Until there is no “next time”

Yesterday, Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg, Sharlene Khan and myself ran a workshop titled “Radical politics, critical academia: talking the talk, but walking the walk?” at the Critical Diversities conference at Southbank University. We organised it to create a space to discuss the frustration we all feel as well as what we can do to challenge the discrepancy between the “talk” about diversity and social justice in supposedly critical academic disciplines and spaces and the distinct lack of “walking”: the lack of attention to accessibility within academic spaces; the lack of attention to how structural power operates not just ‘out there’ but also ‘in here’; the constrant micro-aggressions and perpetuation of neoliberal logics in spaces where academics are giving papers about resisting them. I am grateful for the conversations and connections we made with other conference participants on these topics both during and after the workshop. Thank you to everyone who participated! Dyi, Sharlene and myself each shared some of our personal reflections at the beginning of the workshop, and below I have copied the text of my talk.

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Feminist academia in Britain has a race problem. No, I’m not talking about every single conference or every single white feminist, but institutionally and systemically the problem persists. I see feminist conferences as spaces where this problem often plays out, and I want to talk about that, from my perspective as a white person researching racism and whiteness within British feminism.

How many times have you been to a feminist conference, looked around the room, and seen a sea of white faces? Since starting my PhD in 2008, I have found that academic feminist conferences – with some exceptions – are some of the whitest spaces I inhabit. I mean this both numerically and politically. On more than a few occasions I have been at feminist conferences where race was not discussed at all, where the fact that 95% of the people in the room were white was not discussed at all. Where it was not until the closing plenary where someone – often a woman of colour – raised the lack of attention to race and racism at the conference, the lack of feminists of colour at the conference, most commonly met with an awkward silence followed by a vague commitment about “next time”, “next year”? But next time it’s always next time. When it comes to race, feminist conferences are like Groundhog Day: the patterns repeating, over and over again.

Not that all the patterns are the same. While some conferences are completely oblivious to race, there are others which are advertised as race-aware; that frame their call for papers around intersectionality and difference. Yet when the day comes, hardly any papers even mention black feminism. Because intersectionality these days has become a free-floating signifier for any two or more identity-categories; a concept which can be used without any acknowledgement of its origins and history. A conceptual frame, as Kimberlé Crenshaw put it earlier this year, which can now be “enjoyed without the female black bodies that originally came with it”.

Then there are the panels and spaces at feminist conferences where we do have conversations about racism in feminism, but where white feelings and white comfort is prioritised. Over and over, I have witnessed and felt the intense resistance from white feminists to actually staying with the discomfort of this conversation, particularly when it means talking about racism within feminism as something which exists in this room. Racism in feminism becomes always located in the past, in the United States, at another event, in FEMEN performing topless jihad in front of a mosque, but never here, now, in this room.

I am aware of my ambiguous position here. I am white, and I both benefit from and resist white supremacy within feminism. I do not stand out at feminist conferences – my presence is not scrutinised; I am assumed to belong. I can choose when I speak about racism and whiteness, when I want to make it an issue. My whiteness means I am also more likely to be heard and listened to by other white feminists when I do speak about it. My PhD is my training to become an expert in feminism and race, and institutional racism means I am more likely to secure a job in these fields. After I have given papers at conferences, I often get praised by other white feminists, who say I’m doing important, challenging work. My whiteness makes it easier for them to talk to me about it. Others get annoyed with me, say I need to “complicate whiteness”, that “not all white feminists are the same”, that I should be talking about class, that it is unfair to critique other feminists’ work the way that I do.

Too many of these conversations centre around white feminists’ feelings and emotional responses. Sarita Srivastava’s research into discussions about racism within feminist organisations is relevant. White feminists responding to anti-racist critiques tend to, she writes:

… speak in an emotional manner about their commitment, hope, solidarity, complicity, guilt, lack of complicity, failure to understand, disbelief, hurt, and anger that they have been accused; tears are the most commonly described reaction. The problem, as the antiracist activists interviewed point out, is not that emotional expression is inherently negative; the problem is that discussions about personnel, decision making, or programming become derailed by emotional protestations that one is not a racist and by efforts to take care of colleagues upset by anti-racist challenges. (Srivastava 2005: 42)

Similar derailments are habitual in academic feminist spaces. There are too many attachments to the identity of feminist as being synonymous with “good person” and therefore “not racist”. Too many conversations which focus on how hard it is for white feminists to understand racism, to even see it.

