This week's damali ayo lecture has left my head spinning. Bear with me while I try to sort my thoughts, please?
I'd known of damali's work for a few years, but this was the first time I'd seen her perform. As I expected, she's wickedly funny, extremely articulate, exceptionally bright, and undeniably charismatic. In her talk, "Shut up and change: A life as a social change artist," she walked us through her childhood, her art projects and performance pieces, her heroes, the negative and hostile response to her work, her six-year struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome, and her recent decision to "pass on" her anti-racist projects so that she can focus on yoga teacher training.
I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling deep compassion for (and understanding of) her struggles around chronic fatigue, for the burnout that seems to inevitably come with agitating for social change. I was thrilled that she spoke to the power of yoga and whole foods to heal out bodies and minds (and when I say "whole foods," I'm referring to whole grains and plant foods, not the union-busting grocery chain). She demonstrated her capacity for compassion and understanding when she explained a revelation that came to her recently: When she was forced to work with someone she didn't really like, she realized that she said she didn't need to like her; she just needed to love her. I know I could certainly benefit from remembering to approach interpersonal conflicts like this.
I'm grateful I had the chance to meet her and hear her story.
But... this is where the hard part comes... and this is also the part where I make clear that I am speaking for myself here, not "on behalf of Bitch." I don't know if it's my own baggage getting in the way, but overall I found her talk problematic and, at times, offensive.
Like her repeated and explicit correlations between happiness and "marriage" (she explained that she's not married yet, but would like to be, and she won't be truly happy until she is). And when she attempted to back up her beliefs that marriage and happiness are correlated and explain her decision to move on from anti-racist activism by displaying photos of her heroes bell hooks and Adrian Piper, telling us that they're alone/unmarried -- and presumably unhappy -- because they're so focused on their work.
Or when she explained that she needed to lose weight so she could have a kick-ass "bikini body" (when asked during the Q &A why she felt she needed to lose weight when she was already so small, she explained that she wanted to find some sense of happiness in light of the fact that her friends were getting married [and thus happy]).
Or when she quoted bell hooks' use of the term "white supremacy" more than once without contextualizing it with the other two terms that are critical to an understanding of it: "capitalist" and "patriarchy." As in "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy," the idea of a system of interlocking oppressions.
Later that night, when her talk started sinking in, I became angry.
I started writing a blog post, but then I started to question myself for my reactions. Do I have a right to be angry when someone equates marriage with happiness? Do I have a right to question someone else's relationship to their body?
No, many would say, I don't.
And yet I am angry, and I am questioning this particular conception of feminism.
Angry at hearing this idea that marriage equals happiness, and marriage based upon hetero relationships. The idea of, ultimately, promoting an idea of happiness that's exclusionary.
And while I can relate to the feeling of happiness that comes with being comfortable in one's own body and the idea that no one else but ourselves can know what shape our bodies take that lead to that comfort, angry that again we're back to this idea that thin bodies are the bodies that are valued (well, not that we were ever "away" from this idea).
Isn't a necessary part of feminism working to dismantle ideas that provoke further internalizing, questioning, and insecurities about things like our relationship status (or worse, our marital status), our physical appearance, our body size? Fighting to liberate ourselves from things like hetero-normative assumptions, oppressive conventions, and body and mind colonization?
Maybe not. Because lately I keep hearing people say things like, "Feminism is all about individual choice," or, "The great thing about feminism is that you can be this kind of feminist and I can be this kind of feminist and we can work for change side by side."
But is it? How?
It's not that I'm seeking to create a monolith, a kind of feminism where everyone agrees and there's no individual difference. But this clearly isn't working either.
And beyond the focus of valuing marriage and thin bodies lies a deeper problem: People picking and choosing the parts of oppression and liberation that relate to them as individuals, talking only about the oppression that they as individuals face. Not connecting it to a larger picture of oppression and the power systems that stand in the way of liberation.
I understand that damali's work focuses on race, but focusing only on the "white supremacy" part and leaving out the "capitalist patriarchy" part is a prime and unfortunate example of this, and illustrates what's going awry in the world of feminism(s). A severe lack of inclusion, a selective focus on certain identities at the expense of others that are equally valid, equally painful. Because the whole point is understanding the ways in which white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy work together to create an interlocking system of oppression.
I understand the dangers of "policing" boundaries. I understand that the ability to self-identify is critical to any hope of a peaceful and just world.
But I also understand what happens when social change movements become watered down. They're sold back to us as shells of what they originally were.
And to me, one of the ways that feminism continues to be watered down is by leaving out necessary parts of a whole thought/idea, perpetuating exlusion, preventing liberation. Positioning any individual choice as "feminist," regardless of its implications on the rest of the world.
I don't know. I don't have the answers, just a lot of questions and discontent. Maybe my discontent is a reflection of my own tiredness from agitating for social change. Maybe my sense of love, compassion, and understanding is freezing into its own shell of "my" conception of feminism.