Quote of the Week: Guerilla Mama on Communication

if white folks need to hear the analysis and words of poc from other white lips in order to give those words value.  then nothing that the white person says is going to dismantle their personal racism because they are using their racism as a boundary as to who is worth listening to and who is not.

Guerilla Mama

I chose this quote for this week b/c I recently bumped into an “anti-racist,” feminist, former student. She is now thankfully employed and on her way to tenure.  And I say thankfully, both because this economy is killing our best and brightest and because she works very hard to create an inclusive classroom and pedagogical strategies. Unfortunately, those strategies are based on a certain school of diversity that I think changes very little in our world and yet has been embraced by not only dominant culture but the some people on the margins as well. (In fact, my student learned most of her anti-racism from qwoc and that includes multiple models and yours truly.)

She wanted to talk about Dr. Crackhead and the race, gender, and sexuality tensions we had all experienced at one time or another under her reign.  She explained that her new institution also had a Dr. Crackhead (which made me chuckle b/c don’t they all?) and that she was regreting being on a special committee with her. As she talked, and I mostly nodded, she explained how she had “once again been put in the position of having to repeat everything that her colleagues of color said in the meetings in order to get her Dr. C to hear anything they said.”  It was a complaint she had made to me before about a feminist organization in which she had poured her heart and soul during graduate school only to watch all of the women of color and several of the radical white women leave the group. She had lamented,”I want to leave but if I go, who will speak for the woc in the group?!” 

My response then and now is the same “can the subaltern speak?”

If we look to the leadership in the three situations in which she used this tactic (her feminist org, our staff meetings, and her new special project meetings) the answer is decidedly: NO.  In each case, women of color were silenced for no other reason than being woc. Whether they sat silently in these meetings, refusing to be ignored, or offered their knowledge and/or expertise, they were spoken over or after as if they were not there at all. And whether this was a complete erasure or a patronizing one (where occassionally a woc is called on to speak or acknowledged incredulously as if they have just arrived), it is a strategy that ultimate renders woc voiceless and invisible. It is also a strategy that ultimately reinforces allegiance to white privilege by silently requiring the white members of the group to ignore or erase what is going on or risk their own social ostracism.  Most “good people” respond to this test by remaining silent and then apologizing for it after the meeting or event, as if an apology erases their complicity.

My former student was taught not to be complicit. She understood that sitting quietly by, or participating fully in, such meetings made her complicit in racism.  However, her strategy, leaves me with the same answer to Spivak’s ever present question: NO. 

Her strategy is based on the assumption that we, woc, cannot speak for ourselves. Rather than object to the system or person that silences us and work toward changing it, her strategy makes it possible by entering our contribution into the formal record while continue our erasure. Since she speaks for us, by simply repeating what we have already said, they are able to public acknowledge the information on the table while continuing to ignore those who offered it.  It also continues the overall allegiance to whiteness, because the public acknowledgment of what was said is not accompanied by an acknowledgment of the person who first said it. Instead, as was the case with this student-turned-colleague, the accolades for years of hard earned expertise went to her or to other white people using the same strategy in the room and not to the woc. For her, those accolades translated into increased responsibility at the feminist organization and in the department. They ultimately garnered her the experience and reputation that led to her current position, a position I believe she ultimately deserves b/c she is a brilliant mind and a compassionate soul, but was gained through a system of privilege. 

Because her choice never challenged the system itself, she also inadvertently extended its reach. Imagine the notes from a meeting in which a TA comes up with endless innovative ideas and curricular expansion and all of the white members of the faculty expand on them, but the woc appear to have contributed nothing.  How much easier will it be to deny their contributions to the department come tenure or advancement time if you can point to a student and say “look at all she gave, while you did nothing”?  And this is exactly how things ran under Dr. C and exactly how I expect they run under her new Dr. C in her new uni.

Finally, as the quote of the week illustrates, this strategy does not require the oppressor to confront their behavior and change.  When a privileged person (regardless of what privilege it is) chooses only to hear the words and wisdom of people with privilege than you do nothing to dismantle their bigotry by accepting their terms of engagement. In other words, if a white woman needs to say something a woman of color said first in order for the white woman in charge to hear it, that is still racist because the white woman in charge is still only listening to other white people.

While prefacing “As our woc colleague just said,” is one strategy that might make repetition less complicit, it still does not change the fact that woc are silenced, unless you follow it through by ensuring that the woc then has room to speak, encourage others to use the same strategy, and ultimately make it impossible for them to be ignored.  But that strategy requires disloyalty to whiteness that allies are seldom willing to take on b/c there is very little benefit to them (they don’t get to be the “one person who gets it,” the “hero,” or reap the accolades for other women’s work while claiming allyship). There is however considerable loss at stake for such a strategy, since the person in charge may simply label you a race traitor (in the Bailey sense of the word) and then ostracize you right alongside the woc.  And it is this fear of lost privilege masquerading as allyship that often allows people to justify complicity on the left. One can always argue “But if I am silenced then no one is standing up” even if your version of standing up is ultimately patronizing and barely moving you out of your chair.

