Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thoughts on feminist practice in organization: work in progress!

It's International Women's Day, and I am surrounded by hella powerful and inspiring women militants young and old, near and far. Knowing you all exist and support me has been so important for me in the recent months. I just read a post by a respected friend and comrade Julia Wallace, on Women in Crisis under capitalism. Also another by ChakaZ here commemorating this day and honoring women's struggles. I also just discussed Algeria Unveiled by Frantz Fanon with a young, super charismatic and awesome woman militant. Trying to navigate the very powerful and strong anti-colonialism in Fanon's writing, while discarding his patriarchal and objectifying attitudes toward women under the framework of nationalism, was very challenging and also emotionally charged because it's something I have had to painfully navigate in my real life too. I have been meaning to work on this piece for a while, and been drafting up notes. Julia, Rae, Francis, Ariel and Jennifer, through their presence, conversations and kind words, motivated me to move on with this piece, as problematic as it will be, as unfinished and incomplete as it is, as a way to dialogue about working class feminist practice and revolutionary organization building. Bottomline is, I wanna build revolutionary organizations that have hella dope feminist class struggle politics AND practice. Here's some thoughts and a work in progress.

Throw in your thoughts too so we can make this REAL and not individualize all the stress and drama that this set of conversation often come along with. If you have questions, dont make assumptions. Ask me and you can help me clarify/flush out my thoughts, or we can agree to disagree. Please, no passive aggressiveness. I already live in the Northwest. (ok Seattle, just j/k :P!)

Where am I coming from with this? In my own reading of feminist politics and practice, I often hesitate to be vulnerable to people/texts that I read even if aspects of them resonate with me, cos I need to know first where the author is coming from politically. This is honest, and its telling too -- because intense gender experiences have been used by politically conservative and politically degenerate forces (include social democrats and identity politicos in this) to JUSTIFY a certain form of class and race politics. Gender has ALWAYS been used as a lynchpin for the left, the right and the nutties. Think abortion, or the veil and how it becomes a site of proxy war for rival political factions who, honestly don't give a shit about women's liberation to begin with. But gender is not just a set of politics, it is actually a set of daily emotional and bodily experiences and real fuckin' feelings. My hesitation comes from the need to protect my emotions, my feelings, my experiences of survival. I got burned with how my personal experiences and struggles as a queer woman of color, survivor of domestic violence, have been used to justify whack identity and separatist politics so now, I am defensive. So to whoever's reading this, if you agree or disagree with me, know that whatever I am putting out there is toward developing a practice for a certain kind of politics. I would still love to dialogue with you even if we disagree politically, but it helps me to know whether tension emerges from a fundamental disagreement with my POLITICAL VISION, or with my specific analyses and proposals to develop PRACTICE for a SHARED political vision. Let's not confuse the two! To put it out there for folks who dont know me, here's what I am for:

I see this as as fundamental to queer politics. Patriarchy should not be gendered male. I describe this more below.
That said, any multigender organization needs to develop PRACTICE to navigate the different set of experiences that oppressed people bring into the group and acknowledge that some groups experience more trauma than others, be it race or class or gender or sexuality. HOW? is what I am trying to figure out here.

Working class women's liberation is class struggle. I experience my oppression as both as a woman and gender non-conforming person acutely at my fucking job. The job conditions suck cos it's seen as traditionally "woman's work" -- caring work. And to the extent that that work is undervalued in this society as a product of the division of labor, as a product of capitalism and commodification of human bodies and the essentialization (and thus unpaid) of labor that involves love, care and such, I feel oppression. Most tangibly, my bosses -- yeah the assholes who yell and scream at me like they own me -- they are racist and patriarchal women. I hate them, I wanna fight them and I dont feel solidarity around gender with them in the same way they don't with me.

No White Man or White Woman's burden.
Obvious, but worth stating. No invading and patronizing oppressed communities and nations under the pretext of wanting to save women from themselves. No patience for that shit.

