Several years ago, a colleague and I were invited to speak at a conference of progressive law students at Harvard. We were there to share the results of our research project on young women of color, which made clear that the ways reproductive health and rights activists talked to young women did not resonate with them. Our research also stressed that young women were interested in a more holistic health agenda that emphasized not just reproductive and sexual health, but also mental health.
After our presentations, my colleague and I sat at a table in one of the meeting areas. We were interrupted by one of the law students who had heard our presentation. Her name was Jill. She had a question that she hadn’t gotten a chance to ask during the session. “How can a privileged, white woman like me do this work?” We were completely taken aback. That question seems to lurk just below the surface of these conversations, but rarely does anyone strike up the courage to ask it. My colleague and I looked at each other and decided to engage with Jill honestly. We were eager for a meaningful conversation that would challenge the power structures in the reproductive health and rights movement as well as long-held and firmly entrenched ideas about what our priorities should be and who we were fighting for.
For almost two hours we talked about the how the movement’s laser-focus on abortion, and to a lesser extent, birth control, neglected many other issues, concerns that were more salient and critical to women and communities of color. Issues like health care and economic security. We talked about how the language used in our messaging and other communications alienated women by focusing on privacy and individualistic frames, and failing to incorporate ideas of family and community. As time passed, more law students joined us. They surrounded us; some sat down; none joined in the conversation; but they all listened. This was clearly a question that many of them were struggling with. As law students and future lawyers, they were in positions of power that most of us are not, nor ever will be. How could they lend their skills to this movement in a different way? How could they contribute to a broad, holistic agenda without reinforcing the inequities around race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc?
In the time since that conversation, reproductive justice has emerged as a powerful frame to address many of the issues that we talked about on that winter day. Both my organization and I have undergone our own transformations, realizing that reproductive justice is inherently about power – shifting it, building it and leveraging it so that we can all lead healthy lives. We use the language of reproductive justice to anchor the lived experiences of marginalized communities, especially women of color, at the core of this fight. And we challenge the status quo by presenting a whole new vision for what the world could look like.
Yet the question remains. What is the role of privileged white women in the reproductive justice movement? The reason this question is so hard is because at its heart, this question is about power. It’s easier to recognize how we are oppressed than it is to articulate the privilege we benefit from. It’s not as if oppression and privilege cancel each other out. This isn’t arithmetic. And we have to figure out how we want to live our lives based on how both have shaped our world view. Ultimately, answering this question means we must acknowledge that the privilege white women benefit from continues to silence those most affected by reproductive oppression.
So back to the “Jill question”. These are my thoughts based on conversations I have had over the years. None of it is particularly innovative or earth-shattering but I want to put it out there as a way to continue what I think is an important conversation. Reproductive justice cannot succeed if white women, privileged or otherwise are not part of the fight.
- Start with yourself. Come to terms with your privilege. Then reconcile that with how you have been affected by systems of oppression. A fuller, more honest understanding of how structures like racism and heterosexism dominate our society and undermine the health and well-being of our communities is critical to advancing reproductive justice for all people.
- Do the work that needs to be done. You know best what you can contribute to the movement. Your skills, your resources, your very being are important to building a powerful, vibrant movement. Can you volunteer to make phone calls to your state representatives? Can you make a donation to an annual campaign? What about serving on the Board of Directors of a local organization? These are all ways that you can move the work of reproductive justice forward.
- Organize in your own communities. We all come from communities, ethnic, religious, political, and otherwise. You can educate and organize others in your community, starting with friends, peers and family. Explain to them the importance of reproductive justice, why you are committed to that vision and get them involved in the movement.
- Build and share power. That means working in solidarity with others to create a strong base of support and leadership to advance our agenda. This may mean also that the people and organizations that we have traditionally looked to for leadership, take a different role, and that we make space for new voices and develop new leaders.
Confronting privilege, in all forms, is a critical exercise in achieving reproductive justice. How do we support each other through that process, while we also hold each other accountable for the privilege we benefit from?
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