Thursday, May 17, 2007

You Can't Hit What You Can't See

I'm not certain how to approach this. This post may disappear, I guess I should warn you up front, because if asked to remove it I won't hesitate to do so. And someone might well ask me to remove it, because I'm going to talk about another post that disappeared, but which I can't get out of my mind all the same.

And I guess I should throw up one other caveat: This post might be guilty of the white feminist habit of taking an issue important to women of color and making it all about What the White Feminist Thinks About That. Because that's very important stuff to know, and there's a real dearth of white feminist opinion out there!

No, it's like this, though: I can't write with any competence about anything except what all goes on in my head. And it's a white feminist head, so there you go. What I don't want it to be is an overbearing, oppressive white feminist head that tells the brown or the black or the any-other-tinted heads to shut up. That's what I'm trying to avoid here.

Here goes:

Brownfemipower is on vacation. One of the items she posted about before taking a break was the Cinco de Mayo party hosted by some students at the University of Delaware. You can read about that in more detail here, but for right now I think this is one of those times when a picture is worth a thousand words--though not the words on the backs of these shirts:


Here I have to paraphrase from what I recall of this missing post I wanted to yak about: Brownfemipower pointed out that the women at that party doing their best "spicy Latina" impressions weren't "the patriarchy." And this was said in a larger context of, white feminists tend to blame everything on the patriarchy, when meanwhile women of color are just as likely to have the feet of other women, white women, stomping all over them as they are to have any man's.

Brownfemipower was a little fed up with this, with the whole blame-patriarchy-not-me business, and speaking of blame, I sure as hell don't blame her for being angry about that, because who could? She's right.

Yet my defensiveness kicked in, because it always does, so that on first read of this, I thought, "No, no, that is CLASSIC patriarchy--the internalized version." And it is, you know, because patriarchy's whole gig is pitting women, all women, against each other. So one of the socially-encoded numbers you get whipped on you all the time if you're a white woman is the paradox that (1) it's not okay to be sexually provocative, because that makes you a filthy whore, but (2) it's not okay to be sexually demure either, because if you get too content in that role, your man might leave you for someone more enticing. Someone more naturally sensual. Someone with a more voracious sexual appetite. Someone more . . . exotic.

And this is a swell one-two punch, really, because it reinforces racist stereotypes and sexist ones, intertwining both, and it can be flipped right back around for men to wield against women of color: Don't flaunt yourself, don't act so ethnic, why can't you know your place/be gentler/button up more like a white woman, blah blah.

Given all that, it doesn't completely surprise me that some particularly stupid white women would welcome the chance to revel in racist stereotypes like this, because they're getting a stale, crusty, but nonetheless real benefit out of it: They're getting to try on a sexual persona that they believe permits them to act like a whore without actually being labeled a whore. That is precisely why they can't be reminded often enough that they're only escaping the "whore" label by earning the "racist" label instead. They are earning a few hours' sexual liberty on the backs of women of color.

So, deservedly--racists. I'd like to know: Is it worth it now, white female students, to feel so sex-ee, so spicy, so exotic? You know, you're in college; you're supposed to be learning things--including how to recognize and fight against the bullshit standard that says white-heterosexual-female-desire dances like this, but Latina-heterosexual-female-desire dances like this. And that bullshit standard is the stock in trade of Ye Olde Patriarchy, which loves having so many flavors of sexy to choose from.

But here is the thing:

Alcoholism is a disease, or like enough to one to be thought of that way.

If you have dealt with alcoholics at all, you know that sometimes they're total fucking assholes. They're total fucking assholes because they're drunk, and they're drunk because they have this disease, and having that disease isn't their fault, so maybe nonalcoholics shouldn't blame them for being total fucking assholes, but--

--but, when someone is in your face being a total fucking asshole, yelling at you, insulting you, maybe even attempting to get physical with you, you do not see an amorphous blob labeled "ALCOHOLISM." You do not see a cartoon bottle of Jack Daniels before you. You do not see The Big Book. You do not see "a disease." You see a total fucking asshole, in your face and no more than five seconds away from gettin' clocked--by you, because you hate that person just then.