So none of that "slide the dirty shit under the rug while we confront the enemy" bullshit.
I go mad when I encounter patriarchy/homophobia and transphobia in what is supposed to be my trusted community.
Don't tell me that getting mad about patriarchal behavior means there's something wrong with me. I dont fight for revolution to be treated badly as a woman of color. If we want constructiveness, then lets work out a PROCESS or a PRACTICE that can help us navigate this shit in our own communities. Dont individualize or personalize the failings of our communities to develop anti-patriarchal practice by BLAMING it on those who raise the issue.

I am a developing marxist whose political framework and understanding has been clarified by the marxist method.
I am not for building any vanguard party. I am for building revolutionary organizations that consist of working class people, engaged in struggles in the community, schools, workplaces and like. I believe that we need to train and develop ourselves and as many people as possible around us, to be empowered with skills and knowledge that help us struggle for our freedom and liberation from oppression: capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and the like. Rome wasnt built in a day so it wont be torn down in a day.
I devote my energies and aspirations to this project. I want this shit to be sustainable and even though I know organization building is not a magic pill, it is an important component for developing revolutionaries.



Why does gender and revolutionary organization always feel like such a tense relationship? Deliberate or not, there often is this walking on eggshells energy, even among comrades I trust. Here, I try to identify where the sources of this "walking on eggshells" energy comes from.

1) We dont have a framework for talking about patriarchy in a way that is non-essentializing, that is targetting BEHAVIOR and INSTITUTIONS , not INNATE HUMANITY.

The best of queer politics takes us there.

In queer politics, patriarchy is not innately gendered MASCULINE. In the most liberating aspects of queer politics, patriarchy is understood as a form of power and control, an institutionalized system that privileges and values cisgendered men and their presumed attributes, over non-cis males, women-identified or gender non-conforming folks.

Saying that patriarchy is not inherently masculine or gendered male, is really important for trans identity and politics, and a marked departure from 2nd wave feminism and its transphobia. 2nd wave feminism saw trans men as self-hating women who wanted to "assimilate" into patriarchy, who had internalized patriarchy. They also saw trans women as men who were "pretending" to be women, who wanted to "infiltrate" into women-only spaces. It's a rough history and we have a lot of trans elders to thank for sticking it out in those hard times and leaving us with a legacy of tenacity and survival in the face of political attacks, especially painful because they came from those who should be allies. It is this same framework of gendering patriarchy as masculine, that has led to certain lesbian scenes disdaining the butch/femme queer culture, which is also a very working class form of lesbian culture. By gendering patriarchy masculine, these 2nd wave and middle class feminists could only look at trans men, or left of center butch women, as sell-outs to the feminist movement. Coincidentally, under this framework, femme identity was also presented as oppressive because it apparently presented women as weak and feminine. Ironically, in the strong insistence of feminist liberation, the 2nd wave feminists and middle class feminists rejected femininity as a source of strength, and only further inherited the notion of femininity as a sign of weakness.

The liberating aspects of queer politics is that gender expression (masculinity, femininity and all its continuum), can be distinct from the perpetuation of patriarchal relations. This distinction of masculinity from patriarchy requires deliberate reflection, effort, conscious decision making, especially in this society we live in which normalizes patriarchy. What this means to me, is that yes, cis male privilege IS real and in this society, many men are socialized and taught to be patriarchal. The wages of patriarchy, like the wages of whiteness, are however only a temporary reprieve for men because the divisions it causes end up also hurting men. Instinctively, many men rebel against patriarchy and its institutionalized, socialized treatment of those whom they may love, be it queers and/or women. However, this instinctive rebellion needs to move beyond the realm of mere individualized actions, and rather, need to be generalized, to take form, take shape, develop strength and structure, and be a fighting force as well for it to be a real challenge to institutionalized patriarchy. It needs to be a continual reflecting, dialogical shared practice.

Violence against women, against transmen, transwomen, femme women, taking the most extreme form of rape and the psychological fears and trauma that come along w that, is a real phenomenon that many non-cis men experience. Yet, it is also a system of patriarchy, a historical phenomenon, that creates this privileging. Many who identify as men in this society are taught that being a legit man means that they have to exhibit patriarchy, just like we are taught that being female means you need to be subservient. We need to reject that whole packaging. Patriarchy is not inherently rooted  in masculine gender expression. Which leaves open the possibility for people to choose masculine gender identity and traits while rejecting patriarchy.



