The feminist bubble

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This post is inspired by a Facebook post I saw the other day that was posted by Black Girl Dangerous:

How would conversations between oppressed peoples with common interests be different if we didn’t spend so much time worrying about how privileged people who were listening in were gonna interpret/appropriate/use for their own agenda what we say to *each other*? We put so much energy into worrying about what they think that we miss opportunities to do the healing work we need for ourselves in our communities. Which, of course, is one very efficient way oppression operates.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and something I am guilty of. It feels like a lot of feminist conversations these days revolve around critiquing white feminism rather than trying to create solidarity or a strong transnational feminist movement (white feminism here of course refers to the movement itself, not being “white” – many brown and black people, for example, adopt a white feminist approach). This is something I do too and have started to find problematic, not because it isn’t necessary but because it seems to create a momentum in and of itself that prevents non-white feminisms from moving forward. So in that sense I definitely relate to the quote above: worrying about how white women are going to interpret something we do or say is not only energy-consuming, it is ultimately pointless because no matter how many disclaimers you might add to something you write, many are simply going to see what they want and interpret it through their own theoretical lens and experiences.

I used to spend ages worrying about writing about gender in the Egyptian context precisely for this reason, because I knew that even admitting that gender oppression exists was enough to legitimate imperialist views and policies. To this day many feminists in the Middle East will not discuss issues such as female circumcision in specific spaces because they know it won’t be understood outside of the Arab-men-are-especially-barbaric narrative that has come to dominate. This makes it difficult to have transnational conversations because hegemonic understandings of feminism (white feminism, basically) continue to dominate. So in this sense, I understand why so many feminists focus on deconstructing white feminism, something I often do myself. I also think it’s important to continue to critique white feminism, but my question is whether it is useful to move away from focusing on that and instead focus more on constructing other solidarities.

But my frustration stems from the feeling that we are now at a point where white feminism has been critiqued and deconstructed, but that these critiques have not extended outside of the small bubble of postcolonial/critical/brown/black feminists. And I think this is why many of us continue to make these critiques. Even though they have been made a million times within this bubble, they still haven’t managed to become dominant and displace white feminism. But it seems to me that continuing to make them won’t change that: they will continue to fall on deaf ears. The reality is that white/liberal feminism continues to dominate, and in fact has transformed itself into an approach that appears to look critical but in fact is based on the same assumptions as first and second wave feminism. (I just want to add that I do understand the value of continually making these critiques in an emotional sense – the post is focused more on how to spread these critiques further.)

This morning I saw a Twitter exchange between two of my favourite feminists – Flavia Dzodan and Sara Ahmed, about white feminists and the often-racist articles they write. Sara Ahmed tweeted: “Yes when I read something like this I wish for it to be shocking but the familiar is exhausting, it gets hard to be shocked!” And this is exactly how I feel these days. I think she was referring to white feminism as the ‘familiar’ and I would add to that my own exhaustion of the familiarity of critiquing white feminism as well. It just seems too familiar.

This dynamic explains why whenever I start writing a piece on feminism by critiquing white feminism, I immediately feel like it’s already all been said and done. And it has – but only within the bubble. And here I use the term bubble instead of circle precisely because ‘bubble’ implies that it is somewhat removed from other groups and people (not to mention the fact that academia in general constitutes one big bubble). The question of how to move outside of the postcolonial feminist bubble (an even smaller bubble within the bubble of feminism) is a complicated one that I still haven’t managed to think through myself. Structural constraints are an important factor, including the continued dominance of positivist and liberal approaches in general, within which white feminism fits nicely. There is also the important point of internalized white/liberal ideas, which leads to many non-white scholars and activists reproducing problematic narratives that in the end aid in perpetuating a system that oppresses them.

