A talk I gave to Harvard/Radcliffe 1966 classmates gathered for
our 55th reunion via Zoom on June 21, 2021.
I would like to explore the connections between my work on Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) and my new memoir, These Walls Between Us: A Memoir of Friendship across Race and Class.
Shortly after I graduated from college, feminism arrived in my life. Feminism challenged me to develop a new perspective on familiar scenes and relationships, to look at my kitchen and bedroom, for example, through a new lens. I had to learn new words like sexism, patriarchy, liberation, as well as the words of my own sexuality that I had never heard said aloud before. These were keys to a freedom I hadn’t known I needed.
I think of myself as I was then, a traditionally raised upper middle class Protestant white woman whose Republican family depended on the New York Herald Tribune for news. The new vocabulary of feminism – political, social, personal – was unfamiliar and awkward for me. I remember, on my way to becoming a women’s health activist and a sex educator, how I stood in front of the mirror to practice saying the words – clitoris, orgasm, masturbation, so that I could say them in public without blushing. I remember the moment with my husband when I first spoke the words, “as a feminist,” in conversation. I remember his silence. New Words, a feminist bookstore that opened in Cambridge at that time, had it right: we were learning new words for our lives. The transition was often not comfortable.
Even the word “we” was in transition. My feminist women’s group, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, assumed early on that we as a group of white, college-educated women could say “we” and mean all women. We all have bodies, right? We are more alike than different, aren’t we? Through feedback, challenge and confrontation from women of color health activists like our colleagues in the National Black Women’s Health Project, we soon began to understand that white middle class women’s health issues were not necessarily those that most affected the lives and wellbeing of women of color and poor women, who faced pressing issues like sterilize abuse, for example, and the shocking rate of mortality for Black mothers and babies that continues today.
Part of my political education happened right there: women are as divided by class and race as we are united in being female. In fact, decades later, we would understand from the movement for trans liberation that we don’t even all mean the same thing when we say “a woman’s body.” These differences matter.
Motivated to learn more of this wider “we”, I began to read, almost exclusively, works by African American women and other women of color. Pulling their award-winning books from the packed shelves of New Words bookstore, I began to make up for the limits of my education in Harvard’s 1960’s English department. I began to study racism.
In becoming a feminist, I had looked at what took place in my kitchen and my bedroom with new eyes, and learned to use new words. As I became more aware of racism – and this took a far longer time, as I am privileged in so many ways by institutional racism – I began to bring a new perspective to other familiar scenes.
Here, for example, is the scene that gave my new book its title. A summer rental by a beach on the Atlantic Ocean. My mother—tanned white skin, blond hair—sits at a small, square dining table in a corner of an airy, sunny living room that overlooks the sea. She is eating a lunch of cucumber sandwiches just prepared for her by a young African American woman named Mary Norman, who endures the isolation of this remote white enclave each summer in order to supplement her salary in the New Jersey county corrections system. The back of my mother’s chair touches the wall that the dining area shares with the kitchen. In the kitchen, with her back to the same wall, Mary Norman sits at the end of a long trestle table, eating her own lunch. Because no one else is in the house at the moment, the kitchen door, which usually stays firmly closed, is open. The two women, back to back, are having lunch and talking.
I discovered this scene one day in the summer of my first wedding, 1964, when I returned from errands and walked past the two sets of open windows. Only decades later, after a lot of reading and a lot of learning and a slowly evolving friendship with Mary Norman, did I bring a new vocabulary to this remembered scene. The racist rules of domestic service, in which a black domestic worker is not allowed to sit in the presence of the white employer; the way white women use black domestic workers as confidants, even call them “friends” but do not treat them as equals; the ways my mother’s wealth rested solidly on centuries of unpaid work by enslaved African Americans in the south and even, quiet as it’s kept, in the north; the ways that Mary Norman’s opportunities to build financial security were being successfully and purposefully undermined by racist federal housing policies. Two women, back to back, talking. Who was free to say what? Why was each woman so lonely? And, on the long deserted ocean beach just outside the living room window, why was Mary Norman allowed only in the white uniform of service? Why did Mary and I, when we begin to walk that beach, and to talk, and maybe to become friends, have to wait until nightfall?
Learning to ask these questions revealed, for me, the white supremacy that is not the visible violence of extremists like the KKK, but the daily operation of a system that advantages people thought of as white over people of color at every turning.
White privilege, white fragility, white supremacy. Whiteness as a salient and never neutral factor in our common life. These are very present realities in communities of color. Still, speaking the words is often awkward for me, and maybe for many white members of our class. I am learning to put these words to use—as questions I ask myself, as ways to understand the world. I invite those of you who are white to do the same. Using a more accurate language, and heeding Black leaders who do so, will help us name social ills that put our country in great danger. I believe we must continue to tackle these ills, with all the energy and wisdom we have left.