Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Feminism: you're doing it wrong!

I'm pretty new to the blogging thing, though not new to the being a feminist thing. I've worked for years as an economist trying to convince governments that while economic policy is for all, as they so indignantly point out, economic behaviour and access are realized differently depending on gender, race, class and other factors; and that these differences have to be accounted for. It's an uphill climb in the Caribbean, where the first response is to roll out old statistics of university matriculation and how many women are heads of this and chief of the other. There is very little dialogue around issues that affect women like the increasing incidence of violence against women and the feminization of HIV/AIDS; and further, there is an enormous backlash against all things seen as remotely feminist. To put it simply, people just don't get it, and they don't want to.

After years trying to straddle policy development, academia and people's real world experiences, to draw from all three and make them accessible in order to just make life better for women in lasting and sustainable ways, it felt like a breath of fresh air to happen upon a blogosphere where the feminist dialogue had a space. I expected that it would be dominated by white, middle-class, North American theorists, or at least they would be most visible. But even if that were the case, I thought, the nature of feminist analysis and inquiry is to help uncover other voices, and to consider gender together with other markers of identity. So it would be alright. And largely this has been true. But there are also gender activists of all types bouncing around the interwebs saying very smart things: fat ones, black ones, white ones, brown ones, lesbian, gay, bi, transgendered ones, poem-writing, 'fuck'-saying ones; obviously some of those are probably disproportionately represented - I haven't done any studies - and there is almost always room for further diversification, but there are certainly enough perspectives to keep grassroots-worker, paper-writer, previously-non-blogging feminists like me busy catching up for a few days.

And there is a lot of mutual support for the work of other women writers online. There is guest-blogging and cross-posting and hyperlinking and all kinds of ways to agree with what you already believe or have recently learnt, and to diversify your voice. And this is all very good. Some writers have their issues with it, and may have some valid points even if they express them in a way that is in places disgruntled and somewhat passive-aggressive. But so far, I in my little corner haven't been completely turned off or shut out by the feminist blogger glad-handing machine. I may feel less warm and fuzzy later, so check back.

However, what I am starting to notice is this kind of 'you're doing it wrong' approach to discourse. As is the way in the blogging community, everyone is writing on what someone wrote on what someone said on television about what someone sang or said or photographed. That's fine. That's what we do: we take the mainstream party line and pick it apart, saying what's wrong with it and how it is potentially or actually damaging to certain groups of people. But in this maelstrom, other feminists end up on the chopping block being attacked rather than engaged. I'm probably guilty of attack myself, as you might be able to point out by clicking on this blog's archive. Attacking is fun when the argument is so ridiculous and smacks so much of intolerance and supremacism that you feel no obligation to spare the feelings of the fool in question. I don't massage people, and I get a kick out of reading those who take a similar approach while advancing worthwhile arguments. But ultimately, it seems to me that the point is to tease out the issues while finding common ground, and while simultaneously sharing how my experience of a particular issue is different from yours, and what that means for how a solution is found. Sometimes as theorists, we get caught up in finding holes and proving people to be other than whatever label they have given themselves, and trying to find new ways to argue the same thing. We get tired of feeling like we have to teach people who should know better. But sometimes we do, we have to teach them. And sometimes, we just have to shut up and listen, because we think we know, but we don't.

As a Black, non-American, non-British woman engaging with US- and Europe-dominated media, I am aware of American and British ideas of what a feminist should look like, and moreover what a Black feminist should look like. It is determined by the women's rights histories of those nations, and I am to an extent part of that. But I have a different voice as well. I feel pretty at home commenting on American politics and culture as a black woman, but I'm not a black American woman, so I have to account for that. I also feel certain kinship with women of other ethnicities and religions around the world, but I am not they. So while I can advance ideas on their experiences from a perceived shared reality, I have to, at the same time, respect at least their authority as being of that community, even though I may instinctively disagree with their arguments.

I understand the need to protect what we feel we have fought so hard for, and yes, sometimes we can clearly state that something is anti-feminist or not a feminist ideal. But with the more nuanced discussions, it seems to me we can sometimes quit the yelling at people who often are on journeys just like we are, and just resolve to keep talking about it.

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