Monday, January 08, 2007

Review: Color of Violence

[Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology. Boston: South End Press, 2006.]

Women engaged in anti-violence work hold a unique place in my slowly progressing book project, which uses the stories of long-time Canadian activists to bring to light histories of Canadian social movements and slices of historical and current reality in Canada that tend to be erased and excluded. Though the book project will be able to use in a major way only a subset of the interviews, I originally compiled 47 oral history interviews with a total of 50 activists. The only essential characteristic of the participants was that they had been active in social movements for at least two decades, preferably more, and at least some of that time was in Canada. They were selected to cover as broad a range as possible of geographical locations within the country, identities, eras, and movements.

Given that mandate for breadth, it is perhaps a bit surprising that of the 29 women that I interviewed, 6 have had extensive experience in organizing in response to violence -- or, perhaps given the reality of endemic violence faced by women from both men and from the state, this is not surprising at all. Regardless, though there might be other areas where I would consider such duplication to be a sign of poor planning on my part, I am not at all disappointed in this instance. Given the amount of material, the importance that I personally attach to the issue, and the range of stories from these women, I have tenatively planned that this will end up being the only issue which is the focus of not one but two of the twelve chapters. These women have been active in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Woodstock, Toronto, Montreal, and Yellowknife. One is a white woman who has been involved in that aspect of the movement since early in the second wave and is still a prominent voice of (pardon my adoption of simplistic typology) radical feminism in Canada today. The other five women are racialized, four South Asian and one Metis. Of the former group, one approached the issue from an Islamic standpoint, two have a long history of involvement in a secular but specifically South Asian women's organization, and one (who also identifies as a lesbian) has been involved both through white-dominated women's movement spaces and in a multi-racial women of colour organization. The Metis woman has been active primarily in the far north. I have no idea yet how I'm going to structure it, but there is plenty of material that covers enough stories, facts, and themes to fill two chapters without becoming redundant.

There is hardly a chapter in the book where this isn't an issue, but obviously the fact that I am a middle-class white guy who gets to make decisions about what to include and how to frame this material -- material based in at least four quite different and sometimes conflicting politics among these six women -- has some serious potential to be politically problematic. Nothing can make that go away, and I hope the chance to bring important ideas and voices to new audiences is worth the risk that I might do something idiotic. But me doing lots of the right sort of reading can perhaps help me navigate the challenge more effectively and help me deal with a maximum of respect with the words with which I have been gifted.

Hence me reading this book.

Color of Violence is an anthology of essays by radical women of colour involved in the organization Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (a group with which one of my favourite bloggers is active, as a matter of fact.) This vibrant and effective organization focuses on an analysis of violence that covers both gendered interpersonal violence and gendered violence from the state. Incite! argues that the white-dominated women's movement tends to neglect the latter, especially as it is experienced by racialized women, while movements based in communities of colour that oppose state violence from things like prisons, policing, and border militarization very often lack an analysis of the former.

One contributor is, I believe, a British woman who currently has an academic appointment at a Canadian university, but the vast majority of the book is very clearly U.S. American. This means that a lot of the factual details are from that context and therefore not directly applicable to my work. As well, the particular spectrum of experiences of gendered racialization among the contributors are somewhat different than if a similar anthology was produced in Canada -- particularly, just because of the relative sizes of the communities, I suspect there would be fewer essays by Latina women and more by South and East Asian women in a Canadian volume. None of those differences, however, make the book any less useful. What matters to me is to learn about the politics, and my sense is that radical women of colour in Canada would have much the same range of analyses as their sisters in the United States. And this is a great, great volume to learn about those politics.

Talking about specific content in collections like this is always difficult. There was strong representation from West Asian and particularly Palestinian women talking about the Palestinian struggle. There were essays bringing a critical analysis to things like choice (as used in a feminist context), adoption policies, and disability. I quite appreciated Andrea Smith's essay "Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy," which uses an analysis similar to things I've heard from experienced anti-racist activists from Toronto. It links current experiences of racialization to the historical organization of the oppressions of different groups, in particular the genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans, and the colonialism (Smith uses "orientalism/war") experienced by other people of colour. I also found Andrea Ritchie's essay "Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color" to be very powerful. Perhaps the most interesting section of the book, however, is the final one, which focuses on essays related to movement building, many of which should be of interest to anyone doing any sort of grassroots organizing.

As I said, I read this book with a very particular project in mind. However, I like to choose my reading for that project such that it also will end up, as much as I can manage, giving me the sort of general radical political education I would want to have anyway. Particularly for those of us with relative privilege, it must be an integral part of our politics to challenge ourselves with material produced from other standpoints, that takes us out of what we know and have participated in directly ourselves. Despite the absense of any specifically Canadian content, I think this book can be a crucial piece of political education for any activist in North America.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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