This reflection fulfills the following SUMMIT 400 Learning Outcomes: 1)Identify and assess one’s values, interests and abilities, 2)Identify, explain, and analyze global themes, processes and systems, 3)Demonstrate knowledge and skills essential for global engagement, 4)Articulate and appraise problems and solutions from multiple perspectives critically considering diverse sources of information
This reflection fulfills the following Women’s Studies Program Learning Outcomes: 1) demonstrate understanding of the multi-racial multi-ethnic and global nature of feminism, 2)demonstrate knowledge of basic feminist ideas/analyses which necessarily includes analysis of not only gender but race/ethnicity class sexuality nationality and ability
In our world, which is stratified so deeply by race, class, and gender, life experiences can vary widely based on one’s social location. Some experience a stable social location, for instance,e a cis-person who adheres to gender stereotypes will consistently be read as and treated as their assigned gender. Similarly,y a white person with blonde hair will consistently be read as white, and benefit from white privilege over their lifespan. I have not felt stable in some of my identities for both internal and external reasons. I have a complicated relationship with class because I have experienced living with my mother while she was young and the two of us being very poor. But also then living with my wealthy grandparents in a big house and going to private school just a few years later. I identify as an Italian-American and my heritage backs this up, but in all white spaces I will be treated as an “other” or assumed to be a person of color. One of the reasons for this is my physical body; I have been larger than my peers all my life with a fat distribution which is stereotypically non-White. My multifaceted experiences with both race and class gives me a unique perspective because I have experienced both sides of privilege and domination. My gender identity, on the other hand, has remained stable, I was assigned female at birth and identify now as a woman. In this paper, I will explore the interconnections of my social identities and social location in regard to my life experience.
Class is the area of my life where I have seen the most dramatic extremes. During childhood I went from one year not having enough money to have milk in the fridge to playing by an inground pool. There was trauma in this switch that affected the way I think about money and class. I still have problems managing money and I worry irrationally about running out of food. During my teen years I was embarrassed of my past, and at the time attending a private school full of wealthy kids. I started to judge people who did not have the privileges as I based on superficial evaluations. In reading Gregory Mantsios “Media Magic Making Class Invisible” I started to identify with some behaviors, particularly: “the behaviour of the more affluent offenders is considered an ‘impropriety’, and a deviation from the norm, the behaviour of the poor is considered repugnant, indicative of the poor in general, and worthy of our indignation and resentment.” (Mantsios 2016/2006) If two people demonstrated the same rude behavior but one was recognizably wealthy and the other recognizably poorer I would judge the poor person more harshly. This was a coping mechanism to try and separate myself from the experience of being in poverty. It was not right, and a part of myself I have reflected and worked on since. One of the reasons this judgemental mindset was so easy to fall into was that it is perpetuated in movies, TV, and advertisements: “the news media inverts reality so that those who are working class and middle class learn to fear, resent, and blame those below, rather than those above them in the class structure.” (Mantsios 2016/2006) At the time I could not recognize that my way of thinking was prejudiced and wrong because I saw that same thinking represented everywhere. My class identity does not exist in a vacuum it is closely tied to my whiteness and identity as a woman. The fact that I was removed from poverty by wealthy family members is likely because of historical advantages Whites have had in generational wealth accumulation. Homeownership, especially historical homeownership was limited through redlining and there continues to contribute disparities in wealth. As Meghan Kuebler explains in “Closing the Wealth Gap” : “Homeownership can influence stratification because it places some groups in areas with better services, such as Whites in the suburbs and Blacks in the inner-city” (Kuebler 2016/2013) A person of color in my position may not have had to familial support to lean back on during times of financial stress.
My emotional insecurity about my class status was definitely influenced by my subordinate social position as a woman. As a teen girl there is pressure to buy certain clothes or accessories to fit in, as well as to use makeup or body shaping undergarments to try to attain beauty ideals. Feeling insecure as a girl, and one who grew up in poverty, made class a touchy subject for me which contributed to some of my internal bias towards poor people as teen. I did feel subordinate to men, which was a big factor in my feelings of insecurity. As a reader of the Twilight series Rebecca Hayes-Smith’s analysis of the messages about behavior which women are taught struck close to home: “The reading we get is: Young women, if you dress nice, go to school, and don’t have sex, you’ll find a nice boy to take care of you. Don’t worry if he’s a bit violent, that’s just how boys are.” (Hayes-Smith 2016/2011) I felt pressure to appear pleasing to boys, keep up with trends and put up with men even when they acted inappropriately. My identity as a woman cannot be separated from my whiteness as beauty standards, although prevailingly European, vary by race. Bigger than this I experience privilege as a White woman that many other women do not experience. What I mean by this is that “recognition of the meaning of Whiteness in our society is recognition of the meaning of privilege in the context of a society that advantages being white.” (Tatum 2016/2008) Privilege was the concept I had yet to grasp when I had distaste for people in poverty, including myself. Whiteness is having a leg up in society, an advantage over other people.
Privilege is the hardest to see when you have it. White people tend to deny their white privilege by using evidence of personal strife from having a low income, ability status, or sexual orientation. This is definitely something that I had to work through. White privilege is pervasive and appears natural. Benefiting from it makes many White people not question their privilege. It is crucially important to recognize that it is not natural, it is the result of colonialism, slavery, and racism. This history is masked by how White people are socialized to not question privilege, as Peggy McIntosh states in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, “…Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us.’” (McIntosh 2016/1989) This is an illusion that convinces White people that everyone is on an equal playing board, and to look down upon those who do not experience as much success as them when in reality Whites have an unfair head start. The fact that this mentality and disparity exists is not even the biggest problem, because of how White privilege is hidden inequalities are only created under the guise of hard work and validated through stereotypes and racial tensions. McIntosh describes this resistance to acknowledge privilege as an ‘obliviousness’ : “It seems to me that the obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly enculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.” (McIntosh 2016/1989) This myth works to minimize valid complaints about privilege from marginalized communities because the ruling class is convinced that everyone is already equal. The case of White men as oppressors based on the existence of privilege is much simpler than that of White women.