In my previous organizational experiences, there was a dichotomy:

Either that the way to overthrow patriarchy is the duty of individual men and thus an excessive focus on individual, personal relationships as a way to overthrow patriarchy. This was predominant in liberal and progressive circles
That patriarchy is an INSTITUTION that needs to be fought and that we shouldnt focus on personal relationship dynamics. Instead we should wholeheartedly believe that if revolutionary men have anti-patriarchal activist resumes earned through fighting against patriarchal institutions, then they cannot possibly be patriarchal in their behavior or relationships.

An important method of Marxism is that the class transforms itself through struggle and in doing so, achieves its self emancipation.

The premise is that the class does not bear the best traits of humanity's liberation in the present. it is through struggle that the class learns HOW to extricate itself from the most demeaning and negative aspects of capitalism.

The external struggle against patriarchy, through fighting institutions etc, is important.
So is the internal struggle against patriarchal relationships, patriarchal behavior.

The two go hand in hand. Any external struggle against institutionalized power that doesnt also lead to a change in social relations is suspect, and any struggle that focuses only on social relations separate from challenging institutionalized powers that maintain it, is missing the point.

The separation between private and public, internal and external struggle, is a construction of capitalism. It is this same capitalism that makes us shut down our humanity right at the moment we clock in, to become labor-producing machines, lifeless commodities that need to simply dutifully complete our paid tasks, suspend our human emotions till we clock out. And then, for many of us, easily fall into the understandable even though extremely wrongful explosion of our daily repressed anger, sorrow and helplessness, onto those whom we are closest to, be it our children, lovers, friends, because they are our easiest targets.

I raise this not to moralize, but rather to say that revolutionaries, builders of revolutionary organizations who take gender liberation and anti-patriarchy seriously, we need to have spaces and structures and vocabularies, that help us maintain that consistency between our external struggles against institutionalized patriarchy, and our everyday relationships with comrades and loved ones. It is the search for this consistency that will keep us humbled as revolutionaries, keep us remembering that none of this is easy or automatic for anyone, that men/women/queers/former DV survivors and all, we are all susceptible to patriarchal behavior if we dont constantly remind ourselves to reflect, to practice.

The dumbass liberals and social dems have robbed us of the vocab of compassion, patience and love. So much so that so many revolutionaries I know are impatient when we talk about internal transformation. We need to fight for a revolutionary kind of compassion. Where patience, compassion and love can thrive, because it comes with JUSTICE.

2) Transferring language about class to patriarchy

I think many times there is such a defensiveness around talking about patriarchy because in revolutionary leftist circles, we apply the way we talk about class, to gender.

To the extent that there are many contradictions, inclarity with the ways that we talk about class struggle, the way we talk about patriarchy also becomes confusing.

In our conversations about class, we determinately and non-hesitantly say: ABOLISH THE RULING CLASS.

How does this look like in practice?
We take out our class struggle politics in a targeting of immediate class oppressors: The bosses, the landlords, the police etc etc.

The loosey goosey watering down politics of liberals and social dems that say: Look! That police officer who murdered JT Williams or Oscar Grant is human too and we should not target him for his mistakes.

These political factions conveniently put aside the institutionalized oppressions that the capitalist system perpetuates by humanizing an individual cop, an individual boss, individual oppressor. They make a mockery of justice. We as leftists hold up the banner of justice in a reeking unjust world. We say: These class oppressors and their lackeys need to be abolished.

But do we mean their institutions need to be abolished, or that their humanity needs to be abolished?

This triggers a whole debate on strategy, tactics, values, right to self defense, violence of the oppressed be equated to violence of the oppressor, moralism vs. political resistance...Many of us are political people and the debates are familiar, necessary and important.

However, I think our lack of clarity and vocab around the above stuff, flows into our conversations around patriarchy.

There IS a logical fallacy. If we say class struggle = abolish the ruling class = abolish the perpetuators of the ruling class, then why can't we also say anti-patriarchal struggle = abolish patriarchy = abolish the perpetuators of patriarchy?

