This morning I received a distressing phone call from a former mentee and colleague who was offered a job at a feminist non-profit serving students of color and working class students in order to empower them to think globally and become “change agents” in the world. She was offered the job on Tuesday and asked to come in to work out the details of the position on Wednesday afternoon. During that meeting, she disclosed that, like me, she has a hidden disability that in no way impacts her ability to do the job for which she was hired. She also discussed the flexible schedule of the position with the Acting-E.D. noting that she was “not a morning person.” (Hello, is there any academic who is?) By the time she reached home, her offer of hire had been rescinded on the basis that she might “put youth in danger” and “serious concerns about her ability to come to work on time.” My friend was dumb-founded and has been silently weighing her options all the while feeling completely dehumanized by an all white, all female, “feminist”, “social justice”, agency who didn’t skip a beat in hiring a WHITE ABLE-BODIED CIS MALE to replace her.
As she relayed her story to me, I was taken back to my own experience of ableism with a “feminist” social service agency that I wrote about at the end of the year here on the blog. I believe any of us who have experienced ableism or racism, or the combination of the two, has probably experienced something similar to my colleague. What astounds me then is not the circumstances of discrimination but that somehow we continue to call people and agencies feminist when they so clearly are only interested in the advancement of themselves and their sense of themselves as good people. For instance, the agency in question has a whole section on the importance of diversity in their job ads (yes, my friend actually sent me the link to show that she was qualified; this is what they have done to her, reduced a black female PhD with an illustrious career in teaching at risk youth to justifying her qualifications to me, another black female PhD who taught her in grad school and knows first hand who she is and what she is capable of). They asked repeatedly about cultural competency during the interview as well, and yet their actions, and previous hidden history, speak to a longstanding problem with race and racism (including the fact they take funding for serving at-risk students of color in a particular location but 2/3 of the students they serve are living in a traditionally low income white neighborhood nowhere near this location and they have had a poorly handled “n word” incident.) They place youth with women in two developing nations but have no concentrated feminist decolonized curriculum, lumping women in with the intersecting categories to which they belong more often than not. More to the point of the disability complaint, they have no differently-abled staff and their offices are not wheelchair accessible (nor accessible to multiple other differently-abled people). Worse, they are so ableist it never occurred to them they have differently-abled youth, with hidden disabilities, in their program or that they have failed to be ADA complaint on multiple levels in the hiring process, the agency, and the treatment of the youth they are so worried will be endangered by exposure to disability.
As I was pondering this, and my colleague’s question about helping them to meet basic ADA standards for the next set of hires they plan to do (Yes, that’s right, they fired her before her first day on the job over oppression and she wants to help them get ADA compliant), a question from Bianca Laureano came in on my formspring account. She asked me, what I wanted. So here is my answer (and I apologize in advance for my language):
Bi’s question: if you were to write a “want ad” what would it say and what would you want? by LaBianca
Wanted feminists who are deeply committed to intersectionality to change the world. Must know the difference between “valuing diversity” or “tolerance” and actually being willing and able to understand the intrinsic equality of and work with people whose experiences, frame of reference, physical and mental abilities, pathways to knowledge, language skills, and access to capital, desires, gender presentation, etc. are profoundly different than your own. Must be able to be self-reflexive and non-defensive in all aspects of the job. Must be willing to address discomfort as a learning process and not as proof that other people are failures or problems. Must be committed to working in a transparent environment in which communication goes on in front of people, not behind their backs, and where accountability applies to all people so that both oppression and incompetence or any combination thereof will be addressed. Example 1: you can not fail to do your job b/c others make you uncomfortable b/c they are different than you. Example 2: you cannot fail to meet a required deadline and then blame it on the cultural clock. Must recognize that doing the right thing does not come with cookies, but doing the exceptional thing will come with praise and stronger group cohesion for better work in the future. Compensation: a living wage, benefits that actually cover women’s health, knowledge that traditional barriers prevents other women from ever gaining, real sisterhood (open, honest, committed), and the chance to change the world not just trade places with a male master in his house, etc.
