The Silence of Our Friends

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Co-optation, Appropriation, and in Plain Speak, Stealing

I'm a university graduate, I have a bachelors degree in business administration. While at university I never took any courses on womens studies, race and intersectionality, or the like. What I write about here is mostly based on my experience living as a woman of color in North America. So I don't know some of the things I might have learned if I had taken those types of courses and sometimes find it confusing learning the language/jargon of academia, theories, and discussions of books/dissertations/essays and their authors with little or no context. It can be fascinating for someone like me to be introduced to these subjects by someone willing to make it accessible for everyone, like Donna Darko does when she raises the subject of third wave feminism. I was amazed to learn that third wave feminism was created by women of color, because many of the mainstream white feminists online call themselves third wave feminists and/or sex positive feminists. I assumed that the third wave was a rift between one group of white feminists and another white group of feminists calling themselves the second wave feminists/radical feminists or radfems. Please go read her entire enlightening post as well as the link to Rebecca Walker's article at Huffington Post. I have to disagree with Donna Darko here though:
I think what happened was people were so used to seeing white, middle-class women lead the first and second waves, they assumed white, middle-class women would lead the third wave.
She is too kind. They did what white people do all the time, they co-opted third wave feminism from women of color and distorted it into something unrecognizable from it's WOC centered origins into middle class white women centered Spice Girls Feminism(™ BetaCandy at The Hathor Legacy).

Over at Theriomorph in the comments of a post titled, Who determines our most important ideas?, Kai had this to say:
And yes, Schwyzer's latest unilateral recasting of this dialog as "purists vs. popularizers" is, well, fundamentally unsound, though it's clear why he's doing it. I suppose in his worldview, John Coltrane is a purist and Kenny G is a popularizer. Solomon Linda is a purist, The Tokens are popularizers. Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard are purists, while Pat Boone, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley are popularizers. And surprise, surprise, Schwyzer stands firmly on the side of the popularizers; though he sees a "healthy tension" in this dynamic. Whereas I see something else entirely, something which all cultures and communities of color around the world have experienced in our encounters with white society. And we wouldn't necessarily describe this tension as "healthy".

Now I'm not trying to silence Kenny G...well, I better not go, I'm not saying that Pat Boone, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Elvis should have their albums yanked from stores or anything. I'm just saying, a deeper, honest appreciation of music, and of the world, recognizes where the music comes from and the political economy of the marketplace which clearly rewards white appropriators over brown originators. Clear-eyed people understand that this is the historical relationship between white people and people of color when it comes to the marketing of cultural content; and only whites have the luxury of pretending that it's all cool now. And pretend they do.
Yep, they did what they do all the time, co-opting something POC centered distorting it into something white centered.

Then there is a complaint I heard several times last year privately from POC bloggers who noticed that they would research and write about an issue and within 24-48 hours certain white blogs would have a very similar post at their sites. At first they were willing to give the benefit of the doubt, but when it happened time and again, they knew that these sites were stealing their content, making it appear that they cared enough about POC to research these stories themselves, when in reality they have so little respect for POC they steal from them instead of giving them credit for their hard work, and instead of linking and driving a little traffic their way. One blogger even watched her stats to be certain, and sure enough, the IP address of the woman she suspected was stealing from her was all over her site several times a day.

And last, I really don't want to be the one to create this joy-killing narrative...

Over at Feministe, Jill recently announced that she has been hired as an editor for Alternet. I am truly happy for Jill. BUT...I (as well as many other women of color) am very skeptical of the title for the section she will be editing at Alternet: Reproductive Justice & Gender. LauraJanine does a good job of explaining why the skepticism in comments:
In my understanding, the term “Reproductive Justice” is one that was coined to take the focus off of white middle class womens’ reproductive health issues (birth control and contraception) and to expand the focus to those issues that effect more people’s ability to control their health. To me, this includes:

forced and coerced sterilization
dangerous contraceptives and experiments on such in communities of color
the right to reproduce regardless of socioeconomic background
the “war on drugs” and its effects on women of color
the sex trade, and the rights of people who trade sex for money
reproductive health issues of people in the trans community (effects of hormones, pregnancy, etc)
environmental racism and its impacts on reproductive health
health care access (not just to abortion) and its effects on reproductive health
access to prenatal care
access to reproductive health care for incarcerated people
access to health care and self determination re: reproductive health for people with disabilities
the impact of military occupation on reproductive health
pesticides effects on farm workers

