Studying Women: A Mirrorless Act
November 25, 2007 20 Comments
Brownfemipower, a wonderful radical Chicana feminist blogger, made an excellent critique of women’s studies departments and their incorporation of women of color and racial dynamics. One part of her entry really called out to an experience I had in undergraduate school:
Driving home that night, I thought about my previous classes in women’s studies. They had all been taught by white women. They had all been predominantly attended by white women. And what’s more, reading material consisted of early white feminist readings (Elizebeth Cady Stanton etc), socialist feminists (Emma Goldman etc), then the late 60’s/70’s feminists (Adrienne Rich etc). Some times, there was even a bit of the French Feminists (Helene Cixous was the big one). Women of color feminists were *always* restricted to Audre Lorde and bell hooks–and then we only read those women if we stayed on schedule through the semester. “Women of color feminism” (or “race and feminism” or “womanism” or “dissent to feminism” as the subject has been variously defined by different teachers), was *always* left to the end of the semester–it was discussed in the last week or two of class “if there was time”. And if we managed to make time to discuss “race and feminism,” woc feminists were presented not as amazing thinkers in their own right–but as reactionaries reacting against evil white feminists. The final point of the chapter being, “we used to be racists, we’re not any more, let’s get back to the business of destroying patriarchy!”
This happened across the board without fail in *every* single class. There has never been a class I have *ever* taken in any university anywhere that has not had this particular format (’race’ is discussed at the end of the semester “if there’s time”) UNLESS it has been a post-colonial class or a class about a particular racial group (i.e. Native American Feminsim, Black feminism, third world feminism etc).
Although a lot of things were discussed during the Full Frontal Fuck-up earlier this year, I had a similar experience in a women’s studies class that (thanks to Ilyka!) I found from rustling through a web archive. I brought it up when discussing the book on that occasion because I remember how I felt gutted in my Philosophy and Feminism 101 class:
Maybe I shouldn’t expect better of Jessica’s target audience; I mean, it’s not like they have anything to do with me, right? What the fuck do I know about these “young women,” and why should I give a flying fuck about what they choose to read? Granted, those lines might bring them here to read this, but, heh heh, they won’t be reading for long ’cause I doubt they’d agree that perhaps people should expect them to understand basic ideas of feminist theory and find some relevance for their lives. It’s just like a young woman told me after I took that Philosophical Issues in Feminism class, and I raised my hand to ask what about us? What about young black women and Latinas and Asian women and Native American women and lesbians of all colors and poor women of all colors? I said, there’s likely not going to be any great advances for “women” until we tackle the system that makes all these other things possible. What are we supposed to do in the meantime if these issues of cosmetic surgery and choosing stay-at-home motherhood over white-collar jobs really don’t include us? And this young woman — one of the ones who proudly told the class the first day that she thought feminism was irrelevant and she felt like she didn’t need it because she felt empowered, human, and whole — this young woman told me, “Yes, that stuff is important, but you see, we have to deal with these issues first.” And she didn’t say it maliciously; she said it in a really nice way to try to placate me. And I’m not sure I could have explained how it felt like a total slap in the face, but it did. I remember that was our last day of class, and I wrote my class evaluation, furiously shaking and on the brink of crying, writing in big letters, “PLEASE INCLUDE WORKS BY WOMEN OF COLOR AND LESBIANS AND OTHER TYPES OF FEMINISTS. IT HELPS.”
I misunderstood who I was speaking to — an audience that’s as likely to listen to me and that audience and take us seriously as it is likely to ally with the “patriarchy.” (from “You know what? You’re right.” on May 13, 2007)
It’s always good to remember that for some people, my existence and my experiences are as real to them as academic theories and the vagary known as “criticism.” Black Amazon, Petit Poussin and I were Criticism after we made statements saying, “No, we did not like this book; here is why.” Two black women and one white woman, all under the age of 30 (and two barely over 20).
