Monday, March 23, 2009

Women's History Month Blog Carnival: Jaded

This is the first in a series of posts related to the Women's History Month blog carnival, co-hosted by What Tami Said and Women's Space. This year, we asked women to write about how the 2008 presidential election cycle changed them. Unfortunately, the number of submissions received this year greatly pales in comparison to last year, but we wanted to share the wonderful posts that we did receive. We will continue to accept submissions of poetry, essays, art, video, etc., through March 31. Following is my essay.
About a year ago, I took the descriptor "feminist" out of my blog profile. Those few strokes of a "delete" key symbolized a shift in the way I define myself. I still believe fervently in equality for women, but I was frustrated and hurt over the racism I observed within the feminist movement--bias that had been inflammed by the Democratic primary race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Today, a few months on from the heat and passion of the presidential election cycle, I do not regret what I did. My beef is not with "feminism" as doctrine, but more with a Western feminist movement that too often mirrors the same old oppressions and power structures found in larger culture. But here is the good news: The realization that the feminist movement is not mine and exists primarily for the benefit of women unlike me, makes me a better ally and more effective in the fight for justice for all women.
Submissions for this year's Women's History Carnival didn't fly in as they did last year, when feminists and womanists were ready to throw down over issues of sexism, racism and politics. I've wondered if our topic was the barrier. We asked women to revisit all the stings and slights of the presidential election season and tell us how they had been changed by the internecine warfare. But what is past is past. And perhaps my sisters have moved on. I have moved on. But the imprint of what transpired during the 2008 elections is firmly stamped on the way I view the feminist movement and progressive causes.
I will not recount the racial sturm und drang of the last year in this space. I don't have the stomach or energy, and there is no point preaching to the converted or trying to change cemented opinions. But I will tell you about my epiphany. I had always believed that being oppressed makes one sensitive to the oppression of others. Too, I was sure of the enlightenment and righteousness of the purveyors of lefty causes. I thought I was clear on who the oppressors always were. Foolish, I was. Here is the truth: We live in a sexist, racist, ablist, homophobic and classist society. ANYONE who is a part of this society--no matter how personally oppressed and liberal-minded--absorbs its biases. Last year, I learned Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza's word kyriarchy from Sudy and it is now the most important word in my activist vocabulary:
Let me break this down for you.  When people talk about patriarchy and then it divulges into a complex conversation about the shifting circles of privilege, power, and domination -- they're talking about kyriarchy.  When you talk about power assertion of a White woman over a Brown man, that's kyriarchy.  When you talk about a Black man dominating a Brown womyn, that's kyriarchy.  It's about the human tendency for everyone trying to take the role of lord/master within a pyramid.  At it best heights, studying kyriarchy displays that it's more than just rich, white Christian men at the tip top and, personally, they're not the ones I find most dangerous. There's a helluva lot more people a few levels down the pyramid who are more interested in keeping their place in the structure than to turning the pyramid upside down. Read more...
This is how black men can be sexist; straight Latinas can be homophobic; and yes, white women can be racist. So, it should not surprise that the feminist movement as a whole would find within it the same prejudice and power structure that exists outside of it.
Today, I also more strongly appreciate that those of us who suffer under multiple oppressions need safe spaces of our own. And I am flirting with the idea that most of our activism should focus on our own communities. The idea goes against my fundamental belief that all human beings are connected and that we should seek more ways to unite not separate. But women of color, transwomen, lesbian women, poor women, disabled women, etc., shouldn't have to wait for justice until white, straight, cisgendered, upper-middle-class, able-bodied women are free; or until they deign to recognize that all women are not the same and, though we are created equal, in this society we are not treated so. Online and in life, I need places where I can drop the mask, where I don't have to explain, where the people around me "get me" and are of common mind and experience, working toward common goals. (Goals that may be shaped by race, class or other factors) Everyone deserves that. More practically, if an activist group is to get anything done, there MUST be some coalescence around identified challenges, solutions and objectives.
Does that mean, for instance, that black women and white women cannot work together? Emphatically, no. There are many, many white women within the mainstrean and radical women's movements who are amazing allies, who understand intersectionality, who work hard not to elevate the needs of just one group of women. And there are myriad issues that affect us all that require work. Won't that work be easier and less disappointing, won't it be more effective, if we are clear-eyed about each other? If we don't expect each other to be perfect in our progressivism? If we expect some flaws, blind spots and biases? If we realistically know when to come together and when to walk away?
Women's equality, I think, is best achieved--not through a feminist movement, but through feminist movements comprised of coalitions of women working toward their unique goals. Maybe that's the way it has always been. Come to think of it, I'm sure this is the way it has always been. All different kinds of women doing their thing in their communities. It is the larger society, with its skewed notions of who is most important, and (sometimes) recognized feminist leaders, who have absorbed those skewed notions, that have assigned a "face" to feminism that is not mine and may not be yours. But, in truth, feminism is not one face, but faces. We should all remember that.
I don't call myself a feminist so much anymore. If I have need of a label, then womanist feels more comfortable.
I am a bit jaded, yes. But I think I am a better ally now, because I have been stripped of my naivete. I no longer expect to be understood and I recognize that I may not always understand my "sisters." With that knowlege, I can form more effective partnerships that are based in reality.


