3 Ways I Fought the Patriarchy in 2016

Unfortunately, there were a lot of wins for the patriarchy in 2016. Laws that restricted access to abortion were passed all over the country. Brock Turner raped a woman and served only 3 months in prison, exposing the dangerous and despicable rape culture that is the norm in the United States. Multiple states passed or attempted to pass “bathroom bills”, requiring that people only use the bathroom that matches their assigned sex rather than their gender identity, laws which are openly discriminatory to trans individuals. Worst of all, a highly-qualified female presidential candidate lost the election to an openly sexist bigot. And 53% of white women voted for that sexist bigot instead of the highly-qualified woman.

These are only a very few highlights of a particularly shitty year where women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community suffered while white, heteronormative, conservative men thrived. For a feminist in America, 2016 was particularly disheartening. I always realized that being a feminist meant fighting an uphill battle, but this year was the first time I felt like feminism was actually losing.

On this last day of 2016 it would be easy to recall all the patriarchy’s wins this year and get lost in despair. But sitting idle in overwhelming feelings is the opposite of feminism, which is action rather than inaction. So, on this last day of 2016, I want to reflect on the ways I chose to fight the patriarchy this year.

1) I Chose Recovery from my Eating Disorder

The feminist in me was born when I realized that I was ruining my life with an eating disorder. I entered outpatient treatment and began to read as much as I could about eating disorders. It didn’t take long to discover feminist literature proposing that eating disorders are a repressive tool of the patriarchy used to keep women from rising above their station in the world.

I read about how beauty standards, set by white, straight, men, are used to convince women that they are imperfect and that if they work hard enough they can be perfect. I learned how this pursuit of the elusive “beauty” kept women so preoccupied and set up so many barriers to entry that women were unable succeed at the same level of men. I recognized the way that the pursuit of beauty and the affection of men pits women against each other in order to keep them from banding together and overthrowing the cause of their misery: the patriarchy. I deeply identified with the feeling of being made to feel small by being continually silenced and ignored, and I saw the connection between being made to feel small and actually trying to have a smaller body. I realized that I was a victim of the patriarchy, as are all women.

Instead of languishing in my victimhood, I became angry and pursued recovery from my eating disorder with a fervent drive. I internalized the idea that my recovery was an active form of rebellion against the patriarchy. I refused to conform to the patriarchy’s standards. I refused to be silenced or ignored. I refused to be made small. I refused to be distracted by the pursuit of meaningless physical goals.

In 2016, I committed and recommitted to the active rebellion of recovery. I have made immense progress in my recovery and I have also stumbled. I have come to accept my larger body as the body I am intended to have, and I have relapsed in to bingeing as a way to manage my emotions. I spent hours in therapy. I practice intuitive eating and mindful eating. I wore a bathing suit in front of hundreds of people as part of my job as a camp counselor. I was active in ways that made me happy rather in ways that I thought burnt the most calories. I wore the clothes I wanted when I wanted and most of the time I felt okay. I learned to take care of myself, to take time to pause, to take time to eat, to take time to read a fun book, binge Netflix instead of food, and let myself rest.

In 2016 I learned to love myself more than I ever thought possible by choosing recovery every day and telling the patriarchy to fuck right off with their beauty standards.

2) I stopped giving a fuck about bras

I started getting breasts when I was 10 years old and I have always been, shall we say, “well endowed”. When I was young and developing, I was pretty immediately warned that my breasts would cause me trouble. I was told that my large breasts would have an inappropriate effect on men. I was also told that it was my responsibility to manage these effects. Instead of men being responsible for their reactions to my breasts, I was responsible for controlling my breasts so they wouldn’t have such an effect on men. Being the defiant pre-teen that I was, I went out and bought a shirt that said, “My eyes are up here” emblazoned right across my large breasts in bright red with an arrow pointing up to my face. Apparently, pre-teen me was a feminist and older me got lost somewhere along the line.

