Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On Becoming a Feminist, pt 3--The Black History Month Post

**my own thoughts on a much-written about topic**

I just re-read Tera Hunter's To Joy My Freedom for my labor history class. I agree with one reviewer who said that while it is a story about women and work, it is all so a story about women and freedom. At the heart of this book is the story of how working class black women defined for themselves, through work and leisure, what it meant to be freed and later, free. Whites and black bourgeoisie disapproved of the these definitions, but poor black women persisted. They persisted, especially, in the face of white women's frustrations and desires to define black women wholly in terms of their service and relationships to white women.

Much has been said about that last issue, in many contexts. It is in works like Hunter's that re-tell the story of how white women despaired of ever finding "good help" and in Evelyn Nakano Glenn's articles about racial inequality and division in public and private "women's work." It is in books like Korstad's Civil Rights Unionism and Brattain's The Politics of Whiteness that detail how adamant white women were that they not share workspace with black women, and in other books that point to how effective white women workers, often treated as "unorganizable," were in organizing hate strikes.

This desire to define black women in narrow terms that marginalized most of their existence was evident among more progressive white women, too, of course. It is in the stories of overtly racist "first wave" feminists (yes, I'm going to point you to the coverage Deborah Gray White gives to this in Too Heavy a Load) and the somewhat more covertly racist second wave. A few weeks ago, a woman in my class asserted that the response of the second wave to women of color's concerns can be summarized, in part, as, "That's nice, dear. Now let me handle the real issues and you run to get me a cup of tea." That is harsh, yes, but has much truth.

A more generous view of second wave strife can be found in Winifred Breines's The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. By generous, I mean that Breines imbues white women with a sort of naivete--a desire for a perfect, interracial world that prevented them from understanding the realities of a multi-racial one. I think Breines is perhaps too beneficent in excusing the actions of these women--she implies that many white feminists didn't understand racism, how deeply embedded it was in American life. Neither does she rigorously question why, if the inclusionary "nostalgia" she credits had such a hold on white feminists, were they so exclusionary-of other women of color, of lesbians, of poor women. It is a well-written book, but I still hear the, "Sometimes we do racist things, but we're not racist!"

Cynthia Griggs Fleming's Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (one of the best gifts I've ever received, btw) has a much different take--she does discuss white women's racism, arguing that, "many of these women struggled to confront the racist stereotypes that their society had accepted so long... some of them lost the struggle," (128). The results were attitudes and condescending behavior that furthered the divide between black and white women activists.

Fleming has an excellent one sentence summation of the "trouble between us": "Being an oppressed black woman has always been quite different from being an oppressed woman in American society." I'd go so far as to change "black woman" to "woman of color." And isn't that what radical women of color have been pointing out for over a century now? When Sojourner Truth asked, "Ain't I a woman?" And the club women who understood that race work was women's work said it. The Combahee River Collective stated it quite eloquently. The works in This Bridge Called My Back, the voices in Listen Up!, the many works by bell hooks (I can't believe I just started reading her in the last year!)--all of these strengthen and reiterate Fleming's assertion, explaining how and why the experiences have been different and how and why those facts were ignored.

Honestly, I believe I leaned towards Breines's understanding when I first came to blogging. I hid that post a long time, embarrassed* at my naivete. Imagine my surprise (yes, I'm finally getting to the point), when I discovered bloggers like BfP, nubian, Black Amazon were still having to make the same arguments. Nostalgia, idealism, and ignorance only go so far. I sensed blatant resistance as noted in the comments here:
I have had too many to count now unfortunate discussions with white sisters in which it was demonstrated conclusively that (a) they are incapable of taking themselves and their experience as white women -- with their oppression stemming from their placement on a ped[e]stal, not from anything remotely like the backbreaking life experiences of most women of color -- out of the center of the discourse; and (b) they have real, emotional, defense mechanisms against accepting the idea of intersectionality -- the indivisible nature of race and gender in women of color -- and that this may mean that their narratives of oppression simply don't line up the same way as narratives of women of color.
And I've seen the evidence, carefully disguised as "but we're all women" and "all oppression begins with the subjugation of women to men" and "how can I be a problem? I'm oppressed, too!" It reminds me of colorblind racism, in a sense. They rely on the sorts of narratives of which Breines's is simply the latest incarnation. Yolanda excerpted one, Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution which says:

It is fashionable today to criticize the women's movement for being white and middle class from its inception, yet no movement agonized more, or flailed itself harder, over its failure to attract vast numbers of women of color. [elle's eyebrows shoot skyward]...

Belief in human perfectibility was the chief driving force among the Women's Liberation founders. [the aforementioned nostalgia]...

"We didn't feel we had to apologize all the time when the leftists talked about Vietnamese women or black women or poor women. Of course we cared about all those women, but we wanted to care in the context of feminism."...

Criticism is easy [a grain of truth in my classmate's comment?]; working for specific goals in an imperfect, complicated world is hard. The failure to attract poor black women, or poor Hispanic women, or "ghetto women," or "welfare women," would be used as a club against Women's Liberation by its critics with numbing consistency for the next thirty years.

Who are these critics that clubbed Women's Lib? And does Brownmiller not see that she is, in fact, embodying their criticisms by only arguing how it affected the white women and not why it was made? I find Catharine McKinnon's "From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?" similarly problematic, especially given its dicussion of intersectionality.

My questions, I suppose, are ones that have been asked approximately a trillion times: How are bridges built? How does this affect my identification as a feminist? Do I give up, despite the fact that I love and respect many white women and know some who do understand, at the very least (these links are not exhaustive), that there is a problem created not by nostalgia and utopianism, but by very real racism and classism?

From the point of view of many women of color, white women are incongruously oppressed and privileged--and that privileging is often predicated upon our subjugation. Though they may not have initially fashioned or designed that privilege, they do derive benefit from it--and we feel the results.
*In re-reading, I realize "embarrassed" may be the wrong word--I believe in the sentiment of that post, but think I underestimated much.


Mon said...

Thanks for this post. My students are reading Too Heavy a Load right now so these issues are very much on my mind. I was going to use To Joy My Freedom but cut it from my list for the semester. I need to take another look at that text.

When I finish grading (this week!), I'm going to have to join this conversation in a more meaningful way. Perhaps since we are both a bit late on Black history posts, we can do a hostile takeover of Women's history month which starts tomorrow!!

Anonymous said...

elle, I love how you tell so many of your stories of your developing philosophy with books as your landmarks. it's how I think, too!

Anonymous said...

thank you for this. i have read it and been thinking it over the past day or so. i wish the CRT blog would keep on going, it started so great.

AradhanaD said...

The Catherine mackinnon article is horrible. I think someone needs to break it down!! Ah.

Thanks for adding me.

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