Month: April 2015

When you define feminist, why exclude “Internet Activists”?

Why do feminists in academia think they can define “feminist” for everybody? In one of my classes at Middlebury, I was responsible for editing the work of one of my classmates. She wrote her post on the fruitlessness of blogging as a platform for feminist activism. I kept my critique as respectful as possible and even now, I’m not here to bash the specifics of her post. There are some underlying ideas that I did gain from what I read that are very troubling and recreate the current societal structure.

1. The belief that some voices “deserve” to be heard over others.

Who gets to decide which voices are deserving and which aren’t? If you view feminism as a platform to exclude undesirable voices, are you any better than oppressive people who want to exclude the voices of the marginalized? They don’t believe marginalized voices deserve to be heard either. Stop thinking that it’s up to you to decide who is deserving of a voice.

2. The belief that “crazy” people shouldn’t have a platform to express themselves.

Who is considered “crazy” in our society is highly gendered and racialized. What this means (basically) is certain people are automatically considered crazy for their gender or their race. ($100 prize if you can guess who is considered the craziest.) If we silence the voices of the most radical because we have already dismissed them due to “craziness”, we again risk maintaining the very power structure we want to deconstruct.

3. The belief that feminist voices don’t need to be heard because they only communicate with other feminists.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The internet gives hundreds of thousands if not millions of people easy access to educating themselves about feminism. This includes people who may not originally have considered themselves feminists. Blogs and twitter feeds do NOT only include other feminists. These posts and conversations are public and give a voice to opinions that are marginalized by mainstream discourse.

So what good are feminist blogs? What good is internet activism?

Feminist blogs, hashtag feminism and all other forms of feminist activism that rely on the internet offer a more inclusive feminism. While many people in the world do not have access to the internet, many do. And these people have the opportunity to create grassroots movements, to learn, to explore, and to talk about the way oppression impacts their lives. It’s important that these platforms exist because now, you don’t need to be validated by the mainstream for your voice to be heard. Resistance is happening now on the internet. Significant conversations and activism happens on twitter every day.

I think the mainstream culture (especially in the U.S.) is afraid of internet activism. Finally the oppressed population has an easy way to connect with each other. We can organize. We can communicate. We can support each other and make surviving in this world a little easier for each other. That in itself is a threat to the powers that be. So the response is to say internet activism is “unimportant”. Well, historically the voices of the oppressed have always been considered unimportant. We didn’t shut up then, and we won’t be silent now.

Who Can Tell You How To Be A Man?

When I was reading The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity & Love by bell hooks, I was approaching the book from two angles. First, I was inspired  by my social breaching experiment to explore concepts of healthy black masculinity. Second, I looked towards the book to reaffirm my faith in the goodness of men and to seek ways I could apply the lessons to my life. For example, where was I falling short in my feminism, and were there ways I was reinforcing patriarchy in the way I treated men? I find that kind of self assessment not only helpful, but necessary to my belief system. A commitment to change should represent an internal and external change. To remain stagnant in my feminism means accepting a life without change.

Some notes: I am a cisgender, heterosexual woman so this post is written through that lens and speaks to my personal experience alone.

There are a few ideas within hooks that apply to all genders that appealed to me:

1. Defining love as the will to nurture one’s own and another’s spiritual and emotional growth. 

define feminist funny
love is who you let eat your pasta?

In defining love like this, hooks calls on us to think about how the way we tend to talk about love is possessive. We rarely see her definition of love represented in mainstream discourse. The language of belonging, he is hers or she is his, tends to be used most often. Seeing love as less transactional, that is ceasing to see love between men and women as a platform for “what can he provide for me”, is a healthier and more anti-patriarchal way to conceive of love.

2. Rejecting “dominator models” in loving relationships 

This idea applies to all kinds of relationships. Here, she called for rejecting power dynamics in relationships based on gender roles. hooks doesn’t think feminism means an inversion of a patriarchal power dynamic, where women suddenly become dominant in a relationship. Instead, this “dominator model” should be eliminated with both parties working towards mutual growth and love as she defines it.

