As I shared in a previous post, I have been reading Colonize This! with fervor and enthusiasm for a couple of weeks now. In my WGSS Senior Seminar, we have discussed extensively the complications of reading this text as a white-identified person; I am not the intended audience as outlined in the essays, nor as defined in most women of color feminisms. However, I struggle with my alienation from these texts, because on emotionally real and visceral levels, they resonate with day-to-day experiences I have had as a feminist, as a student, and as a woman. It is too simple to merely highlight difference or draw a line where my experiences end as a white woman and where theirs begin as women of color; it is also too simple to take advantage of our similarities and shared knowledges as women dealing with similar gender-based oppressions. My professor, Sonita Sarker, assured us that this messy space between camaraderie and respectful distance is okay – and she urged us to consider that while the text may be provoking our acknowledgment of white privilege, it also might be provoking us to engage in a dialogue about whiteness as it is racialized (not as a neutral default or non-race).
So this is my attempt to speak from my position as a white, middle-class, woman, who has to negotiate the everyday experience of these identities while also practicing a feminist perspective. I want to hold myself accountable by acknowledging my privilege, but I don’t want to assume that my experiences of oppression are therefore invalid. I want to live in the mess of what it means to be a feminist, who cannot always combat sexist or racist encounters with a cool wit or charisma; who cannot always muster the courage or energy to confront people who have hurt me; who is not an expert, but a careful listener and deeply sensitive being; who makes mistakes, that I can only promise to try and learn from.
Every week for the past eight months, I have taken the hour-long commute on the 21 westbound bus from Saint Paul to my boyfriend’s house in South Minneapolis. Most of the time (maybe sixty-percent of the time, when it’s not negative blank degrees outside), I genuinely enjoy the unique solitude I find on the bus, surrounded by strangers and a self-consciousness that feels safe to explore in this setting. I find myself thinking more about my class and race privilege on the bus than I do in school sometimes, and more about how I can articulate my feminism in a way that can materialize in real-life benefits for people other than myself. Which sometimes makes getting off the bus, at a stop that is a ten-minute walk from my boyfriend’s home, a rough transition into the depressing realities of my position as a woman. And this is where I hesitate to say, “as a white woman,” but where I NEED to in order to understand how the racialization and sexualization of my body socially construct my identity – via both privilege and discrimination.
I have been catcalled or sexually harassed walking down the street more times than are worth counting; this is not something specific to me, but to all women (street/online harassment are not the focus of my musings here, but there is an abundance of scholarship and personal writings about this issue out there that I encourage everyone to explore). Usually, my tactic for surviving these situations with as much dignity as possible is pure denial; I look ahead, keep a straight face and a quick stride. But some of the most layered, twisted, and confusing harassment I have experienced is from Black men in South Minneapolis, who call me out on my whiteness while degrading and mocking my sex.
Today I had the interesting and rare opportunity to take an hour social dance lesson at a neighborhood studio,Cinema Ballroom in Saint Paul. A couple of weeks ago, my professor for my WGSS Senior Seminar revealed that she has been taking dance classes, and that a Macalester professor invited her and our class to join his Behavioral Neuroscience class in a dance lesson; his students were discussing the neuroscience of dance. We enthusiastically RSVPed YES, thinking it would be a nice break from heavy theory and talking about gender - wow, were we wrong.
This week in my Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Senior Seminar we started reading an anthology of essays called Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism (2002). The collection is edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman, with a foreword by Cherrie Moraga - it is a response to and an expansion of both This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) and Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (2001). The essays featured in Colonize This! are all written by women of color, and highlight their individual experiences with white, middle-class feminisms that live in the academy, as well as their experiences negotiating their multiple identities, honoring their mothers and re-defining feminism, and creating new communities around these conflicts and realities. I have to say that so far, I absolutely love this collection, because it is not only radical and relevant, but utilizes accessible language.
