Girly Thoughts

May 10, 2008

Is racism a feminist issue?

Filed under: Gender,intersections,Race,the blogosphere — judgesnineteen @ 8:17 pm

Preface: I use the stories of Romona Moore and Sean Bell in here to make my points, and this post is really not about the content of those stories so I don’t go into them much besides talking about where they should be covered. I just wanted to say that I find their stories tragic and I hope we learn lessons from them, and that I don’t mean to come off as callous or make light of their stories by talking about them this way.

My post All or Nothing was my attempt at finding concrete ways to react to recent criticisms of the feminist movement, to figure out what we need to do to not be racist and to be inclusive. But I just came across a post by Cara on Feministe saying that the Romona Moore rape and murder case shows that racism is a feminist issue, and now I think I finally get what the argument is about. But I’m not sure I agree with her (on that topic – I’m with her on the good people doing nothing part). I have a lot of respect for Cara, and I’m a little concerned about disagreeing with her because I want to be on the anti-racist side, but I also don’t want to say I believe something just because it’s “popular” (I know, it’s not that popular, but where I read, it is). Before you react, just read the rest, and then if I’ve missed something huge – which is a real possibility given that I’ve never read the books on intersectionality and all that – let me know.

I see two reasons for naming racism a feminist issue:

1. Because if we don’t consider these things feminist issues, feminists will ignore them. From Cara:

There’s a big difference between saying “things that happen to women of color are not feminist issues” and “things that happen to women of color because of racism are not feminist issues.” I have never, in my life, seen anyone argue the former. I have seen them argue the latter. And I don’t think that they’re really all that far apart, regardless of how it’s intended.

But I believe all feminists should be believers in human rights for ALL first. That means I think all feminists should be anti-racists. I don’t think we have to label anti-racism A Feminist Issue in order to say that it matters and that feminists need to care about it.

These issues do intersect, because people have lots of characteristics and can be oppressed for any number of them, so feminists have to be aware of racism and all the other types of oppression to 1) avoid personally being oppressive, 2) avoid oppressing members of their own movement, 3) avoid advocating policies that would have unforeseen oppressive effects, 4) advocate policies that will help women of color (and others affected by other kinds of oppression) in cases where they are affected by sexism differently than white women are, 5) use feminism and anti-racism (and other kinds of activism) at the same time when dealing with the case of a person who is oppressed by both. And I tried to address all of these things in All or Nothing, without having to name racism a feminist issue. Instead, I named racism and feminism both human rights issues and said that that’s where we need to start, with a belief in human rights for all. It just seems feminism-centric in a world of lots of issues that matter equally to say that naming something “a feminist issue” is so important and to spend so much time arguing about how related to feminism something is.

From Cara’s quote, I think she’s concerned that if we relegate things that happened because of racism to anti-racist blogs, feminist blogs will, perhaps unintentionally, stop including the oppression of women of color and focus only on white women. But rest assured, women of color are oppressed by sexism. If we’re determined not to ignore the ways in which they are oppressed by sexism and not to silence them, we should be able to keep reporting on the sexism against them even if we’re not reporting on straight-up racism. In cases where both are present, we should report them on both feminist and anti-racist blogs rather than each disowning it. (And for the record, I am all for feminist blogs posting on issues that aren’t feminist issues. I just don’t think it’s necessary for a feminist blog to do so to be ethical.)

2. Because something is a feminist issue if it oppresses women. From Cara:

You know, I’m one of those feminists who thinks that racism is indeed a feminist issue, just like poverty, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and much more are feminist issues, simply because these are factors that oppress women on a daily basis and prevent them from living lives freely, safely and to their full potential.

In her defense, there is a difference between ‘bad things that happen to women’ (like, when you’re unlucky) and ‘the oppression of women’ (caused by systematic injustice), and this distinction means that some criticisms I’ve seen are straw arguments. But still, I don’t define my feminism as ‘fighting that which oppresses women.’ I define it as ‘fighting sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy.’ Often, that does mean ‘fighting that which oppresses women.’ But both definitions include things that are not included in the other, so although they overlap, they are different ways of approaching feminism. Here’s why I choose the definition I do:

a. It’s the injustice that makes it worth fighting, not who the victim happens to be. I’m not just out to help women. In my capacity as a feminist, I want to help all people oppressed by patriarchy, and sometimes that means men. Some men’s issues are, in my book, feminist issues. On the flip side, not all women’s issues are feminist issues to me.