A friend of mine suggested that the unwillingness on the part of postcolonial feminists to reach out and engage is part of the problem. I don’t really agree that this is the fault of postcolonial feminists. I think a large part of this is because of the structural constraints I mentioned before as well as the fact that many white feminists don’t want to engage as it would imply an admission of error on their part. Postcolonial feminism isn’t merely critiquing aspects of white feminism, but rather the entire ontology and epistemology underlying white feminism. In other words, there is no common ground, or little common ground, between white feminism and other forms of feminism that are critical or postcolonial. After having a conversation with @ebnee_e I also want to highlight that critique is a form of engagement, thus further proving that the lack of engagement isn’t really coming from the postcolonial feminist side.

On the other hand, I see my friend’s point in the sense that feminists often focus on feminism as a discipline that does not transcend itself. My own view is that gender relations are a part of all social relations and structures, and therefore gender studies should not exist as an isolated field in and of itself. Instead it may be more useful to focus on disciplines and try and understand how gender relations are part of social structures. A good example of this is how feminists working within International Relations have managed to critique the existing masculinist bias of most research and insist that gender relations become part of the agenda. In this sense, these feminists have forced other IR scholars to engage with them and address their critiques, and even though many IR scholars have resisted these new ideas, some have embraced them. In the end, it is clear that there is a feminist trend in IR, as small as it may be. I lean towards thinking of this as more useful than having feminism as an isolated discipline.

What is interesting, however, is that it seems as though postcolonial feminists have focused on working within a discipline that is not feminism – postcolonialism – and yet have still not managed to transcend the bubble. Postcolonial feminists have worked on politics, economics, psychology, sociology, and many other issues from not only a feminist perspective but a postcolonial one. This is why postcolonial feminists are such a major part of postcolonialism in general. And yet this has not managed to challenge the dominance of white feminism, even if it has made inroads in challenging the positivism and Eurocentrism of disciplines such as IR, sociology, economics, and so on. After thinking about it, it seems to me that critical feminists have managed to challenge specific disciplines by engaging with them because they have support from other critical voices within the discipline. So in IR, for example, it wasn’t only Cynthia Cockburn, Cynthia Enloe or Christine Sylvester making the critique that IR is Eurocentric, liberal and masculinist – other (male) scholars did so as well, and perhaps this is why it was somewhat successful.

So the question remains – how to create a challenge that is strong enough to displace white feminism? The problem does not seem to be theoretical or based on content – postcolonial feminism(s) certainly have done enough work in terms of deconstructing and problematizing white feminism. The problem lies more with reaching out. But this brings me back full circle: is it about reaching out, or is it about having someone willing to listen on the other side? I continue to believe that is is more about structural constraints (funding, the dominance of positivism, Eurocentrism) that prevent postcolonial voices from being heard (and this is not only a problem for feminists). I also think that isolating ourselves within a discipline and constituting feminism as a discipline in and of itself has done some harm, in the sense that other disciplines have managed to ignore gender relations. It seems as though only by forcefully engaging other scholars in multiple disciplines can feminists ‘bring gender in.’ 

The question of displacing white feminism, however, remains unanswered. It is not only about the unwillingness on the part of white feminists to listen and engage, but also about the fact that the current imperial neoliberal system continues to create situations of exploitation from which white (and well-off) women benefit. This is why the politics of privilege is so important and has to constitute the starting point of any transnational solidarity. But this is where we always get stuck. We end up with things like lean in feminism or campaigns by feminists for ‘Hillary 2016’ without any kind of self-reflexivity or acknowledgement that these strands of feminism actively oppress other women (and men). Moreover the continued exclusion of trans* and disabled women from white feminism further consolidates it as an exclusionary movement. The reality is that it is not about white feminists themselves (and these feminists don’t have to be white to adopt white feminism) or about what they say or do. It is about the underlying ontological assumptions they have and epistemological choices they make. A focus on liberalism is a key example of this. Because the critiques by postcolonial and critical feminists are so deep (in that they challenge the assumptions themselves), it is perhaps understandable why white feminism has been unwilling to engage.

