"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Friday, August 3, 2007

Feminism Friday: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

(This post was deleted and reposted due to massive amounts of spamming. The legitimate comments were unfortunately lost.)

It's a common sentiment among feminists that it is most certainly NOT our responsibility as women to reach out to our male oppressors to teach and guide them to understand our plight and to divest themselves of their unearned privilege. The idea is that it's THEIR responsibility to do that work for themselves. It's an argument I hear all the time (and one I completely understand) that our commitment to fighting sexism does not mean that it is our duty to break down into simple terms what we want from men. That we, as an oppressed class, should not be expected to have to take on the burden of reaching out to our oppressors to do the work that, ideally, THEY should be doing for themselves. This reluctance to reach out and explain things in simple terms is especially felt in feminist blog spaces, which are often generally reserved for discussion among "seasoned" feminists, who, already fully or mostly understanding the harmful effects of patriarchy, would rather talk amongst themselves about issues and strategies than to have to constantly backtrack and clearly explain to men or antifeminists that sexism DOES, in fact, still exist. This, of course, makes total sense, because no new discourse or activism would ever be accomplished if all feminists were constantly occupied with repetitious explanations of why there is a need for feminism in the first place. This broken-record frustration felt by online feminists is the catalyst for blog disclaimers, insightful conversations with loved ones, and (my favorite) anti-feminist bingo cards.

So, imagine my surprise when I came across this statement in Paulo Freire's classic text Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

"This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both." (p. 44)

And this:

"Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation? They will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it." (p. 45)

So, wait. This suggests that we SHOULD be reaching out to men. That, in fact, we MUST, because only the oppressed have the power to see and the ability to show others the extent to which they suffer under oppression. We know that privilege has a blinding effect on those who benefit from it, and yet our frustration over this keeps us from doing the hard work necessary to lift that veil of ignorance for those who just don't seem to get it.

This is in no way meant to criticize spaces and discourses that discourage the often redundant re-explaining of feminist goals. As I described above, I completely understand the frustration, especially when the ignorance with which we are frequently confronted by antifeminist trolls is so cloaked in hate. It's incredibly important for feminists to have safe discussion spaces that are free from the kinds of intrusion that hold us back from furthering our own consciousness. But those quotes from Freire really made an impression on me, reminding me of the importance of also remembering to sometimes come down off our high horses and actually break down into simple terms what it is we are fighting for and why.

To highlight a few of my favorite online spaces that do this important work:

Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog - an amazing resource for FAQs about feminism, and a great place to go to find info that simply breaks down the essential bits of knowledge required to move along to more "advanced" feminist blog spaces

Feminist Allies - a discussion group blog of feminist and profeminist men who confront issues of privilege and how to fight sexism and be effective allies to women

Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed!) - especially this post - whether you're a reader of comics or not, the amazing Karen Healey writes about an art form notorious for its lousy portrayals and objectification of women with such a clear and rational voice, readers have no choice but to finally understand what's so harmful (and annoying) about sexism in art and media

Also, the feminist LiveJournal communities listed in the links at the right of the screen are a great source for reading lots of women and girls' personal stories that directly demonstrate the need for feminism. I especially love the Feminist Rage Page, where posters can rant about the things that frustrate them to no end about being female in a sexist society.

And I also want to mention a source that has been the topic of much controversy, but since I finally got around to reading it and actually really liked it, I'm going to mention Jessica Valenti's book Full Frontal Feminism A feminist primer for young women who may not even realize that sexism is still rampant in today's world, it covers a lot of ground, and in very accessible language. The critics were right in that it's not for everyone, though. And I, too, wish the cover had never been designed that way. My advice? If, when attempting to read it, you find it too simplistic or patronizing, just stop and move on to something else. But I can picture many young women (and men), for whom this book would be an invaluable feminist resource, and I think that kind of influence is something we should welcome.

So, thoughts? Other recommendations for places that make feminism understandable and palatable to neophytes? How about sources that help men realize their privilege?

"Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly." (Freire, p. 47)


geo said...

I think that there are two inter-related sets of issues related to what you are talking about.

One could argue that White People had a responsibility to end Segregation, Racism and the dual system that in parts exists to this day related to Black People (as well as others of Color).

