Published on Mar 24, 2017
Feminism is hard and complicated—doing good feminist work and doing work to be a good feminist is even harder, says Dr. Cori Wong. White feminists have a long history of ignoring intersectionality within the women’s movement; rather than leveraging differences among women as strengths and a resource, they continue to be ignored. Dr. Cori Wong developed a model of Feminist Friendship to call attention to the skills we already utilize to maintain our closest relationships as well as allow us to better engage in social justice.
Dr. Cori Wong serves as Special Assistant to the President and Director of the Women & Gender Collaborative at Colorado University. With a passion for teaching, learning, and approaching education as a practice of freedom, Dr. Wong empowers others to think through everyday life experiences to realize opportunities for personal transformation and social justice. Committed to engaging diverse audiences on issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, inequity, injustice, and political resistance, Dr. Wong strives to emphasize how critical reflection and genuine dialogue can be as fun and exciting as they are important and challenging. In addition to supporting campus-wide research, outreach, and advocacy efforts related to women and gender at CSU, Dr. Wong teaches Women’s Studies courses on contemporary feminist theory and feminist friendship. She earned a dual-title PhD in Philosophy and Women’s Studies from the Pennsylvania State University.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http//ted.com/tedx
A few years ago I was asked to write a piece for the small feminist magazine on their intersectionality issue and in that essay I called myself a bad feminist, that may not seem like a weird thing to do, but I had just earned a dual doctorate degree in feminist philosophy and Women’s Studies, meaning I literally graduated in feminism.
So by calling myself a bad feminist it was meant to be just a little bit tongue-in-cheek, I didn’t really think I was a bad feminist, but I was acknowledging that feminism is hard and complicated doing good feminist work and the work to be a good feminist is even harder.
If my feminist education taught me anything it’s that good feminism isn’t about just challenging the oppressive structures outside of ourselves, it’s fundamentally rooted in the need to constantly reflect on one’s own practices. So in other words if you do social justice work, that means you have to stay open to the possibility that you could be doing it poorly, and that you could do it a little bit better.
So by calling myself a bad feminist I was genuinely grappling with these issues, even within myself, because the truth is you don’t ever actually graduate from feminism. And I was also responding to a particular moment in time, it was into 2013 going into 2014 when online feminist discourse about mainstream feminist discourse was blowing up, women of color were calling out white women on their racism, for not being intersectional in their fight against sexist oppression and white women were getting very defensive, saying this call-out culture and internal conflicts were bad for the feminist movement itself.
For example, see this evidence:
The Nation ran a story by Michelle Goldberg titled feminism’s toxic twitter wars, which itself became subject to pretty intense critique for being yet another mainstream platform that was centering white women as the representatives of feminism.
So this exchange back and forth was really heated and intense, which is saying a lot because I was just watching all of this go down from my laptop in my living room. With the creation of new digital spaces, online publishing in the blogosphere in social media, we have undergone a dramatic shift in how we are able to interact with one another. But more importantly there’s been a shift in who can interact with one another, whose voices are elevated and which voices are heard and this is incredible, it’s also incredibly valuable for feminism.
But as far as the history of feminism goes, that’s pretty much the only thing that’s new here, for many decades before Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, women of color were calling out the inadequacies of white women’s feminism and the refrain has pretty consistently been ‘hey, quit ignoring all of our differences and assuming we’re all the same, unless you want to be a bad feminist’ and Audre Lorde insisted that rather than letting our differences divide us, we have to learn to leverage our differences, as our greatest resource for power, strength and creating new ways of being.
But for white feminists who didn’t appreciate this history, it’s no wonder they were suddenly feeling attacked, centuries worth of mistrust and betrayal and frustration from women of color was now readily and unequivocally directed at white feminists in a 140 characters and incisive hashtags like ‘Solidarity is for white women’ and yet not a whole lot has changed, here we are 2017, mere months after the women’s March, an awesomely historic event that spurred demonstrations on every single continent and while millions of people took to the street, no amount of pink pussy hats would guard against legitimate critique and skepticism.
Unless those millions continued to fight for the rights of black, queer, trans, native, Muslim, undocumented and poor women, then even ones participation in the women’s March, could be viewed as a superficial show of solidarity at best.
So when these concerns were posted online, you guessed it, many people namely white women, said it was the critics and the skeptics who were being divisive, by not merely celebrating that so many people came out for this March.
