Systemic Imbalance and Marginalised Voices: Feminism FOR REAL

This anthology was launched in March, but in a fine example of its major theme regarding whose voices get sidelined in the feminism movement, most of the femosphere appears to not have heard of it until it was centred in a blogstorm this week. If a reader already has a book review online or nearly ready to go, please consider submitting it here as a guest post.

Feminism FOR REAL bookcover: the title is strategically superimposed over the headless naked torso of a brown-skinned woman with visible fat rolls

Feminism FOR REAL: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism

Feminism FOR REAL: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism, edited by Jessica Yee

When feminism itself becomes its own form of oppression, what do we have to say about it? Western notions of polite discourse are not the norm for all of us, and just because we’ve got some new and hot language lately in equity-seeking movements like feminism — such as “intersectionality” — to use in our talk, it doesn’t necessarily make things change in our walk (i.e. actually being anti-racist).

Confronting the sometimes uncomfortable questions feminism has made us ask about what’s going on FOR REAL paved the many paths that brought the contributors of this book together to share their sometimes uncomfortable truths, not just about feminism, but about who they are and where they are coming from.

This is a hugely important addition to the feminist conversation. It’s too easy for those of us who benefit especially from white privilege to stick to the familiar voices and not challenge ourselves by listening to previously unknown voices with different experiences.

So, what can more privileged voices do to oppose the systems that sideline minority voices? As a small idea, I’ve just put up a Spruik Your May Social Justice Event signal-boosting post on Finally, A Feminism 101 blog, aiming to make it a monthly series, to hopefully add a teaspoon or two of assistance with PR for events that fall outside the mainstream progressive marketing circle. Please pass the word.

N.B. For those of you who weren’t already aware, I’m a part of the Feministe team as their tech person, although I don’t blog there. This limits what I am willing to discuss about the shitstorm in question. I’ve also been badly bitten before by criticism from me being repurposed by others as a sledgehammer against people, much to my dismay and their (far greater) distress. I have a great deal of respect and affection for Jill, even though we don’t agree on everything: this doesn’t mean that criticism from readers towards Jill’s post is off-limits, just that all the usual comments policy guidelines regarding dissent and particularly regarding abusive language still apply.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, media, social justice

Tags: , ,

22 replies

  1. Jill had some good points, especially with respect to the pile-ons that I find distressingly common. Yelling at someone because her privilege is showing might make the shouters feel better, but I’m not sure that it achieves anything else. Hmmm… let me qualify that. Yelling at a newbie is, I think, a less than good approach. I think people need a chance to learn. Yelling at someone who persistently and egregiously ignores the concerns and issues of marginalised people is a different matter.
    On a somewhat tangential but relevant (I hope!) point, I was surprised to find recently that The Hand Mirror (where I blogged until recently – see below*) was regarded as senior and important in Aotearoa New Zealand feminist blogging. Other bloggers were excited when they were linked to, and upset if their work was criticised by people posting at The Hand Mirror. Without being aware of it, we had come to hold a responsible position within NZ feminist blogging. And even though we didn’t seek it, I think that did create requirements for us. I saw them as mostly negative requirements (i.e. things that we ought not to do rather than things that we ought to be doing), but I suppose that in many respects, given the position of THM (in NZ’s very small blogosphere!), we ought to have been a bit more careful about what we were doing, or not doing.
    Very roughly, contra Jill, I think that position does create responsibility, even if the position has come about by chance, more or less. One obvious solution to the problem of work overload for a group blog is simply to get more bloggers on board, and to make a huge effort to recruit more bloggers from marginalised groups, and then to support them very actively in what they post. Having said that, I *do* understand how just one e-mail can get buried, and in the flurry of life, just get missed. I know that I find it very hard to make time to blog, or to read, or to sing, or to talk to my partner, or see my friends, or to do anything much other than work in paid employment, and run the house and raise my children. Blogging is at the end of the day, a hobby, ‘though one I hold very dear.
    * I’ve moved on from The Hand Mirror, just because it was time to do so, for me. All going well, I’ll be popping up somewhere else sometime soon.


