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White-centrism, Profeminism, and Transgender Politics

Monday, February 29, 2016 20:11
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This blog exists to challenge white heterosexual male supremacy as an institutionalized ideology and a systematized set of practices which are misogynistic, heterosexist, racist, genocidal, and ecocidal.

image, of a white hand holding the world, is from here

[T]hose of us who are transsexual feminists, and especially those of us who transition as adults (I was age 22), are likewise in certain ways “younger sisters or nieces” of women who have lived their whole lives as female. The “cis/trans” binary idea is very harmful because it seeks to reverse this natural order of respect and status where newcomers honor our more experienced elder sisters. And this kind of AFAB-phobia can, in effect, recreate aspects of the patriarchy. For a women to have many years of experience in a given position, and then be asked to train a new man who gets the promotion she deserves, is a pattern women who are AFAB may feel is at least approximated when a new transsexual woman in a group who has only recently transitioned becomes an instant “expert” on the feminist movement. 

                               – Margo Schulter

What follows is an exchange between white transsexual Lesbian and feminist, Margo Schulter, and my white self. I’ll put my text in italics. It picks up from a longer exchange in the comments section of this post, “Is John Wrong? On Andrea Dworkin, Sex Difference, and Gender Dominance”.

Margo begins her responses to comments in the prior post with this quote:

“Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.” –Audre Lorde

In continuing this dialogue, I would like warmly to accept your invitation to focus more on Women on Color, intersectionality, the ethics and methodology of a woman such as Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks, and also the need to avoid misleading racial analogies applied in either direction to the Turf Wars. There are some very powerful Indigenous and other non-European models that can be applied to the relationship between women who have lived their whole lives as females (including some intersex women), and women who for some part of their lives have experienced both a measure of male privilege and trans oppression. I’m not saying that there’s any exact precedent on this that I know, although I have heard some stories about one Indigenous Nation which, if true, would much fit my sense of sisterhood and justice.

As a first step, I think that we need to follow Audre Lorde’s advice on not scoring “oppression points,” as you call them, in any direction. Let’s not verticalize the Turf Wars, which involve horizontal hostility between sisters, into a conflict where one side has the equivalent of white privilege, and the other is in the position of Women of Color. Such an analogy, whether it’s the “cis/trans” binary and “cis privilege” misconception all too popular in the trans community, or the “any transsexual woman should be suspected of expressing male privilege the rest of her life” misconception that has harmed feminism for over four decades, divides sisters and interferes with recognition of mutual vulnerability and the need for mutual aid.

So, to follow Audre Lorde, within the Lesbian community I am a transsexual, and within the trans community I am a radical Lesbian feminist. Any attack against transsexuals is a Lesbian feminist issue, because I and many other transsexuals are part of the Lesbian feminist community. Any attack on Lesbian feminists is a transsexual issue, because many Lesbian feminists are transsexual.

Let’s now focus a bit on race; then on special vulnerabilities of women who are AFAB or trans; and then on feminist process and some uplifting models from Women of Color.

Hi Margo,

Thank you for your openness to engaging on these issues, Margo. :) I’ll respond comment by comment, rather than posting all your comments together, to keep my responses in closer proximity to what I’m responding to.

I can’t take credit for “oppression points”; it is not a term I use to point out problems with ranking oppression. But I know what you’re referring to in this context.

For me, a more useful way to understand ourselves intersectionally is in terms of our structural locations and our political positions, which necessarily includes what forms of institutional power we have access to and which privileges we benefit from and enjoy. See for example, this post, which informs how I understand various methods for addressing sexual slavery, trafficking, brothel-keeping, what you term sexage work, and pimping and procuring: The Life without Privilege: the Inhumane Consequences of Pro-Prostitution Politics, part 1.

When in my early twenties, a feminist (wo)mentor, a white feminist and Lesbian, pointed out that in something I wrote, I made references to two groups: “people” and also to “Black people”. Her point, brought to my attention in a way that was very impactful without being shaming, was that identifying people in this way simultaneously falsely universalises and problematically invisibilises whiteness. I have thought about that a great deal since then. The problem my mentor named has not been sufficiently mitigated in white writing since. Let us consider the following book titles: Sexual Politics (Kate Millett) and Black Sexual Politics (Patricia Hill Collins); Feminist Thought (Rosemary Putnam Tong) and Black Feminist Thought (Collins).

To what extent is Millett’s book “White Sexual Politics”, and Tong’s book “White Feminist Thought”? The question is easy to answer: both books only deal with or strongly center white writers, theorists, and worldviews. Except one chapter in Feminist Thought titled “Women of Color Feminisms”.

