Yet another paper that I wrote a few years ago for a class:
Standpoint is a central issue and theme in “Defining Black Feminist Thought” for it is the basis upon which Patricia Hill Collins builds her arguments. In her essay, Collins argues that being a black feminist is not an issue of skin color, but rather of a multitude of different factors including standpoint. A wealthy white feminist cannot, in good faith, be a black feminist because of her standpoint that shares few commonalities with that of a black feminist. From differences in standpoint comes differences in thoughts, ideals, and beliefs; from differences in standpoint comes the reason why second-wave feminism alienated women of color and women outside of the heteronormative boundaries of society. Standpoint, as Collins alludes to in her essay, is born forth from struggle, experience, and identity and is the culmination of a person’s views and philosophies on life as formed by life experiences.
Collins continuously writes about the importance of experience to standpoint. When writing about black feminism and what it means to be a black feminist, specifically how a person can become a black feminist, Collins asserts that “This commonality of experience suggests that certain characteristic themes will be prominent in a Black women’s standpoint” (244). A direct link is drawn from experience to standpoint with the assumption that experience will influence standpoint, and not vice versa. Collins’s language—that themes in experience will be prominent in standpoint—does not allow for the reverse to occur. With this statement, Collins also suggests that experience is the main informant of standpoint. By sharing common experiences, many Black women will have similarities in their standpoint despite the specific variations within and amoung experiences. However, that is not say that experience is standpoint or that experience perfectly equates to standpoint. Collins later writes that “Diversity amoung Black women produces different concrete experiences that in turn shape various reactions to the core themes” (245), therefore acknowledging both the influence and limiting factors of experience. Even if an experience is common to a group of people, individuals will have unique reactions that will lead to the formation of different opinions and therefore different standpoints. Many people of color will face racism at some point in their lives, but there are varying reactions: some will use their experience as a motive for activism whereas others will wave it off as part of the burden they must bear for being outside of the patriarchal power structure. These different experiences and reactions lead to different standpoints because of the variation in specific experiences.
Differences in identity also lead to differences in standpoint, as seen with Mitsuye Yamada’s essay, “Asian Pacific American Women and Feminism,” therefore marking identity as another cornerstone of standpoint. By identifying as and by being identified by as an Asian Pacific American woman, Yamada has a different view of feminism and issues facing women than the white, mainstream feminists. This is most apparent when Yamada is discussing tokenism and stereotypes; as she writes, “Building to a group of white sisters who were saying, in essence, ‘it is your responsibility as Third World women to teach us.’ If the majority culture knows so little about us, it must be our problem, they seem to be telling us” (72) . To Yamada, the ignorance of white feminists is a product of their own provinciality and unwillingness to self-educate on the matters of other women, but to the white feminists, it is not their duty to learn about the differences of everyone else. The difference in identity has caused a split between two groups that, were it not for the difference in identity, would be working towards the same goal. This split leads to differences in viewpoints, and these different viewpoints all have their unique standpoint. A difference in viewpoint will lead to a difference in standpoint because how issues are viewed will vary; an issue that a white feminist will consider important may not be considered important by a feminist of color, and vice versa. Yamada writes about this split in viewpoint, stating that “This pervasive feeling of mistrust toward the [white] women in the movement is fairly representative of a large group of women who live in the psychological place we now call Asian Pacific America. A movement that fights sexism in the social structure must deal with racism, and we had hoped the leaders in the women’s movement would be able to see the parallels in the lives of the women of color and themselves, and would ‘join’ us in our struggle and give us ‘input’” (73) . To white feminists, racism was not an issue that feminists needed to handle because there were more pressing issues at hand to be addressed, but to those who suffered racism first hand, the work of feminism could not be done without addressing bigotry in all its forms. The difference in identity leads to different viewpoints as to what is important and what is not, and viewpoint informs an individual’s standpoint.
By having variations in experience and identity, women will vary in their beliefs and views. Experience, particularly which of struggle, teaches people what to expect or believe, and identity hands people a set of assumptions upon which people can base a more precise set of beliefs. All of these inform on standpoint, and to Collins, standpoint plays the dominant role in both defining and separating movements. Because a privileged white woman does not have the same struggle and experiences as a black woman, she cannot be a black feminist; because a white feminist may hold certain assumptions about the lives of Asian Pacific American women that are not true, identity serves as a marker of difference that widens the gap between the standpoint of a white feminist and the standpoint of an Asian Pacific American woman. For Collins, standpoint is the beginning of defining a movement because it informs on the advantages, limitations and biases of those at the heart of the movement.
