This week, I read the first essay in Jessica Yee’s anthology, co-authored by Krysta Williams and Erin Konsmo. Both authors are active in the Native Youth Sexual Health Network which, according to its website, is “a North-America wide organization working on issues of healthy sexuality, cultural competency, youth empowerment, reproductive justice, and sex positivity by and for Native youth” (yay!). In their contribution to Feminism for Real, Williams and Konsmo use a variety of text-based approaches to grappling with their “love/hate relationship with feminism” and (conversely) why “being an Indigenous woman isn’t enough,” and feminist political activism has a place in their lives and their work.
RESISTANCE TO INDIGENOUS FEMINISM by Krysta Williams and Erin Konsmo (pages 21-34)
p. 22 – A list of titles for the essay the duo brainstormed. Among them “Why we have a love/hate relationship with feminism” (don’t we all?) and “Saying the ‘F’ word: why being an Indigenous woman isn’t enough.” Also “Get over it and be my sister: How ‘women’s unity’ is colonial.” I am struck here by the multiplicity of tensions within these titles, and the others on the list. So many of us seems to struggle with internal and external conflicts over the place of feminism in our lives … and its use as communal identity. On the one hand, we call for greater inclusion, for expanding the definition of “feminism” to include more types of activism and experience. We resist the litmus tests that develop for what makes you a “good enough” feminist. On the other hand, we resist the idea of “sisterhood” or “unity” that are sometimes used to call for transcending the boundaries of more local identity.
p. 22 – “…our internal resistance to the fact that we are forced to identify as feminists in this fucked up political women’s movement.” I think this might just be where I’m at personally right now, but I keep noticing in the nonfiction reading I’m doing right now, how authors seem to feel subject to cultural forces not just in a mainstream-marginal way (as in, “this sucks that most people are choosing X and make fun of me or punish me for choosing Y”) but in a there-is-no-other-option way (as in, “this sucks that I’m forced to do/watch/say/identify as X”). This may not be what Williams and Konsmo mean, exactly, but I wonder why they feel “forced” to identify as feminists?
p. 23 – Krysta: “The idea that we need to be ‘understood’ by ‘other’ people in order to justify our thoughts and struggles is pretty fucked.” I’m slightly confused by this. I don’t think that peoples’ personal experience needs to be completely understood in order to be believed or validated … but I also see it as pretty essential to activism and writing, both, to seek to communicate my ideas. I see communication as a two-way street: the reader seeks to communicate ideas in a way her intended audience will be most likely to understand them, and the reader puts in the effort necessary to make sense of what may be new ideas. However, I think Williams might be talking, here, about Indigenous (“we”) and White (‘other’ people) cultures, and whether Indigenous needs must be translated into White frameworks before they are justifiable as political issues. In that case, I think there’s a really interesting discussion to be had about political strategies and what it means to communicate within (and against) existing power structures.
p. 24 – Krysta and Erin discuss their perception that “feminism sets this bar of ‘independent, strong women’ that are supposed to be able to ‘handle our emotions’ …” which includes a prohibition on crying. I’ve always thought of feminism as encouraging the experience and expression of a full range of emotions across the spectrum of gender. So feminists I have known tend to challenge the idea that women are “over emotional” and “real men” don’t cry … but I heartily endorse Krysta and Erin’s observation that tears and other feelings are compatible with great strength. I actually see the affirmation of tears as a radical feminist act, since it counters the mainstream perception that people who cry are “falling apart” and are ineffective as actors in a political or social context. It is possible to cry and act simultaneously! To acknowledge your emotions and make weighty decisions.
p. 24 – Erin: “That’s why this academic, pushed-on us feminist shit has actually hurt my family!” (in reference to the question of feminism equaling “independence”). Again, I’m curious about this perception that feminism is something “pushed-on” anyone. Maybe this is because in my own experience, feminist ideas were something I had to fight really hard to access in academia, and — once I had accessed them — have taken seriously in any context outside of my women’s studies courses. In my family of origin, gender equality was something that we assumed, and my feminist reading was never challenged. But in religious and academic contexts, I never experienced it as something imposed … rather, I had to struggle to see it legitimized or acknowledged.
