What is worse? A problem unnamed or a problem named and denied as our own?
In a recent class discussion, a (white) student shared that she while she was in high school (a racially diverse high school, she explained), “everybody got along and racism was not a problem.” But now, since taking my class, she sees there IS racism around her.
The denial of racism in our own lives. This denial, like so many others, is certainly not uncommon, especially among those protected by some measure of privilege. Sometimes our denial is less passive (I didn’t know better); sometimes it is more active (I sure do know, but the knowing is painful and expects me to DO SOMETHING and I rather not, thank you very much).
This reminds me of the responses I typically hear from my students when we discuss menstrual shame. When I show commercials like the one below, they tell me they are NOT ashamed of their periods. They talk openly about their cycles. This menstrual taboo I speak of—old school. When I probe and ask if they carry their menstrual products around in the open, then, they tell me, “No…that’s just not something you do.”
A student denies racism in her high school, but sees it OUT THERE. Young women deny menstrual shame while concealing their tampons. These contradictions vex me. What gives?
I think we are in the midst of what sociologist Arlie Hochshild calls a ‘stalled revolution.’
Hochschild uses this concept to explain how the feminist movement helped women pursue careers but stalled before it (and by it, I mean WE) succeeded in dramatically altering the gendered division of household labor. I think the concept applies here, too.
We see racism but NOT HERE, not involving ME. We follow the rules of concealment even while we deny that we are embarrassed. I am not ashamed; other people are. We can name the problem, but we cannot, will not, claim it for ourselves. That’s where the engine cuts out. That’s where we are stalled.
We live in a culture where racism is DISCUSSED, at least. Look at the tremendous response to the murder of Travyon Martin for a recent example. And we ARE talking more about periods and about our bodies; the very fact that Kotex launched its ’break the cycle’ campaign in 2010 is fair evidence that the menstrual discourse IS enlarging. But forgive me if I am not jumping up and down with glee. After all, there’s more talk about EVERYTHING now. We have more ways, more means, more access to express and connect, instantaneously. Some might argue we talk too much; we tweet and post and text before we think. Sometimes talk is just…talk.
Are talking toward change? Or we just talking, talking, talking about other people’s racism, other people’s shame.
What will it take to re-start our engines and both name and CLAIM the problems for ourselves?