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”.

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.

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.

FWSA Student Essay Competition

The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association run an annual student essay competition and the next deadline is 1st November 2011.

To encourage a new generation of feminist scholars, the FWSA sponsors an annual student essay competition for work which is innovative, interdisciplinary and grounded in feminist theory and practice. The top six entries will be published in the Journal of International Women’s Studies and the winner will, in addition, receive a year’s free FWSA membership. Students at any stage of their studies at a British or Irish university are encouraged to submit work which has not previously been published and is not currently under consideration for publication elsewhere.

All the details are on their website.