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Speaking Up Against Othering: Making the Personal Political - I Finally Get It!

Originally published: March 26, 2012

Note: Since this essay, I have realized that I did not get it. I was still othering this white, lower class woman. I should have simply left her alone.

As a white middle class woman newly (for three months now) studying feminism, I thought that for the most part I would have to deal with how I make others feel like, well, Others. I am white, a member of the dominant culture. I am middle class, a member of the dominant economic structure. I am heterosexual, again a part of the accepted “norm.” I am Christian, raised Southern Baptist in Florida. Each of these is part of the accepted, “normal,” society in which I live. So far, the only issues that make me an Other are fact that I am female in a patriarchal society and I am clinically depressed in a society that does not understand clinical depression. I deal with being female in my own way. I don’t take crap from my husband or brother or any other man. I do speak up when I choose to speak up. And I have spoken many times and in many settings (as a graduate student, a teacher, a church member, a friend, and a daughter to name a few) regarding my clinical depression and the struggles I faced. In class, one Black woman asked me, “But do you see ME?” Have I seen who she is as a person instead of as a stereotype? My high school sophomores are currently studying stereotypes and talking back in poetry about the stereotypes that have been used against them, but I was not made to feel like an Other or to see how much like an Other someone felt until this past Saturday. This paper will show that Others still must fight in order to belong and that all must make the personal political in order to reshape our world.

Renae Bredin, in “So Far From the Bridge,” discusses the “astonishing conversation among women of color” the editors of This Bridge Called My Back created when they published the text (325). Because “people from the outside” were able to “get their hands on the means of ‘production’ and articulate alternative visions and identities, creating revolutionary new paradigms, inflecting the psyches of people inside and outside of the mainstream with potentially transformational ideas” (328), This Bridge Called My Back gave women of color a “political strategy to lay down [their] ideas and voices . . . as a means of bridging ‘the river of tormented history’ separating women” (326). In addition, Shakti Butler’s 1998 documentary film The Way Home also takes “an economy of publication that favored the elite [who have] access to expensive and ‘complex’ printing equipment” and continues the conversation begun in This Bridge (327). Butler presents the “voices of women seeking a more complete sense of self” (326) in “segregated safe spaces for women with apparent common ground to expose their pain” (327). “Media [is used] as a catalyst for dialogue as a way to address critical social issues,” Bredin quotes from the film’s first screen (327). While This Bridge presents essays on related topics, The Way Home makes the conversation even more radical. Bredin states that “information as a one-way street fails to transform the social contract” (328). The film uses a workshop and workbook component to include the viewer in the dialogue (329). It is participatory filmmaking that shifts the one way street of information to a two way street of communication (329). Continuing the dialogue allows for “endless [possibilities] if we are willing to be changed, truncated [possibilities] when we refuse to hear each other” (330). The continued communication, making the personal a political statement, allows Others to be part of the conversation regarding racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. so that those in the mainstream are aware of how American society treats those not considered “normal.” This is what has occurred for me during our Literature by Women of Color class; I am now aware of how mainstream society treats those who do not resemble the mainstream.

Marisela B. Gomez is credentialed as a doctor (294). Her biographical note indicates that she was raised in Belize until she was fourteen (596). In “Council Meeting,” Gomez says that we “Pretend we are all equals” as we go about the “daily farce of similar perceptions of ‘diversity’” (293). She has earned a place at the feminist table, but she says that she is viewed as a token of the diversity struggle (294). She is the “poor little brown girl from an underdeveloped country” (294). Her acceptance at the table, she says, is superficial and she is not fooled by it (294). Gomez makes the important point that in the struggle for a place in society that “it is not simply for the outsiders to trade places with the insiders, duplicating hierarchical systems without change in power redistribution” (294). As it now stands (or sits), we participate in a “sham of egalitarianism” (294). The façade is there but not the true intent. Thus, Gomez feels as if she is a rat at a table of snakes who are about to discover her true identity and eat her (294)! So while communication has occurred with Second Wave Feminism and is occurring with Third Wave Feminism, the mainstream (read that as “white, male, heterosexual” and any who support that) still does not understand the nature of Othering and in many instances does not help to create a true space of equality. We may have “talked the talk,” but we have failed to “walk the walk,” so to speak.