This is a critique, Margo. You wrote:

“So, to follow Audre Lorde, within the Lesbian community I am a transsexual, and within the trans community I am a radical Lesbian feminist. Any attack against transsexuals is a Lesbian feminist issue, because I and many other transsexuals are part of the Lesbian feminist community. Any attack on Lesbian feminists is a transsexual issue, because many Lesbian feminists are transsexual.”

I understand and respect the point with two caveats. 

1. I’m arguing that to follow Audre Lorde you and I must not invisibilise our race when we write about ourselves. So, within white Lesbian community, you are a race-privileged transsexual, and within the white trans community, you are a race-privileged radical Lesbian feminist. I have thought many times about whether I should retitle my blog, “A Radical White Profeminist”.

2. I want to be clear about what constitutes “an attack”, because we know, online, it is used to describe both shaming and derisive verbal assaults, doxxing, criminal threatening, and “reasoned critique”. I don’t welcome the first things on that list, but militantly want to protect spaces that welcome reasoned critique, even if it ‘threatens’ core viewpoints by those in the conversation. I mention this because in most white trans-friendly spaces, what is not considered friendly or welcome is digging deeply into some issues, such as the presence (or not) of male privilege and male supremacist power. As a radical, I reject making some subjects verboten, automatically. I agree that there are more and less appropriate spaces for some conversations, and I hope to respect those, if the boundaries are set by those I structurally oppress. I hope not to respect them if set by those who structurally oppress me, or women of any color.

Margo continues:
At this point, I’d like to get into race, and explain why I often call myself a Second Wave Feminist, even while recognizing that the term does have a certain white bias. The fact that I recognize Frances M. Beale, who wrote in the late 1960′s on the “double jeopardy” of being Black and female, the peerless Flo Kennedy whom you recently honored here and I once got to hear speak in San Francisco in the mid-1970′s, Pauli Murray of the Harlem Renaissance tradition, Angela Davis, and the Combahee River Collective as all at the center of the Second Wave doesn’t mean that it’s not a white-oriented way of viewing hirstory.

The question arises: “If the First Wave ended with the gaining of the vote in the U.S.A. in 1920, what about Bessie Smith or Eleanor Roosevelt or Frances Perkins or Rosa Parks or Ella Baker? What about the Black Lesbian culture that thrived through `race records’ and the like long before Olivia? Is it really fair to see the whole era of 1920-1963, if we take Betty Friedan’s _The Feminine Mystique_ as the start of the Second Wave, as a vast wasteland or blank slate of patriarchy unresisted? Even from a Euro-American view, Ruth Herschberger published the radical feminist _Adam’s Rib_ in 1948, and Simone de Beauvoir _The Second Sex_ in 1949.”

The reason I identity as Second Wave, as parochial as it is, is to affirm that there were and are radical Lesbian feminists of this era, transsexual and also AFAB, who believe in equal sisterhood, and reject both transphobia and also what I might call AFAB-phobia (with the term “cisphobia” in air quotes tempting, because AFAB-phobia is based on the misconception of “cis privilege”). Make no mistake: either AFAB-phobia or transphobia is destructive, unsisterly, and antifeminist. So is for someone inside or outside the women’s community to propose that this or that sister be “decentered” because of her birth assignment.

Many trans people, AFAB as well as AMAB, assume that the 1970′s, at least among white feminists, were an era of universal transphobia. I’m delighted when I can change some minds. And the erasure of transsexual Lesbian feminists from some Lesbian feminist accounts of those years by women who rightly resist AFAB-phobia but not the other side of the equation, is something I want to do my part to correct in fighting AFAB-phobia.

But let’s get into Women of Color and better ethics and models for feminism.

I continue:
I’ll admit this right off, although many who have engaged with me at length already know this: I’m annoyingly, compulsively picky about how language is used. So “let’s get into Women of Color” is, for me, a very problematic way to introduce a discussion of the meaning–the reality–of our whiteness and how to center the experiences of Women of Color.

I prefer to identify myself in terms of my politics, rather than when I came into the movement for women’s liberation. So, I’m anti-colonialist white supremacy, pro-Indigenist, and I believe in challenging and eradicating all expressions of male supremacy and male privilege, including my own. Identifying how and in what ways white and male supremacy are structurally, behaviorally, or philosophically ‘active’ in a social or interpersonal space is very important to me.

To respond further to your comment, I think the terms “AFAB” and “AMAB” are problematic and participate in a liberal, post-modern, pro-colonialist, patriarchal discourse. How?

