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I have always recoiled from the idea that certain conversations by marginalized people can only be held behind closed doors (The old “Don’t air our dirty laundry” thing.). But now I’m wondering if some things simply cannot be discussed effectively within a mainstream context without “othering” the group in question.
It was the latest article in The Washington Post’s series on black women that got me thinking. Lonnae O’Neal Parker is a good writer. Her effort was measured and thoughtful. She is a black female writer in a space where the voices of black women are not the majority. The Washington Post has accompanied its coverage with online discussions and the actual voices of black women—something that doesn’t often happen. Now, I complain all the time about the absence of black women in mainstream media. I hate that they so often ignore us. But here The Washington Post is paying attention to black women and I find I’d rather they didn’t. Because despite all the panels and surveys and a black woman writer and the presence of black female voices, it still reads as exotification and demonization because of the context and because of who is observing the conversation.
I recall feeling the same way last year, when I took part in a CNN online article about the phenomenon of black women with natural hair enduring unwanted touching. Several black women honestly shared our lived experiences with a black writer, who had navigated similar waters. But a brief web article cannot hold the nuance and history related to African American hair and beauty standards and power dynamics. And, based on the nasty attacks several of us endured as a result of the article, in the end, it served more to inflame than educate. (More here.)
Last week I found myself working on an article about an element of black culture for a mainstream feminist publication. My criticism of the Post series and the aftermath of the CNN article began haunting me. Because here I was explaining a black issue for consumption by a mostly non-black audience and perhaps opening the door to the same “othering” that I hate.
So, I wondered: How do other folks who are members of historically marginalized groups, and who write about race and gender and sexuality, wrestle with this? Do they? Should we? Are there topics writers will not or should not discuss outside of a “safe space”? Are there story ideas writers reserve for “of color” or GLBT spaces?
“In order to understand why transphobia and cissexism persist and are continually perpetuated throughout feminist communities, particularly the vegetarian-ecofeminist community, it is important to consider the origins of anti-trans advocacy as a conscious project of prominent, elite White feminists in the 1970s. In the late sixties and early seventies, trans people were very active in the women’s and queer liberation movements. The Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall rebellions of the sixties are evidence of that, as are women like Beth Elliot of the Daughters of Bilitis, Sandy Stone of Olivia Records, and Stonewall veteran Silvia Rivera who was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance. So it’s important to keep in mind that trans women, and trans people more generally, were an integral part of the early women’s liberation movement. But in the mid- to late-seventies, there was a transphobic backlash within feminism to systematically remove and exclude trans people, explicitly transsexual women, from the women’s and queer movements. For example, Rivera was targeted and physically attacked by cissexist women separatists at a gay rights rally. Elliot was targeted by Robin Morgan and separatists at a lesbian women’s conference. Stone was targeted by Janice Raymond and forced out of Olivia Records with threats of a boycott. And Gloria Steinem of Ms. magazine openly attacked trans women. Over the last couple decades, there has been an increase in organizing and activism by trans people, yet we continue to be the targets of a systematic backlash from elite feminists. So-called ‘women-born women’ policies are still used to exclude transsexual women from participating in our own movement. And while trans women are disproportionately targeted by homelessness, prisons, and sexual and physical violence, an alliance between anti-trans feminists and the state has been used to circumvent human rights laws in order to bar us from many vital women’s facilities and services. Trans women have even been forced out of women’s services organizations they helped create.”