Lucie @ Unconventional Origins said...

Tami, this is a wonderful post. I am a white woman who has become increasingly uncomfortable self-identifying as a feminist because of all the unacknowledged racism and privilege in the feminist movement (past and present). I often struggle with what to call myself to show that some of the feminist ideals mean a lot to me (pro-woman? womanist? anti racist feminist?). So many people tell me that I can call myself a feminist because I KNOW what I mean, but it just doesn't feel right.

Again, wonderful post, I'm retweeting it right now and coming back to it for a reference for a post I'm writing later!

Kia said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. As a black woman a lot it resonates with me.

My dealings with white women who identify as feminists runs the gamut, from love to hate. Right now I'm dealing with a situation caused by a privileged white woman who believes that wearing an Obama t shirt inoculated her from isms of any kind. Despite her very real actions to the contrary.

Most of the people that I'm dealing with on a week to week basis are familiar with what I'm about, so I don't have cause to define myself very often.

I'd love for feminist to be accepted as I mean it but I'm not sure if and when that's going to happen.

susan said...

I didn't adopt the label feminist until I met and interacted with feminists in the UK. In the US, I wasn't feeling the movement. I'm not an academic. I'm not a white middle class woman, but when I met feminist parents in the UK, I found women who wanted to talk about class, race, oppression, equality for all people.

I don the label and I'm okay with it. I'm also okay with those who opt for different or no labels because honestly I really don't care what you call yourself as much as I care if you live what you talk.

We need to define ourselves and don't get pissed if someone has misconceptions about you. When you define yourself, the onus is own you to educate others why you identify the way you do.

Anonymous said...

"But the imprint of what transpired during the 2008 elections is firmly stamped on the way I view the feminist movement and progressive causes."

Yeah, and the imprint of what transpired last year is firmly stampedon the way I view the anti-racist movment and progressive causes.

Anonymous said...

There is a certain amount of naivete in thinking that just because a person is "oppressed" in some way, automatically means that that woman will "get' another kind of oppression.

This is simply wishful thinking. I have no problem with the word feminism, have always considered myself a feminist, and believe in women's advancement so that the world is no longer run only by men, as it is now.

If you want real connection between different groups, you have to interact on a personal level; groupism never really works... throw all the women into the "male-centric" club and stir doesn't work, invite "WOC" into a group (i.e.white) and it's polite tokenism. I rarely ever see it any other way.

Me, I'm not really interested in hanging with people who don't "get it." It's a waste of time. I'm open to friendships where we really have time for each other, but in groups, well it's a waste of my time to work with men, and I want to focus on women.

The election disappointed me in many ways. I wanted women to win everything, I was sick of male rule. Really really sick to death of it.

Anonymous said...

The thing that shocked me most about the election is that some white feminists were willing to consider anti-white rhetoric, aimed at a woman or not, "racist." I still find it disappointing and confusing, and as a white feminist, embarrassing and destructive.


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