Intersections – The Color of Feminism
By Nicki Salcedo
I walked through an open air market with my youngest on my hip and my three older children in tow. We stopped at a pop-up tent with baked goods. For $10, I could buy four chocolate chip cookies, gluten-free, which seemed ridiculous. But, it was after a long day at work and a longer evening of collecting my kids. I thought a walk through the market would improve the tenor of my day.
I wanted the cookies for my children and handed the vendor, a woman, a $10 bill. She refused it.
“If you use your food stamps, you can get twice the value. You just have to go over to the information booth,” she said.
“That’s okay,” I told her. At first, I think this is nice. I’m constantly shouting to strangers so they don’t feed the parking meters after 6 p.m. “I’ll get the cookies now.”
“No,” she said. She was adamant. “I’ll save them for you. Just go trade in your food stamps.”
My youngest felt heavy in my arms, but she wouldn’t get down. I felt the presence of my children around me as they watched this woman refuse to sell me cookies. I walked away. Then I walked back, put down the money and took the cookies.
I did not tell her my pedigree or profession, but I wanted to shout at her, “I’m not on food stamps. Why are you making assumptions about me? Aren’t we all sisters?” I did not shout. I smiled at her and thanked her. I wondered what would have happened if I was white. If I strolled up with four white children, would she have still tried to send me away?
I’ve always had positive relationships with women. Even though I considered myself a tomboy, I wasn’t the girl who sat with boys for the sake of having male friends. I have sisters and girlfriends and mentors who are all different types of women. Some of us work, some of us don’t, some of us have children, some of us have spouses, and some of us go through life without labels. I thought that’s what feminism was about.
With age I’ve realized that the world first views my skin, then my gender. This complicates the world of feminist solidarity. I witness the tension with increasing frequency.
I walked into a meeting where I was leading the presentation. One of the participants, a woman, said, “I thought you were the girl bringing us coffee.”
If a man made that comment, we would cry sexism. If a man told me he wouldn’t sell me cookies until my husband came to pay for them, we would be outraged. When two men treat each other with contempt we call it friendly competition. Friendly, because somehow both men win. I’m still learning about the politics of feminism.
I always say hello to the girl who brings coffee into the meeting. She is, in fact, a woman. She is not always my same race or age. She doesn’t always have the same education that I have. Or then again, maybe she does. She is probably providing for herself or her education or her family. These things make us exactly the same. I’ve seen first-hand the small ways people make and keep division, while denying such divisions exists.
Authors Erica Jong and Roxane Gay spoke at the Decatur Book Festival keynote event. I loved that the event brought together such women. It was not an event where one person pours accolades on the other, as has been done in the past. The interview has been called “tense” and “awkward.” I saw the truth from two different realities. They had the same difficult interaction that I’ve often experienced in my life.
As Jong and Gay walked on stage, you noticed several things right away. Ms. Jong wore an electric green dress with a flowing shawl. Ms. Gay wore jeans. During the presentation Ms. Jong fidgeted. Her shawl flapped around her and at some point I recognized myself as she tried to cover and adjust herself throughout the talk. She wasn’t comfortable in her body. Jong called out to her husband sitting in the audience several times. Ms. Gay sat still, making few gestures other than to bring the microphone closer.
I wasn’t sure if the awkwardness was theirs or mine until a very direct question came from the audience about the feminist movement excluding women of color. I know little about the feminist movement. I’m not an academic. I do know that when I walk through the farmers market, I don’t look like the same woman walking into the boardroom, and yet I am treated with the same dismissive attitude.
Jong said there was no problem. Gay suggested there was a problem, but she didn’t push the issue. She navigated the interview with careful redirection. Jong remained adamant in her rightness. She was positive and optimistic. It was the first time I realized that those traits could be the unwillingness to see and unwillingness to listen.
I would never burn my bras. They support me when no else will. I don’t call myself a feminist, because I don’t know what it means anymore.
I am pro-woman. No qualifiers.
I’m pro-people from birth to death. No exceptions. No labels.
I see people trying to put labels on me. I’m not afraid of flying or dying. I’m probably the worst feminist you’ll ever know. I’m just trying to make it through each day.
I saw something on stage between these two women. The old and the new.
To make feminism a non-issue we need to become allies for each other without requiring women to be and act and think uniformly. We need to listen to other’s perspectives and say “yes,” not “no.” It took me watching an auditorium full of people suddenly feeling uncomfortable to make me realize it’s long past time that I felt comfortable in my skin.
“Intersections,” the book, is a collection of columns from Decaturish.com and beyond. It is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.