When people say it is hard, I think it means they haven’t spent enough time trying to learn.

To other white feminists, I want to say: If you avoid talking about race and racism because you are afraid to or because it makes you uncomfortable, then you are perpetuating white supremacy. The way to undo your fear is to learn more about it. Whatever your research interests, whatever your specific field, read black and postcolonial feminist theory, read critical race studies.

None of what I am saying is new or original. It has been said by many feminists of colour before. Understand that women of colour have always been central in the development of feminist theory and praxis.

At our feminist conferences, let’s talk about the racism which is in the room, let’s stay with the discomfort and the uncertainty. And when I say “stay with it”, I don’t mean talk about how uncomfortable you feel – feel it without comment, decentre your white anxiety and guilt.

But don’t stop there. We need to examine the structures, the priorities, the decision making, the power-relationships – in our feminist associations, in our research centres, at our conferences, in our formal and informal feminist networks. Then we need to dismantle all the structures that uphold racism within our communities. Until there is no “next time”.

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“I don’t see race”

Guest post by Anna Sulan Masing

There has been a lot of talk about migration, in view of next year’s elections and in the run up to the recent EU elections. And, as a theatre maker, whose research is around race and gender within performance art, I have also noticed the many discussions of late around race in the media; in film, tv and theatre and how casting sees, or doesn’t see race. The excuse for lack of diversity is often that they ‘cast the best actor for the role’ otherwise known as ‘colour-blind casting’, which in practice white-washes a production. Such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2012 casting choice for The Orphan of Zhao, the redface of The Wooster Groups’ Cry, Trojans! or this list of black characters played by white actors. Lenny Henry articulated the many reasons for having diversity within media at this year’s BAFTA lecture.

Race, media and migration work together to create meanings and identities. It is not as simple as east vs west, white vs people of colour, victim vs perpetrator. It is also about being complex individuals with multiple intersecting identities and being able to employ those different identities – it is about the work you do as a POC, in these spaces. It is about acknowledging that work, respecting that work. Privilege is looking in the mirror and seeing simply ‘you’.

“I don’t see race” he said.

“That’s nice, for you” I said “cos I see race every time I look in the mirror.”

Sometimes I see whiteness, I see my mother staring straight out at me in the line of my jaw. Sometimes all I see is black hair, heavy fringe with my father’s eyes peering out from underneath. Sometimes, I see the Asian so clearly in my skin tone, in the way my body stands, the way it doesn’t quite fit all the clothes I try on in the H&M changing room, cloth built on a Swedish model of proportions. Then, I catch myself reflected in a window and I see the whiteness in the way I lounge against a wall; nonchalant, hip propping up my torso.

And sometimes, I am totes Western in my leather jacket and liquid eyeliner, but flicked up to maximize my ‘almond’ eyes. Or I’m Eastern-White, when I don’t understand the nuances of time and distance when traveling on a river through the jungle.

But every time I see race. I see how I move through space, relate to space, and I am aware of my mixed-race status and how that plays with privilege and choice – for and against me. I see when ‘race’ relates to how I am able to move through space. The space I live in, the space I know the best, the space that I call home – this western space. Being mixed race, and/or coming from multiple spaces, in a western world is knowing where you fit and knowing how to fit in. When you look in the mirror you never simply see yourself, but you see the rest of society, who you are going to meet that day and what that means.

I am Iban, a tribe indigenous of Borneo. My father is from up river, past Kapit, a small town in rural Sarawak, a state of Malaysia on the Borneo island. My mother is a white New Zealander, from suburban Wellington. I grew up in both Sarawak and New Zealand, but London is about to become the place where I have spent most of my life. My life has been about crossing borders, migrating, emigrating, moving, and staying put. Re-grounding (Ahmed 2004:1) has been the theme of my migration story. Migrating is about meeting new audiences.

