May 20, 2007

Racism & Patriarchy

There's been an enormous, ongoing argument in parts of the feminist blogosphere and among a number of bloggers of color for a while now about Jessica Valenti's book, "Full Frontal Feminism" and its treatment of race. I haven't been following it, but I know it's a going concern. I also haven't read her book. Or many other books that I wanted to read enough to physically acquire a presently very neglected copy of. So this post is not intended to address either the full back and forth of that argument or the book, because I don't know nearly enough about either, though the idea for it did get started in a comment to the post linked above. A comment, ironically, by someone else who also hasn't read the book in question:


... Here is what I’ve gathered so far, from reading other people. (My impression of) the impression of woc is that the book is basically talking to young white women (or at least the sorority girl segment of) in that bubblegum popping way throughout. When it gets to the part about woc and feminism and intersectionality and so on, the tone is more serious and theory-like (I do not know if the bubblegum is still popping at this point), apparently to make sure the young readers realize that this is a Serious Subject.

So, to some white readers that proves that, yes, it IS inclusive, there is talk about the issues that affect primarily woc. To some woc readers, few things could be more exclusive - it leaves off talking to and briefly talks about… and not primarily in a way that presents woc as changemakers, movers and shakers and agents of their own salvation but more presenting the myriad problems that affect many colorful (and poor white) communities that We Must Care About And Help. Seriously. ...

I understand that this criticism isn't about me, personally. But the thing is, if I'd tried to write a book about feminism, it's a criticism that might well have been levelled against the finished product. Heck, if my writing was more widely read in feminist blogging circles, it could perhaps be made against things I write here. I don't know.

What I know is, I only get to be who I am. This doesn't absolve me of responsibility for learning about other people's lives, concerns or challenges, but I doubt I'll ever pass some requisite learning threshhold where I'd feel comfortable writing as if I were speaking to someone who wasn't a middle-class white woman about the intersection of race and feminism on their own terms. If I'm writing on the subject of the problems of someone whose life experience deviates significantly from that in any dimension or whose life experience isn't a major presence in my youth or current circles, I'd be inclined to write about, as an outsider.

It wouldn't really occur to me to think that my perspective or speaking style would necessarily reach everybody, not even all white people. Not all whites are hyperlexic geeks with a news blogging habit, which should kind of go without saying. So I write to the people I feel competent to address and in the voice that I'm authentically used to using. I write about people who, at this point in my life, I'm unsure how to address.

And I'm not the only person feeling the communication shortage. From Sylvia's comments about FFF:

... I misunderstood who I was speaking to — an audience that’s as likely to listen to me and that audience and take us seriously as it is likely to ally with the “patriarchy.” And I also misunderstood what subject I chose to speak about — when I figure out how to think like one of these white middle-to-upper class, likely college educated, likely bursting with disposable income, foul-mouthed, liberal-minded young women who just think feminism doesn’t matter, I’ll send out a memo. I’ll put it on pretty paper, and I’ll use big letters and small words. And then I’ll paste a picture of my boobs on it to grab your attention, ’cause you’ll think, “What are brown breasts doing on a book about white middle class feminism?!” And you’ll open it, and I’ll razzle and dazzle your minds with it. ...

When I started learning about feminism, I was lucky in that there were a lot of voices that spoke to my concerns in a way that I recognized. That's not true for Sylvia (do go read the rest of her post) or for BlackAmazon, and so I'm glad that they're out there providing those voices for the young women they'll be especially able to reach. I can understand how they might feel about this only to the extent that I can read, say, BlackAmazon and not feel any more personal resonance with her style and tone than I do with the writing of economist Brad DeLong. They are not people whose perspective I'm qualified to claim to represent.

