Contentious Divisions — Racism
Within feminism, we recognize that women are marginalized under patriarchy as women. What we don’t always recognize is that, among women, some of us are further marginalized for our differences from the markers of privilege, things like race and class. What I want to consider is how those differences, those further marginalizations, those multiple oppressions 1, can be framed so that we can understand and care for one another, while we nurture out the insecurities coerced (and sometimes defended) within ourselves.
Feminism is going to divide itself into factions, as women gather around beliefs, common experiences, wounds and points of pride. I don’t see this, by itself, as an issue. None of us has all the experiences to ground us in our theory; we need other women’s perspectives to create a comprehensive whole which can then be used to guide us in female empowerment.
Because we are all women — and feminism is by, for and about women — we are rightly seen as a sex caste, one of two sexes. Yes, there are a very few intersex individuals, but this doesn’t really change the fact of there being, primarily, two sexes. The issue is that when women don’t jump into this women-qua-women alliance wholeheartedly, WE are often seen as being divisive. When Black women bring up the entitlement of white supremacy, when lesbians talk of heterosexual privilege and its presumption of normality, and when I challenge classism, and fat oppression and the ever-present expectation that there is a right size and it’s thin, charges of our being divisive often arise.
That feminists with real-world privilege may still be oppressive to more-marginalized women becomes a contentious issue, and some of the things that come out in the ensuing discussions are brutal. Alliances with white women, with class-privileged women, with thin or average-sized women, and, foremost, with heterosexual women, are demanded. Hierarchy is usually ignored. It is complex, and maintaining victimhood while deflecting other women’s anger for complicity can and must often seem like life support to the threatened privileged. Still, it’s hard to hold unending sympathy, since they are privileged.
Victim Feminism/ Liberal Feminism
One of the biggest divides, even within radical feminism, is a leftover of liberalism that equates femalehood with victimhood only: each woman is a victim of patriarchy and her individual foibles of complicity should never be the focus; she is doing her very best, and is most correctly seen as a victim — and never, herself, as an oppressor. Differences are divisive. The ultimate insult within liberalism is to define a person as a member of a group, also disparaged as ‘identity politics.‘ Liberalism seeks to maximize the choices of the individual, without ever really questioning the effects or the consequences of those choices.
Feminism, seen as white and relatively elite, is something women of Color may join if they fit in … on white women’s terms. Mostly those terms are that racism cannot be discussed because it hurts white women, who are only willing to focus on their own oppression. Victimhood is comforting in its lack of responsibility to do anything except fix blame.
Every focus beyond victimization, it is said in myriad ways, is about behavior coerced by patriarchy — and white women cannot be expected to address racism, class-privileged women cannot be expected to examine their own privilege, and so on. Because they are victims. Because attention to race (class, etc.) isn’t feminist. Because any mention of racism (classism, etc.) is to focus on differences, and it’s our commonalities as women which bring us together as feminists. Racism is (and classism is, etc.) viewed as a subset of patriarchy, and the empowerment of women-as-women will take care of all the other more-marginal issues. And because any focus on anything other than women-as-women is to shift the focus onto men, which is all too common — it’s always about the men, and women are forgotten, or worse, seen but ignored.
WATM has become a common Internet acronym: What About The Men? Women, as the lesser sex-caste in the existing hierarchy have been expected to consider men, as a matter of survival. And it shows, in Internet interactions. Men expect to be catered to, overwhelmingly, and whole groups have formed to complain about non-catering women; these men are called MRAs, ‘men’s rights activists, although many of us prefer other words, including ‘male reactionary’ or ‘repugnant’ and ‘asshats.’ In mixed-sex groups, male goodness often overshadows female brilliance; men are rewarded for behavior expected of women. WATM is a valid criticism within feminism, generally — but not necessarily when it comes to racism, classism, lesbophobia, and so on. Paying attention to further-marginalization does not necessarily imply WATM-ing.