So apparently neither an unprecedented amount of access to feedback on one’s activism, nor political events so alarming to mobilize an entire planet, are enough to inspire some white feminists to reflect on maybe how they could do a little better. The only thing that seems to have changed is the speed with which we can now deny and deflect, and continue to harm and not listen to or understand one another. That and that now comedians like Eliza Skinner can summarize all of this in one perfectly insightful tweet:
So I’ve been perplexed how this could continue to be (oh now you just read it, now I’ve been perplexed at how this could continue to be) such a problem for feminism among people who say that they fight the same fight and with the barrage of sources saying ‘hey it’s a favor, fix your face.’
So rather than just hanging out in the blogosphere some more, I spent the past few years returning to feminist essays written by women of color from the 70s and the 80s and the resonance has not faded, but one essay in particular has really stuck out to me.
In 1983, which is before I was even born, two theorists Muri Lagoonay and Elizabeth Spellman published ‘have we got a theory for you!’
This piece is amazing, it’s nuanced and it’s comprehensive in how it outlines these ongoing tensions between women of color and white women within feminism, but it’s also really unique in that it’s written by a woman of color and a white woman in their own voices, but together. And like so many others, they say that in order to do better, to leverage our differences, we need to engage in dialogue.
Genuine reciprocal dialogue
And yet they immediately call this into question as even possible or desirable because it’s super hard and most of us don’t seem to know how to do it. Engaging in a dialogue isn’t just talking with other people for fun, engaging in genuine reciprocal dialogue is a sort of engagement that puts us outside of ourselves and into another person’s world, it’s about really listening and being willing to have our assumptions and our self conceptions shattered as a result. Especially if you come from a place of privilege, that’s because privilege doesn’t just refer to these benefits and unearned advantages that help you navigate the world more easily, privilege can also be negatively characterized as a lack or a deficit in knowledge, insight, understanding, experience and cultural fluency.
So if you’re working for social justice but coming from a place of privilege, you have to recognize that there’s a whole lot going on in a whole lot at stake, that you probably don’t get because you’ve never had to get it, so assume you’re missing information that you’re unfamiliar with the issues and that you have a lot of learning to do before you can start explaining anything or even appropriately taking action.
Engaging in genuine reciprocal dialogue seems like a really promising antidote to address what Lugoneeson Spelman referred to as this asymmetry and working knowledge.
Privilege as a Deficit → “Assymetry of Working Knowledge”
But again immediately the desirability of this dialogue is called into question because sometimes what people think counts as learning about our differences, can actually do more harm than good. So depending on how clued in you are, maybe you already know these things, you know that colorblindness, a savior complex, white guilt and white tears are not helpful. You know that stereotyping, eroticizing, projecting your own image onto others is harmful. You may also know that centering your own needs and shifting the burden, asking others to educate you to make you a better person is unfair and problematic and so is whitesplaning and mansplaining, any other kind of splaining that happens when you assume that now you can speak on behalf of others rather than letting them speak for themselves.
There are a lot of ways to do this very poorly, but I do believe that anyone can do this well, if we agree on two things, the first is an important little reminder, the whole purpose of social justice work is:
Liberation from oppression
Liberation of the oppressed from oppression to end oppression, not to feel good about ourselves, not to say we’re a good person, because oppression is unquestionably bad and its existence is a threat to all of our humanity.
That means that we all depend on our work being one hundred percent in response to the needs of the oppressed, if we can agree on that one shared common goal, which is to end oppression, then all of the rest of this gets a lot easier because now if you don’t listen to the people with whom you claim to stand in solidarity with, you should expect to be called out criticized and dismissed.
The second is that this is hard work, but like I said before, the hardest work is the work we must do on ourselves, Mogonas and Spellman said that in order for white women to enter into a genuine reciprocal dialogue with women of color, they would have to learn to become unintrusive, unimportant and patient to the point of tears. They would have to deal with being viewed with mistrust and have their own feelings of alienation and having their world thoroughly disrupted and criticized by those who had been harmed by it. This process is so demanding and so difficult that Mogonas and Spellman said that it doesn’t make sense to enter into this out of one’s own self interest because you’re basically signing up for a very rude awakening.
Instead they suggest that the only motivation that makes sense for entering into this sort of dialogue is that of friendship out of friendship and that to me was key. So I have spent the past couple of years, developing that brief mention of friendship out of friendship into a model that can apply to anyone who does social justice work.
