Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Review: Scratching the Surface

[Enakshi Dua and Angela Robertson, eds. Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-racist Feminist Thought. Toronto: Women's Press, 1999.]

Scratching the Surface is a collection of essays representing a cross-section of analysis from anti-racist feminists in Canada. The contributors include many of the best-known activists and writers whose energies have helped shape that tradition in this country both on the ground and in the academy, including women like Dionne Brand, Linda Carty, Tania Das Gupta, Himani Bannerji, Sedef Arat-Koc, and Sherene Razack.

I mentioned in a recent post that, last week, I finished writing the chapter of my book project that had been occupying me for some time and moved on to another chapter. Though my writing so far has kind of jumped around, I had been intending to write the remainder of the book more or less in order. But given the fact that the chapters can largely stand on their own and that there is not a need for strong attention to narrative continuity across chapters, I realized it made more sense to do things a little differently, and instead to pay attention to creating efficiencies by writing those chapters that might use some of the same sources at around the same time even if they will not be physically adjacent in the manuscript as a whole. For that reason, I am jumping from the recently completed Chapter 4 into working on Chapter 10, and will then go back to write 6, 7, and then probably 9.

One of the outcomes of this shift in scheduling has been to make me feel more justified in going back and re-reading a number of books that I first read years ago, books that are relevant to all of these upcoming chapters to a greater or lesser degree. The book that is the subject of this review is one of these. I think I originally bought and read it about six years ago. After completing a second journey through the text, I am very glad that I did. It has given me a couple of useful references to stick into the chapter just completed, and it will provide a useful grounding for my thinking as I write the next three or four chapters. As well, my own understanding of the world has developed quite a bit since I first read this book -- though it was an important influence when I first read it, I have definitely gotten more out of it from this second exposure.

The strongest impression left on me by my second encounter with this collection is the consistent strength of the pieces that comprise it -- usually with books with this structure I find more variability in quality and interest-to-me across the contributions.

Of course there is still some variation. A couple of the pieces have lost some relevance with the passage of time, such as the essay on economic restructuring and women of colour, just because the process has continued to march on in significant ways since this was published. But even some of these are still important reads today -- for example, one piece organized as a dialogue among several feminists of colour about organizing is definitely situated in a particular historical moment, and there have been lots of changes in political environment between the late '90s and 2007, but in terms of providing insight into organizing by women of colour that feels nuanced and whole (if that word makes any sense in this context) and something that is an actual process engaged in by actual people, it is far more effective than a piece that was written yesterday but was, say, structured in a more traditionally academic way.

Of course different contributions are of interest to me in different ways and for different reasons. The chapter in my own book that I am just easing myself into writing focuses on an African Nova Scotian woman who has been involved in community organizing all of her life and has been active in the labour movement, particularly around racism, for many years as well. Therefore Dionne Brand's essay, "Black Women and Work" and Ronnie Joy Leah's "Do You Call Me 'Sister'?" were both of very direct relevance. As well, the former is a reprinting of a classic intervention by Brand in the the often heated discussions among white and racialized feminists in the late '80s about race and racism, and is of great interest for that reason too. Sedef Arat-Koc's piece on immigration policy and paid domestic workers in Canada was also of direct practical use to one section of the chapter I just finished writing.

The essay that was the most work for me was Sharon Donna McIvor's look at "Self-Government and Aboriginal Women." I think this is largely because my introduction to that topic has been primarily through the work of Patricia Monture-Angus. Monture-Angus and McIvor share a commitment to undoing the centuries of damage that colonialism has done to their peoples, but they also have analyses that are different in some pretty important ways. Frankly, I think I feel more connection to Monture-Angus' work because it seems to contain scope for a more explicit to-the-root kind of questioning of certain assumptions about the Canadian state. Nonetheless, both are important ways for a white male settler such as yours truly to learn about indigenous struggles and their relationship to the law.

The two essays in the collection that I found most powerful were "Colonialism and First Nations Women in Canada" by Winona Stevenson and "A Question of Silence: Reflections on Violence Against Women in Communities of Colour" by Himani Bannerji.

Now, I've read this book before, so I must've read Stevenson's essay before, but I experienced this reading of it as a first opportunity to go from the bare bones knowledge that colonization usually includes a forced radical reorganization of gender, sexuality, and kinship among the colonized peoples along horrid, European, patriarchal, repressed lines, and turn it into a more detailed sense of how that actually happened in northern North America. It is probably a reflection of years of white, middle-class, masculinity training that I read a lot of stuff about pretty bad things and often enough it hits me in the head but leaves my body untouched. But not this. This essay made me angry, physically angry.

Bannerji's essay is on no less affecting a subject, but she does not necessarily discuss violence against women directly but rather contextualizes violence against women of colour within broader social relations. She takes apart the notion of "community" as it is deployed by both the state in the context of liberal-democratic multiculturalism in Canada, and the dominant actors within the "communities" thus defined. She discusses how "community" in this sense is socially organized, how it is both a product of colonial/racial oppression and serves to shape and is shaped by patriarchal relations. She fixes her gaze unrelentingly on the oppression, whether it is from male elites in communities or from the colonial state. Her essay was powerful for me not so much because of any visceral triggering, but because her vision is so sweeping and her naming so clear. Bannerji writes:

Though it may sound like a tall order, it is possible to enter our politics through the door of particular 'women's issues,' for example, and come into the arena of a general political resistance. It is only in doing this that one can shape one's politics in ways that are nuanced by other struggles, where what comes out is the convergence of various politics against oppression, and not their separate directions. I don't think we need to fear a loss of specificity, of our selves, in a vast sea of abstraction or generalities controlled by others. If we can frame our critique and create organizations that challenge patriarchy, heterosexism, class, and 'race' with even a semblance of integrity, we will create the bases for an embodied, social revolution.

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


Red Jenny said...

Sounds like an excellent read. Thanks for the review.

Pedric said...

"... a forced radical reorganization of gender, sexuality, and kinship among the colonized peoples along horrid, European, patriarchal, repressed lines ..."

lol -- a exemplary outcry of guilt-repressed irony. :-D Congratulations. You have a wonderfully spontaneous bent for involuntary political comedy. The cherished fruit of an embraced ideology.

Scott said...

Interesting response there pedric...there is certainly some component of my response to the essay on the impact of colonization on kinship, gender, and sexuality that is about my own experience and psychology -- that is probably where the decision to include the word "horrid" comes from -- but you have rather missed the boat in identifying what that component is. But then, from your comment, I get the sense that you miss the boat rather a lot, don't you?

If you feel like actually engaging with the content of the post or, even better, of the book itself, come on back and I'd be happy to do that. I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about the impacts of colonization, for example. But then, I don't really expect you to do that, because then you'd have to think critically, come up with your own opinions, that kind of thing.