Sunday, December 02, 2007
De-Centering Whiteness as a Proposed Solution to Stagnant Feminism
Yesterday I shared Helen Zia's amazing quote in a woman's group. In response, one (white) woman made a few claims.
THE ASSERTION: black women don't put women first. Instead, race always trumps gender. The feminist movement is mostly white because blacks have chosen not to join it and we need to join it in order for womankind to accomplish its goals.
I know some people take a hard-line stance when it comes to "teaching" others and I understand it. I really do. God knows I don't want to spend my entire life only getting to have Womanism 101 conversations with people. Sure, people in marginalized populations don't have any responsibility to educate people who aren't really putting forth much of an effort to educate themselves. It's kinda like, "Pick up a book already!", right? Still, that argument never really satisfied me because my experience has been that, like it or not, some people just aren't going to "pick up a book" and if you don't answer their questions, then they'll probably just walk around pleasantly and defiantly ignorant.
However, the problem is, when women of color do take the time to try and educate white women, the white women just aren't willing to try and see outside of their whiteness. Women of color don't ever stop working to find common ground with white people. It's something we're forced to do just to survive in this society so when white feminists (and their organizations) try to arrange sessions where they claim that their desire is to see what's holding WOC back from joining "the" (i.e. their) movement, it's really asking the WOC to do more than the whites are being asked to do. White privilege means being able to choose when you'll seek common ground with POC. When whites show that they don't really understand what they are asking WOC to participate in, these sessions become time wasters for us. Is it any wonder that WOC are often not very enthusiastic about the idea of wasting their time with the same people over and over again?
When white feminists propose "women first" doctrines it is often racist even if they didn't intend for it to be that way.Advocating this idea means that they aren't really trying to understand our view at all because it fails to take into consideration that putting "women first" is an option that white women can afford to do because they don't have to pay the severe price that WOC would have to expend. Being white means you can ignore race. You don't have to care about the racist implications of asking someone to put aside the aspects of their identity that are less important to white people. For us, dealing with racism is a matter of survival. For whites it is not.
It's also very self-serving when white feminists tell WOC that we should put "women first". White feminists are part of the oppressor class that makes dealing with race a matter of survival so putting "women first" really means you're telling us that we should bend over and smile while they repeatedly kick us in the ass, so this is not a benign request/suggestion. It certainly isn't keeping the dialogue going because there is no reciprocity there.
Also the "women first" idea is racist because it defines whiteness as the default state of womankind. Giving issues of race just as much "air time" as the usual pet issues of white women (e.g. abortion, homophobia, pay equity) is perceived as wanting race to "trump working for women" as if anti-racist activism isn't as much of a women's issue as those matters.
I think it's also relevant to point out how this subject tends to get framed. It's further evidence of the racism (e.g. white-centeredness) present in white feminism. Whites can ignore the specifics and attempt to frame the arguments in terms of what's of interest to them. As a result, when Asian women like Zia or Native American women like Lee Maracle share their their specific experiences in this society, white feminists just lumped them all together as if the distinctions don't ever matter. Lee Maracle expounded on this when she said,
"That the white women of North America are racist and that they define the movement in accordance with their own narrow perspective should not surprise us. White people define everything in terms of their own people, and then very magnanimously open the door to a select number of others."
The fact that white feminists can't de-center their whiteness, while insisting that women of color should put race aside, means that we've had to go on without them. It's not true that we have to reach some sort of consensus in order to get anything accomplished. When women of color stop using their energies to try and lead white feminists by the hand, they have more time to devote to improving the lives of women in very real ways.
In reality, we are the majority--women of color. White feminists need us to accomplish their goals. I often hear white feminists talk about how our rights are being rolled back and how stagnant the feminist movement has become. However, it doesn't seem to occur to them that what they seem to be witnessing might be related to their rampant racism. Meanwhile, I see the opposite sentiments being expressed by womanists. We are accomplishing more and more as the years pass by. Some white feminists have noticed and made the decision to get on board and womanism welcomes them but de-centering whiteness is an essential pre-requisite.