Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: States of Race

[Sherene Razack, Malinda Smith, and Sunera Thobani, editors. States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2010.]

When faced with the awful, violent, oppressive social world that produces each and every one of us, the basic question is, "What do I do?" That gets asked and answered in different ways depending on your particular experience of social relations -- the variant that sounds like "What issues should I get involved with?" is usually a product of privilege, whereas "How can I best engage in this fight that I've been forced into since birth?" is more a consequence of oppression, to give one simple example. However, it is a question of relevance to all of us.

One recurrent theme in debates surrounding social change activity and relevant academic theorizing over at least the last forty years can be understood as conflict about how and how much we should recognize that the real world is a pretty complicated place. It doesn't break down to an easy polarization, but one point upon which many variants of one side in this debate implicitly or explicitly depend is that our movements are weakened if we recognize complexity, and we should focus on thought/action that is simplified and speaks to as broad a range of people as possible. You can see this in lots of quite different contexts -- from (mostly-white, mostly-male) academic marxists being dismissive of politics grounded in close attention to race or gender, or to the importance of discourse; to simplistic economic populism being touted as an answer to the flagging fortunes of liberal and progressive politics; to the arrogance displayed by much of the male New Left towards women's struggles, and by many subsequent feminist formations to struggle and theory produced by radical women of colour; to the countless, constant ways in which very real limitations in capacity and resources in contemporary social movement spaces are used as excuses to justify reproduction of racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all the rest. Refusal to recognize the complexity of the world is generally not the fundamental issue in these cases -- usually it is a refusal to acknowledge and deal with privilege in a politically responsible way. However, the refusal of complexity is at least a way-station through which all of these different trains travel. And, obviously, such a rejection is politically troubling, to say the least, because it involves erasing, dismissing, silencing, derailing, and otherwise raising a big ol' middle finger to whoever is not centred in whatever simplification is being embraced. Which usually ends up being the same folks who are always on the receiving end of such treatment.

At the same time, complexity is, well, complicated. We can't do everything, say everything, take everything into account. No real world political practice based in a finite group of people can do it. No single piece of analysis can do it. The politics of purity and of paralysis that result from fear of ever messing up don't do anyone any favours. However, both in terms of political practices and in terms of written analysis, it is possible to adopt ways of approaching the partial slice of the complex world that you are dealing with that are responsible, that seek dialogue, and that are open to challenge and to transformation -- that is, that integrate a responsiveness to how complicated is the social organization of the awful violence and oppression that are endemic to current social relations.

This volume does not focus particularly on the question of action, but rather takes on the essential task of mapping out the ways in which oppressive social relations in particular corners are organized. It comes from that spectrum of political thinkers that has always been one of the most important sources of such complex, grounded, open, and responsible analysis: those who identify with (overlapping but not synonymous) labels like "anti-racist feminism" and "woman of colour feminism" and "womanism" and "indigenous feminism" and "critical race feminism." My sense is that this book is intended as one more small, steady step in elaborating those perspectives in the Canadian context.

The eight essays in this volume are written by critical race feminists based in the Canadian academy, including names I know like Sherene Razack, Sunera Thobani, and Patricia Monture, as well as several others whose work I have never encountered before. The essays cover a lot of ground, but the three themes that stood out most clearly for me are the academy, the so-called 'global war on terror,' and whiteness.

Patricia Monture writes about the struggles to survive and thrive that she and other racialized women have faced in Canadian universities. Malinda Smith traces efforts to redress historical barriers to white women and women and men of colour in the academy. Over time, universities have transitioned from a social justice frame for dealing with such questions to a neoliberal diversity frame, and along the way have implemented changes that primarily benefit white women as the principle "Other" and render racialized people and people marginalized in other ways as "other Others" whose full inclusion in the academy is perpetually deferred. Yasmin Jiwani examines media portrayals of Muslim women and the issue of veiling in the Canadian context in stories set within Canada and in those set in Afghanistan, the country in which Canadian troops are currently part of an army of occupation. Sherene Razack builds on her earlier work that expands Giorgio Agamben's idea of the 'state of exception' to examine yet another area of treatment of racialized Muslims by the Canadian state, in this case the situation of "security delayed" refugee claimants.

The one essay that does not quite fit the three central themes that I've outlined is Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez's discussion of indigenous women, nationalism, and feminism. She challenges the tendency among some indigenous nationalisms to subordinate the experiences and struggles of women to the cause of national liberation. She makes arguments based on a sensitive understanding of the cultural and political diversity of indigenous women that argues against the patrolling of political boundaries with the weapon of 'authenticity' and that points out the at least partially colonial character of many discourses of indigeneity that many such nationalisms are based on, given the powerful role of colonizing states and other oppressive institutions in shaping the idea of "the indigenous."