From the tanju* I walk, I run, I dance into the beyond. I am an ‘agent on the move’ (Ryoji 2007:202). Moving through spaces, places and picking up pieces of me as I go, creating pockets of home in every new location. I expand my space, simultaneously occupying Sarawak, New Zealand and London. In my privilege of being from nowhere and everywhere I crisscross borders, get questioned but ultimately accepted. In painful contrast to other’s journeys, whose identities are read clearly in the brush strokes of their skin colour, in the accents of their English.

I am read as different but similar, holding a passport**  with cultural capital, an accent of a recognised place, an education in understanding border nuances.

Like Anzaldua (‘as a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover’), I too have points in my identity that are recognisable and places I can belong (Anzaldua 1987:80). I am open to construction (Lugones 1987:395) for whichever world I am standing in. The UK border agent looks at my New Zealand passport and tells me how beautiful he/she found New Zealand and how like their hometown in Wales it is. A group of Iban women in Kapit named all the features of my face that are Iban and proclaim my Iban-ness, regardless of my lack of the language. I can stand and wait to be constructed and I can construct my identity to what works best for me in that particular space – to be different or to be recognisable.

Arriving in a new place means joining up with, somehow linking into, the collections of interwoven stories of what that place is made of. (Massey 2005:119)

Like my Iban forebears, I am a migrant who adapts to the environment; building, planting, nurturing and then moving on to begin again. Like my Iban cousins I am a migrant who calls more than one place home. My story becomes interwoven with each location, and each location becomes a part of my identity. I also bring past spaces into new locations. Memories and identities that were created and developed in previous situations get utilised in different ways and/or get expressed in new ways. These are intersections of my identity that are articulated for each new audience, and I have a choice in how they get presented.

Every time I get upset when someone decides to construct me to fit their need, for how they see my identity, I am reminded that sometimes I can use language and knowledge of this western world, to subvert or override that construction. Every time I have a choice to construct my identity, I am reminded of my privilege of choice, because I understand this western space. My able-bodied, cis-gendered, mixed-race, over educated self is reminded, every time I am accepted into a space, of those able-bodied, white, cis-gendered, educated points of identity.

And so when you say you don’t see race, I get angry because it belittles my constant awareness, the work I do around understanding how my identity is interpreted by others. I get angry because I work hard in finding a way to articulate my identity, my difference, so that it fits your understanding. And I get angry because by not seeing race you have stripped me of my heritage. If you don’t see race, you don’t see me.

If you don’t see race, you don’t see privilege, yours or mine.

 

* Tanju is the outside verandah on an Iban longhouse

** I have both NZ and British passport

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Anna Sulan Masing – poet, theatre-maker, lover of comedy and equality.
Doctorate in post-colonial feminism & performing arts.
Tweets @AnnaSulan
www.annamasing.com

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Photo by Katherine Leedale, as part of a photographic essay in collaboration with myself and performer Vera Chok. Click here to view all images. This photographic essay by Katherine Leedale is a journey myself and Vera took with a loom, around East London. It investigates the idea of carrying home and building identity in different spaces and locations, as part of the From The Jungle project. Originally exhibited at Dalston gallery Maybe a Vole.

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References
Ahmed, S & Castaneda, C & Fortier, A & Sheller, M ed. (2004) Uprootings/Regrounds: Questions of Home and Migration Berg,  England

Anzaldua, Gloria (1987) Borderlands: La Frontera, Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco

Lugones, Maria (1987) ‘Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception’, Hypatia, Volume 2, Issue 2, pages 3–19

Massey, Doreen (2005) For space, Sage publications, London

Ryoji, Soda (2007) People on the move: rural-urban interactions in Sarawak, Kyoto University Press & Trans Pacific Press, Japan

Whose feminism? What waves?