In my teen years, I was told that I could use men’s reactions to my breasts to get things that I wanted. I internalized the idea that it was empowering to manipulate men with my physical appearance. I know now that many women identify with this. Using our bodies to manipulate men is one of the only times we can exercise power over men. I started to wear revealing clothing, lean over counters, and smile coyly when men stared. Side note: when I say men, I actually mean men, not boys my age. Boys stared too, of course, but more often than I’d like to admit full grown men engaged with my sexually suggestive manipulation even though I was only a teenager. I soon learned that using my body to exercise power over men came with consequences that I wasn’t necessarily willing to face, but always felt obligated to face.

Obviously, I have a part in all this. I was choosing to use my body to exercise power over men. However, the patriarchy is what makes this power play possible. The patriarchy strips women of their real power and gives men power over them. Women are then taught that their bodies are magic objects with the power to make men temporarily unable to control themselves, and if women are clever, they can use this magic object to their advantage. The patriarchy perverts the already perverted power structure between men and women.

The ultimate patriarchal tool of control is the bra. Men, I would like to inform you that most bras, especially bras that are designed to make breasts look “good” or “hot” are supremely uncomfortable. The underwire pokes into our sideboob. The underwire digs in to our chests under the weight of our breasts. With larger breasts, like mine, there is always spillage over the cups, which makes us have to adjust our bras multiple times a day. The best time of the day is when a woman gets home and takes off her bra. And I am entirely sure that if society didn’t operate under the myth that breasts drive men to insane behavior, bras would not exist and women would be infinitely happier.

In 2016 I decided that it was not my responsibility to control my breasts or people’s reactions to them. I always thought I couldn’t get away with not wearing a bra because of my double D’s. This summer I proudly wore sundresses without a bra. It was insanely comfortable. My boobs were out everywhere and I got catcalled all the damn time, and I didn’t give a single fuck. My breasts were not on display for anyone, I was not trying to provoke a reaction, I was just being comfortable and free.

I used to spend a ton of money on push up bras and sexy, lacy bras to make my breasts “look great”. In 2016 I discovered the Hanes Cozy ComfortFlex Bra. It’s a super thin microfiber bra, without an underwire, that holds my breasts in place and that’s about it. It’s the most comfortable bra I have ever worn. It doesn’t pinch like sports bras or poke like underwire bras. It’s like pajamas for my breasts. I pretty much only wear these bras now, unless I’m wearing a dress which requires a “real bra” in which case, I grit my teeth and curse the patriarchy.

In giving zero fucks about making my breasts “look good” I am rebelling against the idea that my breasts exist for male gaze and I am prioritizing my own comfort and happiness.

3) I used my vote to support female politicians

I’m not going to pretend that I was on the Hillary train from the beginning. I fell hard for Bernie in the primaries. I believed he was authentic and I agreed with pretty much everything he said. I also fell victim to the propaganda machine that made Hillary out to be a corrupt devil. I still think she’s been involved in some shady shit. I’m not a rah rah Hillary cheerleader, but I did vote for her and I did so happily.

For a while after she won the primary I was one of those people who groaned, “I’ll vote for Hillary, but I’m not happy about it”, but after the DNC I was happy to vote for her. When I saw her accept the nomination I cried. I didn’t expect it, but I cried hard. I didn’t know how overwhelmingly happy I would be to see a woman nominated to run for President. I was energized by the idea of actually having a female President. I really wanted her to win, and not just to prevent Donald Trump from winning. Despite all the supposed “scandals” she was one of, if not the most qualified candidate to ever run.

I voted a day early and felt a surge of pride as I colored in the circle next to her name on that ballot. And Hillary was not the only woman I voted for that day. I took my local ballot and filled in the circles next to the names of multiple women running for office in my state. It’s not just about electing the first female President, it’s about supporting women in every level of government. I didn’t vote for women based on their gender, I voted for them because I believed they were the best candidates for the jobs for which they were running and I believe that women need all the support they can get.

This country claims to be a democracy, which means that my vote counts for something (even if the electoral college makes my vote basically meaningless because I live in Vermont). By using my vote to elect women, I did my part in ensuring that there are more women in local and national government, which lessens the number of positions in the government held by white men. In fact, the only win for feminism on election night was the fact that more women of color were elected to Congress than ever before. Using my vote to dethrone men and crown women in our governmental structures in 2016 is a direct blow to the patriarchy.

