or how I learned to (start to) unlearn
by Sara F. Kirk
Intersectional feminist thought encourages identity differences and acknowledgment of how different facets of identity shape our minds and lives. There are many ways to engage with the world and “fact.” Fact isn’t stagnant; it’s fluid. If fact is fluid, so are knowing and learning. In the process of creating this paper, I had to confront my own relationship to knowing and learning. I shared these vulnerable findings with my instructor and classmates when I first presented this work in WMST4011W: Understanding Research in Women’s Studies. The creative and critical works I encountered and the conversations and interactions I had in this course altered the way I exist in academia. This course taught me that emotion is valid as data. Conversation and connection are valuable forms of research. There is not just one way to know, and there is not just one way to be.
feminism, methodology, neurodivergence, psychology, emotion
My main argument is this: There are many, many ways to know and interact with things. Feminist methodology encourages diversity in knowing. There is not just one way to know things; there is not just one way to be. My time as a student in WMST4011W: Understanding Research in Women’s Studies helped me to solidify these ideas, and introduced me to the notion that the confrontation of fact and normalcy is a good thing, and should be encouraged.
Positionality + Rationale
I am actively considering ethics and intersectionality as I navigate this piece (and as I navigate the elsewhere beyond this paper). I draw from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1991) original definition of intersectional feminism as “…the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s employment experience” (1244). While other scholars have elaborated on this definition, like JSTOR’s interpretation of intersectionality as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other” (2020, 1), it is important to remember that Crenshaw’s original ideology derived from Black feminism and pertained to the experiences of Black women and their unique experiences with oppression because their “oppression couldn’t be encompassed exclusively with the terms ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’” (JSTOR 2020, 1).
My position as a white, feminine person means I navigate conversations with a notable amount of privilege. This privilege needs to be addressed and considered. I also keep in mind that I am neurodivergent, which means that my brain operates in a way that differs from most individuals, and I acknowledge I was struggling, mentally, when I initially wrote this piece. At the time, I was coming to terms with a whole new way of being and feeling due to the medications I was trying out and the conversations I was having in therapy, and it was hard. I acknowledge these factors and how my mental health impacts my writing, reactions, ideas, and certainly this paper. It impacts everything. Now, as I exist in academia in this new way, I acknowledge I’m also encouraged to “relearn how to learn” in ways that support my neurodivergence thanks to my women’s studies instructors and the friends and fellow students I interact with as a women’s studies major. Ultimately, I hope others will find themselves in spaces so supportive and gracious to support them as they learn and unlearn too.
Previously, I’ve turned to feminist theory for guidance in understanding the intricacies of the body and mind in the realms of body neutrality and acceptance; I continue to learn how best to work with my own perception of body and mind. In her essay “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” author and activist bell hooks (1991) writes that she originally sought out feminist theory “because [she] was hurting [in a way that she] could not go on living…. [She] came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within [her]”; she saw theory as “…a location for healing” (37). While my positionality and situation differ greatly from hooks’, I think of this quote often when I consider why I use feminist methodologies as guiding principles in my life, both personal and academic.
Thoughts on Method and Data
This course taught me that emotion is valid as data. Conversation and connection are valuable forms of research. Inspiration for my methodological approach comes from the speculative and experimental research with which I first interacted in this class, such as Kimberly Kay Hoang’s (2015) Dealing with Desire: Asian Ascendency, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. From Hoang, I learned about ethnography: how to discuss my interests and participation in a research experience as well as how to identify my positionality and standpoint. Hoang (2015) writes that some ethnographies become “so deeply embodied that they forever transform the researcher conducting them [, including] the way we see the world, manage our personal relationships, [and] cope with [intense feelings like pain and joy]” (2). I agree that the body and mind are “deeply embodied” in a way like no two other facets of identity are. I turned to a conversational method of writing because it was comfortable and familiar as I entered this piece with so much anxiety and uncertainty. Tsing et al.’s (2017) “Bodies tumbled into bodies” reads “instead of a hero single-handedly making the future , there are entanglements and losses of many kinds” (9); I think of these “entanglements and losses” as what is not promoted nor visible within academia or even personal life. “The hero” is the seemingly healthy, perfect entity who radiates an air of inaccessibility and privilege I now recognize as mostly false. That’s not the kind of person I want to be nor the kind of story that I want to share.
Methodological Reflection + Findings
One of the most influential pieces I read in this course is Ruha Benjamin’s (2016) “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods.” In the year 2064, a reparations initiative is underway in the United States, allowing victims of police brutality the chance to regenerate organs and live again. The piece completely reimagines life as “an experiment to know things differently” (Benjamin 2016, 2). Something about this quote really stuck out to me as the last piece of information I needed to position my understanding of feminist methodology within my life and this paper, specifically the importance of taking the time to consider what can happen through direct confrontation with “fact” or what feels like fact. I was having a really difficult time with my brain and my status as a student, generally feeling uncomfortable and discouraged. This piece made me even more uncomfortable. It made me grapple with my individual ethics surrounding the fictionalization of these instances of violence; it made me confront feelings of white guilt. I owe a lot of self-insight to this quote. Benjamin asks readers to unlearn something we already “know,” to think about these stories within our social, racial, and political positions. I had to think about things in both a metaphorical and literal sense. The author writes that here, fiction is not false, just a “refashioning… of speculative methods” and an opportunity to “challenge ever-present narratives of inevitability” with regard to race and the future of “more just and equitable societies” (Benjamin 2016, 1). These were big and, at the time, new concepts to me, and I wanted to think about why this article resonated with me so much because I feel that it must have happened for a reason.
