Updated: Sep 1, 2022
I’ve never been someone who has lots of women friends. Sans context, that sentence tends to activate a RED FLAG alert – with no analysis, this warrants a side eye from most people because it suggests arrogance (which is loaded but I digress) and a woman who, perhaps, prioritizes men (which naturally feels alarming).
Women friends are the basis of sisterhood and building community. There are no friendships like friendships with women, or rather, friendships with non-cishet men. For a long time, I felt badly about being a woman with few women friends and because I have also been called difficult, bitchy and mean, I truly felt I fell into the category of, “shitty woman who can’t experience community.”
It wasn’t until I started writing and reflecting on my experiences that I unpacked that “category” with more nuance. Patriarchy socializes us to believe that women are inherently soft and caring – that we excel in spaces where we can commune and bond. As de facto emotional creatures (again, defined by patriarchy) our relationships are framed as deeper and bound by a sisterhood that exists solely on our common identity. In addition to the intimacy factor we are purported to have, women are also positioned as incapable of harm. As direct opposites of patriarchy’s concept of masculinity, we are not recognized as aggressors or initiators of violence.
Even with the nuance of being Black women, we often are not the center of conversations about perpetuating violence, instead on the receiving end. And while that is necessary, full stop, it also erases an entire conversation about our capacity for harm. As usual, I want to be very cautious and clear here: conversations centering and aiming to recognize the massive amounts of violence we endure are necessary. AND we also need to be discussing other forms of violence – this is and/both, not either/or. The familiar (and accurate) positionality that we are often victims makes it easier for us to hide our harm and repackage it as our own victimization. It also provides little incentive to be accountable since it is so easy to escape culpability.
The very idea that humans cannot both endure and enact violence erases our complexities and fucks up our ability to be honest about how we can actually achieve communities where harm doesn’t exist and accountability does. Ignoring women’s violence (physical, emotional or otherwise) forces us to de-prioritize or even deny harm between women couples, for instance. Or violence women enact on children (physical, sexual, etc.). Or violence women enact on men. Or violence women enact in the workplace. The existence of other forms of violence and their frequency doesn’t negate what we’re capable of.
It’s easy for me to both recognize and discuss men’s harm. Women’s harm, not so much. Women’s harm has been so difficult for me to discuss that I have chosen mostly not to talk about it. But the truth is, women’s harm has repeatedly removed my desire (or sense of safety) from connecting with women in a meaningful way. Between ill-intended friendships, coercive qualities and overall lack of dishonesty, historically speaking, my friendships with women have left a bad taste in my mouth. This also expands to women in general. My mother. My aunt. Mothers of friends. Women teachers. I can count on one hand the times I’ve been able to have honest conversations with women about both harm I have enacted (against them or otherwise) and harm they have enacted (on me or otherwise). And to push that further, what accountability looks like once we’ve recognized said harm.
What does accountability look like for a group that often receives zero redress for harm done to us? Does our accountability rely on receiving amends first? What does intra-community accountability look like, amongst just us? How do we sit and acknowledge traditions of ignoring harm and work towards rectifying that? How do we even pinpoint harm when there are varying levels of power at play, when perhaps the victim isn’t quite the person we’re used to it being? How has silence and denial upheld our ability to continue harm? How do definitions of oppression allow us to hide behind our harm?
If I have learned nothing else, it’s that I am neither immune to harm or being harmful – that reality is something I expect other women to recognize (and people in general) if I plan on being intimate with them. I’ve found it difficult to initiate/facilitate conversations where women are honest about their violence; whether that be violence that is socially acceptable for women to enact or the kind that lies outside of that. It’s standard for women to admit to coercive behaviors in relationships (behaviors that include physical violence or not) but the framing of those conversations rarely point out harm, rather how “attractive” those traits are a la “crazy girls have the best pussy” (and while that is a perspective created by cishet men, it’s upheld by us when we buy into it). And I’ve hardly ever witnessed women explicitly discuss behavior like engaging in physical violence against their children, of any age, and its detrimental effects. The former part here being acknowledgment; the rarer, latter part being accountability.
It’s been useful for me to start with myself and the reality that I am capable of harm. If we believe the opposite, safe spaces will never exist. The idea that I am above harming others, in part, is the foundation for blindly creating trauma for others. Once that reality is recognized, it allows conversations about accountability to happen. It allows me to be told who and how I hurt. And further, it allows me to work towards repairing that hurt. There seems to be a sense of embarrassment associated with admitting and aligning with being harmful – I encourage you to ask yourself, “so, what?” Your embarrassment about being “wrong” is not more important than your responsibility to atone (and perhaps the damage you’ve done is tied up in damage that’s been done to you – we can talk about that too).
Is our goal to create healthier spaces? If so, part of that requires looking inward.