These are just a few of the things I did this year to fight the patriarchy. I also stopped using beauty products, which I wrote about for The Tempest. I connected with more women and made deeper friendships based on equality. I discussed feminism with my husband and we brainstormed ways to make our marriage more egalitarian. Most importantly, though, I used my voice to speak out. I wrote a lot this year. I was published for the first time and then many more times after that. I wrote in my blog, which gained new readers after I was published. I used my voice to express my hurt and my anger against the patriarchy. In 2017 I hope to use my voice even more and I hope to continue to fight the good fight. And in honor of Carrie Fisher, a badass feminist we just lost, I plan to “be a general”:

So, to 2016: get the fuck outta here. To 2017: let’s do this.

Advertisements

Daily Practices to Help Your Recovery

In my last post I briefly mentioned the daily practices that I use to stay on track in my recovery. I have found that having a daily routine including journaling, meditation, and embodied movement helps me stay grounded in myself and my body. At times in my recovery when I have maintained these daily practices, I find it relatively easy to move through life without being hindered by my eating disorder. At times in my recovery when I have neglected these practices, I have struggled.

Developing a daily routine that works for you can help keep you focused on your recovery. It can also help you identify areas of your recovery that are causing issues so you can discuss them with your treatment team. Early recovery can be a very uncomfortable time, so building in time for reflection and development of coping mechanisms is essential.

Here are a few things that have consistently been a part of my daily routine:

Journaling

My college graduation present from my trusted mentor was a Batman journal and a beautiful set of pens. I asked her what I should write, and she suggested that every morning I just let my thoughts pour out on to the page, stream of consciousness style. So, I started writing for five minutes every morning about whatever came in to my head. After a month or so, I looked back through the journal entries and noticed a disturbing pattern: almost all my entries included worries about my weight and food.

The fact that these worries were coming out in my journaling every day made me more aware of my thoughts about weight and food, and I began to realize that I thought about these things almost all the time. To the point that it was interfering with my ability to do my job or interact with others. As I continued to journal about this obsession I began to realize that it was not as normal as I thought, and I decided that I needed to seek help. Journaling was the catalyst for getting me to my second outpatient treatment program.

When I was in treatment I was encouraged to keep journaling. I began to understand that my eating disorder had a lot to do with avoiding uncomfortable and intense feelings, so I began to write about these feelings as a way of processing them. It seemed like when I put pen to paper things came out that I hadn’t even acknowledged I was feeling. When I identified these feelings by writing about them I was better able to discuss them with my treatment team. Then my treatment team was able to suggest different coping mechanisms that helped me deal with those feelings without using behaviors.

Today I journal twice a day: once in the morning and once at night. Sometimes I write on journal prompts provided by my therapist or other trusted people in my life. Sometimes I just write stream of consciousness style and then reflect on what’s come up. Journaling daily allows me to get in touch with and process whatever thoughts or emotions I may be consciously or unconsciously avoiding, which allows me to address these emotions without resorting to behaviors.

Meditation

I have struggled with meditation for a long time. I have gone through periods where I’ve meditated daily and then long stretches where I didn’t meditate at all. About five years ago I really committed to daily meditation and since then I’ve been on a journey to find a meditation practice that works in my life. The problem I had when I first started meditating was that I couldn’t quietly sit still for any extended period of time. I was too uncomfortable in my own skin. The thoughts in my head were too loud. I couldn’t calm down. Trying to just “sit and quiet my mind” ended up being incredibly stressful.

After trying this for months, I started asking other people about their meditation practices and I discovered that there are other ways to meditate than just sitting quietly. People told me about meditation practices that involved focusing on special kinds of breathing. Others told me about meditation practices that focus on silently repeating mantras. They told me about meditations practices that involved movement, like yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong. I also heard about guided meditation, which involved listening to recordings of people leading spoken meditations. I tried all of them, testing out which ones I enjoyed and which ones actually worked to quiet my mind and get me in touch with my body.