I’m not convinced that the oppression of females is the founding oppression, the basis for all others, which is often cited as a cornerstone for radical feminism. I believe my First Nations friend when she says that for some, colonialism brought misogyny — that it did not exist prior to white contact. To me it looks like the sadistic side of the domestication of animals, or possibly wholesale slaughter vs. taking for need, may have formed the foundation for further oppressions, the legitimacy of canid companions and hunting aside. And perhaps the parent-child relationship, in its first abuses, led to the idea that some people are ownable, appropriate chattels, without any responsibility for their welfare, their own needs and desires. Scarcity, and the rise of the few sociopaths in devastating times, may have been the root cause of oppression — and it well may have brutalized women and girls first, since sexual violence works to disempower females so well. I still claim that I am a radical feminist; I can usually find words like Christine Stark’s, 2 where radicalism is “a means of getting to the root of the issue — seeking fundamental rather than superficial change.”
To me, the issue isn’t limited to the oppression of white, elite women. Feminism, and especially radical feminism, is for all women. And the need is for a fundamental restructuring of our culture, western culture, so that inequities between women are removed, and the playing field is leveled. A great deal of information exists within cultures and subcultures that this dominant one, via patriarchy, has sought to destroy. Rather than further marginalizing communities of Color, we’d be better off begging for the forgiveness of white folks, of Settler folks, and then listening to and learning non-imperial and non-landbase damaging ways of being and doing. I don’t see how it’s possible with climate upheaval and peak soil and the drawdown of ancient water stores to marginalize the Earth side of ecofeminism; even if they haven’t always done perfectly well by women and girls, many First Nations cultures have existed sustainably for tens of thousands of years, at least. We’ve lost on both accounts, so we might as well begin by listening. Especially, listen to the women.
I agree that feminism’s focus needs to be on women and girls. Feminism, again, is by, and about, and for the empowerment of, female people. AND Black women ARE women, and First Nations girls ARE girls, and so it goes. And the pressing issues in the lives of Black women — including that their sons/brothers/partners are the majority of the statistic that in the US, Black people are killed by security officers at a rate of one every 28 hours — matter to feminism; they have to, or feminism becomes patently white.
It only infantilizes us to insist we are always and only victims. We ARE victims; we can be survivors, as well. And we can be accountable to one another, so that we examine our biases, our complicities, our capitulations, and we work to not further marginalized multiply-oppressed women.
The Trayvon Martin trial, which should have been a legal examination of the acts of George Zimmerman but wasn’t, has ended and the younger members of the culture and a bunch of elders like me are devastated and angry. We are bouncing between despondency and rage. And in the days since the verdict, much of the bouncing has been on the Internet, where white entitlement has erupted repeatedly. Race, finally, is in the fore — at least for the saner ones among us. Fewer white supremacists are demanding that race had nothing to do with Zimmerman’s original stalking and accosting of the Black teenager. But the damage has been done. For every supportive post I have seen two, three and four posts making the claims listed above for Victim Feminism, even in radical feminist circles. And I have been scrambling to make challenging and worthwhile supportive posts! Even claims that feminism has work to do on racism/ white supremacy are contentious. Our work has barely begun, here.
If you suspect I’m overstating radical feminists‘ resistance to dealing with racism, consider this choice paragraph:
I am seeing this Zimmerman / Martin case being blown up on the Radfem FB pages and women fighting each other and actual claims being made that Radfems are seriously racist. First of all, why are we discussing the Zimmerman case in the first place on Radfem pages when the case is about two men? Secondly, women can’t be racist against men even black men because even black men oppress white women and have more privilege in patriarchy than white women. If you are a radical feminist you should understand this basic power dynamic that the oppressed can’t oppress their oppressors. Yes white women can oppress and do have privilege over minority women and yes heterosexual women can oppress and do have privilege over lesbian women, but so far the claims I have seen of their being serious racism amongst Radfems have not been based on white Radfem women oppressing minority women or white heterosexual Radfem women oppressing lesbian women, but instead on Radfem women not wanting to concern themselves about the Zimmerman/Martin case—which is about MEN. I must agree that this subject has no place in radical feminism and calling Radfem women racist because they don’t want to engage in or discuss the plight of men regardless of their race is ridiculous and has only proven to divide women.