p. 25 – Krysta: “We [Indigenous people] understand that things are connected and interdependent and this does NOT mean weakness.” I just had to stop here and say “Amen!” as someone who studies, and feels drawn to experiments in communal living.
p. 26 – “The mainstream feminist movement is supposed to have started in the early 1900s with women fighting for the right to vote. However, these white women deliberately excluded the struggles of working class women of color and participated in the policy of forced sterilization for Aboriginal women and women with disabilities.” Since the history of feminist activism is one of the historical subjects close to my heart, I had very “yes, and…” feelings about this statement. I absolutely agree with the statement that many women involved in the suffrage movements across the Western world in the early twentieth century were wrapped up in their own privileged experience and that their ideas about who “deserved” full citizenship were products of their time. My graduate adviser is doing a project right now on U.S. women’s involvement in imperialist projects during that very period. There has been tons of research done on how white women won rights at the expense of non-white women both in their own nations and in the global sense.
At the same time, I think it’s unfair to say that — in most current feminist narratives, at least — that mainstream feminism is “supposed to have started” with suffrage. Perhaps this is how the narrative goes in Canadian history? But in U.S. histories, modern feminism is usually located either in Enlightenment texts (Wollstonecraft, the French Revolution, etc.) and/or in abolitionist activism. In both of these contexts, the struggle for women’s rights intersected in complicated ways with white women’s articulation of rights for other classes — including slaves and native peoples, children, prisoners, etc.
p. 28 – “Please if you’re looking for stories of strength about women don’t ask us for the creation stories specific to Indigenous people so that you can act it out in your own performance.” Here is the very complicated question of appreciation vs. appropriation. I’m not sure what else to say about that other than that there it is. Given that so many of us, in this day and age, come from families that are fairly polyglot in terms of our ethnic heritage and personal cultural experiences, it can often be very difficult to sort out where exploration of family history ends and appropriation of cultures not one’s own begins.
p. 30 – “Labelling is no longer a liberating political act but a necessity in order to gain entrance into the academic industrial complex and other discussions and spaces. For example, if so called ‘radical’ or ‘progressive’ people don’t hear enough ‘buzz’ words … in your introduction, then you are deemed unworthy … to speak with authority on issues you have lived experience with.” This section of the essay speaks to a lot of the conversations going on in the feminist blogosphere recently regarding comment thread discourse, and how hostile comment culture has become to good-faith conversation. I agree with these authors that the problem extends beyond the blogosphere. I also think it is a dynamic that is far from exclusive to “radical” or “progressive” circles, and instead happens across academic disciplines and political agendas and even fan cultures. I have to make different types of arguments, using different types of evidence, for example, depending on whether I am writing for feminist activists, historians, or librarians. I’m of two minds about this type of border-policing. On the one hand, I think it’s useful for a given group of people to set ground-rules for debate (i.e. “this is the type of evidence we expect you to use if we are going to take your argument seriously”). However, when the policing turns into judging personal character or identity, or merely checking the boxes of vocabulary, then things have devolved to an insular and unhelpful extent.
I don’t know what the solution to this is. On a personal level, I’ve come to terms with the idea that academic disciplines have their own conventions of evidence, argument, etc., that they judge their own practitioners by … while I also feel free to exist outside the bounds of those disciplines, and refuse to (always) play by their rules. I don’t necessarily expect to have my blog posts published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, but I still get to have my say in a way that goes beyond personal journaling. It’s a balance that I still wrestle with daily.
p. 34 – Author bios. As an extension of this observation about the tension between academic (or political or fan community) gate-keeping and the desire that we have to be taken seriously, even if our language isn’t 100% “hip,” I noticed that both Williams and Konsma are involved in academic arenas, as well as political activism. As someone who has a love/hate relationship with academia as well as with feminist activism, I find myself wondering how they negotiate their identities as scholars within institutional education alongside their critique of the “academic industrial” side of feminist theory and practice.
And there we have this week’s notes. Tune back in next Tuesday for installment number three: “A Slam on Feminism in Academia,” by Shaunga Tagore.