I have been reading a lot of feminist literature* from around the world and from different eras of late. Part of it is for personal self-discovery and the other, scholastic research. Despite the years between some of the texts and the perspectives of the texts, I keep seeing the same thing again and again. It is a red thread that is spun by misogyny and patriarchy, colonialist echoes and imperialist dreams. It is not explicit in every book and this is not meant to be a definitive overview of feminist literature. Nor do I think this problem is restricted to feminist literature. Rather, I believe it is a problem that extends to men and women all over the world.
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, the character Ifemelu writes a blog post called “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What do WASPs Aspire To?”
“But there IS an oppression olympics going on. American racial minorities—blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews—all get shit from white folks, different kinds of shit, but shit still. Each secretly believes that it gets the worst shit. So, no, there is no United League of the Oppressed. However, all the others think they’re better than blacks because, well, they’re not black.”
This is the red thread in many feminist texts. That the pain one group of women feel is the worst of all. Other groups of women are not allowed to express pain because they are not allowed to be part of the group that has it the worst. Some ‘African’ feminists (and I put this in quotes because I want to acknowledge that is no single idea called Africanism or country called Africa) don’t identify with White feminism. Some think like this for obvious reasons (it ignores race, colonialism, imperialism, etc.), and then others claim that white feminism promotes lesbianism and man-hating (does this trope sound familiar?).
Bell Hooks in her amazing novel, Ain’t I a Woman, states that “No other group in America has had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women.” While I don’t deny that the history (and the present) of black people in the U.S. is full of oppression, injustice, and racism, I couldn’t help but ask: “What about indigenous Americans?” Haven’t they too be socialised out of existence? I want to avoid what Adichie calls the “oppression olympics”, so I don’t talk about indigenous Americans here to devalue Hook’s claims at all. Rather, I do it to show that by claiming that your pain is the worst, the ultimate, by default it excludes and devalues all other sorrows from every marginalised group.
All oppression is equal in the way it hurts us. Whilst there is a chart for pain that doctor’s use to measure physical hurt, I would argue that we cannot and should not apply this to the pains from oppression. Each country struggles with its own forms of oppression and its own complicated history. To claim that indigenous Australians experience more oppression, more pain than any other group… is to ignore the histories of other countries, the histories of other people, and it pits pain against pain.
We need to listen to the stories of oppression and appreciate all of them for what they are: a bearing of the soul. They should be a voice that does not deny other experiences, but rather, embraces them. White feminisms (the first and second waves in particular) were notorious for excluding different women based on race, class, and sexual orientation. It is a classic example of the saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions…”
We need to do better for each other. And I don’t mean this to be some sappy kumbaya moment. To put it simply: whilst we are tearing each other down, claiming that we are the most oppressed, the most badly done by when it comes to patriarchy, misogyny, and racism, we fall right into the hands of those things we are trying to fight against.
Feminism needs to acknowledge the diversity of the sorrow that these institutions of oppression have created for people, instead of trying to legitimise pain through the exclusion of another’s.
*Rather than list the titles above, I have made a list below for those of you who are interested in reading more or wondering what I have been reading. The list is not complete and there are many more I could have added here:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ama Ata Aidoo
Mary E. Kolawole
Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi
Catherine O. Acholonu
Susan Arndt (although some might argue her official title is African Studies Professor)