The rage you feel is so deep your bones threaten to snap from it. A disease called "alcoholism" doesn't get drunk and get abusive; a human being does that. Yeah, it's a human being in the throes of a disease that will destroy her eventually, but you don't see that! You see the human being, the person who at the moment you'd almost prefer to see dead.

One thing I will not ever, ever accept is that anyone has a right to shut down the nonalcoholic partner in a relationship with an alcoholic by telling him or her, "Oh, don't get so mad at him/her. She/he has a disease." Listen, the nonalcoholic knows that, and probably a ton better than you do. You don't need to remind them, and you aren't entitled to tell them not to get pissed off, because it's a very pissing-off kind of disease.

And that, I realize, is more or less how I've been feeling about the color divide within feminism lately--like a lot of us need to quit telling women of color to don't get so mad at us, we have a patriarchy. The analogy is flawed in many respects--racism doesn't suddenly sober up and come home with a gift for you, ready to kiss and make up and swear off the hate forever--but it works to illustrate the title. You can't hit what you can't see. I can't hit "alcoholism," not literally, but I can sure as hell hit the jerk trying to drag me down with him, and I have done so, and I'm not sorry, because the jerk hit me first, and hitting him back was unbelievably satisfying.

This is why I say that when Brownfemipower says, "That wasn't the patriarchy," she's right: Some amorphous blob labeled "PATRIARCHY" didn't dress up stupid for a Cinco de Mayo party and have big laughs over racist stereotypes; white women did that. Asking women of color to ignore or excuse that is asking them to ignore whose heels are on their necks. White women, and white feminists especially, we who are supposed to be a little more sensitive to this oppression business, are not entitled to tell women of color to quit being pissed off about their realities, nor are we entitled to "helpfully" correct women of color about what they should really be pissed off about, namely, the patriarchy. You know--"We'll get to your pet issues later! But first--patriarchy."

Look, I don't know Brownfemipower personally, but I know her writing is sharp and I figure from that that she's sharp and so guess what?--I'm pretty sure she knows about patriarchy. I don't think she needs any well-intentioned reminders.

And white feminists know about patriarchy, and we say so all the time, but we don't always acknowledge our own participation in it. Sometimes, I am realizing, I am the drunk fucking asshole. And a breezy "I blame the patriarchy!" isn't going to heal the damage I do when this is so.


Brown Girl said...

As a WoC, I have to side with Brownfemipower on this one (or at least I agree with what you say she said).

I don't believe for a minute that this event is about the ol' patriarchal woman v. woman trick, nor do I believe that those white girls playing at being Latina were getting off on being ethnic sexbots. (Because if that were true, they'd be labeling themselves as hott spics everydamn time they wanted to get off sans guilt, no?)


Personally, I rarely run into white feminists who have the courage to say to my face that my "pet issue" is not as important as dismantling the patriarchy. Mostly, I think that kind of white feminist racism goes on behind the scenes, when, for example, the unique issues that face WoC are glossed over or, worse, by some tacit agreement among white feminists, are never even considered.

I ain't going to give you props for this post neither, because you ain't saying nothing that you shouldn't already be saying.

ilyka said...

Because if that were true, they'd be labeling themselves as hott spics everydamn time they wanted to get off sans guilt, no?

Point. I have no way to know what was going on in their minds. I was thinking of some of the lame Halloween costumes out there, or stuff like this, but as I can't fathom what motivates women to put those on, I can't rule out plain ol' hatred.

And there's nothing sexy about those "Spic-n-Span" shirts, that's for sure.

Donna Darko said...

Hey, Ilyka. In case anyone missed this:

A 2003 report by the Center for the Advancement of Women, Progress and Perils: A New Agenda for Women, noted that few women belong to women’s organizations and that women of color – specifically African American (63%) and Latinas (68%)—had a strong desire for a women’s movement than Caucasian women (41%). These statistics highlight the awkward juxtaposition of a sputtering women’s movement and a growing, potent constituency who crave a movement that puts them at the center.

