A couple of years ago, I was interviewed on British daytime television on the subject of polyamory. Amid the strong chorus of slut-shaming and condemnation on social media, there were a few comments pertaining to my middle class, modulated voice and–at least outwardly–respectable demeanour. I was a surprise, because I didn’t look like someone who would contravene the monogamous norm.
See, I don’t really look like a person in an open relationship, I look monogamous. I don’t look bisexual either–whatever that stereotype denotes–I live with a man (most assume I am in a sexual relationship with him), we raise two children together, I’ve only had a smattering of romantic attractions to women and acted on even fewer and thus look heterosexual, normative and well, not the teensiest bit stereotypically queer.
The invisibility of who I am underneath defines my life in many ways as it might yours. I don’t look like anything but what I am on the surface–a middle-aged mother living in a white suburb with greying hair. You cannot see my sexuality, my politics, my personal predilections. An elocuted accent thanks to my socially climbing mother hides my Northern roots so that I blend in to posh society. Even when secrets from my life are exposed, I’m still not queer, I’m just ‘eccentric’. My uncle is also ‘eccentric’ because we have very roomy closets. For better or for worse, my white middle class privilege masks who I am, along with my experience, unless I open my mouth to speak my truth. But speaking has never come easily unless tequila is involved, because I was trained as a child to defer to authority. Yet I have experienced trauma. Pain, which because of my privilege is often ignored, invalidated and belittled.
Privileged white woman pain is more gradual and less dramatic than that experienced by intersectional minorities. It is insidious. Kind of like bonsai trees, white women used to have the innate capacity to grow to a normal size but our roots and branches are cut so that we grow far smaller. Stunted or trained along a trellis in such a way that few see, sometimes not even us. We–white women–still live. We still bloom. We still access what we need to survive, at least in our current form. But many of us live as bonsais trapped from the inside out. We are the salt of the earth in our communities, the token nod to feminism in the workplace, or the arm candy/gold digger/trophy wife, until we try to grow to what could have been our normal size and shape at which point we become useless to the patriarchy: put on meds (which we have access to because of our privilege), put back in our gilded cages (which we have access to because of our privilege). Tended by the patriarchy as tangible proof that women aren’t built to cope for a man’s world. Society expects us to be nurturing, family-orientated and child-bearing. We were made for sacrifice. And we’re not allowed to be angry about it, why should we be?
I was. I have tried to make my voice heard. I have tried and make myself more visible. On a personal level, rape and abuse was swept under the carpet because reputations mattered more than mental health, recovery or even accountability. Police, parents and friends they all said the same. The slight chance of a successful outcome, isn’t worth the fight. Even if you win this battle you will lose the war because the social ramifications are too great. On a professional level, I had the privilege to access education, to climb the corporate ladder. They told me that only substance mattered, and that my form was irrelevant. That was a lie. Because no matter how well I did, the higher I got–even as a C-level finance director–the harder I had to fight, the more white men felt threatened by me. And as soon as I had a child and couldn’t work 12 hours with heavy drinking in between, no jobs were available.
Watch your own lives. Analyse them. See how your choices are those defined for you by men, along channels which are approved by men. See how you are not allowed to embrace your sexuality, decide on your reproductive choices, how you defer in the public arena to the patriarchy, how you’ve changed yourself, the way you speak, the way you act, the way you dress, to fit into a male world and to support your male counterparts.
Whilst there are other ways to build a world, in this world, in a hierarchical world, there only a little space at the top by definition and as a woman, even a white woman, I don’t have access to it. Period. I cannot win that fight in a way that respects who I am, and the way I want to be and how I want to live even if it seems like such a small step. In fact it is because it is so small and therefore ‘not worth fighting’ that my own fight cannot be won. It is impossible to rally the world behind something so invisible, especially when it seems like we almost have it all. Or hasn’t anyone ever asked you why you need feminism? Do you still believe you don’t? Don’t kid yourself that you are regarded as equal.
That the system works hierarchically, is both it’s greatest strength and why it’s lasted so long, but is also its greatest weakness. It is built on the backs of the poor, the downtrodden, the intersectional. This is what needs to be ripped out from the bottom. This is what will destroy the system and make the pyramid topple. It’s why the campaigns black lives matter is a better tool than all lives matter, why the campaign LGBTQ right are human rights is better positioned to be won and why TERFs as well as being a bigoted hot mess, are just plain stupidly shooting their own feet. The more intersectional the experience, the greater the visibility of persecution, the greater the possibility of showing the world how harmful the system is. The system that is also harmful to you. The system that prevents you from being who you were meant to be. The system that has turned you into a bonsai, even if you wear a pant suit, work 12 hours a day and tell yourself that you’ve made it.
I cannot in any way say that the advent of fascism, Trump or Brexit is a blessing. But what has previously been couched in the veneer of political correctness, is now naked, ugly and obvious. It is an enemy we can fight. It is hatred we can point to. It is a way to dismantle the system and start again. And whilst I would love nothing more than for white women to fight for what is decent and right, if what is decent and right seems to go against our own survival, I fear that it is a lost cause. But luckily what is decent and right is also aligned with our own survival, if only we stop believing the lies that have been fed us.
We were not meant to be bonsais.