Monday, July 10, 2006

Social Movements and Academia

Electroman has been following some kerfluffle surrounding accusations of racism and tension between some feminist blogs and some feminist of colour blogs. While I've been hearing about the back-and-forth secondhand, I think the discussion spilled over into the latest Carnival of Feminists in which some White feminists were included discussing issues of race and racism in feminism while nubian over at blac(k)ademic chose not to participate, this act being interpreted by some as an instance of exclusionary tactics. This was coupled with further discussion of "exclusion" of White feminists at a Feminist of Colour conference held earlier in the month. Since I didn't follow the whole series of developments, I don't know anything about who said what or did what, and who I think is in the right or in the wrong. And certainly enough has been said by both sides on the need for a safe space for women of colour to address their issues away from White feminists (and that the establishment of a safe space is not, itself, exclusionary). However, electroman did show me one post (which was written as part of the whole debate) that I felt was extremely interesting. Over at Solidly Average, blogger Niobium wrote the following as part of her dissection of race and the feminist movement:

When I came to age, that is during the early 1990s, Third Wave Feminism was just beginning to assert itself. But for me feminism was about being in college and I wasn’t. There wasn’t any other way to access feminism or the ‘amazing womyn’ that propelled the movement. Oh sure, I read the books and even went to a few marches and the like, but never did I feel like I belonged because I wasn’t in college (or college educated) nor was I a lesbian.
I found this introductory paragraph extremely telling, not because of its relationship to race and racism in the feminist movement, but because of the implicit statement made about feminism and academia. I have always felt that one of the greatest stumbling blocks for the feminist movement is its deep immersion in academia. The feminist movement has excelled at using academia to develop a dialogue aimed at defining feminism and feminist thought, and it represents a model that should be looked to by many other social movements in regards to formalizing the movement via academia and academic literature. However, there is a problem when a social movement becomes too entrenched in academia: the movement begins to marginalize those who don't have access to the literature or the courses in which feminism is being developed and ultimately, the movement starts too lose touch with a subsect of its constitutency. There is a problem when a self-described poor, non-college-educated (at the time) not college-educated woman like Niobium feels (or felt) that she was somehow less deserving of feminist credentials than her upper-class, college-educated counterparts. Feminism shouldn't be solely about reading books, attending classes, or even going to marches; but Niobium isn't alone in feeling inauthentic by not having gone to college. Niobium remarks that "[y]ou don’t have to be a lesbian to be part of the feminist movement nor do you have to be college educated but if you aren’t, it’s very difficult to access the organizations that promote female equality." I couldn't agree more, but extend her argument to encompass women who aren't college educated in Women's Studies. Unlike Niobium, I am college-educated, and yet there are times when I, too, feel marginalized by the feminist movement. I am not a Women's Studies major, and unlike Niobium, I don't spend a lot of time reading the prerequisite feminism books. And I have noticed that sometimes it seems like, having not read the books, it's more difficult to be taken seriously by the feminist movement (at least as it is represented online). Frequently, feminist posts reference authors I have never heard of, citing papers I have never read, correlating ideas with theories I have never been exposed to. Sometimes, while I can grasp the ideas behind posts by notable feminist bloggers, I nonetheless find the language inaccessible -- written for other Women's Studies majors rather than for the lay-feminist. I admit that other times, I find such long-winded posts exploring ideas represented in obscure readings kind of boring. While reading these posts, I end up feeling like the discussion is going over my head, or that any comment that I have will be disregarded because I can't cite some classic feminist writer to back up my own theories. That's, of course, not to say that such academia has no place in feminism; to the contrary, I applaud feminism for having created such a rich foundation of academic thought upon which to build feminist theory. By having such a robust history of documented debate, it allows feminism to reach a nuance of understanding that few budding social movements (such as the Asian American social movement) have yet to reach. And certainly, my feelings of inadequacy are primarily my fault -- I shouldn't begrudge someone else because I feel stupid or incapable of joining the discussion. Yet, it is important that while maintaining the high academic standards of feminism, well-read feminists don't end up disrespecting lay-feminists who choose not to discuss feminism at that level. I remember a former friend of mine who criticized this blog as being blatantly "not feminist enough" only because I hadn't evidenced sufficient reading of classic feminist work; my tongue-in-cheek use of "Girl Power" as a category title for the feminism portion of my blogroll was used to support further accusations of my lack of strong feminist conviction. The fact that this former friend found it reasonable to suggest that my feminist credentials were "less than" her own based solely upon our level of feminist reading suggests that feminism has, at least in some circles, become far too synonymous with academia. However, it is important to remember not to lose touch with the poor women or the working class women in the development of feminist theory. For those women, finding a place in feminism can be more difficult because academic discussion so easily takes off and leave these women feeling unheard or with their issues unaddressed. They find very little to relate to in feminism, and can't justify the importance of (as Niobium writes) "putting womyn like Hillary into office and not working on erradicating class barriers". I can relate to discussions of feeling unaddressed or marginalized in feminist theory. Discussions of racism largely seem to reach an impasse amongst feminist circles, never quite reaching the level needed to, in my opinion, find a realistic way of including feminists of colour into the movement in a satisfactory fashion. While racism is frequently addressed, little time is spent discussing how feminism can co-exist with issues of race and racism within its movement. The very fact that some White feminists decry the very existence of a Feminism of Colour conference (to which I was also not invited, by the way -- although it would be narcisstic of me to suggest that I were a blogger of enough influence to have been) is pointed evidence that while thoughts on feminism is sophisticated within feminist circles, thoughts on race and racism still has a ways to go. Ultimately, what is addressed in online feminism seems to only scratch the surface of feminist issues. And while the discussion is valuable and meaningful, it serves to ostracize sects of the population who simply cannot find the debate accessible, neither through the diction nor through the ideas being shared. Feminists, I think, need to spend some time thinking about the language that we use to discuss feminism, where we discuss it, and how we can make the movement more inclusive while not white-washing the separate sub-identities within it. Otherwise, we risk, I think, shutting some of us off in the same ivory tower we have long struggled to open up for women, in the first place. Edit (7/10): Niobium responded to this post with another post of her own, entitled Classism, in which she points out the oh-so-tasty foot I have in my mouth for pre-supposing that Niobium wasn't college-educated (i.e., when Niobium characterized herself as, at the time, not college-educated, I assumed that Niobium never went back and got her degree). My apologies!! Niobium also goes into detail about classism in feminism; we don't see eye-to-eye on the interrelation between classism and racism, but in the end, I think she's presented a great deal of food for thought.


