Commodifying Epistemic Practices: Race, Gender, and Dialogue
I will try to keep this entry brief, since so much of it can come across as mansplaining (which is really just cis-splaining—but I’ll save that for another day). It’s in reaction to several blog posts concerning appropriation and expropriation of black femininity by cis gay men (I’m assuming the Time piece was referring to cis gays and not trans gay men, or asexual men with feminine identifications, or any number of gender-sexual pluralisms that cross-cut one another). It’s also in reaction to the general conversation about white feminists. (Can we call it white feminism? The blogosphere is agog with critiques of this amorphous thing we call feminism.)
First off, appropriation. It’s not cool. I think that much is certain. If you appropriate or expropriate identifications or epistemic practices for affectation, you’re doing it wrong. It’s not only demeaning to the individual who engages in said practice (hair swinging; weave wearing; earring dangling; tight pants donning; catwalk walking) for the purposes of enacting an identity, it demeans the purpose of the practice and the entire group.
However, as this piece seems to indicate, there is a certain ownership that is being cast of over some enactments and not others. When I say enactments, I’m referring specifically to the practices of everyday life that constitute identity—the habits that, through repetition and interiorization, become the foundation of self-knowledge. Thus it is epistemic. My problem is the notion that any specific practice can be owned by any single person, or any single group.
Ownership. The word, so western and neoliberal, is now being applied to identity categories and subject positions within the discourses on feminism. Why does this not dismay more people? Let me give an example. If a subject is engaging in a set of epistemic practices that ze feels is emancipatory/cognitively necessary for ze’s well-being, I sincerely believe that we should respect ze’s practices and let ze live within those self-knowledge creating practices. Ze is not commodifying the practice of, say, Beyonce feminism. Ze is living and engaging in the practice at the epistemic level, creating the beautiful and unique ze.
This level of cognition, of practice, differs from the cis white gay boy who seeks to endear himself to his black friends by catwalking, throwing his ‘hair’ back, or pretending to take off hooped earrings. Those actions commodify the practices of the black lived experience. He seeks to take this commodity and deploy it in ways that for him do not work at the level of the epistemic. Rather, he takes them as humorous, as affectations, as representations of things he cannot (and probably should not) be. He, like the author of the Time piece indicates, doesn’t have to worry about coming across as an angry black woman; or being harassed on the street by police or any number of men; or any number of statistically relevant injustices that being an ethnic minority in this country necessarily entails. The cis white gay boy can return to being white; to being gay; to passing within a culture that tends not to police his body in the regular amounts that it does for, say, a trans woman of color.
But notice the distinction. Ze’s actions are epistemic, constituting a set of identifications that ze incorporates into the everyday. Ze is white. Ze is genderfluid. Ze is also gay. The gay boy of the Time piece, however, commodifies. Yet, is ze as guilty as the gay boy of expropriation or appropriation? That cognitive distinction seems important in the ongoing deliberations we have about identification/identity, about being/becoming. Because if a particular practice is always already owned by another group, then so much for intersectional epistemology, and there goes attempts of de-rigidifying the patriarchal and racist edifice of social categories.
Second, and lastly, white feminism. Is there such a thing. Sure radical feminism. I can’t speak much about my appreciation for radical feminists these days, most of whom are decidedly white. They tend to be TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) who seek to ‘tear down’ the gender binary yet have no compunction when doing so simultaneously denigrates transmen and transwomen. They are collateral damage.
But not all white feminists are decidedly radical. I admire black/poststructural/trans- feminism alike. I’m certain that J. Butler wouldn’t call herself radical in the sense indicated above. Nor would J. Halberstam. bell hooks is off that list, alongside Michelle Alexander and a host of others. And though the last two are black feminists and the former are queer white theorists/feminists, they are all intersectional readers and thinkers. Yet, will they or do they speak past one another. Does being white, or black, carry with it arrays of knowledge that are inherently incommensurable? Perhaps. Perhaps not. And so it becomes important to self-reflexively revise what we think to be virtuous in our own epistemic evaluations of others, theories, experiences, and facts. Anzaldua may have said that sometimes she’s a bridge, and sometimes she isn’t. But we not always withdrawn from one another–hence the importance of revisability.
The demands that we make on each other must (and I stress must) incorporate within them the self-critical realization that our epistemic values may in fact be vices, not virtues. That when we consider ourselves already right because of our social positions as either oppressed or privileged within the discourses of feminism, we have already begun a losing battle that, let’s face it, simply feed into dominant power relations.