mind the pointy end
In a local women’s outdoor group, a black woman recently challenged the community to engage on the topic of race, as her race is an important part of her identity and something that affects how she must navigate outdoor spaces.
The (mostly white) women who responded knew a lot of right answers: Thank you for your willingness to bring this up. We should all be aware of making our group a safe space for people of color. Check, check. It was clear that these hiking, climbing, camping ladies had all read White Fragility or So You Want to Talk About Race, or probably both, but probably only with their all-white book club.
A few people hadn’t gotten the woke white lady memo yet: “Trees don’t care what race you are!” was my personal favorite WTF comment, although another woman’s lengthy post stopped me in my tracks and actually inspired this post. I’ll paraphrase her comment since she shared it in a private group:
That sounds so horrible and I’m sorry you have to experience that hate from ignorant people. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but it seems like sexism is so much worse than racism right now! The way they’re already talking about Elizabeth Warren and these new abortion laws… I don’t know, I know we’re not supposed to compare them but it’s a really hard time to be a woman. (peace fingers emoji)
So, on the one hand, oof.
On the other hand, she just put her finger on a very specific problem to which I needed to write a very specific answer:
Imagine you’ve got a stick. I’ve got a stick. EVERYONE’S GOT A STICK.
It’s my 4yo’s dream scenario.
Your stick has a smooth handle that was molded to fit your hand like a blob of new play doh. You’ve had the stick since you were born and you have a relationship with the stick, even if you aren’t always aware of exactly what you’re doing with it. You have unconscious tics with the stick the way a person might twirl their hair, or the way a pianist might tap the pads of their fingers on a table without realizing. Maybe you swing the stick like a sword when you get nervous. Maybe you smack it against the door frame when you walk into your favorite boutique. Maybe you twirl it in the air when you’re furious, or swing it back and forth as you march forward with your purposeful steps.
The stick being a stick, it has two ends. This isn’t a mobius stick. I’m not getting conceptual on you. The stick has a smooth handle that is as much a part of you as your own skin, and then all the way down on the other end, you’ve got a point.
Yep. Your stick has a pointy end.
Now, remember, everyone has a stick. Everyone has a smooth handle and everyone has a pointy end and everyone has a reason they swing their stick or twirl it or whack the ground without even really thinking about it.
You’ve been poked by a lot of pointy ends, honey. By your boyfriends and bosses and coworkers and landlords and strangers who tossed their sticks up into the air like javelins when you passed on the other side of the street and when they told you to smile that pointy end landed right smack dab in your flesh. Ouch.
You learned what the pointy end of a stick looks like. You recognize the people who are holding the sticks that could hurt you. You learn defensive, evasive maneuvers and you practice them as unconsciously as you twirl your own stick, not thinking, just living your life, trying to just get through the day without a poke from some shitfiddle’s stick. You almost made it yesterday but then you saw the news.
You find friends with similar scars and you stick together. You all know what the pointy end of a stick looks like. You bark harsh laughter when oblivious guys tell you that they don’t see anything wrong with the company culture. Of course you don’t, pumpkin. You’re the one holding the stick. I’m the one getting stuck.
But this post isn’t about the sticks that poke us. This post is about the sticks we hold in our hands. Like the woman in the outdoors group who said that sexism is worse than racism, she is both aware of the pointy end of sexism and totally fucking oblivious of the pointy end of racism on the stick she’s a-swingin.
Now, we’re at war and I don’t know about you, but I’ve been swinging my stick like a motherfucker, just wishing someone would walk into my stick like
Oh I slash that stick like Uma and cut the air with it, as I learned to do when I was an angry little girl, and later, an angry woman. Anger is a tool. We have to be able to access it when it’s justified. AND IT IS JUSTIFIED.
The problem is that so many of us, like the guys in the office who don’t get why bro culture is a problem, have been fucking oblivious to the people who have had to defend themselves, evade, and heal after we — I — have poked them with my angry fucking stick.
So here are a few ways you may have been poking people with your stick as you moved through this past week of justified outrage:
I poke someone when I make this conversation all about WOMEN.
Remember how we had that long talk about the pink pussy hats and at the end of the day we all agreed that they were a flawed symbol for what should be an inclusive movement because not all women have pussies?
So this is that. Again.
Loooooots of talk about women. Looooooots of talk about uteruses and vaginas and that makes a certain amount of sense considering the nature of the attack on reproductive freedom. They’re not coming for our nuts, people. They’re coming for our uteruses. For many of us, when we think about who is going to be most harmed by fascist abortion laws currently in various states of WHATTHEFUCK across our nation, the answer comes back to us in an instant and the answer is women.
However, the uterus does not make the woman.
Trans men may have uteruses* and therefore experience pregnancy and need abortions. But despite their potential uteruses, pregnancies, or abortions, trans men are not women, and to say so is super fucking hurtful.
*Updated 5/29/19 - This text originally read “female reproductive organs,” which a reader pointed out could be very uncomfortable for trans people. That reader also shared a wonderful resource for inclusive language choices around anatomy.
Trans women may have male reproductive organs and therefore not experience pregnancy or need abortions. Does that mean they’re not women? Of course not, and to suggest that womanhood is tied to specific anatomy or a specific reproductive function is both redonkulous and super fucking hurtful.
Nonbinary people can experience pregnancy and need abortions and we can all agree that their anatomy is none of our business, so why are we making it a centerpiece of our resistance?
People should not have to fall under a very specific and frankly antiquated umbrella (you know, it’s really more of a parasol) of what constitutes a women in order to be included in the wave of outrage and desire to protect each other that is rolling over our feminist spaces right now.
