Saturday, April 26, 2008

Racism and the Radical Feminist

It concerns me if black women and their issues are not integral to the cause I'm working for then I feel like all I'm doing is re-negotiating the terms of white supremacy. It makes me wonder if feminism is a white-identified movement. It still has huge value to me and I still want to participate, but theoretically it is not going to be the movement that starts the biggest change. People are having this conversation all over the place right now...

As Kit says, people are having this conversation all over the place right now. It's a can o' worms most recently busted open by a (white) Feminist of Note publishing some theoretical stuff about immigrant women (which I haven't read), without noting that the foundations of the theoretical work (which I also haven't read) had been laid by women of colour who had been writing on the topic for some time. It's intellectual appropriation intersecting with white privilege, but it's okay, because, hey—who listens to black women, anyway?
So it's got me thinking about that thing in the corner of my eye that I keep trying to blot out of my awareness: my own white privilege, and my own passive racism*. I can rationalize it till the cows come home, but it doesn't negate the effect of my refusal to acknowledge humanity all around me.

Add it to my passive misogyny: shit that I'm working on.

* as I define it, "passive" bigotry means, roughly, that I simply dismiss those who's existence doesn't benefit or threaten me. I don't see them (note that I said "passive" and not "benign").

UPDATE: Oh, irony! I just got back from Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay which was funny and zany with lots of toilet humour, pot smoking, and terrific send-ups of racism. And all the women in the movie might well have been cows. There were a couple a winks at sexism, but mostly it was just plain old sexism.

UPDATE.2: Zenobia of The Scary Door has a different take on the white feminism/women of colour debate. She writes about the manner in which we elevate certain women as feminist leaders, without looking closely at the privilege on which they have coasted to prominence. Her post raises questions about why feminists end up perpetuating a hierarchal power structures based on privilege when it's precisely this beast that we're fighting to overcome.

Zenobia agrees with another blogger whom she quotes, saying,

"There are glaring comparisons and parallels to be made as women experience being sidelined, dismissed, silenced and ignored within the patriarchal capitalist society so why white feminists replicate those power relationships by treating Black women in a similar way such as subordinating their experiences and denying them a voice is beyond comprehension."
Beyond comprehension? Really?

This reminds me of a piece I read a while ago, Flea's Feminist Acres:
I'm walking alone in an unfamiliar residential neighborhood. The sterile sidewalk stretches out in front of me in clean, white, unbroken squares of concrete. There is no grass poking up between the deep cracks between the slabs. The road is freshly paved and painted with a bright yellow dashed divider. Traffic is light, and when the late model cars do beetle down the street, the driver sticks his hand out the window in a friendly wave. On both sides of the street there are huge wooden Victorian houses, dappled with the colors of twilight. The owners of the houses are in front of all their homes, leaning on their low fences, chatting with their neighbors, washing their cars, or simply standing still, looking out onto the street. The owners are all white men in their late fifties or early sixties. They look friendly enough.

"These are such beautiful houses," I think. "I would love to buy a house here."

And then my mind mulls over how much houses like these are probably worth, and how much the mortgage and property taxes must be, and I realize buying one of these gorgeous homes isn't an option, so I immediately begin wound-licking, thinking I probably wouldn't like it, anyway.

I'm reaching the end of the street, and when I turn my attention to the upcoming intersection, my heart leaps. The road dead ends at an enormous gold gate, so metallic and clean it is emitting a soft warm yellow glow. It looks like one would imagine the gates of heaven, they are so large and perfect. Engraved across the gates are the words "FEMINIST ACRES."

I can't believe what I’m seeing! Finally! It's what I’ve been looking for all my life! An entire community of feminists, right in front of me! I'm home! I'm home! After looking for so long, I have finally found a place where I can be surrounded by my own people! We will have universal health care and birth control will be free! Our leaders will be wise women, who will never let a child go hungry or a family become homeless! Our literacy rate will be one hundred percent, and a feminist child will defeat the Christian homeschoolers in the national spelling bee every year! Every family will get season passes to the WNBA! I am running to you, O womyn, running as if with the wolves!

The gates are opened just wide enough for me to slip through, and I do. I am inside the gates of Feminist Acres. I look around to see if there's a Chamber of Commerce, or a Realtor. Who will help me get started in my new Utopian life?