Anonymous CVK said...

Hey Jenn, great post. I think that discussions of race suffer from the same problem. They're either mired in obscure academic jargon or on the other end of the spectrum, they're simplistic and knee-jerk. There's also been criticism of the mixed race movement as being elitist because much of the activism takes place on Ivy League college campuses.

I do think, however, that blogs and podcasts and other forms of social media offer a great opportunity to level the playing field and expand the conversations beyond the academic realm.

7/10/2006 10:44:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I do think, however, that blogs and podcasts and other forms of social media offer a great opportunity to level the playing field and expand the conversations beyond the academic realm.

I agree. I think blogs are two-fold: they allow everyday people to develop their own opinions in a public forum and they challenge the overly academic members of the social movement to address their own inaccessibility.

7/11/2006 12:59:00 AM  
Blogger Maureen said...

Kudos to you for putting that thought in such eloquent words. I quite often feel that I must exempt myself from discussions on feminism or race, because I lack the language to discuss, thinking whatever ideas I have to be primitive because I have not previously engaged in erudite studies of the matter. One wonders if making such discourse intangible to the common lay-woman stifles those of us who would otherwise have very worthwhile things to say.

7/11/2006 03:44:00 AM  
Blogger NursePam said...

I saw that comment Jenn and was at once moved and disturbed. You have outlined the issues quite well here. My employees are virtually all working class women, most of whom feel entirely excluded from the discussion of feminism. It serves us not at all to allow the vast majority of women to feel undeserving of, and cut off from, feminism.

7/11/2006 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger kfluff said...

This is a great post, Jenn. I come at this as a person in the ivory tower, and yet I often have experiences where I'm excluded because I haven't read/said the right thing. The visiting scholar at my college, last year, was a BIG NAME in academic feminism, and yet she was panicked about going to a conference that another BIG NAME would attend.

It's beginning to seem as if, despite its intentions, feminism is becoming a microscopic inner circle that creates an orthodoxy--you're in or you're out--and very very few are in. All sorts of things can disqualify you, and if you're poor or uneducated or a person of color, you can be discussed, but can't join the discussion. You and Niobium, I think, are pointing out the ways in which that's just not a viable model if we want to keep this movement alive.

