[DEBATE] : Re: Harvey and racism
Peter van Heusden
pvh at wfeet.za.net
Mon May 29 09:04:40 BST 2006
Yes, Charlene 'slapped Ebrahim down'. But look at this history of this
discussion, Richard - arguably it started with Peter Mahlangu's post
glorifying Jacob Zuma's court victory - and a series of sexists posts in
the immediately following discussion. Now, as I've said in the previous
post, I think Charlene's notion that there can be a single 'left' that
can be codified in a set of rules for this list is wrong - but at the
same time, as Peter Waterman also pointed out, 'white feminism' is
becoming the easy whipping dog on the list, and I'm not surprised that
things have got to where they have.
On TAC: I see your point on their attempt to over the Manicheanism
associated with AIDS - even while I fear that this has not entirely
succeeded - see the events at the funeral of Nozipho Bengu, for
instance. Gains in struggle need to be constantly defended, which is why
I'm rather sensitive to the way feminism has been approached on this list.
And as to African culture - let me put this in another light. In my
culture - which I guess is white South African Dutch Reformed Church
background - anti-sexism came 'from the outside'. It sure as hell wasn't
part of a culture which said that the man is the head of the household,
and in extreme cases that women's voices should not be heard. One of the
characteristic experiences of being a white leftist is to go to war with
one's culture, to betray its 'values' in the search for something else.
Of course, there are the imperialist uses of Northern 'leftism' you
mention, the holier than you attitude of being better than the 'black
savages'. (From this point of view it was really weird being in the UK,
because every (white) English person of there seems to want to
commiserate with South Africa whites over how awful life in Africa is.)
But my point is, is something coming 'from the outside' necessarily
wrong? In the personal struggles I've engaged in to get to where I am
today, I sure as hell had to get help from somewhere outside 'my
community' - if it hadn't been there, I'd probably be a twisted up
whitey, too scared to follow where my own thoughts led. Its one thing
saying that Westerners should come to Africa dressed up as messiahs out
to save the 'poor Africans', but its another thing saying valorising
'African culture' in a way that pathologises anything (be it feminism or
ARVs) coming from 'outside'. The sad reality is that I've in a number of
cases seen the notion of 'African culture' and 'community' used to label
women who speak up as divisive, disruptive, somehow inauthentic or
The 'social movements' against neo-liberalism in South Africa have
productively linked together skills, energies and resources across a
number of boundaries - suburban / township, white / black, etc. I have
no doubt that any successful woman's movement (which is sorely needed in
South Africa!) will similarly cross boundaries - and face the same
challenges of managing the contradictions inherent in this process. And
it will be imperfect. And sometimes white women will act (as one social
movement leader once said) 'like a madam'. At the moment there is no
struggle within which to resolve these contradictions - only abstract
positions being opposed to each other on a mailing list...
Richard Pithouse wrote:
> look peter, saying that it is not ok for Charlene to casually slap Ebrahim down and to call him racist when he asks for white feminisms to take race and class more seriously is not in anyway saying that feminism is not massively important.
> it is a fact that certain forms of feminism with racist leanings are used as tools of imperialism, especially in the NGO, academic type of worlds (and that this has been going for a very long time - there is plenty of radical feminist literature that makes this point). this does need to be confronted. but this is hardly a unique situation. elites here routinely misuse the language of anti-racism to disguise their own relations of domination and accomodation with imperialism etc. for better or worse i have written about that vastly more than i have written about the misuse of anti-sexist discourse. i only choose to interview this time because:
> 1. i happened to have a few minutes
> 2. ebrahim had made a reasoned and useful argument to charlene and she immediately closed it down by, in classic white liberal mode, accusing him of racism for asking for race to be carefully considered when it was very, very clearly not the case that ebrahim's remarks were racist.
> 3. i think that developing a viable left feminism discourse and practice (i.e. one which is articulated to anti-racist and anti-class domination discourses and practices) is very, very urgent task. i didn't read ebrahim as saying that feminism was unimportant. i read him as saying that it was important to get it right. i agree with this. i am suggesting that this is the conversation that we should be having - not, at all, that we shouldn't be having a conversation about feminism. as long as mainstream feminism can be read as being complict with racism and class domination we will not be able to transcend the manicheanism that has produced the current stand off in this country. hence my comment about how tac has done so much to overcome the manicheanism with regard to aids and the comment that we need to achieve a simialr transcendence with feminist discourse. that is a call for a radical feminism not a dismissal of feminism.
