Thursday, March 03, 2011

Privilege And Safety

Jessica Hoffmann's Letter to White Feminists, about white privilege and "safety" as attained in proximity to power, remains food for thought (brought to mind by the Johann Hari controversy):

My comments here are hugely influenced by critiques of white feminism put forth over generations by women of color, critiques I'm guessing you're familiar with. Maybe you're even nodding because you feel like you've reckoned with them. Maybe it bums you out that past generations of white feminists had such a white-supremacy/class-privilege problem. Maybe This Bridge Called My Back was required reading in your first women's studies class and you know all about "intersectionality," making a point in your feminist projects to "include" the voices and issues of women of color, working-class and poor white women, and maybe even trans folks and members of other groups historically marginalized by dominant feminisms. I'm pretty sure about all this because many of you have told me so -- in personal conversations and workshops, in your books and blogs and …

Yet it doesn't look to me like you've really reckoned with those critiques. It looks more like you appropriate or tokenize them, using their language while continuing to center white, class-privileged women's experiences in your "feminism" and engaging in political work that upholds and strengthens white supremacy and economic exploitation -- sometimes directly undermining the social-change work of feminists of color.

And, yes, you deserve some concrete examples of that, which is why I'm writing. My intention isn't to repeat the critiques of feminists of color, but to offer some specific instances in which I, a white, class-privileged feminist who is often privy to your conversations and who can identify with the experiences and perspectives of privilege, have recently seen this playing out. At this particular historical moment, it seems to happen frequently around the disconnect between white feminists' notions of "safety" as an ideal we should organize around, and, on the other side of the not-so-fun funhouse mirror, organizing by feminists of color around policing/prisons and immigration/borders -- issues that expose the fantasy of "safety" as a product of privilege; issues that feminists of color have increasingly centered in their activism while white feminists seem to be struggling to understand whether they are feminist issues at all.

Prisons (or, Safety for Whom?)

In recent years, members of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence have incisively and repeatedly critiqued the white-feminist-led antiviolence movement for its reliance on (and, thus, complicity with) the U.S. criminal-legal system, which uses the rhetoric of "safety" to destroy communities of color, squash dissent, and create profit for private corporations. Yet the primary macro-level strategies of the white-feminist-led movement against domestic violence and sexual assault continue to rely on this system, with a major focus on legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act and the push for hate-crimes laws to include gender and sexual orientation. On the micro/personal level, I have repeatedly seen white, class-privileged feminists unhesitatingly call upon police to protect and serve them; have listened to white feminists advise each other on which "authorities" to go to for protection from stalkers and other abusers; and so on.

At both the macro level of feminist movement strategy and the micro/personal level of individual actions, I'm struck by the apparent lack of awareness of the prominent critiques made by feminists of color of law-and-order approaches to ending (or, even, finding "safety" from) violence. To be a self-identified feminist activist apparently unaware of (or, worse, deliberately skirting) the current work of not only INCITE! but also feminist icons like Angela Davis and numerous other voices calling for abolition of the prison industrial complex as a key element of social change seems to me to be part of a movement that is not only disconnected from but also damaging to some of the most vibrant and potentially liberating social-justice organizing happening today.

No comments:

Post a Comment