The Uncomfortable Ride Into Feminism
It was more than a year after I separated from my ex-husband, when I began to see the impact of misogyny in my life. Ways that it held be back, squeezed me, silenced me. At first I felt very victimized, like there was no end to the carelessness, if not malevolence, of men.
I considered the story of Adam and Eve. If God loved Eve, why was this culture-defining story told in that way? The story that set women up to be subjugated to the role of poor-decision-maker, temptress and helpmeet.
If that was true, then God must be a misogynist. Thankfully, I also figured out that the most important place God exists is within me, and THAT misogynyst God wasn’t in me. I concluded that whoever was responsible for retelling/recording/translating such ancient stories must have screwed that one up almost immediately as it happened. If there was a snake in the garden…maybe it beguiled Adam into thinking that Eve was the problem.
But then my search for misogyny that began as an external witch hunt (warlock hunt?), quickly turned internal. I started to notice how misogyny lived IN ME. I found it in my beliefs about my role as a mother, romantic partner, and female in the workplace—I found that seriously limited me.
I realized I have been swimming in misogyny my entire life. I found it in my family culture, my religion, my workplace. I even saw the ways I enforced misogyny on other women. And, you know how I began to see it? Discomfort. Little discomforts in my day to day life, like these:
- My need to be liked by my coworkers bumping into my desire to have a voice in my career and to dictate how I spend the precious hours of my day.
- Taking off the mantle of being “easy going.” Screw that. I’m not easy going. I’m like every other human on this plant—there are things I care deeply about and things I don’t. Easy going asks you to put down everything you care deeply about or hide it from the view of others. Easy going is not a personality trait, it’s a burial ground.
- Feeling like I have to choose between the romantic relationship/family goal and the goal of becoming as expansive as I can in my creative and professional life.
- Trying to balance the feelings of men in my life (men who are not stakeholders, mind you!) with what I feel internally compelled to do to raise my son.
- Care-taking the feelings of others. Let no one, particularly a man, feel any pain at my hands! This is also ridiculous and an incredible amount of work. I have to regularly remind myself I am allowed to take up space in the world. That means sometimes I’ll bump into someone or step on their toes. I am not a Milford man (any Arrested Development fans out there?…anybody?).
Before all the GI distress of the midlife-crisis/breakdown/spiritual-awakening, I would have handled those discomforts by watching TV, keeping overly busy, eating dessert, having a drink, exercising, or better yet—gossiping about it with a friend to get confirmation that my judgment was correct and absolute, thereby obliterating any cognitive dissonance.
But now, as my midlife-crisis/breakdown/spiritual-awakening has taught me, I am capable of tolerating a brutal amount of discomfort. Actually, that’s kind of what triggered this whole thing.
I realized that comfort, for me, was dangerous. Comfort was emotional abuse. Comfort was a sense of self based on pleasing others. Comfort was silence. Comfort was conformity.
Comfort is what set me up for a decade of telling my inner voice to shut the fuck up. Let’s be honest, that’s how I might say it now, but back then, it would have been an utterance without words. An icy glance pushing my inner voice into a tight box under lock and key.
Comfort is the problem. So I set about being uncomfortable. I challenged my lifelong religious beliefs. I challenged my ideas about what makes a “good” mother (hint—not a life of servitude and self-effacement). I challenged the doctrine around all of my roles: daughter, sister, friend, lover, even daughter of God.
And I sat with that discomfort. Sat is probably the wrong word. I wrestled with that discomfort. I let it live in my house and I fought with it, slept with it, ate with it, walked with it. I came to know it. To name it. Disappointment. Fear. Mortification. Rage. Envy. Jealousy. Inferiority.
Heartbreak—that one was intense.
We throw that word around too often. For me it became specific, a sensation of the gaping hole in my chest. Something used to occupy that hole. I thing it was the illusion of security. Heartbreak brought my to my knees—literally. I sobbed with my face on the floor because there was nowhere else to spill my pain. I wondered if my upstairs neighbor could hear me. I wondered every time he asked how I was…like, no—how are you REALLY? Because you look okay now but that didn’t sound okay last night….
I’m not explaining this to make a dramatic story. I’m explaining it because I had to allow the discomfort in order to name it, to understand it—most of all to stop FEARING it. I had to show myself I was capable of feeling all of my feelings. Especially, the darkest and most terrifying.
