America Should Never go Back to Normal
When I was in undergrad, I would use the following logic to help my friends realize they were feminists.
“Are you a feminist?” I’d ask.
“No… I don’t think so,” or “I’m not sure,” my friends most often replied.
“Do you believe societies should treat women equally?” I’d continue.
“Yes, of course!” They’d say.
“Well, then you’re a feminist!”
The problem was that I was using my logic to prove that the term “feminist” was meaningless. I could not convince one person to state that women should not be equal to men. I even had very traditional conservative friends, who felt that while men and women served different roles in the world, that didn’t mean any of those roles were more or less significant.
Why do we need labels if most of us agree that women (and all gender-identities) should be given the same rights and opportunities as everyone else? In my former opinion, the title “feminist” was as nonsensical as coming up with a specific label for people who believed that chairs were for sitting. At the time, I felt we didn’t need to constantly examine things that are just normal parts of society. I needed to understand that just because something was “normal” didn’t mean it was good. And even if it was good, it is not necessarily good for everyone.
We are in a moment of massive change. Work recently changed, leisure activities recently changed, fashion changed, and a worldwide shift in cultural consciousness changed the way we think about how we police and treat those who have been traditionally marginalized. This is our moment. We can use this moment to change the world for the better. But, it will not happen if after this pandemic we decide to go “back to normal.” We cannot go back to normal and reading some feminist texts taught me why.
In their 1970 essay “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Radicalesbians noted,
“It should first be understood that lesbianism, like male homosexuality, is a category of behavior possible only in a sexist society characterized by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy.”
Thus, if we lived in a culture that placed little to no value in gender roles, lesbianism as a concept would make no sense. We would all be people, and what you were attracted to in a person would be inconsequential unless you wanted to date them. Our sexual preferences would be of no more interest than knowing someone’s favorite sport; some like basketball, some like football, some like all sports, and some don’t find sports interesting at all.
I could easily understand this concept when applied to lesbianism. Still, it never occurred to me that if feminism exists, it too exists in response to or in relation to something else. In other words, there was a standard “normal” way of behaving. These behaviors are so ingrained that they become invisible. All I knew was that my small yet substantial sample size proved that most people could classify themselves as feminists, and if everyone was a feminist, then nobody was.
I didn’t see my way of thinking as particularly novel. I assumed most openly feminist males were virtue signaling macktivists and that feminists of other identities were harmless but unnecessary. Ironically, I understood, to a degree, why many women in my life aligned themselves with feminism. As a person with a marginalized identity marker, I understood why women would fight tooth and nail to ensure they kept their rights.
My problem was not realizing being a feminist, much like being anti-racist, meant more than not feeling prejudiced; it would take action. It would take being an accomplice.
According to the Anti-racism Digital Library, an anti-racist identity,
“...respects difference, shares power, strives to eliminate prejudice, examines privilege, uncovers thoughts, changes language, builds community, and restores harmony and equity, and increases justice for all.”
Thus, by definition, someone who is anti-racist must be anti-discrimination in all of its ugly forms.
Having a feminist identity is comparable. In the past, I needed to learn that being a feminist entailed much more than a passive acknowledgment of equal rights. I needed to be reminded of that today.
So, if normally we do not take time to consider how each of our daily actions affect others and we are now, it should be pretty obvious that we should not go “back to normal.” A feminist doesn’t merely acknowledge that women should have the same rights as men, but actively works to confront the parts of society that keep that from being possible. In other words, if one of those invisible “normal” but destructive behaviors takes place, we need to take action to ensure those behaviors cease.
In her book and TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie details her interactions with a Black man who could see the need to speak on topics using his identity as a Black person; but, found Adichie's desire to do the same with her identity as a woman unnecessary. In response she notes that systems of oppression “can be blind to one another.”
The problem with systemic issues is that they are harder to see. This is true even when you see the ones affecting you personally. A blindspot of mine at the time was evident in a lie I told myself about dating.
In the past, I wanted to make sure I always paid for dinner. The lie was that this was the case because I wanted to pay. But, the truth was, I felt like I had to pay. The man was supposed to pay. That is what the “normal” thing to do was. It was not "bad" or "wrong" for any gender to be willing to pick up a dinner bill. The problem was the compulsion to do so solely for gender-related reasons. A return to normal does not mean I stop paying for the meal at dates. However, it does mean that I do so mindfully and without unconsciously infantilizing my partners.
I am not sure why it took me so long to accept feminism. But, even after I did, it was under the understanding that being oppressed in the past had present-day implications. I was a feminist to ensure we never regressed. I still had not fully grappled with the extent of 21st-century sexism and a current need for strong feminists, until the sexual assault and murder of Oluwatoyin Salau.
My “normal” was too comfortable. I cannot go back to it. Oluwatoyin Salau was a public example, but the sad truth is her death was normal. Sexual and physical violence against black women is normal and has been normal for centuries. There are people alive today descended from that gruesome truth. That is why we cannot go back to normal anymore.
There is a tangible difference between the news coverage of Black male death and Black female death. I’m not sure I noticed it before. A medium article related to the topic convicted me by its title alone, “Black Men, We Must Be Better.” However, it was the sentence, “Every missed opportunity to stand up for Black women; every instance of disrespectful language; every idea that gets ignored — it all perpetuates the cycle that has kept Black women down for far too long,” that moved me.
If I expected my White and non-Black POC friends to do the work it takes to understand my struggle; then, I would be remiss not to do the same for Black women; all women. I read.
Second-wave feminist texts have captured my attention. I’m not alone in this. bell hooks and Audre Lorde are rarely far from my activist friends’ lips, minds, or reading lists. I think it was their underlying message of inclusion that resonates so profoundly with us—seeing intersectionality being fought for before we had a word for it is heartening and heartbreaking at the same time. We’ve all been fighting this fight for so long.
After reading, my main takeaways were that no activist’s fight will ever be complete without full inclusion and acceptance of differences. Applying that to today’s struggle means Black Lives Matter has to include ALL Black lives: Black men, women, LGBTQIA+, multiracial, ALL OF US. And that success will necessarily not look like the past. If we all fight and then settle into our “normal” lives, what was it all for?
The intersection of the BLM movement and COVID-19 has been remarkable, but there has been this underlying desire to go “back to normal,” but how will a return to normal serve justice?
On the surface, cultural transformation may seem scary, but consider that we are all already doing that to combat a virus! We need to understand that systemic oppression is just as physically dangerous as a virus. We should continue to leverage our human ability to adapt. Our “normal” society is fragmented, built on oppression, unfair, incompetent, unable to have proper dialogue, and powerless to speak truth to power without fear of retaliation, injury, or even death. We need a cultural redesign, an overhaul.
What I am learning from my reexamination of what it means to be a feminist, is that change is always uncomfortable at first; we fear the unknown. But going "back to normal" means Breonna Taylor dies again, a return to normal means Oluwatoyin Salau is assaulted and murdered again. If our new normal entails more equality, it will not look much like our current system.
And that’s a good thing.