One of the themes of liberalism and post-modernism, in white male supremacist societies, is to reduce matters of structural power to matters of language and terminology. So, the issue of being treated as male or targeted as female is replaced with the matter of being identified or assigned male, female, or intersex. This is, for me, a form of discursive slight of hand, not the Radical Feminist kind.

Does acknowledging the reality of intersex experience mean we must give up a Radical and pro-Feminist analysis of Liberalism and Postmodernism (and Modernism)? I hope not. Can we acknowledge the experiences of intersex people and also center a critique of whiteness and male supremacy? I have yet to see that work done. So, that is before us (collectively).

As for white or male supremacy, some of its power comes from its [Modernist] reliance on the Objectivity of Western science to authenticate Truthful Reality. This is called “Essentialism” by Radical Feminists, and by Postmodernists, and by a small group of trans* activists. However, most trans* activists, in my experience, rely heavily on ‘essentialism’ to even make their arguments. How is it not essentialist to state, “I am a man because I feel like a man”? A radical and profeminist view would interrogate this as follows:

To prioritise the state of being a man to a feeling, to a seemingly asocial psychic subjectivity, is to do something radically different than locating manhood as a structured, institutionalised reality that is constructed through coercion and force, not feelings and choice. 

A radical and profeminist view would be, “We are men if we are empowered and encouraged to do what men do and get rewarded in the ways men are rewarded.” So, if I oppress women and it is considered either natural or appropriate for me to do so (within male supremacist ideology and history), that is what makes me ‘a man’. If I do not oppress women, I am not, behaviorally speaking, ‘a man’. However, being ‘a man’ isn’t only a matter of behavior. It is a matter also of social meaning. If I am viewed as a man in a parking garage and am also following a woman, that woman will be less safe than if I appear to be and am a woman.

There is a call by pro-trans activists to de-prioritise what girls and women experience–and why, and instead respond to and engage with people based only on the trans person’s subjective identity. I’m arguing this calls for dissociation from radical and feminist knowledge of patriarchy and how it works.

To call on all profeminist activists to prioritise the eradication men’s violence against girls and women, to disappear rape culture, is to make room for people to be male, female, or intersex without the abusive and terrifying overlay of male supremacy and female subordination.

Margo continues:
There’s a powerful story from the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations, literally the “Longhouse” with the different Nations as the “hearths” of that larger confederation joined under the Great Law of Peace. Women play a central role in the life and governance of the Haudenosaunee, and women coming from lives either of African slavery or oppressive sex servitude within the Euro-American community have found refuge in the Haudenosaunee. The Euro-American feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage was in the later 19th century adopted into the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) Nation, in recognition of her faithful allyship.

Originally the Five Nations, the Haudenosaunee in 1722 accepted a new member: the Tuscarora Nation, which had suffered much harm because of the European invasions and Turtle Island genocide, and sought inclusion. In keeping with the Great Law of Peace, they indeed were accepted, but as the “younger nephews” (or should we say ”younger nieces” also?) of the Haudenosaunee. The Great Law of Peace itself cautioned that those who had not grown up under this Constitution would not be fully familiar with it, and so should enjoy full acceptance and
inclusion, but also a certain juniority, one might say.

In my view, those of us who are transsexual feminists, and especially those of us who transition as adults (I was age 22), are likewise in certain ways “younger sisters or nieces” of women who have lived their whole lives as female. The “cis/trans” binary idea is very harmful because it seeks to reverse this natural order of respect and status where newcomers honor our more experienced elder sisters. And this kind of AFAB-phobia can, in effect, recreate aspects of the patriarchy. For a women to have many years of experience in a given position, and then be asked to train a new man who gets the promotion she deserves, is a pattern women who are AFAB may feel is at least approximated when a new transsexual woman in a group who has only recently transitioned becomes an instant “expert” on the feminist movement.

Respect for seniority-juniority among sisters can often be implicit, and transsexual women can bear it in mind even if our trans history is not known in a given group. It can function as a kind of self-restraint, a desire to keep feminist process balanced (of which more a bit later).

I love the commitment to visibility and respect for historically subordinated and oppressed people implicitly and explicitly stated here!

I also want whites to engage in the effort necessary to understand how our whiteness and colonialist patriarchy impacts Indigenous people in our regions, today. 

Another story involving the Haudenosaunee, and more specifically the Kanienkehaka Nation, may give a clue as to how Indigenous values may help to resolve the AFAB/trans question within radical feminism in groups which do wish to include both types of women.