The format I landed on was guided meditation. I found a great app called Insight Timer, which contains a library of guided meditations. The app even has meditations in multiple languages! When I began to search through their library of meditations I found they had meditations for specific topics like forgiveness, gratitude, self-love, compassion, and even eating disorders. Two of my favorite meditations from this app are: “There is nothing wrong with you” by Robin Rice and “Mindful Eating: Forgiveness for the Body” by Cinzia Pezzolesi.

I started using the app every morning to meditate for at least a couple minutes. Today I still use the app on almost a daily basis. I try to listen to a meditation that’s at least five minutes long, but on days that I’m running really late I’ll throw on something a minute or two long. I always try to tell myself that something is better than nothing.

Meditating gives me a reprieve from the racing thoughts that are so often associated with eating disorders. Meditating gives me a chance to slow down and really observe what is happening in my mind. It also provides a way for me to really connect to my body. Sometimes this is very uncomfortable because my feelings manifest in certain areas of my body, like anxiety can feel like a stomachache or tightness in my chest. Using meditation allows me to identify these physical manifestations of my feelings and become curious about them. When I could identify these feelings in my body and not be judgmental of them, I found that my body can give me clues about hidden emotions. I can also use meditation to work through these emotions so they don’t feel so overwhelming, which can help prevent me from using behaviors to manage my emotions.

Embodied Movement

Part of my active eating disorder was compulsive exercise, so finding a way to add movement back to my daily life was difficult for a long time. A note on this daily practice: do not try to add movement back in to your life without consulting with your treatment team. Most people in eating disorder recovery have a hard time with balanced exercise and it takes a lot of guidance to reintegrate movement safely and healthfully. I found it very helpful to work with my treatment team on movement rather than exercise. Instead of focusing on exercise, which felt like an obligation, focusing on movement allowed me to explore activities that felt fun and joyful in my body.

I started to hike a lot. Being in nature was both calming and rejuvenating. I kept my focus on my surroundings rather than miles or hours spent on the trail. Hiking was about seeing beautiful things and appreciating my body’s capabilities. The first time I stood at the summit of the highest mountain in Vermont I realized that my body was powerful and capable and I found a new appreciation for the things my body could accomplish when I was caring for it properly. This gave me more motivation to eat well and honor my body’s needs.

I also started practicing yoga. My relationship with yoga throughout the years has been difficult. When I was still active in my eating disorder I viewed yoga like any other form of exercise. It was for strength building and calorie burning. I would go through times of attending intense yoga classes every day, then not go to yoga at all for months. Yoga was also a great place for me to compare myself to others. I would critique my body against the other women in class and compare my progress in poses to theirs.

If you’re familiar with yoga, you’ll know that this experience is the exact opposite of the intention of yoga. Yoga is intended to be an inward, meditative practice. The practitioner works on connecting their mind, breath, and body, to become more aware of themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of Westernized yoga is focused on bodily fitness rather than spiritual fitness.

I started to have a different experience with yoga when I went in to outpatient treatment. The program I attended used therapeutic yoga as a treatment tool. I had group and one on one sessions with yoga therapists who taught me how to make yoga my own and how to use the practice to connect my body and my emotions. At first, it was incredibly uncomfortable. I was shocked to discover that my body was storing difficult emotions that I’d never processed and unleashing those stored emotions through movement was intense. Luckily, my treatment team was comprised of experts who were able to walk me through this uncomfortable process. I began to see yoga as a way to be present in my body and sit with my feelings in a safe way.

I have not dedicated myself to a continuous yoga practice for my entire recovery, but it is something I’m trying to add back to my daily routine right now. Adding daily, embodied movement to my routine has allowed me to appreciate my body in ways I never expected. It shows me that my body is strong and capable, regardless of its size or shape.

I won’t lie, doing all these things on a daily basis takes time. I spend 20-30 minutes every morning and night journaling, meditating, and doing some yoga. It can seem overwhelming to set aside that kind of time in an already busy schedule. What worked for me was adding practices one at a time and starting with short versions of each practice. When I started meditating it was two to three minutes once a day. Slowly I began to add minutes on to that practice. Then I added five minutes of journaling. Then I started to add ten to fifteen minutes of yoga. Gradually, over a long period of time, I developed a solid morning and nighttime routine that was focused on self-reflection and self-care.

