Prisons and Privilege.

M. Leblanc has a candid, thoughtful post on white feminism and the criminal justice system over at Dr. Bitch’s website. The whole thing is worth reading, but this really stood out.

So much of White Feminism, especially the kind I have engaged in for most of my adult life, is excessively personal. In particular, the white feminism that dominates the feminist blogosphere tends to be very inward-directed. …

This work is undeniably important. But I can’t help feeling that for a lot of us, it’s pretty self-indulgent. Would that women of color whose communities have been ravaged by the flip side of “safety” that White Feminists seek to bring to our own neighborhoods could have the luxury of worrying about whether the guy at the corner store calls me “sweetie.” Or that poor women who are paid shit wages to clean up after rich people could have my luxury of obsessing over whether my boyfriend expects me to do the dishes, instead of being expected to, without question, do all the household labor for your own family as well as another’s.

Indeed. This is a frequent criticism of feminism, and one that a lot of women of color who are dismissive of white feminism have aired. It’s a shame, because as M. Leblanc points out, this work is not just feminist, but anti-racist. I don’t think people of color concerned with chipping away at the economic marginalization of poor communities of color consider their concerns feminist per se*, but the incarceration/criminalization of black/Latino men has tremendous consequences for the women in their communities with whom they have children and who are expected to “hold them down” while they’re locked up (to say nothing of how it normalizes/masculinizes incarceration which erodes any threat jailtime may have a deterrent).

She also highlights a commenter’s thoughts:

I am not going to say that (white) women should never use the legal system because the legal system in the U.S. disproportionately affects minority men, or because it is used to destroy communities of color. But if the main focuses of the feminist movement center on reforms through legislation, or the court system, or better police protection, etc to reduce sexual assault- if the movement is centered around the authority of a legal system that so often works against people of color and protects white privilege, then not only are we unintentionally supporting a system that is racist, but we are also ignoring the needs of women of color who, for several reasons, may not feel comfortable or safe going to the police if they themselves are raped or living with domestic violence. Would someone in a community that is often terrorized by the police then want to call the police to come settle her domestic problems? Even if she wanted to see the perpetrator punished, would she want to expose her brother/son/friends to police brutality as well? Even without any of these concerns for her community, would she feel as confident as a white woman that a police officer/judge/media would be serious and sensitive about her claims of rape? (And we all know that even white women have good reason to be suspicious of the legal system treating ANY claims of rape seriously and sensitively.)

I think that if feminism, as a movement, is not seeking ways to address sexual violations outside of a racist legal system, it certainly is ignoring the needs many, many women. (Not only women of color, but any women who might be ignored or persecuted by the legal system- including poor women, trans women, queer women, women in the sex industry, and probably others.)

As an alternative to the legal system or vigilante justice (or doing nothing), I’ve heard some pretty great things about community justice/restorative justice programs. One of the really positive aspects of this, I think, is that the needs of the survivors of the crimes are discussed and hopefully met, as opposed to in a court room where the punishment of the perpetrator is the only thing that matters- the survivor’s needs are nonexistent.

*If I had to guess, I would say a lot of Cosbyite concern over the absence of black fathers is a informed by conventional Big-Piece-of-Chicken patriarchy, which holds that women just should not be heading households in the first place, and that things would be better if men were calling the shots.

11 thoughts on “Prisons and Privilege.

  1. shani-o October 28, 2008 at 9:23 am Reply

    Her post was really insightful and it highlighted my personal issues with feminism.

    I don’t think people of color concerned with chipping away at the economic marginalization of poor communities of color consider their concerns feminist per se*, but the incarceration/criminalization of black/Latino men has tremendous consequences for the women in their communities

    G.D., I don’t think most women of color have the luxury of thinking of things as “feminist” or “anti-racist.” It’s more about getting a fair shake. My question is this: do we wait for traditional white feminism to become more inclusive of all women (and men)?

  2. G.D. October 28, 2008 at 9:34 am Reply

    “I don’t think most women of color have the luxury of thinking of things as “feminist” or “anti-racist.”

    I sort of disagree here; I think that a lot of women are engaging in feminist work that they would never consider “feminist” because feminism, I think, is still seen as “white people shit.”