It is a complete misunderstanding of radical feminism, a branch of feminism begun in great part by Black lesbians. There is nowhere in oppression theory, besides in this blogger’s narrow view, that states that (white) women cannot be racist against men of color because all men have greater power than even that of white women. Nowhere. Simply because it’s not true. Both groups, white women and men of Color, are kept mobile on patriarchal capitalism’s hierarchy, certainly both below elite white men, so that they can be pitted against one another in whichever ways benefit elite white men. Black men rape; white women use their contacts with white men to move Black men out of their way. This has meant devastated or dead white women, this has meant devastated or dead Black men; mostly this has meant that the lives and deaths of Black women have been marginalized out of everyone’s awareness. Ha! Feminism.
1. “Intersectionality” was, perhaps!, coined by token tower-dweller Kimberle Crenshaw. In scanning a Jo Freeman-edited anthology in a book store, I found the word attributed to a different woman, possibly earlier than the 1989 Crenshaw coinage. I will have to find that, if only for my use, but I will share the info if I can get it.
At least a decade before “intersectionality,” we were using language that was far, far stronger — more evocative of the terrible burden that oppressions caused when they were placed, one atop another, on the shoulders of women. We had “multiple oppressions” and the idea of women being “multiply oppressed.” And these terms are found in the works of Black women and other women of Color, many of whom were lesbians. I’ve been challenged for my racism in disliking Crenshaw’s word, which seems odd, since Combahee cradled such theorists as Audre Lorde, and I’ve heard Pat Parker’s name in there too. Barbara and Beverly Smith, I believe, were there …. To the very best of my information, radical Black lesbian feminists used “multiply oppressed” because it worked to show the burden, the weight, of oppression as it was experienced by more-marginalized women. As I recall it, we all used “multiple oppressions” to explain the dynamic; this was the wording of the 80s, and even the late 70s. And, in further reading, I’ve seen that Jo (Joreen) Freeman was using “multiply oppressed” in the late 60s!
One huge reason why I dislike “intersectionality” is that it brings to my mind ethereal points where this idea of oppressions can be seen as lightly crossing one another, and in that way discussed. The material reality, having to bear the weight of multiple oppressions, is not served by the small, light points of “intersection.” As a woman, and one who is working-class, non-Christian, old, and fat, I have a perspective that is at least somewhat marginalized in placement in relation to the power structure. I have a friend who is a poverty-class radical lesbian feminist, who feels the same, basically, but she is the only other woman I’ve ever heard articulate this.
I have heard other feminists, especially those grass-roots radical feminists (not trained in academia in feminism, although they may possess degrees in other disciplines), say that “intersectionality” is a code word for liberal feminism, for the entry of transgenderists as more oppressed than “cis” women. To me, this is too broad a sweep to be useful: words may work for us, even if the other side co-opts them to a degree. And, unfortunately, at the criticism’s basis, there is the idea that simply to discuss racism within a feminist framework is to be divisive, that it’s not an issue inherent to radical feminism, which is about the oppression of women-as-women, and not our differences. I think this is a leaching in of liberal feminism, but there is a lot of support for the idea that Those Other Women are disrupting Our movement — which, of course, makes it a white-centered movement, further marginalizing women of Color. I really can’t imagine that Audre Lorde would be pleased with this.
2. In “Girls to boy: Sex radical women promoting pornography and prostitution,” from _Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography_, p. 279, eds. Rebecca Whisnant and Christine Stark, 2005, Spinifex Press, Australia