Location: United States

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Organizing 101: Mixed-Race Feminists in Movements for Social Justice by Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

Organizing 101: Mixed-Race Feminists
in Movements for Social Justice*
By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

I have vivid memories of celebrating the holidays with my maternal grandparents. My Jido and Sito (“grandfather” and “grandmother”, respectively in Arabic), who were raised as Muslim Arabs, celebrated Christmas rather than Ramadan. Every year, my Sito set up her Christmas tree in front of a huge bay window in their living room. It was important to her that the neighbors could see the tree from the street. Yet on Christmas day Arabic was spoken in the house, Arabic music was played, Arabic food was served and a hot and heavy poker game was always the main activity. Early on, I learned that what is publicly communicated can be very different from what is privately experienced.

Because of the racism, harassment and ostracism that my Arab grandparents faced, they developed ways to assimilate (or appear to assimilate) into their predominantly white New Hampshire community. When my mother married my Jewish father and raised me with his religion, they hoped that by presenting me to the world as a while Jewish girl, I would escape the hate they had experienced. But it did not happen that way. Instead, it took me years to untangle and understand the public/private dichotomy that had been such a part of my childhood.

My parents’ mixed-class, mixed race and mixed religion relationship held its own set of complex contradictions and tensions. My father comes from a working-class, Ashkenazi Jewish family. My mother comes from an upper-middle class Lebanese family, in which—similar to other Arab families of her generation—women were not encouraged and only sometimes permitted to get an education. My mother has a high-school degree and no “marketable” job skills. When my father married her, he considered it an opportunity to marry into a higher class status. Her background as a Muslim Arab was something he essentially ignored except when it came to deciding what religious traditions my sister and I were going to b raised with. From my father’s perspective,, regardless of my mother’s religious and cultural background, my sister and I were Jews—and only Jews.

My mother, who to this day carries an intense mix of pride and shame about being Arab, was eager to “marry out” of her Arabness. She thought that by marring a white Jew, particularly in a predominantly white New Hampshire town, that she would somehow be able to escape or minimize the ongoing racism her family faced. She converted to Judaism for this reason and also because she fat that “eliminating: Arabness and Islam from the equation would make my life and my sister’s life less complex. We could all say—her included—that we were Jews. Sexism and racism (and their internalized versions) played a significant part in shaping my parents’ relationship. My father was never made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because he had married a Muslim Arab woman. He used his white male privilege and his Zionistic point of view to solidify his legitimacy. He created the perception that he did my mother a favor by “marrying her out” of her Arabness and the strictness of her upbringing.

My mother, however, bore the brunt of other people’s prejudices. Her struggle for acceptance and refuge was especially evident in her relationship with my father’s family, who never fully accepted her. It did not matter that she converted to Judaism, what active in Hadassah or know all of the rituals involved in preparing a Passover meal. She was frequently made to feel that she was never quite Jewish enough. My Jewish grandmother was particularly critical of my mother and communicated in subtle and no so subtle ways that she tolerated my mother’s presence because she loved her son. In turn, I felt as if there was something wrong with me and that the love that I received from my father’s family was conditional. Many years later this was proven to be true: when my parents divorce, every member of my father’s family cut off communication from my mother, my sister and me. Racism and Zionism played a significant (but not exclusive) role in their choice. My father’s family (with the exception of my Jewish grandfather, who died in the early seventies) had always been uncomfortable that my father had married an Arab woman. The divorce gave them a way out of examining their own racism and Zionism.

Today my mother realizes that her notions about marring into whiteness and into a community that would somehow gain her greater acceptance was, to say the least, misguided. She romanticized her relationship with my father as a “symbol of peace” between Jews and Arabs, and she underestimated the impact of two very real issues; racism within the white Jewish community and the strength of anti-Semitism toward the Jewish community. At the time she did not understand that her own struggle against racism and anti-Arab sentiment was both linked to and different than Anti-Semitism.

For me the process of grieving the loss of the Jewish side of my family after the divorce led me to realize that their choice was a painful recognition and rejection of my mother and ultimately our Arabness. I needed to figure out how not to reject my Jewishness, while at the same time learning how to embrace my Arabness on my own terms rather than on those of the adults around me. Today I don’t consider myself to be “less” of an Arab because I did not grown up with a direct and explicit understanding of myself as one. I also no not consider myself to be “less” of a Jew because I am half Arab. I consider myself a woman who is working to understand how spoken and unspoken messages have shaped my experiences and political perspective.

