Wednesday, 30 April 2008

What's a white woman to say?

Cross-posted at In a Strange Land

I have been a bit slow on the posting front recently, because I have been trying to get my head around a Flying-spaghetti-monster-Almighty stoush in the feminist blogosphere. That's a bit of an exaggeration; it's mostly to do with US feminism, but US feminism does dominate world wide English speaking feminism, and more than that, the problems thrown into stark relief by the incredible dust-up are not just American problems. It's a complicated story, and I don't think that I can tell it well, nor do I even want to tell it. But as far as I can tell, it hasn't made its way into the wider blogosphere, much, except on some leftie blogs - see for example, this thread at Larvatus Prodeo. So I want to bring this to the attention of my New Zealand e-friends and readers.

Where to start? Probably with a very general statement, that the stoush was, very roughly, between American women-of-colour (WoC) feminists, and American white feminists. Even the use of that term, WoC, tells you that this is a US-centric dispute; the term is not much in use in the parts where I live (that would be in Australia and New Zealand). And there's history here. There have been disputes between American white feminists and American WoC feminists before, and disputes in the blogosphere. I'm not so aware of the previous history in the blogosphere; I read just a very few NZ-based blogs until about 18 months ago, and I only started blogging myself about nine months ago, so I know nothing myself of these old disputes, but I can see that the rumbles go on, and on, and on.

The basic cause of conflict lies in the extent to which feminism is a white, middle-class movement. Very roughly, white women are inclined to see feminism and gender issues as the base issues, and they subsume all other issues to them; WoC (correctly) point out that racism is one hell of an issue too, and the intersection of racism and gender is particularly vexed. Moreover, the way that white women approach feminism is itself racist.

No one (or at least, no one I know) likes being called racist. It's a charge we reject, and for the most part, if someone calls us racist, our instinct is to get defensive, and to defend our behaviour, rather than to stop and examine what we have been saying and doing. So I'm guessing that if you are a white woman or a white man reading this, then you will be inclined to stop listening around about now. But please don't.

Given this account of the types of discussions there have been in the past, you can imagine that the US feminist blogosphere was well-primed for a conflagration. So what went down?

Three things.

(1) Amanda Marcotte, a prominent feminist blogger, posted material on the intersection of feminism and immigration. It looked like her own work, but Brownfemipower recognised her own ideas in Amanda Marcotte's posts. However Amanda Marcotte had not linked to Brownfemipower, nor given any recognition to her. So she seemed to have appropriated Brownfemipower's ideas, and presented them as her own. Not plagiarism, exactly, but at least using someone else's ideas without acknowledgment. Some people defended Amanda Marcotte, some people supported Brownfemipower, and other WoC bloggers chimed in. (I haven't done a detailed textual analysis of Marcotte's work and BFP's work, but it does seem to me that Marcotte must have been at least influenced by BFP's ideas. So, educated as I am in the academic tradition, it does seem to me that Marcotte ought at least to have acknowledged her sources, even if she didn't quote them exactly.)

(2) Black Amazon put a single comment in a post, saying "Fuck Seal Press." (I would link to the particular post and the follow-up comments, but Black Amazon has taken her blog private - see below - and although I suppose I could hunt around and find a cached copy, that seems to be a bit damned rude just now.) Seal Press is a feminist press, but they had been called on racism in the past. The Seal Press editors visited Black Amazon's blog, and said something to the effect of, "We get that you engage through negative discourse" (I forget the exact words, but it was something to that effect), and then invited WoC to tell them what they should be doing better. (Umm... like it's good to tell people that they are negative. And on top of that, why should people who are already subjected to racism have to turn around and educate people who are being racist. Surely it's up to the people who are acknowledging that they may have gotten it wrong to do the hard yards of finding out how to fix the problem.)

So things were rumbling along under the strength of these two issues. BFP took down her blog and gave up blogging altogether (farewell post), and other WoC were at least unhappy, and in some cases renouncing feminism. The overall point was that a white feminist was appropriating ideas from WoC, WoC were being told they were negative, and then they were being asked to fix the mess up. In general, white feminists promised to try to do better.

