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No Access Beyond This Point: Mumbling the Words of Revolution

Cat's picture

Mainstream feminist dialogues, including our own Serendipian dialogue, are exclusionary. Alternative exclusionary dialogues often form within marginalized communities, addressing gender-based discrimination and other experience-based conversations that present uniquely in certain groups. Marginal groups can protect themselves from the lack of inclusion within dominant dialogues. Feminism is often defined as community based and inclusive as possible, but advocating for the protection of multiple groups, especially those who are marginalized by dominant dialogues and existing power structures, necessities inaccessibility of conversation.

Dialogue within marginalized groups is inherently exclusionary. It allows individuals within a group to build on the foundations of shared experience to build community (instead of trying to make descriptions of those experiences accessible to the dominant group). The barriers keeping nonmembers out of the discussion form a protection that creates a safe space. The barriers that protect the conversation within marginalized groups from the violence of the dominant group are formed from an enforced silence of the marginalized group toward those outside of it. Access is limited to the few in languages of identity that the oppressors do not understand, by intentionally obfuscating language in code, and by referencing experience that outsiders do not have access to.

By maintaining dialogues purposefully for the members of a marginalized group, its members become actors instead of the acted upon. The large acts of othering and the smaller acts of microaggression—those actions that seem innocuous to the executer and which convey hostile commentary based on identity (Ross-Sheriff , 234)—that mainstream conversations forced on marginalized groups are mitigated by the removal of both the mainstream conversations and the mainstream from conversations within marginalized conversation.

Within these safe, insular spaces, the identities of members of marginalized groups are not constantly questioned. They are not ambassadors of an identity, patiently and wistfully dreaming to be asked another invasive question on behalf of a group they belong to. Instead, they are within a group that does not put them on display based on these identity-based experiences.

The Feminist Movement was led and continues to largely be led by class-privileged white women who advocated against gender-based oppression, but neglected to include an intersectional approach in their advocacy that acknowledged racism and classism (Butler, 77). While more recent “waves” of feminism have pressed back on this lack of intersectionality within the movement, even the defining of feminism into waves is problematic—it is still framing the conversation around white, class-privileged women and how they have “progressed.” That progression has only recently begin to (marginally) include women of color; it is not a system that started with women of color in mind, but, rather, one with a narrative still centered around the people who originally were credited as the movement’s creators. Instead of participating in a system that, at its inception marginalized women of color and their experiences and still continues to do so, a group of black women developed an opposing theory focused on themselves and their community.

Womanism is an example of a dialogue within, and primarily for, a marginalized community. It is, as Patricia Hill Collins says “a worldview primarily and perhaps exclusively to black women” (Collins, 10). In her interpretation of Alice Walker (who first coined the term “womanist” in 1979, though the theory is not uniquely hers, both because other prominent theorists developed it, but also because it continues to be interpreted and re-worked to apply to a breadth of experiences), Collins goes on to write that womanism is “…rooted in black women’s concrete history in racial and gender oppression” (Collins, 10). Because of differing experiences with American racism, womanism will never be completely intelligible to white women. It was a theory developed by black women and is formulated upon experiences unique to black women. It is a theory that has developed with the construct of feminism in mind and occasionally overlaps with it, but, as Alice Walker said “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” (Walker, xii). As Walker is positioning feminism under the umbrella of womanist dialogue, womanism is often stronger and encompasses more than feminism, which does not take womanism into account.

When and if marginalized groups engage in conversation with other collectives, they can build partnerships even while excluding the dominant from trampling through their secrets. In “No Secret for Rigoberta,” Doris Sommer explains “…parties to productive alliances respect cultural distances among members…to reduce the distance…would invite false identification that make one of those positions redundant” (Sommer, 116). Bowing to the demands and language of the dominant group means that “cooperation” between marginalized and dominant groups will be ineffective. Turning experiences into a more digestible format in order to make them intelligible to outside groups will convert them into something separate from the true experiences of marginalized people when key descriptors are lost in translation. Then, the dialogue is shaped by the dominant group and is no longer reflective of all of its participants.