'Other kinds of dreams': Black women's organisations and the politics of transformation, by Julia Sudbury

‘Other kinds of dreams’: Black women’s organisations and the politics of transformation

Writing in the early twenty-first century, in an article exploring the possibilities of a third wave black feminism, Kimberly Springer outlined how the “wave model” in its dominant form drowns out the activism of black women. Writing about the US context, Springer pointed out how the dominant understandings of the 1st wave (suffrage movement), 2nd wave (women’s liberation/women’s rights movements in 60s-70s) and 3rd wave (contemporary feminism) “disregard[ed] the race-based movements before them that served as precursors, or windows of political opportunity, for gender activism” (Springer 2002: 1061). For example, the dominant third wave narrative, she pointed out, tends to dismiss the role of black women in the development of the term itself – noting that Kitchen Table Women of Color Press had plans to publish a book in the late 1980s called ‘The Third Wave’. The book, which unfortunately never came to fruition, “was to describe an antiracist, women-of-color-led feminism for the coming decade” (Springer 1063).

Springer’s critique of the wave model is relevant for thinking also about feminism in Britain. Although following its own unique trajectory, located in a different social and historical context, the wave story here is often told in similar terms: First wave = movements for suffrage, including the suffragettes; second wave = the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 70s. What exactly constitutes the third – and potentially a fourth – wave is perhaps the most disputed. But whatever the definitions, similar to the US version, the wave story seldom accounts for black women’s theory and activism.

I was reminded of Springer’s article this week apropos the New Stateman’s “Rereading the second wave”, a series of posts on so-called ‘second wave’ feminists and their work. Ten out of eleven of the feminists in question are/were white, with only one post about a feminist of colour (Audre Lorde). Now my post is not so much about the NS series in itself. It is after all a rather idiosynchratic list chosen by a group of feminists assembled by the NS and, as the introductory post states, it’s not meant to be definitive – although note the regularity with which this claim is used as a get-out clause when systemic exclusions are pointed out. Aside from the lack of feminists of colour, what stands out to me most is that eight of the so-called ‘second wave’ feminists are/were American (none British). I also wonder how Judith Butler feels about being described as ‘second wave’, but whatever.

What I am interested in is how stories of feminism get told – both within the liberal (in some senses) ‘pro-feminist’ media such as the New Statesman and the Guardian, as well as among contemporary feminists themselves (and these of course overlap) – and how those stories are inflected and defined by white supremacy. I mean, considering the NS list is so idiosynchratic, then why is it still so white? Of course there is a straight-forward, predictable answer to this: most of the contributors to the series are white. But leaving that to one side for a moment – although it is of course part of the problem – is there something inherent in the ‘second wave’ terminology that denotes whiteness? As Springer observed, “The wave model perpetuates the exclusion of women of color from women’s movement history and feminist theorizing” (1063) and this certainly is the overwhelming case when looking at invocations of the “second wave” within many British feminist spaces. It seems to limit the imagination of what histories of women’s activism look like, because the dominant image associated with “second wave” activism is that of white women’s liberationists.

Charting the Journey

Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women

Although she is critical of the ‘wave model’, Springer argues that because it is so embedded within our understandings of feminism, it is still worth working with this model – critiquing it from within and expanding it to include women of colour’s activism (the bulk of her article focuses on the possibilities of a third wave black feminism and how it might engage with more young black women). But others write without using the wave metaphor. Julia Sudbury, for example, in her book on (politically) black women’s activism in post-war Britain does not refer to waves at all – the stories simply don’t fit that way. Neither is her research framed exclusively around the term feminism (Sudbury locates herself as writing from a Womanist perspective).  The fact that many black women have organised for rights and justice without taking on the label ‘feminist’ also needs to be recognised as part of the complexity of women’s activist & feminist histories.

But the wave metaphor is very pervasive within Anglo-American feminist storytelling. Personally, I’m quite averse to using it in my own writing, yet find it difficult to get completely away from doing so. So is Springer right? Is it better to try and work with the wave model, but to critique it and expand it? Or is “second wave” irrevocably bound to the image of a white women? (and this is a two-way process – I often see and hear ‘second wave’ used as derogatory short-hand for white feminism).

Either way, what is undoubtedly urgent is the need to destabilize the hegemonic whiteness of stories of the feminist past as they are told and re-told within contemporary feminist spaces.

