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burning bridges

"Be careful when you are dealing with white folks, because one day they wake up and realize they’re white and you ain’t."
-- from a feminste commenter

The raging sh*t storm of white ignorance and pride that started since the W.A.M. conference is still raging. I am so heartbroken with the whole (white, North American) feminist movement by this point. This letter says a lot about how I feel. I haven't been able to use the word feminist to describe myself without qualifying it somehow for a long time, but now I'm pretty much through with it. The feminist movement has always been like this. Along similar lines to what Andrea Smith says about the state: If the feminist movement itself has been oppressive to women of colour all along, then we can't look to the feminist movement for solutions to the oppression of women of colour. We need a new movement, with new structures, and new priorities. The feminist movement will always end up leaving behind women who don't fit the proper mold and that is NOT GOOD ENOUGH, not by far. Maybe indie media is that movement.

I've heard a few bloggers recently critique the feminist movement as white women trying to get what the white man has for themselves - as opposed to radical social justice. It seems like, in all our struggles, white women have just gained too much to give any of that up now to women of colour. But if that’s what the feminist movement is, then it has only become a tool of patriarchy, not a movement against it. White women have achieved what they have within the current patriarchal/colonial/capitalistic structures only to gain their complicit assistance in the oppression of people of colour in the larger colonial project. (White women didn't possess land and resources, but the Global South, indigenous peoples, and people of colour do.) We can and will lose it all again, if we don't dismantle those structures instead of living within them, since we can never be the "majority" within such structures by their own design.

What I would like to understand is why is it like this in the feminist movement? Why is it so hard for white women to relate to and empathize with women of colour on a personal, emotional, respectful level? Why is it so hard to see things from their point of view, and if you can't, to at least see that that point of view has the same value as your own?

In the discussion around Amanda Marcotte's article, a position has been forwarded out of the white feminist community that the women of colour, who commented on her not making any reference whatsoever to others doing similar work on her topic, are just jealous of her job. In BA's frustration directed at Seal Press, white feminists again decided it must be about her wanting a book deal.

They just want what we have.

Why are feelings never considered in these backlashes? And I don't even mean the feelings you're hurting by saying this crap. I mean, why aren't the feelings behind the original words, the feelings of women of colour, not considered or empathized with up front?

One man I know would say it is because "white people don't have hearts".

I think it is because of white culture.

However white culture doesn't even seem to exist. Culture is something we read about in textbooks and study in anthropology, it is foreign and exotic, and something to be acquired or admired. But white culture does exist, only it becomes the "zero" by which we measure everything else against, and so it seems to just disappear and be an absence of culture instead. People start to believe that white cultural beliefs and values are not in fact cultural, but NATURAL. That it is just what happens when you become "modern" and treat people as individuals.

First, white culture separates you from people of colour and their culture. Within white culture, white literature, art, history, music, philosophy, etc. are valued higher than the same from other cultures. It's not that we don't learn about anything outside of white culture, but we are only expected to learn as much as needed to exoticize, appropriate, or devalue them, not enough to really respect them, or to make them personal. And we only learn about select pieces from select cultures - the comfortable parts, that don't challenge our own world views.

White culture is very much about everyone as an individual. Everyone is unique, different, autonomous. We each have our own traits, characteristics, personalities, backgrounds, histories that are independent from everyone else's. But because of separation and stereotypes, this model of individuality applies differently to racialized people. A racialized individual is able to be seen as representing an entire group of people, and entire groups of people are often considered to be personified through a single individual.

Mainstream media is greatly affected by, and assists with, this perception of people of colour within white culture. POC are severely under-represented within mainstream media because in any kind of media, when the majority of people within are not white, then it is no longer defined as mainstream. It is shuffled to the side. This annoys me to no end but I can't put together the words to really articulate it right now.

As the producers and consumers of white culture, I think it can be difficult to see that group under-representation, because of the premise of individuality (along with conflating racialized groups/individuals). If we are judging each individual solely on their own merits, and seeing each person as a completely independent entity, then there can be no under-representation of a group, only of individuals. And when this group under-representation is pointed out, it is very easy to point to an individual from that group - the one Jamaican in a group of twenty people - and say "look, they are represented". And since she represents her entire group, suddenly the whole group is represented, and there is no need to have more varying representatives from within the same group.

Raising children within white culture, most parents feel no need to surround their children with books, dolls, characters, movies, stories, etc. that represent people of colour (in a positive/respectful light). There is enough variety within (appropriated) white culture alone, that it can seem like there is no need to go beyond it. And besides, those parents grew up under similar conditions. This stuff gets passed on, like most things. And so this is also caused by, and contributes to, the separation of white culture from other cultures.

So in order to relate to a person of colour, who gets homogenized into this entire group of people, I think white people often need to find some way to pull them out of that group. To somehow separate them from the group. And this often means pretending like they aren't even a member of that group. "You're not black to me, you're just you." But if you rely on this then the moment you remember that they are in fact not white, suddenly things change for you.

I think that I've seen this kind of thing going on with white supporters of Barack Obama. When white people say that they support Obama, they often feel this need to justify it somehow. The fact that he grew up around white people is a big deal, it gives white people a way to relate to him. Like it is not possible to simply relate to him as he is on his own, as the incredible black man that he is, and from the things that he says and does on his own. His white relatives give white people a way to pull him out of his racial group and into theirs in some way. But when it gets pointed out that he is, indeed, a black man and is invested in black culture, it can bring a lot of tension into the picture.

My friend's mom compares the racism and attacks going on around Obama to O.J. When he was well off, the paparazzi would always be taking pictures of him with a whole bunch of white friends. But when sh*t hit the fan for him, he suddenly had no friends anymore. When he was in jail, no one wanted to visit, to be associated. She calls it a modern reenactment between rich white man and poor black man. To them, you will always be poor. If not poor in money, then poor in spirit. And as soon as they remember that you're black, it's over.

I think that as long as white folk need to pull people of colour out of their racial group in order to relate to them, that these same things are going to keep going on. There is a real need to recenter our viewpoints so that white culture is not a default, natural state, and to move beyond it somehow. We need to be able to really relate to people of colour holistically, as they are. Only then can we possibly empathize as strongly as to other white folk, and only then will we be able to stop choosing sides along racial lines.

Likewise, there is a real need to recenter and structure the feminist movement around women of colour. Patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, homophobia, ableism, gender enforcement or transphobia, are all interlocked and hold each other up. Attacking one without attacking them all can not possibly succeed. Feminism needs a women of colour centered analysis to begin approaching issues like colonialism properly. Likewise, feminism needs a disability centered analysis, and a queer centered analysis. And I have failed to see this kind of intersecting/interlocking analysis come from anywhere but from women of colour such as Andrea Smith.

So, white feminists, please stop burning bridges with women of colour. You are hurting us all.

(Big props to L, as much of these thoughts and ideas came out of conversation with her.)