Dr. Dawg

On dialogue

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Mao red criticism.jpg

It’s been quite a few weeks, watching those aligned with the progressive and feminist side of things go at it hammer and tongs on Twitter and elsewhere over “race” and intersectionality, the latter a term already over-used and abused, flung back and forth like so many brickbats.

Be assured that the far Right is enjoying the spectacle. Not I.

On the one hand, there are “white women” refusing to address their own privilege. On the other, “women of colour” expressing raw anger about it. How binary is that?

And it gets better (from the far Right perspective). Defensiveness, meet Mao-style denunciation and massive pile-ons.

From the subject-position of an older white male, I obviously need to step carefully. To declare interest, I’m on the side of those who experience racism on a daily basis. Racism produces entirely justifiable anger. Telling the victims of racism that they should mind their tone is maddeningly obtuse. Tone, too, reflects privilege.

So I’ll simply make this point, based on my many years in the labour movement. Intersectionality isn’t a new concept: Chandra Mohanty was writing about it nearly three decades ago. Her critiques of universalizing Western feminism stand. But she calls for a “feminism without borders,” building bridges of solidarity, making common cause.

Intersectionality, then, is or should be a tool for managing complex and widely different struggles. Here’s the easy-to-grasp cartoon version. I recall, during the grape boycott days, an angry Latino activist telling my partner at the time that our own struggles in Canada don’t matter. But all struggles against oppression matter. It’s how we forge links in unequal contexts of oppression that poses the organizational difficulty. That we can be both oppressed and oppressor in the belly of the vast global beast shouldn’t be news to anyone engaged in social change.

But that’s all theory. It’s the “how” that seems to elude us. Part of the “how” is accepting and confronting the fact of one’s own privilege without feeling morally judged. For the most part, we do not self-socialize: we are presented with ready-made constructs that make up our world, the apparent natural order of things. We become part of that world; we’re called into it. The failure to recognize the privilege that is built into us is a moral issue, perhaps, but not the fact of that construction. Yet if we’re to make the profound, radical changes in social arrangements that many of us struggle for, much reconstruction needs to be done. That much should be obvious.

On the other hand, it seems pointless to essentialize “white feminism” as though it’s an impregnable monolith of blind racial privilege. There can never be alliances founded on that.

So the question, to me, is one of tactics and strategy. No one is questioning the righteous anger of the oppressed. But my own adventures in the labour movement taught me very quickly the truth of that Alinskyist axiom: “Never go outside the experience of your people. The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.” In other words, activists need to go to where the people are: don’t expect them to come to you. They aren’t living your reality.

But when activists themselves clash over differences, the same organizing principle surely holds. The reality of a white woman, generally speaking, is different from the one lived by a woman of colour, who is oppressed by both racism and sexism. Should these differences be papered over, in a false solidarity that once bedevilled the labour movement? Or should differences be foregrounded, addressed, and a deeper solidarity built, one based upon mutual understanding and the willingness to confront privilege where it exists?

Clearly a progressive will favour the latter. But again, it’s the “how” that holds the traps. Talking always came naturally to me: listening is a skill I’m still working on. But those bridges between potential, natural allies cannot and will not be built without a good deal of both.

And if I might: I found early on that working with individuals or groups, I got further by talking and listening respectfully than by browbeating people. And I learned at the same time that allies are to be treasured, even if the alliances themselves can be shaky and uncertain at times, and in need of constant repair.

So I offer this purely tactical suggestion. If those who might be allies are wanted as such, talk to them. If they adamantly refuse to acknowledge your reality, abandon them. But if they simply lack the required knowledge and insight—if, in other words, they are just mistaken about things—that can be remedied, at least in theory. Denouncing them, however, will leave them in their discursive caves, or even turn them into foes. So why do it? Whose interests does it serve?

Discussion welcome.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 3, 2014 1:06 PM.

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