Dr Odette Kelada is a lecturer in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. Odette Kelada researches and publishes on whiteness, race and gender in Australian writing and the arts. Key interests include the constructions of nation, body and identity in creative representations and the pedagogy of racial literacy.
Volume 29, November 2013
This article is both a reflection on what drew me to feminism as a young woman and also what creates blindness within the area. Obscurities of vision can leave feminism open to being seen as outdated, ‘uncool’, exclusive, while hypersexulisation, and the diminishment of women’s power remerges in more and more seductive, disorientating and destructive forms.
Here I outline some feminist theory I find particularly constructive. However, theory can be ahead of practice and I personally experience a gap between much of this critical work and some contemporary feminist dialogue. In this essay I describe a disjuncture that persists in certain feminist contexts with blindness to race issues and the impact of white subject formation.
In October 2012, I was invited to speak on a panel for the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art symposium. The panel was titled ‘Locating feminism: the F word in contemporary art.’ At the Sydney Opera House, earlier that year, a national feminism symposium was held with Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf also titled ‘the F word’. I’m not sure when feminism morphed into this one loaded signifier but find I have an ambivalent response to the phrasing of feminism in this way.
It is curious that a term about women’s empowerment has become associated with a four-letter profanity. It reminds me that the word cunt, derived from goddess names like Cunti- Devi, has become the most potent swear word. In the Vagina Monologues (1996), there is particular monologue ‘Reclaiming Cunt’. V-Day cites Gloria Bertonis who traces the origins of the word:
"Kunta" is "woman" in several Near Eastern and African languages and a Mother Tongue that is being compiled by linguists today. It was also spelled "quna," which is the root of "queen." Since priestesses were known to be accountants/administrators of Temple of Inanna in Sumeria c.3100 B.C. when Cuneiform was first used, it is highly likely that cuneiform was "the sign of the kunta" who kept the books (clay tablets) for the temple economy / redistribution of wealth that evolved from communal economics of ancient mother-cultures. (Bertonis 2011)
Bertonis makes the argument, drawing on these etymological origins:
So when an abuser calls a woman a "cunt" he is actually calling her a "queen who invented writing and numerals." Girls and women can thus reclaim the words in our language that have been used as weapons against us in emotionally explosive situations. The word "prostitute" (law giver of the temple) and "whore" (houri, Persian, which means a gorgeous semi-divine female that awaits men in the 7th Heaven) are some of the finest compliments a woman can be given. (2011)
There is a long intimate history between women’s bodies, power and profanity. What is missing today is an alive connection between this language, its histories and contemporary society. It would reflect quite a different world if people were turning back to those attempting to defame them with the ‘C word’ and said ‘thankyou for the complement’.
At the same time as the ‘F’ word is disturbing, arguably it makes feminism sound ‘badass’ and cool, implying a series of asterisks it is THAT potentially dangerous. Perhaps this makes feminism as a taboo – sexy again? And if that is occurring problematically, the F word can get in line with all the other oppressive terms drawn from the subverted names of queens and goddesses.
There is some consensus that feminism needs PR spin. According to Cleo’s editor Shari Markson in her latest editorial apparently:
No one wants to be a feminist now. It has ugly connotations of man-hating women with icky underarm hair – when we love make-up, romance, high heels and men, of course. We’ve distanced ourselves from feminism. But the problem is, because it hasn’t been cool since the 70s, we’ve stopped calling out misogyny and sexism when we see it. (July, 2013)
I realise I am quoting Cleo and do not do so as an academic source, but as a reflection of what is ‘common knowledge’ and also because it sounds so familiar. There are no questions asked here about the reader – the ‘we’ is evidently heterosexual, agrees hair is ‘ugly’ and ‘icky’, that women who want equality hate men. This is an editor’s letter titled ‘Make Noise’ and the issue uses this tone to attract women to still go on, read about and speak up regarding the lack of equal pay. In fact there is a subsequent list of companies paying women at a lower rate. These are confusing messages drawing on both dominant patriarchal heterogeneity and a call to fight for women’s rights – despite the lack of the cool factor and repulsion of feminism.
It reminds me of teaching a class on women’s writing and asking the predominantly female students, who in the room identified as a feminist? No one put their hand up. They told me instead about their aversion to hair on legs and lesbianism. The backlash against feminism has indeed proved more then a ‘backlash’, having successfully obliterated much of the elation and power of second wave feminism, at least in the media spun eyes of the next generations.