Judith K. Witherow, in “Yo’ Done Bridge is Fallin’ Down,” tells how coalition has failed, hence the title indicating that the bridge is tumbling. Witherow is a Native American, one of the poorest of the poor, she says (287). She has spent most of her life in poverty and was told to be patient. “Patience,” Witherow says, “is a word used to stifle dissent” (287, author’s emphasis). Along with the word “poverty,” “welfare was another word that many” did not wish to hear (287, author’s emphasis). But “poverty has its greatest effect on health,” and Witherow’s health has been compromised by years of poverty. There have been “generations of poverty, illiteracy, and abuse by the system,” and yet we still need a “nation willing to provide health care to everyone regardless of his or her ability to pay” (288). What if Witherow’s childhood poverty had not been ignored? What if she had received free lunch at school so she could have concentrated on her studies instead of her hunger (289)? Those in poverty as children “require more services as an adult if [their] needs were ignored in childhood” (290). It is like experiencing “death on the installment plan” (290). Each consequence of poverty is not quite enough to kill a person, so she dies little by little. Despite being an adult, when Witherow chooses to make her own decisions and ignore the advice of feminists, their “matronizing attitude” leads her to believe that she is not equal (288). “If my decisions are not respected, then what is the definition of equality?” Witherow asks (288). Part of this goes back to the idea of Native Americans never legally being granted adulthood (Miranda and Keating 200). “Reservations still have more overseers than the largest plantation ever had” (Witherow 291). As Witherow’s female partner says, “degrees prove privilege, not wisdom,” so the feminists have the right to speak but not necessarily the wisest course of action (288). In addition, “drugs and alcohol cause more pain than they relieve by contributing to ongoing poverty and disease” (291). But it isn’t the time to point “the middle finger of blame” (291). Those whose health has been damaged by environmental poisons face the “pain of daily life,” but they “are all searching for a way to survive” (292). It’s their lives and medical personnel’s job to ensure that all patients understand their treatment (292). The oral questions give Witherow a “feeling of being invaded” (289), and she isn’t quite sure if all eighteen of her daily medications help her, but she’s not about to stop them to find out since stopping them might result in even an worse illness or death (289). Witherow can’t protect her partner from the newest treatment the doctors are discussing: chemotherapy. She wouldn’t even try because “she and me are we” (293). They are a coalition of two, but they share the same heart. By writing about her experiences, despite how invasive the process is (imagine being poked and prodded and having new medications experimented with on you!), Witherow has made the personal political by discussing her situation and advocating for health care for all. Like Bredin and Gomez, Witherow has taken her situation as a personal outside the mainstream and has communicated it so that those who have not had the experience can understand and join with her in correcting the situation.

Mirtha N. Quintanales, in “Missing Ellen and Finding the Inner Life: Reflections of a Latina Lesbian Feminist on the Politics of the Academic Closet,” tells us that she is a lesbian anthropologist specializing in social movements and social change (391) who had been quite active in the feminist movement (392), but she missed the media coverage of Ellen Degeneres announcing that she is gay and her television character’s announcement of being gay as well because the author, after being openly gay for many years, went back into the closet (391). Quintanales experienced significant differences in the acceptance of gays between the West and East coasts of the United States. In 1980, she was an openly gay academic who “c[ould]n’t even conceive of being closeted” (392). She was employed by “an urban university in California” where she taught while doing research for her Ph.D. dissertation (391). By 1988, she was living on the East Coast and working at another urban university, but she knew “only one gay person on campus” (392). She experienced three significant events upon arrival, an administrator made gay jokes and “ridicule[d] this very same faculty member,” an administrative staffer mistakenly thought the author was hitting on her when Quintanales mentioned her female partner, and her students “openly voice[d] their hatred” for gays and lesbians while their parents were overinvolved in the lives of their “kids” (392). At this point, Quintanales began, “on a regular basis, to try passing as straight” (393). She continued to discuss gay and lesbian issues but “call[ed] forth heterosexual credentials such as high school dating or a former marriage” so as not to draw attention to her own identity (393). This identification as Other depleted her “natural creativity and enthusiasm” (393). With the help of “one young ‘out’ faculty member, and with the support of the women’s studies program and a campus administrator,” Quintanales eventually helped to make gay and lesbian studies visible on campus, but it wasn’t until her colleague was unable to teach the course and she had to take it over that Quintanales realized how much she had missed by silencing herself (394). The only way she could quench her “internal desert” was to come up with an “inner solution” (395). For Quintanales, the solution was to realize that she is “the only one with whom [she] is truly keeping company” and that she “can change [her] attitude, the way [she] think[s] about [her]self and others” (395, author’s emphasis). She realized that she needed to “take responsibility for the way [she] lived [her] life” (395). For Quintinales, “speaking out or doing whatever is necessary on behalf of people who are suffering” is key (396).