The basic notion of difference is present in the politics of intersectionality, but unlike difference in a binary mode of thought, difference in intersectionality is the basis for activism and for a movement. Whereas difference is distinctly negative in a binary system of thought that reduces all parties to an “us” and “them” with the two parties opposing one another, and one being inferior and the other superior, difference in the politics of intersectionality acknowledges that although all women have some similarity, the oppression they face varies. To successfully address all women translates into addressing all forms of oppression, no matter the size of the group. In order to address all the issues facing all women, difference is essential, and without acknowledging the power and importance of differences amoung women, certain groups will be marginalized and essential alliances cannot be formed to address the issues that face individuals.
Difference in a binary system reduces variations to a mindset of “us” versus “them.” The difference between “us” and “them” is not what only separates the two groups, but it is what makes one group blessed and the other cursed. In the introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that “Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought” (14). Humans have a natural tendency to sort their environment into categories, and the simplest of these is “us,” that which is like myself, and “them,” those who are not like myself. This sense of otherness led to a binary in genders—man versus woman, masculine versus feminine—which in turn led to one being favored and praised over the other. Instead of celebrating the strengths and weakness of both categories, the mentality of “us” versus “them” allowed for the over-exaltation of one and the complete degradation of the other, with neither incorporating the strengths of the other. This binary system of thought also led to the homogenization of a group and wiping out all the differences and individual experiences that any group of people contains. Consuelo Nieto’s essay, “The Chicana and the Women’s Rights Movement,” illustrates that a binary system of thought is not limited to gender but can also be applied to race. “The Anglo women will help the Chicana erase those ‘difference’ that separate them. Hence, ‘We will all be united under the banner of Woman’”(209), Nieto writes about her experiences with white feminists. By attempting to persuade Chicanas to drop the differences that in part define the Chincana experience, white feminists allude to a binary where “us,” the white feminists, are fighting for issues that pertain to all women and “them,” the Chicanas, are fighting for specific issues that do not affect a majority of women and are therefore hindering the larger fight for equality. The white women are reduced to the saviors fighting for the rights of everyone, and the Chicanas are reduced to being the opponent who stands in the way of true liberation, despite the fact that the oppression is from the patriarchal system of thought that is being utilized. A binary system of thought does not celebrate difference or the importance of difference, but rather, it views difference as a hurdle that needs to be either crossed or reinforced without consideration of the detriment to those who are in the category of “other.”
Difference under the politics of intersectionality recognizes that all women have some similarity, but that the oppression varies, thus leading to various groups with different focal points. This does not mean that the various groups cannot form coalitions to address larger issues that unite these groups under a larger umbrella. As Patricia Hill Collins writes in “Defining Black Feminist Thought,” “The importance of Black women’s leadership in producing Black feminist thought does not mean that others cannot participate. It does mean that the primary responsibility for defining one’s own reality lies with the people who live that reality, who actually have those experiences” (253). The differences in experience will exclude some from becoming the authoritative figures of a movement, but alliances can be formed to bridge those differences and allow for overarching issues to be addressed without disregarding the experiences of individuals. Difference is the basis for a movement, and though differences are present, they do not need to prevent alliances address the concerns of all women and not just those of a specific group. A central tenant to the politics of intersectionality is the need to unite, and the need to be aware and to respect differences. Nieto also writes that “Chicanas must avoid a polarization that isolates them from Chincanos as well as other women. They must carefully analyze each situation, as well as the means to reconcile differences” (210). Differences should not polarize groups to view others as negative, opposing forces, but rather, they should serve as defining points that allow groups to find a center for activism and as starting points of alliances. Difference is not a negative force in the politics of intersectionality; it is the variety that allows an otherwise homogeneous movement to cater to the specific needs of individuals because no one has the exact same experiences.
The notion of difference produced through a politics of intersectionality is that all people have varying experiences, and those variations are essential to the identities of those people and the movements they represent. Difference in a binary system of thought only serves to separate people with one group superior to the other, thereby allowing the superior group to force stereotypes with the intent of homogeneity upon the inferior group. By allowing the superior to dominate the inferior, the system of patriarchal value is maintained, and the inferior are kept under control by societal obligations. Instead of pitting two groups against one another, or allowing one group dominance over the other, the politics of intersectionality stresses difference as the beginning of identity and alliances that address the needs and focus of all women with the goal of maintaining the diversity in experiences of individuals.
