In The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present, historian Christine Sansell describes a moment of connection that occurs between women who recognize a common struggle:
…the penetrating critique of life-as-women-lived it was a point of contact between strangers and far flung-sympathizers, when other signs of affiliation were absent. This is what Jane O’Reilly meant in 1971 when she described the “click,” feminist shorthand for the decisive moment when women’s eyes met across a room, in unspoken recognition of some outrage disguised as normal life, men’s petty dominion over women’s time, attention, labor, and self-esteem, whether expressed in monopolizing a conversation or expecting a female employee to take notes at a meeting (234)
It’s a lovely notion—the feeling that at any moment one might suddenly know with certainty that she is not alone in the face of oppressive systems. And I think it’s a moment that feminist academics seek. This is not necessarily because they are women, though women are undoubtedly socialized to think in terms of community, but because the success of feminist ideological, curricular and political agendas within colleges and universities are built on such connections. Perhaps more than any other discipline, Women’s and Gender Studies links activism, scholarship, pedagogy and community building. I tease a friend of mine about how many retreats women’s studies faculty attend and joke, “you all really have to get along, don’t you?” They do. We do.
My question, one that must be addressed in order to have a full consideration of the main issues this collection addresses, is this: what happens when that “decisive moment,” when that “click” doesn’t happen? What happens if the dominant group of academic feminists (middle-class white women) doesn’t share similar oppressive experiences or, perhaps more importantly, have wildly different coping mechanisms? My sense is that instead of a click there’s a sharp separating—an almost physical, huge step backwards that leads to a sharp divide. If the phrase, “the personal is political” is one of the key tenets of late 1960s feminism, the academic is personal seems foundational to the structure of Women’s and Gender Studies. I recognize that there are other rifts (generational and economic come to mind immediately) but I am most interested in thinking about the racial divide.
Here’s what I’m noticing. Many white women academics collapse their struggles with the struggles that face academics of color and this leads to a kind of blindness where they simply can’t see the oppressive realities that faculty of color face and, by extension, don’t see themselves as oppressors. The language institutions use to lump groups together exacerbates the problem. Consider, for example, the phrase “women and people of color”–a designation that pairs up two different kinds of marginalized groups in ways that can lead to conflict instead of collaboration. It prompts white women academics to see themselves as natural allies with the same challenges when faculty of color are always marked as racialized and, therefore, have a different set of obstacles to overcome. In other words, while white women and women of color share some of the burdens of gender bias, it is all too easy for white women to lose sight of their own privilege and for that blindness to result in discriminating practices that extend into the evaluative process.
I am remembering how white women in grad school were much more comfortable working with women of color in crisis or turning to them for wisdom then sitting across from them as peers. And I’m trying to work out how that pattern of engagement influences interactions around evaluative processes. To further complicate this tension, generally speaking, women of color respond in completely different ways to oppression than their white peers. We have needed (and developed) a different skill set to survive the academy and we have been both punished and rewarded in complicated ways for our coping mechanisms. I think this mode of coping can feel like an indictment to those who struggle differently and in a world founded on “clicks” that relies on the notion of a common battle they can be quite threatening. The problems are often generational and exacerbated by a white privilege that is sometimes masked by the mixed- up ideas (part myth, part reality) of a shared oppression.
We, all of us, reproduce ourselves in our personnel decisions, and when we add in the complications of Women and Gender Studies departments that rely on faculty working closely together under the umbrella of “community” things get tricky and people are evaluated not so much on their skills and accomplishments but on whether or not they “click.” My sense, taken from the countless stories I have heard over the years, is that white women in the academy forget how far they’ve actually come and, worse, they run the risk of setting up oppressive systems that don’t actually replace patriarchal hierarchies they want to challenge but simply rewrite them along feminine lines. This plays itself out in myriad ways—namely in the expectations placed on new faculty to support Women’s and Gender Studies agendas through service. These expectations tend to have a moral element to them since the work of Women’s and Gender Studies is so closely tied to activism and advocacy. Pretty much everyone agrees that there has been a long-standing tension between white women and women of color in feminist movements and I count this as progress. But how does that problem play itself out in the halls of academe? In other words, is there a dominant culture of Women’s and Gender studies that is inadvertently hostile to racial diversity? If so, what can be done to fix it? What problems have you seen? Have you seen this issue addressed directly in your institution?