One of my cherished experiences of graduate school was finding a whole community of feminists to engage with. I remember being very excited about my feminist theory class, and finding that not only do these women understand my language, they can enrich it in so many different ways. None of my co-students were in sociology – they were in English Lit, Philosophy, Education, Political Science , Geography, Psychology, and so many others. None of us shared any interdisciplinary lens, and yet, by grappling with the most difficult of texts, we were able to construct our own language to talk to each other. We learned much about the theories of solidarity and the hard-won practice of it that winter.
As I moved through the different courses, I soon realized that this was not really an isolated incident – that themes of solidarity and difference are prominent not just in our personal/political relationships with each other, but also in the theoretical debates about the fundamentals of feminism. How do we recognize difference? How do we form relationships of solidarity with other feminists who are fundamentally different from ourselves? What of one’s privilege and power? How do we speak and represent another? These are still very important questions we are dealing with, as evidenced by the recent Harvard debates that exploded on Kafila (here, and here).
A friend wanted to know why there was such vitriol against an obviously well-intentioned move to understand problems – to build solidarity. And I remember writing to her and a few others about a few things that seemed self-evident to me, that according to another friend, ought to be made more explicit. I am reproducing the letter, with a few modifications:
I think the major problem about the statement that was released by the Harvard, at least for me, stemmed from two different sources. I’ll try to be brief about both of them.
The first is the Northern white privilege, that goes unnoticed, unacknowledged and is largely invisible to the North and South audiences . The thing that pisses us ( those of us who think of ourselves as the Southern feminists) no end is not only the manner in which White Northern feminists take over, but the fact that they rarely acknowledge the historical privileges that their voices have. When they are brought to the table, they are automatically heard. Their voices are always considered more ‘evolved’, more articulated, and often more authoritative. And feminists have been crying themselves hoarse for eons about why this practice, this pattern has to be deconstructed, how this has to be dismantled, and how these processes have to be dealt with more sensitivity by feminists themselves. I think, given this long history of engaging with power even within our own circles, we feel frustrated when someone, especially if they are feminist , comes along and ignores all of this. It feels like a slap in the face of all that effort we have made to understand, deconstruct, and deal with our privileged positions.
The second is the importance of self-reflexivity in feminism. It is perhaps the cornerstone of most feminist philosophical thought. We are taught that our views are the product of where we stand, with respect to the intersection of various multiple identities. So, if I am a Hindu non-Brahmin Middle-class Woman, then I must acknowledge the various biases, privileges, blind spots and opinions that come with that position. So, we are trained to engage with these positions and statements tentatively. We are not ‘holders’ of truth, we are not ‘definers’ of fact . We are trying to view the world from our own warped positions, feminism is the lens we view this world from, and that is our perspective. Our conclusions, when we draw them, have to have this element of self-critical engagement, and more importantly, self-reflexivity. It has often descended into excessive navel gazing. But the reason we do this as a method, as a practice is because we are aware how invisible privileges hurt all of us – we have to be aware of our ‘subject positions’ to understand the ‘dimension’ of truth that we are examining. And that ridiculous paragraph in the Harvard blog had nothing of this nuanced idea of solidarity. It is so self-congratulatory in its tone about the linkages of different forms of violence. . as if they are the first to have ever come up with the idea. I think it can piss off anybody, as far as I can tell.
I think what happened was because these debates are so internal in the feminist community that it can often go unvoiced in the diatribe against the Harvard post. I think it is important to voice why we are pissed off, not just for us, but also for the students of the Harvard community. They need to understand that because they are at the table, they automatically, by the power bestowed upon them, exclude others on that table. They have to ensure that those voices are heard, and that that system of exclusion is highlighted.
So, I get the vitriol, I get the sarcasm, and I get the anger. It comes from an old wound, yes. . .but it also comes from the disappointment of having to suffer a new one, once again.