Why "Feminist" and not "Egalitarian"? Why Can't We Be Colorblind?
Feminism, in the broadest sense, is generally defined as "a movement geared towards equality of the sexes." Yeah, so if we're trying to be equal, why are we emphasizing women with the word "femme" in the name of such a movement? Shouldn't it be "equalpeople-ism" or "allpeople-ism" or "respecteveryone-ism" or "everyonematters-ology"? This doesn't seem right.
Well, let's start with a crude analogy, shall we?
Let's have two kids who are trying to jump as high as they can to grab some apples off of a tree. One of them happens to find it easier because they have a convenient five inch high platform. The other kid, however, is stuck in a bit of a trench that's about five inches deep. The second kid is clearly not catching as many apples as the first kid.
What exactly do you do to balance this out?
Well, you could try to give the second kid a platform to stand on as well, or you could have the first kid hop down from their platform, or you could redistribute the apples.
But you can't just stand back and say "Keep on jumping. Just jump at the same time. Jump the same height. That should do it." For every one apple that the second kid grabs, the first kid has gotten at least one or two more.
What does this say about the first kid? It's not that he's terrible at catching apples. But obviously, the platform makes things a little easier for them. As for the second kid, however, they have to work twice as hard to jump out of the trench. Whether you want to or not, you can't pretend the trench doesn't exist. You can't solve the problem by just saying "Try harder", because the platform kid is five inches off the ground and trench kid is five inches below ground, so instead of jumping only seven inches, trench kid has to jump at least seventeen inches.
You could try giving trench kid a boost. Well, you don't want to be unfair, so you give the same boost to platform kid. Now both of them are wearing shoes with bouncy springs on them. But wait; they still have the same exact height difference. Platform kid still has his platform. He's still getting way more than trench kid, even if the shoes improved things ever so slightly.
And hey, maybe platform kid does have problems that are stopping him from grabbing even more apples. Maybe one of his ankles is weak. Maybe he can only reach out and grab stuff with his left hand. But either way, he has an advantage over the trench kid.
(This analogy is, naturally, the crudest and most reductive examples you could ever come up with...its accuracy varies from minority to minority, give or take a few genocides, apartheid movements, or microaggressions.)
In essence, the reason that feminism is used instead of the term egalitarian is because of this. Yeah, we want to work towards equality. But we can't just hand out the same boosts to everyone. Somehow, we have to bring down or raise the power levels. You have to adjust the ways things are, not just add on.
So how do we apply this weird apple to oranges analogy to the real world?
Well, let's say that platform kid represents more privileged people, trench kid represents people who belong to a certain minority and the apples are important job positions, representation, education, and financial opportunities.
When you give out boosts, as we demonstrate, you don't need to give out the same exact ones to platform kid. Okay, maybe platform kid's broken ankle could use a crutch or a plaster. But he doesn't need the bouncing shoes. As for trench kid, however, he needs a lot more help to get those apples. Maybe, instead of letting platform kid shake down the entire tree and take all the apples, some of the apples should be reserved for him.
"It's not fair," platform kid whines. "Why should those apples go to him only? Isn't that just reverse discrimination?"
Well, no. As we said, trench kid simply doesn't have any other way of getting to those apples before platform kid can. Platform kid already has so many apples. He can afford not to have them, but trench kid doesn't really have many apples in the first place.
Much as we aren't crazy about affirmative action and reserving certain spots in schools and jobs for minorities, it's unfortunate but there are already so many few people of color with such jobs. You're not equalizing things by leaving everything at open opportunity - you're just pretending the platform and the trench don't exist. You will actually have to go in and increase the amount of minorities in order to change the ratio of employees who are white to those who are people of color.
This is not to say that white people do not ever face problems when seeking out opportunities. Remember what I said earlier about platform kid's broken leg. There are most definitely white people who belong to certain sexual minorities, have a physical or mental disability, grew up in poverty, or faced other issues that could have made it harder for them to get a job. But ultimately, because they are white, they are still preferable to hire to employees than say people of color who belong to sexual minorities, have a mental or physical disability, or grew up in poverty.
And yeah, you can have open opportunity employment, but face it. You're clearly not going to hire a homeless woman over a person with a resume. How many men do you know with law degrees from an Ivy League school? Probably a good amount. How about women? Well...women are not encouraged to go into law, and besides, not everyone can afford Ivy League. Even if you are equalist and open minded, in the end you'll have to hire more men than women. Did you play favorites? No. Is this how things should be, though? Is this really the best possible outcome?