A story I learned some 25 years ago tells how a European women served as a domestic servant in the colonies, sometime around the middle 18th century, and suffered much abuse. She managed to seek refuge with the Kanienkehaka Nation, and due course was made an adoptive member. There the idea of abusing a woman was unknown, with 19th-century feminists like Lydia Maria Child noting how rape was likewise unknown in many Indigenous Nations. This assimilated woman had the right to own her own property, in the context of a communal as opposed to predatory and capitalist society, and so found safety and happiness in her new community.

However, the Great Law of Peace suggests that as an acculturated rather than natal member of the Kanienkehaka, she may have been excluded from some constitutional responsibilities, since she had not grown up under this Constitution and had an opportunity to learn its different aspects through lifelong experience. For example, she may not have shared in the responsibility of women to choose and sometimes impeach male leaders or diplomats. However, she was embraced as a woman of her new people, and expected to follow the Great Law of Peace to which she had given her allegiance.

Is not this Indigenous wisdom a beautiful parable for how women who have lived their entire lives as women, and transsexual women who seek refuge with our elder sisters, should relate in sex-class solidarity? The relationship is one of mutual caring, of all for one and one for all, which at the same time recognizes that women who are AFAB have a perspective from which transsexual women should learn as younger sisters.

I am called to find out how such caring is impacted by colonialist white male supremacy: how does the trauma and terrorism faced by specific groups of women shape a capacity for mutual care? How much does economic advantage matter? Margo, what I hear is that the contempt and marginalisation that is enforced and maintained against Black women is fierce; how does white, pro-radical profeminism address this or take this into account? Where does misogynoir live in white radical women’s movements? Are we able to identify it, or is it left to Black women to name it?

I am again drawn to wonder how that hirstory plays out today. And, rather than seeing Indigenist and Aboriginal societies as being good examples of how to do feminism, for whites, how can whites fight for an end to genocide of Indigenous People? How can whites centralise and actively support Indigenist, Black, and Brown women’s emergencies and agendas for their own liberation? And, which whites will choose this as a priority? White trans* women?

Another aspect of feminist culture in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s which has had great influence in peace and other social movements since also has Indigenous roots, borrowed by mainly white feminists to deal with a problem that arose between women who were AFAB, although transsexual women are susceptible to this also. That is the problem of unequal participation, when one, two, or a few women (often with white, class, and academic privilege) can mostly dominate the conversations and decision-making process of a group.

This occurred in the early years of radical feminism, both in larger organizations and in the small
consciousness-raising groups that were at the heart of the movement. Feminist process borrowed from the traditions of various Indigenous people, to encourage less privileged or articulate women to speak and be heard. An object might be passed from speaker to speaker, and a self-awareness cultivated of how many times one had spoken, as compared to others in the group (and especially the quieter ones!).

Feminist process can be an especially important self-discipline for those of us women, AFAB or trans, who have been fortunate enough to escape or overcome the usual “female disempowerment training” that anyone raised a girl is likely to endure in patriarchy. Jo Freeman or “Joreen,” one of the founding members of Radical Women of New York, nicely draws a portrait in 1968 of what we may call an empowered woman that fit some AFAB feminists then and now, as well as many trans women who are spared AFAB disempowerment training:“>

Around this same era, Martha Shelley of Radicalesbians wrote her “Confessions of a Pseudo-Male Chauvinist,” and I recall that her description of her experience as a Butch Lesbian, and elements of internalized sexism, often fit my experience as a transsexual Femme Lesbian. So feminist process is a tool that keeps balance in a group where some women are by socialization, experience, white privilege, academic advantage, or temperament ”empowered” in ways that might lead to imbalance or unequal participation. And, as Joreen suggests, women with this kind of style (whether we are AFAB or trans) might also form affinity groups where we can learn from each other.

I am uncomfortable with whites incorporating what we wish, what we need, or what we desire, from Indigenous societies, without that being mutual and reciprocal. Without such ‘borrowing’ being both, it is colonialist and patriarchal. Also, how does dominant [white, male supremacist, colonialist] trans* discourse and activism exploit and distort Indigenist understandings of gender for its own ends? This is an important question for me. I’ve seen whites post things in white-dominant groups about Indigenist people for whites. Never as a way to draw attention to what we do that is problematic and racist; but only as white supremacist action to benefit whites by further exploiting Native ethnic groups.

There is a good critique of the liberalism of Jo Freeman in the book, [Mostly White] Feminist Thought.