    I hope this is okay to put this here. The Skirt is a friend of mine, you know how it is.

  3. I’m looking forward to seeing where you pop up next, Deborah!
    And I’m loving the look of this book, and have wishlisted it in bold permanent marker.
    (Can I just quietly ask – before it actually happens – that people here, well, whitefolk here in particular, please eschew any “cannibal” language around this particular issue? Given the history of prominent intertubes feminist racism, I think it’s a metaphor to avoid.)

  4. I don’t identify as fully white but mostly white. I think, in that case – though Jill actually used the word as a metaphor for the feminist call outs of which she speaks and it seems counter-intuitive not to address it then, at least in the way I think she meant it which was not as a racial denigration – you should remove my link and my post Lauredhel, given the offending word is right there in the link. I think my percentage of whiteness decrees it.

  5. We’re talking about two things here – things people say or do, and things people “fail” to say and do (omission). There is sometimes a lot of noise on US blogs on the latter which doesn’t take into account the limitations of unpaid bloggers. If I fail to do something which people would like me to do at work, they can sack me. If I fail to do something on my blog, it’s probably because I don’t have the unpaid leisure time – or sometimes I’m *avoiding* speaking out on topics specifically because I’d rather hear the voices from people in the groups involved, rather than because I’m blase or uncaring.
    I think there is also a lot of animus directed at anyone whose blog grows above a certain size, I suppose you’re seen as merging with the MSM by that stage.

  6. Casey, I don’t have a problem with your link, I’m just getting in before people start throwing the word around here.

  7. On a somewhat tangential but relevant (I hope!) point, I was surprised to find recently that The Hand Mirror […] was regarded as senior and important in Aotearoa New Zealand feminist blogging. Other bloggers were excited when they were linked to, and upset if their work was criticised by people posting at The Hand Mirror. Without being aware of it, we had come to hold a responsible position within NZ feminist blogging. And even though we didn’t seek it, I think that did create requirements for us. I saw them as mostly negative requirements (i.e. things that we ought not to do rather than things that we ought to be doing), but I suppose that in many respects, given the position of THM (in NZ’s very small blogosphere!), we ought to have been a bit more careful about what we were doing, or not doing.

    That was very much my experience here at Hoyden too, Deborah. It was just my personal blog, and then it was just me and Lauredhel posting on all sorts of stuff, and then it became something that other people had expectations regarding. It remains an uncomfortable fit for me, those expectations.

    • P.S. As it’s getting late, and folks overseas are about to wake up and start blogging, I’m putting the comments thread on full moderation overnight. Please be patient if your comment takes a while to appear.

  8. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for this book’s being distributed in the US, because I want both of the libraries I work for to own it. Unfortunately, the public library is unlikely to get something not distributed by a major company (which is problematic for a whole lot of reasons, don’t get me started!) but I think the academic library would be willing to add it if I managed to get a copy, even if I ordered it myself from Canada. *plotting*

  9. and then it became something that other people had expectations regarding. It remains an uncomfortable fit for me, those expectations.
    I think one of the most challenging things can not being fully aware of those expectations. Not saying this is your personal experience,tigtog, but I’ve watched a number of bloggers whose audiences have grown and they’ve become more prominent and suddenly, people take what they say much more seriously as they are now some kind of “voice of authority”. It happens whether they wanted to be a voice of authority or not, and it also has the pernicious effect of making someone a spokesperson for a demographic whether they wanted that or not. (This tends to be particularly bad when combined with tokenism.)
    I’m (oddly enough) somewhat reminded of President Obama making an off-hand remark about businesses not frittering money away by sending people to Las Vegas. I don’t think he meant to say “Las Vegas is a bad, bad place, and you are bad, bad, people if you host a conference in Las Vegas,” but it was definitely received that way. To the point where the tourism agencies and collections of businesses felt they had to go back to the President to ask him to walk back those statements. Not that any one blogger is that powerful, but that winds up being the effect sometimes.

