National Women’s Studies Association Conference (NWSA) 2010: Final Thoughts
Since last year, the NWSA has been a magically inclusive space for the CFC. It has been like an oasis, a thirst quenching dose of amazing women of color from every possible place you could imagine. This intentionality around inclusivity is undoubtedly attributable in no small part to the work of pioneering Black feminist scholar Beverly Guy-Sheftall. The many CFs who are students of hers are proud of her and we want to say a personal crunk thank you for the transformative work she and her colleagues have done for NWSA. This year, was somewhat less magical, but perhaps because diversity was no longer a novelty, but rather an expectation. We think that’s absolutely a move in the right direction. We were reminded over and over again this weekend that even five years ago NWSA was not the kind of space that it is today.
The achievement of a diverse and inclusive community has not come without struggle. And it will not be maintained without struggle. In fact, we fully anticipate the sadly inevitable forthcoming snarky comments from our colleagues who no longer attend or enjoy NWSA , because it’s not as “um, rigorous” as it used to be. In the last few years, I’ve heard or heard of white feminist scholars declaring a “lack of rigor” in the work of everyone from Chandra Mohanty to Patricia Hill Collins. While no one’s work is above critique, to summarily dismiss the work of these groundbreaking feminists of color often bespeaks something much more insidious. So rather than defending the folks who are the intellectual anchors of our work, we instead to choose to call out the folks who find such specious assertions reasonable.
Rigorous or Rigor Mortis:
Ideally, a call for rigor is a call to maintain the high academic standards that govern our professional interactions and intellectual production. This is legitimate. What is illegitimate is the notion that focusing on the concerns of women-of-color in some way threatens the production of quality intellectual work. Such thinking is racist at its core, however benevolent and well-meaning it may sound on the surface to those invested in a post-race framework.
When our (white) colleagues call for work that is “rigorous,” often what they really mean is that feminism, particularly the kind of feminism that focuses explicitly on calling out white supremacy in all its guises, is in state of rigor mortis. In other words, if feminism is gonna do all that, it’s better off dead. In fact, given the way that some folks lament the past, you would think that something precious had died.
Certainly, the premature death of so many of our feminist foremothers— Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Christian, Audre Lorde, Nellie McKay, and too many others—is a cautionary tale about how deadly this work can be.
This is why we give the side eye to all the mumbling and grumbling about the so-called lack of rigor going on at the NWSA conference and in other spaces where women of color come together unapologetically. We know what those folks really mean. It means they’re tired of talking about us and want to return to talking about themselves. It means they want us to be silent, to be invisible, to, in fact, disappear. Well, we’ve got news for them: we’re here to stay.
This is also why the move among some of our colleagues to subordinate the body (politics) to the mind (theory) is especially troubling. Such thinking is a product both of historical amnesia and willful ignorance. Surely our feminist foremothers exposed the fallacy of those kinds of practices forty years ago. And yet, there were calls at one plenary to move “beyond the body.” So when did feminism climb back into bed with Descartes?
Interestingly, those of us whose feminism foregrounds people of color and queer folk find ourselves always enmeshed in a larger debate in which the move from politics to theory demands an abstract move away from the body. So queer theory can be used to read anything that is merely “indeterminate.” Or intersectional theory can be used to read anything, as long as multiple identities are apart of the equation. Queer theory without queer bodies ain’t queer. Intersectionality without women of color is a train wreck. Call us parochial if you want to, but we should remember that in the case of both these theories, they grew out of the lived political realities of marginalized people. If the material conditions of the people haven’t been transformed, then the theory can only go so far. Theoretical movement is not synonymous with social or political movement, and while the two are linked, academics often arrogantly assume that a will necessarily lead to b, when the history of theory suggests, more often than not, the converse. We are cautioned here by Catherine MacKinnon: “Under current historical conditions, appropriating the approach while abstracting away the content is one of power’s adaptations to challenge by transformative theory.”
Unfortunately, marginalized folks still find themselves always having to fight the power by proving that their concepts are not merely political, but that they also have broad theoretical use, and, hence, should be granted academic legitimacy. To the extent that queer theory is connected to queer bodies it remains political, and therefore subordinate. If it can become a form of reading, then it becomes theoretically legitimate. To the extent that intersectionality talks about poor women of color, it remains merely political. To the extent that it becomes a larger analytical tool, then it, too, becomes theoretically legitimate. Yes, queer theory and intersectionality are useful theoretical and analytical tools. But if they become only this or primarily this, then they run the risk of relegating their communities of origin back to the margins. And any person who demands such a move has suspect feminist politics. Real talk.
If feminism has taught us nothing else, it has taught us to reject false binaries.
It’s not: rigor or us.
Rigor is us.
Crunktastic & Susiemaye