The Challenge of Anti-Racist Feminism

Sharmeen Khan

Reviewed in this article

S tates of Race: Critical Race F eminism for the 21st C entury
Sherene Razack, Malinda Smith, and Sunera Thobani (eds)

Sherene Razack, Malinda Smith, and Sunera Thobani (eds). S tates of Race: Critical Race F eminism for the 21st C entury. Between the Lines, 2010.

In 2010, the arrival of a boat full of Tamil refugees to Canadian shores triggered the racism that permeates all levels of Canadian society. Narratives chacterizing asylum seekers arriving in boats as queue-jumpers and “illegals” dominated the corporate media. The image of a Canada made vulnerable by weak borders that allow hordes of brown people to “invade” remains prevalent. Today, anti- racist feminists face many challenges in confronting systemic and institutional racism since the anti-racist and feminist movements in Canada are not as strong as they were a decade ago. While there are anti-racist mobilizations organized by No One Is Illegal and other migrant justice organizations, the left’s capacity to respond to racism is limited. How, then, can we begin to lay the foundation for a renewed radical feminist and anti-racist movement?

States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century, a collection of essays edited by Sherene Razack, Malinda Smith, and Sunera Thobani attempts to provide an answer to this question. Drawing upon the work of the Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality/Equity (RACE), and including contributions from Patricia Monture, Yasmin Jiawani, and Sedaf Arat-Koc, the collection provides an interesting snapshot of anti-racist interventions and of Canadian colonialism. The editors set out to provide a theoretical framing that
“tease[s] out the intimate connection between race, racism, and the modern state form, the longue durée of ‘racial thinking’ within liberal states, and the ongoing challenges posed by racial liberalism, which promises liberty, equity and social justice but comfortably coexists with deep economic and social inequalities and social exclusion” (10).

By framing the discussion of critical race feminism within a Canadian context, the editors contribute to the development of a complex understanding of colonization, race, and the state. This specific framing engages with the experiences of Indigenous people within feminism, the challenges that the settler state poses for women of colour and Indigenous women, and the possibilities of anti-colonial work within Canada (9). Although they acknowledge that this is not a new theoretical intervention, they remind readers of the need to “continuously engage with shifting discourses and processes of subject formation, changing forms of power relations, both locally and globally, and the persistence of violence in all of its forms” (16).

Such an engagement is especially important today. March 2011 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day, which honours the struggles and historical gains of the women’s movement. At the same time, International Women’s Day has been marked by ongoing tension around questions of racism, colonization, and the role of white feminists in both organizing inside and outside of the academy. For the editors of S tates of Race, critical race feminist thinking must include an engagement with “critical whiteness studies,” which they argue is required to understand the constitution of the global north and the Other. Here, race does not only pertain to communities of colour or Indigenous peoples; the process of race-making is political and all people are implicated.

States of Race is effective because it highlights how anti-racist feminist analysis remains invisible even within radical movements responding to racism. While the “holy trinity” of race, class, and gender is often invoked by those trying to develop an integrated analysis of oppression, the structures of colonization and exploitation are often left unexplored. For this reason, activists must confront the challenge of practically applying such an analysis in the context of radical movements currently organizing against racism and sexism.

States of Race offers various ways of understanding critical race feminism and covers a range of issues including Indigenous feminisms, the war on terror, images of Muslim women in the media, and the role of transnational social activism in confronting racism. Three distinct themes run through the book. In what follows, I will address each in turn.