7/11/2006 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Thanks for the comments, Maureen, NursePam and Kfluff!

Maureen, I think that every woman, self-identified feminist or not has something to say that we need to hear -- even women like Ann Coulter who can articulate how some women will not identify with the movement.

Kfluff, I do think that part of the "Big Name"'s insecurities have to do with the general human feeling one has of never really feeling like you're a "Big Name". Everytime you know you're going to be challenged by others in the field, you feel a little terrified of being made to look like a complete jackass. I can totally relate.

" can be discussed, but can't join the discussion."

I think this is ultimately what stratifies the feminist movement. Women of colour, for example, find the discussion of racism in feminism flat because (at least to me) most of the discussion seems very basic. There's no opportunity to address nuance of race relations, and at some point, I think WOC just throw their hands up in frustration.

7/11/2006 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous gatamala said...


As far as I'm concerned, this post puts you "up there" with the ivory tower feminists.

I went to Spelman (female HBCU) & our brand of feminism (even called womynism by some) STILL feels outside the mainstream, white, upper (it's not really MIDDLE) class opining that goes on in academia. The prominent writers we read, weren't even white. That's just how far outside that club we felt and STILL feel!!! I don't really feel that these women speak to me at all. I can't/won't compartmentalize myself. As you have said time and again, we are not women-then non-white, nor non-white-then women but whole beings.

I think Nio does make a good point. Working class and poor voices are systematically and purposefully excluded. Think about it, who really benefitted from the women's movement? Who was it even really about??? The educated daughters/sisters of the CEOs, doctors, politicians etc... Take a good hard look at the women's lib and sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s who DON'T you see? Perhaps because they were already at work....

This post does bring up another question..Is the blogosphere really such an equalizer?????? Or is it another agent of elitism??????

7/11/2006 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

"As far as I'm concerned, this post puts you "up there" with the ivory tower feminists."

I respect that you feel this way but I'm a little unsure what about this post, specifically, throws me in the ivory tower as well. That being said, I won't try to refute that statement, because everyone's idea of who's "in the club" and who's not is different. All I know is that I don't feel part of the club, and have been reminded of this fact on more than one occasion.

I think the blogosphere introduces a level of classism -- obviously all of us enjoy class privilege simply by virtue of being wealthy enough to afford access to a computer and an internet connection, along with enough "idle time" to blog. However, I think it "equalizes" in the sense that so long as you can access these basic things, all voices can be equally heard. Blogspot offers free blogging tool, as does Xanga, LJ, and MySpace -- so we have an opportunity to hear dissenting opinion regardless of numerical majority or minority. So, while it's not a complete equalizer, it does much more to combat the ivory tower problem than it does to further it.

Now, what I think we need to work on is improving net access for all citizens of the country, and even the world.

7/11/2006 04:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jaimie said...

thank you for your kind words and support. I started my blog again. Again, thank you!

7/11/2006 06:23:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

posted on your blog, but welcome back, jaimie! glad to see you're blogging again :)

7/11/2006 06:47:00 PM  
Anonymous gatamala said...

What I meant to say (& probably should have just said) is that your discussions and insight are as well-articulated and worthy of attention and consideration as those who write solely for academia. As for the "club"...I think what we are all alluding to is theory vs. practice. Please don't mistake me as anti-intellectual or anti-academia (thought about going that route at one time), it's just that I believe that there is an elite segment that talks about feminism in the abstract but does not (will not?) include/engage those that could reap its benefits.

I definitely agree w/ your point about blogging combatting the ivory tower. However, I still get the feeling that there is a virtual ivory tower too.

7/12/2006 12:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Nio said...

Hi Jenn:

Your post is awesome and I like that you took responsiblity for your mis-information.

I said this on my own blog but I'll say it again here: just the basic math of a college education puts it out of the reach of many: $30/k/year tution plus the cost of books (~$500/semester). And because one can't commit to many work hour and between semesters, college students are often taken advantage of by employers by paying substandard wages.

The school I went too had the most diversity of any other campus in New Hampshire but still it was overwhelming white and middle-->upper class. And those whom we studied were of the same race/class, even in the 'women studies' classes I took. Constantly I brought up race and class but it was to no avail, the professor just weren't going to assign anyone who wasn't 'in the cannon' or, more accurately, anyone who wasn't mainstream in feminist circles. Christine de Pizan, Queen Elizabeth, EC Stanton, the Grimke sisters, Virginia Woolfe.

