An interesting article ran across my eyes this afternoon: “The Cowardice of White Women”, by Louisa Leontiades. It discusses the tendency of white women to want to fit in, to receive our power secondhand from white men, and to ingratiate and adapt in order to survive, and how that learned behavior often makes us poor allies to WOC. I found it fascinating, because while I understand that point of view, it is very far from my lived experiences.
The part that struck me was this:
I have little access to my fight mechanism, because as a middle class white child I was brought up to kowtow to power or be outcast. Conflict or confrontation with those higher up the social scale than I risked rejection, abandonment and ignominy.
This was not the lesson I learned. Maybe it was the lesson the world was trying to teach me, but it was not what I synthesized.
I’ve always been a weirdo. I was a strange kid, but in a sort of a cute way (or so my parents assure me). I grew into a strange pre-teen and teenager, and at that point, idiosyncrasies of personality become less adorable and more a reason to get shoved into lockers. I developed quite early (hit my full height at age 12 and was a heavy B-edging-into-C cup by the same time), I had horrific acne for several years, I had no idea how to dress fashionably, I was intelligent and too proud to hide it, and I was obsessively into geeky things like Star Wars and role-playing games before the stigma against them had softened. As a result of all that, middle school was, quite frankly, hell.
I was a privileged child and no mistake: white, upper-middle-class, access to good education and a comfortable life. But I never felt that urge Leontiades talks about, to fawn in the hopes of fitting in, of getting a share of the power, possibly because it was made abundantly clear to me from the start that that was never going to be an option for me. Within that privileged sphere, during my formative pre-teen and early-teen years, I was so far at the bottom of the social power ladder that I knew it was useless to even try to reach for higher rungs. Fawning wasn’t going to do me any good no matter how much belly I exposed. Rejection and ostracization were just… givens.
So, instead, I chose fight. I snapped back. I unleashed verbal tirades, much good that it did me. It almost never worked, but I could at least console myself with the knowledge that I hadn’t rolled over and taken the abuse. I banded together with other kids who got picked on for similar reasons, and we made ourselves a tribe — and a tribe that I defended ferociously. (I am, as I have ever been, a pack animal at heart). I diverted bullies’ attention from my friends onto me. What I learned early on was that ignoring the bullies didn’t make them stop, no matter what people of a conciliatory nature might tell you. When you’re wearing a half-dozen targets, jerks are going to take aim at them no matter how small you try to make yourself.
I’m not sure I’ve consciously realized just how much that has shaped my somewhat pugnacious tendencies over the years. I did not learn to fawn; I learned that I might as well fight.
Would it have been different if I’d been prettier, more popular? Would I have learned the lesson of fawning, or is that temerity an intrinsic part of my personality? It’s hard to know. I hope that’s who I am at my core, but we’re all shaped by our experiences. If life had been easier for me during my most impressionable years, would I be more complacent? Assimilation is an adaptive trait; so is resistance.
It took me many, many years to learn the lessons of “don’t read the comments” and “someone will always be wrong on the internet”, and let’s face it, I still backslide a few times a year and end up in vicious textual quarrels. But I’ve also had a few experiences that let me know that my response is fight in real life, too. I am someone who steps in. Between my friends and the guy that won’t stop following us down the street, between the lady in hijab on the subway and the jackass braying racial slurs, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her, between the drunk guy and the car he’s trying to get into the driver’s seat of. I confront. I don’t let things slide. I cannot just stand by and watch something terrible happen.
This probably sounds self-congratulatory, and maybe it is, a bit. I like knowing that, yes, I am someone with the courage of my convictions. I also know that I had and still have a lot of work to do. I internalized a lot of misogyny in the “not like other girls” sort of way — again, a defense mechanism. I was never going to look like them, so it felt safer to reject entirely being like them. It felt good to try and raise myself up by putting them down. That was a rough lesson to un-learn. I also know for damn sure that I grew up marinated in the particular form of racism that gestates in white folk who want to think of themselves as liberal and “good”: embracing “colorblindness” — and wondering why POCs can’t just do the same and “get over it”. Another lesson I had to unlearn, and still one I have to check myself on from time to time. So not fawning certainly didn’t make me flawless. It did, though, shape a lot of who I am.
Another thing the article touches on is how fawning ties in to couple privilege and how that affects working women.
In more modern times Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In advised finding a husband who believed in equality because the most successful women have a supportive man. But murky undertones marred the superficially feminist message. Because whilst a supportive man was helpful, more helpful still was having a man at all: the most successful women in the business world, she said, are married. Western countries confer couple privilege in the form of tax breaks, social lubrication and respectability. Single women without children are stigmatized, single women with children face more stigma and an even slimmer possibility of rising in the workplace without adequate or any childcare – a truth that even Sheryl, as rich as she was, had to find out the hard way. Social stigma, guilt and shame abound but in each case the conclusion is the same. Without a man, your survival will be far more difficult. Find one, keep him or be damned.
I think of ways boys and men (whether I was dating them or not, whether they professed to love me or not) have described me since the age of thirteen — difficult, high-maintenance, headstrong, independent, bitchy, scary-smart, terrifying, indomitable — and I wonder if failing to learn the lesson of fawning is also the reason I’m still femme sole.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Hell, I don’t know. I like living alone and being in charge of my own life, but I also wish I had more constant companionship than an LDR affords me. I’m proud of my ability to pay for and take care of myself, but I also get tired of the choices and sacrifices that can mean I have to make. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to my independence. And it would absolutely be easier to be a writer if I had a spouse to rely on financially. That’s just a fact. An annoying, regressive-feeling fact.
I don’t know that I have any particular point I could use to put a button on this post, but that article got me thinking about the ripples in my life now caused by pebbles thrown twenty years ago.