I don't know anymore about what it's like to grow up black or hispanic than I do what it's like to grow up Jewish or Muslim. But I know boatloads about what it's like to be a white woman who grew up in a strict, insular, Christian fundamentalist community, or an aspie at any of the ages I've been already. I know some about what it's like to work as a woman in the software industry and a bit more about what it's like to be an undergraduate who's about 10 years older than the average age of your fellow classmates. I know some things about the types of lives people have had whose paths have gone the same direction as mine for a while. I've tried to pay some attention, but I think that only goes so far, because ... well, because of things like this. If you want the context, go read Ilyka's whole post (Brownfemipower's site is down or maybe gone now, so I can't link it,) but here goes:

... Here I have to paraphrase from what I recall of this missing post I wanted to yak about: Brownfemipower pointed out that the women at that party doing their best "spicy Latina" impressions weren't "the patriarchy." And this was said in a larger context of, white feminists tend to blame everything on the patriarchy, when meanwhile women of color are just as likely to have the feet of other women, white women, stomping all over them as they are to have any man's.

Brownfemipower was a little fed up with this, with the whole blame-patriarchy-not-me business, and speaking of blame, I sure as hell don't blame her for being angry about that, because who could? She's right.

Yet my defensiveness kicked in, because it always does, so that on first read of this, I thought, "No, no, that is CLASSIC patriarchy--the internalized version." And it is, you know, because patriarchy's whole gig is pitting women, all women, against each other. So one of the socially-encoded numbers you get whipped on you all the time if you're a white woman is the paradox that (1) it's not okay to be sexually provocative, because that makes you a filthy whore, but (2) it's not okay to be sexually demure either, because if you get too content in that role, your man might leave you for someone more enticing. Someone more naturally sensual. Someone with a more voracious sexual appetite. Someone more . . . exotic.

And this is a swell one-two punch, really, because it reinforces racist stereotypes and sexist ones, intertwining both, and it can be flipped right back around for men to wield against women of color: Don't flaunt yourself, don't act so ethnic, why can't you know your place/be gentler/button up more like a white woman, blah blah. ...

As Ilyka goes on to note in the post, no, the fact that a patriarchy exists doesn't excuse white women for racism. The way to beat an oppressive hierarchy isn't to look for someone lower down the ladder to abuse so that you can pretend there isn't someone stepping on your own hands. That's exactly how the game has always been perpetuated, it's how men are sucked into putting women down so that they can ignore economic oppression, which *so* does not excuse them for misogyny. If you buy into it and set about looking for your own victim down the chain to further that cycle, then you've decided to be part of the problem. Full stop.

Though when you're a progressive blogger with a general, current events focus, and stories about teargas and rubber bullets being fired at a peaceful march of Mexican Americans* fall through the cracks, maybe you want to think about taking a step beyond trying not to be harmful. What step, though? WTF do I know*, beyond the obvious: that's an absolutely unjustified way to treat law-abiding people assembled peacefully to march in this country and if it had happened to white people, I can feel fairly confident that I'd have already heard about it before reading some of the background associated with this book discussion.

In addition to not knowing as much as I'd ought to about the perspective of people of color, I know there's baggage about racial issues in my own head that I'm not even aware of. I infer its existence by the fact that every so often, some discussion, interaction or event brings it to the forefront of my attention and I say to myself, "Self, I seem to have yet some more messed up stuff rattling around in the old head. Wonder how many times I've made an ass of myself before realizing this particular thing." And every time I have that conversation with myself, it makes me a little more circumspect in my speech.

Back to Ilyka's post, and oh man, that really brings back memories. I wrote last month about my ex-husband, and won't go over all that territory again. There's another thing he did that I've mentioned in the past, but perhaps not in as much detail as I did in this comment at Pandagon:

I almost wish my ex-husband *had* been into porn. Might not have spent so damn much time the last year of our marriage looking at mail-order bride catalogs and telling me that Russian women treated their husbands better because they were just so desperate for any kind of good life. I was clearly too spoiled and demanding. He actually expected me to sit with him sometimes and flip through the pages evaluating these women on their looks, education, etc.

‘Too old. … Has a kid, ugh. … She’s your age, already has a degree. … They’re all so fit! …,’ etc., etc., rinse, repeat. He started doing this eventually whenever we’d have arguments. He’d go off in a huff and huddle up with his mail order bride catalog.