I started writing a whole other part to this post about structural racism, capitalism and publishing, which of course plays a huge role in who gets to write books and become canonised. But I’ll leave that for now, because it’s a somewhat separate point. After all, women of colour did publish extensively in the 1970s and 80s (often collectively through anthologies). Their continued marginalisation from the dominant feminist canon of this time period is not because they weren’t writing, but because of white supremacy.

So if you are unfamiliar with the histories of scholarship by women of colour and black feminists in the 70s, 80s and 90s, here are a few of my suggestions (with a focus on Britain) of writings to seek out:

‘Other kinds of dreams’: Black women’s organisations and the politics of transformation, by Julia Sudbury (Routledge 1998). Sudbury’s PhD thesis on which this book is based on is available open access from Warwick University’s online repository.

Black British Feminism: A Reader, edited by Heidi Safia Mirza (Routledge 1997).

Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, edited by Shabnam Grewal, Jackie Kay, Liliane Landor, Gail Lewis and Pratibha Parmar (Sheba Feminist Press 1988). Also: Listen to Gail Lewis talking about how this book was marginalised within British Women’s Studies programmes on the Sisterhood and After online archive.

Feminist Review issue 17

Feminist Review issue 17: Many Voices, One Chant

Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain, by Amrit Wilson (Virago Press 1978). You can listen to Amrit Wilson talking about researching this book on the Sisterhood and After online archive. See also Wilson’s more recent Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain (Pluto Press 2006).

Cartographies of Diaspora; Contesting Identities, by Avtar Brah (Routledge 1996).

Feminist Review issue 17: ‘Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives’ (1984). This might be tricky to get hold of outside of academic libraries (there are also copies in the Feminist Library in London), but you can read Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar’s influential essay “Challenging imperial feminism” online [PDF link].

White feminist stories in The Guardian

Last week, my first journal article was published, titled “White feminist stories: Locating race in representations of feminism in The Guardian” (Feminist Media Studies 2014).

One chapter of my PhD analyses several dozen Guardian and Observer articles about feminism over a number of years, paying close attention to how these articles construct stories of British feminism past and present. Who – in terms of ethnicity and race – is constructed as central or significant within these stories and who is marginal or erased? Where is race and racism located within these narratives?

In this article, I present a close reading of three such Guardian articles about feminist activism from recent years, unpicking the underlying assumptions about British feminism which they rest upon. I focus in particular on three narrative logics which are dominant within this discourse, which present contemporary feminist activism as: 1) a continuation of a white feminist legacy, 2) a unified movement of “like-minded” individuals, and 3) as “diverse” and “happy”.

These narratives erase power differences between women, as well as a multitude of feminist organising in Britain, including Black British feminism. Although the Guardian (as a result of persistent challenge by black and anti-racist feminists) is increasingly representing contemporary feminist activism as diverse and intersectional, the dominant story that it constructs of British feminist history is an overwhelmingly white one, as if feminists of colour have only recently started to exist and organise. The insistence on presenting feminism as an “innocent” movement also leads to a lack of acknowledgement of white feminist racism within British feminist movements.

Although, as I write in the article, challenges to the whiteness of Guardian feminism are continuously made, the resistance to change highlights the continued unequal power relations between white feminists and feminists of colour, and the persistence of whiteness in defining feminism within mainstream liberal media.

You can read the accepted version of the paper here. This is the final version submitted to the publisher, so is more or less the same as the published version, minus copyediting changes and typesetting. The published version of the article is available – behind a paywall – on the Feminist Media Studies website.

White feminists vs white feminism

Five years ago I wrote a post for The F-word aimed at white feminists like myself, calling for us to challenge racism and white privilege within feminist activist communities. I wrote it at a time when I was more actively involved in such communities ‘on the ground’ than I am now. It was also written at a moment when I was just starting out my PhD and began to enter equally problematically white academic feminist spaces.

