Academia is weird. On the one hand, you’re taught to cite every. single. thing. You are constantly citing the thinkers and theorists and researchers who went before you. You’re not really allowed to come up with an original thought of your own unless you can show how 18 different theorists influenced your work. Yet, at the same time, there is a premium put on expertise. On being the sole expert in this particular area. On using language that denotes your expertise and elevation from the huddled masses (e.g. the heterosexist subjugation of the Other can be understood by applying a Baktinian analysis in which the grotesque is understood as a matrix wherein the abject intersects and transcends the embodied plane. Note: this was essentially a MadLib of po-mo jargon but I bet you I could whip up a compelling paper to argue precisely this thesis).
And then when you get into feminist academe it’s even weirder. On the one hand, we talk about intersectionality and privilege and access. On the other, we use inaccessible language and carefully elide the role that privilege has played in getting us to where we are. And we play this weird game where we centre women’s voices and experiences but don’t make our research accessible to those women; we centre the voices of the marginalized but use language those without access to academia often don’t have; we use women’s experiences in pursuit of liberation but don’t stop to ask whose liberation we’re fighting for.
And then you look at the blogging world of feminists and you see a similar picture–the big names tend to be white, able-bodied women of considerable means. And they (we, though I’m not a big name, I am a white, able-bodied, middle-class woman) tend to suck on matters of intersectionality. We suck on race and trans issues and poverty and ability and citizenship/immigration issues. And we suck at citing those who have taught us how to think better, who have taught us to challenge ourselves and each other to do the work, to transcend our sites of privilege and access to work in solidarity with others. I have read too many pieces by women of colour pointing out yet another blog post by a white woman who is using their ideas, their words, without credit.
I think we need to start citing our work. It can be hard, since so much of our educations come from late night conversations with friends over wine that are challenging and funny and hard; and reading the comments (good and bad) on feminist blogs; and chatting while painting signs before a march; and blogs and books and podcasts and songs. But we need to be accountable to ourselves and to each other. To our communities and the communities with which we hope to work in solidarity. We need to lift each other up, point out the brilliant and hard work our movement kin are doing, and sing their praises. This can’t be a game about ego or clicks or page views. It needs to be about the work.
I can’t always tell you how I came to a certain idea or theory. Sometimes it’s an amalgamation of 15 different ideas and articles and books. Sometimes it’s something that is just a felt truth to me. Sometimes it is a long winding thread that started in undergrad and has continued through work and activism and grad school and writing and reading and thinking and who can I possibly cite then? But I can tell you who helped me to think about things in the way that I do. Who helped shape my politics and challenged me and pushed me. So I will. Here is a not-at-all complete list of the big works for me.
Postmodernist discourses are often exclusionary even when, having been accused of lacking concrete relevance, they call attention to and appropriate the experience of “difference” and “otherness” in order to provide themselves with oppositional political meaning, legitimacy, and immediacy. Very few African-American intellectuals have talked or written about postmodernism. Recently at a dinner party, I talked about trying to grapple with the significance of postmodernism for contemporary black experience. It was one of those social gatherings where only one other black person was present. The setting quickly became a field of contestation. I was told by the other black person that I was wasting my time, that “this stuff does not relate in any way to what’s happening with black people.” Speaking in the presence of a group of white onlookers, staring at us as though this encounter was staged for their benefit, we engaged in a passionate discussion about black experience. Apparently, no one sympathized with my insistence that racism is perpetuated when blackness is associated solely with concrete gut level experience conceived either as opposing or having no connection to abstract thinking and the production of critical theory. The idea that there is no meaningful connection between black experience and critical thinking about aesthetics or culture must be continually interrogated.
When I think of pieces that shaped how I think and how I do politics this is top of the list. It is a relatively short essay and has taught me so much. And continues to teach me so much. The concept of “yearning” was fundamental to my understanding of the sense of oppression and bleakness even the most privileged in our society feel and how it can be a point of mutual understanding and a place from which to build empathy. The danger of postmodern critique around essentialism and identity politics to those who have had to forge their own identities in the face of hundreds of years of racism telling them who they are and how they are challenged me and continues to challenge me to do better, to think better in the face of my own white privilege. If you read one thing from this list, I hope it’s this.
Colonize This: Young Women of Colour on Today’s Feminism
I had the immense privilege and luck to have a mentor, J, who taught me more about doing the work and living in a good way than I could have ever learned in my degree. She used curiosity and humour to challenge me and teach me as I was a budding feminist thinker. And she gave me truly excellent books to read. This is one of them.
Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity
This was the other. It really opened up my world and expanded how I can be and understand and perform my gender.
All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.
The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls–Colette Dowling
This is not a perfect book. It has major omissions around the impacts of class and race on women’s embodiment. But it was fundamental in starting my thinking about trauma and embodiment and gender.
Fit and Feminist
Caitlin is a beacon in the fog of bullshit that is fitness on the internet. She writes intelligently and honestly about gender and fitness and was a big inspiration for my own foray into blogging.
And then I am lucky and honoured to have a whole host of people in my life–friends, family, teachers, mentors–who challenge and support and teach me. Who listen to me muddle through complex ideas in halting, meandering, repetitive words. Who push me to think harder and better, to not forget the importance of laughter and joy, to think outside of myself.
These are just a few in hundreds or thousands of citations I could list. I am going to try to be more mindful in my writing of naming and honouring those whose words and work inspire my own.