Recently I was invited to deliver a public lecture on the ethics of care and feminism, in Vancouver, to a women’s cultural group called Réseau-Femmes. I was delighted, and nervous, about the challenge of making my academic research and writing accessible to a wider audience. I decided to test parts of my presentation on a few readers from my personal circle, id est my mom in the first instance, and a friend as my second reader. My talk began with this:
Je suis une nord-américaine blanche, allochtone, bourgeoise, instruite, littéraire et féministe. Je suis une femme cisgenre, c’est-à-dire, l’identité de mon genre correspond à mon sexe. Mon privilège social est ostensible et indéniable. Je suis fille d’une mère et d’un père; je suis moi-même mère de deux filles; je suis conjointe, amie et confidente. J’ai un chien, un chat, parfois un poisson, et trois mois sur douze, une roseraie et un potager. Je suis mentore, administratrice, parfois poète; je suis essayiste et professeure.
Le soin est au cœur de ma vie.
The opening was meant to be both political and light hearted. Situating myself and my privilege as a white, North American, settler, middle-class, educated, cis woman constituted of course the political gesture; the references to domestic pets and tasks that occupy, as do my daughters and students, my own daily care-giving practices elicited kind, knowing laughter from my audience. As for my mom, she loved it: « J’aime beaucoup beaucoup. Je trouve que c’est une belle approche à ton sujet ». After all she’s my mom, you might say. But when she’s in disagreement, she doesn’t mince words.
And so I had gone ahead with this introduction, despite my second reader who had emailed me the following a few days before:
I will admit that I find your introductory comments about your own privilege to be overly apologetic. I know that acknowledging privilege seems to be the thing to do these days, but I don’t agree with the trend. Let’s say that I am a critically minded member of a racial minority group and that I am reading your essay. How am I in any way helped or reassured by a confession of white privilege? To me it sounds rote and contrived, sort of the way we have to sing the national anthem before a hockey game. I simply don’t buy that the confession of white privilege actually makes a difference or opens up room for a more genuine conversation between equals.
Ouch. My friend didn’t mince words either. I was stunned, but not exactly dismayed, or at least not enough, to delete acknowledging privilege from my text. As another good friend reminded me, this important if not searing point of view recalls Vivek Shraya’s questioning of the practice of acknowledging Indigenous territory in her poem “indian” from even this page is white:
is acknowledgment enough?
i acknowledge i stole this
but i am keeping it social justice
or social performance
Am I being one of those “good white people” whom Brit Bennett in turn does not exactly chastise but does problematize in her 2014 essay – who tend to co-opt and detract from Black or Indigenous narratives with their good, but ineffectual, if not self-congratulatory, intentions?
Recently, I’ve noticed some disturbing backlash to the privilege issue bouncing around social media. One form appears in a poster of an old, angry white guy yelling the words, “CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE” and pointing accusingly into the camera. It’s supposed to be funny, ironic, and dismissive. I find it a grotesque, revolting image, with the ugly resonance of the right’s co-opting of political correctness to silence minority voices demanding space to be heard, respected, and recognized.
Coming back to my second reader, if anything, what surprised me wasn’t so much the disagreement with what was considered a trivial trend as the assumption that my address was meant to help or reassure racialized people in the room. I’m not sure what it says about me that it never occurred to me that this was the goal of acknowledging my privilege. Particularly in the context of Francophone scholarship, the practice isn’t common at all, just as acknowledging territory from a settler point of view isn’t (yet) common either, at least not in Quebec.
But whether in an English- or French-speaking cadre, I saw and still consider that drawing attention to my racial, class, and gender privilege is meant to destabilize, maybe even annoy, and prompt critical reflection about these very categories. These are, after all, at the heart of any situated, material, and embodied idea of care, which was the central tropic of my talk. Despite the past thirty years of intersectional feminism, this is still no mean feat. In addition, the social workings of race, class, and gender are central to an understanding of care as a practice and an ethics for our time.
This all may sound like a sweaty exercise in self-justification. Maybe it is, but that’s okay. My second reader’s reaction – and I am thankful for it – prompted me to think harder about not only the practice of acknowledging privilege and colonial space but on its possibly unwanted effects on the persons who receive it.
How might the Indigenous individuals in my audience have received this white settler woman’s acknowledgement of the unceded territory of the Musqueam People in Vancouver, or of the Coast Salish Nation in Victoria where I also lectured during the same trip? Is this speech act for them? They already know too well that we settlers are occupying their unceded lands. Who’s it for, then? Maybe other settlers in the room who need unsettling – just as I do, regularly, repeatedly, in my daily goings on, in my daily care.
And so, I write this blog entry as a white settler cis woman, privileged in my middle-class upbringing and living. I am not apologizing. I situate myself and my privilege at this particular time in our history which is, perhaps in more deflected ways but perhaps also more than ever, precarious and whitewashed and male-dominated AF. I don’t think I am congratulating myself for making this awareness public. i acknowledge i stole this, and saying so is not nearly enough. (Thank you, Vivek.) I am an ally to, and not a representative of, racialized and Indigenous voices. I am drawing your attention to the ways in which I walk through the world, often happily, but maybe even more so angrily – a feminist killjoy trying to figure out how to resist the indignities that befall my sex and gender, trans people, queer and minority groups, and children all over the world and right under our noses.
I’ll continue to share drafts with my trusted second reader (as well as my mom), and I will most likely continue to be challenged. We will talk, sometimes disagree, and hear, respect, and recognize one another.
We all need so much more of that.
Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre/Centre de
littérature canadienne at the University of Alberta, where she also
teaches Canadian, Indigenous, and Québécois writing and culture. Her
current research includes a book manuscript on contemporary feminism —
and namely affect, intersectionality, and care ethics, which she examines
through a metafeminist lens.