Engagement in and of itself also doesn’t mean transformation. As is clear from the IR example, although feminists have engaged, and (some) IR scholars have engaged back, the discipline continues to reproduce its masculinist bias. While there are critical strands, there is by no means a critical consensus, as is the case across disciplines – again, I would argue, because of structural constraints. In this sense, feminism is not alone, although it is more extreme. Speaking to another friend, he asked me why the question of engaging white feminism was important to begin with. He suggested that it was impossible since there are no common grounds on which to engage them. This sits more comfortably with me. Rather than focus on feminism, then, it may be more useful to focus on postcolonialism, since postcolonialism challenges global structures and thus any critique of these structures will include a critique of white feminism.  This will also allow feminism to transcend disciplinary boundaries and create transnational solidarities not simply among other feminists but among all groups. This approach would also mean an acknowledgement of the fact that gender is not an isolated structure but rather is produced and reproduced by and through other structures, including capitalism, racism, etc.

Perhaps, then, the question of engaging white feminists is what is problematic. Isn’t it better to construct solidarities with people who share the same ontological assumptions? In this sense, it is not about postcolonial feminism but about postcolonialism itself. Postcolonialism challenges not only white feminism but white supremacy as a totality. The global structure becomes the focus of critique and thus feminists are not isolated, because gender intersects with multiple other relations within this global structure. “The advantage of postcoloniality is that it unveils a global structure that can unite struggles that are not only feminist but also racial, etc. under one umbrella thus leading to a global revolution. The global revolution should be what postcolonial scholars aim at following their ontological and epistemological frames.”* Following this, the priority should be on building transnational alliances that are postcolonial and critical in nature, rather than constantly attempting to engage white feminism.

Going back to the quote at the beginning, maybe the answer is to focus less on critiquing white feminism and more on building transnational feminism. But this is difficult to do because white feminism constitutes the ‘gaze’ that structures knowledge production and activism, since it is dominant. Maybe the solution is to not just critique white feminism but go beyond that. I read an article that gave an overview of the field of African feminist studies, and the author pointed out that the most recent scholarship no longer focuses on critiquing white feminism and instead focuses more on internal dialogue.** This means not avoiding topics like female circumcision just because white feminism might co-opt your voice, but instead having the conversation as though white feminists are not listening in. Then again, this has its own risks because putting these narratives out there can easily be used to justify wars and other interventions that have concrete material effects on women of colour, as we saw with the war in Afghanistan and instrumentalization of Afghan women’s voices by Laura Bush and co. But can voices that are critical be instrumentalized in the same way? Perhaps the solution then, is to have internal dialogues that are critical. (Of course no dialogue is ever ‘internal’ but I mean in the sense that the audience addressed is not white feminists but other postcolonial and transnational feminists.)

So I suppose the conclusion is that I don’t have any answers, other than that the focus should move away from addressing white feminists towards creating solidarity with each other and other critical thinkers. I would love to hear thoughts from other people!

______________

* Ahmed el Hady

** Twenty-Five Years of African Women Writing African Women’s and Gendered Worlds by Nwando Achebe

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23 thoughts on “The feminist bubble

  1. Great post. Although I would argue “structural constraints” are the product of the failure to synthesize new grounds of feminist knowledge and a decision to be in one comfy, and extremely narrow (as Sara says) discipline. I am not saying it was a decision by feminists to begin with, but I see several feminists comfortable with that bubble, or the creation of multiple bubbles (the post-colonial bubble of criticizing white feminists is another example Sara rightfully says). Examples include critical science IR, new anthropology by Hirshkind, and post-modern Islam (which is more problematic but an example of new structures). Maybe that’s my contribution Sara, and I certainly appreciate your decision to take on this difficult question, maybe we have it all wrong and should ask this:

    Would a new structure be equally problematic? A new one that fuses feminism (whatever that is and whichever kind) to all disciplines? This reminds me of a discussion at a feminist NGO in which state reform was the agenda. Should there be gender focus points in all ministries vs. a feminist state council? (the example of state-feminism is perhaps a bad one but gives a predicament facing Egypt)

    Thank you for a very insightful post. I encourage you to continue to ask this question and write about it again.

    Karim

    1. Good questions Karim, especially the one about whether a new structure would be equally problematic. Relates to the debate about whether a multiplicity of feminisms would simply be a liberal idea or whether a new dominant subjectivity would need to be created that is perhaps more ‘progressive.’

