Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The "Trauma Feminist": Addendum on "What is a Feminist?"

Excuses and Explanations Regarding My Absence and Lack of Feminist Posts
This section is bolded in case you want to skip over my excuse-making and get right to the meat of the post...

Ever since I've written my initial What is a Feminist?: A Discussion on Discourse entry, I've felt a little guilty. For multiple reasons.

Let me state that I never mean to offend anyone due to my own ignorance on a matter (although, of course, ignorance is prone to offending). And that this blog is not only reflective of my viewpoints on feminism and what I've studied, but what I'm currently studying and trying to understand. I've only, honestly, been acquainted with feminist studies for a little over a year now - and in that time, I've not taken one gender/women's studies class. Which makes me feel like more a feminist-hobbyist-dabbler-late-bloomer sort of deal. A handful of women I worked with at Feminist Voice (club on my old campus) were genuinely surprised I was not a Gender/Women's Studies major with the amount of time I tried to devote to these issues in my spare time (an interesting concept when you note my schedule this past year), and by the end of the year, I was surprised too. However, I was determined upon graduating, and figured I could make it a plan to study in the future. And I certainly do plan upon it (hi grad school, please accept me) and am trying to do so in my spare time now. In the meantime, I'm sure I unintentionally offended a few. Which brings me to my second point.

The second reason I feel incredibly guilty is that I actually did follow through with the criticism on the entry. I may be stubborn and defensive, but I try to be open-minded. And when I talked about things further with a few individuals, things began to click into place for me more. And then I never updated about it. And I entered what Hyperbole and a Half would call a guilt-spiral. While what initially held me back from updating about it was sheer busyness/preparation for moving across the country became something bigger when I finally began to settle in. I kept thinking to myself: "Isn't it a bit late to be updating with discussions you had a month ago?" My mother (and a handful of other people who know me closely) have noted I have this amazing capability to be extremely critical of myself in a way that no one else would ever expect of me, and I feel like it was one of those situations. I was very disappointed in myself for not keeping up with this blog, and so, just winced about it internally every time I thought about going back to the blog.

I've also done the stupid thing of "once I get a job/once I'm done catching up with all the job applications I should be sending out, I'll totally update my blog again." When you are unemployed for awhile, you learn that applying for jobs becomes a full-time job and so I have no idea why I set myself under this delusion that the work of applying for jobs would end. Which is why I reshifted my priorities yesterday and why you will see a lot more blog entries.

And so, I would like to take the time to thank whomever anonymously asked me that question about my blog via Formspring. You've pushed me past my internal little wince-hump, and hopefully things will go more fluidly from now on.

The "Trauma Feminist": An Addendum

As mentioned briefly amongst my litany of excuses up there, I did do some follow-up on my initial entry that did seem to spark some polar reactions. I know several women I'd talked to after writing the entry turned to me as if I feel this way too! I'm glad someone else said it! And then there were other women who came to me and said, "It's a fine line, Victoria. I know you don't mean to sound offensive, but you're bordering the line of sounding like one of those white feminists who just doesn't want to deal with race at all - and I know that's not you. Can we meet up in person and talk about it?" And then some women completely ignored making a comment out in the open, but instead had slight reactions towards me elsewhere to display they were displeased.

So, acknowledging all these factors, I pondered the dynamics of what to do next now that I both a) had a chip on my shoulder and felt very much like a lost, confused deer and b) felt mildly justified since I clearly wasn't the only one feeling this way since a handful of women had come up to me going "I feel this way too." So, I decided to take up my friend, Dawn Haney, who said to me, ""It's a fine line, Victoria. I know you don't mean to sound offensive, but you're bordering the line of sounding like one of those white feminists who just doesn't want to deal with race at all - and I know that's not you. Can we meet up in person and talk about it?"

And so, a few days before I left Colorado completely, we did. It's funny, because in retrospect I'm not sure she actually said anything completely different to me than she did in the comments. And yet, I walked away feeling like I had a much more sound grip on how to approach it than I felt I did before. Which perhaps fuels into Dawn's hypothesis that something about how the internet and blogging lends itself to dissidence, unchecked opinion, and some sort of general rage. I'm really really poorly rewording what Dawn had said to me quite eloquently in person. Regardless, it seemed having someone to react off of and repartee with in person was a lot more effective for me than typing a long rebuttal comment and waiting, trying to understand and trying to not be offensive and trying to make my own points.