In the last five years, feminist activism in Britain has changed significantly for the better (less so feminist academia, I would say). There has been a significant increase in discussion about racism within feminism, forced on to the table by feminists of colour. I am by no means suggesting that feminists of colour were not raising these issues prior to this point because they were (& the circularity and repetitiveness of these debates is part of the pattern, upheld by white resistance to ever taking the critiques on board), but at least two significant things have happened in the last five years. One was the formalisation of the Black Feminists group in 2010 and their central role in promoting an intersectional approach to feminist organising in Britain. Secondly – and on a more global level – the explosion of social media has significantly changed the ‘rules’ of public debate. Bypassing white feminist gatekeepers, feminists of colour have built significant independent platforms from which they have been able to more effectively and consistently challenge the dominance of white feminist discourse online (although while it can be a powerful tool for social justice, social media should not be mistaken as the great equaliser of public debate).

Yet despite a much greater level of discussion about racism within feminism, and more white feminists recognising racism as a problem, this has not yet un-lodged the persistence of whiteness in continuing to structure many feminist activist and academic spaces in Britain today. I looked up my F-word piece again, because I have been thinking about what white feminists who want to end racism need to be doing in this moment and I wanted to remind myself what I thought five years ago. Although some of the things I wrote in that piece I cringe a bit at now, overall I think the points it made about what white feminists need to do still stand. Much of it centred on the need to learn about racism and anti-racist histories of feminism, as well as challenging single-issue politics and denials of racism among white feminists – nothing which was new then and nothing which is new now. But what I think is missing in that piece is an analysis of the power of white feminism as a specific form of dominant discourse and structure.

The term ‘white feminism’ has for decades been used by feminists of colour to name feminist politics which do not attend to race. One of the first texts which I read which explicitly defined the term is Razia Aziz’s 1992 article ‘Feminism and the challenge of racism: Deviance or difference?’ (reprinted in the Black British feminism reader), in which she writes:

In attempting to shift the ground of feminist discourse, the adversary has at times appeared to be white feminists but is in fact, I would venture, white feminism – by which I expressly do not mean any feminism espoused by white feminists. I refer, rather, to any feminism which comes from a white perspective, and universalizes it… I do not propose that white feminism is a clearly defined, coherent and internally consistent body of thought that feeds off conscious racist intentions. It is, rather, a way of seeing which, however inadvertent, leaves identifiable traces. It subsists through a failure to consider both the wider social and political context of power in which feminist utterances and actions take place, and the ability of feminism to influence that context.

White feminism as a descriptive term has been in wide circulation in recent discussions online. To counter the resistance to the term by many white feminists who refuse to see racism as a systemic problem within feminism, Cate Young, in a blog post titled ‘This is what I mean when I say “white feminism”’, lays out similar points to Aziz, and specifically describes white feminism as practice:

I see “white feminism” as a specific set of single-issue, non-intersectional, superficial feminist practices. It is the feminism we understand as mainstream; the feminism obsessed with body hair, and high heels and makeup, and changing your married name. It is the feminism you probably first learned. “White feminism” is the feminism that doesn’t understand western privilege, or cultural context. It is the feminism that doesn’t consider race as a factor in the struggle for equality.

White feminism is a set of beliefs that allows for the exclusion of issues that specifically affect women of colour. It is “one size-fits all” feminism, where middle class white women are the mould that others must fit.  It is a method of practicing feminism, not an indictment of every individual white feminist, everywhere, always.

In ‘A word to white women’, Reni Eddo-Lodge, building on Young’s piece, brings to the fore the society-wide structural inequality which enables the dominance of white feminism. She suggests white feminism can be “conceptualised as the feminist wing” of the “political consensus” of whiteness and white supremacy, describing white supremacy as “a political structure that is concerned with maintaining power though domination and exclusion”.

Aziz’s, Young’s and Eddo-Lodge’s descriptions of white feminism all coalesce around the point that white feminism is a discourse upheld through political structures. Its legitimacy and power is enabled through its collusion with white supremacy and it has harmful effects, whatever the intent behind it.