I would suggest trying one or two of these practices each day for a week. If they don’t work for you, then try something else! Building a routine of daily self-reflection and self-care practices is a very individual journey. What works for me may not work for you at all. Once you find a practice that works for you, try to do it consistently. Since I’m a perfectionist, I’ve had to learn to be compassionate with myself if I miss a day or two of my routine. I’m human and life gets busy. I just do my best to get back in to it as soon as I can.

Maintaining a daily routine throughout my recovery has helped me to connect with my body and mind in ways I didn’t think possible. It has also allowed me to process difficult emotions, which has helped me to avoid using behaviors. These practices have deepened my recovery and continue to help on the path to full recovery.

Avoiding Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery

A few months ago, after eight months behavior free, I binged. It seemed like it happened completely out of the blue. I was shocked and embarrassed. I was disappointed in myself. I was consumed with anxiety. Did this relapse mean I would plummet back in to the depths of my eating disorder? Was I starting over from square one? Would I lose all the freedom I had gained during my eight months behaviors free?

I saw my therapist and we discussed the relapse, and more importantly, the weeks leading up to the relapse. Two things commonly said about relapsing in eating disorder recovery are “relapse is part of recovery” and “the relapse starts long before behaviors are used.” In talking with my therapist I immediately began to see the importance of these sayings. It became very clear that I had been gearing up for a relapse for a while. I had become less vigilant about my recovery, in a number of ways.

My therapist reminded me to be compassionate and remember that relapse happens often in eating disorders. Recovery is a journey and a process, it doesn’t all happen at once. He reminded me that the most important thing was to learn as much as I could from the relapse. So we analyzed what circumstances led up to the relapse.

Getting Too Busy and Out of My Routine

In the weeks leading up to the relapse, there were a lot of things happening. I was traveling a lot. I spent a week out of town with my husband for his new job, we went away for our one year wedding anniversary, and I went to a music festival with my sister in NYC. All within the span of two and a half weeks. I was frequently in unfamiliar surroundings, and often completely out of my routine.

A big part of my recovery has been my spiritual practice which involves a daily routine of readings, journaling, and meditation. While I was traveling, I quickly fell out of these practices. Before I knew it, I had gone almost a week without my full routine, and I began to feel really off kilter.

I had also been working at two different jobs and participating in a lot of extracurricular activities in the weeks leading up to my relapse. My therapist and I spent a lot of time talking about why I’d chosen to make myself so busy. We came to the conclusion that I was making myself busy to avoid the anxiety I was feeling about the transitional time I’m going through right now. I became so caught up in my busy lifestyle that I didn’t even realize I had an intense amount of anxiety and fear building inside.

Not Talking About What I’m Really Thinking and Feeling

Early in recovery I learned that saying out loud what I’m really thinking and feeling, even if that seems terrifying, is essential to not engaging in eating disorder behaviors. Since I often used behaviors to avoid my feelings, I had to find a new outlet for those feelings. Talking to my therapist and other people that I really trusted became that outlet. I was often afraid of being judged, but whenever I spoke to people I trusted they were incredibly understanding and kind. Letting it out instead of keeping it all in was incredibly healing.

Leading up to the relapse I had been slowly isolating myself. I hadn’t seen my therapist in almost a month. I hadn’t been in contact with my most trusted friends. I had convinced myself I didn’t have time to call or that I didn’t need to call. I hadn’t made plans to see anyone because I was “too busy”. All of the anxiety I was trying to avoid by being so busy was building up inside with no release valve.

I Wasn’t Paying Attention to How I Ate

Right before I stopped using behaviors I read the book “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. This book literally changed my life. It introduced me to the concept that our bodies are made to know how to eat, but dieting and messages from society about how we are “supposed” to eat make it impossible to listen to our bodies. The book provides guidelines for getting back in touch with your body so you can recognize its natural hunger and fullness signals.

One of the suggested tools for learning to recognize hunger and fullness signals is mindful eating. Mindful eating is a practice that requires paying close attention during the process of eating. When eating mindfully, you generally eat without distractions like TV or a computer. You eat slowly, really savoring every bite. You check in with yourself while eating asking questions like “does this still taste good? Do I want another bite? Am I full yet?” Eating becomes almost a meditative ritual that allows you to connect to your body.