Some people claim that the solution to systemic racism is acting "colorblind" - treating people of all different skin colors the same way, claiming not to see race. While yes, you should definitely treat people of all skin colors with the same amount of respect as you would an equal, again, pretending the platforms and trenches don't exist is not helping. It's bad enough if either your white friend or dark-skinned friend is sent to jail, but it's probably even worse for your dark-skinned friend, who is more likely to be discriminated against and to experience violence on the part of the police.
It is bad enough to see the image of a police officer shooting a college student, but the image becomes especially horrifying when you notice that college student is a black woman. To white people, this may just be "Oh great, another incident. Not all police officers are bad, you know." To the black community, this is a sign that the system that is supposed to ensure justice is not on their side. Years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Reparation and the election of the first black American president, their rights are still being violated and their personhood completely disregarded. They haven't seen this image just once or twice and recognized it as a coincidence. They have seen it multiple times, every year, to know that it is not a coincidence. Much as white people would like to brush off racism and slavery behind them and wail about why black people keep on clinging to a long gone past, none of those horrible nightmares are really over. Whether poor or middle class or well to do, the fact that a woman has darker skin will always have an effect on her surroundings, and likely make her a target for such violence. You heard about Ferguson, Baton Rouge, men and women and children who have all gone through it. One or two victims becomes an unmistakable pattern that will continue until someone actually gives a damn about it.
Now you could play devil's advocate and ask, does every white person have a glorious wonderful life free of negative attention while all people of color live horrible lives in poverty? Statistically, no. But that doesn't mean that a well-off woman of color feels safe walking down the streets at night, or that just because she has enough to pay rent that she is being paid the same amount as, say, her male coworker. Just because you've never seen your boss cuss out your black coworker with the N-word doesn't mean that sexism is over, everything is equal, and racism is eradicated. Yes, we are aware of the fact that female scientists and black lawyers and gay doctors exist because of the occasional anecdote about a super-empowering minority pushing the glass ceiling. But the fact that we have to scramble to pull out these individual examples shows that, in themselves, they are unusual. You notice a black female doctor because the majority of doctors are not female or black. You notice a gay actor because as of yet, there are not many openly LGBT actors in the entertainment world. Oh yes, they exist, but there is clearly a smaller ratio of them to the remaining actors who are cisgender and heterosexual. You may think that the balance is already made because there is some progress, but that doesn't mean the ratio has gotten close to evening out, and while you can choose to ignore this problem, that will not solve it.
Now back to why context matters, especially when discussing whether this disparity exists and whether it was caused by the past. We teach people about the slave trade, about the Holocaust, about all our genocides and wars because we have the proof in black and white that we humans will repeat our mistakes if we don't learn from them. Maybe you don't want to go through another World War or re-experience the Dark Ages. Maybe you want to continue living with a family that is unscarred by violence, with a world that is not torn apart because of old political rifts, in a place where the air is clean and uncontaminated by nuclear weapons. That seems pretty fair and not too much to ask for.
Well, some people would like to be able to get jobs to pay their bills instead of being sent away after one look at their last names and skin color. Some people would like to be truly, truly freed from the bonds of the past by being able to send their children to college and afford a proper house for the first time. But well, they can't. Because we deported them, told them to find another landlord, asked them if their grandfathers were able to vote, demanded that they pay a poll tax, told them their qualifications alone were not enough to fit our image of a decent employee, and so on and so forth.
And we can't undo the damage by pretending it never happened, any more than we can wish away the US debt away by telling other countries "That was all in the past, dude. It's not like we're making any more risky investments - what do you say we drop it?" Just because we've been our own country for a while doesn't mean we're going to stop teaching our children about the Civil War and how we stood up for our independence. We're not going to start dropping Holocaust lessons from history curriculum and be like "Oh yeah there was one Hitler guy, real cray cray, that's all you need to know." We're not going to start building a skyscraper dedicated to Donald Trump on the Ground Zero left over from 9/11 if we can help it. So why are we going to just forget racism and slavery and act like they probably have no effect on our present day? We recognize the fact that America is one of the most successful countries in the world because it came out on top of other countries in World War Two. By the same logic, does it not make sense to recognize the fact that white men have far more success than people of color today because of how they enslaved them in an act of oppressive dominance in the past?
