Various blogs I've read lately have had one or another version of the "gender v. race" discussion. It so happens that I'm reading lesbian feminist theory of one kind or another for class, and so the ways in which white feminists and feminists of color are missing each other (actually, it's more like feminists of color are speaking directly to white feminists, who are looking somewhere above their heads while having their iPods blaring, is what it looks like to me, sometimes) are pretty much whacking me over the head, at the moment.
For this class, I've asked my students to read a number of texts that discuss lesbian identity and feminism. The two I'm thinking about right now are Gloria Anzaldua's (I'm not sure how to insert accent marks in Blogger without first writing this in Word, so I can't spell Anzaldua's name properly) Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza and Dorothy Allison's Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature.
So what hit me once again as I was reading just now, and what's consequently sent me to the noisy row of computers from the nice, quiet spot where I was reading and contemplating, is the context in which these two women talk about themselves as lesbians and talk about what "lesbian" means.
(Bear with me - the ramifications for feminism, more generally, will become clear.)
Dorothy Allison writes:
"I have known I was a lesbian since I was a teenager, and I have spent a good twenty years making peace with the effects of incest and physical abuse. But what may be the central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family, a girl who had left the seventh grade the year before, worked as a waitress, and was just a month past fifteen when she had me. That fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it. I have learned with great difficulty that the vast majority of people believe that poverty is a voluntary condition."
What this means is that for Allison, CLASS is the central fact of her life. Not gender. Not being a lesbian. She writes about race and gender and sexuality and the way that they all intertwine with class in her life. She says, a bit further on:
"Traditional feminist theory has had a limited understanding of class differences and of how sexuality and self are shaped by both desire and denial" - and quite a bit later - "My sexual identity is intimately constructed by my class and regional background, and much of the hatred directed at my sexual preferences is class hatred - however much people, feminists in particular, like to pretend this is not a factor."
And, by the way, she's talking about hatred directed at her S/M sexual preferences by lesbians, not hatred directed at her lesbianism by the straight community or the larger patriarchy.
What does it mean for feminism that this lesbian activist, who was out in far more dangerous times than these we live in now, still saw class as the fundamental aspect of her identity? That she still saw herself as oppressed by class within feminist communities that were trying to challenge the patriarchy and create something new that was woman-centered and therefore healthy and safe and empowering for women?
Then I think of Anzaldua. Anzaldua's writing about lesbianism is woven so closely into writing about cultural identity that it is difficult to pull out a thread that focuses just on lesbian identity. When I first read this book in graduate school, I tried to do exactly that, to pull out the theory on the "pieces" of identity that I found most interesting. I think I must have believed it was possible to do that, and this is a major problem among white feminists, that many of us still believe that our identities are separate pieces, that gender is the same for all of us. As one commenter posted recently at Belledame's about Black feminists who were protesting Gloria Steinem's NYT piece on Clinton and Obama, "when they stop being oppressed for being Black, they'll still be oppressed for being women." (Which is a deeply problematic statement anyway, as several people pointed out - I mean, when is this day coming when racial oppression will suddenly end? And in what universe is it possible that one form of the intertwined, institutional oppressions will be extracted and eradicated? Oppression doesn't work that way. And neither do most people experience their identities as separable.)
So the point is, if you read Anzaldua, you see via the contrast one excellent example of how white feminism has defined lesbian identity as a sort of stand-alone concept, as something that, by virtue of its whiteness, is focused on the individual and on the individual's ties to a political community that replaces blood family. Also by virtue of its whiteness, this version of lesbian identity is primarily occupied by gender, because awareness of race doesn't really enter into the picture. White lesbian feminists have absolutely tried to address issues of racial oppression, but what I'm talking about is a fundamental lack of awareness of how race functions.
So: How do we define women's issues? How do we define feminism? If we include as women's issues those that involve individual rights (such as abortion) but not those that also involve family and community and culture (such as poverty, lack of access to health care, sovereignty, etc.), then we are defining White Middle-Class Feminism.