Making the Connections:

My understanding of injustice started with a series of visceral reactions. As a child I remember feeling a pit in my stomach when I sat in temple listening to stories about the Holocaust or when my mother and her siblings used to talk about being beat up on school because of their “funny” names and hair. I later experienced that same reaction in high school when I learned about slavery in the United States and then again in college, when I took my first women’s studies class and began to understand the impact of heterosexism on my life and the lives of all women. Despite these reactions, however, I did not have the language to articulate whey these feelings were so personal to me until I started exploring feminism. Feminism awakened by commitment to fighting injustice. Feminism challenged me to see how deeply I had internalized my own assimilation. Feminism taught me that one can experience privilege and oppression simultaneously and that using my white privilege to try and hide my Arabness was not a honest way to live in the world, nor did it guarantee me safety—after all, being Jewish provides no refuge in an anti-Semitic culture.

Audre Lorde’s book Sister Outsider provided me with a feminist framework for understanding the interconnectedness of oppression and my own identity as a Jewish/Arab-American, mixed race, mixed class, lesbian feminist. This book made a particular impact on me because Lorde was making visible and political her perspective as a woman with multiple identities. Before reading this book, I did not understand that my power and my commitment to fighting oppression lay in finding those places where my experiences of privilege and oppression seem to be at odds with one another. Lorde’s work and life taught me that I must not be afraid to go to those complex and “messy” places to understand myself, the history of my people, and to learn how to use my identities in a clear and subversive way. Reading Sister Outsider was just the first step in helping me to see that this was possible. Figuring out the strategies and politics involved in how to do this at the intersections of my own identities has been and will continue to be a lifelong process.

Although feminism has shaped my personal and political perspective, it ahs also been a sharp double-edged sword in my work as an organizer. Time and again I have experience being in a “feminist space” where I have been asked or forced to check my full self at the door-my Arabic words, my lesbian ideas or my Jewish experience. This, to me, is not feminism. I now focus on understanding the interconnectedness of my own identities and the role the oppression and privilege play in my lie and work as an antiracism activist. This as been particularly difficult because many on the “left” uphold the mythology that since we work against the “evils of the world,” we are somehow free of racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, ableism, and adultism (the institutional power adults have to oppress and silence young people). After years of antioppression training and organizing work, however, I now know that many “progressive” people and organizations are just as invested in either/or dichotomous thinking and in perpetuating oppression in the world.

Six years ago I attending a conference in Boston entitled “Race and Racism in the Nineties”. I participated in a workshop about women, spirituality and antioppression work. During the workshop the facilitators, a while woman and an African-American Woman, divided the group into two caucuses: a while caucus and a women of color caucus. Before breaking up the group, I raised my hand and asked where mixed-race people were to go. This question opened up a flood of questions and challenges towards me. The while women in the room, including the white facilitator, said they felt I should caucus with them because I could pass for while. Most of the women of color concurred with this. I recall feeling confused and vulnerable because I did not anticipate what I would be opening up by calling attention to the dualism that was at play. I also felt angry and hurt because I felt that the women in the room responded to me based on my light skin rather that on my experiences or the politics of what I was trying to raise. The discussion proceeded with the facilitators spending ten minutes talking to the group about the privileges of being able to choose—as if I were not in the room. The level of tension in the room was palpable. Bodies stiffened and voiced raised a notch.

I was frustrated with myself because I did not know how to handle the “logistic” of putting complex racial issues out in a group in a way that clearly demonstrated in world and deed that I was taking responsibility for my privilege while simultaneously taking an uncompromising stand against white supremacy. Although I had Audre Lorde’s words floating around in my mind, I had not yet learned how to apply her teachings to my own experience. Finally, the groups resolved that I could “choose” where to go. The feeling in the room was that the situation had been resolved. But it was not resolved for me. I felt alone. I felt that regardless of where I chose to go, it would be the wrong choice. I felt like the illegitimate bastard child that no one wanted or knew what to do with. Many of the women of color were angry with me. Many of the white women felt as if they had made an “antiracist” intervention by challenging me on my racism. Still as the group broke up in two, I made a choice and walked toward the room that the women of color were to meet in. As I approached the door, it quickly slammed in my face.