    I don’t think we should wait for any body of thought, necessarily. Ideally, I’d want the traditional civil rights establishment to do a better job of embracing feminism and women’s issues in general. So often, discussions of “black issues” seem to my ears like “black men’s issues.” But I could be wrong.

  3. shani-o October 28, 2008 at 9:43 am Reply

    Well… to your first point, I don’t disagree. That’s what I meant by saying they don’t think of things “as ‘feminist'” even though it is.

    To your second point, I think the civil rights complex is doing a shoddy job of embracing issues affecting anyone under the age of 65. I don’t necessarily object to black issues being equated to black men’s issues, because black men’s issues become issues for the entire black community, no?

  4. ladyfresshh October 28, 2008 at 9:47 am Reply

    I think that a lot of women are engaging in feminist work that they would never consider “feminist” because feminism, I think, is still seen as “white people shit.”

    i agree

    esp with regards to the original dismissive comment:

    but I can’t help feeling that for a lot of us, it’s pretty self-indulgent. Would that women of color whose communities have been ravaged by the flip side of “safety” that White Feminists seek to bring to our own neighborhoods could have the luxury of worrying about whether the guy at the corner store calls me “sweetie.”

    women of color deal with this everyday and while that commentator may feel it’s self indulgent to focus on this behavior and there are ‘bigger things’ to focus on when it’s all part of the same problem

    it’s difficult to ascertain the work done and what needs to be done when things are so intertwined and a part of both feminist and people of color issues

    i agree with the tone of many discussions becoming “black men’s issues”, the original commentary included, i tend to tune out at a certain point when i feel either side loses/changes the focus

  5. simply scott October 28, 2008 at 11:35 am Reply

    Oh, I’m sure I’ll get shit for this — it’s so easy to call someone a racist nowadays, but this is my original comment to Bitch PhD and her article (below). She made some good points, and it’s very interesting to she how she views herself and her perceptions of others’ views of her. I’m afraid I’m suffering from a lack of PhD, and I know my remarks may seem a little emotional and personal, but you know, I guess it comes with the territory — I’m white.

    “Think how tough it must to be a white man. Hmmmm. Have you noticed that everything is my fault? And now the justice system is my fault, too. It’s not color-blind; it’s racist, and it especially targets minority men. There are no black jurors. There are no black judges. There are no black prosecutors. There are no black victims of crimes perpetuated by blacks. The only violators it seems are white men, who have set up a system to protect white women. Maybe that’s a simplistic read of this post, but I’m quite good at breaking things down to their nuts and bolts, and this is what I read.

    That said, if feminism as a movement needs to get more involved in supporting black women and thereby supporting black men, then I think that’s a very good idea. Black families are at risk in very different ways than white families, but having spent most of my childhood literally on the “other side of the tracks” with my friends, I found that there are plenty of choices available to many black families, and blacks make just as many poor choices as whites.

    Perhaps coming from where I come from (poor Southern Mississippi), I have a hard time understanding why people can’t just make a choice, like I did, and make a better life. I also have a really hard time understanding why it’s always “my” fault that everyone else is doing so poorly. I’m sure my friends from high school, all of whom were black, would not appreciate me, the white man, being blamed for everyone’s misery. Instead, they, like me, chose to make a life — two joined the Army, one became a lawyer, one manages a store in LA, and another is a school principal. I certainly won’t take credit for their choices or their successes; they made their own lives with what they had, and the “white man” doesn’t seem to be holding them down.”

    As for feminism being “white people shit”, well, I think that phrase right there speaks volumes, and once again we have an artificial division that frankly doesn’t need to exist. How do we overcome that? I’m not sure — a lot of my initial thoughts are just too simplistic because once again, and I guess I just realized the connection with my high school years, all my guy friends are black. We all live here in downtown Baltimore. We’re all yuppies living in a nice part of town. And life is good. Frankly it rarely occurs to me that they are black, but then again, it was like that in high school, when I was undoubtedly the only white kid who could safely ride my bike through that neighborhood.