This didn’t mean that my life was pure darkness. I practiced leaning into all of it. All the positive emotions too. I made a practice of dancing in my kitchen. Walking around my neighborhood at night singing, letting my song drift into the open windows of my neighbors’ houses. Laying in the sun, looking up at the leaves. Tasting my breakfast, that first sip of coffee. I fought to be awake to all life was presenting. Sleepless nights. Loud concerts. Sandy feet. The smell of dark mornings wet with dew and tears. The feeling of R’s hair and legs and feet and cheeks. The feeling of true kindness and laughing. Awake.
Awake to the cramped box I was living in previously. Whew! And the colors are brighter and the noises are louder out here, but I feel free. Free! The God that lives inside of me loves to see me free.
Not Not Racist
A few weeks back, I spent an entire Saturday sitting on my couch recovering from a gastrointestinal disaster that occurred in the pre-dawn hours.
[Someday I may do an ethnographic study on the fascinating physiological effects of midlife-crisis/breakdown/spiritual-awakening on the body. GI distress will probably need a whole chapter.]
I watched and read and listened to everything I could take in pertaining to the upheaval following George Floyd’s death. I read the long list of names, the Black Americans who had been killed by police. I heard the pleas of Black Americans for social justice. “Just please stop killing us! Like at minimum. That can’t be too much to ask.”
None of this information was new, as I am now aware. And people have been shouting it at unconscious America for decades.
I made a decision to stop watching or listening to the news a few years back. It’s a privileged position to assume important events in the world should go on without one’s notice. But, in another life, I was exposed to so much conservative talk radio that I now have a visceral recoil to voices like Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck and Savage. And the argumentative nature of cable news feels disturbingly similar.
That Saturday felt different. I searched out information because I felt the pain of the moment reverberating through me. And I have some hope, that maybe others like me, just enough of us, have become slightly more conscious, slightly more awake and have slightly more space to hold this conversation. For this heart work and to make some meaningful change.
Months ago I heard a few podcasts on the topic of racism. Rachel Cargle’s (@rachel.cargle please click through–it opens in a new tab) was the most impactful for me. She was addressing white feminists directly. She spoke about impact versus intention. That if you step on someones foot, you still apologize, even though it was not your intention to harm them. You acknowledge that even with your best intention, you still created a negative impact for that person.
She pointed out the parallels between women’s experience of misogyny and people of color’s experience of racism. It gave me a way into understanding racism that really clicked.
I thought of her words when I was talking to my contractor. The crawl space under my house is very shallow, and I told him that during the inspection process a “small, Asian plumber” had been able to get under there and said he could do work for me in that space if needed. My contractor, a sizable, middle-aged man, looked at me and said, “I’m half Asian.” I was uncomfortable because I knew exactly what he meant. I saw how ridiculous it was for me to bring race into this discussion of size (all 125 pounds of me).
I went home and thought about it. I didn’t push away the discomfort, I let it work on me. And I learned about a racist blindspot in me. I vowed to do better.
It made a big enough impact on me that I shared this experience with a few people. And I got some push back. Some people disagreed, That is not racist. What if someone described you as a white woman? That would be accurate. It’s not racist.
Yes, I replied. But I was perpetuating a stereotype and a completely irrelevant one. (Underscored by the size difference between my half-Asian contractor and fully white me—who’s the small one here?!?)
As Ibram X. Kendi (@ibramxk please click through) explains, not racist is not a thing. We are all racist because we have been swimming in racism our entire lives. It’s in the fabric of our culture and our nation.
Again, let’s go back to the NEXT story after Adam and Eve. What is wrong about the telling of the story of Cain and Abel? Maybe the serpent was in that garden too, whispering that what made Cain a murderer was the color of his skin (my confusing of the order of events is intentional here). If Cain was a murderer, fine—but the way that story was told has perpetuated a myth of racial superiority since almost the beginning of humanity. How can we claim exemption from that kind of influence?
I started to notice more racism coming from me, little thoughts, comments. I got curious about it. I didn’t condemn myself. I just let it make me uncomfortable and I didn’t push the discomfort away.
It felt timely that this came up after all the thinking I did for my last post about being the bad guy. This is exactly what I was writing about. We all have light and shadow. There is no shame in that. The malignancy occurs when it is ignored or we actively denying its existence.
The Danger of Silence
When I was in 10th grade social studies, my teacher liked to type up quotes from students and post them on the walls of his classroom. I remember this because, I had a quote on the wall, and while I did say it, I was sure I wasn’t the first person to say it. But there it was on a red sheet of paper:
“Silence is acceptance.” –Michelle Whipple.
I think we were learning about the holocaust at the time. Trying to wrap our minds around how such atrocities could occur. How a nation of people could sign off on genocide. And I got it on some 15-year-old, middle-class, white, American level. Atrocities happen when people silence that little voice inside them that says, That’s wrong. I got it in my head, but it took many years to get it in my heart.
