These Thoughts Remain Fragments: Piecing Together a Feminism in the Flesh
Fragments. Pieces. Ripped. Torn asunder. Melted in the fire of labels, of racism, of complexity, of misunderstanding. Pieces shed one by one in an attempt to fit in. To assimilate. To belong. Because of the readings of Third Wave Feminism over the last two months in my Literature by Women of Color course, I have discovered that there are many people in the world, and in America specifically, who are fragmented. The fragmentation is a result of sexism, racism, homophobia, and a myriad of other –isms and –phobias that seek to construct people as Other by maintaining the dominant culture. This paper will show that in order to piece together our fragments as individual and as collective selves we must engage in dialogue.
In “Los Intersticios: Recasting Moving Selves,” Evelyn Alsultany describes the reactions of those who try to identify her heritage. As a Muslim woman of Iraqi and Cuban descent (107), Alsultany discovers that many people she encounters have difficulty figuring out her identity. Identity is based upon context, and “those who otherize [her] fail to see a shared humanity and those who identify with [her] fail to see difference” (107). Alsultany is “trapped in a space of dislocation” (108). She has become fragmented. In one instance, a fellow woman in a graduate class at the New School in New York City asks Alsultany if she is a U.S. citizen. On the subway, a Pakistani man offers to arrange a marriage for her; in a deli, the man behind the counter chastises her for not being Muslim enough because her name is not Muslim and she wears lipstick. On a plane, an Ecuadorian man tells her she must be Arab, Latina, or American; she can’t be all three at once, he says. In Costa Rica, the woman working at the coffee shop says she’s a gringa (107-108).
No one appears to acknowledge Alsultany as a “complex unitary subject” (108). She “must fragment and exclude particular parts of [her] identity” in order “to be something that [she] and the rest of the world could understand” (108, author’s emphasis). Alsultany wants people to ask her who she is (110). It is through “an openness and a willingness to listen, which leads to dialogue” that people are able to bridge (110). Dialogue creates “a space for us all in our multiplicities…[so we can]…exist as unified subjects” (110). Through dialogue, Alsultany can bridge by naming herself. She can tell her stories in her own words, as Cherrie Moraga suggests (108). This dialogue allows us to reclaim our fragments.
Likewise Leticia Hernández-Linares, in “Gallina Ciega: Turning the Game on Itself,” experienced fragmentation and the effect dialogue has on creating coalition. In the game Gallina Ciega, a blindfolded participant calls out “gallina ciega” and tries to find other people by their voices. It is a “game that urges us to look for each other’s voices, to seek others in their words and not simply in their color, culture, gender assignment” (111). “To a certain extent, in order to communicate, we have to function in the existing system of language that depends on constructions such as “race,” and “gender,” and “nation,” but we also have to continue dismantling it,” Hernández-Linares states (113). By taking a “total vision,” which occurs through dialogue, by listening to the stories of others, we are not colorblind. Instead we have expanded our way of seeing (115). Solidarity, or coalition, does not have a particular look. We categorize by sight. Instead, coalition has a sound, and that sound is the sound of people dialoguing (115). By learning to follow the voices, Hernández-Linares says, we can recognize “multiplicity without the loss of specificity” (116). We must let “go of the importance of fitting into neat categories that only serve to divide [fragment] us” (112). By silencing ourselves, we are complicit in our own alienation; we give in to the requirement of checking a box that marks us as all one category or all another (112).
When members of the dominant culture are silent in regard to sexist, racist, and homophobic statements, we further silence those who have been marginalized. I have had a few instances when I have had to speak up, and it hasn’t been easy. A few weeks ago, with my own mother, I pointed out that the reason the Creek Indians were considered a “dirty people” was because they had no running water on the reservation. She conceded that I was right. In my sophomore English class, I repeatedly tell my white students that characterizing the black students as solely liking fried chicken is not appropriate. This is complicated by the fact that the black students in the class then tell me that they do like fried chicken. The racism is so subtle that the students do not realize the stereotype or they are so used to being stereotyped that they don’t speak up. “At whatever place one occupies positions of privilege, it is always imperative to exercise self-conscious self-criticism,” Alsultany says (115). Indeed, I am doing this each time I speak up. Even yesterday, as I was explaining to a Palestinian sophomore who is friends with students in my class that I have given up soda for Lent, I received a small shock. The girl suggested that I drink fruit juice, but I told her that I was drinking tea instead. She told me that she doesn’t like tea, and after I gave her a quizzical look, she said, “Yeah, I know. An Arab who doesn’t like tea. Strange, isn’t it?” But she had given me another powerful lesson even when I had not asked a presumptuous question. While many Arabs may like tea, she herself does not. I should not assume that others do.