  2. Part of the problem is that feminism (or any ideology, for that matter) will always be framed and articulated by women (and men) from more privileged backgrounds, i.e. access to education, resources and socioeconomic background.

    With that said, critiquing white liberal feminism is important and a must. If it continues to dominate, it will leave other people behind. For feminism to have any real meaning, in my opinion, it must be intersectional. However, at the same time, it’d be naive to think that white liberal feminists have nothing substantial to offer.

    The commonality and the cause for solidarity here is that they are attempting to subvert established hierarchies that oppress them. But it’s also important for solidarity to be “decolonized” because oppression does not always manifest itself in the same way nor can it be viewed through the same lens. White feminism shouldn’t be displaced, but their job shouldn’t be to create or implement the agenda. If they’re serious about liberation, they should use their privileged position in order to facilitate “new” discourse into the public sphere in an unadulterated way. Otherwise, what is it doing other than creating a new system of oppression masquerading as “empowerment”?

    1. I agree that white feminism is challenging the structures that oppress them, and that any intersectional approach to feminism has to include this. The issue though is the tendency on the part of white feminists to universalize, which is the exact opposite of what intersectionality stands for. So in that sense white feminism as a totalizing approach does need to be displaced, to make space for white feminism as part of a multiplicity of approaches.

  3. I agree that it is extremely difficult for postcolonialists to reach out to liberals in any context because the underlying assumptions are so different. It is especially hard to break through the defenses of liberal “do-gooders” because they are mesmerized by their intentions and self-interest. POC I’ve worked with, who are tired of the repeated attempts to explain, have generally focused on creating alternative realities and tasked white persons working in solidarity to do the outreach to our community. That leaves POC still having to hold us accountable and deal oftentimes with our privileged perspectives, but at least the ideological divide is not so great.

    1. That’s a really good point! I’ve found ‘progressive’ liberals more difficult to engage with precisely because they’re convinced that they’re critical and do not have any problematic assumptions.

  4. “having the conversation as though white feminists are not listening in.” YES, that’s what I’ve been thinking about as a way to talk about sexism in the Moroccan community in Belgium. but it’s not easy to ignore the fear that what you write will be used against you. About the ‘bubble’: it also exists because many women like me feel it’s not for them to write because they don’t have a university degree, didn’t read all the books the women in that bubble (seem to) have read and because of this their words and experiences won’t have the same weight. Women in the bubble might think their texts and conversations don’t reach many outside their club, but I’m convinced there are many like me who have learned a lot and are influenced by your words even if you don’t always hear back from us.

    1. Talking about sexism and patriarchy within Arab or Muslim communities is exactly what got me thinking about all of this to begin with!
      And you’re completely right that the bubble is created through privileged locations, especially since it’s mostly academics within the bubble.
      Thank you Hasna 🙂

  5. These distinctions you make–white/brown/ black/green etc DO NOT EXIST. For every NEED there are ten thousand strategies, goes an old NVC saying. Just have to pick a strategy that works.

    1. I understand what you mean by “white” feminism and experience some aspect of it on a near daily basis. To me, it entails more than what you write about. It involves telling someone that their way of being is deficient. I think it wise to move beyond their level.

      1. Implicit in the term “white” is the notion that only white women are out to do others harm. Women are the biggest oppressors of other women. Structures
        of societies need to change.

      2. Will Shetterly

        I have an enormous problem with the label. In the US and Canada, bourgeois black feminists are little different than bourgeois white ones. I feel like “white” is a shorthand along the lines of what’s meant at “Things White People Like”, which is actually about things economically privileged people like. My main objection to calling private school feminism “white feminism” is the feminism of millions of working class white women has more to do with that of working class black women than it does with their white or black sisters who won the birth lottery.

      3. Will – As I said in the post, I use the label to refer to an approach that is, among other things, bourgeois in nature. I would argue that the black bourgeois feminists you speak of are often reproducing white feminism, rather than postcolonial feminism, and so would fall under the same category of people I am critiquing. Similarly, the millions of working class white women probably do not identify with ‘white feminism’ and would identify more with postcolonial feminism. White feminism isn’t about being white, it’s about an approach.

