Sister Outsider | The Politics of Writing: Perspective, Privilege and Power
New in Ceasefire, Sister Outsider - Posted on Monday, June 18, 2012 0:00 - 4 Comments
By Hana Riaz
Writing is a painful process for me and it’s not because I write too much, too often or even enough. Similarly, it isn’t even the craft itself as someone that oscillates between wanting to create beautiful work that matters and producing work that instigates something necessary or urgent. Instead it is the responsibility as a writer in process, the weight of a tool that 1 in 5 adults globally don’t have access to (basic literacy rates, World Literacy Foundation).
Contrary to popular belief, speaking out against any system of domination or oppression isn’t enough. If there’s anything that my exploration of black feminist epistemology (how we know what we know) has taught me is that writing is both luxury and privilege: it’s a tool and resource that enables not just the recording of a moment or narrative, the telling or sharing of knowledge, but a possibility – a way of seeing, challenging and creating the world. Critical, radical, progressive writing (or whatever you want to call it) is just as much about how it’s written as it is about what you say.
So here’s a guide I’ve put together as part of my own journey as a writer and as someone who triggers far too often over negligent work… a list of points I think all writers should account for in their work and a tool readers can use to critically engage with a text to take it that one step further.
We all have one but most of us never actually acknowledge it. Why? Well when ‘enlightenment’ swept across Europe (the same time Europeans began to colonize, steal, and enslave the global majority), powerful rich white men that dominated and controlled academia made positivism common practice in the pursuit and construction of ‘legitimate’ knowledge from natural to social sciences. Unfortunately, the myth that real or true knowledge is objective, empirical, measurable and somehow separated from the self that observes or creates it continues to permeate most social thought. It is, in fact, commonplace in our assumptions about how truth operates, who has access to it and how we account for it.
Patricia Hill Collins* instead argues that “all views expressed and actions taken are thought to derive from a central set of core beliefs that cannot be other than personal”. Our ideas about the world around us – the people that inhabit them, the social, historical, scientific and economic systems – are deeply shaped by and entrenched in our very personal and often subconscious perspectives. These perspectives are subjective, a consequence of lifelong experiences, of social locatedness (and the identities born out of this), of interaction, access and exposure to particular systems, institutions, resources, and types of knowledge. In other words our perspectives are socially constructed – we acquire them as we plod along through life.
But why does this matter?
Understanding your perspective, the social identities and experiences that accompany them, and how you actually got there requires a deep introspection. It means that you acknowledge that everything you create is a reflection of yourself; it is personal even when it seems extended or separate. It will help avoid a trap that many otherwise fall into in western, liberal activist circles even where good intent is there i.e. the saving people from themselves discourse like ‘oh those poor Muslim/African/other women of colour that are victims from men/war/imperialism/FGM/honour violence’ and deciding their struggles/oppressions/freedoms for them.
Better yet, it will help you to identify how you can make your work: more accessible, engaging and/or readable; how you can better strengthen your argument; identify new ways of thinking about the world; apply nuances that may otherwise be missing; and actually help you to grow – with and through your writing for it to further its impact on other people.
You will finally realise that you can only speak for yourself and will be weary of claiming or telling other people’s stories particularly without a conscious effort to make evident your own investment in that issue.
I feel it makes for a stronger read when I know how and where an author is operating from, and as a reader I can get more from that piece even when I don’t agree with everything it says precisely because it is part of the very lived and real world they inhabit.
Perspective is the reason why we have preference for certain types of broadcasters and broadsheets, what issues interest us in the first place, and even why writers like Mona El Tahawy (http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/mona-eltahawys-why-hate-us-politics-misrecognition/) get called out for attempting to represent their politics through other people.
When it comes to privilege most people shut their ears, stop listening and leave… but the truth is uncomfortable just as it is necessary. Exploring your perspective means you are forced to confront your social/political identities – identities that define your location and positionality in this vast, complex and ultimately oppressive system. It means coming to terms with whether you have privilege or identify with marginalised minorities; it can mean that you are sometimes one or the other depending on the space you are in on the basis of race, class, geopolitical location, citizenship, gender, sexuality, how abled you are, ethnicity, appearance, weight and a whole bunch of other things; it means making sense of your many, intersectional identities and how they play out in your everyday life typically all at once.