And I was thinking about that again this week before reading this discussion, because a friend of mine just got back from a trip to Thailand and Macao. The touristy parts, mileage may vary. He told me all about it and said it would be fine to repeat anything he said here on the blog. (Side note: My ex-husband had ruled out seriously considering the Asian mail order brides, he said he'd heard they weren't reliable post-Green Card. I guess that means he worried that he'd only get a compliant slave for three years.)

First, his random observations: That the tourist areas were packed with Australians who'd abandoned common courtesy (please and thank you) entirely, and acted like they were entitled to the women there. The former Miss Phillipines works in a hotel he visited; he saw a tourist make a pass at her, get turned down, then actually spit in her face. A college-educated woman there can expect to make the equivalent of $200 or so a month. An Australian told him and his friend that Americans like them should stay in their own backyard, visit Venezuela or something, this part of Asia was theirs. He said the people there were very nice, very polite, but especially the women. He said it was not unusual at all to see an old, repulsive white man with a very beautiful young girl on his arm.

He also said I shouldn't visit there, "Don't go to Thailand." And when I asked why not, thinking that maybe he thought I'd wind up walking around being perpetually offended by seeing the sort of things he'd been describing, he surprised me. He said I'd be lonely because no one would talk to me.

No one? Apparently not. He said all the white women he saw there were completely ignored by anyone except whoever they came with. The locals didn't pay much attention to them, and the white men were too busy picking up local women. He said that the women there were so friendly, so giving, not to mention having such slim bodies, good skin and flat stomachs, that after a few days of looking at them, any white woman would seem fat and unattractive. (I'll leave aside the obvious digression about the political economy of who among the locals ends up buzzing around and working in a resort community in a developing nation.)

Even me? (She asks, knowing the answer already.) Yes, even me. This from a man who has told me in the past that I was very cute. Well, huh. I guess I can be glad that I have friends who feel they can be frank with me, or I'd probably never in all my life have had this rather illuminating conversation.

Where to begin? I suppose there's nothing new in some of the women of an impoverished society throwing themselves at the relatively wealthy men of another society. It happens everywhere. It happens within societies, as poor women or women with few prospects more willingly enter into secondary relationships where they get a measure of economic security, with or without some minimal pretense of affection, that's supposed to compensate for being disposable. And they are treated disposably, cruelly, as if something in their very nature commanded them to be self-effacing and subordinate, to never consider their own needs. The truth is often that without that behavior, their social status means their interactions with the people whose class, nation or segment of society has deprived their male counterparts of economic opportunity, would lack even the barest hint that more was going on than exploitation and force.

To judge this subset of women harshly is to say that they should be willing, sometimes literally, to starve on principle.

Yet to describe the two groups, women of the same class as the men in question and women of some less powerful (racial or economic) class, as being pitted against each other is the veriest understatement. They are used deliberately as weapons to inflict blunt force trauma on each other. The Russian women my ex spent so much time dreaming of were white, but weren't (in the ex's narrative) in a position to demand decent behavior of a partner on a level with their own contributions. The Thai women my friend talked about were brown, and go one over on the Russian women by also conforming through happenstance to the current western beauty culture's body ideal, which I probably last came near to resembling when I was about 11. I mean, forget 14; on the basis of hips alone, I was all washed up by then.

Men benefit by being able to devalue and make insecure the women who, in all likelihood, they will end up selecting as life partners and engaging in daily negotiations with. They benefit by being able to refuse to treat women from less powerful backgrounds as equal human beings who are deserving of respect and emotional investment from the people they spend their time with.

I think about it in some of the same ways that I think about why I spend more time criticizing US policy than the policies of other countries. I'm a citizen of this country, and therefore if there's a change I'd like to see in the world, I can have the most effect within this grouping that I'm a member of. Just as, unfortunately, men's voices carry more weight when speaking about abortion and reproductive justice issues. My government's attitudes towards me, like white men's attitudes towards me, are going to spill over into interactions with people who have less say in the scheme of things than I do.

