Sunday, December 02, 2007

De-Centering Whiteness as a Proposed Solution to Stagnant Feminism

Black Power fist superimposed over the symbol of Venus
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.


Mr Lady said...

Wow. I can't wait until my kids go to bed so I can really read your blog.

I have so many thoughts on this subject and I can't wait to read yours!

(and thanks for stopping by mine! If what you say about boogers is true, than I will have the healthiest three children on the planet. It's their main food group.)

Lisa Harney said...

I think race very much needs to be at the center of feminism - that white women need to follow the lead of women of color.

I believe this because, as you add more intersections, you add more oppression, and that ending that oppression (or at least working against it) is more important than trying to get the most privileged people to equality with the primary oppressor class.

I also believe this because anything that helps women of color helps women, and fighting for the rights of those who need them the most is woman-centered.

And hell, I admit it's easy to slip up and recenter on whiteness - I think I did that in your abortion post the other day, and while I tried to recover from it, what I was saying was so not the point.

And, really, the fact that it's easy isn't an excuse to slip back into it, but rather a reason to try to be vigilant against that instinct to recenter.

Lisa Harney said...

Also, it's really misleading for some to talk about it as if "race trumps gender" in terms of women of color dealing with racial issues as well as women's issues. It's not that race trumps gender, it's the intersection of the two - which is why women of color were coerced or tricked into getting tubal ligations when white women were not. That's a racial and a women's issue, and you just can't pull the race out of it and expect it to make sense.

donna darko said...

"Putting women first" is crazy and racist.

I can see why black women put race first but woc feminism isn't only about black women.

There's also a huge difference between putting women first (as if white women ever cared about woc) and women of color first which is a whole different story because communities of color have always put men of color first.

There may also be black women who put gender first or at least homophobia.

donna darko said...

Hi bint,

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.

Again there's a difference between putting women first and women of color first.

WOC pay a severe price for not putting women of color first in communities of color. Boys and men of color are always tended to before girls and women of color.

Feminism and communities of color should put WOC first as we suffer the most.

seitzk said...

Amazing post.

Anonymous said...

Just dropping by to say that I've read this post about six times since you put it up, and without gushing or coming across as a mere fangirl, I have it bookmarked and keep coming back to it. This pulled together so many disconnected thoughts I've been having about feminism and the feminist blogosphere in particular...

I'm still mulling over it. But thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is a bit late but did I ever say I adore you?

Thank you.

I don't have the time or energy to go into all the stuff that's been going down. Just know that I'm reading it all and supporting my WOC friend out there in the internets !

Thank you again.