There are some days that I wish I could just take off my Social Justice hat and not notice all the ills of the world.
I should probably clarify.
I’ve always been a fairly liberal-minded person, even as a child. When I was younger I went through a phase where I refused to wear dresses or jewelry — for my last birthday, my grandmother gave me a necklace she bought well over ten years ago because, at the time, I had proclaimed that I would not wear it. I also expressed a dislike for the color pink. I couldn’t describe the reasoning behind my sudden rejection of all things “traditionally feminine;” I was only about ten years old at the time. When I think back on my actions, I wonder if my sudden distaste of dresses and pink had to do with my rejection of how the patriarchy was represented in my life. I did not like being told, even indirectly, what to do, and the subtle ways in which our society reinforces what it means to be feminine were clearly making an impact. As a result, ten-year-old me decided that I did not like the things that are most often associated with being a female: dresses, jewelry, and the color pink. Not necessarily because I didn’t like them, but because I didn’t like being told that I had to like them in order to be a girl.
I often wonder what was the final straw that motivated me to make this decision. Even when I was too young to recognize something problematic within our society, I knew enough to dislike it. I might not have fully understood the idea of gender roles, but for some reason I felt compelled to battle against them. I did this in the only way a ten-year-old knows how: by rejecting them outright.
Now that I’m older, I understand that I don’t have to stop wearing dresses because society tells me that, as someone who has a vagina and identifies as a woman, I should like them. I now have a much fuller understanding of gender. I recognize the subtle ways in which society reinforces gendered ideas, such as girls always wearing dresses. Now I love wearing dresses, jewelry and makeup, although sometimes I still feel uneasy about doing so. And although I never questioned my gender identity as a child, only what being a girl really meant to me, I can’t help but wonder what children who are questioning their gender identity must go through when confronted with these patriarchal ideas. Our ideas about gender really aren’t doing anyone any good.
Looking back on my behavior as a child, it probably makes sense that I should become so focused on social justice and equality. I’m not saying I am perfect. I, like everyone else, held some problematic views because I didn’t know any better at the time. I still make mistakes today, as we all inevitably do, saying things I don’t necessarily mean because they made sense in my head. I was never actively seeking social change. I never thought I would become interested in politics. I didn’t expect that my views would shift so drastically as I came to better understand exactly why something problematic bothered me. That all just sort of happened.
It was the end of August 2010. I was 22-years-old and had moved away from home for the first time to finish my college degree. Up until that point, I had been working in retail and struggling through community college while living at home, taking a bunch of general education classes that had absolutely nothing to do with my intended major. When I went away for college I found myself in a new state, hours away from home. I had roommates and an off campus apartment. These were huge changes.
The first class I ever attended at my new school was called Feminist Reading of Culture. I signed up for the course not because I was interested in feminism; like others, I was initially turned off by the movement due to misconceptions about what being a feminist actually meant. I chose that course because it was one of the few English courses still open at the time. I was a little nervous going to that class. This was my first big test. It would determine whether or not I was really cut out for higher education, because at the time I was still unsure if I could really handle it.
The professor walked in and asked us to put our desks in a circle. The next fourteen weeks were sort of like a wake-up call, as though the knowledge had always been there but the light was turned off. Here are the hard truths about rape culture. Here’s why you feel so troubled by stereotypical views on gender and femininity. Here’s an introduction to body-shaming. Here’s how society thinks about race. It was like I was being introduced to everything that I didn’t know I already knew, but lacked the understanding of how to connect the dots. I needed someone else to show me how.
From then on, there was no turning back. I don’t think it was going away to school that necessarily changed me, but that class. Some changes occurred overnight. I started focusing more on Gender Studies, and I paid attention to politics. I would often slip into a rant about sexism over dinner with my friends.
Other changes happened slowly. One night, roughly eight months after I started at my college, I was being harassed by a group of my roommate’s boyfriend’s friends. They were repeatedly asking me to show them my tits, and had been doing so for a while. Originally I had smiled and brushed it off, politely declining their request because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. I didn’t want to come off as a bitch, and these were guys that I’d have to see again. I didn’t want to provoke them. Eventually the asking turned to pleading on bended knee, as one of the guys took my hand as though trying to propose to me. At that point I realized how many times I’d said no, and all my responses were being ignored. It occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to put up with their harassment, because I was not in the wrong. The curiosity over my tits did not mean that every guy I came in contact with had a right to them, because they did not own them. And if they were ignoring my polite decline without relenting, how far were they willing to take it?
Previously I might have stuck around despite feeling uncomfortable, because I thought I had to. Instead, I declared that I wasn’t going to sit there and be sexually harassed. They didn’t like that answer, so I told them to fuck off and locked myself in my room, where they continued to harass me through my locked door.
I would not have been able to walk away before, because before I had assumed that being a woman meant that I had to put up with some sexual harassment every once in a while.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore says, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” I’ve found this to be true in a lot of ways, but not so much in others. When calling out someone you dislike for making an inappropriate comment – be it sexist, racist, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, homophobic, transphobic, or anything else – you expect the response to be negative, so you don’t particularly care. It’s easy not to care when someone you dislike calls you a bitch for speaking your mind and not putting up with their patriarchal bullshit. In my experience, standing up to my friends is easier, as they are usually willing to listen, even if they don’t agree with your opinion. It’s somewhat simple in that way. You get to pick your friends, and most of the time they think similarly to you. I’m not afraid of alienating them with my feminist rants. But I can’t say the same thing about my family.
Where do you draw the line? Do you bring up every seemingly offhand comment that a family member makes about a woman’s outward appearance when it starts to make you uncomfortable? Do you devote your energy to convincing your brother that you’re not exaggerating the extent of rape culture and street harassment, even though you know repeatedly having the same argument frustrates him? When do you bite your tongue in the hopes of not alienating your family members that otherwise you love and get along with, and when do you speak up, even though you know your words will inevitably lead to an argument that you will be blamed for? Do you correct your twelve-year-old stepbrother every time he makes a sexist or racist comment because he does not yet understand why it’s wrong?
But there is no taking off the Social Justice hat once you put it on. There’s no on/off switch; once your eyes are opened, you cannot close them again and pretend these things are not happening. I certainly don’t, even when I can’t or choose not to say anything. I can’t go into Target without noticing that the shelves holding the girls toys are pink, and I certainly can’t remain silent every time someone in my family makes an inadvertently offensive comment. And I don’t care particularly care about angering my enemies or my friends when I think they’re wrong, because to me, the risk is worth it. I have yet to determine whether or not it’s worth it to speak up and correct my family members every time I notice something problematic. I cannot decide when it’s okay to say something and when it’s not, when my time with my family is already so limited.
The thing is, though, I do care. And if it means that I’m going to piss off my family sometimes, then so be it.