Links for all of this - far too many to post! But the F-Word (UK feminist blog) has a post with helpful links, as does Feministe.

In the midst of all this, Amanda Marcotte published a book, with Seal Press. Some of the other leading feminist blogs put up posts advertising her book, and publicising her book-reading appearances. So despite all the furore, they still supported her (despite having earlier promised to try to do better). Understandably, WoC were upset by this. I guess it looked to them that white feminists, despite having read all their blog posts and comments, and despite having promised to try to do better, nevertheless turned around and supported the very person who had been at the centre of the storm.

Then (3). Amanda Marcotte's book came out, complete with these images.

(Images lifted from Feministe, who lifted them from Dear white feminists: quit fucking up.)


I find these images incredibly racist. "Good white woman" will defeat "wicked black / brown / other people".

Amanda Marcotte apologised, Seal Press apologised, Black Amazon quit blogging, one of the Feministe bloggers has quit blogging, and everywhere, or at least, everywhere in the US feminist blogosphere, people are upset and angry and unhappy. It's a mess.

Which is why I haven't been posting. I just can't get my head around all this. Maybe that's because identity politics doesn't play out in the same way in New Zealand as it does in the US. The whole topic seems like something "over there" to me. Except that thinking that the problem is "over there" would be an easy way to duck thinking about it altogether.

So, I have been thinking long and hard about white privilege, from which I benefit. Here's the original essay about white privilege. It's something that I think is worth reading, and re-reading, and re-reading, to remind myself about the extent to which being born white means being born privileged.

As for the feminist blogosphere in New Zealand - well, there aren't too many of us explicitly claiming feminism. There's those of us blogging at The Hand Mirror, and THM has a list of other NZ women blogging too, but not all of these explicitly claim feminism. Of course, I'm not in New Zealand anymore, 'tho for the time being, my heart is still there. (You can take the woman out of New Zealand, but...) I think it's telling that I can't explicitly identify any Maori women blogging, although I know that Maia at least has been explicit in her condemnation of the racism on display in the police raids on Ruatoki last year. I would like to think that we would do better on thinking about the intersection of race and gender, if only because our race and gender history is different from the history in the US, but that may just be a forlorn hope.

Some final words on this, from a WoC in the US, and a South Asian woman in Australia.


Julie said...

I'm so glad you have written about this Deborah, I have been flummoxed about how to provide any meaningful commentary on it with the brief snapshots I have seen of it all with the little free time I've had lately. Looking forward to digesting what you have written and commenting more fully soon :-)

stargazer said...

hmm, well i'd consider myself a feminist and i'm a coloured woman. and i do find aspects of western feminism particularly racist. or maybe i'm confusing western feminists with western women. but there are aspects that bother me. for example, a large part of the way the attack in afghanistan was made palatable was the terrible way that women were treated. so the feminist narrative that the taliban were sexist bastards that oppressed women (and i'm not saying they weren't) made it much easier to go bomb the shit out of them. the result was that the lives of those very women wer made worse as a result, whether due to sexual violence, poverty, loss of males in their lives to share the burden of raising a family etc.

ditto for the women of iraq who were going to be "liberated" and the symbol of their liberation would be the fact that they would be free to wear miniskirts. excuse me? by whose standards are miniskirts a symbol of liberation? by my standards, they are a symbol of women conforming to male views of sexual attractiveness, a symbol of the desire to please and be pleasing to men. you might view it as expressing your sexuality. i would say, why do you need to express it and why in that way?

you can see that there are two ways of thinking here. many eastern women just don't see this expression of sexuality as liberating. but how do we get treated when we try to express that view? in some forums, we do get treated with respect. but in others, not at all.

one coloured writer (too late to go looking for her name now) has also talked about the class issue when it comes to feminist thinking. there seems to be an underlying assumption by some white western feminists that western women are liberated and eastern women are oppressed. this fails to take into account the lives of lower class women in the west, which are far from liberated; and upper class women in the east who can and do exercise much power. these false assumptions lead to failed policies. they also lead to disempowerment, because a "whitey-knows-best" attitude (which comes about when you believe that western women have achieved liberation so know how it's done, and now have to liberate all the women of the world) can discount the views of coloured women and ignore their contribution to ideas about their own well-being.