And we were savaged and maligned by every person the blogging feminist org could find. We were old evil brown spinsters, jealous that the Book Gods dared to look down upon Jessica Valenti, ignorant of the art of subversion, stupid when it came to the value of white feminists having girl crushes on women of color scholars! Even though at the time, The Anti-Essentialist Conundrum was hauling in a decent 200-300 hits a day for non-Full-of-it Fronting Fucked-up reasons, Miss Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon (who admitted in the same conversation she did not know me from Adam, had not read me, knew despite all this that I was not a young woman, and did not want to read me) told me that I only wanted to drive up hits to my blog and put my pointy stick through the pale torso of Jessica Valenti.
(And what would be the point of that? I still don’t know. I have no advertisements, and thanks to FFF and other blogging ridiculousness I can barely write a full-length entry without feeling like I want to vomit.)
But I lucked up in that classroom that day because I was not a Women’s Studies major. The makings of a WS major at my undergraduate institution were underway. After that revelation in that final class, I felt glad I was leaving. It was my final year; I already had my philosophy major credits completed so that class was a “fun” one. I walked out of my undergraduate career feeling as invisible in feminist philosophy as I’d felt invisible in every other school of philosophy I’d learned in the other years.
All I knew about race and feminism I learned from the woman-dominated side of my mother’s family, and I learned them under the banner of racial empowerment. I received many paperbacked books on Africa as a little girl. Small readers with the words “I’M SPECIAL TOO!” and the face of a little daydreaming black boy. I must have read the book What Mary Jo Shared a million times and marveled at a little black girl wearing uniforms like I wore for school being admired for show and tell. When I got older, I realized some of the political implications of the book — she brought her father to show and tell. Not only that, but she brought her father to her predominantly white class for show and tell. More like Revolutionary Jo, am I right?
Feminism didn’t really reach me until high school and college, and I liked the empowerment aspects of it. I wasn’t entrenched in wanting to fuck; I wasn’t upset because I thought feminism = ugly. The more “radical” aspects of what I now know is white feminism amused me more than distanced me because they seemed so caricaturized. So unreal. I was ready to dive into feminism and see what women like me were saying.And my, I was surprised. It is significant that I realized more about the exclusion of women of color, lesbians, poor women… hell, even religiously diverse women in my wonderfully liberal political and sociolegal classes. I’ve learned so much more in my life about the importance of feminism by not studying feminism directly. When I took Gender and the Law, I discovered that a lot of key gender discrimination cases were won because MEN brought the cases arguing about denied access. I learned in my civil liberties class about how the women’s suffrage movement dropped alliances with black women and working-class white women like hot potatoes when it became clear that the political organizations of the time wanted a certain look and group to assert their claim to voting rights. I also watched an enlightening video on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, and the feminist and race perspectives on the hearings. Not the racial feminist perspectives — just the one and the other. The feminist side was almost all white because it was the Challenging Sexual Harassment empowerment song of the day at the time. The race side was all black women and men, wondering why-oh-why couldn’t this heifer (Ms. Hill was called that in so many words, folks) keep these indiscretions to herself, especially when a black man was about to fill another powerful seat in the Supreme Court! We’re overcoming as we said we shall; shut up now!It was through this education that I missed a wonderful talk with Cornel West on our campus, for which the entire freshman class at the time was given a copy of his newest book, Race Matters, and how he described the double bind the black community faced in the wake of Clarence Thomas’s appointment. (The characterization he gives it allows me to sympathize with many progressive friends when a conservative puppet that “looks like us” hits a high seat of power and “acts like them.”)
