[I haven't forgotten what I wanted to share. One of a few women of color legal scholars that shaped my introduction to women of color feminism. --M]
I. Three Women Working
A. Daughter of Pi’ilani
Haunani-Kay Trask is a paradox to those unfamiliar with the world from which she comes. She writes of working in coalition with environmentalists who, in her community of Hawai’i, are often white in-migrants. Expressing bitterness and frustration, Trask recounts the dispossession of Native Hawaiian people — their landlessness, poverty, unemployment, imprisonment, rates of disease, and illiteracy. Trask speaks of the haole (Caucasian) colonizers who removed the Hawaiian government by force, leaving wounds in the native population that have never healed. Expressing outrage at the haole-backed takeover of Hawai’i has earned Trask the reputation of “haole-hater.” She speaks out in the press. She writes. She debates. Trask is constantly engaged in dialogue with the haole. She works with whites in coalition on a variety of issues, from nuclear testing in the Pacific, to South African divestment, to degradation of the environment through geothermal development.
I have heard people say of Professor Trask, “She would be much more effective if she weren’t so angry,” as though they expect a Native Hawaiian feminist to work in coalition without anger. There is a politics of anger: who is allowed to get angry, whose anger goes unseen, and who seems angry when they are not.
Once, when I intended to compliment an African-American woman on a powerful speech she had made, I said: “I admire your ability to express anger.” She looked at me coolly and replied, “I was not angry. If I were angry I would not be speaking here.” Another African-American friend of mine jumped into the conversation. “I’m disappointed in you,” she said. “This is what always happens to us when a Black woman speaks her mind. Someone calls us angry.”
I remember this exchange because it was an uncomfortable one for me, and because it was a moment of learning. Talking across differences, my colleague told me that if she were hatefully angry, beyond hope of coalition, she would not talk. In this light, Professor Trask’s strong words are acts of engagement, not estrangement.
Would Professor Trask be more effective if she were less angry? There is a cost to speaking without anger of the deaths and dislocation that Native Hawaiians suffered in post-contact Hawai’i. On the simple, communicative level, failure to express the pain created by this legacy obscures the depth of one’s feeling and discounts the subordination experienced by one’s community. More significantly, the use of polite, rational tones when one is feeling violation is a betrayal of the self.
Professor Trask’s many white and Asian colleagues who choose to remain in the room when she speaks in tones of outrage about the destruction of Hawaiian lives, land, and culture inevitably find their understanding greatly enriched. The discomfort brings with it an opportunity for learning. As a third-generation Japanese-American, I have felt the discomfort and benefited from the learning when Professor Trask criticizes the role of immigrants in displacing Native Hawaiians. The choice is mine to remain in the conversation, discussing (sometimes with acrimony) the role of colonialism in bringing my peasant ancestors eastward from Asia to work on the land that once belonged to indigenous peoples of Hawai’i and North America.
I could shelter myself from conflict by leaving the conversation, but I have come to believe that the comfort we feel when we avoid hard conversations is a dangerous comfort, one that seduces us into ignorance about the experiences of others and about the full meaning of our own lives.
C. The Multi-Cultural Feminist
[Some] suggest that coalition has limits of both tolerance and utility.
Why, then, given the frustration of coalition, do…women [of color] not retreat into racial separatism? In the quest for a theoretical underpinning for social change movements, women of color have the choice of remaining in coalition or dispersing to do separate work. The emergence of feminist jurisprudence, critical race theory, critical legal studies, and the women of color and the law movement has raised fears of division and parochial separatism in the legal community. If it is so hard to work together, if the gulfs in experience are so wide, if the false universals of the modern age are truly bankrupt, what need binds us? What justifies unity in our quest for self-knowledge?
My answer is that we cannot, at this point in history, engage fruitfully in jurisprudence without engaging in coalition, without coming out of separate places to meet one another across all the positions of privilege and subordination that we hold in relation to one another.
II. Theory Out of Coalition
Through our sometimes painful work in coalition we are beginning to form a theory of subordination; a theory that describes it, explains it, and gives us the tools to end it. As lawyers working in coalition, we are developing a theory of law taking sides, rather than law as value-neutral. We imagine law to uplift and protect the sixteen-year-old single mother on crack rather than law to criminalize her. We imagine law to celebrate and protect women’s bodies; law to sanctify love between human beings — whether women to women, men to men, or women to men, as lovers may choose to love; law to respect the bones of our ancestors; law to feed the children; law to shut down the sweatshops; law to save the planet.
This is the revolutionary theory of law that we are developing in coalition, and I submit that it is both a theory of law we can only develop in coalition, and that it is the only theory of law we can develop in coalition.
A. Looking at Subordination from Inside Coalition
When we work in coalition, …we compare our struggles and challenge one another’s assumptions. We learn of the gaps and absences in our knowledge. We learn a few tentative, starting truths, the builing blocks of a theory of subordination.
We learn that while all forms of oppression are not the same, certain predictable patterns emerge:
- All forms of oppression involve taking a trait, X, which often carries with it a cultural meaning, and using X to make some group the “other” and to reduce their entitlements and power.
- All forms of oppression benefit someone, and sometimes both sides of a relationship of domination will have some stake in its maintenance.