b. I think the way to solve a problem is to figure out what’s causing it and fix that. This isn’t a radicals vs. liberals thing, it’s about whether you divide up movements based on their causes/origins or based on their victims. I think it makes more sense to do it based on their causes. Therefore, I could be persuaded to call LGBTQI issues feminist issues, and vice versa, because I think they’re all caused by patriarchy. But I am not currently aware of a root cause that is shared by sexism and racism that is not shared by all oppressions (eg, xenophobia, pursuit of power), so I see no reason to group them together any further than I already do in putting them both under the umbrella of human rights issues. They have some things in common, but they’re also different, which is why people tend to come to such messed up conclusions when they compare them too much.

Interestingly, I think looking at things this way allows us to undercut the arguments of MRAs that men are really the more oppressed gender, because we can say that regardless of who is more oppressed (and I personally am convinced that’s women, but whatever), the cause of the oppression of men is the same as the cause of the oppression of women: patriarchy. And patriarchy was set up by and continues to be run by men. So in this case, finding the root cause of the oppression of men and fighting it means feminism, whereas finding the people hurt by the issue at hand and standing by them no matter what means being an MRA (although I’ll grant that they add in a few illogical steps to get there, like assuming that if men are the victims, women must be the culprits). I think you can guess which one I think works better.

But to show you what I mean with my points a and b, consider the hypothetical situation that all sexism is eradicated but other oppressions are still around. Yes, there would still be plenty of women who would be oppressed. For the moment let’s just consider the women of color who would be oppressed by racism, although there would be lots of other problems, too. This situation wouldn’t convince me that racism really is a feminist issue because these women of color aren’t free yet. On the contrary, it would convince me that feminism isn’t enough to free all women. It would be offensive to the people of color who didn’t identify as women if I said I would fight the racism that was oppressing them for the sake of freeing women. It’s not being a woman that makes you worth freeing, it’s being an oppressed human being that does. It would be silly for me to say I would fight that racism under the banner of feminism. Why feminism? Just because I’m attached to that word? These people wouldn’t be oppressed for their femaleness, even if they were female; they’d be oppressed for being people of color. We need different tools to fight racism (although some are the same) than we do to fight sexism.

The way to free all women, and in fact all people, isn’t to make feminism include everything, but to include more than feminism in our own tactics.

The Apostate wrote a post on Sean Bell counter to the one linked in Cara’s quote. I don’t agree with the whole post, but I think this part is in line with what I’m saying:

If anything that affects women either 1) equally with men (such as rising gas prices) OR, 2) second-hand through men (such as Middle Eastern men being arrested for minor visa infractions and being imprisoned without charge – they have mothers and other female relatives, I suppose), is a feminist issue… then what, pray tell, is NOT a feminist issue?

Why must we call this “feminism” if it includes everything?

And as for Romona Moore’s story, it just seems forced to me to say that racism is part of sexism just because sometimes they happen to the same person and affect the same incident. We can’t, and shouldn’t, tell Moore’s story without mentioning both, but that doesn’t mean we have to present them both as one thing. Their interaction is important – for example, we have to be aware of racism to fight rape properly, thinking about the racism in the criminal justice system before advocating lots of prison time for rapists or advising women on what to do if they’re raped. But to me, that’s still an intersection of two different things, with different causes and different solutions, rather than one big Feminist Issue.

To make this more concrete:

If you want to post about Sean Bell and other racism-related stories on a feminist blog, I think that’s great. But I personally would rather you just say, “Here’s a story on racism, because feminism alone won’t save the world” instead of “I swear, it’s somehow related to feminism, so you should read it” or “So this dude was shot and stuff…and his female relatives are REALLY suffering! Stop racism so there will be less bereaved women!” (I made those up and am not accusing anyone of saying things like that, just trying to make my point. Also, the bereaved women certainly do deserve sympathy, they just wouldn’t deserve to be the center of attention in a story about a man who was murdered.) And if you don’t want to post about Sean Bell’s story on a feminist blog, I think that should be fine, as long as you take the stance that your readers should also learn about racism somewhere else. In fact, I think you should do that no matter what. I think it’s better to have people read a blog dedicated to racism than to let them rely on a few occasional posts about racism on a feminist blog, first because the anti-racist blog is more likely to go in depth and cover more things, second because the feminist blog is likely to spend half its time arguing over how related this is to feminism, which has nothing to do with how worthwhile it is, and third because for white women like me, it’s important to learn to put ourselves aside and read about racism because it’s unjust instead of because sometimes it’s related to MY oppression. And writing this has convinced me that I need to make much more of an effort on that front, so I don’t claim to have gotten it right yet. I let myself feel like I’m covering my bases by reading feminist blogs that mention racist issues, but when I go to sites that are just about racism, I can feel the difference.

