Friday, April 18, 2008

Prof Black Woman's Meme: Why Women's Studies?

If you are a person of color who teaches Women, Gender, or Women and Gender Studies please write a blog post about why you teach in that inter/discipline. Please also address how or why you stick with it when issues of racism, homophobia or heterosexism, classism, or other issues arise. You can give as many reasons as you want and be as elaborate or succinct as you want. Tag at least 5 people and make sure that they know they have been tagged so we reach as many people as possible. You may participate even if you are just considering teaching in the interdiscipline or if your classes are cross-listed. (White allies, you are welcome to participate too, as long as you center the issue of how you support women of color as a central question in your answer.)

(Note: This morphs a bit into the discussion about "feminism," spurred in part by BFP.)

I was thinking, on my drive home this afternoon, that I am really lucky to have had a Women's Studies education that prioritized anti-racist work and the centering of women of color, queer women, and working-class women. First of all, if I had had to focus on Derrida, Lacan, Butler, and others who write like that, I would never have finished grad school. Second of all, I am incredibly grateful to have been introduced early on in my graduate studies to theorists like Audre Lorde, Gloria AnzaldĂșa, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Patricia J. Williams, Patricia Hill Collins, Dorothy Allison, and many others. These writings, to me, are what "feminist theory" means. If Women's Studies is, as many say, the teaching arm of the feminist movement, then it makes sense that the philosophies at the core of the discipline come from theory that is based on lived experience. That is what these and other theorists do: they use the experiences of their lives, and of the lives of their people (whether that be people of color, people of a particular ethnic or racial background, lgbt people, etc.), as the basis for a critical analysis of power and privilege.

Using the experiences of our lives to ground our theory has always been part of the feminist movement. Even if you locate the Second Wave as a monolithic White feminist movement (and I don't), or as the beginnings of modern feminism (and I don't), you can see that consciousness-raising and "the personal is political" is all about looking at the stuff of our lives and critically analyzing it.

So that means that issues of poverty, racism, homelessness, immigration, and colonization are every bit as central to Women's Studies as are issues of abortion rights, the glass ceiling, eating disorders, and sexual assault.

Often, though, Women's Studies practitioners get it wrong. And when this happens, I don't fault Women's Studies as a discipline. I fault the individuals, and I become more determined to make sure that at least my students will get it, that they won't be guilty of going to a conference and saying, "I don't see what race and class have to do with gender."*

I *do* wonder, from time to time, if we should come up with another name for what we do. But I'll tell you something, and this will probably not be too popular. Racism in the feminist movement, and in Women's Studies, may be deeply, deeply entrenched. But we often act as if they are the worst offenders, as if they invented racism and White privilege and all the rest of it. Whatever our faults as a movement and discipline, feminism/Women's Studies has named this problem, has acknowledged it, and has worked to fix it. Unsuccessfully in many, many cases, yes. Successfully in some cases.

Can we say the same of other movements that have so many White people in them? Can we say the same of predominantly male movements that have White people in them?

This is obviously not a very attractive notion, suggesting that, 'hey, Women's Studies/feminism isn't as racist, and there are other, more racist movements out there, so hey, it's not all bad.' I obviously don't mean this. Rather, I mean that I see the potential for Women's Studies/feminism, not just or even mostly the failures. I see people who are trying to get it. And I can think of some who have gotten it, from whom I have learned a great deal.

And it is that potential that I won't give up. I feel like I am a stakeholder in this movement, and I am not willing to give up my focus on race and class and ability and religion and sexuality in my analysis of gender, or to allow my students to think that any of these can be separated from the other.

And, as Anxious Black Woman said the other day, "I will not disavow the 'feminist' label because I didn't get it coming through the back door."

I didn't get Women's Studies from White theory - I got it from women of color, most of whom called themselves feminists and most of whom located themselves within Women's Studies.

Patricia Hill Collins argues that, to be a Black Feminist, you must be a Black woman. I'm not a Black woman, and not a Black Feminist, but my feminism is different from a feminism based on White people's gender issues. Some of us are experimenting with calling ourselves "Margins Feminists" - a term that may already be taken - to point out our focus on the issues of those groups that tend to be marginalized within mainstream feminism. So, this is the version of Women's Studies that my students get from me.

I've gotten this far, and I still haven't answered the question. Why do I teach Women's Studies? Because I really do think that it will make a difference, that it has as yet unrealized potential to change lives and realities, and that the discipline is slowly moving forward and making these changes.

*True story. This was said to me by the same (Latina?) lesbian who called me out for being bisexual and having a boyfriend.

Consider yourself tagged.


Radical Reminders said...

thank you for this post. it's really wonderful and your words and especially experiences are incredibly necessary (right now, more than ever). It's great to see WS profs that teach feminism the way it's intended to be learned. My feminist identity came to be out of several different WS classes. The ones that included conversations and contributions about race, sexuality, etc were important but the ones that centered the focus around minority issues are the classes the helped mold my feminist identity. Thanks for your post and thanks for being the great teacher you clearly are.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Wow, feministgal - I'm blushing! Thanks for your kind words.