What being a first-time visible minority taught me about intersectional feminism

Every day, people stare at me on the subway. In fact, they stare at me pretty much everywhere I go. When interacting with others, I am aware that I do so alongside a bundle of stereotypes. Of preconceived notions. Of judgments. On better days, people try to talk to me. They ask me where I come from. They want to know about my hair and how it came to be the way it is. On worse days, they deny me entry into their restaurants, bars and clubs. Sometimes claiming to be closing. Other times, with a sign outright banning people like me from their establishments. I am white. I am Canadian. I am a platinum blond cis woman. And I am currently living in South Korea, where I am experiencing life as a visible minority for the first time.

I’m not here to whine about how it felt when I inserted myself into a foreign culture and was confronted with the discrimination so many face on a constant basis. Rather, I’m here to explain why living in Korea has taught me the importance of owning up to my privilege as a white feminist and how I’ve come to wholeheartedly embrace intersectional feminism.

Before moving to Korea, I wasn’t always so aware of my privilege. I remember really coming face-to-face with for the first time, three years ago, at a bus stop in Quebec City.

“What country do you come from?” asked the grey-haired man who’d stumbled toward us. “Canada,” I replied. “I know you’re from Canada,” he told me, emphasizing the you in you’re. “But what about them?”

He was pointing to my friends: three Canadians of Korean and Indian descent. We told him, “Also Canadian.” “No, no, no. Where are you really from? It must be China or around those parts. Maybe Japan?”

It was as though he was standing in front of a map, aimlessly throwing racist darts.

By the time we managed to ditch him and catch our bus, my white guilt complex had kicked in and I was fuming: “How could he be so ignorant? And did you hear how he said ‘those parts’? As if it was something dirty. It’s disgusting. I can’t believe that happened.”

“It’s not that big of a deal. It happens to me all the time,” Crystal replied. “It’s just what happens when you’re brown.”

“Same with when you’re Asian,” Hannah chimed in. “Don’t take this the wrong way but you’re probably so upset because you’re just not used to it.”

“I hope I didn’t offend you,” she added.

But she had. Because, growing up, I’d been taught to feel discrimination coursing through my veins with the blood of 6-million Holocaust victims. For me, the Holocaust wasn’t just a few harrowing pages in a school textbook or a screening of “Schindler’s List,” it was my zayde’s sleeping pills on the nightstand and a palpable absence of family photos — or family at all. I had been taught that we must never forget to ensure that nothing similar ever happens again. And so we must remember. And we must remember. And we must remember.

I’d learned that my neurosis is probably the result of transgenerational trauma, which lives in DNA until it can further haunt the offspring of those who acquired it. And it had been drilled into my head that anti-Semitism still runs rampant. All of which is quite true, but also left me feeling like a victim. I deemed myself “white with a marginalized mentality.” Barf. Throughout the years that followed, I grew more and more committed to feminism. So when the Women’s Marches took place, I felt gratified — hopeful, even. Until I started reading accounts from the Indigenous womyn, womyn of color, trans womyn and anyone else who felt excluded by them. I knew I needed to take a good look in the mirror — both figuratively and literally. “OK. So I don’t look stereotypically Jewish,” I thought. “Does that matter?”

Comedian Sarah Silverman has referred to my kind as “one of those charmed vanilla Jews” —blond hair, green eyes, my mother’s post-surgery nose. And I am constantly forgetting my devil’s horns in my bottom dresser drawer. I often wear a Jewish Star necklace and my name bears traces of my roots but I can’t act like I’ve never shut my mouth and taken off the necklace before. In Seoul, it’s impossible for me to hide my identity as “other” from the xenophobes I encounter, but in Canada, when posed with the question of ethnicity, I could simply say “Canadian” without any further questioning. And that’s privilege.

The fact that I have privilege does not detract from the oppression I face as a Jew. It just means that no one in Canada can see blood coursing through my veins, or my trauma-ridden DNA, or a collective anxiety complex. And my experience of the world has been shaped by that as much as my oppressions. It’s been shaped by growing up in an upper-middle class neighbourhood as much as it’s been shaped by my chubbiness and by my whiteness as much as my femaleness.

Intersectional Feminism is more than just a buzzword. Embracing intersectional feminism is about recognizing that my struggles differ from those of other womyn, and that I am unintentionally ignoring the issues that are important to them in my pursuit of white feminist ideologies. I know this because they are saying so. In order to become more inclusive and band together as a cohesive movement, feminists must recognize our privileges.

This is easy to do when you’ve moved abroad thereby dismantling your identity as you know it, allowing for a glimpse into life on another side of the coin. But in most other cases, it is difficult. Why is checking one’s privilege so damn hard?

It’s hard for the same reasons some men have a hard time swallowing feminism. We worry that admitting our privilege belittles our struggles. We worry that we as individuals are being blamed for the problems that exist in our society. We worry about the unknown that lies ahead once change prevails, if only subconsciously. Or perhaps we’re simply not tapping into the compassion necessary to internalize issues that have never affected us personally.

Whatever the case may be, it shouldn’t take moving to Korea for white feminists to understand that privilege is not clear-cut. Privilege is nuanced. It has layers. And it’s time for us to start peeling back our onions.

Ilana Belfer is a Canadian freelance journalist and creative writer striving to be less ignorant by sharing her most private contemplations with the world every chance she gets. Her words have appeared in places that include Salon, VICE, The Globe and Mail, and the Ottawa Arts Review.

One Reply to “What being a first-time visible minority taught me about intersectional feminism”

  1. Thank you Ilana for sharing how you have found new perspectives on life thanks to your recent trip. It may serve to help broaden the mentality of many other people. How nice that you remember the lessons that your Zadie taught you.

    All the best!

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