• Miranda L. Galbreath, MA, MA, LPC

Thoughts about "How to Raise a Feminist Son," by Sonora Jha

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

I am not raising a son, or any offspring of any gender, for that matter. Still, I was curious what Jha had to say about what raising a feminist might look like. I also wondered, as a helping professional who works with incarcerated adults, am I perhaps, even a little bit, “raising” adult feminists? I know, of course, that the folks I work with have already been raised by someone. I do often think, though, in my work with them, that I’m indoctrinating them into feminism. It’s not that I set out to do that. It’s simply that feminist values happen to be healthy, respectful, supportive, and believe that all folks of all genders are of equal value and should be treated as such. I thought perhaps I could learn a little something from Jha about how to support the adults I serve, while also learning what goes into raising a feminist from early on. I also learned about how to continue to “raise” myself on my feminist journey along the way! Jha tells her story of raising her own son while weaving in research and interviews. Here are a few of the things included in her book that stood out to me.

Jha talks about accepting that we are imperfect feminists, and that despite our lack of perfection, we can still seek to teach and develop future feminists. She references the most excellent Roxanne Gay and her awesome book, “Bad Feminist,” and discusses that we do not have to be perfect, or even be “better” or “more feminist” than others to be of service. She discusses feminism as a “practice,” like yoga. Something we continue to live every day, and engage in non-judgmentally, acknowledging that we will never be perfect. I love this idea, as I too find myself wanting at times as a feminist, and worry that I am not doing enough, am not feminist enough, harbor beliefs that I judge myself for, still have so much to learn. It’s a good reminder that although we are always growing and living more into our values, and we always have more room to grow, we can share our current state of being with others no matter where we are in our growth process. We don’t have to know everything and be without flaw to serve others.

Jha discusses how we can teach feminism not just explicitly, but by how we speak, act, and treat each other. By how we distribute responsibility if we are in a position to do so. We can model feminist values in our everyday actions, without having to clearly label them as such all the time as we go about our lives. One simple way she discusses doing this is by “decolonizing our bookshelves,” an idea I love. She pulls this idea from Danielle Holland, a feminist podcaster, who discusses actively choosing books and entertainment created by and about characters from a wide variety of intersectionalities.

Holland discusses steering away from “colonialist domination of narrative, storytelling, and literature” that privileges white, Western authors, their stories, and their viewpoints. I would also add choosing stories created by and about folks from marginalized identities, such as folks living with disabilities, folks from the LGTBQ+ community, folks living in poverty, and any folks whose viewpoints you may not encounter in your average, day-to-day life. De-centering whiteness, maleness, cis and heteronormativity, able-bodiedness, etc. helps us to better understand, empathize with, and connect with others and their life experiences.

I really enjoy practicing this myself every time I walk into the library, and I think my library must be working on this too! I can easily walk up to the displays at my local library and see books written by and about folks from all kinds of backgrounds. As I am deciding which books to take home, I prioritize books written by folks who are different than me in some way, and are not white, heterosexual, cisgender men. Not that I never read books written by those folks (Ken Follett, I still love you!), but at the same time I am ensuring that the majority of my bag full of library treasure is mostly filled with a diverse array of voices that will broaden my worldview and ability to empathize with the folks who fill this world I live in. Currently, my heart belongs to Octavia Butler and her wonderful Afrofuturist, feminist speculative fiction. What’s not to love there?!

Another thing Jha discusses as a feminist practice is engaging in a conscious examination of dynamics rather than engaging in neutrality. Rather than claiming to “not see” color, gender, or other differences, thus erasing whole portions of a person’s identity, consciously examine the dynamics you find yourself in, and the effects of those dynamics of those human beings around us. To “not see” is to pretend everyone is like us, (and for many of us that means assuming a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, financially stable, type of person). To “not see” a person’s identity is to also avoid seeing the inequalities, discriminations, microaggressions, and barriers they face. It is an avoidance of empathy. Many of us can afford to “not see” those things because parts of our identities give us privilege. However, the folks whose differences we are busy “not seeing” often cannot afford that kind of willful blindness. Jha suggests an approach from Dr. Jane Victoria Ward, discussed in her book, “The Skin We’re in.” When facing a situation in which you are critically examining dynamics and finding a situation that would benefit from reframing, Dr. Ward suggests we Name it, Read it, Oppose it, and Replace it.

Jha again references podcaster Danielle Holland in discussing the idea of shielding children from things versus partaking in them along with children in order to apply that critical and conscious examination of dynamics. In order to better understand what children are taking in, and in order to help them learn the skills to think critically about what they’re taking in, a well as in order to apply a feminist lens, Jha encourages us to consider not forbidding, but “expecting more from” children. She discusses helping children understand how to think critically about what’s going on in the media they are exposed to, and how to make healthy decisions about what they choose to expose themselves to, rather than simply labelling things as bad or forbidden. I like the idea of taking the shame and forbidden-ness away, while also helping and expecting children to develop the skills to think critically about the dynamics of any current or future media they consume. Additionally, I love the idea Jha shares from Dr. Kishonna Gray, of teaching children the decision-making processes to make children their own best resources, and equipping them with everything they need to make the kinds of decisions that ensure that their bodies, and all bodies, are safe in the world.

This book was packed with so many excellent stories, interviews, and references, I could not even begin to touch on them all, so I encourage you to consider reading it, whether you are raising a son or not! There is much to learn here, and many excellent references to follow up on, no matter who you are.

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