Judith Allen observed that it is not enough to dismiss the generations of women before second-wave feminism as ‘failing’ to analyse the situation of their sex in feminist terms or as backward, thoroughly conditioned or suffering from ‘false consciousness’ (1986, p.175). Rather a detailed grasp is required of the ‘options, constraints and gratifications’ available to women in past eras. Post second wave feminism however, what excuses do we have now? What indeed are the options, constraints and gratifications that would explain the complicities and mixed messages today?
If Kate Jennings felt ‘rooted..sad, tired, spooked and gone a slight bit loopy’ in her introduction to the seminal feminist collection of women’s poems Mother I’m Rooted, in 1975, then one might imagine the sense of pessimism now.
Reclamation and resistance though is often about igniting and recharging connection between past and present. When history is a palimpsest that is written over as with the name of Cunti, it takes acts of memory, re-education and wresting power back to ensure the bones of language and realities of power do not remain silent.
As Joanna Russ states in How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983):
When the memory of one’s predecessors is buried, the assumption persists that there were none, and each generation of women believes itself to be faced with the burden of doing everything for the first time. (p.93)
The intensive work feminists have done on theories of power and the way society creates ‘norms’ and naturalises social inequities, has provided a rich armoury for resistance. I revisit some of this critical work here as it is urgent to keep connected to the potent thinking and ideas accomplished by feminists, particularly at a time that evidently needs such skills to counter dominant discourses.
I then speak to the need to educate feminists further on intersections of power and oppression, specifically critical whiteness. The point is to provoke feminism to enact its own tenants of reflexivity in order to be effective and relevant. Influenced by the work of theorists, such as Irene Watson and Aileen Moreton Robinson, I am not suggesting here that intersectionality, race and ‘difference’ have not been the subject of feminist writings as that would fail to acknowledge the extensive work and commentary on the topic. I am saying though that I experience a gap between much of this critical work and my experiences of feminist dialogue today. To this end, I describe two of these experiences, one at the feminist forum on art and one, as a participant in a young feminist art project.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (2000), analysed incisively interviews with feminist academics that clearly showed a gap between awareness of women’s oppression and their own white race privilege. She argues that white feminists need to theorize how to relinquish power ‘so that feminist practice can contribute to changing the racial order’ (2000). This is indeed a challenge for a movement that revolves generally around learning how to gain power.
In a recent article for this journal, titled ‘Sisterhood and Women’s Liberation in Australia’, Susan Magarey describes this story:
In Melbourne in the 1990s, Jan Chapman Davis, a mother of four, had only begun to learn about her Aboriginality during the 1970s. She told a story about an academic woman.
Miss White Middle Class herself, she was sitting at the table … and I was talking about my life, and the kids and the problems that I have ….And … she just turned to me and said, “Oh, my goodness. You are oppressed, aren’t you!” And it was a big put-down. Basically she was just having a go at me. And I was just, you know, been hearing all this “sisterhood is powerful and love your sister” and there was this bloody snobby bitch being really nasty to me (Chapman Davis, 9-10 cited in Maragaray 2013).
Magarey observes that:
For Davis, at this time, her identity as an Aboriginal woman, together with her identification with working-class deprivation (for instance in the areas of health and education) was assuming greater importance in her life than her identity as a feminist, together in sisterhood with the un-sisterly Miss White Middle Class (2013).
I decided to speak about whiteness for the feminist conference mentioned in the introduction about locating the ‘f’ word in art. For me, it is not about adding in yet another issue for women to consider. It is about requiring feminism to shift its very framework of assumed knowledges and power positions, even as it articulates experiences of oppression. I will go on to describe this encounter but firstly, wish to point to why I respect the ‘tools’ that feminism gives a scholar looking to examine the paradox of the ‘Master’s House’ and believe it can indeed ‘contribute’ as Moreton-Robinson proposes.
Firstly, what I gained from feminism was a sharp critical lens to view society in ways that explained how we are enmeshed in power relations. Feminist historian Joan Scott’s work illustrated how there is no unitary self but rather a subject that is discursively positioned through contingent processes (Scott 1992, p.25). Mona Domash expanded on Scott in her essay, ‘Towards a more fully reciprocal feminist inquiry’ (2003):
What is understood to be individual experiences are always socially constructed out of particular ideological configurations, so experiences don’t (just) happen to individual selves but are constructed by political/social systems that then become subjective as individuals narrate these events into stories of identity formation (p.108).
