Some Thoughts on the Professionalization of Feminisms: At What Cost Are Some Brought Into the Center?

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Mural in Hyde Park (Chicago) depicting police violence.

Hello!

I’m finishing my Thesis and enjoying life offline during this social media break. To be frank, a social media break was the best thing that I could have done. I realize now how much tweeting feels like “work.” I may tweet #DoTheWork (while doing the work, yes), but the work is so much sweeter when I’m not checking in online. It seems that the line between “work” and “everything else” has been demolished (or rather, that it was never there to begin with.) Stepping back from Twitter has allowed me to appreciate my deepening connections with the people around me- including people I met through Twitter and got to know in real life.

I’ve also been thinking about this tendency to “professionalize” social justice work- particularly in feminisms. “Professional feminists” are almost… fashionable. Indeed, you can be a spokes(wo)man for feminisms so long as you have the credentials, vocabulary and fashion sense. I say this with all self-awareness. I could be that “professional feminist.” I will have degrees from two highly-ranked universities, extensive training in political theory (including feminist theory!), and a Twitter account. I could have a file of out-of-context bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Sarah Ahmed, Judith Butler (be real, how many of us have deciphered her dense, verbose prose with any comprehension/engagement beyond the surface?)… quotes. Tweet, rant, rinse, repeat.

Thing is, I find the cycle of selective outrage and self-serving pontification to be a hindrance to the work that is actually being done. Yes, a lot of folks donned a hoodie for Trayvon Martin when  we found a defensible position in his innocence and not-yet-adult status. But how many folks will “raise awareness” about Cemia “Ci Ci” Dove, slain Cleveland resident and transwoman? Is Ci Ci “respectable” enough for retrospective defenses of her humanity and worth? Or is that reserved for cisgender Black boys who conform to heteronormative expectations (indeed, his girlfriend’s testimony served to confirm his acceptability)? Let’s not forget that about 70% of anti-LGBT murder victims are people of color– 44% of whom were transwomen.

I ask these questions with all seriousness. I have been thinking long and hard about my own reluctance to address gender-based crimes against QPOC- especially transwomen. My (possibly theoretical and academic) concern about perpetuating a particular discourse of transwomen as victims without agency may just be getting in the way of being part of a real conversation about transphobia, gender identity, heteronormativity and homophobia in our communities- especially communities of color. (To be clear, this is not to imply that people of color are more homophobic or transphobic.)

I don’t claim the title “ally,” but I could do a whole lot better. When words fail, the best thing I can do is amplify the voices of those speaking up. In fact, people on my timeline have been quite vocal about employment and housing discrimination against transwomen, and the criminalization of transgender people by law enforcement, which just further fuels discrimination. Others on my timeline speak up about how as transgender persons on the gender spectrum, they, their gender identity, and their sense of self are daily invalidated by casual transphobia.

“What’s your real name?”

“What is your sex assigned at birth?”

“Oh, the wo/men’s bathroom is that way.”

Prying eyes and words chip away at years of self-care. For many transgender people, the timbre of one’s voice threatens to change with these micro-assaults, further entrenching the invalidation. Their anger is not “proper” or “acceptable.” It is not “dignified” enough. It is not voiced by the “acceptable” body.

And “we” “allies” do not have these conversations. Inclusion is work. It doesn’t stop with refined and sanitized (or rather, evasive?) vocabularies for gender identity and sexual orientation. Inclusion is intentional work that means leaving one’s comfort zone.

But I worry that “inclusion,” like “diversity” and “intersectionality” have become buzzwords in social justice spaces- especially professionalized spaces. Inclusion is more than ramps and single-occupancy bathrooms that retain spatial segregation and evade the real issue of “inclusion.” It’s a start, but it’s not the solution.

It would do us good to remember that professionalizing social justice is another form of respectability politics. We must ask ourselves, “whose bodies are respectable?” if and when we find ourselves in a position to “speak for” others. Indeed, whose voice is valued? To quote Arundhati Roy, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Let us not be lulled into a sense of “progress” as more professionalized and degreed feminists gain visibility. We must ask which epistemic locations they inhabit that render them “acceptable.” At what cost are they brought into the center? Are they tokens mobilized to shield institutions from critique? The ever-perceptive Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote, “The putative centre welcomes selective inhabitants of the margin in order to better exclude the margin.” Who is excluded at the margins? Does the future of feminism include them? Or is this feminist future built off of their backs and pilfered words? Will “subject matter expert on feminism” become another line on resumes and CVs?

What really changes when we have a new “class” of professional feminists who nibble at the hand that feeds them? Real change would render them obsolete. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you- even if it’s the mainstream media, venture capitalists or the academy.”

That’s all for now.

7 Comments

  1. Oh, I’m definitely not a professional feminist, but this post really resonates with me. Now that I’m working in the world of philanthropy, I’m observing a lot awkward (sometimes exclusionary) situations with race, gender, and class and I find myself grasping for a language and framework to address them. D you have a list of books or articles one could use as a primer to learn about feminism?

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