Whose Feminism?

by Guest Contributor Thea Lim

For the past few months, I’ve felt agitated and short-tempered most of the time. Taking the afternoon off, watching all three of the Bourne movies in a row, unplugging for a long weekend – even the dreaded Talking About My Feelings hasn’t made a dent in the ball of rage that’s been growing steadily in my lungs, my solar plexus and my belly. The rage creates even more rage – and I find myself wondering, why can’t I just freakin’ calm down?

And then I got this note last week from Carmen through the New Demographic newsletter:

A couple of weeks ago I found myself feeling really angry and rundown, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was causing these emotions…This has been a grueling year for people like you and me — folks who are passionate about fighting racism and creating social change. While this election has given many of us cause for hope, it has also brought out a lot of ugliness around us.

I’m a Canadian living in Canada, and due to a hangover from a very short affair with anarchy, I’m fairly suspicious of electoral politics, and sometimes don’t even vote. So when trying to unravel the roots of this ball of rage, the Democratic Primary Race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was not the first place I looked.

But you see, I’m starting to understand what my problem is: I identify as a feminist. And I don’t just mean I read bell hooks from time to time and appreciate the equity undertones of Gilmore Girls. I mean, I really live feminism. I work for an overtly feminist women’s health organisation, my first novel was a work of feminist fiction, and I helped put together the Shameless Magazine blog – online companion to Canada’s only feminist print magazine for teenagers.

I’m also an anti-racist woman of colour.

Last week as I waded through Geraldine Ferraro’s horrible op-ed and yet another listserv conversation about how feminists must support Clinton, I realised that, Canadian or not, for the past few months being an anti-racist person of colour AND a feminist has become a source of heartache, deep sorrow, and yes, pure, seething, rage. Because it feels like feminism, a cause that I have defended and supported for four years, has turned its back on me.

What has hurt me about this far-removed, distant and abstract primary race, is not what Clinton has done – though the racism that marred the end of her campaign sure stings. It is what’s happening at the grassroots level, not at the level of Chris Matthews and CNN, that hurts me. What’s truly gut-wrenching is the message the feminist blogosphere, feminist journalists, and feminist politicians have broadcast, bull-horned and sky-written in response to Clinton’s candidacy.

It’s the assumption that if you are a woman, Hillary speaks for you. It is the assumption that if you are a feminist, you will vote for a woman, no matter who she is, and no matter how little she may represent your experience. It is the assumption that if you are a woman, if you are a feminist, you will agree that gender is the greatest barrier to success in (North) America.

It is the assumption, in short, that if you are a woman, you are a straight, white, middle-class woman.

It is painful enough to be told that race and class don’t matter. It is far more painful to be told that race and class don’t matter by a movement, that by its very definition, knows that gender matters – but today won’t admit that anything else does. At the risk of being dramatic, for the past few months, living as a woman of colour who is also a working feminist – which means every day trudging through emails, blog posts, reports, listservs and conversations that imply (or exply!) that only gender matters – has been a bit like having my extremities cut off one by one.

The primary race brought the divisions between anti-racist feminists and non-anti-racist feminists* to the surface, but the worst thing about this ugly reveal, is that being forced to face a schism that feminism has been unable to brook over and over, could’ve been a chance to work through some of those rifts. Instead it just revealed exactly how unequipped feminism is to deal with race.

As our friend Latoya has mentioned on this here blog many times, white American feminists were shockingly silent on the racism in Clinton’s campaign.**

In her letter “Addressing the wounds between White feminists and feminists of Color,” activist Aishah Shahidah Simmons outlines the grief and anger she felt when White, third wave feminists did not critique the racism in Clinton’s campaign:

The concern for me is that I longed to hear from progressive, anti-racist White feminists who publicly supported Clinton but also publicly took stands against her and her campaign’s racism. I felt and feel many of her supporters (who know the vicious hertories and contemporary realities of the intersections of race and gender in this country) were complicit as she and her campaign fanned the fires of racism, which like sexism, is deeply entrenched into the very fibers of the founding of this country.

My beef with non-anti-racists feminists came from a different angle: when it became clear, after the backlash that met Gloria Steinem’s famous op-ed, that it was not ok to pit gender against race, instead of trying to understand why it was not ok, non-anti-racist feminists simply continued to make the same ridiculous statements that pit gender against race; except added in meaningless disclaimers.

