ford’s] life,” the lack of credible evidence led her to support Kavanaugh instead. Why didn’t Collins see Ford’s words and emotions as credible? How could Collins think that believing Kavanaugh instead of Ford from a
public position of power was not “condoning sexual assault?” As a white woman who has experienced sexual harassment myself, I did not understand why this female senator and 69% of Republican women supported him until I applied Lorde’s concept of the “master’s house” to it. Collins, a conservative white woman, is working within the “master’s house” by relying on the sexism and misogyny that helps white men become powerful in the government to lift herself up and simultaneously push others down. Noticing the effects of what Lorde wrote about within the government made the concept of intersectionality clearer and more urgent for me.
My new understanding of the importance of intersectionality led me to do more research into intersectional Judaism. In a recent issue of a Jewish feminist magazine called Lilith that my teacher Ileana Jiménez introduced me to, there was a feature story about Alma Hernandez, a Latina Jewish woman who was recently elected to Arizona’s state legislature. The article tells the story about how Hernandez founded the organization Tucson Jews for Justice because she wanted there “to be a Jewish presence at rallies supporting Dreamers, gun violence prevention and health care, among other causes.”
She uses both her family’s history of immigration and her Jewish history to fuel her activism, bringing her identities together and fighting for issues affecting them both. This kind of action and intersectionality should not only be done by Jews of color. White Jews should also understand that our Jewishness provides a foundation and obligation for social justice, and there are many minorities within the Jewish community that aren’t supported by white Jews and the larger Jewish community. It should not be the job of the Jews of color to do the work for us all.
As I continued searching for intersectional Jewish writing online, I discovered a sermon titled Jews of Color: Our Blind Spot written by a Reform Jewish rabbi named Tom Weiner. He uses the analogy of experiencing blind spots while driving to address the issues his congregation has faced with not acknowledging the Jews of color in their community. He says that he wishes the synagogue had a Blind Spot Detection System, like the ones some cars have, to “sound an alert when there is something urgent we really should be seeing that we’re not seeing,” that would allow the congregation to begin “identifying and illuminating some of the blind spots.”
This especially resonated with me because I realize now that in middle school I had many “blind spots” in my understanding of feminism. My white privilege and racism caused me to focus my attention on white women as “saviors” instead of being in solidarity with women of color. Now, I need to continue checking my blind spots and adjusting my view to make sure I am always thinking and acting in intersectional ways that support dismantling systems of oppression, including the ones that I perpetuate.