[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 . 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 .
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" . 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.
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