Earlier on in my recovery I used mindful eating a lot to learn to recognize my hunger and fullness signals. Reconnecting to my body enough to know when I was hungry and full allowed me to find a lot of freedom around eating.

Gradually I began to trust my body and moved away from mindful eating. I thought I was familiar enough with my body’s signals to maintain the habit of eating when I was hungry and stopping when I was full. I started to eat while distracted more often. I stopped paying attention to how my body was feeling during and after eating. I didn’t notice that my ability to pay attention to my body’s signals was decreasing. Slowly, I started overeating, just a little. Not bingeing, but eating past the point of fullness. Slowly I started waiting a bit longer between meals. I would wait to eat until I was overly hungry, which often resulted in frenzied overeating. It didn’t take long without mindful eating for my eating to get really out of sync with my body.

So What Did I Learn from this Relapse?

The most important thing I learned is that recovery takes work, even if it’s been a long time since I’ve actively used behaviors. I have to keep doing the things I did in the beginning of my recovery in order to stay behavior free.

The most important thing I have to do is confront my anxiety and difficult feelings on a regular basis. This means I need to be talking about my feelings on a regular basis. I also need to slow down and take a lot of time for self-reflection. If I allow myself to get “too busy” to reflect, I am likely to miss the fact that I’m having difficult feelings in the first place. If I am avoiding feeling my feelings this will eventually lead to a relapse.

I learned just how important my daily spiritual practices are and that maintaining them is essential. I have gotten back in to reading, journaling, and meditating on a daily basis. I am trying to get back in to a regular yoga practice, which helps me to be more present in my body.

I also learned that I have to be aware of my body and the way I am consuming food. I need to pay close attention to when I am hungry. While I am eating, I have to be aware of how the food tastes and how my body feels. I am trying to commit to not being distracted while I eat, which is hard. I am giving up my membership in the “clean plate club” and becoming comfortable with leaving food uneaten if I’m full.

I am still disappointed that I relapsed, but I am doing my best to view this as an opportunity to deepen my commitment to recovery. This relapse provided a lot of valuable information about what I need to do to maintain my recovery. Sometimes I wonder if I will always have to work this hard to maintain my recovery and it seems overwhelming. But I have heard from many people with long term recovery that it becomes easier as time goes on. I believe that one day, I will just be able to live my life without thinking about my eating disorder at all. For now, I need to put in the work and trust that it will pay off.

The Uncomfortable Process of Becoming a White Ally

After the shootings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling in July something inside me snapped. I could no longer stay silent about the racism that is overtaking this country. I was just beginning my career as a freelance writer and I wanted desperately to use my newly found voice to speak out. The problem I didn’t know I had was that I was clueless about how to use my voice to speak about racism, white supremacy, privilege, or police brutality.

The majority of my writing has come from my own experience as a white, middle class woman. I am comfortable writing about feminism, body image, eating disorders, and pop culture because these are part of my own experience. I don’t have to reach far to articulate my thoughts; I simply have to write honestly and vulnerably about things that have happened. When it came to writing about the struggles black and brown people face in this country, I always assumed it wasn’t my place. It wasn’t my experience. I should let other people write about their experiences. I shouldn’t presume to talk about something I didn’t know.

When the shootings happened, I reacted with my gut and my broken heart and decided it was my place to say something. Unfortunately, I said all the wrong things. I talked about my own feelings and how much the shootings had affected me. I spoke without recognizing my own privilege. I spoke without first understanding my own implicit biases. I spoke as if my voice was special and would bring change when other voices had not. I spoke about my experience without acknowledging the experiences of people of color, who were actually being traumatized.

Luckily, I have friends who have existed in activist and social justice spaces much longer than I have and they spoke to me about the problems with what I was saying. They were kind enough to direct me to articles and books I could read. They taught me about amplifying the voices of people of color rather than speaking out with my own voice. They asked me to look at my thoughts and beliefs to identify how they were problematic. These friends spent their time having conversations with me about recognizing my own racism and privilege. They directed me to groups of white people who were having similar conversations and struggling with how to help without hurting.