    • @Laughingrat, it does appear that the decision made to eschew major publishers on ethical grounds is a parallel example of how the publishing industry’s systemic imbalance sidelines ethical voices, too. I’m sure that decision was made with eyes wide open, but it’s an area worth exploring: how can social justice activists work together to promote their work effectively outside the mainstream commercial avenues?
      @evil_fizz, it did take me a while to become aware of these expectations. I remember also an early (2006-ish?) jab elsewhere about it somehow being wrong that Hoyden was considered a representative Australian feminist voice when there were other bloggers who’d been active feminist commentators for decades before blogs existed, which I felt was a perfectly valid critique except that it seemed to suggest that this was a status I’d somehow sought; I felt misjudged, because there’s a reason that this blog doesn’t say “feminism” anywhere in the descriptions above the fold on the front page, and never has. It’s ONE of my special interests.
      In retrospect, I suppose it was an inevitable side-effect of the FF101 project, which I naively expected would remain off on its own without particularly reflecting much back at Hoyden. Despite the fact that I deliberately limited that site to Feminism 101 because my own knowledge of theory etc was not particularly advanced, it too became a kinda Big Expectations thing, when all I intended it for was as a Useful Tool.

  10. As a white middle class hetero cis female feminist, representative of no one but my present self, what really annoys me is when a particular blog or person is held up as the epitome of ‘x’. So this blogger speaks for all feminists, or all Radfems (when everyone isn’t being thrown into one big feminist group), feminsts who represent this group or that group or something else. Then when you don’t represent everyone that you are somehow supposed to be connected to (hivemind anyone) it is held up as an example that feminists have failed. As I read somewhere last night (Facebook?) men aren’t considered to have failed because they don’t all agree with each other. I won’t ask why the double standard.
    Back on topic, I am usually surprised, though I shouldn’t be, and ashamed that I have once again failed to take into account my privilege and failure to notice other voices. I do think however, that this is something that I just need to suck up and get on with. Unlike “swallowing shit” to make things go smoothly, not rock the boat etc by actually being feminist outside the blogosphere, sucking it up when I’ve stuffed up I think makes me a better person, not just a better feminist and/or ally.

  11. There’s no question about the importance of cutting individual bloggers some slack about not getting to everything, for all the reasons Jill noted. And I also picked up her emphasis that she was using the FFR matter as an illustrative example, not the core topic. However, there’s a difference between calling out an individual and observing a trend across a group. The latter is definitely what was happening here: the critical post listed several blogs. One of these not picking up the book is just something that happens. None of them noticing it says something about the state of play. It’s the Miles Franklin Award effect again: sure, the judges didn’t set out to exclude novels written by women, but I have no hesitation in demanding that they put more effort into being receptive to different voices.

  12. I think this is such a timely discussion and I’m relieved someone kicked it off – because some of the issues Jill is talking about have been really troubling me about on-line feminism. I think readers do need reminding that individual people are writing the vast majority of these blogs (not corporations or institutions), that they do so in their spare time, and that they do it out of love for feminism, and that they are capable of being genuinely damaged by the way they are treated on-line. However much I find some feminists and their feminism difficult to deal with (Linda Hirshman, for instance), by and large, they are not my enemy. We need to keep our focus on being mobilised to resist those who really really hate us and wish to undermine us.
    On-line feminism is really an amazing opportunity for discussion, and the way to move feminism forward is through discussion and collaboration and community building, and it is a terrible shame that so many of the attempts at on-line discussion are too foul, too cruel and too intolerant to participate in. Some seriously shitty behaviour has happened in threads on various big blogs in the name of being good feminists and in the end it has been a form of exclusion and elitism, because (apart from trolls) only the boldest, most well-read, most educated, most computer-literate, most energetic, most time-rich, most well-connected feminists have been strong enough to cop it and that has silenced an awful lot of valuable voices. One of my closest friends is a mother/black woman/immigrant/feminist and I think she would have some wonderful thoughts to share on-line, and she is curious about on-line feminism/womanism, but I can’t help but feel that she could be eaten alive (including by allies) because while she is highly educated/well-read she is not at all computer-literate and nor does she have the time available (she does a lot of solo parenting and works outside the home, too) to verse herself in common Internet discussion pitfalls. It really disturbs me to think of hers and other voices being lost in our discussions.
    Being called out can be an educating experience, god knows I’ve learnt a lot from the times it has happened to me, but the pile-ons, the checklisting, the ‘gotcha mentality’, the deliberate tactics in humiliation, the ‘why hasn’t someone responded right this very second to my comment’ demands, the many no-win situations (eg. ‘why are you being so defensive, just shut up and listen’ combined with the ‘why haven’t you responded to my arguments, ignoring me is invalidating me’) can lead some discussions right into a black hole. I am fortunate not to have been the recipient – my own blog is too small to have attracted a pile-on when I was (appropriately) called out and I don’t enter the fray of big angry threads on other blogs, but it is excrutiatingly uncomfortable to watch, even from a distance.
    It is difficult to articulate how we best draw the line – because I want feminist discussions to be robust, too, I want them to be passionate, and questioning and personally challenging.. and I also want those marginalised by discussions to be able to say that they’re being marginalised and for others to stick up for them when they do it (and in my own experience I have observed that those who are being directly marginalised by an area of feminism are often incredibly generous in their interactions with others, while one ally to another are often not so). I don’t know what the answer is exactly but I think this discussion is a major step forward.
    Having said all this I will say that there is one big advantage to having such a dog eat dog world in on-line feminism, and that is that you can really cut your teeth on conflict here before you go out and face it in the off-line world by outing yourself as a feminist. But is that really what we were hoping for?