3. Defining masculinity “divorced from the dominator model”. 

This is best explained in hooks own words:

“… one of the first revolutionary acts of visionary feminism must be to restore maleness and masculinity as an ethical biological category divorced from the dominator model.”

We need to define what it means to be a man as something unrelated to holding power over others, especially when maintaining power relies on violence and disenfranchisement.

While reading this book, I wondered what could be done. (I’m a woman committed to action.) Were there solutions to the crisis of masculinity that’s not only touted by the media but addressed by hooks herself? While I’ve never had the chance to be in any sort of relationship with a man who has rejected patriarchal masculinity completely, I do think there are men who come close to it.

define feminist light humor
the opposite of a masculinity crisis? (#lighthumor)

In fact, I know these men are out there. Perhaps their abstinence from self-identifying as feminists is what pushes them away from being completely anti-patriarchal or easily identified as such. However, these men exist and I think they are crucial to solving the “masculinity crisis” we hear about nearly every day. We need the men on the fringe who decide for themselves what makes them a man. We need the men who have discovered healthy manhood in the absence of fathers are pioneers and have the potential to lead other men down similar journeys.

It’s not up to me or any woman to tell men how to “be men”. The solution to this crisis is out of my hands. Women can support, assist and step back from projecting expectations of patriarchal masculinity, but we cannot tell men how to be. They need to find the rare beings who have solved their own masculinity crises. Men need new leaders and role models. Your daddy’s 1950’s masculinity just won’t work anymore. I think these leaders are among us; they are the men who are struggling daily against the entrapments of patriarchal masculinity and forging a way for themselves, challenging society’s expectations without compromising their essence.

Intersectional Feminism: Incarceration in the West Indies

I’ll preface this by saying that I have no in depth knowledge of Saint Lucia’s legal system or penal system. I know enough to say that we know longer penalize people through hangings. I know enough to know that a goal of intersectional feminism in the Caribbean should involve a critical examination of the prison system. I know that Saint Lucia has a prison; most of what I know about the prison is from rumor and  hearsay. In the United States, the prison industrial complex is well documented and renowned for being a method of population control that maintains the authority of the privileged (racially, economic, able bodied etc.) over others. One of the ways this power is maintained is by presuming certain populations inherently deviant or criminal. The United States has a prison population larger than the prison population in China, a country heavily criticized for its strong-arm approach to justice.

intersectional feminism and incarceration
Source: stlucianewsonline.com

Do we have anything similar in the West Indies? What is our punitive system based off of and is it functional? These are questions that I don’t honestly have the answers to. The way our system criminalizes oppressed populations and defines them as deviant is one similarity to the United States. Here I’m referring to the anti-buggery laws which criminalize “gay sex”. Making that specific act illegal clearly targets LGBTQ members of the population, a population that is also marginalized in the United States. While I can’t speak for the racial or class breakdowns in West Indian prisons, I have a hunch that there are very few wealthy white people amongst that population.

Perhaps our prison system isn’t perfect (at best) and at worst, it’s highly dysfunctional and oppressive. But do we have other punitive systems that work better? West Indian cultures are known for having strong, close knit communities. Many of the stories that I’ve heard from my mother and from other Saint Lucian women talk about the way communities rally around women who experience domestic abuse. Sometimes, communities or families will remove the woman from the company of her abuser, or engage in other tactics to exile the abuser and ensure the safety of the woman who has experienced this abuse. While bystander intervention might not always be the best solution, we can look at this as a way communities hold their members accountable. Rather than a state delivering justice, the community decides what is or isn’t acceptable.

That being said, if the values of a community are based on patriarchal, imperialist or racist thinking, self-policing could simply mirror the oppressive policing of the state. So what’s the solution then? Perhaps in order to have a successful shift towards communities self-policing we need more progressive communities. In the absence of that, maybe our prison system in the West Indies isn’t so bad. Perhaps we need reform in place of abolition. While more radical people may call for immediate deconstruction of the prison system, thinking about home, I’m not so certain I believe in that. What do you think? Do you see the prison system as functional? Who is it functional for? Does the imprisonment of deviants and criminals benefit anyone?