That being said, in my class today, we discussed the complications of being a white reader of a book that is intended for a "women of color" audience. While there is an immediate emotional connection that I made with these essays (as a woman, as a feminist, as a budding activist), I have to acknowledge and interrogate my position of privilege, and be careful to not consume these real material experiences of women of color. We talked about the importance of acknowledging one's personal contributions to theories of feminism like this: what genealogies went into making me, as a white feminist? How did these layered histories contribute to/demand the formation of theories of difference and women of color feminisms? How can I use this text to inform the ways I want to complicate and move away from these histories of colonization, oppression, privilege, and white feminisms?
I finally got to watch PBS' new documentary charting the women's rights movement in America (thanks PBS for posting the entire 3 hour film online for us to enjoy here). As much as I (someone majoring in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) or anyone else may know about the eruption of second wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s, it is still powerful to reflect on these histories. The film does a great job of featuring countless interviews with men and women, including people involved in organizations that countered feminist movements (pro-life activists, anti-ERA activists, etc). It is impossible to feature every aspect of a social movement, especially one as far-reaching and revolutionary as the women's liberation movement - which affected men, women, children, the economy, popular culture, law, education policies, labor rights, etc. However, I was a bit disappointed with the gentle highlight of women of color and their response to the second wave, which I think could have been better handled; especially considering that these fierce conversations between women of color feminisms and tradtionally white, middle-class feminism are what brought on the third wave. As many others have recognized, I also wish that the film had ventured into the late 1990s up until now, with young feminist movements and their utilization of the Internet (hello!). Perhaps they will continue making segments of "Makers," and continue this story, but for now, here are some articles and reviews that I find critical to the film:
Last Friday the exhibit "Ornament and Crime" opened at Macalester College's beautiful new art gallery. The artist, Parastou Forouhar, gave a lecture yesterday about her work - how it creates a new imagined space for the immigrant or refugee, how language lends itself to memory, and how she seeks to address the sexuality and violence often "normalized" by ornamental signs in visual culture. For me, her talk highlighted how her work can be interpreted as feminist in nature, seeing as it disrupts the dominant narratives of language, history, geography, and sexuality.
For the past two years, I have been working at Macalester College's Annual Fund as a student caller. The donations and support that flow into the Annual Fund are some of the most important to campus life, seeing as they make the college's budget flexible and adaptable to the community's needs. Luckily for me, the Director of the Annual Fund, Danielle Nelson, graduated from Macalester in 2005 with a B.A. in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). I decided to pick her brain and ask her some questions about her post-college life, and how her gender studies education and personal feminism are still vital to her being.
I think that the work that the Annual Fund does to support the college inevitably supports individual students and their lifelong pursuits; in this way, I can identify the work that we do in the office as feminist at its core. Thanks to Danielle and everyone else for all of the hard work you put into maintaining Macalester College as a place where creativity, education, and diversity thrive - without your TLC and abundance of spirit, I would not have had the opportunity to study at Macalester and grow into my feminist identity.
How did you decide to declare a WGSS major? Was there a specific incident/class/professor that inspired you to study this?
Danielle: I declared WGSS my first year at Mac and took 4 classes my first year. I came to Mac knowing I'd be WGSS. I grew up in a feminist household and came to Macalester like so many students do--with a desire to change the world. When I was in high school, I was a mentor to young girls who were neglected or generally unappreciated and it really opened my eyes to the reality of inequality. This is not the typical path for a student though.
Did you have a favorite class at Mac (in WGSS or another department)?
Danielle: I ended up focusing a lot of studies on trans and intersex studies. I was a TA for Scott Morgensen's trans and intersex studies course, which I really enjoyed. Sonita (Sarker)'s Senior Seminar really challenged my writing and thinking and though maybe not my favorite, it was essential capstone experience. Also, Karen Warren's ecofeminist courses shook me to the core.
Last month, Professor Lara Nielsen was denied tenure at Macalester College. When Lara announced the news to our Performing Feminisms course in the last class session of the semester, everyone was in disbelief. Her news made us question what we know about decision-making processes on campus, like tenure review, and started a conversation about where Macalester-as-an-institution's values lie. Initial anger and tears turned to an overwhelming need to act, and ignited a community movement both on campus and in the alumni-diaspora to repeal this decision; to speak truth to power; to fight for a professor who has deeply impacted so many student lives.
