Wednesday, November 28, 2007

All These Blues

MissCripChick has posted an insightful and fascinating piece on what it's like to be the only ___(fill in the blank)___ in a political group, and thus, used as a political dodge. The amusing term that she uses is "crip on a stick":
A dear friend and activist was at a planning group for some community festival and when they did not have any Native American people present, a committee member actually suggested creating life-size images of people in ceremonial outfits, putting them on sticks, and dancing around in a circle with the stick images during the event. Ridiculous, huh? Now we use the term Crip on a Stick to describe people in the Disability Rights Movement who are brought in to meetings to be that one token crip, young person, person of color. etc.
(Aside: That's hilarious!)

One of the primary perils of being the Crip on the Stick, that is to say, a token, is that you are then used to bludgeon your own kind... and that certainly AIN'T what you intended:
Obviously we NEED representation—I’m not arguing against that. My point is that this tokenized representation [a person just being a symbol] may come off as a good thing (getting X group to the table) but in reality, a tokenized person is often used first as a tactic to invalidate [cancel or take away] points made by others.— i.e. “We HAVE a woman of color on our board and she LOVES this idea. You’re wrong.” Secondly it is used as an excuse not to act on something—“Can’t you see we’re already talking about youth issues? We have a young person on our committee!”
I've noticed this particular dynamic whenever ANY complaints from ANY group come up, in ANY setting at all: Well, this TV show/book/movie/thing/blog entry/situation/committee blah blah blah cannot possibly be racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist/anti-semitic/ageist yada yada, because my good friend ________ sitting here beside me is black/female/gay/trans/Muslim yada yada, and they say it isn't.

What's weird about this, nobody ever reverses it. White people, males, straight people, etc. never look to other white people (for example) to validate whether something is personally offensive. By God, if it's offensive, then it is. They/we are regarded as individuals speaking for ourselves, not for "our race."

But then, if you have been BROUGHT IN precisely to speak for your group, then what? We want representation, as MissCripChick makes clear, but we don't want to invalidate other voices from our side. The idea, after all, is MORE involvement, not less. And more involvement will always mean a diversity of views.

Is there a positive way to say "This is my opinion as a _____, but I also speak only for myself." Does that take the teeth out of our involvement, when we do that? Isn't that equivocating?

And how can we support the alternative view(s), without losing our own voices?

In feminism, this has been particularly difficult. Not surprisingly, MissCripChick's post was in response to Brownfemipower's recent post about Jessica Valenti's book, Full Frontal Feminism, subject of intense feminist blogwars that I have mostly stayed out of. I don't want to get too far into that, except to say that I am largely in agreement with women of color bloggers, and their criticisms. For instance, echoing the above "crip on a stick" criticisms, Brownfemipower asks:
Would a white person’s critique of a book only count unless every single white person in the world agreed with that person? Why on earth should it make a fuck of a difference if there’s fifty or a hundred or a thousand women of color who disagree with any woman of color blogger? Is it possible that disagreement between community members is a part of any fully fledged self-actualized community?
At the same time, I have to say: good for Jessica for publishing a feminist book. I wish all feminists could.

Is it possible to take both positions? I try.

What do you think?

Listening to: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band - All These Blues
via FoxyTunes


Alison Hymes said...

They already tell me I'm not representative, that I'm one of the "lucky" ones (my friend really laughed at that one), that lots of unnamed psychiatric survivors disagree with me. So if I were to say every time I speak that I am only speaking for myself, what do I accomplish? I wish some of them would say they are only speaking for themselves of course :). It's a dilemma I have never found an answer to, if you do, I'll be forever in your debt.

misscripchick said...

i think a big problem also is that when we are brought in to represent a certain group (i.e. i end up doing a lot of youth stuff in the DRM or disability stuff in other movements), you're only there to do one thing therefore tokenizing you as the individual and the group you recognize. it gets really ridiculous when people are like 35 and still being pinned as youth because it's not helping us as young people. that's just one example.

i think you'll really like the person who came up with the term "crip on a stick", she's a great writer and activist. her blog is:

Anonymous said...

I won't be a token, for the excellent reasons you have outlined. I got tired of my opinions being 'the gay opinion' - my opinions are my own and do not represent the gay community. Forever repeating "these views do not necessarily represent the gay community" got very tiresome.

thene said...

Very familiar situation. :/ The last time I saw it in person was at a Campaign Against Climate Change meeting a year ago; during the floor session a black woman in the audience asked why the panel of speakers contained five white men and one white woman - the compere (a woman, like most people in organising positions in the CCC) assured her that it was okay, she understood the problem because she was mixed race herself! and no more was said about it ever again. ><