As I am now affirmed in knowing via my women’s studies education (and especially the work of Ruha Benjamin), there are many ways to engage with the world, your body and mind, and “fact.”
Some major findings/realizations I came to include:
- There is not just one way to know things; there is not just one way to be. – Knowing and existing are unique, personal experiences; there is not just one way to go about life, even when seemingly everything and everyone insists on uniformity.
- One person might engage with the exact same piece of media as you and interpret it in a completely different way, and that’s okay. It’s okay too if you don’t understand at first. It’s okay to learn and just be.
- It’s okay to learn and just be.
- Unlearning is a journey. It’s confusing and difficult, and sometimes it may not click until the last moment; however, you will find the something that begins your journey and prepares you to start unlearning.
- Resistance, visibility, and diversity are key to our survival.
- Look into the elsewhere. Get uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
- Be open to newness, but also be proud of yourself and where you are right now.
In honor of celebrating transparency and emotion in academia, I feel I can admit that this is probably the most difficult and honest piece of work I’ve ever made. In the process of creating this paper, I had to make confrontations with my own mind and body, and afterward, share these vulnerable findings with my instructor and classmates when I first presented the work in class, WMST4011W: Understanding Research in Women’s Studies. This course showed me how critical it is to be open to various modes of thinking, knowing, and unlearning, and to encourage accepting these differences. As I am also a psychology major, I have (mostly) been taught to work in numbers and graphs, so my first instinct tells me I could never include emotion in my academic life, that I shouldn’t and can’t because qualitative data always trumps quantitative data. Before this course, I had never engaged with this idea of emotion as data on such a personal level. Everything felt so new to me, even as a women’s studies major in an upper-level women’s studies course. Although I had heard of the term “unlearning” before, I wondered if I had ever actually integrated the practice into my life.
Creating work for WMST4011W challenged me to embrace alternative ways of thinking and knowing, which is very difficult in practice. Having to accept frequent feelings of anxiety and discomfort (and seeing these emotions as a valuable form of the learning process) was difficult because I was so used to associating those feelings with negativity. Now I understand they are a natural part of growing and learning. This paper specifically is not the kind I can hide away and forget about once I’ve turned it in. The creative and critical works I encountered and the conversations and interactions I had in this course altered the way I exist in academia, especially as I navigated (what felt to me like) a completely new brain. In the summer of 2022, I turned twenty-one and decided to seek out therapy and medication for the ten-ish years I had been feeling like my brain was so drastically different from others’. I did not figure out a combination of medication and talk therapy that really worked for me until December 1st, 2022, which happened to fall exactly one week before I had to write and present my initial final report for this course. I was and still am really nervous to get this vulnerable with schoolwork, and I felt really different. I feel really different from the person I was before this discovery. I am writing and thinking in ways I never have before, but I must hold onto the idea that this shift is good and okay and encouraged.
My work now is guided by the notion that there are many ways to know and interact with things. One person might engage with the same piece of media as you and interpret it in a completely different way, and that’s okay. Engaging isn’t linear either; at first, you may yearn and desire and criticize and hate, and then you may grow from that initial reaction. It’s okay, too, if you don’t understand something at first. It’s okay to learn and just be.
Benjamin, Ruha. 2016. “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2(2): 1–28. https://doi.org/10.28968/cftt.v2i2.28798.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241–99.
Hoang, Kimberly Kay. “Introduction.” In Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendency, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Routledge, 2015.
“Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Intersectional Feminism.” JSTOR Daily. August 1, 2020. https://daily.jstor.org/kimberle-crenshaws-intersectional-feminism/.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Nils Bubandt, Elaine Gan, and Heather Anne Swanson. “Bodies tumbled into bodies.” Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. muse.jhu.edu/book/52400.
Thank you to Christina Crespo, my WMST4011W instructor. Thank you for all the work you put into making this class what it was. Thank you for being so open with your students. Thank you for encouraging me to submit this piece to The Classic Journal. I know motivation goes along with being an educator, but I really needed it right when you gave it, so thank you. Thank you to my WMST4011W classmates for their honesty and compassion. Thank you for being my friends! Thank you especially to Marti Wolf, a friend and colleague who helped me a lot throughout this class to work with my mind instead of against it and never judged me when I struggled. She only uplifted and comforted me. Thank you, Marti.
Citation Style: Chicago