We teach about oppression in the midst of privilege, fight for greater recognition even as it often means greater co-optation, and teach about the construction and politics of identities in order to empower as well as to deconstruct the categories produced. Feminist scholars operate within and inevitably in support of capitalism, classism, racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, elitism, imperialism, etc., while working to undermine their operations and effects. We work for change within institutions while in the process of “becoming” the institutions – being produced by them. In material terms, we find ourselves caught between a desire for better lives for ourselves – surely a mark of improvement in the world – and the knowledge that our own privilege is gained at the expense of others within current systems of power.
Balén suggests that we need to keep several things in mind to counter-act the forces of institutionalization while also reducing the discomfort produced by “living paradox” (272). Although these points are targeted at academia, I think they are important also for general movement building.
- Questioning Identity: Feminists teach that identity is constructed and thus fluid and requiring questioning. To “practice what we teach, we need to keep all levels of identity consciously provisional and negotiable” (278).
- Honor Diversity: Calls for unity inevitably hide complexity and diversity although unity might increase the visibility of a group. We need to utilize “multilayered approach[es] to develop greater articulation of the complexity of intellectual diversity [, which] resist any tokenizing” (280).
- Create Alliances: These alliances need to cross institutional boundaries and can help with honoring diversity as long as we keep the lines of communication open (280).
- Question Oppression: “There is no subject position fully ‘outside’ the system; only provisional opportunities for resistance within specific contexts exist. No one is free of the operations of oppression – internalized and/or externalized – and, therefore, each of us inevitably reproduces oppression in every moment that we are not actively resisting on every level.” (281) This requires constant vigilance about our own contribution to oppression and a willingness to remove our blinders. It requires that we are willing to listen to others who can point out our complicity in the system. It also, though, requires our patience and compassion: It can be painful to realize this complicity (278).
- Challenge Meritocracies: “Meritocracies without full social justice are problematic at best and must always be regarded critically – including the ones we have successfully negotiated” (282). Being considered smarter than others might simply be a reflection of our access to better education, which in turn reflects privilege. We might also had the luxury to fully devote ourselves to studying rather than splitting our time with part-time jobs simply to survive.
- Counteract Silencing: “Silencing is a primary mode of oppression; producing greater social justice requires practices that counter this tendency at every level” (282). We need to observe ourselves as we might be silencing others.
It is rather ironic to be reading about the privileging of certain disciplines by having stumbled on these books because a professor is reluctant to let me into her class because I did not take the required prerequisite… Clearly, this is an example of institutionalized knowledge: You have to have the background we require or else you are not welcome. That’s called silencing. I learned that term in the book, which is required reading in the prereq I haven’t taken…
Another chapter thematizes the North-South divide, which often becomes obvious in transnational projects lead by Northern feminists in Southern countries. Linda Peake and Karen de Souza share their experience and observations in “Feminist Academic and Activist Praxis in Service of the Transnational.” They particularly stress concerns with the “increasing corporatization of NGOs,” which often take away the local power and transfer it to the (corporate?) donors and sponsors of projects. Funders want to influence what is done with the money (110) and seek measurable results (111). Both require considerable time investment by the activists and often take them away from the work they find important. Especially problematic is that funders from the North impose their standards on Southern activists often without sufficient knowledge of the needs on the ground. Peake and de Souza are also raising concerns about the Northern academic feminist label, which all too often describes academics far removed from activism and often writing so convoluted that their work can only be understood by equally initiated academics. Individual women have made careers out of feminism and this tokenism blinds them to the realization that most women are still oppressed. Tokenism has clear system justification implications: Because we can point to women who “have made it,” we claim the end of patriarchy (or because we have an African-American US president, there is no more racism). As Stephen C. Wright documents, such claims are absurd and serve to maintain the status quo, sadly often especially by the tokens themselves. De Souza and Peake also caution that within activist organizations that train new activists, awareness needs to be maintained to avoid creating an elite of activists that are above untrained grassroots activists (113).
One aspect of this chapter I found particularly gratifying. I am trained in quantitative statistical methods and have always been somewhat taken aback with many feminists’ dismissal of these methods as chauvinist. Peake and de Souza also address this by calling for training in quantitative methods with particular emphasis on being able to evaluate the validity of this research (115). I have found such evaluations a tremendously powerful tool!
Finally, I read a chapter in a book that I almost dismissed because I had trouble understanding its introduction (elitist writing maybe?). Nancy A. Naples discusses her teaching method in “Negotiating the Politics of Experiential Learning in Women’s Studies: Lessons from the Community Action Project.” The CAP offers a way to incorporate some aspects of consciousness raising into the classroom, encouraging students to become theory-informed activists. Unfortunately, I found the chapter too sketchy to be useful since Naples does not detail the specific steps she asks students to take. But it was like a taste-sampler, with promise of satisfaction. So, I will do more research on this.