I wonder how history will recall this past election. It’s hard to see 10 years into the future to see what will be remembered as important, significant, and worthy of recounting. In the swirl of the chaos, it’s tough to take in.
I admittedly have not been all that engaged in the cluster fuck that has been the two-year ordeal of the presidential election in the United States. The entire thing frankly disgusts me.
I do, however, see this as a pivotal moment for me personally to shift my awareness to broader issues and do some introspection on how I feel about things I’ve usually taken for granted.
For example, I see a lot of outrage and fear in my own echo chamber of social media, mostly expressed by white women. I’m trying to get my arms around the times in my life when I’ve felt judged to be less than equal, marginalized, or labeled. I imagine however I felt then is how millions of Americans feel constantly because of race, life choices, or some other defining factor. I can only think of two. I’m a woman, and I’ve grown up knowing scarcity. To say we were poor I think would be overstating the issue.
We shopped at thrift stores, mom applied for and used food stamps (not the discreet kind, the super obvious kind that let everyone in the store judge you), we borrowed money from friends and family, I found part-time work when I was 11 (mowing grass, raking leaves, shoveling snow). The flip side is that we always had food, a warm place to live, and I felt safe. For that, I am eternally thankful. I mention all of these things not to feel sorry for my experiences, but to express how that felt, to not always have money to buy lunch, to come to school wearing a classmate’s cast off clothing, or to know that if you wanted something, you had to work hard to earn it. My experience makes me who I am. I treasure that.
Being a woman put me in situations that in retrospect and by modern standards, are considered to be sexual harassment at worst, and misogynistic at best. In middle school, boys often grabbed girls butts (rarely did anyone reprimand or object to the attention). In college, I had the occasion to meet the incoming president. He asked me about my post-graduation plans. I mentioned I planned to work in what I hoped would be my field of study (international relations). He said “what about graduate school?” And I replied, “I’d like a bit of experience before I decide if I want more education,” as I was already in debt with school loans and such. His response was interesting and I don’t remember if anyone called him out or not…he said “well, many things can happen in those years. You could get married,” as if somehow being married would prevent me from getting a masters degree. Sexist for sure.
I’m certain that my pay rate, my access to advancement, and overall career opportunities were diminished because of my gender. My first real corporate job was with a Japanese bank and I discovered that most women weren’t considered to be competent leaders, worthy of promotion or recognition.
The point of my reflection is to understand the factors that impact my life in a positive way that is merely random rather than chosen so that I might understand and appreciate the real and constant struggle of others. I’m caucasian, born to college-educated parents, heterosexual, and raised in a middle-class existence. I had nothing to do with any of these things. But I enjoy the access that they provide, or better stated, I have not felt marginalized because of these things.
I took a class once in undergrad that keeps resurfacing in my mind. It was called Race, Class, and Gender. I learned so much from that class but didn’t explore any of the topics presented to me beyond what was required for course work. I conducted an eye-opening interview with two women, one white, one African-American, one straight, one gay, who were friends. I remember asking them about their friendship, how they managed to navigate the differences between their individual backgrounds, etc. There were questionnaires we answered about how easy it was to find makeup, professional hair care, and images in the media that suited your needs or reflected who you are. I could always find those things. But someone of color, or different sexual orientation, couldn’t always find those things. I also have never felt fear when encountering the police or distrusted when I’m shopping. I don’t have a son but if I did, I wouldn’t need to have a conversation with him about how he should behave if he’s approached by the police. These things matter. They impact your psyche. The absence of them in my life is due to random circumstances, not some privilege I’ve earned. The are also due to a host of social and legal systems put in place by people like me to ensure that their random circumstances allow them to remain in power over others who don’t share their “status.” I don’t feel guilt over this, but I do feel a responsibility to be aware that my random inclusion in this group is just that, random. I am allowed to remain in my bubble of ignorance because it’s easy to say, “that doesn’t affect me.” But it does. It impacts people around me, people I love, and people who are rightfully justified in their outrage and protest to being treated violently, differently, and disrespectfully.
Call it an awakening or just becoming more engaged in the issues that have always existed without my participation; whichever, I am on a path to better awareness and greater sensitivity to generations of wrongs imposed on people like be but not like me. Our differences are not what should separate us or define us because our similarities are bigger and more important.