  6. shani-o October 28, 2008 at 12:02 pm Reply

    SS: Thanks for your post. Could’ve done without the sarcasm in the second paragraph, considering I don’t think there’s *anyone* out there who’s arguing that (I’ll assume that was you being sensitive). I don’t think black families are at risk in different ways, actually. As we’ve argued here before: the issues in the black community are issues of poverty. All poor people have the same problems.

    Anyway, do you disagree that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects blacks and latinos? Do you think that’s just “the way it is”? As for making a choice to have a better life, this is a roundabout argument that we seem to have all the time. You, as a white male, have more options. That’s not a judgment on you, and privilege isn’t an absolute. It doesn’t mean that being white equals success. It means that your playing field is even.

    Feminism is a fight for equality. Everyone, white women, women of color, and men of color, are all trying to get the same footing that you were born with. The point, I think of the post, was that fighting for equality of white women, while simultaneously disregarding men of color, affects women of color in very negative ways.

  7. G.D. October 28, 2008 at 12:23 pm Reply

    Think how tough it must to be a white man. Hmmmm. Have you noticed that everything is my fault?

    Golly! My heart bleeds.

    And now the justice system is my fault, too. It’s not color-blind; it’s racist, and it especially targets minority men. There are no black jurors. There are no black judges. There are no black prosecutors. There are no black victims of crimes perpetuated by blacks. The only violators it seems are white men, who have set up a system to protect white women. Maybe that’s a simplistic read of this post, but I’m quite good at breaking things down to their nuts and bolts, and this is what I read.

    Ehh. The explosion in the American prison population is because of the War on Drugs, and you seem to be ignoring just how incredibly racialized the War on Drugs is. The largest segment of people who live under state supervision have been convicted of drug crimes. Most of the evidence suggests that blacks, Latinos and white people consume drugs in proportion to their numbers in the population. But blacks and Latinos are wildly overrepresented in the American prison system.

    Is that an accident? Here in NY, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ratcheted up the sentences for drug convictions to seem tougher on crime (he had run for the presidency several times, and was seen as too liberal to win the Republican nomination).Even though the people in suburban New York were not touched directly by crime (in fact, crime was falling at the time the laws were passed), they saw the “urban menace” on the television news each night, and so the move was overwhelmingly popular as it made them feel safer.

    Up until very recently, there were substantially harsher federal sentences for possession of crack cocaine vs. powdered cocaine, even though they were more or less pharmacologically identical. The difference is that crack cocaine was very much a poor people’s drug, while powdered cocaine was not. (Proponents of the harsher sentences said that crack was tied to violent street crime.)

    Re: the black prosecutors and black judges. Mandatory minimums, another politically popular move outside of cities, took discretion away from judges and prosecutors trying drug cases.

    Black families are at risk in very different ways than white families, but having spent most of my childhood literally on the “other side of the tracks” with my friends, I found that there are plenty of choices available to many black families, and blacks make just as many poor choices as whites. …Perhaps coming from where I come from (poor Southern Mississippi), I have a hard time understanding why people can’t just make a choice, like I did, and make a better life. I also have a really hard time understanding why it’s always “my” fault that everyone else is doing so poorly.

    Does someone else want to take a stab at this?

    As for feminism being “white people shit”, well, I think that phrase right there speaks volumes, and once again we have an artificial division that frankly doesn’t need to exist.

    That’s wild simplistic, fam. When women’s studies began being taught on college campuses in the middle of the 20th century, that became the locus of feminist discussion/organization — which meant that if you were a woman who was not in college, you weren’t part of the conversation. (Which was true for women of color.) Feminism, for all its accomplishments, began to focus on the issues of a narrow slice of privileged, college educated white women.

    A lot of feminists —- like M. Leblanc, from reading her post — have spent a lot of time trying to broaden the focus of feminism.

  8. G.D. October 28, 2008 at 12:36 pm Reply

    shani: “As we’ve argued here before: the issues in the black community are issues of poverty. All poor people have the same problems.”

    Again, a minor disagreement. Poor people have similar problems, but even poor white people wield white privilege (although their poverty complicates the way it manifests itself). The poverty that afflicts black people was actually socially encouraged and codified into law. The reasons black folks have been disproportionately poor is due to racist policies/behaviors that stifled the creation of black wealth. (The same goes for Native populations.)