Unlike the ruling class, which consists of a minority of the world's population, those who perpetuate patriarchy in their daily lives, constitute more than a minority. If in our experiences, many of those who perpetuate domestic violence are our loved ones, are predominantly men, then, are we saying that we want to eliminate those whom we have loved and shared with, as well as half of the working class?

This is not to say boundaries, distance, rehabilitation and punitive actions against those who commit patriarchy are not important. But for many of us who have either experienced domestic violence or done advocacy work around domestic violence, we know that simply casting an abuser as such and negating the emotions that the survivor feels for their abuser, is not likely to win us the trust of the survivor. Immigrant women and many women of color don't call the state to intervene in situations of domestic violence precisely because they fear that the state will abolish and eliminate their abuser. Survivors want the abusers to stop, to leave, and change, but dont want them to become victims of a racist and unjust criminal justice system.

In the same way, if we can't develop a feminist practice of talking about patriarchy, pinpointing patriarchal behavior without an automatic abolishment and elimination of the perpetuator, then either people don't raise the issues, or that those who are targetted become immediately defensive out of fear. Others feel like they have to immediately choose sides rather than take the time to hear out the issues, mistrust develops and the disintegration of organizations as a product of patriarchy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In developing our practice around anti-patriarchy, we need to understand this. That what might work for our language against class oppression, might not be easily applicable to that against intimate/interpersonal patriarchal oppression. 

 With patriarchal behavior, there is a range of it. Some require more intense and sometimes, even violent responses. Others can be transformed. Often times,  patriarchal BEHAVIOR within the class, is also product of the contradictions of capitalism.

In our organizations, we need to have a systematic way of figuring out what are the basic acceptable norms of behavior, and having a response to patriarchy that isn't a one-size-fit-all response.  

The distinction between patriarchal institutions and patriarchal behavior is crucial.

There is no doubt that patriarchal institutions need to be overthrown. Those who are in the lead of it need to be either convert their allegiances and get out of the way, or face some kind of punitive action for their perpetuation of mass-scale injustice.

It is weird how parts of the left piss all day on patriarchal institutions in the flyers, slogans and speeches, and yet are so afraid to talk about/is so defensive about discussing what is patriarchal behavior

3) Talking about anti-patriarchal and gender politics in an organization means that our own personal sex lives and intimate relationships become exposed to the org life.

People feel protective about their personal relationships and dont want the organization to intrude and make harsh judgements.

Worst case scenario is that it could be that people have fucked up patriarchal intimate relationships, but it could also be that organizations do not have the vocab to differentiate patriarchal relationships from unhealthy relationships or moments of tension and challenges in otherwise healthy relationships.

Many political spaces I have been in, dont have the precision in their language in discussing patriarchal relationships that exhibit power and control, both in hetero and queer relationships.

Part of this is because we dont even have the vocab to talk about what good, healthy relationships are.

In our response against imperialist feminism, or the state's attacks on our culture as a pretext to demean, denigrate and provide justification for its attacks on communities of color, many leftists have responded with some sort of cultural relativism and hesitancy to talk about the good, the desirable, in a normative way.

The NW Network, an anti-DV organization for and by queer and trans folk, has a relationship skills class that they offer for free to the public. The space, which I have encountered, is one that in non-judgmental, but also one that does provide vocabulary and concepts for individuals to talk about what healthy relationship skills are: such as communication, establishing boundaries, changing levels of commitment, response to jealousy...etc

They said that they came up with this workshop because they had encountered survivors of domestic violence who talked about how they now knew what bad relationships are, and how to leave them, but what next? How do they acquire the tools to then keep relationships healthy? So many relationships around us are unhealthy, especially for those of us who grew up in families where domestic violence was prevalent. How can we have a positive vision of "breaking out of the cycle of Power and Control?"  

I really like this non-judgemental yet confident discussion on acquiring the tools for healthy relationships. The tools to communicate, to support one anothers' self determination, to set boundaries, to check-in etc.

