White Anti-Racism

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Feminist suffrage parade in New York City, May...

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Many of the feminisms that have impacted my life and given me the scores of opportunities that my mother didn’t have were based upon racist ideas of which women mattered. Despite the fact that racism was a major facet of many first and second-wave feminist movements, race is ignored as an important category to evaluate within many feminisms. While the significant impacts of race as a category have continuously been neglected, questions of race also have a tendency to seem as if they’re over analyzed and given too much importance. Multi-cultural clubs, African American Studies departments, President Barack Obama make it feel as if we’re living in a post-racial era and are therefore exempt from considering the ways in which race affects all of our lives on a daily basis.
However, Evelyn Higginbotham explains in the eye-opening African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race, race has a particular power to be both a tool for liberation and oppression, and often obscures its relationship with other categories of analysis. Questions of race are often ignored by white feminists, creating exclusive feminisms and perpetuates division and oppressive circumstances. Examining my own beliefs and feminisms, I struggle with the ways in which I can analyze the importance of race in my everyday life. In many ways, the once overt racism within first and second wave feminisms has remained a part of present day feminists’ thinking.
While the subversive nature of racism within feminist movements has made it easier for white feminists to ignore different racial realities, figuring out the ways in which racism still exists and runs throughout feminists’ lives is vital to changing feminisms to allow it to live up to their ultimate goals. At first though, acknowledging racism and aligning oneself with anti-racist feminist movements feels like it should be enough to be qualified as anti-racist. While Higginbotham’s article is brilliant and enlightening, it feels daunting. My career as an academic feminist has opened my eyes to other larger structures that are shaped by race and continue to define it in one way or another: technology, ideas of personhood, illness, etc etc. But if these structures are so deeply imbedded in our everyday lives and existences, then what is there to do?
Striking a balance between unity and awareness of separations, or acknowledging different realities while not creating unnecessary divisions is a difficult balance that seems fraught with complications at every step. Understanding the larger structures and historical contexts in which divisions were created is crucial to developing systems for combatting racist beliefs. For example, Rosalind Petchesky’s article The Body as Property: A Feminist Revision, explains the ways in which modern Western ideas of property and self-ownership are derived from white, male, middle-class, capitalist interests. While Petchesky manages to explain a thoroughly complicated idea, it left me wondering about what alternatives to this understanding might look like and unable to figure out how we might get there. The Body as Property is one of my favorite articles from any of my classes, and taught me the importance of questioning structures that seem so imbedded within our society and based in something “natural.” It didn’t, however, give me any ideas of what I could do to break down these structures.
In order to translate such complex ideas into everyday feminism, a balance has to be struck between understanding the theory and addressing everyday practices. On her blog Left Queries, Sheila Wilmot addresses the ways that people within the white anti-racist movement continue to ineffectively combat racism. Sheila explains that the theory and the practice are considered separate, and as a result, white “allies” consider themselves to be individually picking away at unjust social systems that they deem totally separate from their own lives. The reality of the case is that we exist in relationship to the systems in which we participate; our lives are shaped by the cultures in which we live, and we in return continue to shape them. Analyzing the structures and systems is pivotal, but ultimately individual agency and the environment which shapes our agency are inextricable. Acting to combat racism within feminism, and to take successful feminist action to rid wider structures of racism, we have to understand how related and intertwined our actions, beliefs, and systems of oppression really are.
Among young women (and men) I’ve talked to over the years, I often find that there’s a sense that feminism has already reached some goal, but that injustices exist that are part of the natural order and feminists create their own oppression and need to stop complaining. A large part of  this distaste among young feminists, I believe, is caused by the false belief that Sheila describes as individuals feeling as if they need to separate themselves from societal structures and single-handedly ship away at the injustices. Seeing ourselves as part of a community of people fighting, questioning, and breaking down damaging systems and evaluating the ways in which those structures affect us all, in one way or another, can allow young people to feel a part of the feminist movement in a way that relates to them and doesn’t feel daunting.

Works Cited:
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race.” Signs 17, no. 2 (Winter, 1992): 251-274.

Petchesky, Rosalind. “The Body as Property: A Feminist Re-vision,” in Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, ed. Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995): 394.

Wilmont’s blog can be found here: http://leftqueries.blogspot.com/2007/05/white-anti-racism-here-we-go-again.html

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