Dani S. Dela George’s essay, “For the Love of Feminism,” illustrates Judith Butler’s argument that “identity categories tend to be instrument of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression” (301). According to Butler, identity is used by those in the position of power to separate and control; in the case of activism, identity is used to ensure that the message of the activists is not sullied or diluted by those perceived to be unaffected by the issue at hand. However, when such boundaries are drawn and strictly enforced, many people for whom the activism is pertinent are excluded because they do not neatly fit into the identity category that has been drawn, and the activism has downsized itself. By feeding into a binary system of thought where those outside of the identity category are opponents that will only weaken the cause, the regulatory regime fighting against the patriarchal oppression is only reinforcing the present system by reducing differences into an antagonistic sum.
Dela George describes the hierarchy and culture of the Women’s Center Defense Coalition of Rutgers University, writing that “[t]he executive board was only interested in the voices of their senior members, not the voices of ‘other’ feminists” (144). The boundaries within a larger group have been drawn so that sub-groups, the haves and the have-nots, are given different levels of power. There already is an identity split, and those that identify as being the more prominent members have the power to override the opinions and ideas of the newer members, whom they deem insignificant. Their identity alienates anyone with different opinions that they deem unnecessary and antagonistic. By creating a specific identity within a group with a common cause, the women of the executive board are giving themselves the power and right to regulate the larger movement. The WCDC “was advocating a form of feminism that was attempting to fit neatly into a core versus periphery model” (144), thereby utilizing a binary system of thought to alienate and discredit those in the periphery. The core message was of the utmost importance, and those in the periphery would only weaken the core message. Those in the periphery would have nothing useful to add to the movement because any variation would distract from the issue, and difference would only divide. Because those in the periphery would not necessarily identify as woman, their difference in standpoint could not constructively inform the activism. In order to advance their agenda, the established members in power turned to the patriarchal system of oppression to quell the opinions of dissidents within their own group. A clear line in identity is drawn in this example so that a more concise message could be maintained; however, by excluding those outside of the specific identity, those in power have limited the strength and potential of the message.
Further into the essay, Dela George discusses the exclusion of men from the “Take Back the Night” march, writing that for her, “excluding men—and to be more specific: men, transgender folk, transsexual folk, gender-fuck fold, and intersex folk—form marching is just as detrimental to local feminism as violence itself is” (145). To Dela George, the decision by the regulatory regime to exclude men, who traditionally fell outside of the identity of feminist and are not part of the identity of woman, only reinforced the patriarchal binary system of thought of “us” versus “them.” By reversing the binary, the feminists in control are only reinforcing the patriarchal system of oppression and not fundamentally changing the problem. The only difference is now that man, once the advantageous gender, is at a disadvantage and is being excluded. The binary system of thought also homogenizes variations present within a group, and in Dela George’s situation, the power structure excluded all individuals who could not conclusively identify as woman, which included members of the queer community. Identity is used to draw a definitive difference that does not allow alliances to build around a unifying issue. Dela George writes that by including the queer community, “Take Back the Night” would “help to foster awareness on a much larger level, Feminist culture is not static; there is no prescribed periphery and no prescribed core. Feminist culture, just like any culture, is established upon interactions, and these interactions can subvert or reaffirm that culture” (148). Dela George is, in essence, arguing for intersectionality—identity and differences do separate individuals from one another, but those differences only serve to enrich a movement because by acknowledging and respecting differences, a movement can reach out and remain pertinent to many more people. In the eyes of those in power, however, differences can only undermine their ultimate message and goal. By including people who do not identify as woman, they are diluting the meaning of feminist; by using woman as an identity, the organizers are able to control the message of the group and to control the actions of their members.
Because it is significantly easier to resort to a binary system of thought than to acknowledge and respect differences as required by the politics of intersectionality, the leaders of liberatory contestations will use identity to sort potential activists into those who are truly part of the movement, and those who cannot be because the fail to qualify. From the views of the leaders, identity informs on standpoint, and without the necessary identity, the standpoint of an individual will differ from that of the intended group. Identity also serves as a tool to control those who pass the test because to contest and to introduce ideas that question your identity will lead to social and political exclusion. But by reinforcing a definition of “us” and “them,” a natural opposition forms, even though the main oppressor is not born from the struggle of identity.