The Floating Signifier

The question of how women are represented in both media and within legal frameworks is not only one of voice and identity, but also one of empowerment. Historically, various trends in the women’s movement included “culture-jamming” and engaging in critical discourse analysis to understand and disrupt sexist representations of women; however, questions of racism and colonization present a different context for feminist theory and action. From the standpoint of community organizing, unpacking representation is useful when engaging in solidarity with Muslim and Indigenous women and analyzing relationships of power.
In “Doubling discourses and the veiled Other: Mediations of race and gender in Canadian media,” Yasmin Jiwani considers representations of Muslim women through an analysis of the “doubling discourses” of the veil. For Jiwani, critical race feminism provides an analysis not only of how women are represented in the media, but also of how feminism’s narrative of “saving Muslim women” reinforces colonialism.
Written on the heels of organizing by Muslim women against the Niqab ban in Québec, Jiwani’s essay considers three archetypal figures that “serve to buttress strategies of exclusion, expulsion, containment and commodification” (65). In her account, racism is organized around three different logics: American slavery, the Holocaust, and colonialism. These three logics of racism each find expression in the particular narratives defending “self-purification” that result in elimination, subordination, exploitation, and assimilation. By identifying these three logics of racism, Jiwani is able to avoid the implications of analyses centred on narratives reinforcing stereotypes. Instead, she develops a nuanced analysis of racism and sexism as a whole.

Drawing on Stuart Hall’s notion of race as a “floating signifier,” Jiwani demonstrates the ways in which Muslim women are used in different political narratives. She points out that these representations frame Muslim women as “over here” and “over there.” Reviewing feature articles in The Globe & Mail, she highlights the portrayal of Muslim women as victims that need to be saved (thus justifying the war in Afghanistan) and the way that these women are marshaled as evidence that fundamentalist Islam is thriving in liberal nations like Canada. Jiwani draws connections between these narratives and the larger problem of pro-war and pro-Israel corporate media. She writes:
“representations underpin and are contained within relations of power. However, the ideological purchase of these representations is contingent and relational: it is contingent on the ideologies framing the groups at a specific historical juncture and it is relational insofar as it is a reflection of the larger economy of representations prevailing within the mass media at a given time. This is why race is as Hall remarks, a “floating signifier”” (62).

Race as a floating signifier is a useful notion, not only in relation to Muslim women, but also to Indigenous women engaged in political activism. Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez’s “Indigenous women, nationalism and feminism” addresses representations of Indigenous women in law, definitions of “Indigenism,” and the use of tradition in defining Indigeneity. Like struggles over the hijab, the fight around tradition is contested in some feminist and anti-racist circles. Drawing on Chandra Mohanty’s post-colonial writing, Altamirano-Jimenez describes how Indigenous feminisms can “talk back” to essentialist narratives.

Although Altamirano-Jimenez limits her discussion about “talking back” to Indigenous feminisms’ challenge to legal definitions of “Indigenism,” she does mention the limitations and promises of using the law as a means of improving women’s lives. However, while she proposes ways in which Indigenous feminists can fight essentialism, she falls into the essentialist trap herself:
“Unlike other social groups, Indigenous peoples are attached to their homelands, which can be understood as meaningful habitats that have an emotional and material effect on people, their survival and the practices that connect people with such places” (118).

When challenging essentialist images in the legal system and the media, such statements that portray a uniform experience run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes and denying different experiences.

The concept of the floating signifier can be useful for interpreting narratives within media and legal frameworks. However, in S tates of Race, many important questions are left unanswered: how should legal frameworks be used by Indigenous feminists? How can Muslim women use the media to foster and enhance their self-determination?

On Exception

While there are different approaches to critical race feminism, the editors of States of Race note that the idea of the Other remains a consistent theme among various approaches. In this context, Sherene Razack draws upon the work of Giorgio Agamben to demonstrate how the nation-state legally defines citizenship and belonging.

In “Abandonment and the dance of race and bureaucracy in spaces of exception,” Razack uses Agamben, along with Zygmunt Bauman, to describe “the phenomenon of abandonment” and violence – whether through active rendition to torture or blocking re-entry of Canadian citizens. Using case studies from 1992, Razack analyzes the practice of abandonment by discussing “security delayed” applicants – a group of refugees granted asylum but denied Canadian citizenship due to security concerns. She focuses on the role of bureaucracy in interpreting status eligibility and the process by which people are marked and excluded from the legal rights afforded to everyone else. In this way, she highlights the paradox in which some refugees became “included others,” part of the national community through legal exclusion but therefore not of it (91). Significantly, Razack focuses on practices that originated before September 11, challenging the notion that systemic racism is somehow unique to the era post- September 11.

