This week I’ve been at UCLA’s University Archives working my way through the Center for the Study of Women papers. I came primarily to look at the documentation surrounding The Dark Madonna (Nov 1985-May 31, 1986) a three part project based on the iconography of what is known in art historical/religious iconography circles as the Black Madonna that consisted of an academic sympoisum, community dialogues and a performance. During community feedback on the proposed project, some Asian American women and Latinas expressed concern over the implications of Black as excluding their ethnic groups, so the project was changed to the Dark Madonna.
The project, conceived of by Suzanne Lacy, hoped to foster dialogue among women of different ethnic backgrounds. I knew from the press coverage of the event that the issue of race emerged at the end of the first night’s presentations. Today I hit the motherlode, the audiotapes of the event, which while of uneven quality, are giving me some strong glimpses into what occurred (1).
As I drove home, with all of this history bouncing around in my head, Tricia Matthew’s tweet appeared on my iphone. At first I was freaked out. She isn’t someone I follow or who follows me, so I didn’t have any context for the blog post titled ” Of Clicks and Cliques: White Women, Women of Color, Diversity, and Tension” I couldn’t tell if she tweeted me because I write about race and feminism, or if she meant I needed to check myself.
The serendipity of her post and my thoughts about working my way through the institutional papers of the very institution that nurtured me (it’s a bit like peering behind the curtain to find there is no wizard of Oz), led me to write this post because I believe that people who ask the hard questions deserve a response. My thinking about contemporary issues between women is informed of course by the work that I do, so let me start with what I spent today thinking about.
The symposium opened with a panel comprised of four white scholars, two of whom directly addressed the question of how a white feminist can head up a project about the Dark Madonna. Suzanne Lacy, had, by the late 1980s, a long record of working with women from different ethnic backgrounds, most notably her project in Watts, Evelina and I and the massive Whisper, the Winds, the Waves, in addition to the lesser known project I’ve written about, The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron.
Despite the criticisms that emerged from every performance, Lacy remained committed to exploring the meaning of relationships across the identity factors that divide women. She never was simplistically committed to some sort of universal sisterhood, but she retains the faith of early women’s liberation, that in addition to women’s differences, there are commonalities too, and the exploring those bonds has meaning and significance for political movements and the transformation of society. Lacy asks the hard questions and remains committed to asking them knowing there are no answers.
Both Moira Roth and Arelen Raven, two of Lacy’s mentors, but also prescient art critics, gave opening papers (2). Both women are acutely aware of the dangerous aspects of Lacy’s work. However, both believe, as Arlene Raven noted in her remarks, that while the ground Lacy treads is perilous, it is more dangerous not to go there at all (3).
I understand all of this. Decades later, as I write about these women, writing about race is the scariest of all, but not writing about it would be scarier to me. To ignore the issue of race would be ultimate expression of white privilege. Even writing this here on my blog feels frightening. I’m tired and it was a long assed day in the archives, and this is hard stuff to write about, but I remember what Audre Lorde, who worked with these same women, once said “your silence will not protect you.” Not speaking won’t erase the issue of race or my white privilege and so I write.
Tricia Matthew draws our attention to some crucial questions about the metaphorical “click” moments that magically revealed women’s common oppression:
what happens when that “decisive moment,” when that “click” doesn’t happen? What happens if the dominant group of academic feminists (middle-class white women) doesn’t share similar oppressive experiences or, perhaps more importantly, have wildly different coping mechanisms?
My sense, taken from the countless stories I have heard over the years, is that white women in the academy forget how far they’ve actually come and, worse, they run the risk of setting up oppressive systems that don’t actually replace patriarchal hierarchies they want to challenge but simply rewrite them along feminine lines.
One white woman’s response from the perspective of a department of 1, but as the product of a very large academic institution
White people need to own their racism like they own their white privilege. It is impossible to unlearn racism. Does that give me license to commit discrimination, or even to collude with it? No. It simply means that no matter how reflective I am about my whiteness, I’m still white. You can’t give up your white privilege. You can work against it, try to resist it, but in the millions of little ways my life is eased by my whiteness, I couldn’t possible even begin to stave off the benefits, if I wanted to.
That latter part “if I wanted to” I learned, as with so many things in this life, from students. As I attempted to explain “white privilege” and the attempts to slip it off, they showed me both how presumptuous I was to think I could ever undo the benefits of whiteness and the patronizing attitude of whites who treat privilege like something to be given away. To paraphrase one “I’m working my ass off to get where you are, and you trying to give it all up? Who tries to make their life harder?” I’m thinking too of the students who looked at me like I was mad when I asked them not to call me “Miss.” Does my perception of sexism outweigh their gesture of respect?
Its an unsolvable equation, but that doesn’t mean I get to throw my hands up and stop trying. Honestly for me that is all I know. I take it one case at a time, and in the moments when I can.
Matthew’s hard questions continue:
is there a dominant culture of Women and Gender studies that is inadvertently hostile to racial diversity? If so, what can be done to fix it? What problems have you seen? Have you seen this issue addressed directly in your institution?
I know my response offers nothing by way of what to do institutionally, and I suppose that is one of the reasons I’m attracted to my extraordinarily small college (400 students, less than 40 faculty). I really do deal with things on a case by case basis and by continuing to ask the hard questions, which for me, emerge more around interactions with students than with colleagues because I have so very few colleagues. I do think the “old girls” club is real and that it is largely white, and that creates a climate in which homogenous expectations are established (4). I have also seen ways it is shifting as the generation after the “click” generation comes into more authority in bigger institutions. With that comes the ability to push the hard questions harder. I know that sucks as a response, but I also know it would suck worse to not answer (but note that doesn’t mean I get to be pissed if someone argues back. It is a dialogue people and when it concerns hard questions be prepared to face some hard stuff).
It is also why I write about women like Suzanne Lacy and attempt to convey the complexities of her work, and its successes and failures. It would be far easier to dismiss her, as often happens, to reduce her to some trope of 80s essentialist feminism, but that would not only be inaccurate, it would be useless for the larger narrative that links writing about women and race, me to Lacy and now to Tricia Matthew. Dismissing people is a way of not confronting what they’ve done. Lacy deserves both the pointed challenges she has received, as well as respect for continuing on, even if her way is not my way, in asking the hard questions. Because far too often white people take the easy way out, to stop questioning, which is the same as accepting, which I think is what Tricia Matthew’s has highlighted with her hard questions. The question remains, how do people like me, mid-level career professors, start to push harder now that we have the protection of tenure? Not only in hiring, but in the crucial “climate” issues in which collegiality and community provide comfortable environments for some, but not for others?
1. the quality is so poor I need to bring earphones in to get a full transcript so I’m not putting any of it here yet
2. the other two papers were from Martha Banta, a professor of American Studies and English at UCLA (and my undergrad prof) and Karen Blair, a historian (and first grad student of my advisor). They provided historical perspectives on women’s pageants and tableaux vivants in earlier eras.