We all know that racism and sexism and that ilk can be practiced both overtly or subtly. Generally, I think in our culture the discourse is focused on the overt practice: firing someone for being a woman, for example, or arresting someone for being black. But there's also the subtle pressure of racism and sexism that many of us encounter every day. These are the comments that people dismiss by saying "I was only joking", or when they say things like "...for a girl". There's no firm, overt barrier to your choices, but instead there is a social pressure being brought to bear on you.
Against this sort of sexism and racism, the privilege of intelligence has protected me, and allowed me to remain fairly oblivious. Some time ago, if you had asked me whether I had experienced racism in my life, I would have shrugged and said "No". But now thinking back on my childhood I remembered that in elementary school there were several kids who would often run after me on the playground, pulling the corners of their eyes up with their hands and shouting "Look at me, I'm Chinese!" I remembered that in fourth grade our cafeteria cashiers would, for an entire year, confuse me with the only other Chinese (Taiwanese?) girl in my school, despite the fact that she had long hair and glasses while I had short hair and no glasses. They joked about it with us, saying "I can never tell you two apart!"
But back then, and even until recently, I just chalked it up to the fact that other people were stupid. It was easy for me to do that: since second grade I had been tracked into Gifted and Talented programs, achieving scores at the top of my grade. Despite the fact that I was taunted for my race, I never thought the harassment was racially motivated, and could easily brush it off by claiming the superiority of my intelligence - something that was backed up by the authority of the school system and my teachers. I read a book recently (which my mother lent to me) called Yell-oh Girls
, a collection of essays by Asian-American girls about their experiences relating to race and sex. Quite a few of these essays speak of how they wished they looked white; how they wanted to be blond and fair like princesses were portrayed. My mother asked me whether I had ever felt that way. The answer is no, because I placed my own self-worth in my mind and intelligence, where I was wildly successful, rather than popularity or looks, where I was fairly unsuccessful. The difference between those girls and me is that I chose to abandon that field of battle for another one where I could win; not all girls had that advantage or could decide to take it. There are super-intelligent women who were not allowed to ignore the stings of racism, and there are average-intelligence women who are able to call on other things to allow themselves to ignore the biases and insults. The point isn't that intelligence *always* protects you against racism - the point is that I *could* use that as an escape hatch, and that I *did*.
A year ago I would have told you that I haven't experienced sexism either, but that's equally wrong. In high school a friend of mine was convinced I was only admitted to a prestigious university because I was female (affirmative action, you see). My freshman year of college, a misogynistic and racist group of students published and widely circulated a mailing which claimed that the minorities at the college were not as intelligent or deserving of their admittance as the white males enrolled. Not only that, but many men who I was friends with told me that they felt the mailing had a point, while many of the women I knew were devastated by the accusation and felt even less like they belonged there. The mailing was insidious and effective, largely because it capitalized on an environment which already conspired to make women and minorities feel unwelcome. How did I avoid a similar crisis of self-doubt? In precisely the same way I did in elementary school: I continued to be very successful in my academics, and could rely on that certainty to buttress my conviction that those misogynists were "stupid". It was more difficult than it had been in elementary school to dismiss them and their supporters, but I still could. I tried to convince female friends of mine to brush off the accusations, but my words could only go so far when there was already so many factors working together to convince them that they didn't belong.
I was and am extremely lucky. Every step of the way from when I first entered mainstream (and non-so-mainstream) culture, I have been told by every teacher and adult and other student that I am extremely smart and talented. Very few people are afforded this privilege. I knew I was good enough to succeed, whether or not I was a female minority; my consistent stream of A's proved that over and over again in writing. That was a shield against the sexism and racism I encountered, and that was a shield which allowed me the privilege of ignoring their existence for much of my life.
Ignorance doesn't mean these isms disappear, however. From the moment I picked up "Feminist Mystique", and from the point three-ish years ago where I started voraciously reading feminist blogs and blogs on racism, I have been encountering successive "lightbulb moments" where I suddenly can put a name to themes that have run through all of my life, where I can explain the why and the how and realize what I do to compensate. I cannot overestimate how much of a sea change this has been - where before I was muddling about in the dark, feeling the tide pull me in various directions, now I can see where the motion is coming from, and explain why I feel the way I do. This is why feminist theory, gender theory, and race theory are important: because while the personal may not always be the political, the political reverberates its way down to every detail in my life, and my world, and I cannot understand the whole of myself until I understand where those echoes are coming from.