I teach a book called Thinking Class by Joanna Kadi in several of my upper division courses. Near the end of the book, Kadi has two essays that tend to make the middle class students uncomfortable and resistant. In the first, she takes liberal queer culture to task for failing to address the needs and issues of rural and working class GLBTQI people and failing to represent them as part of the popular meaning of “queer.” And while she focuses very clearly on class and location in this particular essay, the issues of race and gender always have a theoretical presence in the work. While she may be guilty of essentializing “queer culture” to make her point about the essentialism of the mainstream queer movement, she gives an astute analysis of erasure from the left that depends on a certain image of the “right” to succeed.
The second essay that upsets them, argues that classism and elitism on the left in general disproportionately impacts women and people of color. Even movements that claim to represent the interests of women and people of color, ignore or erase the needs, struggles, and core activism of poor and/or rural women and poc. Using country music and example, she argues that the disdain for country music is indicative of a top down analysis on the left. She points to how country music is often a vehicle for poor women to escape poverty and male domination. In deconstructing the lyrics of various artists, she illustrates how country music is often a place where both men and women discuss misogyny, domestic violence, and rape and where many artists embed feminist anthems against these and other forms of gender oppression. She talks about the consciousness raising experience of living isolated area, under thumb of an abuser or surviving socially caused poor self-esteem, and hearing the voice over the radio reflecting ones experience and saying women are strong, beautiful, smart, etc. and that abuse is not ok. And she marks clearly the failure of feminism to recognize these critiques or to incorporate their authors into the canon, choosing instead to vilify those who listen.
At the heart of both her essays is the idea that the left is capable of and culpable in oppression. That one of the ways they avoid responsibility or reflection is to create a particular image of the oppressor that so otherized as to render liberal culture perpetually innocent. So in the case of country music, country music and its primary producers become synonymous with “more racist,” “more sexist,” “more homophobic,” and “ignorant.” In the case of “face of queer culture,” urban centers become salvation from the “backward,” “violent,” and “more homophobic” rural areas. And liberalism in general becomes imminently tied to capitalism as these and other stereotypes champion bourgeois accoutrement as freedom. (Think about classic gentrification as an example. Or watch Logo for a day. The assumption of affluence embedded in the public definition of queer undermines the struggle that many queer youth, queers of color, lesbians, and working class queers in general endure.) The other way that they avoid change is because of the good that they do and the endless supply of examples of people on the right doing horribly oppressive things that make the stereotype ring true even to people who have learned that universal statements seldom reflect the diverse realities in which we live.
The point she is making is not one of blame, ie she rejects the idea of “more oppressive” vs. “less oppressive” and instead looks at how differences in oppression are erased or held constant in order to exempt certain groups from responsibility. At the heart of her critique is the idea that the rural-poorly-educated-gun-toting-red-neck in his country-music-blaring-pick-up-truck is as much an invention of the left as the right. That as long as racism is a burning a cross, social change workers do not have to confront how their own social circles and institutions are devoid of people of color or only have one or two. As long as homophobia is a truckload of guys w/chaw and bats, social change workers do not have to confront how their strategies may increase homophobia againstmarginalized communities who do not benefit from the currently highest ranked causes. (As one of my students, who does research on the gay marriage movement, has argued: the idea that marriage equality will benefit everyone by extending health insurance to millions of currently uninsured people, assume that everyone is currently working full time and working for companies that provide affordable insurance.)
In 1963, James Baldwin addressed this similar divide in a documentary called Take This Hammer in which he showed that the plight of black people in San Francisco was no less dire than in the South or in Harlem. He interviewed several black men about their experiences of racism and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that racism was not a matter of degrees measure by ones proximity to liberal or conservative politics but rather regional differences that amounted to oppression nonetheless. San Franciscans rallied against the documentary claiming that Baldwin had simply ignored alternative perspectives in order to highlight “angry black men.” The gay community was particularly concerned about what it meant to have a black gay man calling a place they had made into an “oasis” a place peopled by those just as capable of racism as anywhere else. Their desire to insulate themselves against this critical critique had two important ramifications:
- Take This Hammer was suppressed. It received limited air time by the public television channel that had funded it and quickly disappeared on to a shelf somewhere. Its recent reclamation was largely spear headed by Darryl Cox of SFSU who argued endlessly over years to get it remastered and back into circulation. Without his work, this film would still be lost under the blanket of liberal denial.
- The failure of a queer mecca and its liberal allies to reflect on racism and make a change allowed for the continued denial of racism amongst both liberals and queers. Actually addressing the issue and making changes might have prevented any number of modern day conflicts within the our community/communities and would have set the tone for the rest of the liberals in this nation.
Ultimately, my students, regardless of class, dislike looking in a mirror just as much as anyone else. Kadi’s essays are hard to teach, and often I lose a handful of people when these essays are assigned. But for those willing to reflect on what it means to really decolonize one’s mind and one’s praxis, these essays are essential, as is Baldwin’s documentary. Perhaps more importantly, they provide a space for marginalized people in the class, who have learned to be silent about their experiences when they differ from centered ones in the liberal imaginary, the strength to speak out. Every year, I learn something new about a country music feminist or a rural queer network that will never grace the pages of Signs or even the watered down musings of BAs in WS who somehow speak for the discipline on Feministing. And every year, I think about how sad it is that we are so invested in the master’s tools that we cannot give up the discourse of us and them long enough to actually create a space for all of us.
When my middle class students lose their cookies over these readings, I ask them to open a liberal magazine and count the number of poc, rural, poor, differently-abled, etc. people on the Editorial Board, writers, and depicted in the magazine. (I hand out magazines I pick up at feminist and queer bookstores in my travels, most of which they recognize.) Then I ask them to distinguish between regular writers and guest writers, free lance and featured writers, and between images that exoticize, reinforce oppression (like starving kids in Africa as the only black people in the mag or suffering differently-abled elder women they are asking you to donate to as the only depictions of differently-abled people or elders), or are out of step with the content (ie a multi-culti, gender inclusive, picture that accompanies an article that only address middle class white gay men’s experiences). I am always happy when someone finds the exception but seldom surprised when the majority stare slack jawed at their results and have to “rethink [race, gender, sexuality, and] class.”
- htp Kenyon Farrow for hipping me to the fact the Baldwin Doc is on the internet
- Loretta Lynn, considered the first woman to sing about birth control and its meaning for women’s freedom, image unattributed
- Camp Out/ High Mountain Ranch, a site recommended by the rural queer network
- Brian and Justin/ Showtime 2005 (you know I love QAF, but you get my point)
- James Baldwin in NYC/unattributed
- Lovers and Friends promo shot/unattributed
- Ode Magazine cover