By: Jade Fink
Another February and March have passed, and, amid calls for schools to respond to racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in their buildings, we saw lackluster efforts to celebrate and recognize Black History Month and Women’s History Month in schools. During February, we saw school boards silence student productions for BHM and during Women’s History Month, we witnessed the murder of Asian American women in an attack spurred on by racialized misogyny. The absence of celebration and pushback to celebrating Black History Month and Women’s History Month is rooted in white male superiority. This is a very disturbing, everyday reality for women, especially women of color. Celebrating Black History Month and Women’s History Month is important because it recognizes how marginalized groups have a central role in our history, and the more we recognize this truth, the more it can become a reality. When a young girl sees the amazing things that women have done and accomplished, when they see all that women have faced and survived to be where they are today, we don’t feel as small. These celebrations also challenge the narrative of white cis male supremacy. And, with that challenge comes resistance.
Recently, I was speaking with a friend who is in Greek life. She mentioned how the organization that she is joining did not mention a single thing about Black History month, nor Women’s History Month, but without missing a beat, they were sure to mention the celebration of “Irish Culture” for St. Patty’s Day. As disappointed as this made me, I wasn’t surprised. Greek life across campuses reflects the exclusionary American experience. The history of exclusionary recruitment for sororities (and fraternities) is contrary to the ideal of “sisterhood,” and is rather reflective of ordinary, exclusive white existence in America. White Americans’ entire lives are spent brushing past the “things that cause controversy” or “make people uncomfortable” but never forgetting to pinch someone for not wearing green or shame the houses that don’t put up lights during December.
Brushing by uncomfortable realities is a luxury only afforded to white Americans. During my freshman year of high school, I was enrolled into a new school. It was during that year that I recognized my white privilege. I really struggled connecting with my new peers, but when I finally began to, it was in ways that I regret. I lost myself, and I also lost the voice that accompanied my morals. I was complicit. I stood by many conversations that I did not agree with without saying a word, and ignored acts of discrimination because it made it easier for me to fit in with most of the girls around me. It took until my sophomore year, when a Black female student athlete was turned away from representing the school in a professional setting because she showed up with her hair in beautiful braids. They made sure to tell her that she could instead represent the basketball team. This blatant act of racism and sexism towards Black women was the moment when I realized as a cis white woman, I needed to do more than just be comfortable ignoring things that made other white people uncomfortable. I began the never-ending journey of learning allyship and understanding what I can do with my own privilege. We aren’t perfect people, and that’s okay. No one is. However, it’s not okay to be a part of the silence that contributes to hate and the lasting effects of patriarchy and white supremacy.
Ignoring the tension of patriarchy and misogyny is only afforded to males. Celebrating Women’s History Month recognizes this tension caused by oppressive systems. Ignoring or downplaying these celebrations also ignores the everyday reality for women and girls. In middle school, I hit puberty early and we couldn’t always afford to buy new clothes every time that I outgrew things. I got dress-coded at least once a month for my jeans being “too tight” or my gym shorts not being long enough. Guess who didn’t get punished. The boys who would run down the hallway slapping girls’ butts. The boys who would steal girls’ tampons and run around with them to embarrass them. From the beginning, girls are taught to be as small as they possibly can to avoid judgement and harassment. A statistic that everyone seems to know, but has only gotten worse in recent years: 1 in 5 women in the United States have been raped at some point in their lives. Last March, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a third-degree sexual assault conviction because the woman was “voluntarily intoxicated.” Patriarchy teaches women to remain as complicit as possible in order to please the men around them and stay safe from the consequences of hurting the male ego. Misogyny reinforces these ideas with violence. Cases are being overturned in the benefit of men and more women continue to be harmed. Our institutions uphold and perpetuate oppression rather than fixing the source of the problem: white supremacy and patriarchy. Whether it’s police killing a Black woman who was asleep in her own bed, or Brock Turner raping a girl who was unconscious and leaving her behind a dumpster, American structures protect powerful white men with money.
This is hard for me to write about because I am angry. I am angry that there is still a wage gap. I am angry that every girl I know is afraid to walk alone. I am angry that our country elected a former president who actively uses hate speech against women. I am angry that one of my graduation gifts was pepper spray to carry with me around campus. I am angry that when I interview for a job, whether I may or may not have children will affect the outcome. I am angry that when I am the only woman in a room, the things that I say are insignificant to the men with whom I am speaking. I am angry that, as women, we are so afraid to turn a man down that we go to extremes such as faking not speaking English to avoid engaging in their advances. I am angry that the maternal mortality rate in America is double any other country, and that the rates are tripled for black women compared to white women. And I am angry because the leading institutions of our country have done little to nothing to change it. Instead of honoring the survivors of sexual assault, stop raping us. Stop teaching us every way to be safe and start teaching men to respect women and the word “No.”
Working against, demeaning, or omitting months of celebration—whether it be Black History Month, Women’s History Month, or Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April)—perpetuates the harm inflicted on people excluded from the dominant power structure (BIPOC, women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities). To push against white cis male supremacy, recognize these celebrations. Talk to a friend about why they are important in our quest for justice for all. In order to fight these injustices, we have to engage in smaller, personal interactions as well as linking arms to challenge and transform larger structures of oppression. This work is big, but it’s also very personal. We all need to do better to disrupt the power structure of white patriarchy; taking celebrations of minoritized and oppressed groups of people seriously and with enthusiasm is one small way to disrupt.
Leela Bhowmilk and Ryah Mcadams are juniors at Worthington Kilbourne High School and are writing interns for Erase the Space.