I asked a sister activist about the local anti-racism group she had loosely brought together, since I hadn’t heard from her in a couple of weeks. Given my immersion in radical feminism, I was surprised when in the course of conversation my friend said ‘the man/woman question’ is well-covered; it’s racism that we aren’t allowed to talk about. But progress is simply not linear, and feminism or women’s liberation, names for ‘the man/woman question,’ has faced repeated resistance, repression. And of course we can’t talk about racism — there I agree! And yet ….
In every surge of movement toward female liberation there has been strong backlash. With the recent death of Playboy empire founder Hugh Hefner, feminists brought out his direct attack on feminism, which was making gains against unfettered male entitlement to women’s bodies, by turning burgeoning female bodily freedom into subordination. And he succeeded — he made submission to male sexual standards the norm. He wrote, “These chicks [feminists] are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them,” in a leaked memo. Further, as Gail Dines has explained in detail, he brought pornography out into the mainstream and made it seem acceptable, normal, and necessary for masculinity, for men. Following the announcement of his death, she wrote: “He was the first major pimp who brought porn out of the backstreets onto main street. We will never be able to measure the damage he did by turning porn into a corporate commodity that legitimized and normalized the buying and selling of women’s bodies. He hated women, referred to them as dogs, and made porn ‘respectable’ by surrounding porn images with interviews and articles by well known literary figures.”
Currently feminists are faced with the invisibilizing of women. A book released this summer, called Female Erasure, further details this era’s backlash. From the introduction on the book’s website: “Through researched articles, essays, first-hand experience, story telling, and verse, these voices ignite the national conversation about the politics of gender identity as a backlash to feminist goals of liberation from gender stereotypes, oppression and sexual violence.”
I recently asked friends on social media to consider an article on “domestic violence,” overwhelmingly male on female violence (85 percent female victims to 15 percent male). In it, the first and most detailed case was of a man abused by a woman. Of course it happens, and of course it’s wrong. What concerned me was taking a woman-endangering epidemic and making it about men, first, and people, more generally. My friends on social media understood quickly. When I complained to a local friend, she immediately mentioned, and talked at length about, a man she knew who was abused by his wife, another nod to focusing on the exception, female violence against men. We are simply not allowed to name male violence as male violence, as violence perpetrated by men against women (and children and men, too) — but BY men: MALE VIOLENCE. What is it about those two words together that is so threatening, including to self-described feminists?
We live under a hierarchy of many sets of rungs, and one of the most dangerous is that of sex, male above female. Men kill women; cases of women killing men are rare, and generally mitigated by dire circumstances. Surely it comes, at least partially, from the territory: men are praised for being aggressive, taking charge, pushing others to do what they want (the football adage: “there’s no greater feeling than to be able to move a man from Point A to Point B against his will”), and for being inherently “better” than women — stronger, smarter in matters that count, braver, bolder, natural-born leaders — all of the stereotypes showing that ‘masculinity,’ the male gender role, is hierarchically “above” all the traits foisted onto females as ‘femininity.’ We may argue details, but we live in a patriarchal culture, and even the arguers give themselves away eventually. What isn’t said in the debates, amid the ire and the hilarity, is that men kill generally, and women generally do not. (See also, The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, accessed October 1, 2017.)
And yet women’s sympathy for men, the oppressor caste, pushes women, the oppressed caste, to pander to men, even to the point of putting them first. No, I don’t think the man/woman question is at all settled. In fact it’s more than unsettled. Definitions have been torqued into meaninglessness, with those that activists hammered out through long discussions on tactics and subtexts replaced by frivolous framings making damning too easy. Take the concept of identity politics. Back in the 60s and 70s, feminism — also called the women’s movement or women’s liberation, and Civil Rights, or Black liberation, and the American Indian Movement, were all acknowledged as identity politics. People who were of a specific group, and who — most importantly — were marginalized by the dominant culture for their membership in such a group which had been identified by the white/ male/ powerful, came together to resist that oppression and fight, unified, for liberation. Identity meant being identified by the power structure and targeted for oppression. I believe it was Combahee that coined the phrase identity politics.
Consider what identity politics has become: an individualistic claim with no basis in fact necessary. Of course it’s easy to slam the concept — it’s fakery, buffoonery, false. Lesbians can have penises, some people are identifying out of sex (male/ female) and claiming to be one of a variety of genders — or none at all. Except that Lesbians are women, adult + human + female, who love women, and gender, the societal role assigned by sex, is itself a hierarchy of masculine over feminine. It doesn’t matter how creatively “genders” can be made to multiply, the hierarchy — and the artificiality — remains. To eliminate the problems with gender, again, societal roles, abolish those roles. Abolish gender. Let people wear whatever they wish, and do whatever they wish in life, so long as it doesn’t transgress the boundaries of others. But that is an unfortunate facet of gender as it’s framed these days — the whole purpose is transgression of specifically female boundaries, either to get into female spaces (bepenised people) or opt out of female oppression (vulva-possessing people). The problem with THIS version of identity politics is that existing people, women, or adult + human + female people, are being shoved out of female spaces. And we can’t talk about that. Lately those who try lose jobs and can’t get their research approved.
And we still can’t talk about racism. Not really talk.