There’s also an issue of efficiency here. I don’t have a problem with occasionally including other stories in a feminist blog, because I haven’t seen it really take away from or change the purpose of the blogs I read. But since we talk mainly about racism when we talk about making intersections into Feminist Issues, we overlook what that would really mean if we did it thoroughly. Since intersections apply to every kind of oppression, every blog that is about a kind of oppression would have to write on every other kind of oppression to follow this principle. The result would be that we would have a million general human rights blogs and no specialized blogs. There’s a place for general human rights blogs, absolutely, but I think there’s also something useful in having a place that is dedicated to one kind of thing. It’s more efficient in some ways, because it can focus on one issue in depth and the writer(s) can get deeply educated in that one issue, and then it can be your go-to point when you want to show a friend that such-and-such really is a problem.

I know, I know, you’re saying people just won’t do it, they won’t go and read other blogs, they won’t really acknowledge intersections in their own movements. Some won’t, that’s true. But look, that’s how it works in activism. We can’t make people do anything. We point out problems and offer solutions, and then it’s up to each person whether or not they’re going to follow through. But the least we can do is offer solutions that are solid in principle, and I think the principle I’m supporting makes more sense.

By the way, there’s a rare respectful conversation from different sides of the debate here.

And all that being said, I do think police brutality can be a feminist issue, when you’re talking about gender-based police brutality and how sexism and gender roles keep us from paying enough attention to police brutality against women.  It is also a racism issue and a trans issue, and you can find more information at INCITE!.

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13 Comments »

  1. The common denominator in feminism is women. Racism and police brutality are feminist issues they involve women. If something affects men and women equally like gas prices, it’s probably not a feminist issue.

    Comment by donna darko — May 10, 2008 @ 10:54 pm | Reply

  2. Ok, so it sounds like you disagree with me on whether feminism should be focused on women or on sexism. Can I ask why you think it’s better that way?

    Comment by judgesnineteen — May 10, 2008 @ 11:31 pm | Reply

  3. I agree with the post. I think it reflects a scientific method in the way it is written: principles clearly stated and application of them.

    I just have to address a comment to donna darko. You say that if something affects men and women equally like gas prices, it’s probably not a feminist issue. But, in my understanding, racism is supposed to affect women and men equally because of their race, not because of their gender. Therefore, if I stick with your statement, racism is probably not a feminist issue. Maybe I am missing something in your point, so I am open to any correction you may want ot address to me.\

    Comment by ornitorinco — May 11, 2008 @ 1:48 am | Reply

  4. I think you make a lot of sense. Racism shouldn’t be ignored by feminists because 1) it would be hypocritical to be feminist but racist which means really, that we only care and about white women and 2)we need to look at how WoC are affected differently by sexism because they are not white BUT we can’t just say that racism is a feminist issue so that we can cover a story on our blog. Yes? Sounds like what you’re saying. Just because we call ourselves feminists doesn’t mean we can’t care about all forms of oppression. But that’s separate from our feminism or else feminism starts to become a synonym for “human rights activism”. Is this what you’re saying? I guess the two ways to see it as you said are who it affects or the cause. I like your example of taking away all the sexism and if that could happen, the police still wouldn’t have tried to look for Romona Moore. Because they are being accused of being racist, not sexist. Hmmm.
    Ontario is creating a gender studies course for high schools and maybe an equity studies course. I fully support the gender studies course but if equity studies is learning about oppression including sexism, racism, classism etc then that sounds like it could be even better and something that is really lacking from schools.