Sunera Thobani looks at writings about the so-called war on terror by three white North American women who embrace the label "feminist:" second-wave icon turned neocon Phyllis Chesler; postmodern feminist superstar and strong anti-war/anti-occupation voice Judith Butler; and socialist-feminist Zillah Eisenstein, who is also anti-war and anti-imperialist. Despite the diversity of their politics, Thobani identifies underlying elements that are similar across all three relating to their discussion of (or silences about) white supremacy and Western imperial supremacy. Sedef Arat-Koç's contribution is a fascinating article about the reconfiguration of whiteness in the neoliberal era, noting several ways in which the simple equation between whiteness and privilege has been shaken in the current era -- the erosion of welfare states expelling some of the white working classes from automatic access to certain privileges they have been able to count on for several generations; the tenuous hold on whiteness held by some Eastern Europeans in the new Europe; and the social whitening of some local elites in so-called Third World countries through immense class privilege. She points out, of course, that this complication of the social consequences of whiteness is not the same as the disappearance of white supremacy, or even its weakening, given the ways in which the so-called war on terror and various flavours of anti-immigrant politics are part of larger patterns "which simultaneously exclude and incorporate marginal whites in whiteness" and stabilize white supremacy [164]. The final essay is by Gada Mahrouse, and it uses the examples of transnational solidarity activism and socially responsible tourism to talk about ways in which uncritically embraced efforts to "do good," even with a social justice frame, can reproduce "racial liberalism" and therefore white supremacy when not examined through a critical race feminist lens [169].

In reading this book, I became quite conscious that despite the increasing availability of such rich, nuanced analyses of aspects of the social relations which surround me and produced me, far too often I feel that the variant of "What do I do?" that is most relevant to my decision-making is one embarassingly steeped in privilege and in the paralysis that poorly navigated privilege often produces. I have the sense that my interventions in the world which are organized around writing are at least partially (with no shortage of problems and perhaps more aspiration than realization) responsive to work like that in this volume. And my everyday, individual, non-writing interventions may not always reflect the courage that my politics demand, but the various imperatives to not be silent, to figure out your own stuff, and to generally be a responsible ally are knowable and, generally, known. But I feel that the collective interventions in the world to which I contribute these days have done much, much less to take up the challenge that such work makes to all of us. I'm thinking particularly of the white-dominated social movement left that is currently my main political home.

I'm not satisfied with any of the explanations I currently have for this lack of collective responsiveness. Though some of us prioritize such responsiveness in principal, many do not, and the combination of privilege-based resistance and privilege-based paralysis can be pretty toxic. However, I think one element beyond that is the unreflective attachment that many of our groups have to particular practices and tactics that are predicated on the existence of a clear (and oversimplified) external opponent and an implicit rejection of complexity, even though many of us know better. I think this is part of the reason why hard political work on practices at the individual level often fall down in the translation to collective practices, especially when it comes to things like grounding our political work in seeing our own complicity and to seeing ourselves as existing within-and-against oppressive social relations. Perhaps one fruitful path will be to combine the sort of analysis that Mahrouse begins to lay out in her essay with a greater willingness to set aside our existing biases about what "the real work" looks like.

In any case, this book is an important contribution by an important group of scholars whose work has not had nearly as broad an impact as it deserves. As the editors discuss academic resistance to change, they note, "With few exceptions, the disciplinary literatures evidence a kind of amnesia, containment of the 'race question,' or systematic forgetting" [10]. Those of us doing intellectual labour both within and outside the academy must continue to prioritize this struggle against "systematic forgetting," both as it manifests in ourselves and in its broader, social expressions.

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


thwap said...


I'll acknowledge that I've been the recipient of white, male privilege and that that informs my analysis.

At the same time though, I've always tried to advocate for a general mass-movement that doesn't deny complexity and which doesn't demand that the people in that book renounce the identity politics that are important to them and submerge themselves in the activism created by a member of a traditionally privileged demographic.

One way of looking at things is that we're pretty much all going on a downward trajectory and have for the past 30 years. What's some ways that all of us can change the direction of the trajectory, change the things that are damaging to us all.

thwap said...


Scott said...

Hi thawp!

A "general mass-movement that doesn't deny complexity" sounds really good! Like I said, I'm not sure that those of us in the white-dominated North American social movement left are particularly well equipped to help make that happen, at least in some respects, though I know lots of us want to. And certainly there is nothing for us to do but keep acting in the world and listening to allies and learning from our mistakes and acting some more.