On a practical level Black People understandably helped end much legal and other Segregation/Blatant Discrimination in our society.

Racism continues to flourish significantly because most White People haven't seen it as a "White Issue" (or Universal Issue).

On a practical level it is certainly helpful (if not necessary) for Women to confront Men and in some ways to help educate Men about Sexism.

Do you (as a Woman) owe me (as a Man) anything? Of course not!

I think it important to separate Where it is helpful for Women to "educate" men and where we Men really need to do our Own Work. (The boundaries for this are of course not always clear!)

I think that it will be Very Difficult to end sexist violence such as rape and domestic violence until we men do much, much more work with other men. We certainly need to confront our homophobia issues as well as our dominance issues, regardless of whether we are Het or not.

Our (men's) work in groups such as I've been in (Men Stopping Rape, Inc. - of Madison, Wisconsin USA) - in the 1980's (and beyond) did some great work, but whatever good we did has been overwhelmed by other forces which have helped perpetrate Sexist Violence).

We Men do need to confront our issues with other Men. I can't predict how this will happen. I would guess it more likely to come from a recognition of how we kill, maim and psychologically hurt each other as well as ourselves (and in many ways are "the weaker gender") rather than out of a deep (initial) awareness of how Women and Girls are hurt by us.

Freire's ideas are important! Ending oppression does not come out of the oppressor's (primary) work - as he discusses in various ways.

Your words are most helpful! Thanks!

Molly said...

I guess my first thought is that the scholarly resources to which the non-oppressed should be heading are usually written or produced by the oppressed. There are certainly male feminist writers out there, and lots of male sociologists, but the canon is overwhelmingly female.
So: is my responsibility to individually point out what's wrong with assuming I'll do all the housework, or can Hochschild do the work for me?
For that matter, what if I hand The Second Shift directly to my hypothetical partner and say, "Read this and then we'll talk chores"?

Tracey said...

Thanks for your comments! I agree that it's a tricky issue, and it's hard to determine which aspects of movements should be led by whom.
geo: I couldn't agree with you more than so much of the work to stop rape and violence against women must be done by men. In many ways, the work you do in such organizations is work that women are not able to do.

I just had to write a little about those statements from Friere's work, because they struck me as conflicting with what I had most recently been hearing from other feminists. Perhaps a balance is what we should be working toward.

Molly: I have wonderful fantasies about having men (the ones who don't get it) read feminist writing. I love the idea of the scenario you painted. And yes, I think it makes sense that the non-oppressed read the work of the oppressed in order to try to understand. That said, I absolutely love the particular insight into feminism that men can bring with their writing. I think writing like that on the Feminist Allies page can give really great perspective.

geo said...


You emphasized a very, very good point in your response to what I said related to men needing to do the work that women Can't do.

Early in our MSR work we were asked by a women's anti-pornography group to help them picket the screening of a film that was particularly objectionable.

Some of the women noted clearly how some men in line for the film (with women particularly) would talk with our (male) members, while they wouldn't listen or respond to the women's group's(female) members.

I don't believe that most men are going to change by reading a single writing or hearing a single speech or similar.

Change seems more likely to come with an "aha" insight after the issue, whatever it may be, is brought into our consciousness after multiple exposures to the general message.

MSR's public work started out with a weekly table at a huge weekly farmer's market at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. Men would often come and talk with us and tell us how they'd passed us a number of different times and thought about things (and in some cases gotten nudged by women in their lives) before they really started connecting with the issue.

When we (as men) do single, token things, other men won't likely connect with us. If/when we build an ongoing visibility and have a lasting viability we may reach far, far more men.


Tracey said...

geo: Exactly. Those "aha" moment are so necessary. Although ideally it would be great if those who are privileged could just hear or read something from someone without that privilege and immediately understand what they go through, it often doesn't work that way. The best example I can think of is my own process of realizing the extent of my white privilege, and how the source that was most able to make that clear to me was the book White Like Me by Tim Wise (and, later, blog posts like this one by Thinking Girl: http://thinkinggirl.wordpress.com/2007/03/21/international-day-to-eliminate-racism-2007/). I now love reading writing about racism by people of color, and I understand it, but I guess it (sadly) took a white voice to get my attention and really start thinking about it.