My constant agitating for a more inclusive agenda was met with considerable resistance and eventually with me being told I was 'too agressive' by one of my 'women studies' professors.

If you look through the catagory labeled 'skewl' you'll see me rant and rave about this a lot.

Thanks again for the kind words and support.

7/12/2006 08:05:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

"What I meant to say (& probably should have just said) is that your discussions and insight are as well-articulated and worthy of attention and consideration as those who write solely for academia. As for the "club"...I think what we are all alluding to is theory vs. practice. Please don't mistake me as anti-intellectual or anti-academia (thought about going that route at one time), it's just that I believe that there is an elite segment that talks about feminism in the abstract but does not (will not?) include/engage those that could reap its benefits.

I definitely agree w/ your point about blogging combatting the ivory tower. However, I still get the feeling that there is a virtual ivory tower too."

Hey gatamala -- so sorry! I guess I musta misread you, and assumed you were saying something else. My bad!!

And I don't think it's anti-intellectual to argue that there's more to a social movement than academism, and that academism (while a good thing) introduces inherent weaknesses to a movement.

7/13/2006 01:05:00 AM  
Anonymous nonwhiteperson said...

The feminist movement is racist and classist/elitist.

People of color movements are sexist and homophobic.

Unions are racist, sexist and homophobic.

The best part is when women of color blogs are attacked for calling out racism and sexism.


Christine de Pizan, Queen Elizabeth, EC Stanton, the Grimke sisters, Virginia Woolfe.

Nio, Christine de Pisan is the oldest known Western feminist and wrote in the 1300s. The Grimke sisters wrote in the 1800s and Woolf in the early 1900s. Contemporary women's studies, especially those that are not literature based, classes are more inclusive of race and class issues.

7/13/2006 03:10:00 PM  
Anonymous April said...

Excellent post!

7/18/2006 12:14:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

thank you, april!

7/18/2006 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger kactus said...

Jenn, I appreciate you coming out and saying what I've been thinking/feeling about feminism for quite a while--but it has really solidified for me since I started blogging. That's an area in which Gatamala and I agree--the blogosphere may have more diversity of voices, but the white academic feminist blogs are still the ones who are getting the traffic, the advertising money, the links, the opportunities to go to big conferences to talk to other academic feminist bloggers.

I'm mostly self-educated, and as far as self-education goes I haven't done too badly, but I don't understand a lot of what academic feminists are even saying. The language! Could it get more convoluted? The average working class woman who tries to read that nonsense (because if you can't understand it it is nonsense) is going to go away thinking this feminism sure isn't for her. As long as the voices are talking theories and very few are talking action and activism, I don't know how feminism can possibly be relevant to anybody but the elite. And that's a shame, because feminist should, in its purest incarnation, strive to raise up all women.

8/01/2006 03:46:00 AM  
Blogger Ann Bartow said...

Well, I'm an academic, and I blog primarily for other academics, because they are my target blog audience. So I'm probably not going to make any big changes, though writing in a clear and accessible way is a big plus in any context, and I definitely should try harder to do that.

Here is something else to keep in mind, though: A really convoluted, jargon-filled post that invokes the names of different feminist authors and/or feminist theories is often incomprehensible (to all of us!) mainly because the author of the post is trying to sound more knowledgeable than she actually is, or she is intentionally trying to deceive readers, the old "baffle them with BS" approach.

If a blogger makes a coherent point, and then says, "I think this was what Betty Friedan meant when she wrote XYZ in such and such an essay," readers who are not familiar with the Friedan reference can judge the point being made on its own merits; and people with an interest in Friedan can argue about whether that is what she meant, but hopefully no one is completely excluded from the conversation.

The problematic posts for me are the ones where it is claimed that (e.g.) Gloria Steinem said xyz, with no reference to a book or article where she is supposed to have said it, and maybe a few random quotes that don't seem to even address the blogger's point. It's not confusing because it is academic, it's confusing because it is badly written, deceptive and wrong!

Other times bloggers will just say "some feminists" said or do xyz, and I think it is important to ask who and where, so you can judge for yourself the conext and meaning of what is being described. Some bloggers will try to make you feel stupid for doing this, but that is usually a cover for their own ignorance.

If you feel shut out of a conversation because names and jargon are flying, don't be afraid to ask for explanation sand clarifications, and if you don't get it, it's not you!