  13. blue milk: I think it’s also absolutely essential to note that the people who are getting by far the most sympathy and attention and mobilisation for being criticised are those who are white, abled, resourced, American, and so on. Many many other more marginalised voices have spoken up or attempted to speak up about being trashed and slammed – but those voices have been silenced, not amplified and held up. None have mobilised a mainstreamblogfeminism-wide effort to say “Hey, we need to do something about this NOW.”

    • Yep, this trashing and slamming has been a huge contributor to the decision by many fine writers to withdraw from blogging in the past, and the reaction from the mainstream blog commentariat has largely been one of *shrugs*.
      It’s one reason we have such a strong hand on the moderation here at Hoyden, too. We want to protect our readers from being confronted by unacceptable content, but we need to protect ourselves from unreasonable demands as well. Otherwise it all just gets too bloody hard.

  14. To clarify the above: asking me to acknowledge when I fuck up due to overlooking my privilege is a totally reasonable demand, even when I find it painful to realise that I’ve fucked up in that particular way.
    Yelling at me/us for not blogging about something you think I/we should have blogged about is an unreasonable demand. Submitting a guest post outline, or suggesting somebody else’s post that we can signal-boost or perhaps cross-post, is a reasonable request.

  15. I’ve been thinking a lot about this conversation, and I remain pretty fundamentally ambivalent about it. I do have a couple of thoughts, though, and one comes from reading Flavia Dzodan’s comments over at Tiger Beatdown. She writes:

    Members of the dominant culture (i.e. “Whites”) go to the blog of a specific member of the dominant culture. They feel represented; this blogger speaks about issues they hadn’t thought about! One of our own who is above most of us and who can provide us with this view from the heights of her awareness! They celebrate their newly found voice. This one person, is, of course, just one individual. And of course, she won’t be able to offer more than (to continue with my metaphor of the prism in my post), a reflection of the facet of the world she inhabits. The members of the dominant culture are not aware of this. Or if they are, they do not care. So, when this one blogger fails (and she will, inevitably, as all of us who put ourselves out there eventually do), she will be eaten alive. Now, every group that has not been represented most likely has a valid complain. However, at this point, the members of the dominant culture who were reading and praising her, distance themselves. They look in bewilderment, nodding at each other and expressing how, indeed, those minority voices have been left out and how they do not have representation. However, also invariably, they will allow this token White blogger to take the fall for it without examining exactly what their role, as media consumers, has been in the fall out. “Oh, she screwed up!” they will mutter and wait for the next post to resume their vitriolic comments about bad grammar and personal anecdote. Their role as passive media consumers is left unexamined. The one person who did put herself out there is shred to pieces (and again, sometimes rightfully so, I am not implying the complains are without warrant). (Sorry it’s long, but I thought it was all important.)