More often than not, privilege is invisible precisely because it is made normative by relations and systems of domination. It means that you don’t have to think about x, y or z on a daily basis or at all because you are less likely to be affected or treated negatively by socio-political institutions, economic systems, or simply put everyday prejudices by everyday people. Privilege, for example, is not having to be stop and searched disproportionately on the basis of your race; it is not having to question austerity measures that disproportionately affect already marginalised communities on the basis of your class, race, age or able-bodiedness; privilege is not having to deal with sexual harassment, cat calling or sexist comments on the street, in the playground or in the workplace because of your gender or sexuality. Privilege is the ability to turn a blind eye to one or more of these ingrained value systems that shape our everyday lives, interactions and worldviews.
For most people, acknowledging privilege is uncomfortable and an uneasy process particularly when someone else calls you out for the underlying prejudices you have but don’t want to acknowledge. It’s usually the reason why when as a person of colour calls out a liberal white person for a racist remark or thought they respond with a “but my best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend is black” line that means all anti-racism work immediately stops right there. It’s also the same reason that privileged groups expect minority groups to do the anti-(insert oppression) work for them often necessitated by privilege blindness, the ‘guilt’ effect of having privilege, or just straight up disinterest.
Personally, I’ve constantly had to call into question my own class privilege as someone that is middle class. I shifted a politics of apologetics or guilt to a strand of critical reflection that questions how I do or make meaningful work that challenges classism/capitalism without marginalizing working class people.
As difficult and uncomfortable as it is, it isn’t something to take personally. Most of us are complicit in some shape or form and acknowledging privilege is part of not only accepting the space we currently occupy, but also understanding how the world works and what role/place we have in that system. The more you understand your own positionality, the more you can actually work towards dismantling it – and not simply with grand gestures of activism (like a Love Music Hate Racism t-shirt or something), but with everyday actions that include listening (believe me a lot of people just stop doing this as soon as you say words like racist, sexist, classist etc.), engaging, learning, supporting and making visible what once may have been a world you never knew existed.
Keeping yourself in check allows you to connect with others, understand differential experiences, struggles and battles, whilst taking the responsibility to do the work you can do to challenge oppression in new and nuanced ways. Here’s a great example of what an intersectional approach can do in looking at food politics in America. And if you’re white and brave enough to begin the journey, check out this excellent ‘how to’ piece on confronting white privilege that also provides a strong basis to question other types of privilege more generally
What ties the other points together is a common theme: the operation of power. It is power that produces and reproduces these relations of ruling and systems of domination. Power that is local as it is global, that operates through people as it does institutions, and requires mediums for its everyday upkeep from war to television.
Poet, essayist, and novelist Audre Lorde was one of many who considered language a site of struggle. Language offers a double bind. On the one hand it presents a tool of domination: one that has remained accessible only to a minority and through it’s historical use marginalised, excluded or altogether negated the existence, lives, and experiences of much of the global majority; on the other it presents a tool of simultaneous necessity and possibility. In her essay ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury’, Lorde argues that poetry “is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into more tangible action”. Language allows us to define: history, narratives, stories, and information as well as our own relationship with the world.
For minority and marginalised groups such as women of colour who have literally had to write themselves into visible existence, language has presented an opportunity to scrutinize and subvert power in new, radical and life altering ways. It has allowed for otherwise untold history, reclaiming of politics, offering new ways of thinking about the world as well as confronting the power of representation and its role in making meaning. Much black and third world feminist work like that of Lorde, Spivak, hooks, Moraga, Anzalúda and Mohanty has focused on interrogating the relationship between power and language (including the dominance of the English language); and how as a tool in itself it offers a medium of resistance to an order that systematizes oppression in many complex and nuanced ways.
But these aren’t limited to the lives of women of colour or feminism. Instead critically engaging with the history of language, interrogating the power that comes with it and coming to terms with processes used to disseminate relations of ruling such as representations, meaning making and definition allows us to make use of writing as a tool that is both a means to an end and an end in itself. It calls into question how we write, the words we use and even the underlying assumptions that form common-sense ideas that form the basis of our work. Scrutinizing power and language means you constantly ask who, what, why, and how as asking questions becomes part of finding answers.
The three ‘P’s present an opportunity as writers to take responsibility for our work and to be held accountable for what we produce. It implies a journey and a life-long process that enables growth individually and collectively just as it does healthy discussion, debate and critique towards effective solutions or action. If we can’t be better through and with our writing, if we don’t fully understand how writing presents a persistent opening for personal and political transformation, a mirror of reflection even for ourselves, it’s unlikely our readers will. And well, that’s both a shame and a waste.
*Collins, P.H. “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” in ed. Kum-Kum Bhavnani Feminism & ‘Race’ (Oxford University Press Oxford 2001)