We’re Not Family, So Don’t Call Me Sister

Over at Slate.com, they’re talking about race and gender and such on their blog The XX Factor and Melinda Henneberger, in her entry, is wondering why some black women reject this notion of sisterhood with white women.

Anyway, what Donna said was, you know, women don’t vote as a block because we never had to go through something like the slave experience together. So the biological and cultural deal that I consider such a sealing bond just doesn’t compare.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, coming at it from another direction, lately.  I’m not so worried about why women don’t vote as a block.  I’ve been thinking about the different responses to Obama and Clinton, even my own responses.

I’m not sure how this is going to go, but what the fuck, you know?  Let’s just step off the edge and see what happens.

I think that we’ve come to talk about oppressions as if they are all similar–that it’s about “othering” some group to the point where we think it’s okay to mistreat them or subject them to intense scrutiny or whatever that results in them not being able to function like full, free adults in our society.  And, on the one hand, I think that’s true.  I think that’s why it’s very easy to just swap one hated group out for another–first the Irish are ruining things, and then the Chinese, and now the Mexicans (or whatever).  It’s the same narrative, just with different characters, and because it’s a narrative, told in a round, we can have this moment–this strange, strange moment–where people do genuinely seem to be floundering for some way to acknowledge and move past how black people have been treated in this country while at the same time we seem to be devising ever more ridiculous ways to single out Hispanics for bullshit (though I should be clear that I have very mixed feelings about said floundering).

I say that because we cannot take a step back and say “Oh, hey, same story, different players.  Why do we want to continue to tell that story?” we will continue to to tell it and then shift uncomfortably in our seats later on when our children and their children ask us to explain ourselves, as if we both did and didn’t know exactly what we were doing.

So, on the one hand, we do tend to cram all our stupidities into similar form.  So it makes sense that folks would want to compare tragedies and measure them against each other, as if something is gained from seeing who has it the worst.  And it makes sense that women would sometimes say “Hey, we are all women and so we have all been through some shit and so we have this ‘in common’ that should bind us together.”

But here’s the thing, I don’t think the oppression of women works much like other forms of oppression, when it comes down to it.

There are three big differences that prevent “women” from being one great big shiny monolithic sisterhood.  One is that the oppression of women works at both a personal and a societal level, so you could have a woman who was severely abused in her own home, who’s still a racist and willing to use her power as a white woman to make other folks miserable even as her status as a white woman is contributing to her misery.  Being a woman, even a woman who’s going through some shit, doesn’t mean we’re not pulling some shit on others.  So, women of different groups are bound, I think, to be wary of locking arms and declaring ourselves to be bonded without first seeing some real evidence that a woman’s whole heart is in the right place.

Two, I can’t think of any other form of fucked-up-ness in our country that relies so heavily on the victims of the fucked-up-ed-ness to police themselves and each other.  Yes, of course, it’s there to some extent–otherwise insults like “oreo” and “twinkie” wouldn’t sting.  But I think most folks–black and white, for instance–see the “see there’s black people and there’s niggers” distinction for the load of racist shit it is, as a way for white people to try to exert power and authority we don’t rightly have over black people and to try to police their behavior and encourage behavior that makes us comfortable while discouraging behavior that makes us uncomfortable, as if black people should just be running around worrying about making us comfortable.

But, oh sweet and tender Jesus do we cling to the “me v. bitch” distinction! 

Oh, god yes, the world is full of bitches, terrible bitches who are too smart or too ambitious or too rich or too stuck up or too, heh, bitchy and god we hate those bitches.  We are not those bitches.  See, those bitches deserve the crap they get.  Shoot, those bitches need to be told a thing or two.  Sure, it sucks for us to point out what a terrible bitch you are, but better us than for the men to have to come in here and settle it, because clearly, you will lose and, though it hurts when we put a bitch in her place, it really hurts when the men do it.  Don’t make us bring the men into it.

Oh, hey, men!  Don’t you worry, honey, we’re not bitches like those bitches.  Yeah, we hate those bitches too.  Can I bring you a beer?

How can we have some kind of bond because of the cultural shit we’ve been through together as women when, often, the front line of people putting us through that shit are other women?  In any other circumstance, we get that people who identify with their tormenters are deeply wounded.  Why can we not see it in this case?

Whew, I thought the second reason was going to be the hardest to talk about, but it turns out that I’m actually having the most trouble with the third reason–sitting here staring at the screen, wondering if I can’t just trust you to glide over the rough edges of my first point, laugh along with my second point, and let the third point go without saying.

I guess not.

Okay, here goes.

The third reason is that, in broad generalities, the oppressor and the oppressed don’t see themselves as being a part of the same group.  So, Mexicans might face a lot of racial prejudice from white people, for instance, and as damaging as that is, they can just hate white people.  They can build up a little protective shell of hatred that has them and their loved ones on one side and the folks that do them wrong on the other side.

But where do you build that wall when the man who beats you is the same man that makes your heart skip a beat?  How are you not like your father, who tells you that no man will ever love you?  How do you accept that a man you know loves you with his whole heart and would give you the world also is fine with letting you be the one who does all the housework and the childcare and the shitwork of the marriage because he’s the man and you’re the woman?

With most other forms of oppression, the hate is there between the groups and often it’s up to charismatic leaders to say “Hey, if we’re going to overcome this, we have to learn to love each other, to see each other as human beings.”

But women, for the most part, see men as human beings.  We already love men.  We have tied our fates to them.

And frankly, I look at us at this moment and I do see a lot of people who look at Obama and his candidacy as saying something, or at least as an opportunity to say something, about race in America.  A lot of people want to live in an American where things are okay enough between black and white people that a black man can be president.