Palestinian sisters Reem Abdelhadi and Rabab Abdulhadi, in “Nomadic Existence: Exile, Gender, and Palestine (an Email conversation between Sisters),” create a written dialogue on the essence of the nomadic existence. They have been fragmented, like the 900,000 Palestinians who were forced from their land when Israel became a state (166). They are refugees, exiled nomads who did not choose to live a life in exile (166-167). As the “victims [Palestinians] of the victims [Israelis] (172), they are invisible (167). As a dispossessed people, they have had their multiple selves reduced to a single homogenized entity that merges with all other dispossessed peoples in the world (173). As a fractured woman, Rabab is “not comfortable anywhere but…can make homes everywhere” (166). Likewise, Reem is “not totally comfortable in [her] skin as an Arab” (169). She knows that she is an Arab, but she has a memory of British things; it is a cumulative memory (169). Because of their nomadic existence, the sisters have had different experiences even though they had the same parents in the same home (171). “Being a Palestinian,” Reem says, “sensitizes [us] to others’ suffering” (170). Her fracturing has allowed her to empathize with others’ fracturing and to understand the importance of choice (170). She says that she is in Britain by choice but that her partner is not able to live in Palestine nor is she able to live in Lebanon (170). The alternative is to live in another country, but it is a choice of degree (170). They have been forced to live elsewhere, fractured from their homelands because they cannot be together where they would choose to live.
Reem’s and Rabab’s dialogue is interesting for it highlights the complexity of multicultural selves. As Arabs, the women are Semites, but it is an irony, Rabab says, that they could be labeled as anti-Semitic (168), especially since Israeli foods are culturally appropriated Arabic foods; the food is the similar in the region, but now has an Israeli name in it, such as Jerusalem salad (171). Dialogue would allow for a “more nuanced understanding of Zionism, anti-Semitism, discrimination, racism, & prejudice” (168). By dialoguing and by sharing that dialogue with us, the sisters do not let us forget. “To forget is to abandon one’s struggle,” Rabab iterates (173). By tapping into the collective memories (173) of those who share a culture and a history (170), fractured people have a “powerful tool, a strategy for resistance” (173). By seeking coalition in the collective memory, we can ask “why the powerless are always expected to be polite & considerate while dominant groups never subject themselves to the same rules of etiquette they demand” (168). We can show that those in the dominant culture have an “air of elitist entitlement” and that all of us need integrity; we need to practice what we preach (172). If those who are part of the dominant group expressed humility and made tentative conclusions (172) instead of making grand pronouncements, less marginalization may occur. The way to a place where we doubt the marginalized less so that they stop doubting themselves is to partake in open dialogue that allows the healing of fractured selves and communities (173). This is a step towards coalition and to becoming so undivided, so powerful, that the once powerless can no longer be ignored. As Helen Johnson, quoting Mitsuye Yamada notes, “we must remember that one of the most insidious ways of keeping women and minorities powerless is to let them only talk about harmless and inconsequential subjects” (68). Open dialogue gives us the power.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking essay in this section was Mita Banerjee’s “The Hipness of Mediation: A Hyphenated German Existence.” She tells us that she has a German mother and an Indian father. Racism is subtle, she says, when describing times when her father was complimented on how good his German was after thirty years in Germany (117). Despite describing the racism in Germany, I found that Banerjee deftly made me aware of my own attitudes as a white middle class heterosexual American female. Banerjee says that “a hyphenated existence was the thing to be; yellowness was not inauthentic but instead better than the dullness of being either (simply) black or white” (118). How many times have I admired my students who have a “culture,” the blacks and Hispanics and Palestinians who have a “history” while I am just plain old white? How many times have I wrongly asked questions “because…of a (well-meant) interest in cultural difference?” (119).
