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To Hell with the Box! Seeing Ourselves and Each Other

Never judge a book by its cover is a statement I often cite to my high school students to get them to at least open a book and see what is inside before they decide that it is not the book for them. It applies equally well to people. When we look at a person’s skin color, we make assumptions about her and her history that may or may not be correct. I assumed, for instance, that one of my sophomore students whom I taught about a decade ago was all white because she was quite fair and had blond hair. Imagine my surprise when I saw her talking with a Black woman and she introduced me to her biological mother. Every person has a history, and while that history may have commonalities with other people’s history, it is unique to that person. In this paper I will show that the feminist movement needs to embrace all women and their individual histories in order for us to develop coalition. We need to spend time with each other so that we can say to hell with checking boxes that mark us as black or white or Hispanic, poor or middle class or rich, or straight or gay or bisexual. It is time for us to see ourselves and each other for who we really are instead of seeing ourselves and each other as categories, merely boxes to be checked.

Pandora L. Leong, in “Living Outside the Box,” tells how she is of Chinese descent, raised poor in Alaska, and is a dyke. She passes for white on the phone and male in person and passes as member of the middle class because of her education (344). Her coworkers wanted to put her in a simulated cell during the office’s anniversary display because she could pass for a fifteen year old Black or Latino male in the juvenile justice system (343). She says that “Our ‘colorblind society’ not only devalues our differences but also denies our experiences, thereby eliminating the potential for empowerment – and revolution” (344). Despite being able to pass, Leong refuses to pass because it denies her identities. She will not let categories stand without confronting the presumptions behind them (344). Leong, for instance, was caught “walking while brown” at her university when she was on the way to fencing class (345). Her attire made her look like a Latino boy, and the university officers realized their mistake when they heard her speak proper English (345).

But Leong’s background is not that of the proto-typical middle class American. She grew up poor in Alaska and got her first full-time job at fourteen, earning the same hourly wage as her mother (347). She is of Chinese descent, born and raised in America, but finds that she must frequently explain why she doesn’t look “American,” even when she is in other countries (349). Trying to categorize people fails “to factor in individual circumstances or experiences” (350). She doesn’t read Chinese or know acupuncture, and she doesn’t play the violin, all of which are stereotypes (350). Unlike many Americans, Leong is “fighting a cultural consciousness that favors a duty to society over the spirit of independence” (351). Leong’s cultural heritage believes in putting society before “individual desires for the good of the whole” (352). Unlike Euro-Americans, Leong must introduce individualism to her cultural heritage (352). By visibly working against societal norms and social constructs of the good Asian girl and the heterosexual female, Leong defines herself and has “become visible [for the purpose of] redefine[ing] the box – or throw[ing] it away altogether” (353). She challenges us to “expand feminism to consider all people’s facets if we hope to move beyond being perceived as a white movement” (355).

As the title suggests, readers may think that Arab feminism is an oxymoron, that it is simply not possible to embrace one’s Arabic culture and value women at the same time. Susan Muaddi Darraj, in “It’s Not an Oxymoron: The Search for an Arab Feminism,” tells us that her “father is a feminist, although he would probably never admit it” (295). Her father “first taught [her] ‘feminism’” and told her “that [she] could do anything [she] wanted – achieve any goal, reach any height – and that he would support [her] in that climb” (298). As a heterosexual female of Palestinian descent, Darraj wondered if there were feminists like her, feminists who were not white, middle class, and seeking a role other than housewife (296). Darraj’s experience was not like these women’s experiences. She says that “her [Friedan’s] brand of feminism…didn’t speak to [my experience]” (296). Everyone in her family did the housework on the weekends, with her dad taking care of the yard, her mom taking care of the floors and windows, and the author and her brother cleaning various rooms (297). In addition, Darraj is an Arab Christian, not a Muslim, and questions why the American media chooses to show only Muslim women with veiling. Darraj’s answer is that this “quaint vision of the Middle East” is the stereotype Americans feel comfortable with (297). It is displayed in movies and the media. It is a patronizing vision in which American women view themselves as liberators of the oppressed Arab women (298). Darraj searched for information on Arab women who could be considered feminists in their own cultures: Jamila Bouhereid, Huda Sha’rawi, Mai Ziyyadah, Khadijah, Hanan Ashrawi, Leila Ahmed, and Fatima Mernissi (299-301). These are all Arab women whose names my Microsoft Office program does not recognize as spelled correctly. But these are women (nonwhite!) who helped to change their worlds, whether it was by monetarily supporting a male prophet or by refusing to divulge important information even when tortured.