This attitude of consistent questioning is key to an approach that encourages an ethics of reflexivity and is one of the most attractive aspects that feminist approaches can exemplify for me. The next point was to ask what influences these stories of identity formation?
Here the work of feminist theorists engaging with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus came in at a critical juncture. The notion of habitus conceive of the stories which form identities as the building blocks of an internalised and embodied ‘history.’ One is formed by it but may not actually be aware of all that has become subliminal yet entrenched inside mind, body, habits and behaviours.
A feminist literary example of habitus oft cited is Virginia Woolf’s response to a beadle (minor official) as she walked on the turf at Oxford. When the beadle gestured that Woolf was trespassing by stepping on the grass as only the all male scholars and fellows were allowed on the turf, Woolf’s response hints at what theorists define as habitus and corporeality. She referred to what she called ‘instinct’, the feeling that she was both a woman and out of place. (A room of one’s own, 1929, p. 5). Feminist theorist, Terry Threadgold describes Woolf’s ‘instinct’ as
…a kind of knowledge internalised from daily, secular repetition of actions, impressions and meanings, whose cause and effect or otherwise binding relation has been accepted as certain and even necessary (1997, p. 48).
Likewise, Judith Butler in Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of female identity (1990) drew on this sense of internalised knowledge with her theory of performativity, stating that there is ‘no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results’ (p.25). In theoretical terms, the ‘secular repetition of actions’ that Threadgold describes, means that we are constantly constructing and ‘performing’ our identities.
Butler and Bourdieu’s work complement each other as they transcend notions of constructing identity as a one-sided process of imposition and perceive this process as temporal, generative and open, continually enacted through repetition (McNay 2000, p. 33).
Feminist analyses of power enable an examination of the ways in which power becomes inscribed through such repetition in language; in physical spaces and bodies to reinforce the dominant hegemony. Utilising Foucault, feminists showed how there is always room for change and revolution. Elizabeth Grosz states in her analysis of Foucault (1990), power can never be entirely successful in achieving its aims as ‘the very forms power takes create the possibility of resistance’ (p. 90). A Foucauldian feminist approach to power also allows not only for a conception of power as a form of inhibition or repression but as a site for resistance and opposition.
Viewing power through a Foucauldian feminist perspective enables an appreciation of how the connections, transmissions and distributions that comprise the smallest details of life are in fact indicative of power structures and systems. Hence family relations, sexual relations, residential, state and work relations are all subjected to scrutiny as part of the social network, which exercises power, and through which power acts. One is not trapped by power but as forces are moving and temporal, a change in circumstance may be possible. The result of any destabilisation is unpredictable.
As Margaret McClaren states in Feminism, Foucault and embodied subjectivity (2002), such conceptions are compatible with ‘feminist aims of capturing the specificity of women’s experience and the political and social transformations necessary to end the oppression of women’ (p. 63). It is precisely due to the eternally possible fragmentation of power: the fact that power constantly risks itself in every exchange and its vulnerability to change, that indicates alternative options.
It appears from these kind of ideas interrogating power, that feminism is well placed to understand exactly what has happened to feminism and how it became the ‘f’ word. However, theory can be ahead of practice and knowing how power works the way it does, or deconstructing the habitus that accepts internal and external oppression, may not mean that one can stop the misogyny – yet, or be reflexive about one’s own abuses of power in order to consider if/how such power can be ‘relinquished’.
It is urgent that in this time when feminism is fighting for air, or at least to be spelt out as a whole word, that the blindness that creates non-productive division is countered. This means that the incisive tools for reflexivity and critiques of male power are turned towards white feminism and white supremacy in society.
Foucault appealed to aestheticm as a reaction to concepts of power and constructed identities, asking:
But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?… From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art (Foucault cited in Hennesey 1993, p. 58).
The first two times I spoke about whiteness and feminism publicly were art related events. That is not co-incidental as art is such a powerful potential site of intensive resistance and reclamation.
