Daily Archives: Tuesday 29 April 2008

What’s a white woman to say?

Cross-posted at The Hand Mirror

I have been a bit slow on the posting front recently, because I have been trying to get my head around a Flying-spaghetti-monster-Almighty stoush in the feminist blogosphere. That’s a bit of an exaggeration; it’s mostly to do with US feminism, but US feminism does dominate world wide English speaking feminism, and more than that, the problems thrown into stark relief by the incredible dust-up are not just American problems. It’s a complicated story, and I don’t think that I can tell it well, nor do I even want to tell it. But as far as I can tell, it hasn’t made its way into the wider blogosphere, much, except on some leftie blogs – see for example, this thread at Larvatus Prodeo. So I want to bring this to the attention of my New Zealand e-friends and readers.

Where to start? Probably with a very general statement, that the stoush was, very roughly, between American women-of-colour (WoC) feminists, and American white feminists. Even the use of that term, WoC, tells you that this is a US-centric dispute; the term is not much in use in the parts where I live (that would be in Australia and New Zealand). And there’s history here. There have been disputes between American white feminists and American WoC feminists before, and disputes in the blogosphere. I’m not so aware of the previous history in the blogosphere; I read just a very few NZ-based blogs until about 18 months ago, and I only started blogging myself about nine months ago, so I know nothing myself of these old disputes, but I can see that the rumbles go on, and on, and on.

The basic cause of conflict lies in the extent to which feminism is a white, middle-class movement. Very roughly, white women are inclined to see feminism and gender issues as the base issues, and they subsume all other issues to them; WoC (correctly) point out that racism is one hell of an issue too, and the intersection of racism and gender is particularly vexed. Moreover, the way that white women approach feminism is itself racist.

No one (or at least, no one I know) likes being called racist. It’s a charge we reject, and for the most part, if someone calls us racist, our instinct is to get defensive, and to defend our behaviour, rather than to stop and examine what we have been saying and doing. So I’m guessing that if you are a white woman or a white man reading this, then you will be inclined to stop listening around about now. But please don’t.

Given this account of the types of discussions there have been in the past, you can imagine that the US feminist blogosphere was well-primed for a conflagration. So what went down?

Three things.

(1) Amanda Marcotte, a prominent feminist blogger, posted material on the intersection of feminism and immigration. It looked like her own work, but Brownfemipower recognised her own ideas in Amanda Marcotte’s posts. However Amanda Marcotte had not linked to Brownfemipower, nor given any recognition to her. So she seemed to have appropriated Brownfemipower’s ideas, and presented them as her own. Not plagiarism, exactly, but at least using someone else’s ideas without acknowledgment. Some people defended Amanda Marcotte, some people supported Brownfemipower, and other WoC bloggers chimed in. (I haven’t done a detailed textual analysis of Marcotte’s work and BFP’s work, but it does seem to me that Marcotte must have been at least influenced by BFP’s ideas. So, educated as I am in the academic tradition, it does seem to me that Marcotte ought at least to have acknowledged her sources, even if she didn’t quote them exactly.)

(2) Black Amazon put a single comment in a post, saying “Fuck Seal Press.” (I would link to the particular post and the follow-up comments, but Black Amazon has taken her blog private – see below – and although I suppose I could hunt around and find a cached copy, that seems to be a bit damned rude just now.) Seal Press is a feminist press, but they had been called on racism in the past. The Seal Press editors visited Black Amazon’s blog, and said something to the effect of, “We get that you engage through negative discourse” (I forget the exact words, but it was something to that effect), and then invited WoC to tell them what they should be doing better. (Umm… like it’s good to tell people that they are negative. And on top of that, why should people who are already subjected to racism have to turn around and educate people who are being racist. Surely it’s up to the people who are acknowledging that they may have gotten it wrong to do the hard yards of finding out how to fix the problem.)

So things were rumbling along under the strength of these two issues. BFP took down her blog and gave up blogging altogether (farewell post), and other WoC were at least unhappy, and in some cases renouncing feminism. The overall point was that a white feminist was appropriating ideas from WoC, WoC were being told they were negative, and then they were being asked to fix the mess up. In general, white feminists promised to try to do better.

Links for all of this – far too many to post! But the F-Word (UK feminist blog) has a post with helpful links, as does Feministe.

In the midst of all this, Amanda Marcotte published a book, with Seal Press. Some of the other leading feminist blogs put up posts advertising her book, and publicising her book-reading appearances. So despite all the furore, they still supported her (despite having earlier promised to try to do better). Understandably, WoC were upset by this. I guess it looked to them that white feminists, despite having read all their blog posts and comments, and despite having promised to try to do better, nevertheless turned around and supported the very person who had been at the centre of the storm.

Then (3). Amanda Marcotte’s book came out, complete with these images.

(Images lifted from Feministe, who lifted them from Dear white feminists: quit fucking up.)


I find these images incredibly racist. “Good white woman” will defeat “wicked black / brown / other people”.

Amanda Marcotte apologised, Seal Press apologised, Black Amazon quit blogging, one of the Feministe bloggers has quit blogging, and everywhere, or at least, everywhere in the US feminist blogosphere, people are upset and angry and unhappy. It’s a mess.

Which is why I haven’t been posting. I just can’t get my head around all this. Maybe that’s because identity politics doesn’t play out in the same way in New Zealand as it does in the US. The whole topic seems like something “over there” to me. Except that thinking that the problem is “over there” would be an easy way to duck thinking about it altogether.

So, I have been thinking long and hard about white privilege, from which I benefit. Here’s the original essay about white privilege. It’s something that I think is worth reading, and re-reading, and re-reading, to remind myself about the extent to which being born white means being born privileged.

As for the feminist blogosphere in New Zealand – well, there aren’t too many of us explicitly claiming feminism. There’s those of us blogging at The Hand Mirror, and THM has a list of other NZ women blogging too, but not all of these explicitly claim feminism. Of course, I’m not in New Zealand anymore, ‘tho for the time being, my heart is still there. (You can take the woman out of New Zealand, but…) I think it’s telling that I can’t explicitly identify any Maori women blogging, although I know that Maia at least has been explicit in her condemnation of the racism on display in the police raids on Ruatoki last year. I would like to think that we would do better on thinking about the intersection of race and gender, if only because our race and gender history is different from the history in the US, but that may just be a forlorn hope.

Some final words on this, from a WoC in the US, and a South Asian woman in Australia.