How do other -isms intersect with racism?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Dawn Friedman

Before I had my kids I worked for a feminist organization that had the elimination of racism written into their institutional purpose. The YWCA’s mission statement ends with this line:

The YWCA will thrust its collective power toward the elimination of racism, wherever it exists, and by any means necessary.

I worked at the Portland, OR YWCA as the family program coordinator – working with children and their moms who were living in our short-term shelter.

The “elimination of racism” in practice meant that we had trainings about race, that we had an affirmative action hiring policy, (which didn’t do as much in reality as we hoped it would), and that we talked about issues of race as a matter of course. Working at the YWCA did a lot to form my activist sensibilities.

One of the most important things I learned there was that it’s impossible to extract a single –ism from a host of –isms. In other words, it’s impossible to talk about racism without acknowledging sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc..

I thought of this again in light of the comments on naming. As Meera said, “[R]ace and class are substituted for one another in this society.”

As an anti-racist parent, all -isms concern me. The default person in our culture is white, straight, Christian and middle-class with a gender defined by context. (Curing a child’s fever? Female. Digging in the medicine cabinet, blindly searching for the right medication? Male.) The minute a person is outside of that default, he or she is at risk of being made a target.

The struggle of any anti-ism movement, as illustrated by the name discussion, are the -isms within that movement. Can we be antiracist when we’re adhering to classist values? Can we be antisexist if we’re heterosexist? How do we promote one group if to do so we have to step on another group? If we’re fighting for the greater good, does it matter that we have to leave some people behind?

I don’t have answers to these questions – I’m feeling it out as I go. But I remember within our activist feminist community that there was certainly a strong undercurrent of classism in our anti-racism. While we embraced Sweet Honey in the Rock and Alice Walker, we were far less likely to celebrate a real-life African American client with a bright red weave and airbrushed acrylic nails. I sense this same dichotomy in our discussions around names and hair.

I struggle with this as an activist, as a parent and as a transcultural adoptive parent. I struggle to recognize the limitations of my activism, my unpacked privilege, and my knee-jerk assumptions.

Dawn Friedman is a writer and mother to two children. Her articles have appeared in, Yoga Journal, Brain Child and the Greater Good and she is the op-ed editor at Literary Mama. She is also the founder of and since the adoption of her daughter in 2004 has become passionate about the need for adoption reform. She blogs at this woman’s work.

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