What she essentially said to me in person is pretty much what she said to me here:

"I do want to say something about my understandings of women of color's frustrations with feminism, particularly within the sexual assault and domestic violence movements. Let's look at your statement above: "Come on, we're all women fighting for women's rights, can't we all just get along? As if the patriarchy doesn't tear us apart enough, we seek to tear each other apart?" The problem for women of color is that they are hearing the exact same thing from the men in their lives: "Come on, we're all people of color fighting for our rights, can't we all just get along? As if racism doesn't tear us apart enough, we seek to tear each other apart?" Women of color get pushed to "choose" between allying with other women or allying with other people of color. It's an impossible choice. One of the things that I've learned from women of color is that this impossible choice is *traumatic*. When I start to see the multiple oppressions faced by people as trauma, and their reactions to these oppressions as trauma reactions - it makes more sense. I know about anger, and that when I finally find the words to express my rage it comes out like a volcano. I know how healing it is to have someone validate my rage as real. On the flip side, I know how pissed I get when a man says, "You should tone down your rage" or "I've been hurt too, why do you have to make it a man/woman thing?" In my experience, it's *especially* as a trauma feminist that we have to listen carefully to the infinite kinds of traumas experienced by people. When I do that, I find some of my fiercest allies among women of color who just want to be validated. Just like you and me."

But perhaps there was one word she used with me in person that she didn't write in that comment that made all the difference for me: safe.

She told me that when women of color are expressing their anger about these situations to me it's because they feel safe to express it to me, around me, in my company. If they didn't feel safe around me, they wouldn't be expressing this rage - they express this rage to me because it is one of the safe places [feminism] they can. They are looking for me to understand so that I can help make more safe places for them.

Explained in these terms, with the word "safe," it all made sense to me. I reflected upon the struggles I've had personally with my own PTSD, and how much safety has made a difference. Around my mother and girl friends who know me closely, I've had no problem venting and yelling and unintentionally taking things out on them when really I'm just frustrated with my own set of emotional problems and want them to understand because I feel safe around them.

In contrast: zoom in on me trying to get my own student-constructed major passed in front of an Older White Christian Male, and he starts demanding, But why is Creative Writing and Social Change so useful that it could be its own major? Couldn't you just do the same thing with an English program? A Journalism program? and as he goes on with his battalion of questions, stern and defensive, encouraged by the school administration to not let many of these SCMs get passed... I shrink into my chair, the words clustering behind my tongue. I can't say anything. While I could normally roll off a whole list of reasons why Creative Writing and Social Change deserved its own sector of studying, my mind went blank. Something in me got triggered and threatened. I felt small and instead of being the strong, opinionated Victoria I am and try to be, I began to cry. I left that meeting feeling wholly defeated, embarrassed, ashamed of myself... and angry at the bottom of it all for the man who just made me feel like this.

I didn't feel safe there. And I couldn't be at a place to emotionally feel safe there where the other person had the same demographic setup of another person who had repeatedly traumatized and threatened me in the past, and similarly, this person didn't try to understand me either. He just yelled at me about how he couldn't understand.

An uncanny resemblance?

Fortunately, in that scenario, I had a small handful of teachers willing to go to bat for me - partially believing that yes, creative writing and social change should be its own area of study... and partially afraid that if this didn't get passed, I would follow through with my promise of dropping out of college entirely. Similarly, Dawn saw what I was doing and tried to be the medium to help me understand the validity of another branch of feminism, and why it has metaphorically "dropped out" to have its own viewpoint heard.

I'm aware that that metaphor is on the border between "awful" and "awesome." Just roll with it? Please? Haha.

Point is: I appreciate when my friends keep me in check like this. And I've now gained a different perspective on how to approach feminism and feminist discussions. While I may not be overtly aware of how all of my biases may manifest, I will now ask myself, as a Trauma Feminist, does everyone feel safe in this discussion? is someone shying away from the conversation or getting angry with the conversation because they do not feel safe? and most importantly, what can I do to make this a safe environment for everyone to speak and be heard?

All in all, actually, this tends to remind me of a quote from a book that I've never read, but that which one of my closest friends tends to love dearly: Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie.

"In second grade there were classroom rules hanging from the ceiling. The only one I can remember now seems like it would be a good rule for life. 'Everyone must feel safe.' Safe to be themselves, physically safe, safe to say what they think, just safe. That's the best rule I can think of." (13)
- Rachel Corrie


  1. Very well stated. I'm so glad you're blogging again. You have a good friend to put things into perspective like that. Feeling safe is very important; I find myself lashing out, too, at the people I feel the safest. For me, I worry that this makes them feel less important...boy could they be more wrong! I feel guilty that I do that, but I hope at least eventually every one of them can know how much it truly means to me to be able to vent like that. Of course, you are one of them. Thank you for this entry, it was so very clarifying and easy to read! --Mary

  2. Love love love this: "Does everyone feel safe in this discussion? is someone shying away from the conversation or getting angry with the conversation because they do not feel safe? and most importantly, what can I do to make this a safe environment for everyone to speak and be heard?"

    So glad we could chat in person and get out of the weird internet dialogue thing. It is perhaps hard to feel safe having a dialogue on the internet, because it's not just with that one person but also accessible to the other 6B people on the planet. It's also hard to take the necessary space to make sure someone feels heard and validated before jumping into the "but have you thought about this" part of the discussion.

    Glad that you've broken the dam of silence on the blog again ;)