BlackAmazon responds to the white feminists' focus on abortion with the history of forced sterilizations of women of color. Which is the other side of the coin in a society that wants white children and doesn't want more children of color, regardless of the wishes of the mother in either case. Now that forced sterilization is illegal, the government just enacts conditions that increase the infant death rate in poor communities of color. That's what happens when a society thinks you're a possession, an attitude whose existence sure the heck doesn't need to be explained to women of color.

BlackAmazon, Sylvia, and others have said that the proportion of attention devoted by white feminists to abortion vs. the proportion paid to their issues dismisses them. It may well. It would be a good idea, I think, to try and pay more conscious attention to the frequency at which these issues get mentioned and connections with bloggers who are the resident subject matter experts on them. But ...

If the white male establishment is allowed to get away with passing legislation that makes the bodies of white women a possession of the state at the moment of conception, what will it be able to get away with in regard to the lives of women of color? I have some measure of inborn status and privilege, and yet the certainty of my maiming or sterilization would no longer be sufficient for me to get to decide that I no longer want to donate myself as a host for another life form. When the ringleaders of the white male hierarchy, the trendsetters for the group of men I'm most likely to pick a life partner from, look at me as an object whose sole value lies in producing more people who would also belong to them directly or their social grouping in general ... what does that mean for how they act towards women of color and children they can't claim ownership of?

There are ways in which, because of who I am, I will probably always have more power to affect and push that debate than Sylvia will. Though less influence than a woman who's decided, for whatever reason, that she needs to be a cheerleader for the white male patriarchy. And less influence than any white male who chooses to speak on behalf of feminist issues, which men in their turn have less influence than men who support the status quo either by inaction or affirmation.

The funny thing about 'reminding' people of their place is that they rarely need reminding. Even I, congenitally deficient in hierarchy navigation skills, know that score. It's no secret. It's the way all power structures end up being organized, in that one's proximity to power tends to be the inverse of one's interest in changing the distribution of that power. Or in other words, the most innately myopic people usually get to make most of the decisions. That also, clearly, no secret.

But seeing that center more up close and personal is another kind of perspective that can be useful. And though we may have been saying it poorly, or indistinctly, or not realizing that we needed to make the case, I think what some white feminists are trying to get across to women of color about our choice of topics might go a bit like this:

"Erm, look, you're right that I spend an awful lot of time talking about abortion and sexual freedom. That I dwell a lot on popular beauty images that you've been written out of from the get-go. But your ultimate audience and mine, the classic Mr. White Male Privilege, I know that guy. I used to *date* that guy, and my sister married his brother. My dad was that guy!

"And though it makes me ashamed to mention, I've heard him talking about you when you weren't around. So let me just say that, in my opinion, the chances of getting him to treat you like a full human being when he acts like I'm a baby-making-sex-machine who's doomed to get crammed into one half of the dominant culture's Virgin/Whore dichotomy are, to put it ever so mildly, slim. And the only thing I know for sure I can do about that is to challenge him on it where he lives, and in the minds of other women in that same position. Which may be a cop out, the easy way, but hopefully we can keep talking about this and figure out something better."

We're all passionate about these issues for a reason, and that's because there's a lot on the line. Some of us have more on the line than others. And I wish I had more of a conclusion to offer, but I really don't. Just some commentary around the edges and a few experiences to throw out there.

* Hat tip to BlackAmazon.

Update 5/21: I did alter the wording of a couple points up above that didn't say what I meant them to say when I wrote this. So.

Posted by natasha at May 20, 2007 09:53 PM | Race | Technorati links |

Carter didnt mean bush

Posted by: ccoaler at May 21, 2007 05:46 PM

You have my email address, please keep me posted.
Ladies bring on the new world!This liberated African
American Man is a free man and I salute you!
Brothers of all races take heed. To Ignore women or degrade them only leaves us looking like a bunch of ignorant fools. Can all of you imagine how much further we would be in this world if it was free of
male dominated socioties

Posted by: Philip at May 22, 2007 09:48 AM