    And this makes me think that there’s a recurring difficulty with negotiating the complicated territory around structural problems and individual responsibility. ‘Privilege’ is meant to recognise that particular identities and bodies are structurally recognised, advantaged, the way smoothed for them. And so we can obviously see privilege at work in, say, ‘the big feminist blogs’, and often in individual behaviours. But this awareness seems to become predominantly about whether or not an individual – too often the blogger in question – is sufficiently modifying her behaviour to make sure she’s making up for, or taking responsibility, for her privilege. Which isn’t a problem – those checks are really important. But the focus does get very nipped in on an individual’s behaviour, and the structural issues – such as the fact that clearly a large bunch of people clearly like reading blogs which are shaped by, say, white privilege, which in turn makes those space extremely hostile to marginalised voices – gets kind of obscured in the focus on this one person’s behaviour. And in contrast, as well, a focus on structure can be a way of disavowing individual responsibility, and there are often elements of that in these kinds of conversations as well. (Personally I think part of the problem is conceiving of the individual and the structure as in opposition when they’re clearly not, but that’s a big big theoretical question!). I think there are things that can and should be done in terms of cross-blog conversations amongst the big blogs, but this can really only happen if a bunch of people acknowledge that structural redress is required for structural problems, rather than just expanding the responsibilities of individuals, responsibilities that wear so much harder on those who are marginalised and, in various ways, have fewer resources. I feel like the fact that structures are made up of people seems to result in a one-by-one kind of politics: change a behaviour here, a behaviour there becomes the aim. Which isn’t wrong, and has obviously been really useful (!! really, it has!), but can play into a bit of a guilt/innocence dynamic around politics (one which, to be clear, I don’t think progressive politics produced; it seems a pretty strong cultural dynamic) which I think is less than helpful for lots of reasons, and can easily make people feel like that’s the beginning and end of their responsibility – responsibility as an individual.
    I guess when I look at the whole Feminism FOR REAL discussion over at Shameless , I kind of think that while the call-out was useful and legitimate, Jessica Yee’s response at Racialicious did a much better job of identifying the structural issues around feminism and race, opening out the question of whether ‘you are for real’ (a question of individual behaviour) to larger structures that persist in not getting addressed. And I suspect that part of why they don’t quite get addressed is the focus on guilt/innocence of individual behaviour (the ‘best activist’ tendencies that have been identified in some of the comments floating around the place). As Dzodan points out, focussing on individual responsibility can obscure the larger structural dynamics in which we’re all, in very different ways, implicated.
    I don’t know if any of this is interesting or useful, really. I guess it’s partly to ask whether some of the worn-ness that Jill seems to be speaking to might be about a bit more than a tantrum about continually being told she needs to ‘check her privilege,’ and more a result of the effect that individualism has on the way current progressive politics seems to function? And whether that individualism is something that could be more explicitly addressed and countered in ways that might sustain the participation and inclusion of marginalised voices in feminism more generally? Eh, I can’t work out if I’ve just tangled myself up or not ;-P

  16. lauredhel – yes, fair point. And I watched that with enormous frustration. Now that the conversation has begun I want to be part of it.
    WP – I love your point about individualism being part of the problem with what is happening here. I think you’re spot on.

  17. As I read somewhere last night (Facebook?) men aren’t considered to have failed because they don’t all agree with each other. I won’t ask why the double standard.

    Actually, I think the double standard is an important note in this dynamic–men aren’t expected to agree because they’re the default, they’re not the Other. The Others should obviously be a monolith.
    WildlyParenthetical, I also love your point about individualism. It’s one of the things I struggle with considering my actions through a lens of “Did I treat that person differently because they’re black/fat/disabled/etc.?* Or did I treat them the way I would have treated anyone else who I encountered on that day?” Can I ever really tell the difference? How do my individual actions contribute to systemic discrimination and silencing?
    *I have tried to give up the premise that I am not racist, ableist, fatphobic, or any other -ist one wishes to try on. In a society that privileges those who are young, white, thin, cis, etc. it’s impossible to have not internalized a lot of that crap.

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