Toward Autonomous Feminist Politics

Reviewed by Alexis Shotwell

Reviewed in this article

Color of Violence: the INCITE! Anthology
South End Press, 2006.

Color of Violence: the INCITE! Anthology came out in October 2006. Along with The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, (see review in this issue), this book offers us the kind of fierce, sharp analysis we need for doing meaningful political work. Both books were collectively edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, perhaps the most vibrant feminist organization active in the US. INCITE! developed out of an April 2000 conference on violence against women of colour that attracted thousands of activists to Santa Cruz, California. Subsequent conferences on racialized and gendered violence happened in Chicago (2002) and New Orleans (2005). Color of Violence collects some of the work that came out of these conferences.

It is tempting to read this book as a radical innovation in the political discourse of our day. In many ways, it is indeed an intervention: it offers a sharp critique of feminist alliances with the state and an important call to communities to take up anti-violence work without recourse to police interventions. At the same time, Color of Violence is a worthy continuation of a long legacy of struggle for a world in which women of colour can lead dignified, joyful, flourishing lives. Much of this history is written but unpublished or inaccessible (it is the rare This Bridge Called My Back that makes it onto the re-print list in publishing); more of it is unwritten, in part due to the traditions of oral historiography in black and Chicana communities. Contributors to Color of Violence draw on intellectual and political legacies forged by women who resisted slavery, colonization, and racialized subjugation in the “first wave” feminist movement (Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman are well-known African-American exemplars). More directly, black and Chicana feminists of the second wave produced rich analyses of how race, class, sexuality, and gender intersect in women’s lives. They created community-based centres and grassroots movements that challenged violence against women. They published well-known works like Conditions 5: The Black Women’s Issue, edited by Barbara Smith and Lorraine Bethel; Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua; Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class; and Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. It is worth reading Color of Violence for its innovation, but it is just as important to think of it as the continuation of past analysis and work.

Color of Violence troubles three main assumptions about violence against women of colour and political struggle: first, that violence is a personal (“domestic”) issue; second, that it is possible to talk about the category of women in an uncomplicated way; and third, that there can be meaningful political work that brackets off the experience and lives of racialized women. These assumptions are live in contemporary feminist circles of all stripes. Indeed, white-supremacist, gender-essentialist, middle-class ableism has long been the downfall of attempts to animate a sustained feminist movement in North America. In “second-wave” feminist movements, for example (as Loretta Ross discusses in the book), the feminist focus on access to freely-chosen abortions sidelined other substantial reproductive justice issues – the forced sterilization of women of colour and lack of access to adequate prenatal care, for instance. The focus on access to abortion as the only important feminist issue in struggles for sexual health alienated racialized activists who were seeing their communities decimated by practices such as forced sterilization.

Although the book is directed at women of colour organizers, white feminists will benefit from it as a way to redress some of the problems that have restricted feminist movements. If men on the left took this work to heart, our movements as a whole might stand a better chance of flourishing. Central to this potential is rigorously pursuing answers to the editors’ question: “What would it take to end violence against women of color? What would this movement look like?” (4) Their answers begin from a steadfast opposition to both personal and state violence. The challenge, they say, “is to develop strategies for ending violence that do assure safety for survivors of sexual/domestic violence and do not strengthen our oppressive criminal justice apparatus” (2). Although this challenge is taken up unevenly and differently throughout the book, an aversion to state-based change and incarceration as a solution for violence against women opens new directions for allied movements to pursue revolutionary change.

Violence against women is not (only) domestic

The first argument Color of Violence makes is both the most obvious and the most subtle: violence against women is both interpersonal and institutional. Despite a long history of feminist assertions that the personal is political, few thinkers routinely take seriously what it means for the political to be personal. In the case of violence against women, feminist resistance to women-battering as a social problem – a problem of misogyny and racialized power – became, with state intervention in the 1970s, focused on domestic violence. Domestic violence came to be understood as what happened when a man physically assaulted an innocent woman, usually his wife or partner, in their shared home. As several contributors brilliantly lay out, the framework of domestic abuse does not do justice to the spectrum of violence against women. To begin with, the current frameworks only legitimate some women as subjects of domestic violence: those that are passive, pure, pretty, white, and middle class. For other women, as Julia Sudbury persuasively argues, state intervention works either as a doubled assault or as an agent for disciplining those who fall outside gendered norms. Andrea Richie, Sylvanna Falcon, Renee Saucedo, and Stormy Ogden extend this analysis by looking at how police, border guards, and prison functionaries routinely rape, beat, and assault women of colour.

Loretta Ross and Dorothy Roberts deepen these accounts in compelling articles that examine how institutional practices enact violence. They look at how reproductive justice and child welfare (respectively) are racialized, and frame population control, forced abortion, sterilization, and punitive child welfare policies as forms of institutionalized violence against women of colour. All offer lucid arguments for the covalent, mutually-determining character of racial formation, poverty, gender, and sexuality. As Ross argues,

what Americans think as a society about women of color and population control is determined and informed by their relationship to white supremacy as an ideology, and these beliefs affect the country’s reproductive policies. Both conservatives and liberals enforce a reproductive hierarchy of privatization and punishment that targets the fertility, motherhood, and liberty of women of color (54).