Once, someone I really cared about accused me of being manipulative. I was defensive at first (and probably second and third). But I have developed this practice of sitting with the uncomfortable, so eventually I got around to asking myself how that was true. I looked back over my life and realized that the manner in which I most often manipulate is silence. Better to be quiet than to be wrong or ugly or inarticulate.
And that’s how I lived in my marriage. I was patient. I was quiet. And I manipulated the relationship. It was dishonest. I was doing my best and I’m not beating myself up for this at this point, but I like to use jarring words like manipulative and dishonest to remind myself that silence is not virtuous.
I think sometimes we get so caught up in the language of peace in Christianity—heck, even in yoga—that we can forget this. Peace and silence are not inherently virtuous. Rachel Cargle teaches about this constantly in her Saturday School posts. Here’s an example:
This leads me to where I am today with all of this.
I want to be a voice for liberation—whether that is in my writing here, the organizations I give money to, the work I do inside myself, inside my psychiatry practice, in my family, in my friendships, in my role as a mother. I want to liberate.
I do that by listening and being awake. Sitting with discomfort and allowing it to work within me. And then acting with integrity on what I learn.
As I sat on my couch a few weeks back, I listened. I felt the discomfort. I wondered what I could do. I knew what it felt like to sit on my couch at home, the intellectual white woman imagining herself on the right side of the civil rights movement, but actually doing nothing to live that. So I decided to listen more. I heard Black activists making specific requests of white women.
- Talk to your friends and family.
- Donate money.
- Attend protests.
- Use your circle of influence to perpetuate anti-racism.
- Use your microphone to amplify the voices of Black women.
For the first time in my life, I’ve taken some actual steps against racism. I feel like a baby in this process, and I’ve been hesitant to write about it because of that.
I attended a protest in Downtown San Diego. I made a sign. I walked. I chanted. I put myself between police and Black protestors to offer my white-femaleness as protection.
It was incredibly uncomfortable.
For one, Whipple’s are not the kind of people to do public demonstrations of any kind, so this went against my family culture. I also had no idea what I was doing logistically. I went alone. I knew no one there. I had never attended a protest, so I wasn’t sure what to do with my body or my voice.
I got nervous when the police were doing a show of force sending 20 cards down Broadway with lights and sirens. They had just burned buildings in La Mesa the night before and I realized I was on a block where the only people around were four Black men. Fear spoke up in my head, “What are you doing here, Michelle? You don’t have to be here.” I checked in with my gut and pressed forward. I knew the only way I could do it was in my full awkwardness.
I learned a lot from this experience. I didn’t stay for the rubber bullets or the tear gas, but I did hear some passionate speeches from Black people in my community. I felt the catharsis of that event. Something, like racism, that feels so large and impossible to change—it felt good to go DO something with my body and my voice. To hear the actual words coming out of my mouth like, Black lives matter and No justice—no peace.
I felt uncomfortable when they chanted “Black power.” I got curious about the discomfort. I wondered if I was at a feminist demonstration, would I feel the same discomfort if they were chanting “Woman power”? NO. And I realized that this is the essence of liberation. It’s not about power over. It’s about personal power. We each have an intense and beautiful power in us. There is power in womanhood and there is power in Blackness. Good grief, Michelle. Let them have their power. It will not diminish yours.
And that’s the very essence of this conversation. None of us are free until we are all free.
My most recent binge-watch was Little Fires Everywhere on Hulu—highly recommended! In the final scene of that series, Mia explains that we cannot see the door, the way out, until we first see the cage. Here is her poem:
I thought I wanted to be made of fairytale endings, Where I’d never know what was real or a dream. So I dreamt that I belonged to you, Because I knew you’d keep me safe from big girl things Giant spiders, natural disasters, and unnatural ones too. I’ve never felt as safe as I have felt than in that cage with you. But when I started to wake up I saw those gilded bars around us And I couldn’t remember how it went in the dream... Was I the bird? Or was I the cage? Was I Myself? Or one of my mothers? Was I safe? Or was I suffocating? Because the bird is in a cage, and the cage is in a town, and the town is made of blinding white flour and beautiful lies. And maybe we can’t help the things we dream of anymore than we can help the stuff we’re made of. Or maybe we can, if we can finally see the lies, and the town, and the cage we’re inside of. We can see so many other things too. We can see the door, A way out, And we can fly away.
My request of myself, is to listen, especially to the stories that make me uncomfortable. And to let them work within me and teach me to walk with integrity.
Show me the bars so I see the door, a way out, and I can fly away.