The first time was through an invitation to give a thirty minute ‘lesson’ on feminism to an artist as part of a project titled ‘two feminists’. The project took place at the ‘Learning Centre’ in Melbourne and it was an artistic space with installations and work from other artists. It was exciting to see a younger creative woman getting involved and imaginatively forming space to discuss feminism, particularly in light of my experiences with female students as described earlier. The artist initiating the project, Kelly Doley, said she was writing a blog after each ‘lesson’. These blog entries now appear on a site with the subtitle ‘Everything learnt about feminism from 16 strangers’. I was one of these strangers and spoke in this ‘lesson’ about whiteness. Doley observed that in her experience ‘a lot of feminist groups or groupings from the past seemed to contain only white women’ (Doley, 2012). It was an engaging conversation ranging from Moreton-Robinson’s work, to Peggy McIntosh’s list of white privileges in her ‘White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack’ (1990) article that is influential in whiteness studies. These include:
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. (McIntosh, 1989)
McIntosh is an instructive figure as she came to understand white privilege after studying male privilege through a feminist discourse. The first version of this list was published in an article titled ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to see Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies’ (1988).
Before the lesson, while waiting in the gallery space, I walked around the other works in the ‘No Offer Refused’ exhibition with Dianne Jones, a Noongar photo-media artist who repositions colonial representations in her work. Dianne has been an influential educator for me over many years, challenging white entitlement so visible from her perspective as an Aboriginal woman. Dianne pointed out an artwork, which was a t-shirt on a hanger. At the end of the ‘lesson’ I asked Doley about the image and text on this t-shirt, given we had been discussing feminism and whiteness. Doley describes the experience in her blog as follows:
She wanted to ask me about an artwork from Shop Shop, an installation of an actual shop activated by the artists as part of the exhibition No Offer Refused of which The Learning Centre is apart of. We went over to it and she showed me. It was a tote bag with an image of Lil’ Kim on it covered in glitter. The artist had then written on it SUCK MY COCK. Chris, who made the work came over, she asked him to explain this image saying this is the type of thing she was talking about. I watched Chris flounder and look uncomfortable, trying to ‘explain himself’. I felt so awkward and compromised by this situation that I just walked away…
I actually regret this. I was so worried about making Chris feel uncomfortable by putting him on the spot that I couldn’t even focus on what Odette was saying. Thinking about this and the image I suppose it is confronting. It was a picture of a black woman who had been ‘graffitied’ over by a male with a sexual slogan. Was this OK? Was this not OK? … Where is the line with this stuff. (Doley, 2012)
This honest, inquiring response demonstrates the qualities that a feminist approach can embody effectively as discussed above. What struck me about reading this entry was the description of feeling compromised and the line ‘I suppose it is confronting’. When I talked about whiteness and privilege around race with a deeply thoughtful young artist, it appeared that seeing whiteness was almost a ‘new’ topic.
Learning about feminism remains focused on gender and questioning relationships of power as theorised above, are generally confined to the oppression of women in a singular rather than intersectional mode. I would argue feminists could draw much more vigorously on the complexity possible from the intensive thinking and ideas of power that is foundational to feminist critique. Without such work there are more than awkward moments, as the relationship of white feminists to the oppression of non-white women remains unquestioned. This is about a failure to educate and continue the reflexivity beyond the position as subjects of oppression but of the ways that we may be oppressors and/or complicit. This limits the reach and appeal of western feminism and does not do justice to the dynamic works that have articulated what it feels like to be marginalised, misrepresented and silenced. It leaves new generations of feminists less then equipped for struggles in solidarity. Here is a space for that generative, creative resistance, (which a Foucauldian feminist view of power makes so clearly visible), to emerge in practice.