The last section of Color of Violence presents case studies from on-the-ground anti-colonial responses to gender violence from such groups as Brooklyn’s Sista II Sista, Seattle’s Communities Against Rape and Abuse, Critical Resistance, and South Asian women’s organizations in the US. These reflections would be useful models for self-reflexivity in other activist contexts as well.

Color of Violence offers an account of how we might understand state interventions in women’s lives as a form of violence against women. Of course, we can only understand changes to the US welfare state, the calls for increased police interventions in partner battery situations, the militarization of the US border, and so on, as forms of gendered violence if we centre women of colour in our analytic optic. The essays making these arguments are worth the price of the book all on their own. As many of them argue, state-reliant strategies for dealing with violence against women fail to approach the question of how to end violence against women for at least three reasons. First, too often state actors (cops, border guards, foster care systems, for example) deepen gendered violence when they are called on; aside from cases in which these actors directly assault women (and women of colour disproportionately), they may enact more indirect forms of violence. If they respond to a domestic violence call, they may decide that the situation in the house is unsuitable for children and have kids removed; these decisions are shaded by the racial matrix through which women of colour are perceived. Second, because communities of colour are disproportionately affected by criminalization and incarceration, many people argue against involving a deeply racist legal system in response to violence. Finally, state-reliant strategies tend to individualize survivors of violence, precluding movement work to challenge systems of oppression.

Multiple ontologies of womanhood

Just as important as these reflections on the failings of state-based responses to violence against women is the nuanced critique of the notion that there is either some essential core of womanhood or some basic shared victimhood that all feminists can invoke in order to decide who counts as a woman. Several essays in the volume offer accounts of what constitutes the essential identity or being of womanhood – its ontology – that complicate the category itself. Andrea Smith’s excellent analysis of what’s wrong with the “shared-oppression” model of solidarity-based organizing offers an alternative structure for people of colour doing political work. The shared-victimhood model both situates one’s identity on one’s oppression in troubling ways, and can produce what has been called the “oppression olympics” – a hierarchy of oppression that can obstruct organizing work and that presumes that all struggles for liberation will look the same. Smith lays out the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy” – Slavery/Capitalism, Genocide/Colonialism, and Orientalism/War – that provide one optic through which we might understand how oppressed people can also be complicit in oppression. She argues that “what keeps us trapped within our particular pillar of white supremacy is that we are seduced with the prospect of being able to participate in the other pillars. For example, all non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands. All non-Black peoples are promised that if they comply, they will not be at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. And Black, Native, Latino, and Asian peoples are promised that they will economically and politically advance if they join US wars to spread ‘democracy’” (69). This piece is useful both for its analysis of power and white supremacy and also for its account of how differently racialized people experience white supremacy in various ways – one person’s liberation might end up perpetuating another’s oppression. This essay is particularly generative for those of us outside the US, who can reflect on how white supremacy operates in our own contexts and consider the extent to which Smith’s account applies to other organizing situations.

Emi Koyama, one of the most compelling feminist theorists writing today, offers an important analysis of how in certain ways, the domestic violence shelter system perpetuates violence against women who are already marked as non-normative: women of colour, trans women, poor women, women who do not speak English, among others. She focuses on power imbalances between administrators in shelters and the women who receive shelter help. Koyama’s piece examines the micro-practices through which women’s shelters act as “gatekeepers” – accepting women who “fit” the model, rejecting women who do not speak English, or who are read as “bad subjects” because they are sex workers, and so on. In this way, she unpacks the ways in which nominally feminist institutions can recapitulate structural violence against women. Koyama offers the provocative suggestion that feminist organizations ought to institutionalize structures for socially disempowered people to be able to critique the very institutions that are supposedly helping them.

The reflections of Nadine Nabor, Eman Desouky, and Lina Baroudi on wars and occupations in Palestine and Iraq and the political contexts produced by contemporary imperialism offer useful illustrations for what Angela Davis has characterized as the importance of taking our identities from our politics, rather than our politics from our identities. In questioning why radical women of colour organizing has shied away from certain critiques of Zionism and solidarities with Palestinian women’s struggles, Nadine Naber productively re-frames the identity of being a “woman of colour” as political and contingent rather than essential and natural. That is, rather than assuming a one-to-one relationship between, say, being a woman of colour and having anti-oppression politics, we might craft ways of being in the world – new ontologies – out of our political commitments and the political contexts in which we live. Again, readers of this book outside the American context will find these reflections useful as jumping-off points for analysis more appropriate to, say, the Canadian context. But it is generative to consider the ways in which “identity politics” are never simple.

The importance of holistic political work

Beginning political work from the point of view that oppression operates along multiple axes – race wrapping around gender pulling on sexuality textured by class and (dis)ability, to reprise activist-scholar Eli Clare – would shift what we do and how we do it. Some of the most useful essays in Color of Violence are in the concluding section, “Building Movements,” in which INCITE! has collected rich reflections from specific contexts. These pieces develop some of the promise and complexity of doing holistic political work on the ground. There are several things we can take from this approach, which collectively bear on theoretical, structural, and personal issues in doing multivalent anti-oppression work.