add to this, the issue of language barriers and lack of access to the internet & internet forums, and the women of colour around the world have much less of a voice than white women. so much less input into the discourse and development of feminist thought.

and the notion that we have achieved liberation or equality in the west is such a myth. so when i hear people say "they have to learn that we treat women as equals in this country", i feel like gagging. we so do not, in so many many ways.

oh, and the point i was trying to make above re afghanistan and iraq is that there is no point in feminism if the result of your actions leave women worse off. perhaps the feminists were active in anti-war movements for both afghanistan and iraq, i don't know, so maybe i'm being too harsh. but if you want equality for women, you have to stop armed conflict. because the men might be the ones who die, but the women get raped. and being left alive, they have to try to stop their children from starving. and they fail so have to watch their babies die from hunger or preventable diseases.

i have to admit that i've not read any of your links, deborah, nor have i read hardly any feminist blogs. i'm sure many of the women of colour (and lots of us use that phrase in this country, at least i've heard it a bit) have said what i've tried to in a much more eloquent way.

finally, sorry to do this, but i'm going to link to something i wrote last month, on the off chance that it might shed some light:

Deborah said...

Fantastic comment, thak you Anum. And yes, some of the women of colour have been saying things like this. What gets me is they have been saynig this for a long, long time - as it were, it's old news - but white feminism doesn't seem to have heard it, or to want to see it.

Deborah said...

Crikey - two typos in that comment I posted, and one of them in Anjum's name. I'm sorry, Anjum.

Julie said...

Finally had a chance to read your post properly Deborah, thank you for your run-down of it all, I had missed quite a lot of the nuances and only really noticed the recent stuff about the racist illustrations.

For me part of this debate is about at what point we disengage with someone - when is any good work they are doing overwhelmed by a fundamental flaw or bad work in the present/past? To put it incredibly flippantly - as a feminist is it ok for me to enjoy the music of someone who was known to be a wife-beater?

Is it possible to agree with some of the points Marcotte makes about the place of women in US society, while still calling her out for what appears to be some pretty blinding white privilege? I think yes, surely it must be. We never agree with another person 100%.

When the R word is used to voice that disagreement you are right, the defensive walls come up. A few years ago I saw someone call someone else (unfairly imho) a racist in a political meeting just to deliberately get them to explode and thus derail their (excellent) argument on another matter.

For many people, and I suspect I would be one of them, it's hard to examine the point of the person who calls you racist. You are too busy thinking of all the reasons why you are not a racist to honestly appraise the reason you might be.

Where does the US feminist blogosphere go from here? And as a white feminist in another part of the world, I hope that the change is positive - that we white feminists are less blind to our privilege, more aware of our subconscious racism, and thus we can work better with all feminists.

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

Sorry for being so silent on this one as it blew up. Also failed to post on the other big ID politics issue making international and national headlines, quite closely related to my previous blogging life. Gaah, I'm so slack.

I kind of like WoC. It sounds like Wok. And depending on your gender-transitional state, you can WoC out with your cock out (I know at least one who can). I think a lot of the grounding that New Zealand has in an ethnicity identity discourse, rather than a race/colour identity discourse, means that we can be more conciliatory, and less screwed up. Ethnicity discourse, in an office conflict management sense, is all about - heh - making "I" statements. Race is about you.

Also, our blogosphere is small enough that it is actually quite intimate, and people can't get away with quite as much marginalisation, when we're all desperate for solidarity, if just to make up the numbers. If you look at THM, we're always looking around to find more voices to bring into the mix, probably not least because the one WoC on the blog is exasperatingly lax.

Yet, as Deborah writes so clearly, there is a real need to keep returning to race discourse, because pinpointing 'whiteness' and 'white privilege' just gets so necessary from time to time. It's divisive, but we wouldn't need to use divisive language if we didn't have a divided world to describe.
Oh and those photos from the Seal Press book? Un-fucking-believable.

Oh. I suppose I should have turned this into a post.

So useless! Sorry.

Julie said...

Here's another post by a Kiwi woman blogger on this matter: