Three suggestions re feminism and white privilege (1)

by zohra moosa // 30 April 2008, 11:28

1. Try not to patronize/fetish women of colour*:

Black** feminists aren't right about racism because they're black, but because they make a strong case (when we do). Otherwise, it's like saying that women are right about sexism because they're women (which is exactly what dearwhitefeminists does say unfortunately - in what is generally quite an interesting post). It's not my social identity that proves me correct, but my logic, rationale, analysis, evidence, conceptual clarity etc. It's not like there aren't women of colour who:

  • Get it wrong about racism sometimes
  • Disagree with other women of colour (uh oh, they're both black women - which one's right?!)
Just as there are plenty of women who support patriarchy and plenty of feminists that disagree with each other on all manner of topics, including feminism. Acknowledging lived experience and access to a non-privileged perspective is one thing; treating it as Truth that you can't or shouldn't engage with simply because of my ethnicity still makes your engagement with me about my race. Solidarity should include respect - show me some by keeping your brain turned on.


2. Share or surrender the platform:

Really welcome Feministing's thoughtful acknowledgement of their power. Think their idea to more actively try to link to black women's sites (not their words) as a way to devolve some of this power (which they frame as privilege) is helpful.

Would like to point out that linking to other sites is a paternal way of sharing power, it's not a true share-out. It also doesn't disrupt the privilege dynamic - it's up to Feministing to say, 'well done, we like you, here's a treat'. While the information available to Feministing and its readers will hopefully change through the process, which is good, the underlying power relationship won't (on its own). If Feministing recognizes itself as privileged already, what can it propose to help ensure this privilege isn't perpetuated as it makes its decisions about links and who to ally with or promote? Perhaps their upcoming community site offers prospects as they suggest? Perhaps information on how to pitch to the wicked Voices of series and how decisions will be made would help?

This relates to the question on 'how do we get more ethnic minority women*** to attend our events?' Short answer? Start showing up and supporting ours. Longer answer: get over the idea that having one woman of colour on a panel to 'represent' 'diversity' is going to cut it. (I'm assuming here that at least one woman of colour was already secured as a speaker; if all the speakers are white women, well we're in a whole other level of conversation.) Try something novel like having the whole panel be black women at a 'mainstream' (read white dominant) event - and have them talk about something other than their race.

3. Do your homework:

Unlearning is an important part of the political change process. And click moments are both unpredictable and awesome. I'm glad Laura chose to post her brave piece on how she is attempting to confront some of her privilege. What I appreciate less is the general call out to inform her (in her words, 'please let me know what is appropriate') 'how to refer to people who aren't white'. I read that as 'can you tell me what I should call you people?'

I've been trying to decide whether I would find it as problematic if the same kind of request was made so publicly about another social group. I've decided I think 'yes'. Which is unfortunate as Laura specifically wrote that she was worried about causing offense. D'oh.

Obviously it's fair enough to recognize that one is ignorant about a particular thing, in danger of mis-stepping as a result and to appeal for help. But there are levels of ignorance. I would categorize a question about how to refer to a social group that one is going to write a blog post about as a 101 question. (As in, beginners' class.) I would encourage someone in this position to try any of the following for this level of question:

  • Google it
  • Ask a friend
  • Read a book
  • Attend a workshop

It should not be up to women of colour to do white women’s work for them; it is not fair to ask us to take on the burden of your education. Make the effort to search for the answers as you would with anything else you had 101 questions about.

That said, Laura's particular point was around 'white guilt dilemma', and she does comfortably use 'women of colour' in her second last paragraph. So perhaps she was just being cautious? Certainly labels are tricky, and there's that pesky problem about how not everyone agrees on which labels to use (e.g. I'm not into BME**** at all).

So here are three reading suggestions I'd like to make to anyone looking for something to read on race and feminism as a bow to Laura's decision to take a risk:


  1. Pretty much anything by bell hooks; perhaps 'Ain't I a woman: Black women and feminism' to begin with

  2. A whole lot of the analysis on Colours of Resistance, and this for a start because it's funny

  3. And for anyone still under the impression that anti-racism has nothing to do with feminism, this or this (pdf) or this or this (skipping to the article by Kim McKee about how the abolition movement started the women's suffrage movement in the UK) (pdf) or this (same thing, but for the US with some more little known facts about the history of feminism)


    (What a cheat! That's really seven reading suggestions, not three, and one of them is my own work!)



Notes:
(1) Written as a woman of colour speaking to a white woman

*I'm from Toronto and identify as a 'woman of colour' in my activist circles there
**I live in London and identify as a 'black' woman in my political circles here
***I work in the UK and identify as an 'ethnic minority woman' in my job and advocacy work
****BME is short for black and minority ethnic, which lots of anti-racist groups use in the UK, but which is grammatically nonsensical. Variations include BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) and BMER (black, minority ethnic and refugee). A full explanation on all of this is possible but besides the point for this post, so apologies to the anoraks, but I leave the **** here

Comments From You

spiralsheep // Posted 30 April 2008 at 13:50

I nearly comment in the last thread but then decided not to but as zohra has now brought this up, I will.

"I read that as ‘can you tell me what I should call you people?’"

Yes, so did I. I understand that Laura's intention was to be as polite as possible but asking for a convenient term to lump disparate groups (who're differentiated for differing reasons, some self-chosen and some imposed by society, of physical appearance, i.e."race", ethnicity, i.e. culture, and nationality) together isn't very polite. I still appreciate that Laura was trying to be thoughtful though.

I also agree with zohra and dislike "BME" which, as far as I can tell, is an acronym made up for the convenience of white civil servants who wanted to refer to all Those people in one homogenous lump. I'm not white because I'm multiracial but I'm not "black" by current definitions (nor, for example, are British Asians or BBCs) and I'm certainly not part of an "ethnic minority" because, like many non-white people, I'm culturally English and British. White Polish people, however, are part of an ethnic minority and BME seems to include them. Lastly, BME has often been spelled BEM (because that makes more sense grammatically) which is the same acronym as "bug-eyed monster" and, srsly, no, thank you.

I was also interested to see that Annika, who originally introduced the use of BME in the previous thread then went on to wonder whether it applied to her but was ignored.

I'll go back and read the new comments on the last post now. :-)

Laura // Posted 30 April 2008 at 14:17

I'd like to apologise for offending anyone with my post. I wanted to try and be honest about the problems I know I have in this area, and obviously the attitude described by zohra and spiralsheep above is one of them. As I said in the original post, I am going to try and sort this out.

My intention was not to lump different groups of people together, I just wanted to point out that there weren't many people who weren't white around me as a grew up and I guess I should just have phrased it like that instead of looking for a term, but sometimes the nature of trying to explain things or look at issues perhaps necessitates some kind of umbrella term, just like we refer to "women" and "men" as a whole in order to address gender discrimination. That's no excuse, I know, but I hope it helps to clarify that I wasn't trying to be an arsehole.

spiralsheep // Posted 30 April 2008 at 14:30

I honestly wasn't offended in this case, Laura.

I generally assume that if people from a disprivileged group point out something like that it's because we think the person/people we're talking to are listening, interested, and capable of positive change. :-)

Jennifer-Ruth // Posted 30 April 2008 at 14:38

Thanks for this post - I will definitely be reading those links over the next couple of days.

Acknowledging lived experience and access to a non-privileged perspective is one thing; treating it as Truth that you can’t or shouldn’t engage with simply because of my ethnicity still makes your engagement with me about my race.

Yes, but I think there is still a great importance in listening first in situations where you hold the privilege. Sure, you can hold all the opinions you like, but they do have less validity if you haven't lived it.

It should not be up to women of colour to do white women’s work for them; it is not fair to ask us to take on the burden of your education.

Absolutely!

Soirore // Posted 30 April 2008 at 16:45

Regarding BME excluding white Polish people; it does not (at least in the context I've seen it used). BME also includes white Irish people which is interesting although it annoys when BME schemes for inclusion in certain job sectors etc. use this, as it seems an excuse to choose white BMEs over others. Or maybe I'm being cynical.

Also, we should try to avoid making generalisations about terms and who likes them as many people find BME useful despite it's grammatical, and other, issues. We should remember that our preferences for certain terms over others are not right or wrong as long as a term isn't directly offensive.

Sunny // Posted 30 April 2008 at 17:09

Black** feminists aren’t right about racism because they’re black, but because they make a strong case (when we do)

I was going to make this point earlier too! Thanks Zohra.

We all have disagreements and I think gut instinct and good arguments are more important than labels etc. I frequently disagree with race-relation "experts" on race issues... and sometimes feminists on patriarchy related issues. There is no one position on feminism, and there's no one position on racism either. Some brown / black people are intent on seeing themselves as victims all the time and others disregard racism entirely.

Don't get too hung up please about having to acknowledge racism in the discourse on feminism. I think its more important to have vigorous debates than tip-toe around all the time.

Annika // Posted 01 May 2008 at 11:25

"Also, we should try to avoid making generalisations about terms and who likes them as many people find BME useful despite it's grammatical, and other, issues. We should remember that our preferences for certain terms over others are not right or wrong as long as a term isn't directly offensive."

Thank you, Soirore. I was beginning to feel bad for even having mentioned it in Laura's post!

zohra // Posted 02 May 2008 at 11:17

I think the tricky bit is defining when something is offensive. As an ally (i.e. someone with privilege who works to challenge oppression) on other (non-race) issues, I take my cue from resisters (i.e. those likely to experience the particular oppression I'm working on at the time) about what terminology to use around them, which might in turn be different to what term(s) I use for advocacy, political or activist work on the same issues. Sometimes the political term that's appropriate may not be what someone wants to be called, e.g. some people really don't like being called 'women of colour'.

Also, there is a whole politics around reclaiming - taking back terms that are deliberately used to cause offence and using them to self-define to challenge the idea that something (e.g. being a 'Paki') is offensive...

Bottom line: words and terms have power, but they are also constantly shifting. What's offensive one minute may not be the next. I kind of think that makes things interesting.

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