Again, these are questions that I don’t believe I have the answers to, at least not yet. But I urge you to think more critically about the prisons in your home country. It’s a topic that’s rarely considered and one that we may have to consider as we push towards social progress.

West Indian Masculinity in Crisis

West Indian masculinity is in crisis. I’m not referring longingly to a deviation from patriarchy and I’m not advocating for a return to patriarchal masculinity. What I am referring to is a changing gender dynamic and men’s perception of their own powerlessness in the face of this shifting dynamic. Faced with this perceived loss of their patriarchal birthright to a dominant expression of masculinity, young men feel the need to take this “birthright” by force, relying on violence to do so.

This idea came to me while I was performing a “social breaching” experiment in Saint Lucia a few weeks ago (more on that later!). While out on dates, my romantic interest and I would ask the wait staff whether they thought it was “right” for the woman to pay for the date. We figured we could get some pretty fascinating responses by asking the question every time we went out; being young, light skinned and conventionally attractive probably gave us a good likelihood of getting responses. Every response to this question (which we posed in different ways) was interesting but one in particular stuck out to me.

 

intersectional feminism
Me when I hear “the man is in charge”

The waiter was a young, upbeat black male around 20-25 years old. He seemed nervous as he waited on us, nearly completely lacking in confidence.When we posed the question to him, this demeanor s changed. His desperation for approval was replaced with underlying aggression. He responded that he thought it was wrong for the woman to pay because “the man is in charge” and he should “be in control”. Of course, we got this response on one of the days where I had agreed to pay for dinner before hand.

After dinner, the two of us began a conversation on gender roles, specifically the male role of the “provider” that this young waiter had likely internalized. How can a man like that live up to his own ideation of masculinity, when at his prime, he’s working a low paying job that doesn’t have great opportunity for growth? Who can he provide for? How can he even rightfully see himself as a provider in a country where women’s economic power is growing much faster than men’s?

This isn’t me bashing waiters or even this waiter in particular. I’m trying to understand the mindset of a man with a patriarchal mindset who cannot live up to his own ideas of what a man should be. Where does he turn? Where should he turn? Deconstructing rigid notions of masculinity that dictate a man must pay and a man must provide would probably be the most positive solution. However, as a cynic/realist, I think it’s pretty unlikely that would happen. What most likely will happen is that he will fall back on other aspects of “ideal” masculinity to prove to himself that he is a man.

This can be negative like relying on violence to dominate others, especially women in romantic relationships for example. We already know that one of the risk factors for men committing domestic violence is strict belief in patriarchy and patriarchal gender roles. Now, I know nothing of this man personally, and perhaps he has never committed violent acts against anyone. But it is a possibility, and it’s a great possibility considering the general hopelessness men in Saint Lucia obviously feel if we look at the fairly large suicide rate amongst Saint Lucian men.

Yes, masculinity is in crisis, but the way to fix it is not a return to traditional masculinity which cannot possibly survive in a world moving closer to equality. All men, especially those who consider themselves allies to women should take time to consider how they define their own masculinity and what it means in this changing world. What makes you a man? Does your definition rely on something outdated, harmful and/or oppressive? That’s not something that I can answer for you, but it’s something that I urge you to consider or to ask the men in your lives to consider for themselves.

Black Feminism: Acknowledging Colorism

As my exploration of black feminism continues, I am interested in discussing how colorism impacts our ability to analyze and critique different situations. A popular subject I’ve seen on various forms of social media is the subject of ending “girl hate”. While the subject is discussed within American feminist contexts in different ways, I think as young Caribbean women we have a responsibility to ourselves to find a way to end girl hate within our own social sphere. This means not speaking about girl hate in a way that circumvents the issues of race and class that are so entrenched in women hating other women. We have such specific and subtle ways we interact down here and there are racial hierarchies at work that influence “girl hate” and how much power it holds on an individual level.

In St. Lucia we have a racial hierarchy that determines the value of women within our society. This racial hierarchy is a leftover of colonialism, and yes, the legacy of colonialism is still alive today. Within our society, and ultimately within our culture, women with greater proximity to whiteness are valued more than those who are darker, with greater proximity to blackness. Keep in mind, this isn’t unique to Saint Lucia or to the Caribbean. Outside of the black-white dichotomy, women of Indian or East Asian descent fall along a median spectrum, where women who are darker are devalued similarly to darker skinned black women.