We hear the mantra often in feminist studies: The personal is political. But for me, it took continued repetition of that mantra and the point blank advice of my professor to “Speak up! Don’t let others silence you and don’t silence yourself!” before I actually began to take more serious action. I had thought that I would have to mount a letter writing campaign to the Florida Department of Education regarding the state assessment and how if one expects two-thirds of students to fail that the state is simply setting us up for failure and creating a generation of students who do not have the means to overcome poverty, namely a high school diploma. I thought that I would have to speak more often about my depression, it manifestations, its effects, and how to get help, but continually talking about being depressed gets dull and tends to make me feel depressed after awhile. But then it happened. I was doing my nails in preparation for chaperoning my high school’s prom and ran out of nail glue. I walked the ten minutes to the Dollar Store to get more. I had trouble finding the glue and a clerk pointed me in the right direction. As I began to look at the end cap, I noticed a woman with an upset baby and several children begin to walk by in the aisle. I thought nothing of it. The baby was upset, and they had stopped to get the baby out of the cart. The next think I knew, the stock clerk had moved the cart of boxes and the family began to pass by me. As they did, the white mother, who may have been in her thirties but who looked older, yelled at her kids to “knock it off.” She said, “You know we’re in Lakeland. They’re just rude.” I couldn’t tell what was going on. The kids were quiet and minding their own business. What I didn’t realize was that the woman had wanted to pass in my direction. I took several calming breaths and walked down the aisle. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize that you wanted by, but I think stereotyping all Lakelanders as rude is not correct.”

I had spoken up.

The reaction was not what I had hoped for. A male with the family, who looked to be in his twenties, was carrying a child and said to me that this didn’t need to happen because there was family present. I had no idea what he meant by “this” not needing to happen. I again spoke to the woman and said that I was sorry I did not understand at the time that she wanted to pass. The woman then got very close to me, touched my arm, and with tears in her eyes told me to leave her alone. I realized later that the man thought I wanted to fight the woman in the store! Here is a woman who has probably been treated rudely by someone in my town before and now assumes that we are all rude. Because of that situation and whatever else was going on in her life, she was unwilling to hear my apology or to discuss the matter.

So I am now aware of the existence of a mainstream and of Others. I know that the mainstream tokenizes participation in diversity issues by meeting a quota of “minorities,” and I realize that I must share my own story of Otherness to help the mainstream understand. But I also know, as both my professor and Quintanales tell me, that I must speak up. I must take responsibility for how I react to situations and since I am the one in the situation, I must be the one to point out where Othering occurs, even if I am the one who did the Othering. Every person has more than simply the right to be here on this Earth. Every person, especially in America, has civil liberties. These liberties include the political rights of the right to vote and participate in elections as well as the human rights of life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness (“Civil Liberties”). Anything that impinges upon a person’s life, freedom, and pursuit of happiness (as long as that pursuit does not impinge upon another person’s liberties) is anathema. Thus, people have the right to pursue work and leisure, to choose whom to date, marry, or not marry, and to have health care because these are just a few of the items that maintain life, liberty, and contentment. It is for these things that I speak up for, for all people.

Works Cited

Bredin, Renae. “So Far from the Bridge.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 325-330. Print.

“Civil Liberties.” Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. n.p. Web. 26 March 2012.

Gomez, Marisela B. “council Meeting.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 293-294. Print.

Miranda, Debora H. and AnaLouise Keating. “Footnoting Heresy: E-mail Dialogues.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 202-208. Print.

Quintanales, Mirtha N. “Missing Ellen and Finding the Inner Life: Reflections of a Latina Lesbian Feminist on the Politics of the Academic Closet.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 391-396. Print.

Witherow, Judith K. “Yo’ Done Bridge Is Fallin’ Down.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 287-293. Print.

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