> of course i share your horror at the concrete instances of brutal sexism that you have observed occuring from within struggle. but the reality of those does not mean that we don't need a better feminist discourse. if charlene is undertood to be saying that african culture and tradition is inherently sexist and if the sexist men you have referring to are making similar claims where does that leave the anti-sexist discourse and practises that are articulated by women, and sometimes men too, within african culture? if this is occluded then anti-sexism can only be understood as something that comes to us from without. and if this is the case we'll get no where. i think that the statement from the nigerian feminists against the western feminist soldiarity with the women sentenced to be stoned a few years ago made this point very well.
>>>> pvh at wfeet.za.net 05/28/06 10:04 PM >>>
> Richard Pithouse wrote:
>> There is a very long and widely attested to history of white feminisms being used to justify colonial and post-colonial modes of imperialism. And it is not just the World Bank that does this now. Feminist discourses are also misused by NGOs and, at times, left activists, to reinscribe white and northern modes of domination. I have experienced a number of instances where highly privileged white women from the North have misused feminist discourses to demand and defend a casually assumed right to a position of privilege with regard to oppressed communities here. This works not only by rejecting the agency of poor African men as inherently and neccessarity tainted by sexism but by also assuming that the poor African women who work with those men are culturally blind to their sexism. Thus the Northern missionary returns as the Northern radical. Of course feminism is not the only discourse that can be used to reinscribe white and Northern dominance - there are many others, that include technicism, the assumed priority of 'global' solidarity over 'local' struggles and so on. And of course it is very true that anti-racist and anti-capitalist discourses have very often been used to sideline anti-sexism. But Harvey was not doing this. He was asking for a sophisticated and integrated view. To say that anti-racism needs to be linked to a class and gender project is not to be racist. To say that anti-sexism needs to be linked to a class and gender project is not to be sexist. To say that all liberatory discourses can, deliberately or inadvertently, be misused is not to be against liberatory discourses. It is to be for serious thought about them and how they can be productively connected.
> I dunno, Richard, but the way you and Ebrahim go on, you'd imagine that
> feminist concerns are baseless, because not once is feminism (any
> feminism) mentioned in a positive light. First, let me make one thing
> clear - I don't think arguing over 'whose Left' is terribly useful on
> this list, as obviously there are many 'lefts' here. Tony Hall's
> defence of the ANC leadership exists alongside Charlene's liberal
> feminism alongside a host of other positions. Some of these I find more
> or less objectionable - to the extent that they make my stomach turn.
> And it is because of the fact that there is no single frame of
> reference that the Charlene / Ebrahim exchange has gone the way it has -
> I understand (but do not agree with or support) Charlene's accusation of
> racism, just as I understand Ebrahim's outrage.
> What I take issue with, however, is how this conflict has taken the
> tones of a battle for hegemony. You talk about 'a number of instances' -
> fine, agreed, they exist. But what of instances where, for instance,
> black male 'left' activists have called black female comrades
> 'cockroaches' when they dare to come to a meeting to oppose them? When
> they have defended woman abuse by saying 'I am an African and democracy
> ends at my front gate'? When they have said 'if I want to force my
> girlfriend to have sex with me, I will do so'? And where they have
> systematically denied researchers access to women activists within their
> community, so as to shut down critical voices.
> I don't think that we here on Debate, or the 'Left' in South Africa,
> form part of an overarching 'liberatory project'. Rather, we come from
> different struggles, none of which can be separated from the interests
> of those advocating them. You make various points about the flaws of
> 'white feminisms' - my point is, the same accusations - of blindness to
> subject position, self-interest, sometimes racism, sexism, etc. can be
> thrown back at any of a number of 'left' positions, if these positions
> are taken as just that - 'ideal' positioned defined by discourses,
> texts. At least you take the trouble to take Charlene to task for
> particular things she has said or done - up to now this whole exchange
> has simply sounded (like Ran has said) as if its about 'white feminism',
> about attacking people based on their supposed allegiances to a
> particular position, and that position's failings. This reminds me of
> Trot-style debate - as in 'so and so is a member of X group, and as such
> they believe Y, and therefore can't be trusted'. Again, as I say, it
> feels like a battle for hegemony.
> In this battle for hegemony, its exactly nuance that goes out the window.
> So, er, yeah. It dismays me, this style of debate - from all sides.
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