On this day “feminism” was extremely painful for all of us in the workshop. Everyone was angry and upset because I did not neatly fit into either the white or the colored framework. No one, including myself, knew hoe to grapple with the complexity in a constructive3 way. I struggled to articulate that taking responsibility for my white privilege did not mean I was “admitting” to being white. It meant I was recognizing my privilege and trying to establish my accountability. But in this case this difference and its complexity were not honored; they were not seen as something necessary to explore. It was also a hurtful experience because I had hoped that I could turn to other women, especially activists, to mentor and challenge me around how to bring my whole self to my work as an organizer. I learned that receiving that kind of support depended on two things: getting clarity about how my experiences of oppression and privilege overlap and challenging my own assumption that all women activists were automatically going to approach their work with an antioppression analysis.

Resisting Classic Scripts

In talking with other mixed-race activist about their experiences, I have discovered that this is a classic script. This is how racism and internalized racism are often directed toward mixed people. In many activist circles it has become easier to delegitimize and shut us out, rather than to take on the challenge and opportunity that mixed-race people with antioppression politics can present. Our multiple perspectives and commitment to challenging oppression can deepen the discussions about and sharpen our tools for challenging white supremacy.

Yet the presence and voices of mixed-race people are often deeply feared. We are feared because interracial relationships are still taboo in our culture. We are feared because our mere existence calls into question the status quo and the way that race is constructed in our society. We are feared even by people on the “left” who propose to be working to challenge these deeply rooted believes and constructs. We live in a white supremacist culture that banks on dichotomous thinking to keep people divided and fragmented within themselves. Those of us who do not fit into either/or boxes therefore experience an enormous amount of pressure to choose one “side” of ourselves over another. We are not considered whole just as we are. We are taught that these are dualisms: Jewish/Arab, public/private, visible/invisible, Black/white, privilege/oppression, pride/shame. But these are false separations that don’t exist. They are imposed, My struggle and that of other mixed-race people is to not internalize these dualisms and become paralyzed by a society that rejects our complexity in the name of keeping things simple and easy to categorize.

I have learned many lessons about how important it is to be accountable to those that experience oppression in ways that I do not. Being accountable does not mean that I allow my legitimacy to be freely debated by individuals or groups. From my perspective the question of who is a legitimate person of color (based on their skin color) is misguided. Rather, what is important to me is how individuals and groups use their privileges to challenge oppression. This means that were I experience oppression, I resist it alongside those who experience that same oppression. Where I experience privilege, I stand in solidarity with those whose lives are being impacted by challenging others who benefit from that same privilege.

Maintaining my accountability is not a choice, but it is certainly fluid. Each situation that I am in calls me to access myself in relation to the time, place and company. For example, when I am with a group of darker-skinned people of color, I am very conscious of my privilege and actively take steps to acknowledge it. When I am in the company of white people, I am conscious of my privilege in a different way. I am prepared to challenge the assumption that my light skin makes me an ally in perpetuating racism.

I have come to define accountability in a complex way, one that both takes into account and challenges identity politics. Identity politics have given me the opportunity to define and claim myself as a complex and whole person and to build community with those who share common experience in the struggle for justice. Yet, identity politics, when narrowly defined and used as a tool to divide, have made my ability to maintain accountability a treacherous experience. I often feel pressure to choose one community over another, one part of myself over another. As mixed-race people with multiple identities, this pressure to choose can cut deeply and painfully into our souls. More often than not, I find identity politics to be defined narrowly in progressive circles. This can limit our work to build coalitions and solidarity across communities and movements because this leads us to simply replicate all that we want to eradicate in the worlds.

For personal and political reasons this essay on feminism covers racism and other forms of oppression. I have had to make sense of and develop tools for challenging why I, as a mixed-race, mixed class, Jewish/Arab-American lesbian, have been shut out of so many “feminist” spaces. Developing and practicing antioppression politics is not just about my own survival, it is about creating a feminist movement that speaks to and represents the experiences of all women. I refuse to be shut out and I refuse to allow other women who do not fit into the mainstream feminist movement to be shut out. Being an antiracist activist is the best way I know how to honor my mother’s experience, to honor my own identities and to honor women, such as Audre Lorde, who paved the way before me to work for justice.

* This piece originally appeared in the anthology Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism,edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman (Seal Press, 2003). Many thanks to Lisbeth Melendez, Cynthia Newcomer, Randi Kristensen, Ana Lara and Stephanie Morgan for their support, feedback and excellent editing skills.


Blogger datingstips said...

Interracial couples must take affirmative steps to make it work because they are merging two totally different cultures. I don’t care what color marries what, so long as they are truly informed about what they are getting into.

2:17 AM  

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