8/02/2006 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Bitch | Lab said...

Well, as a poor person who writes in the style kactus complains about, I obviously can't agree. My experience working in struggles for social change is that people like Nio grab onto the dominant ideology in this country: antipathy to anything that appears to be intellectual.

This attitude hasn't always been prominent among the poor and culturally marginalized. It was actively cultivated by the elite in this country when the poor and marginlized started demanding a place at the table, wanting to learn about culture, art, literature, theory. They were afraid of the unwashed massess who, they worried, would start to get a taste of freedom and a sense that the world might hold out something other than endless work and scraping by. That it might hold out the possibility of a life of the mind, where people might freely cultivate their capacities and talents under conditions of reason and freedom. Who wants to work in a garment factory, when you might otherwise be working on building the good life for one and all.

So, as Steve Brint and Jerome Karabel show, the elite in this country, especially those at high-powered universities, worked hard at 'diverting the dreams' of the poor and marginalized, funneling their desire for knowledge into desire for vocational training and constantly reminding everyone that book larnin' was useless.

But, in addition to that, I worked with folks in a small community where it became clear that people adapted the posture of anti-intellectualism -- not because they didn't want to or couldn't understand -- but a defensive maneuver against the status elitism that is embedded in and bound up with the pursuit of advanced education. Through that experience, I learned that people are not upset about jargon and, in fact, people with life experiences understand it and want to use those words to help them name the problem. most of them came alive to the possiblities once they were given the chance to actually read, think, and _talk to one another_ by applying their life experiences and figuring out how the concepts helped them think through real life, practical problems -- such as how to deal with regional economic dislocation and depression, how to fight a radioactive waste dump, how to make global connections with other poor communities facing the exploitation wrought by the advances of capitalism.

Well, that's enough for now, but whenever people diss theory in the name of poor people, I can't help but think about the work of people who have decided that poor and marginlined people are saying a whole lot more than "I hate big words" and are really saying "I hate a society where I'm thought a down and out nobody before I ever open my mouth."

People internalize their own oppression.

8/02/2006 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Ann Bartow said...

Hard to imagine a more perfect example of what I was talking about. Bitch/Lab says:

So, as Steve Brint and Jerome Karabel show, the elite in this country, especially those at high-powered universities, worked hard at 'diverting the dreams' of the poor and marginalized, funneling their desire for knowledge into desire for vocational training and constantly reminding everyone that book larnin' was useless.

Either Bitch/Lab assumes y'all are familar with Brint and Karabel, or she assumes you will just take her word for what they say, which I think is a mistake. The posts of anonymous bloggers are no substitute for doing the reading yourself. I, for one, think she is making a pretty gross and inaccurate oversimplification of this essay:

But since it would take a trip to a library to figure out which one of us is correct, I doubt many readers here are going to bother. And, maybe that isn't even the piece of scholarship Bitch/Lab is referring to, since she doesn't specify.

I would say to readers who feel put off by post like this: It isn't you, and it isn't "academia." A good academic will help you learn, rather than making you feel ignorant or stupid. A clueless academic (and we are all clueless someimes) may require a little prompting, but if you ask for clatification and do not receive it, it's their bad, not yours.

8/02/2006 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Ann, your writing is refreshing. You describe yourself as "an academic", yet your writing is at once relevant and engaging to all readers. I won't criticize Bitch | Lab because I think she makes a good point about falling into anti-intellectualism, but frankly, I fear that anti-intellectualism is not the problem here.

I don't believe that Niobium or I were arguing that, at any point, it is *better* to be uneducated, or that the intellectuals should -- in layman's terms -- go to hell. In fact, I think we would both agree that being educated is certainly a worthwhile achievement that all of us strive for. However, Kactus is correct in writing that it is the jargon-using academics who receive most of the attention -- it creates an extremely skewed view of feminism that alienates those who can't understand or simply don't care about the issues that tend to be addressed by the academics. It's not anti-intellectualism -- it's a hope that what is revered in feminism can be shifted to become more all-encompassing and representative of the diversity of women.

8/02/2006 07:47:00 PM  
Blogger Ann Bartow said...

I think you, Niobium and Kactus all have interesting things to say, and I wouldn't want you to feel excluded from any conversation I am a part of. So if if I ever jargon you out, please let me know, and I will try to do better.

8/02/2006 09:07:00 PM  

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