We cannot expect poor women feeding their families on food stamps to have the same priorities as female lawyers hoping to become partners in law firms. We cannot expect working-class women concerned with getting paid sick leave to have the same priorities as college professors. We cannot expect women who face both sex discrimination and race discrimination to develop the same priorities as women who face only sex discrimination. … There has never been a single, unified feminist agenda. We see feminism as an outlook that is ever being reinvented by new groups of women. Feminism necessarily changes as the world women inhabit changes.
—Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished
Some people might claim that my mother has no idea how systems of oppression work. Some might also claim that her focus on survival means she has internalized the system’s logic so that she oppresses herself. But get this: my mom has a different—but extremely deep—understanding of how systems of oppression work. She interacts with them daily, fighting to survive despite structural disadvantages. Working class laborers don’t need a physician to know that they’re straining their bodies or an economist to know that they’re being exploited. Most of the time they don’t even need organizers writing articles about “the struggle” to know that it’s there and it’s theirs. The lived experience of these oppressions is not only real, it’s indispensable. No movement is legitimate without it. We don’t do justice to mothers like mine when we alienate them by privileging analytical understandings of systems of oppression.
Poverty is not simply having no money — it is isolation, vulnerability, humiliation and mistrust. It is not being able to differentiate between employers and exploiters and abusers. It is contempt for the simplistic illusion of meritocracy — the idea that what we get is what we work for. It is knowing that your mother, with her arthritic joints and her maddening insomnia and her post-traumatic stress disordered heart, goes to work until two in the morning waiting tables for less than minimum wage, or pushes a janitor’s cart and cleans the shit-filled toilets of polished professionals. It is entering a room full of people and seeing not only individual people, but violent systems and stark divisions. It is the violence of untreated mental illness exacerbated by the fact that reality, from some vantage points, really does resemble a psychotic nightmare. It is the violence of abuse and assault which is ignored or minimized by police officers, social services, and courts of law. Poverty is conflict. And for poor kids lucky enough to have the chance to “move up,” it is the conflict between remaining oppressed or collaborating with the oppressor.
When conservatives talk about their idea of a woman who needs access to contraception and/or abortion services, she is always poor, uneducated, promiscuous, and irresponsible. By painting this image, they make it easy for women to distance themselves from each other. Not only is the debate around restrictions on birth control and abortion gendered, it also becomes classed. We stop caring that these restrictions impact all women on some level because we tell ourselves, “Well, I am not like ‘that’, so I do not care if that woman has access to the services she needs.” Furthermore, this picture of the woman who is “poor, uneducated, promiscuous, and irresponsible” is also how conservatives have historically stereotyped Black Women. Thus, this image is gendered, class-specific, and racialized. And I would argue that so are their restrictions on reproductive health services.
Conservatives’ obsession with limiting access to birth control and abortion is one that affects all women. But their reasoning also lets me know they are, indeed, targeting Black Women. It is time that Black Women become more vocal about our right to make decisions about our bodies, sexualities, and reproductive choices without interference or regulation from others. In the same way that we are speaking up about their right to define ourselves and narrate our own lives, we must also be vocal about reproductive justice.
As ontologically expansive, white people tend to act and think as if all spaces—whether geographical, psychical, linguistic, economic, spiritual, bodily, or otherwise—are or should be available for them to move in and out of as they wish. Ontological expansiveness is a particular co-constitutive relationship between self and environment in which the self assumes that it can and should have totally mastery over its environment. Here can be seen the devious maneuvers of unconscious habits of white privilege to obstruct their transformation. The very act of giving up (direct) total control over one’s habits can be an attempt to take (indirect) total control over them by dominating the environment. The very act of changing one’s environment so as to disrupt white privilege paradoxically can be a disruption that only reinforces that which it disrupts. When a white person makes a well-intentioned decision not to live in an all-white neighborhood, for example, doing so can simultaneously disrupt her habit of always interacting with white neighbors and augment her racial privilege by increasing her ontological expansiveness. The sheer fact that she is able to make a choice about which neighborhood in which she lives is, after all, an effect of the privilege she has because of her race and economic class.
If you want to know why millennials are far more economically liberal than other generations, consider the news that colleges have started opening on-campus food banks to keep their students from going hungry.
The big lie about capitalism is that everyone can be rich. That’s impossible. Capitalism works only if the vast majority of the population are kept poor enough to never quit working, are kept poor enough to accept distasteful jobs society cannot function without. If everyone were a millionaire, who would empty the trash or repair the sewers? It follows that the poorer the general population is made, the greater the worth of the money held by the wealthy, in terms of the lives which may be bought and sold with it.
The primary causes of poverty lie not in individual behavior at all, but in specific social and historical structures, in forces outside any single person’s control. If you haven’t lived it or even seen it firsthand, there’s almost no way to imagine it. Living in the ghetto, one faces problems with public housing, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, the drug trade, negligent landlords, criminals, illness, guns, isolation, hunger, ethnic antagonisms, racism, and other obviously negative forces. Even forces that might seem positive in other circumstances- the law, the media, government, neighbors, police- can, in the ghetto context, make life miserable for the poor. And one has to contend will all of these forces- any one of which might be overwhelming- all at once, without a break. Turn to deal with one problem, and three attack you from behind. Experience a little unexpected bad luck, and you find yourself instantly drowning. The cumulative effect of the ‘surround’ is more than the sum of any of these individual forces. There is simply no space to breathe.
—Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen by David Hilfiker, M.D, xii & xv