Feminism, Hierarchy and Self-Aggrandizement

A few days ago, I posted on the recent attention drawn to the issue of the appropriation of WOC writing and thought by white feminist authors. I’ve been trying desperately to read most of what’s being posted on the subject, and I’ve commented a few times, but I ended up deleting that post because I saw reference to a request not to mention names or write about the individuals involved. At the point that I saw it, I didn’t have a lot of time at all to research the specifics of the request or to go back and fine-tune the post in order to conform to exactly what was being requested, so my attempt to respect that request came in the form of full deletion. That post included a whole bunch of links to other blogs that have written on the specifics of this incident, while this one is my attempt to get at some of the more general issues it raises. If you need some background on the specifics, belledame has some great links (follow them), Sylvia lays down some serious awesome in specific takedown form, and Black Amazon addresses the deeper core issues that are at stake here.

A lot of the following philosophical soliloquy is stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while, and that I’ve written about in bits and pieces before.

Whenever one of these situations comes up, I realize that deep down, I still naively believe that feminists and the feminist community should be able to recognize what oppressive behaviours look like and be legitimately willing to question their own place in the structures that allow those behaviours to perpetuate. And I find myself absolutely heartbroken to see yet another strong, passionate, beautiful voice effectively silenced by individuals who talk constantly about their own voices and the voices of others like them having been silenced in the past, and then incensed to hear those voices echoing exactly the rhetoric and terms that were used in their original silencing. The behaviour displayed recently by a prominent, white blogger with a book deal and ongoing paid journalistic endeavours and those who are expressing support for her has been, in a word, shit. It is also the inevitable result of refusing to recognize the Master’s tools, assuming that as soon as those tools touch soft, lily-white feminist hands, they are somehow magically transformed by contact with that skin.

This is about systemic racism. This is about the continuing, ongoing failure to recognize the reality that success does not, in fact, trickle down, but is, in fact, both granted to and taken by those with more privilege at the expense of those with more. This is about refusing to see the impact of privilege, but only when it’s yours.

This is also about the absolute failure of an individualistic, hierarchical, self-aggrandizing form of feminism. The fact that the women being stepped on are women of colour and that despite the fact that many white women (myself included, though admittedly quietly and, of course, essentially invisibly) are outraged, the bloggers in question continue to dismiss this as being caused by the anger of WOC (complete with accompanying condescending head pats that of course this anger can be explained given the historical context and past experiences of oppression, while refusing to talk about, you know, the reality of the current one) is certainly far from irrelevant. I don’t mean to sound dismissive of that when I say that getting outside the racism of the situation would not solve the problem, either, because the problem would just be shifted to the next locus of marginalization. Class. Sexuality. Gender Identity. Dialect. Something else.

Feminism hasn’t cracked the craving for self-aggrandizement in these people, it hasn’t cracked the desire to be the top of the heap in a certain segment of society, to receive accolades and recognition for what they do. Book deals and blog traffic, pats on the back from other members of the “in crowd”, and letters after one’s name are still the measures of success in this environment. If the individuals in question don’t measure up to someone with whom they are in disagreement on one of these fronts, then they will use them as a method of dismissing the statements of those others – who is it that keeps referencing the “multiple degrees” in the possession of certain women of colour, as though that has any impact on the value of what they have to say or the reality of the experiences they describe? I find it incredibly telling that the conversation keeps coming back around to the potential impact that certain accusations may have on the career of one particular individual or on the supposed desire to see this individual suffer for no purpose other than power and sport.

If the goal is the book deal and the career and the name recognition, you’re missing the point. I hope I’m phrasing this in such a way that distinguishes between the kind of name recognition that comes from “A-list” status and the kind that consists essentially of simply not being erased or ignored, since the latter qualifies as pretty much the expectation of basic decency rather than any kind of acknowledgment of superiority. Because if personal superiority or exceptionality is what’s at stake, then we’re creating a hierarchy again, and hierarchical structures have almost without exception been used to hold women and other minorities down. Because when it becomes okay within feminism, within activism, within anti-oppression work, to re-create hierarchies, we always, always, always re-create structures of privilege, marginalization, silencing, superiority and, goddammit, oppression. I am very, very reluctant to reference Orwell in any discussion, but the satirical “Some are more equal than others” concept is pretty apt, here. A model of a genuine egalitarian society cannot be premised in a system of power rather than cooperation, hierarchy rather than unity, personal superiority rather than personal humility. And when I say “unity”, “cooperation”, “humility”, what I’m talking about is real recognition of the core concept that we, as individuals, are not, cannot be free unless we are all free.