I began to see that I held racist thoughts and beliefs, just like most people in this country. This is a result of a culture that subtly reinforces how we should think about people of color through public conversation, news coverage, media representations, and economics. This culture of insidious racism is powerful enough to have an effect on all of us, whether we can see it or not. I never would have thought that I was racist. I was raised by exceptionally liberal parents who promoted the concept of colorblindness. I have black and brown friends. I even dated a black girl once. I was that white person who says “I like people of color, therefore I can’t be racist, right?” I never bothered to look deeper than that.

Instead, like so many of us, I pushed down racist thoughts and feelings when they arose. I derided myself when I felt uncomfortable driving through “bad neighborhoods” mostly populated by people of color. I felt ashamed when I dismissed the experiences of people of color with thoughts like “well that doesn’t happen to all black people” or “that doesn’t happen where I live”. I barely gave it a second thought when I justified police shootings by villainizing the victim or assuming they had a gun. I was unwilling to acknowledge that these thoughts and feelings existed within me and that they made me racist.

I couldn’t see my own privilege as a white woman. I’d never had to think about all the things that were easier for me because of the color of my skin. When I was up to no good late at night as a rebellious teenager I never worried about being beaten or shot if I ran in to the police. My parents never had to teach me how to interact with police officers so I would be safe. I had access to good public schools because my parents could afford to live in a wholesome, mostly white, Connecticut suburb. When I applied to college I never worried that I wouldn’t be accepted because I didn’t fit some demographic requirement. If I get pulled over I do not fear for my life or my safety. My life is and has been significantly easier because I am white, and that is the definition of privilege. I need to be able to acknowledge this privilege so that I can truly listen to the experiences of people of color and understand how different their experiences are from my own.

I was also unable to recognize the white supremacy in the United States. Whenever I heard people talking about white supremacy scenes from American History X flashed through my brain. I assumed they were talking about the KKK or neo-Nazis; things I had very little experience with as a woman who’s only ever lived in liberal New England towns. I didn’t realize that white supremacy refers to the way the country is structured to benefit white people and not people of color. White supremacy is about the fact that American society is built to make it easier for white people to move through the world. It refers to the reality that people of color do not have access to the same resources as white people, even if policy and legislation says they theoretically do. Even our assumptions about activism and social justice are based around whiteness. We believe that being equal means having access to the same life as a white person, which doesn’t even take in to account what people of color want or need. What if they want a world created in their image, not mine?

Looking deep within myself and gaining all this insight was extremely uncomfortable. I felt like an awful person. I was humiliated by my feelings. I was ashamed of the systems that benefited me and hurt others. I felt dumb. I felt ignorant. I sat with these feelings. I talked about them with my friends who had already been through this processing. I got together with groups of other white people struggling with this process. I read a lot of articles. I read some books. I listened to people of color. I began to really understand what it means to be a white ally.

Being a white ally means really listening to the experiences of people of color. It means being willing to educate other white people about racism, privilege, and white supremacy because the responsibility of education should not fall on the shoulders of people of color. They are already too exhausted from experiencing racism in their everyday lives. Being a white ally means speaking up when someone says something racist, even if it means other white people not liking you. It means being willing to make mistakes, own them, and change. It means being willing to attend meetings, rallies, and protests to show your solidarity. It means shutting up when you don’t know what to say and it means speaking up when you do know what to say.

Becoming a white ally in the fight for racial justice is hard. It’s not comfortable. It’s emotionally exhausting and sometimes it’s traumatizing. But it’s nothing compared to experiencing systematic racism on a daily basis. As white people, we should be willing to take on this journey in order to dismantle the injustice people of color face constantly.

I realize that I’m not saying anything new here. Many smarter and more aware people have said these things before. I still think it’s important to talk, among white folks, about how hard it is to confront privilege and become a true ally. It’s hard because racism is hard and white supremacy is pervasive and white folks need to take time to process how hard it is. But we should not be taking that time and space from people of color. They don’t need to hear us whine about how hard social justice is; they’ve known for a long time. It’s about time we shoulder some of the burden.