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.


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”.


Call for paper: The Feminist Killjoy in the Feminist Movement

Humaira Saeed and myself currently have an open call out for a third person to join our panel at the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association conference next summer (21-23 June 2013 in Nottingham). Read more about the panel below and get in touch if you are interested!

The Feminist Killjoy in the Feminist Movement

  • Terese Jonsson, London Metropolitan University – Looking for anti-racism in narratives of British feminism.
  • Humaira Saeed, University of Manchester – Saving Brown Women: Transnationalism and the Third Wave
  • Third paper TBC
  • With respondent comments from Dr Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths, University of London)

These papers will address the vital role that internal critique plays in feminist politics. This work has been crucial in challenging exclusions within feminist thought, opening up conversations about the differences between women, and crucially reorienting feminism towards an intersectional analysis. This often difficult, emotionally taxing and thankless work is predominantly led by women speaking from marginalised positions: women of colour, disabled women, working class women and sex workers, among others. The papers will address some of the ways in which this work has been marginalised, and argue that internal critique needs to be understood as an important site of feminist activism. In order to focus the discussion, the panel will concentrate specifically on anti-racist critiques, although it is hoped that some of the content will have a wider relevance in relation to all forms of internal critique within feminist spaces. The panel takes its name from Sara Ahmed’s observation (2010) that the black feminist is often blamed for ‘killing feminist joy’ when she points out white women’s racism. Although there is a long and rich history of anti-racist critique within British feminism, instances of racism and white privilege continue to make disturbingly regular appearances within white-dominated feminist communities. These repetitive patterns suggest that the critiques are not being adequately taken on board within feminist movements. Instead, anti-racist work tends to be marginalised, repressed, or even completely erased within dominant accounts of feminist histories, and indeed feminist practice, especially when these histories and practices are defined from positions of privilege. As well as resulting in the frustrated labour of anti-racist feminists, white feminists’ failure to engage with these critiques seriously hinders the radical potential of feminist movement.

Call for paper: We are looking for a presenter for this panel whose work addresses the above themes. Potential topics for papers are: instances of anti-racist critique, historical or contemporary; the ongoing relevance and necessity of anti-racist critique; anti-imperial and transnational feminist interventions; and/or internal critique as activism. Please send an abstract to  terese.jonsson@gmail.com and humairazsaeed@gmail.com by 1st December 2012.

Forthcoming Feminisms

Registration is now open for the conference Forthcoming Feminisms: Gender Activism, Politics and Theories, which will be held in Leeds on Friday 26th October 2012.

I will be presenting a paper, provisionally titled “‘Race’, (anti-)racism and whiteness within feminism in England: Learning from the past?“, in which I will look at some of the dominant narratives around feminism and ‘race’ within contemporary feminist discourse in England. I will argue that underlying claims to a diverse (and implied anti-racist) present, feminism in its dominant forms in England is still structured by whiteness, and that in order to change, contemporary white feminists must engage with and learn from the complicated histories of ‘race’, (anti-)racism and whiteness within feminist communities.

Here’s the full blurb about the conference:

Forthcoming Feminisms: Gender Activism, Politics and Theories
Organised by the BSA Gender Study Group & the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies (CIGS), University of Leeds

26th October 2012: Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, University of Leeds

Keynote Speakers: Julia Downes (Durham); Imogen Tyler (Lancaster)

‘Forthcoming Feminisms: Gender Activism, Politics and Theories’ seeks to explore the contemporary landscape of gender politics and theory at a crucial moment of feminist resurgence. Against the backdrop of political economies of austerity, in which women are disproportionately disadvantaged, and in challenge to ‘post-feminist’ cultural prophecies, current times indicate a renewed interest in, and commitment to, feminism. In academic climates, while women’s and gender study programs face threats of closure, the popularity of such programmes continues to grow; reflecting the continuation of feminist and gender theory as a flourishing and dynamic arena. This conference speaks to these political and theoretical paradoxes and flows in exploring varied (and sometimes opposing) feminist cultures, values, ethics, knowledges, challenges and aspirations across the levels of the social and cultural.

