Why critique?

Last week I presented a paper at the Forthcoming Feminisms conference, in which I talked about two books about contemporary feminism which I have been analysing in my research. This included some critical comments about how these particular texts construct feminist politics in relation to ‘race’.

In the discussion which followed, I was asked whether I think it’s fair to critique feminist writers in this way. My answer was ‘yes’: I think it is definitely fair to present critiques of published material. This is common practice within academic scholarship, surely – we engage with what others have written, building on their work, which may also involve disagreeing with their analysis and presenting a critique.

But I want to write this out a bit more, because I think there are several things going on here, and which I have been coming back to every so often as I’ve been working on this project.

First off – yes, it is true that one of the major aspects of my research involves analysing a range of feminist texts and asking specific questions related to ‘race’, racism and whiteness. This means I end up critiquing quite a number of texts on the basis of what I consider to be a marginalisation of discussions of racism, and also often the marginalisation of scholarship by feminists of colour.

I am well aware that as I start to (hopefully) publish my work and speak more publically about it, I am potentially going to get some people’s backs up and be seen as being critical and ‘mean’. And yes, I am quite nervous about that. But there are a few points I think it is useful to unravel here, about why I see critique as important and relevant:

  • Critique is not about individuals; it’s about questioning particular formulations of ideas and theories. These ideas and theories are not created in a vacuum, but are formulated within the context of a wider discourse. In her analysis of the ‘political grammar’ of feminist stories presented within feminist journal articles, Clare Hemmings emphasises how narratives are constructed within an institutional context, involving collective processes (including not only the author of an article, but also editors, peer reviewers and the wider academic feminist community). Similarly, I want to argue that problematic discourses on ‘race’ and the privileging of whiteness is institutionalised within mainstream feminism: it is the collective responsibility of white feminists, and bigger than any one individual – although each individual has a role to play. And related to this: I do not see myself as outside of this discourse – but rather as working from within it to destabilise and trouble it. And I know I may well get something wrong and my work critiqued in turn. But that’s how we move forwards, right?
  • I think there is a particular anxiety around race-related critiques – a greater fear on the part of (“well-meaning”) white people associated with being seen as racist – which is more acute than with other topics. Would I have been asked the question above if I was critiquing the texts on other grounds? We need to reflect on the role white anxiety plays in deflecting attention away from challenging white privilege and racism.
  • Anti-racist critique within feminist spaces has too often been left to women of colour. This is often difficult and emotionally fraught work. Sara Ahmed writes about the black feminist being perceived as ‘killing feminist joy’ when she points out white feminist racism (and accused of being ‘angry’). I see my work as part of taking responsibility, as a white feminist, for challenging racist and white-centric theory and politics – of being accountable on the subject of white privilege and racism, and taking calls for addressing these issues seriously.

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been reminded of something a friend of mine said towards the end of a particularly difficult conversation a few years ago, and something which I think encapsulates what I’m trying to get across here: ‘We critique because we care’. In a way that says it all, really.

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