Darraj decided to travel to the Middle East and discovered stories of political oppression, insecurity, sexual harassment, and poverty (300-301). The women she met would not be considered feminists by white Western standards (301). These women “retain[ed] their culture,…[had] pride in their traditions and…vocalize[d] the gender issues of their communit[ies]” (301). The “seeming universality of white Western feminism” does not leave room for backgrounds and situations other than the white middle class woman trying to escape from the house (301). But if women like me were to get to know the traditions and values and beliefs of women of other cultures, such as Arab parents being referred to by the name of their eldest son and a groom’s oldest male relative requesting the bride’s hand in marriage from the eldest male in her family (303), then we would open the space for more women to become politicized. Many women like their traditions (304), and being told that these traditions are wrong or that women who embrace these traditions are less privileged than those who reject all forms of patriarchy makes these women feel marginalized (304).

As a white middle class woman, I need to remember that Arab women are not “sultry, sexual and ‘different’” (304). We live in patriarchal societies, and as an American woman my issues are a bit different from the issues a woman who lives in the Middle East faces. Darraj points out that the Muslim Sisters believe that “the religion [Islam] has been corrupted by men to suit their patriarchal agenda” (305). Historically, women had the right to an education, to a public life, and to property ownership (305). These are not my issues, but they are issues for women in the Middle East who are struggling to physically survive (306). A white Western feminism simply will not work in a place that does not share the same culture, and I would not be aware of this if Darraj had not shared her culture with us. By choosing to explore her heritage, Darraj created her own feminism, one that allows her to embrace her culture and to embrace social activism. Her father, who “allowed [her] to be [herself] – and comfortably so” (309), and her husband, “two of the most important men in my life” (310), are important to her, and she did not want to split from male influence in her life (310). Feminism is about women making their own choices (310), and all women, Darraj says, need to be included in the dialogue in order for feminism to be successful (311).

I, too, like some of the patriarchal traditions of my culture. I wore white to my wedding, and my dad “gave me away.” My parents, though, did not pay for my wedding. I did not think it was their place to do so since I had been living on my own and supporting myself for two years. My husband and I had the wedding we wanted and paid for it ourselves. And I did take my husband’s last name. I did not want to be saddled with the moniker Puffer anymore. You can think of your own jokes. I’ve probably already heard them. A friend who remarried a few weeks ago, though, decided to hyphenate her first husband’s (and son’s) last name with her new husband’s last name. She did this because her son is a Watson and did not want him to feel isolated from his Morrow stepsiblings. She kept her ex-husband’s name, not because she feels any desire to be connected to her ex, but because she wants to be connected to her son. Each woman here has made the choice that worked for her situation, and instead of simply checking a box, she has created her own category, one that works for her.

Darice Jones also creates her own boxes to check. In “Falling off the Tightrope onto a Bed of Feathers,” Jones says that “learning feminism…[is]…learning that you can’t be what people want you to be – and learning how to do better than just survive when you fall” (312). Simply stated, feminism, according to Jones, is “the idea that women should be free to define themselves” (312). Jones parents were like two superpowers who never bowed to the other, and her dad was much more likely to cry than her mom (314). After her parents divorced, Jones’ mother made sure that each of her daughters could read as soon as she started to speak, making the girls teach each other (313). Her mom instilled in the girls that “learning was essential to living” and that “a woman’s choices, actions and goals were not necessarily dependent on the support of a man” (314). This seriously conflicted with Jones’ discovery of church. The Pentecostal church Jones grew up in taught that women were to remain in their place. That place was as an “inferior, manipulative cheat…whose main purpose in life [was] to bear children and please men” (315). In addition, one of the “pulpit kings” raped Jones, and the pastor protected the rapist by saying that he had so much to lose if she said anything (319). As a black female Christian who likes women and embraces Taoism, Jones did not fit comfortably into the patriarchal system she was in (312, 325). These “were Christians of criticism and isolation and passivity” instead of “Christians of action like Martin Luther King Jr.” (318).

