[Vijay Agnew. Resisting Discrimination: Women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean and the Women's Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.]
One metaphor used by certain marxists to capture some of the important features of the capitalist world system is the idea that it has a "centre" and a "periphery". I don't know the history of this particular terminology, I'm afraid, and my appreciation of it as metaphor might not perfectly reflect its technical use or the historical conflicts over its content, but as far as I understand it this way of talking about the world is useful to get across both the idea that geographically disparate regions of the globe are in fact tied together by the relations that are part of capital rather than being completely discrete, as well as the idea that those relations tend to empower and benefit some regions (the centre) and disempower and impovrish others (the periphery) in ways that are interconnected.
I don't read or think or write much about what happens at that rarified level. However, once upon a time when I was struggling to find a way to write about how power and privilege can shape social movements, it occurred to me that the metaphor of centre and periphery is a very apt one in many cases. I welcome counter-examples, but it is applicable to every instance of North American social movements that I can think of. Movements coalesce in response to some sort of pattern of grievances or exploitation or oppression. Often what begins as a vibrant but self-contradicting jumble becomes more internally consistent and coordinated as the movement grows in breadth and power and challenges the oppression in question. In that process of becoming consistent and coordinated, almost invariably the specific experiences of a subset of the people who experience the grievance, oppression, or exploitation in question become the guiding standpoint for much of the movement. Almost invariably, the subset at the centre is more privileged in some or several ways than the subset whose specific experiences of that grievance, oppression, or exploitation are relegated to the periphery of the movement or, in some cases, cast out entirely.
As I said, it is much more difficult to find examples where this has not been true than where it has. For example, the inspirational moment for queer liberation in North America at the Stonewall riots was initiated mostly by working-class gender non-conforming, women, and trans people, including many who were racialized, yet the form of the queer movement in North America today centres politics based on the experiences of relatively privileged gay white men (and to a lesser extent relatively privileged lesbian women) and those whose ways of doing queerness are somewhat less in conflict with the dominant norms. Or look at the labour movement, which has a long history in North America of excluding completely or including but subordinating -- that is, making into the periphery -- white women and racialized women and men, and people who work but not for a wage, and basing its politics on various versions of the white working-class man who receives a wage or a subset thereof. There have been lots of efforts to change that in the last few decades, including a powerful trade union feminist movement that first emerged in Canada in the 1970s and movements against racism within unions that first became visible in their modern form in the 1980s, and certainly pockets exist where significant transformation has occurred or is in progress. However, there are many more union spaces that have changed little, or at least far from enough, and the overall struggle is far from won.
One of the most interesting-to-me examples of this phenomenon is the women's movement and its relationship to racism and to indigenous women and women of colour -- whiteness, of course, has historically been at the centre of the movement in North America, just as with the labour, queer, peace, and plenty of other movements. I think the particular historical and ongoing struggle in the context of the feminist movement is one that all of us need to learn from whether it is a space in which we have been active or not precisely because it is probably the movement that has worked the hardest to meet the challenges from its own perihpery, and those of us in other movements need to learn about how that hard work has happened. And we also need to pay attention to it because despite those many years of hard work, many racialized women continue to point out the ways that there remain many spaces and places across North America (and online) rooted in the white-dominated women's movement that still fail to adequately deal with racism and to de-centre whiteness from their politics.
It is because of this general political interest as well as its relevance to the next couple of chapters of my work that I read Resisting Discrimination. It is measured in pace and tone but quite readable for a text that comes out of academia. It begins with some useful history/herstory that I was not expecting, of issues of race in the context of the first wave of feminist movement in Canada. Then it goes on to explore race and gender in mainstream feminist practice in the '70s, including a critique of consciousness raising groups, and in the '80s, with a focus on efforts at coalition politics like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and the Toronto International Women's Day committee. It moves on to considering how these issues have played out at the level of discourse in a variety of ways, and the way that systemic racism has always been a part of Canadian immigration policy. The latter in particular, though the basics were not new to me, presented the material in a more rigorously gendered way than I had seen it before.
Much of the original research in the book was based on interviews with women of colour active in women's organizations grounded in African, Asian, and Caribbean communities in Ontario, as well as attendance by the author at events and meetings of those groups over a few years. She talks about the form that those organizations have taken and their relationship to the state, with attention both to the troubling impact of the tentacles of state control exerted through funding and efforts by women of colour and white women to challenge policies around things like language training and domestic workers. The final chapter looks at how women's organizations in these communities had begun, by the period of the research, to address issues of violence against women.
The book presents some important pieces of the past and records some important information about how women of colour have organized themselves in Canada, as well as the obstacles they have faced from the state, from their own communities, and from the mainstream of the women's movement -- as well as the opportunities and resources that each of those three have also at times provided. While as a former employee of a mainstream non-state but state-funded organization I appreciated Agnew's open appraisal of the ways in which control flows with dollars, I was disappointed that the academic research orientation of the text prevented a more creative exploration of how women of colour and, by extension, other organizations might struggle against or even escape that. I also quite liked the way Agnew presented her reflections on her methodology because it was done in a more thorough and nuanced discussion than you usually see even in feminist texts. It included a recognition that many of the women of colour in many of the groups that she studied were dismissive of the value of academic research; I wish she'd taken that as an opening to talk at more length about various issues connected to knowledge production and social movements.
Overall this is an unexciting but useful book that traces some of the important aspects of the experiences of African, Caribbean, and Asian women in Canada up to the early 1990s. It does not attempt to tackled the full question of social movements, their centres, and their peripheries, but it is one important input when considering such questions in the context of the crucial example of the women's movement in Canada.
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