- All forms of oppression have both material and ideological dimensions. The articles on health, socioeconomics, and violence i this symposium show how subordination leaves scars on the body. The damage is real. It is material. These articles also speak of ideology. Language, including the language of science, law, rights, necessity, free markets, neutrality, and objectivity can make subordination seem natural and inevitable, justifying material deprivation.
- All forms of oppression implicate a psychology of subordination that involves elements of sexual fear, need to control, hatred of self, and hatred of others.
As we look at these patterns of oppression, we may come to learn, finally and most importantly, that all forms of subordination are interlocking and mutually reinforcing.
B. Ask the Other Question:
The Interconnection of All Forms of Subordination
The way I try to understand the interconnection of all forms of subordination is through a method I call “ask the other question.” When I see something that looks racist, I ask, “Where is the patriarchy in this?” When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, “Where is the heterosexism in this?” When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, “Where are the class interests in this?” Working in coalition forces us to look for both the obvious and non-obvious relationships of domination, helping us to realize that no form of subordination ever stands alone.
If this is true, we’ve asked each other, then isn’t it also true that dismantling any one form of subordination is impossible without dismantling every other? And more and more, particularly in the women of color movement, the answer is that “no person is free until the last and least of us is free.”
In trying to explain this to my own community, I sometimes try to shake people up by suggesting that the patriarchy killed Vincent Chin.[1 ] Most people think racism killed Vincent Chin. When white men with baseball bats, hurling racist hate speech, beat a man to death, it is obvious that racism is a cause. It is only slightly less obvious, however, when you walk down the aisles of Toys R Us, that little boys grow up in this culture with toys that teach about being pretty, baking, and changing a diaper. And the little boy who is interested in learning how to nurture and play house is called a “sissy.” When he is a little older he is called a “f-g.” He learns that acceptance for men in this society is premised on rejecting the girl culture and taking on the boy culture, and I believe that this, as much as racism, killed Vincent Chin. I have come to see that homophobia is the disciplinary system that teaches men that they had better talk like 2 Live Crew or someone will think they “aren’t real men,” and I believe that this homophobia is a cause of rape and violence against women. I have come to see how that same homophobia makes women afraid to choose women, sending them instead into the arms of men who beat them. I have come to see how class oppression creates the same effect, cutting off the chance of economic independence that could free women from dependency upon abusive men.
I have come to see all of this from working in coalition: from my lesbian colleagues who have pointed out homophobia in places where I failed to see it; from my Native American colleagues who have said, “But remember that we were here first,” when I have worked for the rights of immigrant women; from men of color who have risked my wrath to say, “But racism is what is killing us. Why can’t I put that first on my agenda?”
The women of color movement has, of necessity, been a movement about intersecting structures of subordination. This movement suggests that anti-patriarchal struggle is linked to struggle against all forms of subordination. It has challenged communities of color to move beyond race alone in the quest for social justice.
C. Beyond Race Alone
In coalition, we are able to develop an understanding of that which Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw has called “intersectionality.” The women of color movement has demanded that the civil rights struggle encompass more than anti-racism. There are several reasons for this demand. First, and most obviously, in unity there is strength. No subordinated group is strong enough to fight the power alone, thus coalitions are formed out of necessity.
Second, some of us have overlapping identities. Separating out and ranking oppression denies and excludes these identities and ignores the valid concerns of many in our constituency. To say that the anti-racist struggle precedes all other struggles denigrates the existence of the multiply oppressed: women of color, gays and lesbians of color, poor people of color, most people of color experience suborination on more than one dimension.
Finally, perhaps the most progressive reason for moving beyond race alone is that racism is best understood and fought with knowledge gained from the broader anti-subordination struggle. Even if one wanted to live as the old prototype “race man,” it is simply not possible to struggle against racism alone and ever hope to end racism.
These are threatening suggestions for many of us who have worked primarily in organizations forged in the struggle for racial justice. Our political strength and our cultural self-worth [are] often grounded in racial pride. Our multi-racial coalitions have, in the past, succeeded because of a unifying commitment to end racist attacks on people of color. Moving beyond race to include discussion of other forms of subordination risks breaking coalition. Because I believe that the most progressive elements of any liberation movement are those who see the intersections (and the most regressive are those who insist on only one axis), I am willing to risk breaking coalition by pushing intersectional analysis.
An additional and more serious risk is that intersectional analysis done from on high, that is, from outside rather than inside a structure of subordination, risks misunderstanding the particularity of that structure. Feminists have spent years talking about, experiencing, and building theory around gender. Native Americans have spent years developing an understanding of colonialism and its effect on culture. That kind of situated, ground-up knowledge is irreplaceable. A casual effort to say, “Okay, I’ll add gender to my analysis,” without immersion in feminist practice, is likely to miss something. Adding on gender must involve active feminists, just as adding on considerations of indigenous peoples must include activists from native communities. Coalition is the way to achieve this inclusion.
It is no accident that women of color, grounded as they are in both feminist and anti-racist struggle, are doing the most exciting theoretical work on race-gender intersections. It is no accident that gay and lesbian scholars are advancing social construction theory and the analysis of sexuality in subordination. In raising this I do not mean that we cannot speak of subordination second-hand. Rather, I wish to encourage us to do this, and to suggest that we can do this most intelligently in coalition, listening with special care to those who are actively involved in knowing and ending the systems of domination that touch their lives.