Now, we can argue all day about whether things really are okay enough between black and white people.  We can argue all day about whether Obama’s candidacy says anything about what’s really going on in American for black people.

But the truth is that we’re at a moment where most people in the country are saying “Yeah, something is fucked up between us and I wish it weren’t.”

That acknowledgement by society of and for women isn’t here yet.

And I know we’re skating dangerously close to the Oppression Olympics here, so I just want to reiterate that this story–about women in this country–is much different than other forms of oppression. 

I don’t believe we’re ever going to have some national moment of “Yeah, things are fucked up between us and I wish it weren’t.”  Because we need to have millions of individual moments like that–between men and women AND among women.

12 thoughts on “We’re Not Family, So Don’t Call Me Sister

  1. I’m inclined to agree with your analysis here, although I’m not totally sure about number two… I think good woman/bad woman distinguishers like “bitch” and “whore” are verbalized more often than, say, good black person / bad black person words… but I don’t think I could say with confidence that internalized sexism is more widely or deeply rooted than internalized racism.

    I also feel like feminism should be the anti-monolith. Should be feminisms, plural: many layers, textures, colors, all coexisting and communicating toward something positive… kind of like the vagina! : D
    But seriously, monoliths don’t work. Particularly when you’re working toward human rights – second wavers already figured that out, although some of them seem to forget. It was clear throughout the sixties that “women” was not a nuanced enough category for everyone to get their needs met. I feel like everyone should be taught this in high school, so that we don’t keep repeating the same pattern of “Wha? You mean my experience as a [identity category] is not true of all people who share that identity? Intersubjectivity, what’s that?”

    But then we already knew that, and interalized that instead of internalizing various forms of self-hate, then what would you have to blog about? ; )

  2. These are a lot of the same reasons that poor people will never come together and work toward fairness toward the poor in our society. There’s a whole lot of “yeah, we’re poor, but we’re not like those poor people over there.” Meh.

  3. Tanglethis, no, I agree that it’s hard to measure whether internalized sexism is “worse” than internalized racism. I don’t think it matters. My point is that they operate very differently, so asking why women don’t come together the way other groups do–as you point out–is kind of useless because “women” isn’t a nuanced enough category.

    And I love modeling feminism after the cooter! Irigaray is either laughing with delight and not quite sure why or shuddering as we speak, also not quite sure why.

    Ivy, true enough!

  4. I like this point you’re making. I’d just add in that the good/bad woman distinction is complex.. and contradictory… so on the bad side there are “bitches” but also “sluts” and “fat women” and “skinny women” and “mannish women” and “ditses”

    so many ways to differentiate! So many things to try not to be, at all once!
    (and i’m even leaving out the more specifically class and race-based insults against women)

  5. Oh, for sure. It’s designed to be a losing game and one that’s really hard to opt out of. But yeah, we’re constantly setting ourselves against each other and being set against each other and I think most of us get that there is no way to be the good woman–the parsing is complete enough that no real person can inhabit the tiny space left for good women.

    But damn, it’s hard not to want to be one.

  6. I dunno, B. I’m reading this and thinking, “yes, yes, this is so on target.” And yet … you say (and I think it’s true):

    With most other forms of oppression, the hate is there between the groups and often it’s up to charismatic leaders to say “Hey, if we’re going to overcome this, we have to learn to love each other, to see each other as human beings.”

    But women, for the most part, see men as human beings. We already love men. We have tied our fates to them.

    But … isn’t that how we also deal with each other across racial/ethnic divides? Surely we all know the white person who can’t speak about blacks as a group without contempt, but who has a black friend who magically gets exempted from the prejudice. (Just as, conversely, we surely all know the woman who has been abused so badly that she mistrusts every man she meets until he can prove that he is safe, but who nevertheless has sons, brothers, fathers, even lovers whom she does trust.)

    I mean, we as humans don’t see other humans as parts of a group OR as individuals; we see them as both. Sometimes both at the same time, sometimes as both in alternation, sometimes as the individual who challenges the group.

    I don’t mean that therefore all oppression = all other oppression. Just that we always dichotomize, and we also always personalize.

  7. Yes, but I don’t think that actually undermines my point. It’s a slippery thing–how we see others (as you point out) and that’s why it’s necessary for folks who want to make change to grab a hold of the slippery thing and keep it still where we can see it.

  8. I’m just not so sure that, in the context of thinking about oppression, women feel that they’re in the same group as the oppressor. Not trying to derail your discussion, though.

  9. No, you’re not derailing it. It’s clearly a problem with my theory, because I don’t believe that women believe that they’re in the same group as their oppressors. I also think though that we feel a loyalty to particular men that can make it hard for us to talk about what men as a group do.

  10. Just remember the song from the Mary Poppins movie: “though we adore them individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” Not that I’d go that far….

  11. I think you made some really good points B.

    A friend is currently upset with me because I spoke up about how it’s not ok to snark about a particular woman just because of how she looks. Since how she looks is being classed as “blonde bimbo” and therefore “asking for it” and “can take it just fine”, I’m getting to hear all about how I’m not supposed to stand up for her because she’s one of those other women. Worse, by offering the slightest objection to anyone’s behavior, I must be lumping them in with “those icky-bad men”, because, of course, men only come in two flavors, pure evil and flawless.

    See, I’m supposed to be threatened by the busty blonde in the tight dress. She’s supposed to be “enemy”. I’m not supposed to treat her like what she is, a cute kid that I don’t want to see picked on the same way I don’t want to see anyone picked on just because of how they look.

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