This means that some forms of “girl hate” while possibly still harmful on a personal level do not carry the weight of other forms of girl hate which are backed by generations of damaging racist hierarchies. Insults or hatred towards women who are lighter skinned or have features that are closer to the European standard might be hurtful but they do not have the power that insults towards darker skinned women have. I think in considering our own actions, this is crucial to acknowledge and understand. For example, if you as a lighter skinned woman are finding that a large number of your negative attitudes towards women are towards darker skinned women, perhaps you need to deconstruct the implicit colorism or racism embedded in your “girl hate”.

In our quest to end our hatred of each other, we need to take race into account, even in a multiethnic heterogenous society like the West Indies. Keeping this in mind, along with my suggestions for how we can work to end damaging social practices, I think we all can make significant headway in stopping this hatred for each other, and this toxic negativity within the public sphere. When women are pitted versus women, no one ever wins.

Migrating Home: Reflections on Privilege in the Caribbean

As I enter the second half of my last semester at Middlebury College, I’ve started to reflect on my life in the United States, and how quickly it’s coming to an end. I wish I could say that I was sad, or had any sense of nostalgia about my undergraduate experiences. I already experienced my saddest graduation goodbye when I graduated from Groton, my high school alma mater. I feel nothing but absolute bliss when I think about a life after Middlebury. Of course, I have personal reasons for this but what else is at play here? Why do some people relish the idea of never returning to the Caribbean, and why are some unable to truly imagine a life outside here?

I’ll go into my personal reasons first in an attempt to give you a little more insight into the woman behind the words.

  • I love warm weather. This is a more shallow reason but I’ve spent ~ 9 years in New England and I’m absolutely sick of the annual influenza guarantee and having to go out in layers and layers of clothing.
  • I find it easier to mind my health (exercise and eating) when I’m in a place with little access to processed food and junk food. Also, it’s much easier to exercise when it’s 80 degrees out compared to when it’s below 0.
  • Being black is much easier here. Although my body is marked for being a woman, I find it a lot safer to navigate spaces here as a black woman. Yes, despite the catcalls, leers and manner of other experiences I have.
  • I just love being around Saint Lucians, despite some of the more ‘ignorant’ behaviors. I love the humor, the food, the culture and the generosity of people down here.

These are just a few of the reasons that I feel more excited about moving down here than I’ve felt about anything in a while. It’s worth examining why I feel this way. This involves deconstructing the notion of “privilege”. Here are some of the privileges that permit me to feel a greater degree of comfort in Saint Lucia.

  • Racial privilege for being a light skinned biracial (black/white) woman.
  • Gender privilege for being a gender conforming cisgender woman.
  • Class privilege for having the ability to afford returning home and having the ability to use my skills to live a comfortable life.
  • Heterosexual privilege. While it is still a risk to be a heterosexual woman in Saint Lucia, it is far more dangerous to exist outside of the spectrum of heterosexuality.
  • Privilege because of my physical and mental ability. My physical and mental health permit me to feel mobile, comfortable and sane in Saint Lucia. This aspect of privilege often goes unexamined but can be very important.

Society here affords me the safety to exist as I want to, mostly without fear. Structurally, a part of this is because of the dominant positions that I occupy that place me out of harm’s way. It’s important to examine what it means to occupy a position insulated from oppression. Do we feel safe here because we have created an unwelcome environment for non-conformers?

This problem of exclusion is not unique to the Caribbean, but it’s one that we can find the capacity to solve. Some of these solutions may need to occur on the structural level, such as elimination of anti-buggery laws. Yet some changes can be made on an individual level; a series of individual changes must occur for us to see structural change.

The majority of the people in this region practice Christianity, a major tenet of which is “Love thy neighbor, as thyselves”. Perhaps we find this so difficult to practice because of the ways we don’t love ourselves. Whatever the reason, I would compel everyone to work individually towards making home safe for everyone and consider the ways in which we contribute to a society that endangers those who don’t fit in. What kind of changes can you make?