Interrogating feminist politics of inclusion

I revisited Ien Ang’s article ‘I’m a feminist but… “other” women and postnational feminism’ recently (originally published in 1995, but re-printed in Lewis & Mills 2003 Feminist Postcolonial Theory reader). It’s a great article and, I think, still so relevant today. Ang, writing in the context of Australian feminism, argues that the white feminist desire to make feminism ‘diverse’ and ‘multicultural’ as a way of ‘dealing with difference’ (in response to critiques by feminists of colour that the movement is exclusive and racist) is still problematic, because it relies on a politics of inclusion.

…too often the need to deal with difference is seen in the light of the greater need to save, expand and improve or enrich feminism as a political home which would ideally represent all women. In this way, the ultimate rationale of the politics of difference is cast in terms of an overall politics of inclusion: the desire for an overarching feminism to construct a pluralist sisterhood which can accommodate all differences and inequalities between women. (203)

I have for a long time been wary of inclusion politics, because such a stance is always premised on someone (in this case white feminists) being in the position of inviting ‘others’ in. Ang uses a great quote from Elizabeth Spelman, which crystallizes why this actually does nothing to shift power imbalances:

Welcoming someone into one’s own home doesn’t represent an attempt to undermine privilege, it expresses it (Spelman, Inessential Women: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought, 1988: 163)

Many of the texts which I am analysing (leaving this deliberately vague at the moment) for my research are premised on a politics of inclusion. White feminist activists and writers are aware of the critiques of white-dominated feminist communities and want to rectify this by making feminist politics inclusive and representative of all women.

But what is usually missing is any reflection on why feminism needs to be the all-encompassing solution: this is simply taken as self-evident. This immediately places limits on what feminism is and can be – and prioritises the maintenance of feminism as a definable movement, identity-based community and a political home. This will only reinforce the privilege of those positioned at the centre, and is not an effective way of ending oppression. Ang argues instead for a politics of partiality:

Feminism must stop conceiving itself as a nation, a ‘natural’ political designation for all women, no matter how multicultural. Rather than adopting a politics of inclusion (which is always ultimately based on a notion of commonality and community), it will have to develop  a self-conscious politics of partiality, and imagine itself as a limited political home, which does not absorb difference within a pre-given and predefined space but leaves room for ambivalence and ambiguity. (191)

I am thinking how I can apply this argument in my analysis – beyond simply citing it as an alternative, but really thinking through what this looks like in terms of how I frame my own feminist politics through my writing.

Re-reading Ang reminded me also of Andrea Smith’s article ‘Without bureaucracy, beyond inclusion: Re-centring feminism’ (2006), which highlights so clearly why white feminists’ politics of inclusion are detrimental to the development of alternative political visions: as feminists of colour become drawn into positions where they are constantly having to respond to white feminists:

Our work then becomes focused on yelling at white women for being racist. And if we become very good at this task, white women start paying us to yell at them. This approach can be lucrative for some individual women of color, but does not actually impact the political direction of these bureaucratic organizations. More significantly, this work does not help women of color organizing build its own power. (read whole article)

Any feminist politics, however ‘diverse’ and ‘multicultural’, where white feminists still set the agenda, are not fundamentally challenging the power imbalances between different women. They minimise differences rather than working out how to work with and across them in accountable ways.In many ways, they echo institutional and government discourses on ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’, which should probably ring alarm bells in itself!

Am looking forward to reading Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) on the subject as well.