YWCA’s Equity Institute recently added “The History and Socialization of Oppression” to our workshop offerings. Understanding the ways we’ve been socialized into thoughts and behaviors that harm both ourselves and others is an important step toward transformation. A recent Facebook post by our Equity and Inclusion colleague, Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan, really brought this point home. She addresses how the socialization of white women, in particular, has significant ramifications for Black and Brown women. With Biz’s permission, here are her thoughts:
I have been thinking about white women’s discomfort and resistance to the characterization that their actions towards people of color and particularly Black people are violent. While certainly a significant portion of this resistance is to avoid accountability for the harm we are causing, I think there is another component that we have to explore in order to hold ourselves responsible.
This post is not to excuse white women’s behavior or suggest that women of color do not also experience these things with the additional burden of racism and white supremacy. I think we, as white women, need to understand our socialization around gender and race to grapple with why we want to excuse our own bad behavior, so that we can stop perpetuating this violence.
Patriarchy has socialized white women to believe in a definition of violence that excludes their own experiences and tolerates and condones violence in our own lives. We are taught that something can only be defined as violent if there is physical harm and often not even then.
We are also taught repeatedly that we do not have power, that we don’t have control and that we need protecting. This internalization of believing we are powerless has us thinking we don’t have the power to harm, and we couldn’t be more wrong.
As children, our experiences with the emotional and psychological trauma of navigating relationships with other girls is seen as a normal part of a girl’s experience. While adults regularly interrupt the physical fighting between boys, albeit with a brushing off with a “boys will be boys” attitude, girls are left to navigate their abuse from each other with little intervention or even acknowledgement that harm is occurring. While many adult white women carry scars from these toxic relationships, most would not describe them as violent.
As we begin to navigate our own sexuality and relationships, we are socialized with little to no agency over our own bodies. We are demeaned, devalued, objectified and sexualized by others daily, and patriarchy and rape culture tell us that is no big deal. We are told that the feelings of others are more important than our own and we should be nice and allow our bodies to be used for others’ self-esteem. We are taught a continuum of violence that ignores the impact and conditions us to believe that being groped on the train, cat-called on the street or harassed at work are all minor inconveniences. We are taught to minimize every violent experience we have had and feel grateful that despite these every day aggressions, we are so fortunate that it wasn’t worse.
We are told our sexual existence needs to be through a lens of prevention. We need to consider all the things we are doing that cause men to harm us, not hold perpetrators accountable for the harm they cause. We are taught to believe reasoning that what we wear, drink, where we go, etc. make us responsible for the violence we experience, and so we blame others for their victimization too.
This erroneous continuum of violence has us believing that verbal and emotional abuse is not as bad as being hit. That being slapped is not as bad as being punched. That the sexual violence we experience with a partner or friend is less traumatic than if it is from a stranger. That somehow having someone rob you of your agency, autonomy and security is worse if they also rob you of your money or have a weapon. All of these mental manipulations are in place to uphold patriarchy, white supremacy and rape culture. They exist to allow men to do what they want to us with impunity and for us to continue to live side by side with these men that cause us harm without demanding they be held accountable for their violence.
After enduring all of this, after believing we are not harmed by all of this, we have so invested in the mental gymnastics of the continuum of violence that our definition of violence is narrow to the point of nonexistent. We have forfeited language and understanding of violence in order to survive patriarchy.
All of this makes it difficult to hold ourselves accountable for the violence we cause to Black women, because to do so would be to reconcile all of the harm done to us. And yet, not acknowledging the harm we experience and not acknowledging the violence we enact on communities of color does not mean folks aren’t being harmed. Understanding the why doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for the impact. Our actions on Facebook message boards, in cross-cultural spaces, in volunteer organizations and everywhere else are often violent. We are adding to the harm that white supremacy, patriarchy, and rape culture inflict daily on Black people, particularly Black women.
My goal here is not to excuse our behavior, but to illuminate its underpinnings so that we can dismantle these ways of operating. We must hold ourselves accountable and broaden our definition of violence so that we can begin to deconstruct these patterns and eliminate the harm.
Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan is an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant and former Director of Programs for Northwestern University Women’s Center.