  9. quadmoniker October 28, 2008 at 12:57 pm Reply

    “Black families are at risk in very different ways than white families, but having spent most of my childhood literally on the “other side of the tracks” with my friends, I found that there are plenty of choices available to many black families, and blacks make just as many poor choices as whites. …Perhaps coming from where I come from (poor Southern Mississippi), I have a hard time understanding why people can’t just make a choice, like I did, and make a better life. I also have a really hard time understanding why it’s always “my” fault that everyone else is doing so poorly.”“Black families are at risk in very different ways than white families, but having spent most of my childhood literally on the “other side of the tracks” with my friends, I found that there are plenty of choices available to many black families, and blacks make just as many poor choices as whites. …Perhaps coming from where I come from (poor Southern Mississippi), I have a hard time understanding why people can’t just make a choice, like I did, and make a better life. I also have a really hard time understanding why it’s always “my” fault that everyone else is doing so poorly.”

    SS:
    Let me ask you this: When you meet people in college or in your career, do they assume this about your background? Do people assume that you are from a poor area, that your high school peers are uneducated, that you represent someone who climbed the social ladder despite the odds stacked against you growing up?

    I am from poor, rural Arkansas and have lived in different places along the east coast for some time. Do you know where people assume I’m from? Wherever I happen to be. Do they think my parents went to college? Yes, because their parents went to college. They assume I took family vacations, that I lived in a house my parents owned, and that my parents saved money for my college and my wedding and their retirement. At least, that’s what I think they assume from the conversations I have. By and large, the people I encounter in my East Coast elite world are white and wealthy, and they assume my background is their background simply because I look like them. And that’s the difference.

    You and I may think we made choices, but what we really did was exploit networks available to us simply because of the color of our skin. I’m not trying to undermine your life effort, but I do want to put it in perspective. You and I fit into the popular American idea of rugged individualism, the image of someone like Bill Clinton, a poor Southern boy who became a Rhodes scholar. We didn’t have other narratives to fight against, other stereotypes to escape, and when we wanted escape, we could easily meld into other worlds.

    I have plenty of poor cousins who didn’t finish high school and go to college. They are smart and driven. What’s the difference? I have no idea. But poverty is an exhausting tide to fight against. I can’t imagine how compounded that would be if there were a host of stereotypes I had to carry with me.

    On a completely separate note, I agree with LF on this point in response to the idea that feminists are only concerned with a guy at the corner store calling them “sweetie”: “women of color deal with this everyday and while that commentator may feel it’s self indulgent to focus on this behavior and there are ‘bigger things’ to focus on when it’s all part of the same problem.”

    I agree that it’s all part of the same problem. I’m also actually not sure that anyone’s concerns are as simplistic as that. Feminism has a big problem in its focus on middle class white women, but I think right now they are speaking to very few women’s concerns. The privilege that many high-profile feminists come from was perfectly highlighted in ridiculousness of their objections to Obama over Clinton.

    On a more interesting note, I met with a sexual assault victim’s advocate not long ago who surprised me when she said they do not encourage women to report incidents to police, but they support them if they want to. The advocate said positing women as victims and men as criminals wasn’t always the answer. I thought that was revolutionary, and speaks to this post a great deal. But it’s a fine line. We’re steal vacillating between guilt from what happens when we ignore crimes against women, or worse, blame the victims, and coming up with a real plan to actually stem violence against women. Anyway, that’s a side point.

  10. shani-o October 28, 2008 at 1:23 pm Reply

    G.D. Well, yeah. I’m not arguing that black people are poor because that’s the natural state of blackness.

  11. simply scott October 29, 2008 at 10:19 am Reply

    You know, I’m thinking that the reason most of feminism is directed towards white women is because more white women have time on their hands to devote to concepts like art, political movements, rights, etc. The true privilege of being well-off, or at least financially comfortable, is having the luxury to spend time doing non-survival things. Feminism pretty much started with middle class white women who had time on their hands, didn’t it? So they are naturally concerned for those in their position. Something will have to be worked out to get more black women involved, but the idea that it’s just for white women (from a black woman’s standpoint) will have to be overcome first. It’s a two-way street; both groups are going to have to realize the value of working together and make it happen.

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