As a student of Lara's, I could wax on about how wonderful a professor she is; how her curriculum alone rekindled my interest in making art, how her courses inspired me to declare my Critical Theory Concentration, and how she introduced me to the vibrant theatre community that thrives in the Twin Cities.
But, if I engage the eternal optimist that lives at the center of my feminist beliefs, what I have found empowering about this devastating news that she might leave (be fired from) our school, is the surge of student involvement and passion that followed. This is the first time that I have participated in a movement to repeal a decision that the college has made, and it has opened up a space for community that was not previously accessible to me. I am touched and inspired by my peers, who have already mobilized to support Professor Lara Nielsen at all costs. I know that at the very least, she must be proud, because she is the one who instilled in us the feminist values of collaboration, voice, shared experience, and live art movements that seek social change.
Story City presents: My First Time
Thursday, Jan. 24th from 7-9pm
The Loft Literary Center ( 1011 Washington Avenue South, Open Book, Suite 200 - Minneapolis, MN)
Free (donations welcomed)
Macalester College alumni Jemma Brown '11 and Lara Avery '10 started their nomadic story-telling experience, Story City MN, last year. According to their Facebook page, "the goal of Story City is to provide a platform for artists, performers, writers and everyone in between to come together once a month and share stories with members of their Twin Cities community." Past events have been hosted at a garden on East Hennepin Avenue, Boneshaker Books, The Nomad Bar, a plot at Stone's Throw Urban Farm, and Honey.
As an audience member and friend, I think of Story City MN as a feminist endeavor. Their utilization of a variety of spaces and places in the Twin Cities fosters a warm sense of community. By occupying different locations, these events highlight how stories exist everywhere, especially in a vibrant city like Minneapolis. It allows us to bear witness to other peoples' lived experiences, and encourages sharing, collaboration, and hope. Everyone is encouraged to submit and tell stories; at the last Story City I attended, they included a segment where they picked a guest's name out of a hat and invited them on stage. The spontaneity emphasized how many feminist belief systems empower individuals to create and act on their theoretical learnings.
At first glance, the website PINK Loves Consent appears to be genuine. Could it be that Victoria's Secret is actually starting a campaign raising awareness about sexual violence and rape? It sounds too good to be true, and unfortunately it is.
After further inspection of the website, one finds statistics, a page called 'Then and Now' that calls out misogynist underwear slogans that Victoria's Secret puts on panties and displays an alternative slogan, and some suspiciously photo-shopped looking underwear, but the real giveaway that this site is a commentary on Victoria's Secret is the range of women used to model the 'new campaign. On the home page is a curvy African-American woman, and other pages feature plus-sized white women. All of the women on the website are beautiful, of course, but would Victoria's Secret really go so far as to change their slogans, provide education on healthy sex, AND portray an array of body types? Not likely.
It is obvious this website is attempting to bring awareness to some of the issues with Victoria's Secret, such as the unattainable sizes of the models and promotion of rape culture. Perhaps you're wondering, what is this 'rape culture' I keep mentioning. Well, let me explain:
"Rape culture is a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape."
Some indicators that you may live in a rape culture include: victim blaming, sexual objectification, and trivializing rape. An example of trivializing rape is rape jokes; rape jokes are not only disrespectful and potentially harmful to victims' feelings, but also communicate a social acceptance of rape as a behavior and may communicate to rapists that their actions are acceptable or even normal. In a rape culture, sexual violence towards women is commonplace and women's bodies are regarded as sexually available by default.
While there is some debate over whether or not America constitutes a rape culture, personally I believe that it doesn't take a whole lot of thought and observation to recognize that it does. Rape culture is a problem because the behaviors that characterize it are correlated with not only increased sexual violence, but also increased racism, homophobia, ageism, classism, and other forms of discrimination.
The Minnesota Women's Consortium is the largest statewide network of women's groups in the nation, currently serving 170 member organizations. The Consortium's purpose is to achieve equality and justice for all women and girls by connecting organizations and individuals that share that goal.