Last fall, due to an impressive display of academic bureaucracy, I found myself (as a mature student) back in an English 100 course despite having passed it before and taken a good deal of higher level English courses. Long story short, it was an exceptionally biased course about how to create an “unbiased” argument.
In addition to witnessing my teacher laud this gem by seasoned academic and king of impartiality, Dan Savage, as the next best thing to Hamlet, I also had to analyze why advertisements like this and this were so “brilliant and effective.” We were given Maxim magazines to look for inspiration for ad analysis.
Near the end of the course (after I’d had images of at least 20 women in various stages of nudity and sexualized violence branded into my corneas) the prof asked us why we use academic materials and impartial voice to make a convincing argument.
“Because academic stuff is facts, whereas media stuff is just someone’s opinion,” said one young man, fresh out of high school and thrilled that university featured soft-core porn.
“Right,” said my prof.
Wrong. Dead wrong.
In “On Identity Politics,” Mari Matsuda reminds us that the material academics consider “unbiased,” “disinterested,” and “neutral” is often little more than Euro/male-centric. I’ll admit that I have some reservations reviewing this piece, as my generation often uses identity politics as an excuse to reject legitimate feminist arguments or to perpetuate ageist tropes about our feminist foremothers. If I see one more 20-year-old white college kid online mis-label anyone who rejects the objectification of the female body as a proponent of “white feminism,” for example, I’ll sexily vomit. Millennials seem to have received the false message that any branch of feminism that still works toward equality for women as a collective (not just individuals) is stuck in a bygone era and needs to be quickly silenced or publicly ridiculed.
However, I also can’t subscribe to the notion that we should throw out the identity politics baby with the libertarian-gender-studies-student-with-an-asymmetrical-haircut bathwater. Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, notes that she’s been accused of “nationalism, narrowness, polemics (attacking), essentialism, vulgarization, parochialism (narrow-mindedness), balkanization (division), and sidetracking” [parenthesis mine] for speaking from her position as a Japanese-American Feminist woman rather than a more universalized position of “law professor.”
Why is it still critical to raise issues like race, sex, and class as relevant factors in how one explores the world? Matsuda responds:
Because it is still a radical act to stand in my shoes and speak when someone who looks like me is not supposed to do what I do. This is resistance. None of us were supposed to become law professors, write books, teach elites, or speak with authority about the words and systems that were designed to keep our kin under control […] We were not mentored by our law professors. We were not the assumed, the chosen. Our students are still unsure of our capabilities.
Counter to how those in my generation often use identity politics – as an excuse to suffocate questioning and critical thought rather than provoke it – Matsuda encourages us to use our particularities to expand academic and social discourse, to enrich conversation and literature by offering perspective.
While I can’t speak to the experience of being a woman of colour in a Eurocentric learning or working environment (I would recommend that readers explore Matsuda’s work on Critical Race Theory more in depth for this purpose), I can attest to the fact that being a woman – and not the “cool girl” kind – puts me at a relative disadvantage when it comes to proving my relevancy with my peers and, apparently, with my middle-aged profs, too. My English 100 class felt a bit like “learning” in the context of a boys’ locker room. When I objected to the use of Dan Savage’s article – two dudes in hysterics over a woman’s “Freshman 15” – my classmates rolled their eyes.
Did I owe it to my classmates and prof to educate them on why condom ads which feature women with their mouths split open or so-called “edgy” pieces about frumpy “fat” girls make the learning environment hostile to women?
It was, is, and probably always will be an uncomfortable and even humiliating chore. Similarly, do women of colour or working class women have a responsibility to educate me (as a white woman who was raised lower-middle class) if I behave in a way that disregards their experience? Of course not, but for the women that have taken the time to do so and the women that may take the time to do so in the future (while I’ll do my best never to expect it), I’m very appreciative.
As Matsuda says, I think we’re all the richer for it.