To move beyond aberrations such as the misconceived “cis/trans” binary, and also the idea that when women who are AFAB and trans harmoniously cooperate (as in the Olivia Collectives during the mid-1970′s) the AFAB members of a group are somehow “caring for men” rather than for their transsexual sisters, Indigenous tradition can again help in moving us beyond an “Oppression Olympics” mentality in either direction.

An Indigenous woman in a discussion on the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michfest or MWMF) pointed out that a tradition like those she knew would look at circumstance and need in a situation where newcomers desired to share a group’s territory, for example as refugees from some natural disaster. Here I should emphasize that for me, attending Michfest (2000 miles away) was not Andrea Dworkin’s “primary emergency,” nor even a 100th-rate emergency, so to speak! But this woman explained how the Indigenous approach she knew would look compassionately at the needs and intentions of newcomers.

An important factor favoring the inclusion of transsexual women in the women’s and Lesbian communities in general — as opposed to every women’s or Lesbian group! — is that transsexual women make up less than 1% of women, and also face great oppression from patriarchal society while often sharing many of the same ongoing oppressions as other women, although not the special oppressions of AFAB socialization, and also the reproductive vulnerabilities of most AFAB women through much of their lives. If the number of women who are AFAB or trans were about equal, the political and ethical questions might be a bit different.

To say that transsexual women need feminism, and need to make our contribution to feminism in a way which takes advantage of the special perspectives we can bring but also our relationship of juniority to women who have lived their entire lives as female, does not mean that we or any other women need to be present in all women’s and Lesbian spaces at all times! No woman can rightly make that demand. Rather, we can look to the wisdom of Lisa Vogel, founder of Michfest, in 2006, who reaffirmed Michfest as an AFAB-only space while affirming the value of “spaces that welcome all who define themselves as female.” She declared that “we stand shoulder to shoulder as women,” with women who are AFAB or trans being alike “part of the larger diversity of the womyn’s community.” That is the unity in diversity that can help end the Turf Wars.

Overall, a critique is that we whites still see Indigenous women in terms of how they may be of benefit to us. Our colonialist entitlements and privileges are rarely examined and never decentered. This is our work. Also, to the varying extents they exist, our male privileges and power is rarely named as such, and so, in fact, is rarely named period. Not only that, but pro-trans* people argue it is transphobic to do so. I have experienced this so many times from white trans women and have found almost no exceptions to the rule, of whiteness.

Julian, you also raised a very important point that bell hooks addresses in _Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism_ (1981). I agree that it’s an open question just what “primary” means in Andrea Dworkin’s “primary emergency.” Michael Walzer writes of “supreme emergency,” meaning a threat so extreme that it might justify violating the normal laws of war, for example; maybe this is a mark of Eurocentric discourse. And to me, ”emergency” is quite enough, or, as bell hooks puts it elsewhere, “what is important at a given point in time.”

But I agree with you and bell hooks that intersectionality applies in situations of great stress and danger, as she quotes Sojourner Truth, speaking in New York in 1867: “[T]here is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored woman; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.” (_Ain’t I A Woman_, p. 4). Interestingly Truth, an activist for Black Liberation and Women’s Liberation and the abolition of the death penalty, spoke a century before the founding of Radical Women of New York in 1967 which marked a landmark moment in the modern radical feminist movement.

One larger message of Sojourner Truth is that we can and must recognize each other’s emergencies and needs, even while joining in solidarity. Thus if a women, AFAB or transsexual, is expressing patriarchal attitudes or exercising “power over” rather than “power with” in a women’s group, feminist process should call this out. If a nonbinary person like Cerien is having their needs neglected, every radical feminist should consider this ”our” issue and priority also. The current abortion situation in the State of Texas, USA, is likewise a rightful priority for every feminist woman, whether or not she has herself experienced menstruation or pregnancy.

It is possible to appreciate Andrea Dworkin’s powerful insights while also applying the wisdom of Sojourner Truth, bell hooks, and also Audre Lorde: emergencies of different groups or subgroups, like oppressions, do not have any hierarchy. But cooperation, solidarity, and mindfulness of vulnerabilities and immunities can promote the feminist ideal of mutual aid, as opposed to the patriarchal pattern of privilege and servitude.

You have done a nice job of noting some significant contributions made by some women of color to euro-white feminist practice. What is needed here is the writings that call on those of us who are white to examine and check our whiteness. Audre Lorde and bell hooks have both written about this quite a bit. It is common for whites to quote Audre when it suits us, but rarely to do so when it makes us uncomfortable–when she is calling us out on our racism. What must end is the perception of ourselves as somehow unraced or unaffected (whether negatively or positively) by colonialist white supremacy.

“An activist and writer at the blog, A Radical Profeminist”.


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