By Kaila Eckstein, Women AdvaNCe Intern
“This is not my space. These are not my stories. I do not belong here. I should leave.”
These are the thoughts that ran through my mind during the opening; as it would turn out, I was only half right. The 2017 North Carolina Black Women and Girls Summit was not my space nor was it filled with my stories. I was one of two white people, the other being my fellow intern. The discomfort I felt from occupying a space that was not meant for me was a new experience. As a white person, a majority of institutions, spaces, and structures are built for and by people who look like me. However, I was here for work so I sat in the back, quietly, pen in hand, and listened.
It was the best thing I ever did.
I was raised to be extremely liberal and progressive. I believe that Black Lives Matter. I believe intersectional feminism is the only feminism. I would consider myself fairly woke. And yet, sitting in the back of this Summit, simply listening, I felt like I was seeing for the first time. My eyes were opened to the fact that my experiences as a woman were not the universal experiences of all women. I listened to woman after woman, all with exceedingly impressive credentials, sit on panels and share more than just their expertise. Each woman shared her story, her life, her experiences. Experiences I did not, and could not, have, because I am not a woman of color. Experiences that I could not empathize with but found great sympathy for. Injustices that angered me, almost as much as my own naivete .
I am not a woman of color and that is exactly why these were neither my space nor my stories, but it is also why I absolutely belonged and I am so thankful I did not leave. I listened to my fellow women talk about oppression that I would have remained blind to had I not been in that room. I listened to the incredible work they were doing that I would have remained ignorant about had I not been in that room. I truly understood the importance of intersectionality in a way no assigned reading or research paper could ever give me.
We are in the “both, and” time in this movement, this revolution, this fight. We cannot end sexism until we end racism until we end income inequality and so on. Oppression does not happen in a vacuum and so neither can our resistance. It is our responsibility, our obligation, and our privilege to listen to other communities’ experiences. To build each other up we have to listen to each other. That may mean occupying a space where you aren’t comfortable, it may mean learning to sit and listen rather than talk, it certainly means recognizing your privilege and setting it aside.
Swallowing my white privilege and sitting in that Summit just listening was the most astonishing experience of my life. I learned more from the women in that room than I have in 16 years of school. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to listen, and I encourage everyone to step out of their comfort zone and go learn something.