Putting my mother in the “shame corner”
“I don’t know why I have these conversations with you”, my mum sighs, as she slowly retreats to her bedroom. “I always end up in the shame corner.”
We’ve been arguing for half an hour about everything from Islamophobia, to trans issues, to Nicki Minaj (who I always seem to go back to).
But when the argument reaches a boiling point she walks away, defeated, and I’m suddenly hit with a wave of sadness and guilt. The anger in my words wells up as tears in my eyes. I realise that we weren’t arguing, I was lecturing again. Again I’ve failed to use my words effectively, and again she has walked away feeling disillusioned and uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry”, I say softly as she leaves the room. “I just wanted to talk to you about these things”.
To her, I represent a new brand of smug and vitriolic politicised youth, toting their fresh university-fed feminism, trained to shut down the opinions of older folk with a quick and biting “they’ll be gone soon”. To me, she represents the well intentioned liberal baby-boomer, well versed in her 70s feminism but clearly bothered by the feminist thought I engage with. When I believe something does not occupy enough space in public discourse, I always get the impression that she thinks it should be kept that way. Our arguments invariably go into issues that neither of us are necessarily affected by.
For years we have been through this cycle: I come home, fuelled by my peers and the internet, with all sorts of ideas that I want to mouth off about, which invariably creates conflict. Every time it’s happened I’ve brought out the gender theory I’ve learned at uni, plus whatever else I’ve found online, like a forcefield of pdfs detailing my superior knowledge.
But this time it clicked: why am I trying to defeat her? Why am I building a forcefield when I should be building a bridge? I have been nasty, and I have been smug. I have called her out mid-sentence, when we were barely on the same page to begin with. I made her uncomfortable by intellectualising things past the point of comprehension, instead of seeking to help her comprehend. Most importantly, I spoke but never listened.
The thing is, I’m privileged enough that when I get angry about these things it doesn’t come from a place of personal hurt and trauma. When I am made uncomfortable by transmisogyny or racism, it is my opinion that is being invalidated, as opposed to my very existence.
I would never expect a person affected by injustice to be polite and calm when calling it out. Anger is valid and anger speaks to a person’s emotional truth, a truth that in so many women has long been silenced and needs to be heard.
But for me, in my privileged position, I need to recognise the difference between defending other women and defending my own opinion. So many politicised youth rightly earn a reputation as being smug, because so many of us try to hold intellectual “ally status” over other people. Awareness is not a badge, and we are not helping unless our care comes from a desire to build bridges rather than elevate ourselves.
At the Moonlight Feminist Wine Club, we talk about respecting the women around us at the different stages of their feminist growth. We speak about the callout culture that we all know too well online, and how we can hinder rather than help our fellow women when we call them out too aggressively. I thought constructive conversation was something I was good at. Turns out I could be gentle amongst peers, but nothing short of cruel to my own mother.
Yes, I consider some of her ideas problematic, and it’s important that I address them. But I need to be gentle with my arguments, and listen as much as I speak: listening is one of the most intelligent and constructive things I can do.
My mum is brilliantly clever, and she’s endured more than I ever have. She knows the power of the women around her and she feeds off it. She shrugs off bullshit sexism from strangers and colleagues alike and she has taught me to be proud, self-reliant and resilient.
I’m sorry mum, I just wanted to talk to you about these things. I am brimming with so many ideas and I want to shout them from the rooftops, not at you. We are all on a different journey with our feminism. I have so much to learn from you, and we can learn plenty from each other.
So I’m making a new rule for myself to live by: I will speak with my fellow women with open ears and a gentle tongue. Because no woman should try to engage only to get bullied into a shame corner.