I hate seeing discussions in feminist communities about how feminism has made individual feminists happier people, not because improved self-image, better ability to set boundaries and stronger relationships are not important, but because that discussion never manages to do more than scratch the surface of what matters. It’s about the individuals, not about the issues. I can’t help but feel that some of the focus on getting young women to identify with the feminist label is more about having more names on your checklist of those you’ll allow into your treehouse than it is about making sure these women become aware of the feminist issues. Because I have to admit, becoming a feminist hasn’t made me any happier. Feminism as a movement has given me more options, more freedom, more personal security and more resources, but trying to assess my actions, the actions of those around me and the world in a feminist context has probably, on the whole, made me more frustrated. It’s certainly made me less able to turn my brain off and just watch a damn movie. The moments of hope – the brief glimpses of deeper, more genuine connection with other people, of contributing some little, positive thing to someone else’s journey – are thing that I absolutely cherish, but if I had never become a feminist, it would never have occurred to me to miss those things.

When feminism becomes about self-aggrandizement, when your measuring stick of feminist success is how we you’ve done or how well any one individual woman has done, you’ve completely lost sight of the ball. I think you may actually be playing a totally different sport. When feminism, or specific feminist communities, become a cult of personality constructed around certain individual leaders, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing these leaders as beyond reproach, rebuking any criticism as a personal attack and refusing to adapt or admit fault. How is this different from what is constantly being said by liberals and feminists and everyone with a brain about the neo-con movement again?

This particular conversation should be about community, about the relative accessibility of “officially sanctioned” mechanisms (such as book deals) for discourse, about the challenges that remain to be overcome with respect to the assignment of value to certain types of voices even in non-traditional media such as blogs. It should be about the meaning of the word appropriation, and it should be, again some more, still, about how the privileged can work to open dialogue about oppression instead of shutting it down.

One of the two women at the centre of this discussion has done everything in her power to make the conversation not about her as an individual, while the other has repeatedly referenced her own career, the threats to her own personal goals and aspirations, her specific past experiences and her opinion of her own qualities (intelligence, commitment to anti-racism, etc).

Feminism hasn’t cracked the craving for self-aggrandizement in some individuals. It’s become the mechanism for it. If you’re constantly worrying about the outward image-projection, how you appear to others and how feminism or this-or-that feminist issue benefits you as an individual, you’ve become the problem. If you are in any way contributing to the valuing of names and personalities, over and at the expense of content and message and community and principle, then you are contributing to the problem. If you are refusing to recognize flaws in yourself or in those who make you feel good about yourself, you are contributing to the problem. If you can’t tell who’s the big-dog and who’s the underdog here, then you’ve become completely absorbed by the problem.

The people at the top of the hierarchy ask over and over “What do you want me to do? Nothing would satisfy you, since you [are just angry/hate all white people/are jealous/are on a witch-hunt]”. They’ve gotten an answer, repeatedly, in this specific case. A citation. An acknowledgment. One sentence saying “There’s a ton of excellent information available at…” or “Thanks to [name] for tipping me off to this issue” or “I have only just become aware of this concept, but upon further research, it turns out so-and-so has been tracking this for quite some time”. Or, now, a recognition of personal fallibility, humility and the ability to see a purpose in life/feminism/action as separate from one’s own career goals.

