critique of critique: why don't we listen to people who don't look like us? [Listen up / Time's up!]

stock photo man in suit looking in mirrorWhen Nancy Fraser first published How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it in the Guardian, I thought it was interesting.  I did think that perhaps she had made some rather naive assumptions:

As a feminist, I’ve always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women I was building a better world – more egalitarian, just and free. But lately I’ve begun to worry that ideals pioneered by feminists are serving quite different ends. I worry, specifically, that our critique of sexism is now supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation.

but generally I thought, better late than never, especially  when i read the concluding lines.

First, we might break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism by militating for a form of life that de-centres waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including – but not only – carework. Second, we might disrupt the passage from our critique of economism to identity politics by integrating the struggle to transform a status order premised on masculinist cultural values with the struggle for economic justice. Finally, we might sever the bogus bond between our critique of bureaucracy and free-market fundamentalism by reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy as a means of strengthening the public powers needed to constrain capital for the sake of justice.









I tweeted the piece out in case anyone hadn’t seen it, and moved on. 

Others were more thoughtful and put this piece in a more complete context.  Denise Ferreira da Silva (Queen Mary), over at Critical Legal Thinking: Law & the Political,  title their response White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome. They write:

What appears at first glance to be a reasoned self-​reflection, one that takes stock and respons­ib­il­ity for past alli­ances and cel­eb­ra­tions of stra­tegic moves for the bet­ter­ment of women’s lives, at second glance reveals the innate and repet­it­ive myopia of White fem­in­ism to take account, to con­verse and think along with Black and Third World Feminists.

Having read their critique and then Fraser’s article again, I wouldn’t argue against them.  I’m grateful that they threw in the bone of “at first glance” so that I don’t feel quite so awful about my first read – so much for twitter academia (though retweets aren’t endorsements!).

In addition to the ignoring that Bhandar and Ferreira da Silva thoroughly document, they point out that Fraser does not question her liberal feminism – just the slide towards neo-liberal feminisms.  The scholars she ignored did largely work from socialist, critical or explicitly Marxist perspectives.  And Fraser’s piece does not ultimately reject liberalism (in my view).  I have no doubt she chooses her words carefully, and it is neo-liberalism she critiques.  The words she uses to describe where feminism should be are “social solidarity”, “solidary” and “solidaristic”.  This is not a belated and uncredited convergence, I think.

I then saw another two pieces of commentary which seemed quite parallel.  Maybe you agree.  The first was philanthropist Peter Buffet’s The Charitable Industrial Complex, which appeared in the New York Times:

Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism. I noticed that a donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.

Oh that’s good, I thought, that he gets that and is saying it out loud.  As the son of Warren Buffett, he is probably well connected and will be listened to.  This piece inspired another (here) in the Guardian.   Then, thanks to facebook, I saw this Open Democracy/OurKingdom: Power and liberty in Britain piece by Guppi Bola, entitled On Posh White Blokes in NGO’s.  She writes:

My boss… isn’t the first white male to publicly question his position of power in the “doing-good” field. From his own admission, part of his learning about privilege was influenced by another powerful white male; Peter Buffet. It strikes me that it takes someone who looks like you to encourage a response to a problem that marginalised people have been talking about for many many years.In understanding what’s needed for a free and fair world, maybe my boss would have noticed the hundreds of other articles, emails and conversations that spoke of oppression, privilege, diversity and respect way before Buffet scored an article in the New York Times.

Bola goes on, like Ferreira da Silva and Bhandar, to catalogue the number of (mainly) people of colour who have made the same points, to much less fanfare.

1. This is very depressing.

2. These are newspaper commentaries where people regularly write without any acknowledgement of sources at all.  I agree that in both these cases, the problem is much more than a “lack of citation” problem.  It is the way in which the theorizing of women of colour or people of colour or critical thinkers is just not relevant at all and beyond not citing a source the ideas are put out as completely novel. But i’ll just throw it in there for all the times that I have failed to honour the people who inspired and developed ideas I have adopted.

3. At one point, very early in my teaching career, I used to teach a class where I thought a central piece of the foundation had to be “Criminal Justice is systemically racist”.  But there were a certain segment of my class who simply could not get past that.  They could not let me get away with saying that.  They wanted to pick on that point.  They did not want to read the reports on this or that that I was citing. They did not want to ignore what I was saying as they usually did.  They wanted to prove that I was wrong about it.   They seemed to be infuriated that I had said it. The fact that I said it was part of the proof that I did not get my job on merit (imagine how they thought I got it! No – don’t), was stupid, and would never learn to teach properly or fairly.  Eventually I got into the habit of having a judge from the local court come into my class for half an hour to give a little talk, the core of which was “criminal justice is systemically racist”.

Problem solved.

Did I mention – did i need to mention – that the judge was an older white man?  Nevermind, he was an ally in this.  I don’t know if I did the right thing (there are deeper ironies here that I will not get into) but i did manage to finish the semester.  This problem is old and it’s a reason that (we) need true allies.  The kind of genealogies and calling out that Bhandar, Ferreira da Silva and Bola have done looks to be spot on.  But it was all done (not surprisingly!) in spaces with much less circulation than the original problematic piece.  Quite depressing.

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