By Shannon Clarke
Photo from foxandfeathers on Flickr
In Grade 9, my science class watched a documentary on the 100 greatest scientists of the last millennium. Afterward, we were assigned to pick anyone on the list, research them, write a paper, and give a brief presentation about why we chose them. I chose Margaret Sanger. Besides being one of only a handful of women on the list, she also created and championed for the use of the birth control pill.
She was also, I discovered, a flaming racist.
As a black woman, it’s hard to feel complete gratitude towards someone who supported eugenics through contraceptive medication. It’s also hard to thank the Famous Five and the many other suffragettes for the vote when, if they’d had their way, that right wouldn’t extend to me. And while I’m thankful for the work of all the waves of women who came before me, I also can’t help but cringe at the racist, homophobic and transphobic undertones of what, for a long time, was a straight, white woman’s movement – a movement that inspired Sojourner Truth to deliver her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” in 1851.
Tuesday was International Women’s Day and a fitting date for Towards a Global Sisterhood, a panel discussion on race and feminism hosted by Ryerson’s Student Union, part of Global Awareness Week. Guest speakers writer Lee Maracle, activist Sheetal Rawal and poet Staceyann Chin shared their experiences as women of colour confronting the often Eurocentric feminist movement. Or, as Chin calls it, “stealth racism”.
“I don’t know how to be a feminist without being an anti-racist,” she said. “It means I’m concerned about the bodies of women. It means I’m concerned about brown women, black women, Asian women, immigrant women.”
Chin questioned the need for workshops and coalitions on the diversity of women’s issues.
It has been 100 years since the inception of International Women’s Day. But, asked the speakers, how much have we achieved for all women? Who do the few women in positions of power represent? How inclusive are the blurbs and sidebars of our history books and what are we doing about it?
Rawal, a law student and co-founder of the Miss G_Project for Equity in Education, spoke of her encounters with feminists who saw the group’s diversity as either a threat to the movement or an asset – and not for the reasons you might think.
“We met with someone who was the board of directors of something…an older white woman” said Rawal. “She said, ‘It’s great what you have going on here but I think you need to have a little more diversity here. We really got slammed on that last time.’”
Plugging an assortment of coloured faces in a Benetton-esque poster for women’s issues (or any issue) does not make a movement representative.
“She saw racial difference among women as something you could get slammed on if one wasn’t careful and that tokenism was a really great way to solve this,” said Rawal.
“By tokenism I mean presence without meaningful participation.”
Activist Jessica Yee called out the CBC documentary The F Word on its tokenism in a recent interview with Eye Weekly, asking the interviewer if she was the only person of colour in it. She was.
Often forgotten in the long list of myths about feminism is that because one is a feminist, one epitomizes equality. But feminism can be and has been steeped in discrimination, whether it’s class, sexual orientation, or race. Until we start acknowledging and addressing that there is no “sisterhood”, this will continue. That includes awareness of our cultural bias as well.
Feminism, said Maracle, does not look the same in every country, in every corner of the world.
And that may be the goal of the third wave (and elusive fourth wave) of feminists. Battling tokenism, condescension and of course, racism itself will not be an overnight success, a point Chin made sure to emphasize to a room already stunned silent.
“Everyone wants to have the revolution happen in their lifetime, in their youth, in their march…but sometimes it takes a lifetime for things to happen,” she said.