So when I reached the Philosophical Issues in Feminism course, I had knowledge that race and feminism at least spoke to each other once in a while. They weren’t kissing cousins, but no one had been removed, either. Yet.I waited to hear a narrative that spoke to me; I waited a long time. I tried to ignore the already-converted feminists, heterosexual and lesbian, who rolled their eyes every time I mentioned something about sexuality that did not square with the cultural white middle class lesbian and hetero progressive perspectives. (I won’t even get into my awkward attempts to mesh with folks in undergrad; if I do write about them, it would be from the perspective of trying to get former friends to understand just how fucked up my sense of self is.) I tried to mention in discussions of the worthiness of a housewife and leaving the home to work how black women often had no choice. How black men wanted to offer black women the option of staying at home just as things were getting better for women in the workforce, yet there were still problems. And after me, an international student from the African continent would speak about how her family faced the housework question and how she was glad to have the option to say no, partly from Western exposure to the idea. A Latina student would talk about how her mother did not mind doing housework and working, and how she did see how people would want to choose one or the other, but rarely both — and she loves her mama.
There were women of color, but we rarely spoke up. After talking to a couple of those women of color in the class about the material, we did not speak up because we had no opening. We were sitting in the margins of the theory we were learning in the class. Living, breathing exceptions. We had no theorist staring at us and speaking about subjects we were accustomed to. We were only told statements like these.
I think there’s plenty of time, Jeff, for us to bring up the past shortcomings of white feminists in reaching out to young women of color. But Valenti’s book is radically relevant to their lives right now, irrespective of class and ethnicity. Read in a vacuum, it would be problematic in a women’s studies course — read in conjunction with a variety of other texts, it’s superb.
Because very often, the variety of other texts are tacked onto the end of the class, if even THEN. And every time I read that snippet about Full Frontal Fuck-up, I wonder if it even fucking makes sense, let alone a point. Black Amazon and I sided with each other once, and we’re agreeing once again, because we recognized that if anything makes this book “radically relevant” it’s the fact that EVEN NOW women of color are tokenized and ignored so that white middle- to upper-class feminism can score brownie points with folks who think they’re full of shit. I mean, how much time do we have? One hundred years? Two hundred? How is Jessica’s book “radically relevant” when it’s “problematic” in a vacuum? Do you mean — and oh, I hope I’m not exaggerating — that if a young woman of ANY demographic picked up this book and expected to have a well-rounded introduction to feminism, they might be lacking in some areas? Would they start exploring these areas then and realize why Jessica’s book was a dust mite in a landfill? And after one thousand years of digging through that landfill, would they then reach the women of color, the poor women, the transpeople, the lesbians and bisexuals and asexuals and omnisexuals who identify as feminist but for wildly different reasons than abortion access and fucking until they get it right?
When I first got wind of the book cover back when I read Feministing and blac(k)ademic at the same time, I realized stepping out of blind praise for it would merit a savaging from “allies” and complete misrepresentation of valid points of critique. Ask Jessica how long she thought “all the women of color” at Nubian’s blog thought she was a sell-out bitch when they agreed that a white torso on a book introducing women to feminism was exclusionary. Ask her then how she got sad, and then how she found out later that it was one comment among 100+ from a white woman.
And now we return after someone teaches the book to underhanded sniping about being full of shit. I almost prefer being booted from class woman like what happened in academia, in looking into the feminist mirrors of the world and seeing white body parts rather than my face, than to be thoroughly dismissed unless it’s to make a point about how irrelevant I am and women like me are a couple days/weeks/months/years/decades later.
So I’m not gonna get my panties in a bunch about advertisements and bad photoshopping and ethical traveling because I’m sure there’s plenty of time to watch white feminists navel-gaze. Things like breastfeeding mothers being separated from their children because they are not citizens of a country that milk them like slaves for all the labor they can give and they DARE challenge that institution, wars forcing women into prostitution for the benefit of murderous soldiers and profiteers, a woman being tortured at the hands of six people who forced her to do inhumane acts and constantly called her a nigger — yet none of them face hate crime charges.
These things are radically relevant to our lives right now, irrespective of class and ethnicity.
Read in a vacuum, it would be problematic in a women’s studies course –
Read in conjunction with a variety of other texts, it’s superb.