    Comment by Lyndsay — May 11, 2008 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  5. Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I just wrote this because, although it’s not the most important thing in the world to draw lines between what’s feminism and what’s some other kind of activism, I think this question of “is racism a feminist issue” is going to be a big one as we all figure out how to move on from these racist problems in feminism, because it seems to be the way some people are trying to fix feminism. And while I want to be on the side that’s doing the fixing, I’m just not willing to pretend that makes sense to me if it doesn’t.

    I’ve never heard of an equity studies program. That’s really cool. Because of intersections, I do think it’s good to look at more than one issue at once. I wonder how those classes would work.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — May 11, 2008 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

  6. I don’t know how the classes would work. Ontario’s minister of education emailed me that, “As part of the review process, I have asked the ministry to proceed with the creation of a suite of draft courses relating to Gender Studies, Equity Studies, and World Cultures for inclusion in the revised Social Sciences and Humanities curriculum policy document due for release in spring 2010. I expect that a new gender studies course will be piloted in Ontario schools in the second semester of the 2008/09 school year as part of that review.”

    And this is from 2003 but it’s an interesting encouraging story about teaching children about stereotypes. The children end of getting mad at Pottery Barn for making a catalogue that shows boys doing certain things and the girls doing certain things and they mail letters to Pottery Barn and the president writes back saying she will consider their comments for the next catalogue. I think we don’t give kids enough credit sometimes but the older you get the more ingrained stereoypes must become. So I hope my government would work towards teaching about some issues to all at an earlier age but gender studies in high school is a start.
    http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/18_02/pink182.shtml

    Comment by Lyndsay — May 11, 2008 @ 4:08 pm | Reply

  7. I think you’re totally right about us not giving kids enough credit sometimes. That’s really great for Ontario.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — May 11, 2008 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

  8. Feminism supports racism indirectly because feminism issues are taken by women of color alongwith white women. The racist political structure ensures that the final beneficiary is the white woman. This inturn increases racism. So, in a way, feminist women of color are fighting against themselves when they fight for feminism. To really fight for feminism, they should fight for liberation of women of color and not all women, because that is the biggest blunder that a (colored) feminist could ever do.

    Comment by Anonymous — May 12, 2008 @ 6:15 am | Reply

  9. So I think you’re saying that if white women get more power, which is what feminism causes, then racism will increase because there will be more powerful white people? And so you think that feminism shouldn’t be for all women, but just for women of color to avoid increasing racism? If there’s hope of decreasing sexism, why isn’t there hope of decreasing racism (in and out of the feminist movement)? I’m not saying we should just work for feminism and leave racism alone. Besides, if I’m understanding your argument correctly, it would mean that people with more than one type of oppression affecting them shouldn’t fight for anyone except people exactly like them – if women of color fight for anti-racism, sexism will ensure it helps men more than women, and there will be more strong men to be sexist against them. If queer disabled people fight for queer rights, ableism will ensure it helps the able-bodied more, and there will be more strong able-bodied people to be ableist. Rather than tell people to only fight for groups that have their same characteristics, I tell people to fight for everyone’s rights. The problem is figuring out how to make that really happen and not just be something we say, but I think looking for solutions is better than throwing up our arms and saying we white women can never have a decent feminist movement.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — May 12, 2008 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

  10. Judgesnineteen — commendations on this post. Nice clear logical analysis of what makes a feminist issue.

    And you’re right – I think part of the frustration with feminist blogs posting about issues that are not feminist issues is the lack of transparency about same. I do feel that feminist blogs should be centered on feminist issues, but I don’t think we need to be draconian about it and would be less bothered by the inclusion of important issues on other topics, if occasional, if they were labeled as such. Trying to contort various issues, certainly of critical interest, into being “about feminism” does nobody any favors.

    Comment by octogalore — May 12, 2008 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  11. Thanks, octogalore!

    Comment by judgesnineteen — May 12, 2008 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

  12. Great write up, yes racism should be a feminist issue..kudos

    Comment by Tiffany — May 13, 2008 @ 1:59 am | Reply

  13. Um…actually I said that racism isn’t a feminist issue (with a lot of qualifying statements like, racism is a human rights issue and feminists should care about all human rights, not-being-racist-ourselves is a feminist issue, and I’m ok with covering non-feminist issues on feminist blogs). If you’d like to argue why racism should be a feminist issue, you’re welcome to.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — May 13, 2008 @ 12:09 pm | Reply


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