The second time I spoke on whiteness and feminism was for the Cruther’s Collection on Women’s Art symposium. This took place at the University of Western Australia for an audience of mostly women. I provided some definitions of whiteness from bell hooks phrase ‘location of experience’ (1996) to Ruth Frankenburg’s White Women, Race Matters which specifies:
Whiteness...has a set of linked dimensions. First, whiteness is a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second, it is a “standpoint”, a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others and at society. Third “whiteness” refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed. (1993, p.1)
I spoke about the experience described above of speaking about whiteness for the ‘two feminists’ art project, cited the blog and the critical importance for feminism of looking at racialised representations of women. There were no questions directed to me on this subject of my presentation in the 30-minute time left for the audience to question myself and two other panellists. There was no further discussion of what seeing whiteness may involve for feminism and art. Rather ironically, most of the questions were aimed at an Aboriginal curator on the panel who was saying that feminism did not resonate with her experiences as an Aboriginal woman or mean much that she could relate to. As my power point presentation was left on the screen behind our panel, a quote from Indigenous theorist Irene Watson remained visible throughout the question time. Watson states:
All people are accorded the same rights: not to be discriminated against on the grounds of sex. This right is, however, experienced differently by different people… that the difference could be measured and scaled according to how close one is located to the centre of white privilege. (2010, p.347)
It appeared that this topic of whiteness either did not strike interest or perhaps, again, there may have been a sense of awkwardness for a predominantly white group to encounter this topic and speak on it publicly. What is interesting is that the conference itself was full of exciting feminist artists and ideas. This was a progressive and creative feminist space. However the apparent rejection of feminism by an Aboriginal woman created more anxiety in this room, then the idea of questioning feminist’s racialised positionality. Of course this is my interpretation and it may be flaws in my presentation that leads to these experiences of hesitation, awkwardness and silence. However as I have taught a number of students in a racial literacy and whiteness course at the University of Melbourne, I have found this area of critical whiteness studies and examining privilege appears to strike still as a ‘new’ idea in Australia. Given that critical whiteness studies emerged over two decades ago, gaining momentum in race theory throughout the 1990s, this lack of recognition and absorption in current dialogue is concerning.
As part of the conference, participants toured an exhibition of The Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. It was titled ‘LOOK, LOOK AGAIN’. In that collection, which provides an alternate history to the male dominated national collections, there is a genuine effort to counter the devaluing of artistic expression and voices deemed marginal. Evident in the space and catalogue, is a move to collect works by Indigenous and non-white artists. These are artists who powerfully create images foregrounding the trauma and truths masked by colonisation and imperialism, including Fiona Foley, Julie Dowling, Arlene TextaQueen and Rima Zabaneh. These artists speak in their practice to the multiple oppressions and complexities of surviving in Australia. The catalogue includes a description of Foley’s ‘Native Blood’ (1996):
By using herself as the subject Foley reverses the male gaze and challenges the viewer to regard her in the traditional sex object role. (Cruthers, 2012)
In repositioning her body and restaging ethnographic photographs of Batjala women, her own ancestors, circulated as exoticised and sexualised objects, Foley can certainly be read as opposing the male gaze. In referencing histories of colonisation, Foley also counters the legacies of whiteness which dictated who consumed what imagery, who was viewed as ‘other’ and the control of representation. With intersectional approaches, art and discourse by white feminists/feminist inspired scholars, may reflect more and more critical responses on the relationships between sexual, gender, class and white privilege, the power stakes at play and the questions invoked by Moreton-Robinson’s challenge to relinquish power.
In conclusion I would argue in support of theorists such as Moreton-Robinson and Fiona Nicoll for the importance of critical whiteness for permeating all aspects of study and discourse:
Rather than positing ‘whiteness’ as one legitimate perspective among a multiplicity of other equally valid perspectives, critical whiteness theory investigates the historical rise of ‘whiteness’ as a cultural and symbolic value and basis of subject-formation. (Nicoll 2004, n 3)
I drew for the title of this article on an exchange where Sandra Zurbo responded to Jenning’s introduction to Mother I’m Rooted (1975) referencing the advertising slogan ‘You’ve come a long way baby’. In 1979, Zurbo responded that women ‘haven’t really come such a long way at all – baby’ (1).’’ The Cruthers feminist symposium then asked in 2012 the timely question, ‘Are we there yet?’ From my experiences there is still a way to go and framing feminism as one journey moving in a unilateral progressive direction is not the most constructive metaphor. This ‘we’ is not inclusive and any attempt at inclusivity would be problematic for navigating discussion around contemporary feminism. The ‘we’ in my title therefore is set up to fail. While this analysis may sound like the point where deconstruction turns into negation of any potential action, this is not the intention of the article. The aim rather is to suggest that western feminism, with all its interrogative foundational critiques of what it means to be excluded from white male power, is indeed situated with the necessary tools to continue to critique its very own foundation, ‘habitus’ and complicities. Rather then perceiving such internal critique as self-obliteration or denial, feminism has the potential to enact a ‘generative fragmentation’, where seeing whiteness as integral to subject formation increases the possibilities for collective resistance. This for me would make reclaiming the ‘F’ word as ‘cool’ as saying ‘thanks’ to the ‘C’ word.
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