      4. Inci – As I explained at the beginning of the post, “white feminism” is not about white women. Many brown women for example reproduce white feminism. White feminism is an approach.

      5. Will Shetterly

        So long as “white” is considered a racial term rather than a class one, it’s gonna be problematic. Seems to me, anyway. How you divorce it from it’s racial meaning, I haven’t a clue. Though I grant that time does erase context–see the use of “classy” for praise.

      6. miss gio

        If you mean bourgeois feminism, then name it such for petes sake, and don’t come with that racial “white/brown/duckfacedwhatwever” bullshit while it is all about class antagonism.

      7. See, I have no problem with what you are trying to convey. I enjoy your writings and learn from them. A few things irk me. I feel like only academics are writing for each other. I also wish everyone would stay out of judgmental language. The judgments people make and the labels do not take care of deeper needs.

  6. It is futile to try reaching out to someone whose hands are folded behind their back. This, I think, is the challenge in trying to sit postcolonial feminism and “white” feminism at the same table. I am also of the opinion that the critique of white feminism should not stop with the hope that one day we might create a loud enough voice that can no longer be ignored.

    While i hear you on the structural constraints that limit the successes of postcolonial feminism, I however don’t necessarily agree with you Sara where you suggest that, ‘rather than focus on feminism, then, it may be more useful to focus on postcolonialism, since postcolonialism challenges global structures and thus any critique of these structures will include a critique of white feminism’. What makes me rather uncomfortable is that firstly, not many social groups in these postcolonial societies identify with feminism. We continue to see the feminst/gender agenda being sidelined in critical sectors of these postcolonial societies. It might be naive then to assume that a critique of postcolonialism will necessarily include a critique of white feminism. Secondly, while just focusing on postcolonialism, might appear as ‘uniting the struggle’ as your article says, let us not forget that in the same process, we also need to critique our own local structural constraints which also remain an obstacle to the feminist(s) agenda. Why for instance, here in Zimbabwe, the women who also fought against colonialism are still not receiving the same recognition as their male counterparts? In this regard, i suggest, postcolonial feminism should continue to be a stand-alone even though its foundations are in postcolonialism,in order to continue the struggle for women emancipation in these postcolonial nations.

    1. “It is futile to try reaching out to someone whose hands are folded behind their back.” I couldn’t have said it better 🙂
      You bring up a very good point that I hadn’t thought of, which is that many scholars within postcolonialism don’t identify with feminism. What I meant is that a postcolonial critique will include criticism of imperialism, capitalist, liberalism etc and that kind of criticism also targets white feminism, even if the scholar making the critique does not realize this or intend to do it.
      Your suggestion made me think that maybe it’s risky to assume that feminists can transform postcolonialism so that as a discipline it takes gender seriously. Maybe we are not at that stage yet and so it is necessary to continue to have postcolonial feminism as a separate sphere until that happens.

  7. @a_batte

    Hey Sara, I’ve been reading your posts for a couple months now – keep up the good work! Good to see some of this thought happening out in the open.

    Before I dig into this comment, I think it’s worth opening with a reminder that this debate or concern with addressing oneself to “white feminists” or other dominant groups isn’t new. I’m sure that’s not news to you or many of your readers, but just to be clear about where I’m coming from, I understand that (at least in the US context) the interests of white, ruling- and middle-class women have dominated women’s movements since at least the 19th century, and so feminists who don’t share those interests have grappled with similar problems for at least as long, if not longer. Probably the biggest influence on my thinking here would be bell hooks’s first two books, which address the history of race, class, and gender in women’s movements, as well as contemporary problems when she was writing and participating in feminist movements in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. To me, it’s extremely significant that so many of the conflicts she details in those books seem to reappear in modern discussions and debates among feminists.