Motive: “Freindship, Out of Friendship”
Method: Genuine, Reciprocal Dialogue
We need to engage in reciprocal dialogue, but we have to know how to do it, so we don’t keep reanimating those problems found in white feminism. And I call this model:
Feminist friendship draws on how we engage with our closest friends, to illustrate how we could better engage in social justice work by focusing on the motivation and the methods for both. So I want you to take a second, think of someone who you deeply love and care about, maybe your best friend or if it’s easier just think of someone who loves you best and knows how and when to show up for you. When it comes to engaging with our best friends, the whole motivation for being with them is the relationship, friendship itself, if we befriend others out of our own need to feel validated or look cool, or to get access to their lake house or invites to their epic parties, that’s a perversion of the meaning of friendship and our motivation for why we go into relationship with others and forms how we show up for them, our message.
With our closest friends, we respond to their needs because we care about them and we want what’s best for them, no matter what, even if it’s inconvenient for us, we will pick up the phone in the middle of the night and go help them get out of a bad situation, even if it’s one of their own making, this relates to our first agreement that the sole purpose of social justice work is to respond to the needs of the oppressed, not only when it’s convenient for us, but because that’s what’s demanded of us if we claim to do this work. So we would go out of our way to make sure that our friends got home safe okay after a night of heavy drinking and likewise we have to go out of our way to destroy the deadly systems of violence that harm entire communities.
We can also glean some insights based on how we engage with our friends and dialogue. We know it’s poor form to offer unsolicited advice or try to dismiss someone’s pain and say they’re just overreacting, sometimes rather than talking so much or trying to solve another person’s problem it’s better to just listen. Listening is itself an important way to show support because it offers something that we all need, which is to know that we’re seen and were heard and were understood. But of course when we listen, we might also learn other ways that we could take care of our friends when they’re feeling bad, like maybe we’ll know that they just need to go for a walk or have a good cry or a full night of dancing. And when our friends share something that’s important to them but unfamiliar to us, we take it upon ourselves to learn more. If your friend was diagnosed with a blood disorder you would probably have some pretty serious follow-up questions, but you might also go look it up on your own because there is google and WebMD. But when people share their experience of classist or ableist oppression, those who can’t relate are often very quick to dismiss or deny this pain. And that’s a real problem, because you wouldn’t do that, you wouldn’t dismiss or deny the pain, in fact you wouldn’t create an additional burden by asking that person to explain even more what it’s like for them to convince you that that oppression is actually even real. Really we should all be taking it upon ourselves to learn more about oppression in all of its forms especially if we are the ones perpetuating it.
You know how upset you get when you have lunch with your friends and you come home and realize that you had a booger hanging out your nose the whole day, out of shame you don’t deny the booger, but you say ‘why did you let me walk around with a booger hanging out my face, all the day and looking like a fool?’
Likewise if we are really committed to ending oppression, then we should accept critical feedback as a gift. If we are the ones for perpetuating oppressive systems, we should be grateful for the opportunity to fix our face.
And finally, if some day we just inadvertently hurt our friend’s feelings, even when we meant well, we don’t get defensive, we offer an apology and we commit to do better.
Unfortunately when it comes to social justice work, many people just don’t seem to know how to admit that they were wrong and apologize like they mean it. When I started putting together this model of feminist friendship, I thought this is going to be so easy for people to get because we know how to be a good friend right? All we have to do is recognize we already employ these skills with the people we care about, so we just need to apply them to how we engage in dialogue with others for social justice.
But it hasn’t been that easy, some people are too quick to jump to this conclusion that all we need to do to end oppression is go out and make more friends, hold hands, get along, sing Kumbaya. And while there is an important implication here, which is the real political significance behind who we know and love and call our closest friends, the point of feminist friendship is not to just go make more friends and sing Kumbaya, the point of feminist friendship is to work better together to end oppression.
Plus it’d be pretty misguided to assume that people would suspend their mistrust of us and want to be friends with us if we haven’t demonstrated that we’ve got their back no matter what. So for bad feminists and folks with privilege, we have to wonder why there’s a difference between how we show up for the friends that we care about and how we show up for others when we say we care about social justice.
What the model of feminist friendship teaches us, is that before we can expect a stand in solidarity with others, we have to do that hard work to dismantle the oppressive structures within ourselves, we have to do that hard work, to become worthy of friendship at all.