First, it is old hat by now to argue that we need an anti-oppression analysis that takes into account the different ways to be gendered depending on how one is positioned in terms of class and race, on how it is different to be racialized depending on one’s sexuality or position in relation to a naturalized gender binary structure. Arguments for intersectional political analysis are still very much needed as a counter to simplistic ideas that we can work on just class, or just race. Still, this is a lesson we can take from this book. Communities Against Rape and Abuse, a Seattle-based anti-violence project, offers a painfully honest assessment of their practical work on accountability practices and against gendered violence. Their self-analysis is a useful model for how activists might reflect on our own praxis, and also provides some important theoretical touchstones for thinking about intersectional work.

Second, it is clear that understanding oppression holistically does not obviate power analysis, and the essays in Color of Violence highlight how power structures are racialized. As Haunani-Kay Trask writes:

the color of violence, then, is the color of white over Black, white over brown, white over red, white over yellow. It is the violence of north over south, of continents over archipelagoes, of settlers over natives and slaves. Shaping this color scheme are the labyrinths of class and gender, or geography and industry, of metropolises and peripheries, of sexual definitions and confinements (82).

For Trask, and many other writers in Color of Violence, adequate political analysis must take up the whole context of this shaping. This is a much more difficult task than focusing on one form of oppression as though it was not co-constituted by other forms, but produces much richer analysis and far more adequate grounds for action.

Finally, there is another way to understand holistic analysis which several pieces in the book imply. This is to pursue a politics within which people can live with our whole selves – as political, emotional, physical beings who need to be able to find dignity and delight in many different dimensions of our being. That is, a truly holistic analysis will not only take into account the complexities of multi-axis political formation, it will also take seriously the affective and material contexts in which those politics are lived. Dana Erekat’s evocative piece, imagining four generations of Palestinian women’s experiences of occupation, gives one window into this kind of thinking, as does Aishah Simmons’s reflection on making the documentary NO!, about rape and healing in black communities in the US. A whole-person approach to intersectional political work is one of the lessons women of colour feminist theory has to teach. In the end, movements as a whole can be more or less holistic. They can centre or marginalize intersectional analysis, challenge white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy or enforce it. Holistic political work, then, is important on personal, theoretical, and movement-wide levels.

Openings for future work

Any book of this scope will make readers long for more, or different, analysis. However, one of the things I appreciate about this volume is its attention to generative thinking rather than flat-footed critique. Let me emphasize, in that spirit, that what might be seen as elisions can also be quite productive – more than failings in scope, these might be read as sketches for future work.

For readers situated outside the United States, Color of Violence reproduces some frustrating US-centric thinking, and some analysis that may seem myopic in a global context. There is an almost-total focus on the context of organizing within the US, and on how the US is positioned globally, particularly in relation to Iraq and Israel. Frustration at the book’s US-centrism, though, can be instructive. Particularly in Canada, we sometimes have a tendency to think that the US state is sufficiently horrible that our own settler context looks good by comparison. It is productive to read this anthology in its context, and then reflect on how we might extend the insights it offers into our own circumstance. We might attend, for example, to the debates in the feminist community sparked by Rape Relief in Vancouver denying Kimberly Nixon the opportunity to volunteer at the centre; the hundreds of First Nations women missing or murdered in the last 30 years; and police collusion with violence against women and sex workers. How can we avoid allowing the manifest horror that is the US and its militarism to obscure the ways Canada is involved in perpetuating suffering and gendered violence domestically and globally? What different logics of white supremacy (of “reasonable accommodation,” perhaps?) operate in our cultural “mosaic”? What is the colour of violence here? The answers to these questions will be different than the work presented in Color of Violence, but the questions themselves are enriched by INCITE!’s work.

While in general the heterogeneity of tone and length of the essays in the book is a good thing, this anthology suffers from the problem of all anthologies: it can only do some of what it sets out to do. The most important piece of work left endlessly open is to answer more fully one of the organizing questions of the book: how can we move from attempting to ameliorate the violent conditions that women of colour live in to ending violence against women? While the selections in the “Movement Building” section of the book have much to offer on this question, this is a primary site for future thinking. Because the book’s turn from state-based, ameliorative, systems is still quite radical and quite new to feminist anti-violence work, this aspect of the call for change is simultaneously the most exciting and the most frustratingly underdeveloped aspect of the collection. In movement contexts, even people with a well-developed critique of the state may tend to call the cops if their friend is raped or assaulted by someone within their activist scene. Suggestions that community-based solutions would be more productive (many of which are drawn from some traditional First Nations responses to gendered violence) rely on tightly-knit and mutually responsive networks of people, which may not exist. Ultimately, ending violence against women may require something fundamentally different than a response-oriented approach. It might need something more like a complete change in our social world, such that violence becomes unimaginable. How we get from here to there is, of course, up for debate. Color of Violence is notable for changing the terms of that debate, and for the ways in which it encourages more adequate political thinking and doing.