What I want is a feminism that fights for all women equally and takes accountability seriously across difference but also within a single group. And I want feminism to be a place where marginalized women don’t have to beg privileged women to see their humanity so they can eat, work, and/or live. I want every woman who has ever felt uncomfortable around other women to check herself first and not start victim-blaming, and every woman who has ever been victimized by systems of oppression to be able to walk through the world knowing that day is ending and the only burden she has to carry is the burden of doing the right thing & being self-reflexive about her own actions. They must let go of their bigotry and privilege evasiveness and we must heal from the pain they have inflicted so that all of us can do the work at hand.
In short, I want a world where my white feminist colleagues neither look the other way nor nod along when a student calls me a derogatory name related to my race, sexuality, or bilingualism, or who suspect my dis/ability issues are”really just histrionics or subterfuge” because with clothes on my body defies their expectations of “freakery” that are so embedded in how “we” read dis/ability in the West. I want to open my email and not see a stack of emails from former students or colleagues outlining the ways centered feminists have failed them today. I want to not be talking to a close friend and mentee and hear “yeah, that job I told you they [feminists who supposedly serve students of color and are committed to helping marginalized youth ‘become change agents’] offered me on Tuesday was taken away from me on Wednesday because I mentioned my disability Tues night.” I want a world where, excuse my language, asshole and feminist are never synonymous and where the boot on my neck does not come attached to a dainty or clunky heel. (Heck, I want a world where there is no boot on my neck at all, but especially not one that comes from someone who thinks she is “helping” or “serving” me or her rights are “universal” and mine are “special” “identity issues” or otherwise tangential to “the cause.”)
Until feminism can do that for me and with me, both I and other people like me will always have to walk through this world qualifying what we mean when we say we are feminists and worrying about whether we are safe in the presence of other feminists. And I call BULLSHIT!
I am too upset to get all analytical about this situation with you all today. Perhaps it is because of my own experience that had me waking from nightmares about Klan coming to kill me on New Year’s Eve, or the number of incidents I know anyone of my readers could share about being discriminated against by so-called feminist social justice workers, or maybe it is just because I know that while those smug “feminists” in Oregon, the supposed bastion of liberalism meets queer mecca, are driving their hybrid cars to their new fancy office on the “right side of town”, my colleague, who is actually one of the most knowledgeable people I know on issues of diversity, globalization, and youth activism, who gave up a thriving career in academe to go back home, is wondering where her next meal is going to come from and who she is going to have to put on a mask and beg for a job only to be spit on again.
When liberals attack it is much worse than conservatives b/c at least the court system and public sympathy should side with you in the case of the latter. As my colleague said “I mean, how do you recover from people looking you dead in the eye and telling you people from your neighborhood never amount to anything and don’t go to college and that you know less about what young people from your neighborhood need than the rich white feminists from New England running the place?” I told her I don’t know but that I had practically heard that exact same quote about the people from neighborhood a few weeks ago and I think the recession and liberal white feminist self-congratulatory lip service is clearly on the rise. She said, “Yeah, well, they are who they are but when they tell someone who has 15 years of working in youth services that they ‘fear [she’ll] put children in danger’ b/c she is differently-abled, it is like having the air sucked out of one’s soul. It’s like being hit by an abuser who knows how to cause the most pain but leave no visible bruises. How do you pick yourself up after someone looks you in the face and says you are not human and your lack of humanity is a threat to our children …?”
Just typing that small piece of our conversation makes my lip curl and my nose wrinkle like something sick and decaying has been laid at my feet. The problem is what is dying is not their bigotry but my colleague’s beautiful soul. That is what is going on in “liberal” “feminist” “queer mecca” Oregon, that is what is going on here where I am, and it is likely going on where you are too. Differently-abled feminists dying from knife wounds wielded by the hands of “feminist” “social justice” workers who think they can do no wrong b/c they’ve done some time in a “bad neighborhood” “saving brown kids” from themselves. Where is the change made in these choices? Where is the social justice?
For all of my students of color, queer students, poor students, and especially my differently-abled ones committed to social justice struggling with this same thing, and for every marginalized woman who has been reduced to begging so-called feminists for the right to work, let me say it again: I call Bullshit! Bullshit on your movement (as opposed to actual feminism)! And shame on all of you!
(And yes, I am a feminist, the question is are you?!?)