Now, yes, we know that, it is possible for the power dynamics of oppression may appear to reverse. Men who experience domestic abuse from women. White kids who come home after being mocked for their red hair and freckles. Yes, it's bad, and something should be done about it - male survivors deserve just as much support and attention as any other survivors, and no kid should have to endure harassment because of their appearance. But this problem wasn't caused because of the trenches and platforms. Misandry and white people discrimination are not systematic in the way that misogyny and colorism are. The majority of white, heterosexual men are not the ones who have to walk streets at night feeling afraid for their lives, endure sexual harassment from employers to avoid being fired, and pay for the simple "luxury" of having hygienic items. Men are not as likely to grow up surrounded by misandrists who force them to dress a certain way, consider them weak whenever they experience serious medical problems, believe they are not fit for the same job as another job applicant of the opposite sex, criticize them for both showing emotion and not showing emotion, and reduce them to sex objects. While those who do end up going through such experiences deserve just as much sympathy and care, we are aware that this is not a systematic problem. We don't have a past problem of killing red haired people, or a tradition of wizard trials, nor do we tend to mistake a male doctor for a nurse.
So no, misandry and white people discrimination are is not on the same scale of urgence as misogyny and prejudice against people of color. Despite our attempts to shake off the past and claim we have finally reached a modern, equal system where everyone can work hard and get what they deserve with absolutely no complications standing in their way, we aren't even close to there yet. Look at the news titles of those dead black teenagers again. The African American community already has a significant disadvantage because of how the government and law force, that are supposed to protect them, actually treat them. You may not be the one putting them down, but by choosing to ignore it, you are allowing this blatant form of inequality to continue. Whether you like it or not, you have to acknowledge these disparities in power in order to make some change and actually help people progress.
This is why we need movements to lift up specific minorities, and not just act colorblind and egalitarian. We have to focus specifically on black lives because they are the priority - while statistically, there will always be deaths in the world, there are too many people of color dying because of police violence for us to be able to solve the problem without tackling it specifically. We cannot just say "Well women, do your best...we're rooting for you" without taking into account the fact that they are going to need boosts that their male coworkers might not. And I'm not even talking about hygiene items, access to obstetricians, or pregnancy leave. It's the fact that, whether you like it or not, inequality has already taken effect and left women at a disadvantage to men - women still have societal pressures on them that are unfair, have been turned down by employers because of their gender, and are thus not in the same place as men in terms of success. And until balance is actually created, you're going to have to prioritize where you focus your financial resources and efforts onto.
So yeah. BlackLivesMatters is important. Feminism and not egalitarianism is the path to actual equality right now. One way or another, we either have to lift up trench kid or take away platform kid's platform in order to make them equal.
This may sound scary and possibly like some kind of communist/socialist uprising to you. What? You're going to take away power from white people to give it to minorities? Why? What will that be like? What do I have to lose?
May I remind you of what President Kennedy said about focusing on what you can do for others others instead of your own gain?
Sure, you may have to give up some of your apples. It doesn't mean that trench kid will take away all of the apples or that the power imbalance still exists and just shifted to a new recipient. But you know, maybe you can afford to give up a few more. While it may not be peachy keen for you, focus instead on the sense of empowerment and newfound courage that it will give people who were told from the day they were born that they would never be able to have this job because of the color of their skin, or because of their gender, their sexuality, whatever reason. A sense of hope and confidence that you may or may not have felt, but they most certainly never have. Until this day.
But until then, when balance has been restored, keep in mind that not everyone has had the same opportunities as you, and when people of color want to talk about problems regarding people of color, accept the fact that while their account of the experience may sound different from what you expect, that does not invalidate the veracity of what they observed. Sometimes, it makes sense to ask American citizens about what they think the government should do to make their lives better, or to ask women what are some problems they experience with street harassment and employers not taking them seriously, or to ask people of color how they feel about immigrant rights and police violence. Does this mean that your voice is being excluded from the discussion? No, but there are certain voices that probably have more authority on the subject, and therefore it makes sense to ask them first. Did you grow up as a black person in Oakland? No? Well, then, maybe we should ask a black person who grew up in Oakland instead.
In other words; sometimes it is necessary to prioritize certain voices and needs over others, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
So think about that next time you claim that BlackLivesMatters and women-uplifting movements are just reverse discrimination, or that egalitarianism is a better word than feminism, or that "not seeing race" will solve everything.
You do realize that in a loose definition, being colorblind would still mean seeing the world in shades of color, but having trouble distinguishing them, right?
If you are interested in seeing responses to responses to this essay, check out chapter 19, "Feminist vs Egalitarian: Followup 1."