The conference aims to examine these issues in relation to temporality: how do current feminisms speak to those of the past and how might we imagine feminisms’ future?; the micro and the macro: how do grass roots feminist politics respond to structural processes and materialities?; the local and global: what are the similarities and differences – the uniting and dividing features  – of national and international feminisms?; place and culture: how are feminisms formed through, and in opposition to, fields of habitus and spaces of public/private; citizenship and recognition: who can – and who can’t – find a place within feminism, who is – and who isn’t – able to ‘belong’?; equality and diversity: to what extent has feminism been mainstreamed?, what are the effects of this on gender studies and politics in and outside the academy?; intersectionality: how do social identities and material positionings impact on feminist commitments and lived experiences?, how do patterns of inequality bear on feminist aspirations and imaginings?; difference: how can feminism productively interact with trans and queer politics, theories, and communities?, how can feminism account for embodied diversities?

Papers will address questions of:

  • Sites of Activism
  • Political Agendas
  • Knowledges and Ethics
  • Spaces and Places
  • Gender Mainstreaming
  • Feminisms at the Local and Global
  • Intersections of Class, Race, Ethnicity, Faith, Age, Gender, Sexuality and Embodiment
  • Feminist Times and Generations
  • Agency and Affect
  • Political Economies
  • Inclusions and Exclusions
  • Transgender and Queer Feminisms
  • Representation, Media and New Technologies

You can register on the BSA website.

Conference: Feminism in Academia: An Age of Austerity?

This looks like an interesting conference:

Feminism in Academia: An Age of Austerity?: Current Issues and Future Challenges

University of Nottingham, Friday 28th September 2012

From the Call for Papers:

The current age of austerity is posing significant challenges to feminist scholarship within academia. Recent government funding cuts to higher education are jeopardising the future of research in the arts and humanities more broadly, but the decline of centres, institutes and courses devoted to gender and women’s studies has the potential to threaten the future of feminism in the academy. Retirements and redundancies are possibly signalling the end of feminist teaching and research in certain higher education institutions. The dearth of employment opportunities for postgraduates and early career researchers has the potential to elide the next generation of feminist scholars. The increasingly competitive environment of employment in higher education is generating divisions and inequalities which put pressure upon the networks of support, co-operation and community which have been integral to feminist research, teaching and practice.

This collaborative event between the FWSA and CWWA aims to provide a multi-disciplinary forum to address such issues. In what ways are these changes affecting our work and lives? What potential is there to resist these narratives of decline? How might feminist teaching, research, theory and activism engage with and combat such challenges? Featuring a selection of keynote speakers, round table discussions and early career workshops, ‘Feminism in Academia: An Age of Austerity’ invites papers which examine ‘austerity’ in the broadest sense of the term. Topics for papers might include, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • The impact of the age of austerity upon women’s and feminist writing, art, performance and scholarship.
  • Theoretical perspectives and discourses on austerity in feminism, past and present.
  • Teaching/researching feminism and women’s writing in the age of austerity.
  • Resistance to narratives of decline in the age of austerity.
  • The challenges posed to ‘sisterhood’ in the current academic environment, from postgraduate, early career research and established scholarly perspectives.
  • Bridging the gap between postgraduate/early career feminist researchers and established scholars.
  • Postcolonial, queer, and/or differently abled responses to the age of austerity in feminist research.
  • Historical, political and sociological responses to the age of austerity in feminist research.
  • Exploring alternative futures for feminism in the academy.
  • Strategies of resistance to the marginalisation of feminist research.
  • Feminist activism, education and the age of austerity.
  • Encouraging the next generation of feminist scholars; challenges and prospects for postgraduate research.

Please send 300 word abstracts for twenty minute papers to the event organisers Claire O’Callaghan and Helen Davies at feminismandausterityconference@gmail.com by 11th April 2012.

Free postgrad conference: Careers in Academia

Got an email about this from Vitae today. I can’t go, but it looks potentially useful for people considering careers in academia…

Careers in Academia, 13 Sept 2011, Birmingham Thistle Hotel

This interactive one-day event is aimed at postgraduate researchers and will enable you to:

  • review the current higher education environment
  • meet with successful academics from a range of disciplines to hear how they advanced their academic career
  • understand the balance required between skills, achievements and building your professional profile
  • review where you are in your career, where you want to be and how to get there
  • ask questions that you’ve always wanted to but weren’t sure who to ask network with fellow researchers
  • develop an action plan to strategically manage your career.

The research carried out by the UK’s higher education sector is held in extremely high regard by the international community. In producing 8% of the world’s scientific papers and 13% of the world’s most highly cited works, the UK ranks second only to the USA. The UK’s research staff are central to this achievement*.

Like most careers, there are many elements that are required in order to develop a successful academic career and these are not always transparent. This event addresses how to succeed in a competitive and complex research environment and will allow you to think about the pros and cons of different career options available.

Book your place on the Vitae website.