Another point which all three writers emphasise is the distinction between white feminism as discourse/structure and individual white feminists. This distinction is unquestionably important – as otherwise white feminism can never be undone – but I do have concerns about how this distinction is sometimes used by individual white feminists – specifically those of us who do have an anti-racist awareness. Because I think it can provide a convenient distancing mechanism from those other ‘bad’ white racist feminists *over there*. If we are not (or claim not to be) articulating a white feminist approach to gender oppression, and critique those that do, then we can claim to situate ourselves outside of white feminism. But what does this distancing do? I don’t think it does very much to end racism within feminism. It reminds me of Sara Ahmed’s work on the “non-performativity of anti-racism”: White people do not challenge racist structures just by saying we are anti-racist.

If we understand white feminism as a discourse supported by structures – and vice versa – it becomes clear that it is not going to be undone by individual white feminists renouncing it. In fact, white feminists who are committed to ending racism, would do well to not distance ourselves from white feminism but rather to understand how we are implicated within it – to draw on a recent blog post by Ahmed, to see our complicity as a starting point. What are the structures of white feminism and what is our (as individual white feminists) stake in them?

In Britain in 2013, structures which support the dominance of white feminist discourse include the institutionalisation of feminism within sections of the liberal media, white-led feminist organisations and groups which operate a ‘politics of inclusion’ without redistribution of power, white-dominated academic feminist networks, journals and conferences which incessantly tout ‘intersectionality’ without addressing institutional racism within (feminist) academia, left-wing and academic publishers that promote the idea that only white women can speak for feminism. These are just some examples which come to mind. Individual white feminists will have a variety of investments and access within these structures. Each of us needs to figure out what our roles can be in disrupting them.

‘Feminist structures’ can of course not be separated from larger societal structures, which makes Eddo-Lodge’s description of white feminism as the ‘feminist wing’ of white supremacy particularly apt. White feminism cannot be dismantled in separation from white supremacist society. So on a wider level, white feminists need to ask ourselves what and who our whiteness gives us access to – whether it’s resources, institutions, people and/or platforms.

I mean this in both ‘big’ and ‘small’ ways. For those of us who have class privilege and/or various forms of institutional access it will involve leveraging power and redistributing resources towards people of colour-led anti-racist work. But it is also about how whiteness affords us access, trust and credibility in everyday ways. Whiteness, as Eddo-Lodge addresses, is that which is invisible to white people – its power comes (partly) from the fact that white society doesn’t recognise its existence and sees white people as just ‘people’. Whiteness gives us access to this world of ‘just people’ in ways which people of colour don’t have. Our whiteness means we are likely to know more white people intimately in all areas of our lives, and our whiteness means people see us as more ‘objective’. Part of challenging this white solidarity involves committing to ongoing – difficult – conversations about whiteness and racism within our communities – our white friends, family members, colleagues and local communities as much as our feminist and activist networks.

For white feminists who want to end racism, dismantling white feminism requires more from us than calling out Caitlin Moran on Twitter. It requires us to take an active role in restructuring the systems of white supremacy. As we will always have a proximity to white power whether we like it or not, the question is what we do with it.

Undisciplined thoughts on ‘digital sociology’

Attending the BSA Digital Sociology study group event this week left me inspired to blog more. And what more appropriate topic to start with than to write through some of the thoughts and questions the event raised for me?

As the inaugural event for this group, the question for the day – ‘What is digital sociology?’ – was deliberately open-ended. But several of the speakers appeared to converge around the understanding that ‘digital sociology’ is an umbrella term encompassing 1) ‘the digital’ as an object of research, 2) digital research methods, and 3) the ways sociologists engage with digital tools and platforms to disseminate and communicate their research. What was also emphasised is the fact that ‘digital sociology’ cannot be seen as some fringe activity – whether sociologists like it or not, society is already (unevenly!) digitized, and in Noortje Marres’ words “digitization affects the relations between social life and its analysis”.

In other words, digitization cannot be ignored if we actually want to understand contemporary society. And as Les Back pointed out (sharing a recent ‘aha’ moment), the answer to the question ‘what is digital sociology?’ is actually very simple: ‘It’s sociology, stupid!’ To do sociological research in our day and age means doing sociology, in his words, “with/through digital culture”.