I think the point I'm making, or one point that I agree with even if I wasn't really making it in this post, is that the kind of nuanced attention to the social relations that we want to transform that is modelled by the authors in this volume -- and I wouldn't necessarily call this "identity politics," at least not as conventionally understood, though I do think the white male left needs to be more respectful of such politics -- is not just some request not to be submerged but a challenge to all of us who claim to struggle against oppression and exploitation to open our politics and our selves up to transformation. That isn't some sort of contradiction with "a general mass-movement that doesn't deny complexity," it is precisely how such a movement is most likely to happen. It's not about leaving them alone to do their thing, it's about organizing our movements in ways that don't erase or marginalize or exclude people, and pushing for goals from the shortest-term reform to long-term transformation that don't erase or marginalize or exclude people -- and the kind of listening and learning and thinking that are most likely to help all of us work towards such goals.

I agree that there are lots of starting places for alliance in struggle against neoliberalism. The question remains how to create those alliances. I think the lowest common denominator coalition politics implicit in many models of working against that trajectory that is damaging to us all -- and I'm not saying this is necessarily the case in what you're saying, but it is quite common -- is just not a good enough answer. It is not an answer that will produce movements that can win, I don't think.

thwap said...

Well, if finding something that everybody can agree with, while simultaneously containing nothing that all these diverse groups can find disagreeable isn't going to work, then I've no idea what will.

I'm not sure how anything can be accomplished unless people work together.

Unless you're worry is that the "lowest common denominator" strategy is somehow based on forcing people to put their own goals and aspirations aside in order to bring about this less-personally satisfying alternative.

The 'LCD' strategy has to be seen as part of way to achieve the more individually satisfying goals.

Scott said...

Hi again!

So I've spent some of my few spare moments today trying to figure out the actual political content of our disagreement here, and I'm not sure I understand it.

I think we agree that large, vibrant social movements are key to social change.

I think we maybe differ on how we think that might happen, but it is very unclear to me how we differ.

I argue in the post that this book contains examples of analyses of social relations in different contexts and at different scales; that the social relations they describe shape the experiences of all of us related to those contexts; and that to truly transform those contexts we need to understand how they exist now, not in a simplified way but in their full and glorious complexity (or as close as we can manage). I also argue that there are many left-ish spaces and groups and movements that have argued against that, or that make no argument at all and simply refuse to engage with it and proceed about their business in silent disagreement. I include in this many of the white-dominated social movement left spaces that I have been a part of or am aware of in Ontario. And I say that I think this is a political problem. Because willfull ignorance doesn't seem to be a good way to build successful movements.

So, for example, lots of unions and student groups and progressive faculty and all the rest say they are committed to high-quality, accessible post-secondary education. I can imagine that happening in ways that defined "accessible" and "quality" in ways that were responsive to the analyses in this book (and others like it) about the social relations of the Canadian academy. I can also imagine it happening in ways that completely ignored the complex-but-real relations described in this book. Both of those might place emphasis on broadly experienced barriers like, say, lowering tuition fees or making the paid labour of graduate students less precarious, but their ways-of-work and broader politics would be profoundly different. As might who they manage to mobilize, who they marginalize, and what they actually manage to accomplish in terms of quality and access.

So has anything I've said made it easier to identify the actual substance of what we're disagreeing about? I'm not sure...

thwap said...


I'll be back!

thwap said...


... between me typing your name and now, my three year old woke up.

very quickly, i was getting the impression that we're not supposed to try to impose a meta-strategy for all these different groups at all, and if we do, it should somehow not come from white males, ... which i reject as i have no intention of being a bit-player in my own life, just i wouldn't make anybody a bit-player in their own lives.

If i propose something, people are free to reject it, embrace it, debate it, as they wish.

I got the impression that that was somehow "imperialist" and oppressive from the review.

Scott said...

Hi again.

Hmmmmm...no, that's not what I was saying at all. I think there are a few possible takeaway points for folks with the sorts of privileges with which you and I move through the world, but that we should be bit-players in our own lives is decidedly not one of them.

One might be that the kinds of complexity of social relations sketched out in the essays in this book (a) surround us all the time and (b) always shape our experiences and the context in which we make political decisions, whether we acknowledge these things or not.

Another might be that acting well in the world, including and perhaps especially while engaging in collective political world that aims to be genuinely liberatory, means understanding the context in which we're acting, which means engaging fully with (a) and (b) above.

Another is the fact that both historically and in the present, there are lots of examples of that not being done well at all. That includes much of the white-dominated social movement left in Ontario.

I think, though, that rather than asking people to be less present in their own lives or in their political work, it is in part asking people to be more present -- present in ways that, for example, acknowledge that race and gender are just as relevant to shaping who we are as anyone else, and just as much a factor in organizing the social relations into which we are trying to intervene, and just as likely to shape the consequences of our actions. It is challenging us to start from a place of thinking about how race and gender factor in to what we're doing and how we're doing it.

That doesn't mean not being an anti-war activist, say, or not being an activist in our union. It means thinking about how we do those things and about how we relate to what people we want to ally with are doing and saying.