With the rise of national women of color organizations, an interesting phenomenon is taking place. Several of the newer organizations are being led by young women, including NAPAWF, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and Refugee Women’s Network, to name a few. In NAPAWF’s case, though our founding sisters are now in their 40s and 50s, they consciously stepped back and created space that allowed for young leadership.

ilyka said...

These statistics highlight the awkward juxtaposition of a sputtering women’s movement and a growing, potent constituency who crave a movement that puts them at the center.

You had an allusion to this (or to the general idea at least) in your Imperative post, am I right?

Those numbers are not ignorable or dismissable forever, anymore than global warming is--except that there's actually a reason to fear global warming. Not really any reason to fear that more women of color are getting into the women's movement, unless you're deeply anxious about your own turf in that movement.

Donna said...

Donna Darko and I are two different people. We are both WOC and friendly acquaintances though. I don't think DD has a blog, so I am assuming you mean my imperative post.

ilyka said...

Oh, crap. I am so sorry. Yes, Donna, I meant yours.

Donna Darko said...


Ilyka, the article was posted on feministing yesterday. Check the NAPAWF postings.

Isabel said...

This reminds me of when I was doing research for a project on badass Socialist anarchist labor-activist anti-marriage Puerto Rican (of the 1910s, no less! this woman is almost my hero except for her homophobia. sigh) feminist Luisa Capetillo.

She would participate in the Socialist movement (which was apparently a sizeable force in 1910s Puerto Rico; who knew?) and she would try to say, hey, you know, working-class women have issues beyond what their working-class husbands experience, like, when their working-class husbands come home and beat the crap out of them, and the male Socialist leaders would be like, "Now now, they only do that because they are So! Oppressed! By! Capitalism! when the revolution happens, don't worry, they will be happy all the time and will never hit their wives again, especially since their wives won't have to work and can return to their normal sphere," and Luisa Capetilo would do her badass thing and write angry screeds in her self-published feminist newsletter (in 1910s! Puerto Rico!) about how they just Didn't Get It. They didn't understand that, yes, (in their view at least) capitalism was a problem, a big one, a soul-sucking life-wasting one, but there are other problems too and while they may be exacerbated by capitalism and intersect with capitalism, they are not all caused by capitalism, and sometimes you need to own up to that.

I think it's a similar issue here, the wanting to blame everything on your own pet hate. A rather unnuanced view of the world.

ilyka said...

male Socialist leaders would be like, "Now now, they only do that because they are So! Oppressed! By! Capitalism! when the revolution happens, don't worry, they will be happy all the time and will never hit their wives again, especially since their wives won't have to work and can return to their normal sphere,"

Now there's a shoe that fits too well. "Don't worry, when the revolution happens, white feminists will be happy all the time and will never dismiss women of color again, especially since the women of color won't have to be recruited as feminist allies and can return to their normal spheres." As nannies, cooks, laborers, factory workers . . . .

little light said...

How have I not been reading you all the time? Seriously. Thank you, from this woman of color.

belledame222 said...


besides all which, and relative to the content of what you're saying is a perhaps a niggling point, but probably worth mentioning: the very framing implicit in the word "patriarchy." That is, it implies that everything can still be framed in terms of the primary oppression, i.e. sexism.

whereas, someone else might use the term, say, "white supremacy." Which doesn't necessarily mean they don't care about sexism any more than someone who says "patriarchy" doesn't care about racism, just: this is the overarching framework.

or, as Isabel says, someone else might say "Capitalism," or maybe "imperialist hegemony" or some such, and expect everyone to understand that this is shorthand for Systemic Oppression.

personally I don't believe any one of those is the "primary" one.

so, I think I understand what bfp means when she says it wasn't the "patriarchy:" yes to what you said, but even more so: bfp, I'm fairly certain, sees "patriarchy" as coming AFTER colonialism. Therefore, she's not gonna frame what she sees as first and foremost an expression of that, racism, in sexist or even "patriarchal" terms.

any more than a socialist is going to use the radical feminist understanding of "class" (Class Man, Class Woman) when sie talks about socioeconomic disparity.