In the discussion on the anti-racism group, I relayed a situation where I had invited a local, a leader and effective organizer, and a truly solid citizen gentleman of Color to a meeting downtown. When he walked in, this powerful, effective, solid citizen looked terribly uncomfortable — as though he felt unsafe. I spoke with him immediately, welcomed him, and he settled in at the margins, but only there. My friend was moved, and uncomfortable, by the retelling. (Good; we need to know, and only the uncomfortable change things.) When I worked for a fairly large company in the Pacific Northwest I invited a coworker to play on their volleyball league in a nearby public park. But ‘nearby’ to me was north of downtown to her — and no one of her ancestry ventured (safely) north of downtown. She was gracious to explain it; she didn’t owe me that at all. Not surprisingly, I’ve never forgotten it.
We still don’t talk about racism. And we don’t talk about a lot of things that fall into the general category of oppression theory which, when taken together accomplish two valid goals. They allow us to see commonalities enough to form, at least, coalitions, making we who are oppressed the vast majority. And they allow us to see ourselves honestly, as oppressed, yes, but also as oppressor — in other situations.
Black men are horribly oppressed, just look at prisons and the number of men shot by police who get away with it — and still have male privilege, can still act as oppressor against ALL women, to at least some extent. White women are deeply oppressed by men within patriarchy — from the sexual assaults most of us have endured to sex trafficking, and being beaten or killed within relationships of legitimized “love” — and yet also have very real and very brutal power over Black men. So often these two groups hold onto how they are oppressed, and what we really can’t talk about is how they/ we also function as oppressors. If we can see ourselves as both it gives us common ground for listening without immediate defense (#NOTALLMEN, #NOTALLWHITEWOMEN). And it allows for both groups to evade demand for the loyalty of Black women, a situation that hasn’t changed a great deal across history.
Privilege is decent treatment compared to a logical reference group. There are too many ways to be privileged, and to have been soothingly sold into believing the rightness of the decent treatment, for any of us to have no culturally-endowed and somewhat internalized urge to oppress another group. Yes, that’s a long sentence; read it again if it isn’t clear. In short, we’re all in both camps: oppressed, yes, for being seen as having membership in marginalized groups, and also oppressor. Privileged for some things, group membership characteristics, marginalized for others. All conformity to the elite’s standards equals privileging. Any self-comfort within that conformity leads to normalizing that privileging and to the inability to see its effect on those down the hierarchy.
When I spoke of privilege, my friend challenged me on making it about personal issues, where I’d previously said that privilege is based on group membership — as determined by the dominants. For decades feminism has held that the personal is political. Until very recently no one has ever claimed that the personal is the whole of politics. Keeping the focus on identity as ‘out-group membership bestowed by the power structure’ should help, here.
Another landmine is in wanting to see everyone as ‘just people,’ making differences more palatable to the privileged. Where we have privilege we really need to sort it out ourselves, with checks back to the marginalized to be sure we’re not derailing our own education. Difference is usually sacred, valued by the marginalized group. I speak at a local conference every year, and while the room is generally packed, only one or two people who know me come to hear what I have to say. Only one friend, advanced-degreed and a deeply political thinker, has come to hear and support me; she’s never missed a talk. Never has a conference organizer sat in on my presentation. Not once in four years. Every year I speak about how differences are valued by the marginalized. Not only am I working class, I’m actively challenging the comforts of privilege within the existing hierarchy.
We want change. We just don’t want to have to talk about it. And we’d rather not have to do the work, to be challenged, to take risks and actually sometimes fail — and look stupid, and be humiliated, and all of that. I agree it’s not fun! But it’s so very necessary to the creation of change. It still has to be done. We have to be willing to do the work.
Part of doing the work is to be willing to go beyond talk of unearned privilege, things we can’t change, and dig into our own privileged behavior. We discussed perfection, and we agreed that perfect is the enemy of progress. Sometimes it feels like there is a really tight line we must walk as activists, and if we misspeak we will be hammered for it. I understand this; I also understand that we privileged are often used to being right, and to having extensive freedoms — to use and even to appropriate. So when we say a word, or worse, claim a word, that we shouldn’t, the response can feel intense beyond reason. I would ask that we look at it from our experience of the other side, of having someone simply ooze privilege out into the conversation where we look to our own, wondering who the hell has to clean that up. And someone does, and because that stinks so badly and has such dangerous implications if left untreated, the response is also a warning: DON’T go there again!
My love, in an anti-racism discussion, used “Voodoo” as a negative, and was immediately called on it by the leader of the group. Gently and with some adamance. Having lived with political-me for decades, he was accepting of the correction, and took the education as valuable. (Notice I’m telling on someone else’s privilege misstep, not my own? We always have to be able to take what we give; I’m working on it!) I was impressed with the scenario as it played out. Yes, there were small gasps in the audience, and spines suddenly straightened, preparation for the battle between the tall, elegant Black man and the big, working-class white man that would ensue. And didn’t. Modeling of how to call and respond given, I think, beautifully. Bravely, on the part of the leader of the group — the room held many white people, including working-class men who are presumed to be the enemy of anti-racism, and here were seriously untested. And honorably on the part of the white folks who stiffened for the likely battle before them — but neither escalated the situation nor stepped in to align sides.
Can we reside here for a while — can we really talk about white supremacy? Can we talk without demanding either perfection or tolerance of the inexcusable?
This is already too long. In the next post I will cover what I understand to be the basics of oppression theory, things I learned through reading hundreds of books, primarily by Lesbians of Color, during the harassment days I endured in the mid-80s. Your ideas on oppression theory basics are welcome!
(All above links accessed September 30, 2017, unless otherwise noted.)