I have been following recent discussions about digital sociology, but with some hesitance about how to engage, mostly due to my ambivalent disciplinary status (i.e. I’m not really a sociologist). As someone who studied Media & Communications, then Gender Studies, straddling faculties and departments, I’ve never had a strong sense of disciplinary affiliation. Thus while I’ve been interested in the emergence of debates around digital sociology (as well as digital humanities), I’m not sure how to situate myself as an academic within those debates. Is there something about the disciplinarity of digital sociology which is important, and which means it’s not really for me? Is it relevant for me to ask instead ‘what is digital gender studies?’ Or ‘what is digital cultural studies?’ Considering both of these ‘fields’ encompass a range of (inter)disciplinary approaches, I’m not sure those questions are particularly productive. This is why I think Les Back’s ‘aha’ moment felt particularly useful, and helped me to see how I can engage with the idea of ‘the digital’ in my own research areas. Whether we’re talking about distinctly sociological research or the wider social sciences and humanities under which gender and cultural studies are located, we need to engage with the ways in which the digital now constitutes the social and the cultural – and vice versa. It’s nothing more (or less) complicated than that.

Some of my ‘usual questions’ were on my mind during the event – Where is ‘race’? Where is gender? Where is class?… (Some quite distinctly sociological questions, perhaps?) And it was good to see these questions attended to by the Celeb Youth project. The project leaders shared how their research (one aspect of which tracks Twitter conversations about celebrities) has highlighted how a cultural environment of gendered, racialised and classed inequalities converge with the anonymity and virtual environment provided by social media platforms to produce some particularly vile forms of hate speech. To me, staying with the core questions which sociology aims to tackle – about inequality and social justice – seems to be absolutely central to engaging with the digital. We need to consider the ways in which the digitization of society affect oppressive structures and relationships, how it shapes and is shaped by them.

So the way I understand it now, ‘digital sociology’ isn’t so much about doing something edgy and new – it’s a sociological engagement with how the digital mediates and constitutes social structures and relationships. At this point, in terms of my own research, I can’t say that I in any real way have engaged with the idea of the ‘the digital’. But I have some ideas of how to start – more on that another time…

For some more in-depth discussions about digital sociology, visit http://digitalsociology.org.uk/. Also, check out tweets from the #digitalsociology hashtag.

Angela Davis’s feminist imaginary

Having just watched Angela Davis’ recent public lecture at the University of Chicago, titled “Feminism and Abolition: Theories and Practices for the 21st Century”, I wanted to share a couple of quotes, which to me powerfully illustrate what social justice feminism – as activism and theory – should look like.

In her talk, Professor Davis speaks, among other things, about the significance of the work done by activists and scholars higlighting the experiences of trans women of colour within the prison industrial complex. We can learn so much more, Davis argues, by centring the experiences of those who by normative logic are seen as most ‘marginal’:

When we discover what appears to be one relatively small and marginal aspect of the category – of what is struggling to enter the category, so that it can basically bust up the category – this process can illuminate so much more than simply looking at the normative dimensions of the category.

Davis then goes on to outline her definition of feminism and what feminist methodologies have brought to movements for social justice. To me, this is such an inspiring feminist imaginary for our times:

I want to emphasise the importance of approaching both our theoretical explorations and our movement activism in ways that enlarge and expand and complicate and deepen our theories and practices of freedom. Feminism involves so much more than gender equality and it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve consciousness of capitalism (I mean the feminism that I relate to, and there are multiple feminisms, right). So it has to involve a consciousness of capitalism and racism and colonialism and post-colonialities, and ability and more genders than we can even imagine and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name. Feminism has helped us not only to recognise a range of connections among discourses and institutions and identities and ideologies, that we often tend to consider separately. But it has also helped us to develop epistemological and organising strategies that take us beyond the categories ‘women’ and ‘gender’. And feminist methodologies impel us to explore connections that are not always apparent. And they drive us to inhabit contradictions and discover what is productive in these contradictions. Feminism insists on methods of thought and action that urge us to think things together that appear to be separate and to disaggregrate things that appear to naturally belong together.

The talk touches on so much of importance to social justice activism and scholarship and I really recommend watching the whole lecture (including the Q&A). Thanks to @Aaaqilah for tweeting the link.