Indeed, Jones’ experience, and the experience of many other black women, is not the commonly portrayed one. American media of the 1990s normalized the representation of the low-income black mother cheating the welfare system and black teen mothers doing drugs and / or abandoning their babies (321). Jones’ mom took care of her five daughters, teaching each to read at a young age and engaging in their lives. She would share her small supply of groceries with neighbors who were doing worse and even went back to school to further her nursing career (323). But I knew girls like Jones when I was in high school in the early 1990s. These were smart black girls who challenged me in my studies as we worked through biology problems or who corrected my Spanish during Spanish Honor Society meetings. These were educated females who were in no way related to the low class representations on television. They wouldn’t accept anything but my best work because the goal was to get an education and not just get by. Because of Jameka’s (yet another name my computer refuses to recognize) demand for textual proof during biology class, for instance, I am able to find textual proof as I study more and more complicated literature. Because Charity, the president of our service club, was comfortable with my exuberance, with who I was at that time, she nominated me Spirit Captain for our club. Who else was going to yell and cheer in front of everyone? Jones relates the events that occurred when she revealed to her mother her love for another woman and her desire to spend her life with that woman and raise that woman’s children. Her mom didn’t accept it (325). But that isn’t the point. The point is that her mom didn’t have to accept it. Jones is free to be who she wants to be. As feminists, we should be free to define ourselves, and we should understand that others should be free to define themselves, even if we disagree. I don’t agree with worshipping anyone other than the God of the Old and New Testaments, and I can disagree with Jones’ worship of gods from Africa. But that doesn’t mean that there is not value in learning about Osun, who represents a “balance between female and male energy in life” that “felt closer to right than the male-dominant philosophies” in her church (317). It is relativistic, but unless we allow women to follow their own paths we marginalize the very people we wish to incorporate into the dialogue.

Thank God that my path has been unlike Kiini Ibura Salaam’s. She relates the sexual harassment she experienced repeatedly in her essay “How Sexual Harassment Slaughtered, Then Saved Me.” I have experienced sexual harassment only once that I can recall, and until now, I have not told anyone about the incident. I was seventeen, walking with my arms full of textbooks to my AP English class during my senior year of high school. Someone, with both hands, grabbed both of my butt checks. I swung around, but the halls were crowded and no one appeared guilty. I kept walking to my next class, but I was disturbed. How could no one else have noticed that someone grabbed my behind? How could no one have noticed this since it didn’t happen just by accident? Someone had to have come behind me with both hands free. How long had he been behind me before he grabbed me? Did he simply disappear before I could turn around? Or was he watching me as I tried to figure out who the assailant was? For twenty years I have thought about this incident off and on. I have thought about what I would have done had I seen the culprit. My reaction, as I imagine it, would have been to drop my books and slap the bastard who violated my space, to yell at the top of my lungs, “How dare you touch me that way!” For all my quietness in school, from the moment I was grabbed, I wanted to cause a disturbance to embarrass that boy. Instead, I only felt foolish. Had I imagined the incident? No, I couldn’t have. No one can imagine something like that. Fortunately, for me, it was a onetime incident. Unfortunately for Salaam and other women who have been victims of continual harassment, sexual harassment is not always an isolated event.

Salaam is a black woman with natural hair from New Orleans. From the time she was an adolescent, she dealt with the “whispering lips of men” (327). She developed ways to handle the pressure, from avoidance to limited, terse verbal engagement. Her participation, she says, was never her choice; instead, it was up to the men who viewed her as an object and viewed getting her attention as a game (328). These men believed that female disinterest was hostile and defended the predator and prey relationship as healthy (330). But the harassment became even worse when she visited the Dominican Republic to study Spanish. There, sexual harassment was tied to race, specifically to her being a black woman with natural hair. She was mistaken for being Haitian and was, therefore, a prime target for harassment due to the Dominican belief that Haitians deserve the abuse (331-3). Even more frighteningly, Salaam and a friend were assaulted by a man with a gun, and her host family’s response was that because he did not shoot her, he meant no harm (334). Salaam had never felt comfortable with her body and had begun hiding it under baggy clothes, trying to become invisible (332). It hadn’t worked. Salaam says, “the successes of feminism can only be measured by individual women’s quality of life” (335). For her, feminism wasn’t successful because her quality of life on the street was low (335).