I could go on and on. I’m missing a lot here. The point is, if Reproductive Justice is going to be used, please don’t erase the communities that made the distinction in terminology as an explicit way to center the issues most important to us. Thanks.
Co-optation, appropriation, and this another time that white people are going to take from WOC and turn the meaning of reproductive justice into the white centered "abortion, sex, abortion, abortion, birth control, abortion, abortion, sex, birth control, abortion" conversation? What reproductive justice is about is a holistic approach to reproduction and sexuality, including real family planning; as in giving birth and raising children, day care, adoption, political-social-economic implications, sexual and gender issues involving marginalized communities like lgbti and disability rights and the poor and working class beyond the lip service that mainstream feminism gives to us before getting back to the "abortion, sex, abortion, abortion, birth control, abortion, abortion, sex, birth control, abortion" conversation. I'd like to think that Jill understands this and will truly make the section about reproductive justice, but have a very hard time believing it will happen on a mainstream site catering to mostly white people.

13 comment(s):

I find it ironic and almost comical that in a post from a feminist advocating that whites don't give blacks their due that you left out the name of the BLACK WOMAN who was the biggest influence on Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis: Sister Rosetta Tharp. Both of those men have said numerous times that she was one of their biggest influences. It's also a well-known fact that Jerry Lee Lewis used to sneak over to his uncle's blacks-only bar to listen to the music. He has never denied that's where he got inspiration for his music.
There used to be a couple of old, OLD grainy black and white videos on youtube of Sister Rosetta Tharp. If you haven't seen them? Go check out the black woman who influenced those white boys.
I'm not saying that you're not correct in saying that whites have stolen from blacks, I'm just saying that two of the three white men you mentioned musically have ALWAYS given Sister Tharp her due and they should have: she was electrifying and talented and pushed an entertaining envelope a long time before the black OR white boys did.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/30/2008 8:23 AM  

Hm. Well. Unless those white boys gave Sister Rosetta Tharp a proportionate part of their fortunes...I'm not sure how simply saying "hey this lady influenced me!" is giving someone their "due." Being "influenced" by someone and deigning to go into a "blacks-only bar" run by your white uncle so you could get some more influence...which you later got rich off of...really, a simple "hey Sister!" is considered sufficient? I find the use of the phrase "gave (her) her due" to be ironic and almost comical in a comment from a person trying to gotcha! Donna.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/30/2008 1:04 PM  

Donna, this is a great post, thank you. And *sigh* I love Kai.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/30/2008 2:27 PM  

It's an interesting point you bring up about reproductive justice and the difference between joining a movement already in place (by making primary the other members and the concerns they have) and appropriating a new name for an old, exclusive movement.

I, too, hope Jill does the former with reproductive justice.

Thanks for the link to Donna Darko's post! I love learning more about feminism. I have no idea what "wave" I am, though.

By Blogger Deoridhe, at 1/30/2008 2:45 PM  

Lala, I was quoting Kai for one thing, so not my words. And it wasn't from a post, it was an off the cuff remark in comments, so it might not be as well researched as you would like. Many of these white singers will speak about their influences in interviews, so yes, I won't say that they don't do that and it isn't where I was going. If you reread the part I highlighted in Kai's remarks, that was the important part. Whites are rewarded for reworking the things POC create. Even when those who rework the originals give credit, the white market wants to ignore it, the white market wants to see it as a white creation and completely forget the original. The wealth and popularity and credit goes to the appropriator instead of the originator. Don't you see this relationship between all the examples? Now people think of third wave feminism as mainstream white feminism, even though the idea originated with WOC feminists and meant something completely different than what mainstream feminism is today. People see those stolen posts and think the white poster is noble and caring about women of color and is given undeserved credit for the efforts of women of color and the women of color aren't just forgotten, they were never known to the audience in the first place.

By Blogger Donna, at 1/30/2008 8:58 PM  

Joan, Thanks as always for your comments. I'm so glad you finally went and got yourself a blog!

By Blogger Donna, at 1/30/2008 8:59 PM  

Deoridhe, I have more confidence in Jill than many others of the mainstream white feminists, but I worry that she may be working against what Alternet wants and what her audience wants too and that ultimately will shape what she chooses to post on the site.

I don't think I am in any wave at all and many times question the whole title of feminist because the meaning is so distorted. If it means equality for all, then yes, that's me, but it seems to mean some are more equal than others. I'm not on board with that.

By Blogger Donna, at 1/30/2008 9:03 PM  

Since the musical part of your comment wasn't really where you were wanting to go, I will bow out of this thread and apologize if I offended anyone.