    The concept of postcolonial feminism being a bubble seems useful to highlight the issues you discuss here, but I think it’s worth noting that if you take separation from mainstream, white supremacist “feminist” discourse as a measure, there are many “bubbles” which amassed form zones of marginal discourse and activism. From my understanding of marginalized work in other areas of social justice (especially in the US context) concerned with fighting capitalism, white supremacy, and other systemic forms of domination, the successes these movements have made have *not* been primarily because their critiques were able to transform the dominant systems through discussion. As I see it, the *political struggles* these critiques were a part of represented *threats* to the established order that needed to be addressed, either by suppression or concessions (usually both). The examples I think of are, again, drawn from the context of fairly recent history in the United States: the labor movement in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century won wage increases, hour reductions, and arguably much of the New Deal in during the Depression through militant and confrontational struggle, and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that peaked decades later won widespread legal concessions, most famously the vote and the end of formal legal segregation.

    Put simply, I would suggest that maybe an important course postcolonial feminists could take would be to put their energy into activism “on the ground”, whether that means supplying their research to anti-colonial and feminist movements or activism in the more traditional senses of organizing, advocacy, and whatnot. In the Twitter world critical of “white feminism” I’m familiar with, which I imagine has some overlap with yours, there are indeed feminists who seem to spend much of their energy engaging with dominant white supremacist feminism. But many of these women are also activists who do work that directly challenges liberal feminist concerns, or takes on problems that the mainstream largely ignores. I think of people like Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture) and her work against the prison-industrial complex, especially her leadership in the campaign to free Marissa Alexander; I also think of Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) who is a seemingly tireless critic of “white feminism” but also constantly works to end violence against indigenous/Native American women from an anti-colonial, feminist perspective. Among academics, I think of Andrea Smith (@andrea366) of INCITE!, whose academic work is clearly grounded in and informs her actual organizing experience, and Tamara K. Nopper (@tnopper), whose research (especially historical) on Black and Asian solidarity I’ve found very enlightening for my understanding of social movements.

    So I think that postcolonial feminists (and others!), for lack of a better phrase, should just consider rolling up their sleeves and wading into the marginalized but numerous efforts for social justice that are already ongoing. I’d suggest that these even have effects on the academy as well; the introduction of Black and Asian studies departments to US universities largely came as a direct result of Black Power struggles in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as women’s studies departments did thanks to (primarily white and middle class) women’s demands to be included in the academy. Hopefully that emphasizes a connection, not a fundamental separation, between academia and social movements. To borrow the quote you use in your blog post: “The global revolution should be what postcolonial scholars aim at following their ontological and epistemological frames.”

    Hopefully this makes sense! Apologies in advance for any errors in interpretation or unclear writing, as I typed this up pretty much in one go. I’m also sorry my examples are only from the United States, but that’s where much of my limited historical knowledge lies, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

    1. You are completely right that there are many bubbles that have emerged, precisely because of the exclusionary and exploitative nature of white discourse in general.
      The examples you mention are very important, but didn’t they also rely somewhat on the critiques these groups made being accepted somewhat by groups outside of their ‘bubbles’? For example, the civil rights movement did have support within society and I feel this may have helped, alongside the political struggle. But then re-thinking as I write this, perhaps that wasn’t the case. It certainly wasn’t the case for the anti-slavery movement. So maybe you are right and that struggle and political warfare is a better way to spread one’s message than to try and transform a system through critique (although they are not as separate as I make them sound here – critique is also necessary as a stepping stone to struggle).
      About working on the ground, I completely agree and think this is definitely one way forward for postcolonial feminism. My post was focused more on academia but of course on the ground there is a lot happening. To take the example of Egypt, however, it seems that even much of the work on the ground continues to be held back by the dominance of liberal feminism as practiced by NGOs and elitist feminists. So even on the ground, the struggle with dominant white feminism is very real.
      On the other hand, there is a lot of feminist activism happening in Egypt at the grassroots level that simply isn’t labeled ‘feminist’ for a variety of reasons. Working more with these kinds of activities is probably more beneficial than continually critiquing white feminism, so in that sense I definitely see your point.
      Thanks for the comment!

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