The answer is that there have been innumerable times that I have asked questions about race, religion, and culture out of curiosity. My mother raised me to be curious and to seek information; my teachers in school encouraged me to ask questions. How would I have known that my search for “cultural difference…[was really] meant to ‘spice up’ the sameness or even the self-avowed dullness of white privilege[?]” (123). How would I have known that exotification, while less threatening than flat out racism, is still racism unless someone was willing to have a dialogue with me to make me aware of just how condescending I was being. I may have felt attacked at the time, but after weeks of reflection on the dialogue in our Tuesday night class and after reflecting on the nature of my curiosity, I’ve learned to see just how my questions are perceived by those who have been marginalized. I was making them feel like Others. “Benevolence can never be enough,” Banerjee states (125), and my benevolence was a selfish desire to satisfy my curiosity instead of seeing people as humans first and not as sources of knowledge. Banerjee takes the dialogue one step further. She asks if her obsession with scrutinizing “strangers’ faces, trying to divine the origin of their difference, trying to recognize their own difference” is “any better because it arises from identification rather than exoticizing fascination?” (122). So, here we have a process that dialogue has made me aware of: overt racism to exoticism to curiosity to identification. Each is a step in reducing racism, but each is a form of marginalization.
Dialogue, I’ve learned over the past several weeks, is a powerful tool. And so I will share some of my own fracturing. I have the same fracture that many women have. I suffer from clinical depression. Fractured people have a “powerful tool, a strategy for resistance” (173). The collective memory is one I share. I have the same thoughts that others who experience depression have, and I have, even recently, been able to use that collective memory to help someone. I have written of this before, but one of my female students became violently ill in class. As I was sitting with her in the clinic, for she became sick right before my planning period, she began to talk about what was going through her mind. She was afraid of being thought of as crazy. I began to ask her questions based upon what I have experienced during depressive states. Do you feel like you’re wearing a happy mask? Do you feel that you’re alone? Do you want to be in darkness? Do you want to disappear? Her eyes widened. I asked her if she knew how I knew these things, and she shook her head no. I am clinically depressed.
The strategy for resistance, for me, is to share with students I see experiencing the same thing I experienced when I was there age. Puberty exacerbated my tendency towards depression, but at seventeen, when my mom took me to a psychologist, I refused help. If I had been willing to talk with him, I would not have experienced nine more years of panic attacks, fear, loneliness, and a desire to commit suicide. Discussing these things with students who are young enough to be my own children is difficult. I am opening myself up for criticism and rejection. But I do it because knowing I am not alone is extremely powerful. I was having panic attacks before there was literature in popular magazines about them, and the first time I read an article about panic attacks I saw myself. I knew I was not alone. I knew there was healing. So, when I feel it is appropriate, I refuse to talk about harmless subjects, and I share part of my fractured self. The students are suddenly aware that they are not alone. Our dialogue helps to create healing.
By sharing parts of my history and by listening to the experiences of others, I have learned many uncomfortable things about myself. I am not without racism. But by hearing the views of others I am correcting my mistakes. I am thinking twice before asking personal questions. By sharing my mother’s experiences with racism and her own racism, I am learning that I am not above criticism. It is through this dialogue that I am putting some of my fragments back in place. By discussing my fragmentation with those willing to listen, I make them aware of the struggles of those who face depression. By sharing my experience, I help those who are depressed to see that they are not alone. We may not eradicate all of the –isms and –phobias that exist, but by speaking up, by dialoguing, we can reduce the number of fragments. As Banerjee says, “these thoughts remain fragments” (125). It is an ongoing process that I am in. But is a process that is leading to wholeness.
Abdelhadi, Reem and Rabab Abdulhadi. “Nomadic Existence: Exile, Gender, and Palestine (an Email conversation between Sisters).” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 62-69. Print.
Alsultany, Evelyn. “Los Intersticios: Recasting Moving Selves.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 106-110. Print.
Banerjee, Mita. “The Hipness of MediatioN: A Hyphenated German Existence.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 117-125. Print.
Hernández-Linares, Leticia. “Gallina Ciega: Turning the Game on Itself.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 110-116. Print.
Johnson, Helen. “Bridging Different Views: Australian and Asia-Pacific Engagements with This Bridge Called My Back.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 62-69. Print.
Originally published February 29, 2012