I am a queer woman. I am not always unproblematic.
I am a middle socioeconomic status, white female college student who identifies as pansexual. I hold some privileges and lack others. The reason I’m writing my truth is that I want people to understand that just because you belong to an oppressed group doesn’t mean you never participate in that oppression. Black cops kill innocent black kids. Women argue against the rights of sex workers. Gay and lesbian folks are often transphobic. We’re all socialized in the same society, so not one of us is immune to the biases that are ingrained in our culture. That’s why it’s impossible and pointless to call someone racist or not racist, sexist or not sexist, homophobic or not homophobic. We all have the capabilities to think in oppressive ways, even towards ourselves; however, what matters is that you learn to stop this thinking before it starts and actively resist oppression.
I learned from the brilliant Beverly Tatum that most people are either actively or passively racist. To most, passively racist people would not be considered racists because they don’t wield tiki torches or publicly harass people of color—but this is not the case. Passively racist people consist of a majority of the population, and this mindset includes behaviors such as laughing at racist jokes, locking car doors as a person of color passes outside, not trusting people of color in high-up positions and not dating people of color. Passively racist people may have POC friends, may have voted for Obama, and do anything they can to not be seen as racist. But it’s not that simple.
I used to be passively racist as well, and I didn’t see a problem. I was internalizing all of the things society told me about people of color, but I wasn’t directly harming anyone, right? It took me getting to college to realize that you can be racist without realizing that it’s not simply a matter of racist or not racist, and that to really not be racist, you must be anti-racist. You must work actively every single day to address your implicit biases and work against what society tells you about people of color. This can be incredibly challenging. Most people, especially liberals, would never consider themselves to be racist or have racist tendencies, and that’s a huge problem. Unless you live in a different country that was never colonized and doesn’t operate under white supremacy, you have racist tendencies and you must do all you can to stop them. This includes educating yourself on racial oppression, reading the works of POC, unpacking your implicit biases and noticing every time you fall into them, listening to the experiences of POC, joining the movement for equality as an active participant in fundraising, marching, advocating and taking any comments of how you’re problematic seriously and changing yourself accordingly. It is a tough process, but it is necessary if we will ever build a formative enough nation to ensure equal rights for everyone.
The fight continues on all fronts, and I’m writing this post to admit that, although I am a progressive social justice activist, I still make mistakes. I still internalize my own oppression. I only recently recognized the oppressive thoughts I’ve had about women and queer folks, which is bizarre considering I identify as both. But that’s how oppression works. It’s sneaky. I only recently decided to openly talk about my sexuality, and still am struggling to be more open about it.
Why am I scared to come out about being queer? Because I’m scared of the stigma. Being pansexual in a hetero relationship, I’m someone no one really would consider queer. They either think I’m confused or experimenting; I’m not gay enough to be included in queer spaces, but I’m not straight enough to feel comfortable in straight spaces. It’s a weird feeling. There’s a lot of discrimination within the queer community. Biphobia is a huge issue. I saw a meme that said if a man is bisexual they consider him actually gay and if a woman is bisexual they consider her straight but confused, because no one can accept a sexuality that doesn’t revolve around men—and that really stuck with me. I’m nervous to be open about my sexuality because people have only seen me with men, and I fear they’ll think I’ve been hiding something or I’m actually just straight.
Just because I’m in a hetero relationship doesn’t mean I’m not queer. I feel like I have to somehow prove my queerness, like post a photo kissing a woman, just so people get it through their heads that queer people come in all shapes and sizes, and, yes, you can know someone your whole life and never know they’re queer. I am learning to be less problematic. I’ve always secretly and silently felt some discomfort towards masculine lesbians and trans women and I’m unpacking why that is. I believe it’s due to my underlying lifelong fear that I would be stigmatized as severely as they are. I resent their confidence despite their oppression. Deep down I sometimes want to dress more masculine, but I fear being categorized as a masculine lesbian—even though I know this isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. The bias comes from the messages I’ve been exposed to: women should be feminine. But I know this isn’t true, and I am working to stop believing this.
As a woman, I’ve messed up, too. I’ve judged women for being attention seeking, for the way they dress, for the way they talk and act and for embracing traditional gender roles. I’m a feminist, and I’ve still fallen into the pit of sexist thinking. This is what I mean when I say no one is immune. It’s how you handle it that matters. I’ve learned to question my automatic thoughts if they support oppression and get them out of my head. I’ve learned that there are many people in these communities who support their own oppression and unknowingly do great harm to themselves. Unlearning what society tells you is a process, but we all need to start now. Learn how you can be less problematic, wherever you do and don’t hold privilege. Just because you don’t hold privilege in an area doesn’t mean you’re not problematic at times! All oppressions are interconnected, so we must address all our biases against all groups of people (including non-humans).
I know how exhausting and defeating living under this system is, but we must take personal responsibility to do the work to take this system down. You will make mistakes, but if you take all feedback from others to heart and improve, you will be helping create a more equitable world. Don’t be afraid to admit you’ve been problematic; this is a lot more genuine and helpful than denying it. Sitting on the sidelines and staying silent won’t do anything for social justice—use your various privileges to amplify the voices of oppressed folks and actively join their efforts. I’m proud to finally embrace another aspect of my identity and I will continue learning about systems of oppression and becoming a better activist every step of the way. It’s not a matter of being problematic or not; as humans, we all are at times. It’s a matter of making amends for any harm you may have caused, learning better, doing better and doing your absolute best to be the least problematic you can be. As an activist, that’s all I demand, and I hope you demand that from yourself, your peers and your communities, as well. Let’s turn everyone from passive supporters of oppression into active advocates for social justice.
Author: Sarah Merrifield
Author Bio: Sarah Merrifield is finishing her college degree in Michigan, where she studies Fashion Merchandising and Spanish. She plans to pursue a career in animal rights activism post-graduation, where she can combine her knowledge of the fashion industry with her passion for ethics and sustainability to benefit humans, animals and the environment. She is an avid traveler, yoga instructor and reader, and has been writing poetry since she could write.
Link to website: https://laughinginloafs.wordpress.com/