All the best,

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/30/2008 10:32 PM  

It wasn't, and yet it was too, Lala. I don't want the originators to be forgotten. I want them to get credit for their work. I do appreciate you bringing Sister Rosetta Tharp to our attention for that reason! I was ignorant about her until you mentioned it...which proves my point doesn't it? The originators are forgotten but we all know Elvis. Anyway, I went over to youtube to check her out, and while listening to her I could hear the influence! If you have more to add about her I would love to hear it, this is a good derail.

By Blogger Donna, at 1/30/2008 10:46 PM  

I'm glad you wrote this, and I'll have to go check out DD's post, as well. I feel like I've watched 3rd wave Feminism morph into this totally different thing just in a few years' time, between Rebecca Walker's essay in the early '90s and Baumgardner and Richards' Manifesta, which was a pretty white, middle-class, hetsxl imagining of 3rd Wave feminism. There have been 3rd Wave feminists all along who have kept returning to the notion of the 3rd Wave as a multiracial, multi-issue feminism, but I feel like it all disappears under the banner of white feminist writings.

And I agree with you that this was a co-optation - absolutely. Part of that is that the more multiracial part of the movement didn't get the book contracts, and so didn't get to write what have become seen as the defining texts of the movement. So now the "defining" texts define the movement as other than it really is/was, and so now that very definition of "3rd Wave" feels like it's been taken over by a particular ideology that doesn't at all fit the politics that the 3rd Wave began as (whew - I don't know if that last sentence makes any kind of sense.).

Emi Koyama - at - has written about these issues and has kept issues of race central to 3rd Wave theory and activism.

By Blogger Plain(s)feminist, at 1/31/2008 12:00 AM  

Lala, were you genuinely interested in talking about music, or simply in almost-comical snickering in order to derail Donna's major points? Because I love talking about music; in fact do so frequently, on my blog and others. I've been studying music all my life (well, formally since age 5) and it's certainly true that invoking Sister Rosetta Tharp would have been an apt flourish in my little comment at Theriomorph's. But which major points of Donna's post were you trying to advance or refute? And as Joan asked, do you honestly believe that Tharp got her due vis-a-vis Elvis?

Donna, thanks for the post, and for emphasizing Donna Darko's point about WOC/third wave feminism. Good stuff. I guess we'll see how Jill does with the Alternet gig; I hope she uses your list for guidance; and gives credit as appropriate.

Joan Kelly, aw come on, you're the beloved rock star in the house. ;-)


By Blogger Kai, at 1/31/2008 12:52 AM  

I've been lurking around the edges of this debate, learning learning learning. This is a great post. I have similar suspicions.

a a possible-derailment on music and "giving due" : You might possibly be interested in this law prof(Kevin J Greene)'s argument that if music is really "intellectual property" then reparations may be in order for the originators of the Blues, Rocknroll, etc.

I'm not sure how I feel about music as property (justifications for owning and exclusivity are so complicated here), but insofar as it is treated as such, reparations (or lawsuits for unjust enrichment) are not unreasonable questions to raise. Sorry for raising it if it seems offtopic, but whenever music gets raised in these debates my copyright law nerdliness comes out. The question of theft (raised in your title) also brought these questions of ownership, rights, and how law has historically structured those rights, to my mind, anyway

By Blogger ripley, at 1/31/2008 2:04 AM  


Thanks for posting this. I also hope that the Alternet section is able to representative of the full scope of the reproductive justice movement. I'm still getting my footing and I haven't yet been able to actually assign any stories -- they tell me that's coming -- but as soon as I have that power, I have a whole list of topics I want to cover, many of them included in this post. I really hope that the section lives up to its name.

That said, I will fully admit that I have some serious blinders on, being a white feminist from a particular class background. I am trying to challenge that, and part of that process was pushing for the "reproductive justice" title -- it's a constant reminder, for me, of what the section is supposed to be about. I'm not there yet, and the section definitely isn't covering everything I hope it will. But posts like this are good reminders that I have a long way to go, and that reproductive justice has to be more than traditional pro-choice advocacy; it also has to be more than just paying lip service to women of color.

I wish I could come here and tell you that I totally get it. But I still have a lot to learn. I can tell you, though, that I have been reading and I have been listening, and I'm learning how to be a better ally. I can promise that I'll bring that to my work at Alternet. And it's not your job or your obligation to educate or help me, but I am hearing you, and I do really appreciate your openness and willingness to engage with me. I hope I'm getting better about doing the same in return.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/02/2008 12:25 AM  

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