Instead of trying to forge minority narratives with the rhetoric of dominant conversations, the mainstream should take care to note the conversations already happening, the dialogues that are not catered to them, but are instead indicative of other people. If dialogues, in any form, are made available to the dominant group, the ways of collaboration are eased. However, the dominant groups need not be eased into collaboration by more “accessible” formats at the sacrifice of the legitimacy of the narratives. Sommer says in “Advertencia/Warning,” that “…arrest is also the point of entry into the question of cultural (or racial) distinction. Is it the slap that interrupts the embrace of communication to open up space for improvising” (Sommer, x). Collaboration in any sense of the word, even in opening up some conversation, with guarded language, to community narratives is still a system that buys into existing oppressive power structures. If collaboration can happen, with the “cultural distance” Sommer ascribes to productive alliances, then violent systems can still be made less oppressive, a move which will help marginalized individuals and groups survive that much longer. However, in allowing the entrance of those tainted dialogues into marginalized communities, the systems of oppression are perpetuated and marginalized groups, even with this distance, are assimilated into a system predicated on their subjugation (Collins, 10). The disassembling of these systems will not be done largely through “collaboration,” but through guarding conversations within marginalized groups.

Works Cited

Butler, Deidre Hill. “The Womanist Reader: The First Quarter Century of Womanist Thought Reviewed by Deidre Hill Butler.” The Journal of Pan African Studies 2.1 (2007):77-78. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

Collins, Patricia Hill. " What’s in a Name? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond." The Black Scholar 26.1 (1996): 9-17. Paradigm Publishers. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

Ross-Sheriff, Fariyal. “Microaggression, Women, and Social Work.” AFFILIA: Journal of Women and Social Work (AFF)  27.3 (2012): 233-36. Sage. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

Sommer, Doris. Advertencia/Warning" and "No Secrets for Rigoberta.. Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. ix-xv, 115-137.


Anne Dalke's picture

against collaboration

You stake out a strong thesis here, one in defense of walls, of creating " safe, insular spaces" where members of marginalized groups do not have to be on display, answering invasive questions, and--most significantly, for the purposes of your argument--not collaborating, not having their dialogue shaped by concerns and interests of the dominant group, not making their words "accessible" to those outside, but rather speaking with one another, unscripted by others.

All this is quite sharp, and certainly a direct challenge to the increasingly inclusionary direction our class has taken.

What I find myself wondering, as it read this, is where you are in relation to it. You said, when we were reflecting on our anti-self-portraits, that you really hadn't put your figuring-it-out-self on display:

The anti-self-portrait that I made for class did not talk about this bit of my identity because I was scared and did not want to talk about it. Instead, I talked about where I was from and how the places I had grown up in had shaped me as a person in ways that most people probably would not expect given their expectations of those locations. Now, I am voyaging off into the world of “queer space,” and that is quite a lot more confusing and scary, but is also a heck of a lot more fun.

So, in this more recent essay about preserving safe spaces for minorities: where are you? On the inside or the outside? Preserving or collaborating? And what happens to you in that space? Can you speak frankly about this here/now?

Cat's picture

Most of the time, I'm out in

Most of the time, I'm out in the open, with the bright, shining white light of the patriarchy shining down on me. Right now, I'm at Bryn Mawr--a place that, like we talked about at my writing conference earlier today,  is inherently exclusionary. Bryn Mawr, I think, is an interesting example of an exclusive space for marginalized people, because it includes people it doesn't really want to, and excludes people I don't think it should. I'm preserving a structure that is a safe space to marginalized people, but one that also excludes people who should be included, who are excluded because of harmful systems of oppression that are reproduced in this "safe space."  Here and elsewhere, I'm included in other exclusive conversations--giggled exchanges about tampons, jokes about Jesuits, impromptu advice sessions on coming out. I'm part of quite a few exclusionary conversations, and, sometimes, even when they're light-hearted, I need them to be exclusionary.

On the other hand, I really shouldn't be a part of a lot of conversations. I agree that I should have elaborated in my original post above on my stand point more. One of the things I was kind of skeptical of when writing it was whether I was the right person to be saying the things I was saying--I am someone, for example, who should not be a part of womanist discussions.

I recognize that I shouldn’t be a part of those conversations, but I'm also preserving more than I should be. I'm not really dismantling any oppressive systems—the reasons why those exclusionary spaces have to exist in the first place. I could be, but I'm not. I'm a college student--when else am I going to cause change? That, I'm frustrated with. If I sometimes have the decency to stay out of spaces meant for other people, but consistently twiddle my thumbs without really making anything change, am I really doing the right thing? Being feminist? Honorable? Decent?  Something to flesh out in another paper, maybe, but definitely something I’m going to keep on thinking about (and, hopefully, change).