Reading Notes: MacKinnon, Crenshaw and feminist essentialism?

In my research process, I often stumble across interesting articles and debates that I do not have the opportunity to engage with in depth in my own work. It is the kind of meandering literature search that I like to call “productive procrastination”. So, I thought: why not make it even more productive by sharing some of the notes that I am making and the thoughts that I have about these little side-tracks that, even if they turn out not to be useful to my own dissertation, might still be of interest to others.

This morning, instead of finishing the chapter, I started reading about the relation between the thought of Catherine MacKinnon and Kimberlé Crenshaw, two prominent feminist legal scholars. They are often positioned as polar opposites – MacKinnon as the radical feminist who is essentialist and prioritizes gender at the expense of race, and Crenshaw as the one who argues against that her work on intersectionality.

MacKinnon’s polemical writing, notably the article “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?” in some ways does lend itself to this conclusion. In this piece, MacKinnon argues that an essentialized trope of ‘white woman’ is being constructed that leads to a trivializing of the oppression of white women and argues for a frame that stresses on a common oppression as women.

However (and surprising to me and others, I guess), Crenshaw does not see MacKinnon’s work as oppositional to her intersectional paradigm and she resists that common framing. Instead, she reflects on why it is that MacKinnon has become the object of so much sharp critique to the extent that she becomes a kind of symbol of essentialist, race-blind feminism. For Crenshaw, the answer lies in the broader tendency to frame intersectional critique as a critique of feminist practice rather than anti-racist practice: a critique of the whiteness of feminism more than a critique of the maleness of anti-racism. She holds that women of colour are often framed in oppositional terms to feminism, but in cooperative terms to anti-racism, and questions why this is. Crenshaw suggests that

“how and when a certain set of critiques become commonplace and routinely reproduced is not solely a matter of the substantive availability of the critique. The relative availability of certain critiques of feminism – in this instance, essentialism, universalism, and the like – alongside the relative absence of similar claims that could well be launched against antiracism, suggests that a variety of factors are likely at play that have more to do with politics than an organic commitment to theoretical rigor. These politics elevate certain oppositions within feminism while they suppress potential conflicts over the role of gender, sexuality and other differences within antiracism. The time may be ripe to interrogate and potentially disrupt these circuits of meaning, to reconnect links that have been broken, and to redirect critical scrutiny to the various tropes around which expressions of solidarity and rupture have been organized. My Intersectionalities classroom is, in a sense, a laboratory in which these objectives are foregrounded” (Crenshaw 2010, 155).

In this text, Crenshaw opens up for a productive and affirmative reading of MacKinnon, rather than an easy dismissal of her. I am also intrigued by Crenshaw’s undercutting of the common oppositional framing of ‘black feminism’/’feminism of colour’ and ‘white feminism’. The idea that feminism (in the past and in the present) is racist, essentialist and exclusionary has become such a truism, that it is in a way very refreshing to read such a prominent black feminist scholar as Crenshaw challenge and nuance that common framing.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that racism within feminism is not a problem and that it should not be interrogated and challenged. Indeed, much of my work is dedicated exactly to that, to working against a race-blind, gender-first version of feminism! But I do think it is interesting to think about what is at stake in the routine reiteration of this ‘split’, as Crenshaw urges us to do. What happens when this becomes one of the standard stories we tell about feminism? And how intriguing is it that one of the protagonists of this very story speaks up to challenge the narrative…

Curious for the thoughts of others! Click on the titles to go to the texts.

MacKinnon, Catherine. (1996) “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?” Radically Speaking, Feminism Reclaimed.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. (2010) “Close Encounters of Three Kinds: On Teaching Dominance Feminisms and Intersectionality”. Tulsa Law Review. (46:1).

– And the 2013 edited volume on intersectionality in the journal Signs (Cho, Crenshaw & McCall) includes a contribution by MacKinnon on the methodological innovations enabled by intersectionality. – I haven’t read it, because now I’ve wasted enough time on this little side-track, and should get back to what I should actually be doing.

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