For example, the point that Obama did not have to face racism in the same amounts as Clinton had to face sexism, continued to be made – this time though, it was preceded by “Not that I want to get into whether or not race or gender are bigger barriers.” Listen, if you don’t want to get into whether or not race or gender are bigger barriers, then don’t talk about how gender is a bigger barrier than race.

Come on now, it’s not that complicated.

What I am utterly baffled by, is why a discussion that Clinton has had to deal with distressing amounts of sexism has to be followed by the argument that Obama has not faced racism. Or that racism has actually benefited Obama, because people will vote for him because it’s hip to support black people.

Hillary has been treated badly because she is a woman, period. Why does that fact have to be followed by a snipe about how racism doesn’t really exist anymore? I don’t feel the need to discount the ways Hillary has had a hard time due to sexism, or deny that sexism exists, in order to make a case for the fact that racism exists. It actually makes me physically ill to have to continuously listen to this argument.

Newsflash: an environment that allows sexism to flourish is usually an environment that allows racism to flourish. Feminists, anti-racists – heck, anyone who cares about creating a culture that has less hate – should bolster the argument that sexism exists in our countries WITH the argument that racism exists here too, NOT deny the existence of one or the other – because sexism and racism so often go hand in hand (along with classism, homophobia, ableism…). As a woman of colour, the existence of sexism for me fuels my awareness of racism.

This may seem like an obvious point, but I feel depressingly driven to spell it out: I’m not a woman and a person of colour – I’m simultaneously both. Usually when people are being sexist towards me, they’re also being racist. I would like to fight both racism and sexism. So why is feminism asking me to choose?

It’s not like I’ve never heard anti-racist women of colour say that while they are womanists or mujeristas, they are not feminists, because feminism doesn’t speak for women of colour. It was just that I thought – no, believed!1! – that my feminism, my third-wave-fourth-wave-no-wave feminism was for me and people like me.

I also continue to believe, very deeply, that the revolution ain’t gonna come until we recognise that struggles against sexism, racism, ableism, poverty, homophobia, heteronormativity, classism, consumerism, (etc) are all, at their root, the same struggle. So why shouldn’t anti-racist women of colour also fight for feminism?

Well, the answer turns out, because it hurts too much.

This is not to say that the whole feminist movement is rotten. All over the same blogosphere that posted so much of the racist schlock that made me lose my cookies, feminists – Hey! Feminists who happen to be white! – like Megan Carpentier and Jill at Feministe have written sharp, incredibly clever and fantastic critiques of non-racist feminism. In my non-virtual life, I work alongside many feminists who care about race and class. And I don’t plan to quit my job or distance myself from the feminist projects I helped to create, which I’m still proud of. But as a whole, the loudest incarnation of grassroots feminism today is one that is really starting to hurt my feelings, and that’s making it harder and harder for me to proudly call myself a feminist; or to call myself a feminist at all.

Denial is a common survival tactic. We hold certain truths of our existence at arms’ length for as long as possible, because if we were to truly grasp them, the pain would consume us. This technique doesn’t just apply to physical pain or extreme pain; i.e. to soldiers undergoing torture, to parents who have lost small children, to women whose partners abuse them. It’s a technique that many of us employ to get through our daily lives, because – as Carmen so eloquently noted – sometimes our daily lives can be a little battleground-ish.

For many months I denied, ignored and distanced myself from the fact that something as abstract as a US primary election – and what it revealed about my movement – could be the cause of my angst. The comments sections from feminist blogs I once loved seem like a funny thing to grieve over.

It’s hard to forgive and then move past an Ideology. But that’s what I have to do if I want to turf this ball of rage. And if that doesn’t work, please send donations: I’m gonna need a good therapist.

*Sorry, I know this term is a mouthful. But it’s not quite accurate to simply call feminists who don’t care about anti-racism White Feminists – I know lots of white feminists who are also anti-racist feminists, and who are just as disgusted by feminism’s failure to be anti-racist as anti-racist women of colour feminists are.

**Latoya’s Note: Mentioning something once does not constitute adequate coverage of a situation. But I’ll get to that in another post.