Sunday, March 1, 2009

Women of Color, Feminist Issues, and When the Twain Shall Meet

This is a guest post from Octagalore of Astarte’s Circus

I’ve written often about the “what is a feminist issue” issue.

It came up mostly in the context of intersectionality within feminism.

Typically when intersectionality is discussed, a number of possible intersections with feminism are discussed – race, orientation, ability, age (not as often), class, among others.

But recently in the blogosphere, because of a few racist incidents, the issue of race has been at the forefront. Holly’s Feministe post about Sean Bell brought the “what is a feminist issue” issue to the forefront of discussions, so afterwards many discussions on that issue, including mine, have used race as a starting point. My argument has been not that it’s not a feminist issue period, but an article that does not discuss the many issues concerning women that one *could* discuss in situations of police brutality resulting in black men being killed is not a feminist discussion and doesn’t make it a feminist issue in and of itself.

Recently, at Renee’s blog, a commenter raised the possibility that white feminists have a special problem with race and that’s why we use this example when talking about the “feminist issue” issue.

At first I felt defensive – of course not! – but then I thought I’d shake that off and take a look at it. Did I (since I can’t speak for others) have some ulterior reason for jumping on the Sean Bell example? (My earlier post on feminist issues discussed a variety of oppressions including class, race, ableism). Was I particularly sensitive on this point when a race-oriented issue was brought up as feminist? If so, this meant I … had racial issues … or, let’s face it, was a racist.

Well, I had to admit, something bugged me about the Sean Bell article in question being termed feminist. So I had to think about other examples to see if they’d bug me as much. An issue about a disabled man being termed feminist (without any mention of the women in his life)? It would bug me, but I couldn’t imagine this happening. Feminist blogs talk about all kinds of issues, but they usually don’t highlight the ones that don’t discuss gender or women (of any race, orientation, etc.) except as a by-the-way as feminist – Sean Bell struck me as an exception in that regard. What about an article about a vegan, old, or poor man? Similarly I couldn’t remember anytime I’d seen these kinds of articles being called “feminist issues.” But if they were, would it bug me? Yes.

The difference with Sean Bell is that people seemed really insistent on claiming its feminist cred as an issue, without any need to discuss substantively his black female relatives. Renee makes the valid point that their existence is clear – they exist in every discussion of Sean Bell. And others question, reasonably, does it matter?

And I guess to me it does. Because: is existing all they deserve? Is the effect on them, how it affects their communities, the specific issues faced by the fiancĂ©e who is left alone to bring up the child in terms of poverty, her future romantic life, the daughter’s questions, what is being done by the government or by private organizations to help them, how someone might get involved to do so in ones own community, etc. – are they all so “given” that they are not worthy of our specific attention and discussion? Doesn’t feminism require that we pay them more than lip service?

“Oh they’re there, right behind the man, we don’t need to elaborate.”

Isn’t that what feminism asks for – that we elaborate? Don’t black women deserve that as white women do? Why, when the issue is that of a black woman, should she not be at the forefront, or at least mentioned?

Posts like this make me feel that often the issues of MOC do not necessarily cover the issues of WOC no matter how many female relatives those MOC have. I wonder whether a discussion of a black woman facing discrimination because she is female would be viewed as an anti-racist discussion and featured on an anti-racist-focused blog under an analysis of interlocking oppressions? Because if it would be, maybe I’d have less of an issue here.

But I haven’t seen this kind of discussion. If WOC are not at the forefront in the antiracist movement and it’s also OK for them to remain in the background in feminism, where will they appear as subjects rather than objects of the discussion?

While nobody has the responsibility to educate anyone on the issues affecting female relatives of men who are killed by police brutality or other kinds of violence, often those most in need of education include people with some control over these issues. Don’t the problems these women and girls face deserve the same media attention as the issues of the men? How do they get that attention if they remain as background givens?
So no. While self-serving conclusions are kind of verboten in Feminist Bloglandia, and for that reason I almost hoped that my free association as I’m writing this would lead to a conclusion that I’m indeed a racist, I’m not sure that my concern here stems from that.

But I do have a mea culpa here. If individual WOC feel this is indeed a feminist issue for them, with or without a specific lens in a particular article on the WOC in question, then it’s really not my place to say it’s not, on an absolute level. I can understand why this would meet with criticism. I don’t have standing to say whether or not an issue concerning the placement of a WOC within a discussion of race should be more centralized for it to be a feminist issue in the view of that particular person.

So I’ll rephrase. In my own view, the experience of a man with a characteristic that some women also have does not become a feminist treatment unless the experience of women with this characteristic who are affected is also discussed – the women must be and deserve to be present.

However, others may relate to the issue a different way and view it as feminist for different reasons – and for them in this way it can become a feminist issue.

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