Now I’m getting off of what I intended to write about and onto the specific again, but so be it. Several people have also told stories of times when they, themselves have misstepped and unintentionally offended someone else due to their failure to remain conscious of aspects of privilege. And what they did in response to criticism was listen to the specifics of what was said, consider the impact of what they had said (regardless of the original intent, and given the context of oppression and privilege in which it occurred) and apologize, in as public a forum as was necessary or appropriate, directly to the individual they had harmed and including as an explanation “I lost sight of my privilege, and here’s how…”

I can think of exactly such an incident from my life, and it was one that occured, in fact, because I was trying to impress people and I lost sight of the boundaries. When it was pointed out to me, I was extremely upset – not because I was at risk (though because it happened at a work-related lunch, and I was *not* in a secure job position, I really kind of was), but because holy shit, how could I have let that happen? What good is it to talk the talk of ally-work and call out other people on crap they say and then miss the point when it matters? Obviously, the concern about losing my job occurred to me, but I knew that if it happened, it was my own damn fault, and any anger about that situation was therefore directed internally. Now, being me, I was probably harsher on myself than I needed to be, and when I apologized to the woman involved, she was immediately receptive (and wasn’t nearly as offended as others feared she might have been) and the topic was never raised again.

That situation? Not about me. Pure self-interest would have been absolutely anathema to everything I claim to believe in. If my main interest is me, if my goals are about my own personal satisfaction and achieving certain measures of success, then I’m not acting as an effective ally. It’s one thing to need to pay the bills and keep yourself alive – the circumstances of my life are such that doing those things prevents me from participating in a lot of the work I see around me – but it seems to me that the minute “what’s in it for me?” is at the top of my mind, and as long as my first question is “how can I spin this to maximal advantage/minimal damage to my person and my immediate sphere of influence”, and as soon as I  start wishing to be the center of attention again, I’m not only going to be a miserable human being, I’m going to hurt somebody. And that, to me, will always remain incompatible with the goals of feminism.

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5 thoughts on “Feminism, Hierarchy and Self-Aggrandizement

  1. BetaCandy says:

    This needs to be required reading. There are a lot of good posts about the incident, but what I like here is how you’ve linked it into patriarchal behavior unbecoming feminists – which is exactly what it was. If white female feminists need to do the same dirty tricks men have done over the years to get where they want to be, then they’re not looking for equality. They’re looking out for #1, just like the patriarchy prescribes.

  2. purtek says:

    Thanks. I’m realizing more and more that this kind of rah-rah individualism is at the core of pretty much every issue that bothers me within this kind of feminism, and I’m coming to see it as completely incompatible with the possibility for change.

  3. belledame222 says:

    You know, I’m thinking: I wouldn’t even necessarily frame the problem as being “individualism” per se, or ambition or any of those things. I think it’s more what -isn’t- there: the idea that there’s enough to go around; the idea that some things are worthwhile in themselves, not merely as a means to an end (of collecting points, or “winning,” or whatnot). The idea that “sharing” isn’t something you do out of dull-eyed duty, but because, well, it’s rather nice, actually.

    what can I tell you, I grew up on fucking Sesame Street.

  4. purtek says:

    Yeah, I like that way of phrasing it, with respect to this angle. It’s like free market feminism, which is part of why I used the trickle down reference…the conservative blindness to how selfish/myopic/non-functional that economic model is in practice translates to this context, too.

    When I’m talking about the individualism, it’s because I feel like this attitude is *connected* to other things that have frustrated me in the past from the “Spice Girls” feminism…mainly stuff like this “Feminists do it better” thing about how feminism will give you a healthy relationship, feminism will protect you from body image issues, feminism will free you from personal anxiety about gender roles, etc…

    That stuff is like the inwardly focussed half of this same thing, this same kind of self-centred bullshit that is being projected all outward onto others with whom they are now being asked to “share”. It’s all ego-driven, and it’s all totally hollow, when it comes down to it, because it turns out, actually, that Sesame Street was *right* (and also, since I got the American version until I turned 7 and moved farther North, taught me how to count to ten in Spanish).

  5. BetaCandy says:

    Good points, Belledame.

    One thing I always felt patriarchy completely missed was the value of mutual cooperation. That’s what society is supposed to be all about – communities of individuals achieving more as a whole than could their members separately. And yet the whole mantra of the free market is that we should all be competing for our share of the pie, and some should have more than others because they’ve won the game – no matter how they won it, what handicap they started with, or how many people they stabbed in the back to get to the finish line first.

    I’d like feminism to be more about mutual cooperation. I think there are ways other than insane competition to incentivize individuals to pull their weight and strive for better.

    Giving credit to others, even if they didn’t form the basis of your work, is never something that makes you look like you contributed less.

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