In the years after she left the Dominican Republic, Salaam began to speak up when faced with sexual harassment (335). She began to act instead of to avoid. She told men that she was not interested, but she still felt self blame (337). This changed, though, when she lived in Bahia, Brazil. Here, Salaam was able to wear very little clothing and, in her neighborhood, walk past men who made no comments (336). She, and later a visiting friend, had expected sexual harassment, but it didn’t happen (338). Salaam’s experiences with sexual harassment are quite different from mine, but her story is healing because it tells “us that we are not alone” (339). Through her essay and by tying her experience to my sole experience of sexual harassment, I can imagine the awful self blame and fear that a woman in such a position must feel, especially when the abuse comes because of race, something we cannot change. Salaam eloquently explains how she now reeducates some of the abusers who approach her. She tells the men who seem harmless that they had a choice in deciding whether or not to talk to her; she should have a choice of whether or not she wishes to share her phone number (341). Often, the men seem to understand. As women, we want “as much control over our own interactions as men demand for themselves” (342). Sexual harassment isn’t a box I want to check. I am a person, not an object, and I am not defined solely by negative instances. Understanding multiple perspectives helps me see that my desire to cause a scene with the person who grabbed my behind would not work in Salaam’s situation. It would have been physically dangerous for her to cause a scene when surrounded by angry, lecherous men.

As a white middle class heterosexual female, I cannot relate to the racism and homophobia that Pandora Leong has experienced. I have trouble relating to Susan Muaddi Darraj’s cultural difficulties as an Arab Christian. As a woman who has had mostly positive relationships at church with both pastors and laypeople, I have trouble relating to Darice Jones’ difficulties with Christianity. As a woman who has had only one instance of sexual harassment, it is difficult for me to comprehend the terrible burden Kiina Ibura Salaam experienced as she repeatedly was confronted by men. I do, however, relate to the desire to define myself. I am a walking contradiction of confidence (thank you, Mom) and low self-esteem (thank you, Depression), of feminism (I’ll do it myself, please) and obeying the patriarchy (when out with my husband, I don’t open doors). But this is how I have chosen to live. If I can fit in with a movement that seeks to liberate women, then other women, with their seeming contradictions and different experiences can also fit in with the feminist movement. As Shani Jamila states, “Our fight for freedom has to be inclusive” (391). It will only be through sharing our stories and by working together that we create a society where people are free to be who they are and not merely a box to be checked.

How do we create this society? First, we must get to know each other. Essays in books such as Colonize This! help us understand other perspectives. But American society, after all these years, is still segregated. People tend to associate with those whom they are most comfortable. That is why when I let my students choose their seats, they generally choose their seats based upon their friendships, and these friendship fall along racial lines: the blacks sit with the blacks, whites with the whites, and browns with the browns. Our living arrangements are similar. Whites live in white neighborhoods, blacks in black neighborhoods, and browns in brown neighborhoods with the occasional “upwardly mobile” nonwhite family living in a white neighborhood. How do we integrate? First, we can provide mixed housing solutions. Oh my God! There go the property values! But property values aren’t everything. Relationships are. A neighborhood that mixes and knows itself through neighborhood functions such as a street party or children playing across the yards or dinners at one another’s homes allows people to get to know each other. Instead of simply being in class discussing feminism, let’s meet at our homes so we can learn who we really are instead of the person we project in class. My house is open on Saturdays if you are willing to come. We all know that when we go to someone else’s home we tend to open drawers in the bathroom. We open that door in the hall that is closed. I’m willing to have you over. Or you can invite me to your place. The question is: Are we willing to open our homes and our lives and all the questions that brings? Are we willing to say: to hell with the box! Here’s my life. Take it or leave it.

Works Cited

Darraj, Susan Muaddi. “It’s Not an Oxymoron: The Search for an Arab Feminism” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 295-311. Print.

Jamila, Shani. “Can I Get a Witness? Testimony from a Hip Hop Feminist.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 382-394. Print.

Jones, Darice. “Falling off the Tightrope onto a Bed of Feathers.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 312-325. Print.

Leong, Pandora L. “Living Outside the Box.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 343-356. Print.

Salaam, Kiina Ibura. “How Sexual Harassment Slaughtered, Then Saved Me.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 326-342. Print.

Originally posted 2/14/12

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