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In My Feelings: Why it is Affectively Hard to Acknowledge One’s Own Oppression

The last several weeks have been difficult for many women. We saw a Senate accept weak lies from a self-entitled man. We saw many many people including for many of us, people we know, excuse accusations from a very credible witness because they didn’t reach the level of beyond reasonable doubt even though this is a job interview rather than a court of law, and even though people of color are robbed of the presumption of innocence when they are shot down by police. We saw a sitting U.S. President mock a woman for having honest memory lapses in her account of a traumatic attempted sexual assault. We saw, as Martha Nussbaum noted, white men and their supporters being outraged at being called to account for their bad behavior. Despite all the reasons that this nominee should have been disqualified, we saw a partisan push to confirm him as the next justice on the Supreme Court.

I broke down crying twice on Friday when I realized this confirmation was happening. I cried because this confirmation sends the signal that elected officials in the U.S. government and many of their supporters do not care about the trauma women suffer from sexual assault. They think it is the nature of boys. They think it is not that big of a deal. They think women are weak for complaining. They are mad that women have been strong by speaking up. They think if sexual assault could derail a nomination then no man could be nominated. They think that would be a bad thing.

It was a long time since I cried in the face of these realities. I’ve been thinking about why I don’t walk around emotionally distraught more often. It would be impossible to live if one let oneself feel how bad the oppression is all the time. In order to protect ourselves, in order to survive, people who experience not only oppression but the reality that their oppression does not matter, that it is not a concern to others, have to find ways to low-key ignore the oppression. Personally, I have to ignore the many many times men: explain things to me rather than recognize my expertise, assign my ideas to a man, try to shut me down and condescend to me in professional settings, make me feel like I am whining and complaining when I raise questions about diversity and inclusion, assign to me exaggerated claims about gender-related inequality in order to dismiss them. Together, we have to ignore the ways the Senate just conspired to silence women and make us feel like we are exaggerating our concerns.

In order to protect ourselves, we have to ignore how really egregious it all is. From ignoring it in order to protect ourselves, it is a short road to start to think, for our own sanity, that it isn’t really that bad. If it were that bad, we couldn’t possibly deal with it. Since we don’t want to think of ourselves as victims all the time, since we don’t want to suggest that we aren’t strong enough to deal with things, and since we don’t want to acknowledge that yes this state of things continues to do real harm to us, we live and act as if it really isn’t that big a deal. We can still function. We are strong. We have not been undone by all the injustice. If this is the case, we wonder, perhaps it is not that bad. It can’t be that bad right? If it were, how could we go on?

I think this response is a kind of self-care. But I’m concerned that this response approaches a place where it becomes acceptance for this behavior, allowance of it. I wonder even if the inability to deal with what it would have to mean for oneself and how really wronged one has been is what drives all these white women to support men like Kavanaugh. I think they are wrong. But I can see how that position is a short road from here. I want to say to all those women, you can still be strong and capable and they can still have done and continue to do great harm to you and to other women. Acknowledging the wrong does not lessen us as women.

But acknowledging the wrong can make it hurt more. I don’t always have the strength for that. But I do have comrades-in-arms who can get mad for me when I just have to ignore the wrong. I am happy to be mad for my friends. I think an intersectional feminism involves feeling that hurt for others beyond our immediate place. Share the wrath. Stand up, fight back.

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