Being a White woman is a tricky balance between privilege and oppression. Somehow it makes someone the ultimate damsel in distress that must be protected while simultaneously being stripping that person of autonomy. History plays a role in this as Bonnie Thornton Dill illustrates in “Our Mother’s Grief: Racial-Ethnic Women and the Maintenance of Families”: “while white women had few legal rights as women, they were protected through public forms of patriarchy that acknowledged and supported their family roles of wives, mothers, and daughters because they were vital instruments for building American Society…” (Dill 2016/1988) White women’s elevated status only exists due to their relations with White men. This dynamic is still an oppressor/subordinate one, but White women are rewarded with higher social positions by being docile to the domination of White men. This balance has been studied and Weissinger found that “enlarging our understanding of the differences between women, sociologists have documented the ways in which white women act as oppressors as well as the oppressed– benefiting from a certain race/or class positions.” (Weissinger 2016/2009) The racial identity of white women rarely become salient and when it does it generally is because they are benefiting from it.
The previous two paragraphs explain historical and current social positions of White women. While I have observed this in the wild, I think that I deviate from the norm in this regard. As an Italian American I have been read as many different identities from Guatemalan, mixed, to latinx. The fact that I tan easily and have always been bigger with a curvy fat distribution contributes to me appearing non-white at times. I want to make clear that I have never tried to intentionally look like another race i.e I do not fake tan, use bronzers, or wear cultural appropriative hairstyles. How I explain my difference from the prevailing image of a White person is that I am not anglo-saxon, and Italian Americans have faced discrimination for how they look in the past. Whether or not italian people are classified as White has changed over time. I identify with being White but do not think that it is simply a ‘symbolic identity’ as Waters may suggest because in groups of anglo people I stick out and become the stand in for a person of color. Water’s argument of symbolic identities is as follows: “When White Americans equate their own symbolic ethnicities with the socially enforced identities of non-White Americans, they obscure the fact that the experiences of Whites and non-Whites have been qualitatively different in the United States and that the current identities of individuals partly reflect that unequal history.” (Waters 2016/1996) While I do overall agree with Water’s point, I feel that it is not as accurate to me as it would be a person who identified with being English, or similar anglo identities. The biggest reason I feel this way is that my identity, although White, garners unwanted attention and caused me to be misidentified. Waters explains that this is what makes ethnicity different for people of color and white people: “…For later-generation White ethnics, ethnicity is not something that influences their lives unless they want it to. In the world of work and school and neighborhood, individuals do not have to admit to being ethnic unless they choose to.” (Waters 2016/1996) My identity has influenced my life without me wanting to and before I fully understood what it meant. That being said I recognize that my experience is nothing like the daily salience ethnicity has for people of color. My identity just alienates me from other White people.
While there are times when I do not feel totally White there are also times when I absolutely do. Most often during transactional situations at stores or banks. My friends of color have told me about experiences being followed around stores and being accused of shoplifting, while I have never received this treatment. Christine L. Williams describes this phenomenon in her piece “Racism in Toyland”: “In a racists and sexist society, managers generally believe that such women [white and light-skinned] are the most friendly and solicitous, and this most able to inspire trust and confidence in a commercial transaction.” (Williams 2016/2005) While to storekeepers I am part of a group believed to be ‘the most friendly and solicitous’ the irony is I have actually shoplifted. Numerous times. Shoplifting was something I did as a teen when facing pressures to fit in with the rich kids at my school while trying to reckon with my complicated class status. The items I would take most often were cosmetics. My insecurities in both my class status and womanhood are the reason I felt like stealing was the only option but my privileged identity was the reason I was able to get away with it.
While I do not shoplift anymore, or judge people in poverty, I still can feel pulled in different directions due to my identity. I am at a point where I can analyze both the factors that lead to my oppression and privilege. My experiences having a complex relationship with my ethnicity make me a better ally to people of color because I had to interrogate my racial identity in ways some White folks never do. The most important factor is that I must resist the socialization that White people are on an equal playing field with minorities. Resist the idea that “To succeed, they were socialized to accept and replicate discrimination against people of color.” (Weissinger 2016/2009) By understanding the intersections of my identity as a place for analysis, allyship, and activism I can work towards creating a better future for everyone.
Andersen, M. & Collins, P. (2016). Race, class, & gender: an anthology (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Dill, B. (2016) Our mother’s grief: racial-ethnic women and the maintenance of families. In Andersen, M. & Collins, P. (2016). Race, class, & gender: an anthology (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. (Original work published 1988)
Hayes-Smith, R. (2016). Gender norms in the Twilight series. In Andersen, M. & Collins, P. (2016). Race, class, & gender: an anthology (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. (Original work published 2011)
Kuebler, M. (2016). Closing the wealth gap. Andersen, M. & Collins, P. (2016). Race, class, & gender: an anthology (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. (Original work published 2013)
Mantsios, G. (2016). Media magic making class invisible. In Andersen, M. & Collins, P. (2016). Race, class, & gender: an anthology (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. (Original work published 2006)
Tatum, B. (2016). Affirming identity in an era of desegregation. In Andersen, M. & Collins, P. (2016). Race, class, & gender: an anthology (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. (Original work published 2008)
Waters, M. (2016) For whites only? In Andersen, M. & Collins, P. (2016). Race, class, & gender: an anthology (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. (Original work published 1996)