Then I calm down a minute and take a look at what I'm seeing. Feminist Acres looks like a trailer park after a tornado whirled through. The roads are not paved, the houses are upended. Nobody has running water. A rusted public toilet, fetid and overflowing, collapses up against a damp, moldy concrete wall.

A white woman, about forty, wearing shorts and a striped tank top that looks exactly like Mo's from Dykes to Watch Out For, walks out of her trailer. I hesitantly approach her, to ask what happened.

"What do you mean, 'What happened?'" she snarls. "Maybe the problem is that you're a fucking tool." She goes back inside, leaving me standing there, alone.

I look back at the gates. They are magnificent. Through the slight opening in them, I can see the big Victorian houses in what remains of the day. In the fading light, they are all a gentle blue.

I sit down on a rotting piece of timber from a destroyed house. I want to stay. I want to go. I want things to be different. I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel welcome here. I think about going leaving, and wonder what the real price of living in those blue houses would be.

I sit. I stay. It is night.
It's a bleak view of a post-revolution world, but it's one that kinda resonates, too.


Aaron said...

You know, there is one nice thing about Black Privilege - I can celebrate the fact that I'm doing well in life without having to constantly be worried it's because "my people" are stiffing others for opportunities. Doesn't the constant low opinion you all tend to have of one another get you down?

And I must admit that I'm a passive bigot right there along with you. But I'm not sure that bigotry really fits there. I mean, when I decide that people who can't help me or hinder me may as well live on Mars, I don't concern myself with their skin color, gender, sexual orientation or the number of eyes they have. It's like being a misanthrope - you're not a racist because you're an equal-opportunity hater.

Dawn Coyote said...

Is it really bigotry? I don't know. I'm trying to pay more attention to the way I react to appearances.

Doesn't the constant low opinion you all tend to have of one another get you down?

White privilege seems like a fairly big deal to me, maybe because I managed to ignore it for so long. I like to think of myself as someone who notices stuff, but I have big blind spots.

I'm less misanthropic these days, but I'll always be a speciesist, preferring the company of cats to most people, while continuing to unabashedly consume the flesh of slow-moving, tasty creatures.

Aaron said...

White privilege seems like a fairly big deal to me, maybe because I managed to ignore it for so long.

Didn't know when you were well off, did you? People do enough stuff on their own that they wind up feeling guilty for. No sense feeling guilty for the alleged sins of others. My parents paved the way for my sister and I to be college-educated professionals (as opposed to gang-bangers or statistics) by, in effect, turning their back on their "own people," and hoarding their resources, rather than sharing with their down-and-out ex-neighbors. I feel absolutely null guilt about that, and I'm all in favor of you coming home from that "White Privilege" guilt trip (especially with today's crazy air fares). I know that it seems like a caring response to an old injustice, but it's also infantilizing. If we want to "turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of our race widely represented," that's OUR problem - not yours. We haven't made it happen because we haven't wanted it badly enough. Trust me on this.

Dawn Coyote said...

I'd like to just stick to my feminism, but the trouble is, one can't look at one inequality without seeing them all. Really, though, I'm not that much of an idealist. I'm more of a narcissist who can't comfortably tolerate her own flaws (on the other hand, maybe that's what an idealist is).

I'm not sure that I'm taking responsibility for things done by people in the past so much as I'm acknowledging inequalities between me and someone sitting next to me that are independent of our value as people, of our individual accomplishments, that are based solely on the way the community grades us based on our appearances and cultural markers.

Clumsy parallels:

I wouldn't presume to opine on issues of racial inequality, but I don't believe that inequality between the genders is perpetuated because women don't want it badly enough. Is it infantilizing to acknowledge that women are socialized to feel entitled to less and to ask for less than men, because of the way they're socialized to see themselves? I can acknowledge this without blaming men, because it's not really their fault, though they do benefit from the disparity. Just like I benefit from being a white blonde women in this society, and the benefit I receive comes at the expense of someone else who doesn't get equal treatment.

I don't know if can do much about that, but I can notice when it's happening. I can notice when I'm doing it. For me, it comes down to empathy and awareness more than guilt.