If we make the conversation all about “women” (and by women we mean all people who have uteruses and vaginas and therefore the potential future need for abortions), then we’re excluding trans men who might need abortions but who would feel betrayed by us if we called them women. We’re excluding trans women who will never need abortions but who would feel betrayed by us if we suggested that female reproductive anatomy is the only thing that makes you a woman.
FFS, it’s 2019. We have to stop squeezing a wide spectrum of experiences under an umbrella that can’t really cover us, especially when we’ve all got these GODDAMN STICKS we’re swinging around!
Use “people” instead of “women” in your posts about the people who need abortions.
Think long and hard before you make genitals or reproductive organs the symbol of our fight, or your social media icon. You’re showing us the pointy end of your stick.
ETA (5/20) - A number of readers have asked for further explanation about why using the image of a uterus is something with which we should be very careful, since, of course, the uterus is a key set piece in the discussion about abortion access. Please note that I didn’t say “NEVER use a uterus as a symbol of our fight.” I said to think long and hard before you use it as a symbol or social media icon. While you may have a nuanced understanding of how the uterus plays a role in pregnancy but DOES NOT determine a person’s gender, it’s difficult to communicate that nuanced inclusion of trans and nonbinary people in a single image. From the research I did to write this post, I learned that when people rely on anatomy to identify who qualifies as what gender, that’s a facet of biological determinism that’s very triggering and alienating for the trans and non-binary community.
Yes, people with uteruses are those most affected by restricting abortion access and it’s not untrue to say so, but much of the use of uterus imagery isn’t nuanced enough to demonstrate understanding that what we say uterus we aren’t just thinking about cis women. So in the case of thinking long and hard before you share a uterus-based battle cry, you have to remember that the weight of history lies on that image and conjures the memory of many many pointy ends of sticks.
I poke someone when I use Handmaid’s Tale quotes, symbolism, costumes, etc. to express my dread about the dystopian present.
So listen, I like the Handmaid’s Tale too but you did notice that it’s only about white women who are living an unimaginable dystopian future nightmare that closely resembles the systemic sexual abuse of enslaved black women, right?
I mean… You saw that, right?
Sure, no, I know, Samira Wiley plays Moira, but it’s important to notice that Moira’s arc takes a different trajectory from all the other handmaids, 90% of whom are white in the TV show, and 100% of whom were assumed white in the Atwood novel. The white women who serve as Handmaids exist to be raped, impregnated against their wills, and forced to bear children that they will not have the chance to raise even if they want to. It sounds awful. It sounds… familiar. Wait, wasn’t that… that sounds a lot like what happened to black enslaved women, doesn’t it.
Sure, I get it. The TV show and the book are both important cultural touchpoints that allow us to bring conversations about consent, body autonomy, and systemic misogyny back to the fore. The cloaks look snappy when you wear them to the state house, and we all get what they mean. They’re a visual shorthand for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Symbols are important to movements, but they have to be backed up by substantive forward motion or they’re just a pageant, and this looks a lot like pageantry. Pageantry of white women whose greatest fear is something that black women’s ancestors actually experienced. You’re kind of harvesting the fruit off of a tree rooted in someone else’s pain here, and that’s… that’s not what we’re about.
That’s a poke from the pointy end of your stick. My stick, too.
And because I’m far more familiar with the handle end of that stick than the pointy end, I want you to read this piece from Afropunk by Sherronda J. Brown, which reads, in part:
The Handmaid’s Tale has created an opportune moment for pro-choice white feminists to convene around reproductive rights and state-sanctioned violences which they view as a dreadful possibility for their immediate future, rather than a past and present reality for people of color.
They look at The Handmaid’s Tale and see it as the “instruction manual” from which the government can pull ideas about how to restrict and control the reproduction of white citizens. Others look at the same text and see an account of our past; reminders of the various ways in which this government has systematized the reproduction of people of color for generations.
I poke someone when I offer to help women in need of abortions by calling myself an “Auntie” and offering to create a “New Underground Railroad.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you and I don’t respect and include EVERYBODY in the movement forward, then it’s just another racist, transphobic club.
I don’t join those. Or at least I don’t stay in them once I realize what they are.
You don’t either, so let’s do better now that we know we’ve been poking people with the way we’re waving our sticks in the air. This fight matters, and it matters that we do it right, with compassion, with space for every person on the field.
Your stick has a smooth handle that was molded to fit your hand like a blob of new play doh. You’ve had the stick since you were born and you have a relationship with the stick, even if you aren’t always aware of exactly what you’re doing with it. Nobody ever told you how to hold the stick. You learned by watching and so did I.
You have unconscious tics with the stick the way a person might twirl their hair, or the way a pianist might tap the pads of their fingers on a table without realizing.
Maybe you swing the stick like a sword when you get nervous. Who did you hit with it because you got nervous and didn’t know what to do?
Maybe you twirl it in the air when you’re furious, or swing it back and forth like a closed umbrella as you march forward with your purposeful steps.
Maybe now you notice that the people around you are watching you, dodging you, giving you space. Maybe now you can see how easy it is to hurt people.
The time before you knew is gone. You know now. If you keep hurting people now, it’s a choice to use your stick as a weapon instead of a tool. You know now. Your responsibility begins now.
If you’re mad at me for suggesting that you take down your uterus profile pic and you want to yell at me for “eating my own” instead of “focusing on the real problems here” then I wish you peace and health and a shitload of personal growth. But don’t even bother reaching out to me because I won’t respond.
I stand by what I wrote and if you want to be a part of a feminist movement that doesn’t think it can afford to include people of color and the queer community, then I’m sorry to be the one to hold up the broken mirror for you to look into as the music swells, but you are a big ass part of the real problem here.
That doesn’t make you dead to me. Just means you need to think and learn more about what your feminism is. Keep doing the work. I’ll keep knocking on your door and demanding that we all do better (myself included.)