Thursday, December 01, 2005

Justifying My Existence

There's an old set of short stories by Isaac Asimov about a group called the Black Widowers. They're a fascinating bunch of stories, but I'm not going to talk about them. At least not in specific. However the structure of the stories is always the same. The Black Widowers have their monthly dinner and one of them brings a guest. After the meal the guest is grilled, invariably provides some sort of problem or mystery for the Widowers to solve, which after much discussion and speculation, they inevitably do.

The first question of that grilling is always "How do you justify your existence?"

I never liked the question; it always bothered me.

In the last two days there have been two sets of discussions in the feminist blogger community that have been making me feel the same way.

First was the controversy over the Linda Hirschman article declaring that more women were opting out of the workforce, especially among the more educated, prosperous women. The opting out proves to be a myth, based on Hirschman's poor choice of data collection and preconceptions. Nonetheless a whole host of discussions of the feminism or lack thereof in the choices women make about family, work, mothering, and homemaking.

The second is "Blog Against Racism Day", which is today, where a long list of worthy bloggers are covering topics relevant to racism. Check out pandagon if you want to see some good stuff.

Both of these are good topics. Both make me uncomfortable in hard to define ways. It finally occurred to me that in both discussions I feel pressured to justify myself, my choices, and even my existence whenever a real discussion gets going - but on opposite sides of the wall of priviledge depending on which debate it is.

When the topic of feminism gets going, I am a SAHM, an aspiring author, but with no paychecks to my credit yet. I am decidedly feminist by philosophy, yet in my life I seem to have made all the most traditional choices. I feel as if I have to defend both my right to be feminist, and my right to live my life as I choose every time this topic comes up. Am I being a hypocrit to stay home for seven years, rather than being out and working? Am I being feminist, or just lazy when I desire S to do more of the housework so that I can put in writing time, even though as yet I earn no money. My MIL and mother both say "Yes." I'm home, he's not, I should do the housework. My friends who write say "No.", writing is my work, and if I don't treat it as such I will never earn money at it. I feel like whichever I do, I'm going to end up having to justify my choice to everyone in sight, and it drives me crazy.

The race discussion though is almost worse, because I have to justify not my choices, but my existence. Other than being female, I am in almost every priveleged class there is. My parents are relatively wealthy, S and I are solidly in the middle to upper-middle class. I'm not just white, but very white - Anglo with ancestors who came over with the Mayflower, FFV, etc. etc. I have an education that cost more than I like to think about. Sometimes I feel like I'm offensive just by standing here breathing. I don't know what it's like to be minority or ethnic, and I likely never will. I understand that. But many of my attempts to understand or to reach across the divides are seen as condescending, and I don't know how to avoid that. Sometimes I think the ubiquitous "some of my best friends are (black/Asian/whatever)" stems from the need to prove, not that one is not racist, but that one is trying not to be racist. It's a phrase I try to avoid at all cost, but it gets hard to avoid when you enter into a discussion of race and someone tells you that you will never understand because you are white, priveleged, etc. It's true that I am all these things. It's true that I will never know what it's like to be a minority. It's equally true that I can't change these things about myself. All I can do is to try to understand as best I can, and to help change the system that makes things this way.

And then we get into "white guilt". Let's not go there.

Maybe it's my tendancy to agonize over things, but the "no right choices" aspect of both of these discussions drives me crazy. It hurts everyone involved in some way or another. Perhaps the true privileged class are those people who are so certain of their world-view that they never have to question their place and value in the world, and powerful enough that other people never make them do it. That's a luxury the world really can't afford.

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