Re-Post: Feminist Reading Tools for Recognizing and Dismantling Intersectional Oppressions

I am still really sick, so instead of original content, I am re-posting this post from 2008 in solidarity with Breeze Harper’s suggestion in the comments that all (as in you, me, and everyone) vegan activists might benefit from doing some reading and reflecting on whiteness and social movements.

peer women’s retreat/unattributed

This post was originally written in response to issues of whiteness around the feminist blogosphere that were fracturing the way women who support, and actively work for, women’s rights saw themselves and their engagement. The result of that conflict was that many of the radical woc who brought me to the internet no longer identify as feminist while the women whose privilege initiated the conflict remain the most oft-linked to by both academic and activist circles as examples of feminism on the net. The outcome, though disheartening, reminds us why it is so easy to avoid intersectionality and to claim that people “are too mean”  or “too invested in identity politics” rather than look at one’s own actions: structural oppression is designed to reward individuals engaged in privilege-evasiveness and/or oppression. This is why PHC says there is a Matrix of Domination with multiple levels that hold each other in place, so that it is never about individual actions in a vaccuum nor can we address larger issues without also engaging individuals (and what she calls symbolic oppression or what most Marxists call hegemonic and most Lit folks call signs and signifiers). Being engaged in creating a just world requires an ever expanding body of knowledge that challenges everyone at multiple points in their activism but it is the willingness to meet those challenges head on and with the same commitment to justice that brought one into activism in the first place that truly is the measure of social justice. Change is as simple as wearing a red t-shirt instead of a blue one, Justice means whether you wear a shirt or not, regardless of its color, you will be taken seriously and afforded an equal place in our society. For vegans that means animals and people together, not equality amongst peoples over animals; for intersectional vegans it also means equality for all people and all animals, not just some people and some or all animals. Which ever politik you subscribe to, the work is hard, and requires self-reflexion and the willingness to fail and to listen to get it right. In my mind, it also requires an immense amount of patience and faith and the willingness to “walk a mile with” another person and to know deep down that no matter what your politics, the wrongs you have endured, or the change work you’ve engaged in, you can be wrong or in the process of doing the right thing, you can go about it the wrong way.

For many activists this means knowing the layers and levels of whiteness and how they intersect with issues of gender, class, ability, sexuality, etc. For others it means healing from the war wounds of living lives in those intersections. The original list, re-posted below with one modification, was written to give or expand the language those of us who are marginalized have to name our marginalization and how it works, and to give those who often deny various forms of marginalization in order to avoid the “earthquake” that comes from knowing you benefit from an unjust system or you have engaged in it in some way, the ability to see and name their actions and understand how individual behaviors are encouraged and upheld by a system much larger than any one person’s intent. It was not meant to blame or shame but rather to give us common language with which to speak across the storm.

So here are the readings I suggested in May 2008, as I said, each relates to race because when I compiled the list racism and whiteness were the key issues causing people to stumble:

The List:

  • Yamato’s “Something About the Subject Makes it Hard to Name,” Anzaldua & Moraga. This Bridge Called My Back. – this essay outlines types of racism including “unintentional” and intentional and breaks down how they work, why they are part of a system of oppression, and gives examples. For people struggling with “I didn’t mean it” or “I am a good person” issues this is a really great essay to think about intentionality. For people trying to talk to people with those issues, it is an important tool in helping them see the problems in their actions/denials.
  • Anzaldua’s “Now Let Us Shift” Anzaldua & Keating. This Bridge We Call Home. – This essay talks about the path we all take in coming to consciousness. It is great because it shows the path is not linear nor does it stop at “enlightenment,” people can become enlightened and then get scared or experience a loss of privilege that often comes with fighting against oppression and go back to an earlier stage of consciousness or become enlightened about one thing but still need to work on others. It is a good piece for mapping out the fears and the process AND helping people to understand that making mistakes or finding lapses does not mean you have to throw in the towel and give up or that doing good work elsewhere does not mean they don’t exist. For anyone who has ever struggled, made a mistake, or failed, when confronting oppression this is a great piece.
  • Collins “the matrix of domination”section from “Black Feminist Thought in a Transnational Context” in Black Feminist Thought. – This piece is the classic tome on how race, gender, and class intersect and is part of a larger chapter contextualizing black feminist thought from PHC’s perspective using both sociological and historical information. The matrix provide a key theory to understanding intersectionality but should really be read in the context of the entire chapter before being pulled out for its singular import so as to avoid the ways that many key terms and theories, particularly from feminists of color, are repeatedly taken out of context and watered down until they have lost all real, known, meaning. The section and chapter look specifically at black women’s experiences of oppression but the matrix is a key metaphor for understanding how oppressions work together at the state, local, and individual levels.
  • Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” (available online and on this blog, tho I cannot find my link to it) – This piece is similar to Collins except that it takes the discussion out of the black experience and expands the levels of oppression up one to colonialism or the international level. Smith critically examines the meaning of “women of color” as essentially “not white” which erases our differences and the specificity of our racial oppression(s). She also discusses heterosexism and how it exists in both dominant and marginalized communities, including activist communities, as part of a larger system of domination and how it too must be addressed and dismantled on all sides in order to combat oppression.
  • Bailey’s “Locating Traitorous Identities” various anthologies – This piece is really heady philosophy and may not be the most accessible of the bunch. However it does talk about privilege with regards to whiteness and heterosexuality. It expands on the idea of reclaiming “race traitor” as a good thing – ie being traitorous to white supremacy – and mapping out some other steps for white people to make the critical shift to ally.
  • Frye’s “Oppression” (updated version- not the online one – where she tries to address the heterosexism in her first version) – its metaphor of the bird cage where oppressions intersect and reinforce like a cage so that moving one oppression does not make enough space for oppression(s) to be dismantled has always been effective in my classes. It is a good piece for people who continue to argue “there is so much to do in feminism, I can only focus on ________” or “gender-only can free all women.”
  • Schutte “Cultural Alterity,” Naryan, et al. Decentering the Center. Another piece that might not be as accessible to all readers but does a great job of mapping out the kinds of disconnects that happen in cross-cultural communication between white women and women of color. It looks at all kinds of assumptions about intentions, intelligence, importance, etc. that get in the way of successful communication even when everyone thinks they have done their work on becoming aware of/ dismantling oppression. It is a great piece for thinking through what went wrong and how not to do it again.
(I outlined part of Schutte’s argument in the comment section on my post about class antagonism in veganism because the person banned from my blog was engaging in several of the things Schutte points out. Among them, was her insistence on calling me “non-vegan” because we disagree about the scope of vegan activism and inciting her readers to hate on me accordingly while referencing my partner, and subsequently my sexuality. While I have been told the heinously heteronormative and potentially homophobic act of calling up my partner and the offensive language use to redefine my blog were removed from a subsequent draft, no apology was offered nor was the “non-vegan” label and the offenses associated with it, including musing about “what type of person” I am, removed. It is one of the most classic examples of the kind of discourse Schutte deconstructs in her essay which includes:
  1. assuming you know better than the person you are talking to about what they do or do not know
  2. assuming that your experience is universal and therefore is the measuring stick for the truth value of anyone else’s experience
  3. centering your own discussion in a conversation that is about other things and demanding that others re-center that conversation around you
  4. attempting to force others to engage you when they have made it clear that they do not want to and expecting others to help you enforce their participation)
  • (special mention) Eli Clare’s “Introduction” Exile and Pride. He works at the intersections of trans, disability, class, location, and sexuality in this book and has a really good piece deconstructing whiteness and the class and location of whiteness in the book itself that I think are important. I include the “intro” in this list however because of the metaphor of the mountain and how it talks about the process expected of people on the margin to reach the center. It helps to show that no matter how far removed or how close you are to the center that the system is designed to hold everything in place, so that if white women don’t confront racism or do so only when it is not about the racism of their immediate friends or themselves, or only if it does not interfere with the ways they benefit from supremacy, than they ultimately cheat themselves by thinking they can reach the top of the mountain by buying into oppression. (The metaphor is also a good way for making sense of what goes wrong for all marginalized groups who think they are making headway and then suddenly get thrown back down the trial.)

There is a more varied list of material in this vein in the Historical Reading list as well and anyone is welcome to post readings there they think are “must reads” for decolonizing the mind.

Unless otherwise indicated MATERIAL IS NOT AVAILABLE ONLINE.

3 thoughts on “Re-Post: Feminist Reading Tools for Recognizing and Dismantling Intersectional Oppressions

  1. Pingback: More on classism, and some thoughts on ableism, within vegan movements « Vegans of Color

  2. Prof, do you have a link for the “Now Let Us Shift” piece? I’ve tried in vain to locate a copy on the ‘Net, but, unless one has access to scholarly reading venues, one can’t read it. If you are able to provide a link, it would be very much appreciated. 🙂

    • it’s not available on internet, but I am fixing the other 2 links now & will add my poor quality copy of the essay as well.

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