Reviewing the specific citizenship application process for Palestinian and Kurdish people, Razack analyzes the practices of bureaucrats charged with determining whether applicants have engaged in terrorism. An ill-defined term, it has often been taken to include participation in political or resistance movements. Although they are likely to misunderstand histories and political contexts, bureaucrats hold the power to refuse applicants. Razack notes that, because they are thought to be acting out of duty, there is a false assumption that their decisions are neutral. However, “it is security’s role in the establishment of the state of exception (the eviction from the law of those who threaten our borders) that puts in place the absence of accountability” (96).

While Razack’s discussion of legal frameworks and anti-racist analysis is engaging, its contribution to critical race feminism is confusing. The experiences of women in the “dance of bureaucracy” go unexamined. And what political openings exist for organizers within such a complex and inaccessible legal framework? Pointing out cases of exceptionalism and abandonment is useful for public outreach and media work; however, the means by which to translate Razack’s analysis into a challenge against bureaucracy remains unclear.

White Feminists

Critiques of whiteness within feminism are not new: however, in a context marked by the absence of feminist and anti-racist movements operating on a national scale, the interventions in States of Race on issues of white supremacy, white privilege, and white feminisms are very useful. Contributions by Malinda Smith, Sunera Thobani, and Gada Mahrouse all discuss how social justice and activist work conducted with little critical anti-racist practice or analysis are bound to be marked by serious limitations.

In “Gender, whiteness and ‘other Others’ in the academy,” Smith deconstructs popular narratives of employment equity. Using Sara Ahmed’s concept of “other Others,” she argues that the movement for gender equity created a hierarchy of oppression that, in the end, afforded white women in the academy more access to employment and power than Indigenous peoples, people of colour and disabled people. Using data from Canadian employment equity statistics, she highlights how gender equity eventually came to stand for whiteness. Focusing on the university, Smith makes distinctions between various forms of equity practices that moved away from “equity as social justice” and toward a more sanitized version of “diversity as management.” In the latter, equity is understood as individual success rather than collective liberation.

In the end, Smith calls on readers to engage in collective activism, and to recognize that community organizations, rather than academia, may be the most appropriate point of engagement. However, there is little analysis on what “collective liberation” could look like or what solidarity means in the context of white supremacy. In order to proceed, crtical race feminists must determine whether reform of current institutions is strategically viable, or if we should dedicate ourselves to creating new ones instead.

A Springboard for Debate

After celebrating the hundredth International Women’s Day, the ongoing struggle to put critical feminism into practice remains. States of Race was published just a few months before Jessica Yee’s Feminism FOR REAL, in which she brings together feminism, anti- racism, and an analysis based on practical rather than academic considerations. Yee provides a completely different perspective and voice than States of Race. It may have benefited the editors of the latter to include work by activists outside the academy, whose understanding of a anti-racist feminism may have addressed the question of practical activism against the state. This is not to say that debates on oppression within the academy don’t have their place; or that these struggles are completely disconnected from others. But States of Race fails to mention the various forms of activism already addressing these issues. This has the effect of relegating anti-racist pedagogy to the academy and overlooking racism and its material impacts in other sectors.

Similarly, while some contributors tackle important questions for Indigenous feminists, the book as a whole fails to address the ongoing relationship between women of colour and Indigenous women, and the theoretical tension between citizenship, and fights for sovereignty. Malinda Smith identifies women of colour and Aboriginal women as the “other Other.” However, there is no discussion about how this relationship is played out in struggle.

To be sure, States of Race provides a springboard for more conversation and debate and the various themes provide useful tools for activists trying to make sense of state power and race- making narratives. However, given the dire need for more critical writing from anti-racist activists on the challenges of organizing, more involvement from non-academics would have helped popularize anti-racist feminism and offer tools for those working outside academic organizations to fight racism and colonization in Canada.