I think revolutionary organizations need to also have a shared vocabulary for what healthy relationships are and supporting and affirming one another in our varied practice of that. This creates a common vocabulary which we can use to pinpoint patriarchal behavior or unhealthy non-patriarchal behavior in our organizations, in a way that doesnt get us all freaked out because we think that every single relationship that we have ever had is now also being attacked.

I know some people will say, this is a "white" way, or "non-profitish" way of talking about relationships. To those critics, I think many of us already practice this to some degree in our personal lives, but there is no shared vocab around it in organizational life. This structure I am proposing is based on the need for us to have such conversations in our organizational lives, that is not over-exposing, doesnt force people to be excessively vulnerable in organizational space, but yet creates a framework for certain sets of expectations that we can utilize to address and assess patriarchal behavior among comrades.

4)  Tokenization of strong women

I have been in many conversations with revolutionaries where the "woman question" is raised. Why are there disproportionately less women of color revolutionaries in revolutionary organizations, than say, white men?
In some conversations, the discussion lean toward, why can't women of color decide to do revolutionary politics and develop themselves? Where are the strong women of color?

In other conversations, the discussion lean toward, let's look at the patriarchy in our organizational culture. What can we change to bring in more women of color?

As unpopular as this stance may be, where I stand is a combination of these two extremes. On the one hand, in our society right now, doing revolutionary politics has many challenges. Its significance is not recognized in dominant society, you have to deal with people thinking you are a nut case/in a cult, and the financial/family pressures for many of us takes us away from doing revolutionary politics. It does take commitment and personal will to commit to being a revolutionary and I hope more people will take up the tasks and challenges.

On the other hand, the patriarchal, racist cultures of the American left scene is also super alienating for women of color militants. Where people dont find support, they leave. It's usually that simple. The first foot forward should always be an investigation, analysis, and constant reflection of our organizations so we provide a good space for oppressed people.

But somehow, the "strong woman" phenomena always comes up. Like there was an inherently strong woman, who just popped out of nowhere.

The fact that for many of us, our strength emerged through a process of survival of violence, of patriarchy, of racism, is seldom recognized. Our strength, as the process of struggle is forgotten. Instead, many of us become tokenized as THE strong woman, to whom other women need to measure up to. 

A positive vision of honoring and supporting political women and queer folks' strength would be for organizations to discuss the challenges that women face to become leaders and strong militants so that we know the range of experiences and challenges that are out there for women. This can be done through reading militant women's biographies, through discussion about our lives, through taking seriously commemorations such as the Domestic Violence Awareness week, or Transgender Day of Remembrance. These events serve as a way for organizations to continually remind ourselves of the process and challenges that women and queer folks experience.  

We should also affirm different leadership styles because strength and commitment come in different colors, and support/affirm one another, and hold each other accountable to developing our different leadership styles and strength, and also frankly talking about areas where we each feel like we need to grow in. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I just gotta say, that being unaccountable is not a different "style" and holding people accountable doesnt make you an authoritarian (I have seen people try to pull this off).

For women and queer militants and leaders in organizations, we definitely need to prioritize our own growth, but also see as part of our growth, the development and mentorship of new women and queers in the organization. This is NOT to say that it is our task alone to bring in/develop new women and queer leadership. This should be a joint organizational task!! Mentorship is also something that should be part of the shared culture in any organization. I am saying this here because as women and queer leaders we will, whether we want to or not, in a time/space where there are so few women and queer folks in revolutionary organizations, we will become role models of sorts in our organizations and we need to show new folks coming around that mentorship and sharing leadership is precisely a component of women and queer leadership.  


I have more to add...but this piece is already a monster and I'm too exhausted to edit it more. 
I am sure I have not thought through some of this shit as carefully as I need to, so please help me out and let's have this dialogue!! 

Power to the sisters and therefore to the class!

Here's something from June Jordan to top it off:

  I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can't tell you who in the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life.
June Jordan


  1. What a fantastic post. Lots to say, but I'll just say this regarding patriarchy not being gendered: I think that's one reason some folks use kyriarchy:

  2. Thank you jeff! I would love to read about your thoughts on the piece and how it relates to your own practice/experience.
    Thanks for introducing me to the feminist philosopher blog!