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OPINION: How to Raise an Intersectional Feminist Son

by Sarah Stuteville

I like parenting more the older the kids get. Babies and toddlers are tough for me — it feels like a non-stop, low-grade panic aimed mostly at avoiding disaster. Once kids can communicate and — even better — share their hot takes on the world, I’m sold. So far, five is my favorite age. My son is all tightly wound curiosity and wild questions I’m sprinting (or furiously Googling) to answer. How many miles around the earth? (About 24,000.) Why don’t adults like candy? (Lol. We do.) Why are you on your phone so much? (Mind your business.) 

But increasingly, his questions veer into territory that require more thoughtful responses. Are the people in tents at the playground camping? Is a woman allowed to be president? Why do people call police “pigs”? What is capitalism? And as we listened to radio news of the killing of Daunte Wright, “Why did they kill another Black person?”

When he was a baby, I worried about how to parent a white boy. How to help him take responsibility for his white privilege when I felt like I was just beginning to learn how to take responsibility for mine. How to teach him to live as a feminist when I spent most of my life around men who made fun of feminists. But until recently those questions were pretty theoretical — performed via irreverent onesies, woke board books, and Facebook groups where (mostly white) progressive parents argued endlessly about privilege and cloth diapers.

It happens so quickly really, the shift from thinking you can control the forces that influence your child and realizing beyond a shadow of a doubt that, at best, you’re just standing there watching as wave after wave of cultural, social, and political messages wash over them. Where did my son learn about “boy and girl colors”? How do I talk to him about his inclination to mistake Black people for each other? When did guns — which he shrewdly rebrands as “blasters” — become so fascinating? And where did he hear that “God made man so man could make woman”?  (Turns out that last one was a result of Jeff Goldblum’s monologue in Jurassic Park.)

I scramble for online guides to some of these topics. (Yes, they all discourage me from letting a preschooler watch a PG-13 movie like Jurassic Park. Lesson learned.) And I’m blindsided by teachers suggesting that he’s “politically passionate but needs to work on his bi-partisanship,” an abolitionist protest where he gleefully f-bombs along with ACAB chants, or the look on a relative’s face when he explains that sometimes he’s a girl. All this serves as evidence that he is internalizing some important progressive values — but in the way of a five-year-old. Which is to say completely without nuance and usually at the most inopportune moments. And I worry all the time I’m doing it wrong.

So when I heard that local professor of journalism, writer, and activist Sonora Jha was writing a book titled How to Raise a Feminist Son, I fell over myself to order it, and it turns out I’m not the only one. “People are hungry for these conversations,” said Jha in an interview the day before her book was released. “We see all of the signs that this work needs to be done and we want to do it.”

Jha, who raised her now-adult son as an immigrant and single mother, hopes the book — a blending of memoir and call to action — will provide a map and the support that Jha herself often felt she lacked. For example, the chapter on how to teach boys to apologize — and to do so in a way that doesn’t demand forgiveness from women — includes reflections on the dynamics of her own family growing up in India as well as helpful tips earned through her experience of parenting a feminist boy in the United States. 

 “We are not only teaching our sons that women are actual and full human beings but also that men benefit from feminism as well,” says Jha. “Through feminism they access the full spectrum of human emotions.” And she believes that teaching boys to connect with the humanity of women and the depth of their own emotions is a high stakes endeavor — pointing out an avalanche of recent headlines in which mass shooters and police who murder are (most often) men. 

Jha insists raising a feminist son is less about “a check-list” and more about developing a “value system” and having the courage and the commitment to regularly declare that value to yourself, your son, and the world. To Jha this can be as small as asking questions about why there are no women — or no BIPOC people — in a beloved show or as big as challenging ourselves as women to truly encourage emotional vulnerability in boys and men.

 Jha’s comment about living values highlighted for me the toxic intersection of feminine pleasing and white fragility that can activate when I’m faced with complexity — like parenting with intersectional feminist values. And none of my fretting begins to compare to the immense and terrifying labor of raising a BIPOC child in a country that is infinitely more dangerous for them than for my son. (Jha tells a story of her son having the police called on him when he was entering his own home as a teenager.) 

But meaningful change also demands that we challenge capitalist messages that discourage us from recognizing interdependence, shared responsibility, and the belief that what we do actually does matter. It is revolutionary to recognize that many things urgently worth doing don’t come with instructions — or reassurance. I don’t know how to raise an intersectional feminist white boy. But I’m going to do it anyway. And in a moment of his development when my son is actively looking to me to help understand the world, I will remember that the point is not to perform “goodness” but to live inside tension. That when things get hard it’s my job to show him how to move closer to his humanity and vulnerability — not away.  And when I forget how high the stakes are, Jha’s words are in my ear. “Hi, America, my love,” she said at the end of our interview. “I am raising a son to look out for your daughters. Are you raising white children to look out for my Brown son?” 

Sarah Stuteville is a writer and therapist with a background in international journalism. She writes about feminism, social justice, mental health, media, parenting, and relationships. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries and wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times.

📸 Featured image: Open minded in Alabama under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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