I encourage you all to go read the rest of Mama’s post and to think about your own anti-oppression strategies.  Start with these questions:

  • Is what you are doing actually changing the dynamic?
  • Is what you are doing opening space for oppressed groups to speak and act as equals?
  • Are you taking needed risks to build your own career or your own base of support or to stand in solidarity with others?  Has the end result been solely the boost in your own career and base?
  • What are both short term and long term goals that will fundamentally shift the dynamics in your meetings/organizations/etc. toward equality?

And please, don’t adopt the other strategy that seems all to common in this particular kind of diversity model, the “listening and learning” model, which is equally patronizing. In the same way that you talk to someone whose major is pre-med when yours is early modern lit, is the way you should talk to people across difference. Meaning, they have certain expertise that you do not, and their experiences may even seem completely incredible or hard to understand, but you acknowledge that they are coming from a completely different space than you and you try to learn from and engage them. At the same time, you have expertise and experiences that are equally unknown to them and they try to engage you from a similar space of learning and respect.  No one takes a back seat to anyone else but neither does anyone claim a right to speak about something they do not know or the right to judge something they do not understand.  To put it in gender terms: Whether you are infantilized by your boyfriend ordering your food for you at a restaurant or infantilized by telling your father something important about your day only to have him kiss you on the forehead and say “that’s nice” and then continue what he is doing, you are still rendered an infant.

4 thoughts on “Quote of the Week: Guerilla Mama on Communication

  1. Susurro, I agree with this whole analysis. But as to tactics I note that you’ve assigned all of the agency to white people and then given them instructions on how to behave or else. How is that going to work, exactly? I see the point of specifying perfect confederacy, but what, if any, opportunities does imperfect confederacy create?

    • I’m not a big fan of that agency word when it comes to the kinds of oppressions discussed in this post. (I was once at a whole conference derailed by an argument about Saarje Baartman’s agency for instance.) To me, in this instance assigning agency assumes that there is someone else responsible for racism beyond the people who are perpetrating, allowing, or benefiting from it. Instead, what I have done is said in a system in which white people from the left and the right are participating in oppression it is the responsibility of white people to check themselves and stop the behavior instead of patting themselves on the back when they actually veer slightly off the normal course. In other words, it is not really about agency. It’s about a diversity model that upholds oppression and who is responsible for that model and for changing it & in my mind that is not the target of oppression.

      I’m confused about what you mean by “confederacy.” At its most basic, feminism claims to be about the empowerment of all women and anti-racism claims to confront and dismantle racism. So in the instance provided neither of these things is being done, therefore there is no alliance strategic or otherwise except to whiteness. It’s like the example of the math major and the lit major I use in the conclusion, we can talk to each other as equals from a place of respect and understanding for our differences or we can insulate ourselves and mb invite the math major to give a lecture once in a while and then get back to the real business of unpacking Jane Austin. If I am missing what you mean by “imperfect confederacy” and/or “confederacy,” which I fear I am, break down a little for me and I’ll see if I can better get at it the second time around.

  2. Susurro, my apologies for my sketchy reply. Thanks for letting me try to figure out what I mean better.

    First, by ‘agency’ I do not mean ‘blame’. I realize the two slide together as soon as oppression is the topic, but in general I don’t think individuals control structures. I like ‘responsibility’ much better, and you can always shut me up for a second with that concept. It’s the protestantism. At another level, though, I think there’s nothing worse than holding people responsible for things they can’t control. One of the figments of the subaltern imagination is that people closer to the center have all sorts of power to control situations (‘privilege’) that they may or may not actually have, and usually perceive they don’t. We may well hold them accountable for the inaccuracies of their perceptions about their own power, but who fully understands their own power?

    By ‘confederacy’ I mean the attempt to be of help. Your former student’s confederacy is imperfect, and it makes sense to perfect it. But in the meantime, what opportunities does her imperfect confederacy create? I do not at all agree that her only alliance is to whiteness. That’s movement dogma. She’s what happens when we’re half-way there. She’s trying to do good and that opens a door. Will she smash racism? No. Would she be good to have in the room for a poc who wanted to take full advantage of having an ally? Of course. Is she better than nothing in a totally racist environment? Fortunately, that question isn’t even worth asking.

    These are just my thoughts from the field.

    • I haven’t forgotten you Carl. My response is quite long and I am hoping to pare it all down before posting. I will say this, I think you are confusing the concept of “white innocence” (Russo) with a “figment of subaltern imagination” and “responsibility” with complicity intentional or otherwise (Yamada). And I think you’ve missed where the subject-object relationship is in the scenarios provided since “the door opened” is between the people already afforded subjecthood not an end to objectification for those who are not (Hurtado). Does this amount to blaming a student for not fomenting revolution in the middle of a staff meeting where the terms of oppression were dictated by the chair, of course not. I hope my prose was clear enough in the post to indicate the complexity of the situation without, as I refuse to do when I write, becoming an apologist for white privilege on the left in order to elucidate how certain models of liberalism reinforce hegemony and/or supremacy. If not, that too will take longer to address; however, I would say that shifting the reading from one of “who is to blame” to one of how are systems reinforced and/or who benefits might get at the nuances. Ultimately my post isn’t about overt racism, it is about deconstructing systems and critiquing useless models in which privilege evasiveness (Bailey) is one of many things highlighted.

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