The relationship between sexuality and medicine is an unequal one where medicine continually attempts to define and regulate sexuality. To define and regulate sexuality is to control people, particularly those at the edges of the heteronormative practices who are deemed as threats to the larger society. In “Thinking Sex,” Gayle S. Rubin writes that “Modern Western societies appraise sex acts according to a hierarchical system of sexual value” (11). This hierarchical system allows an ingroup and an outgroup to be defined, therefore creating a binary where the “us,” those who follow the heteronormative sexual practices, are superior to “them,” those who are on the fringes. The inferior are then vilified for their practices, and stereotypes are socially constructed to homogenize those individuals and to scare others into the socially accepted practices. To medically define certain behaviors as deviant and harmful and others as normal is to reinforce society’s puritan notions with the goal of controlling the sexual practices of individuals so that the heteronormative practices remain predominant. By keeping heteronormative practices in place, the power structure that initially placed such practices into prominence also remain intact and therefore dominant in the social consciousness.
The main vehicle of medically defining and controlling the bodies of individuals and their sexuality has been psychology, where according to Rubin “[t]hey equate sexual masochism with self-destructive personality patterns, sexual sadism with emotional aggression, and homoeroticism with immaturity. These terminological muddles have become powerful stereotypes that are indiscriminately applied to individuals on the basis of their sexual orientations” (12). By giving sexuality and sexual behaviors medical definitions, those that fall outside of the heteronormative circle can now be treated as a disease with a cure in the distance. Sexual behavior and sexuality is no longer a choice that every individual has a freedom and right to decide, but a biological factor that can be altered with medication and therapy so that the wayward sheep may rejoin the herd. Rubin writes that “fetishism, sadism, masochism, transsexuality, transvestism, exhibitionism, voyeurism and pedophilia are quite firmly entrenched as psychological malfunctions. Books are still being written about the genesis, etiology, treatment, and cure of these assorted ‘pathologies’” (12). These variations of sexual behaviors are choices that individuals have made, but they threaten the social hierarchy in place. A choice is not an aspect that can be fixed without force, but a medical disease can be cured, and by equating choices of sexuality and sexual behavior to a disease, the patriarchal society can now cure individuals of their afflictions. By curing such diseases, the power structure enforced by society remains intact and relevant. It is important to note that such medical definition is not rooted in biology considering “what we typically call the sex of the body, which we imagine to be a uniform quality that uniquely characterizes each and every individual whole body, is shown to consist of numerous parts—chromosomal sex, anatomical sex, reproductive sex, morphological sex—that can, and do, form a variety of viable bodily aggregations that number far more than two” (Stryker 9). Although biological sex has many variations beyond the two that society has deemed acceptable, all other variations are deemed abnormal because they threaten the social structure that dictates the sexual behaviors and choices of individuals. The medical definitions allow sex and sexuality to be forced into a binary system of thought that allows “us,” those within the heteronormative circle, to be superior to “them,” those that fall outside of the boundaries, and to allow the superior sector to impose rules that ensures the homogeneity and continuation of the current power structure.
Medical discourses define and regulate bodies and sexual behavior as a method of dismissing differences and the people behind the variation. By dismissing differences, society is able to uphold the power structure that allows the majority to dictate the lives of the minority. Rubin writes that “Psychiatric condemnation of sexual behaviors invokes concepts of mental and emotional inferiority rather than categories of sexual sin. Low-status sex practices are vilified as mental disease or symptoms of defective personality integration” (12). This dichotomy of superior and inferior allows the society at large to dismiss those at the frays and to justify their attempts to rehabilitate them. By giving their rehabilitation attempts a medical reason, society has legitimized its reasoning and in the process perhaps even persuaded those who would balk at the idea of the community imposing rules upon the individual that what is being done is right. Biological reasoning centers around what “is” and what is “natural,” and if practices can be defined as being “unnatural,” then there is legitimate cause for intervention and prioritization of acts and people from good to bad. Variation and differences threaten the established patriarchal system of society that has a deep interest in maintaining the current power structure. “Popular culture is permeated with ideas that erotic variety is dangerous, unhealthy, depraved, and a menace to everything from small children to national security” (Rubin 12), and these ideas are based on an extrapolation of the medical discourses. Outright bigotry can and has been overturned in the past, but to overturn a seemingly-legitimate medical discourse is not an average individual can reason through; it is something best left to the experts, and so long as the experts maintain an interest in continuing the current system, the differences in sexuality and sexual behavior will remain contained. Because the personal is political, controlling private decisions of individuals is part of the social narrative that allows the heteronormative circle to maintain the patriarchal power structure. Because humans are naturally fearful of that which is different, medical discourse only provides an avenue of legitimizing attempts to discriminate and quell differences.
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