Solidarity across Borders

Introduction

In October 2014 a news story went viral and created great controversy when a white lesbian couple from Ohio sued their sperm bank over a mistake with their chosen donor. The couple alleged the company erroneously gave them vials from an African-American donor instead of the white donor they had carefully chosen. This mistake, the couple explained, had made it difficult for them to raise their now 2-year-old daughter in Uniontown, Ohio, a town they described as an all-white community of racial intolerance.

As the story hit the media, verdicts about the right or wrong of the lawsuit conquered the headlines of The Guardian – “Designer babies? It looks like racism and eugenics to me”[1]; The Chicago Tribune – “In defense of couple suing sperm bank”[2]; or the MIC – “White Mom’s Lawsuit Over Black Baby Exposes Ugly Truths About White Privilege”[3].

Discrimination, Racism and Sexuality were overlapped in the discussions about this case where most people asked with astonishment: how can lesbians be racist? Regardless of the invasive nature of the debate around the couple’s insemination process, this story is appealing by the audience analyses on race and sexuality as a Sexual-Minorities-Acting-Against-Racial-Minorities case. A shared idea among the audience was that lesbians, who know what it is to be finger pointed, should be more understanding of other types of oppression.

My research will be anchored within this rhetoric of oppression to analyze the argument of coalition between minorities. Is there a common ground of oppression strong enough for different Feminisms to achieve solidarity? Is solidarity able to frame agency and resistance across the difference of culture, gender, sex, race and class?

To discuss these questions, I will present in a first section a historical analysis of oppression, its possible remedies and the main source of its existence. I will then analyze the possibility for a certain type of solidarity to emerge as a response to oppression. I will draw on ideas of “common differences” as the basis for deeper solidarity across unbalanced power relationships. Based on the resultant findings, I will conclude whether the targets of different oppressions have a common ground by connections or disconnections to be translated into a real possibility for solidarity.

 

The Case

[5] Patricia J. Williams analyzes the case of the lesbian couple, Jennifer Cramblett and Amanda Zinkon, from Ohio who sued their sperm bank over a mistake in semen specimen. The legal case was published in many newspaper along with an interview of Jennifer Cramblett. Williams goes over this interview and the reasons justifying the lawsuit as a “breach of warranty and negligence in mishandling the vials of sperm” as well as emotional and economic loss as a result of “wrongful birth”. On those grounds, the couple asked to be economically compensated.

Williams labels the reason behind the lawsuit as a “deprivation of the couple’s whiteness” they intended to be purchasing in the IVF process. In the interview, Cramblett justified the lawsuit by stating that although they loved their daughter, they had to endure enormous challenges and they lived each day with “fears, anxieties and uncertainty” as their community is, according the inseminated woman, “racially intolerant”. Cramblett then argued: “I’m not going to sit back and let this ever happen to anyone ever again.” Cramblett also explained she had “limited cultural competency relative to African Americans,” as she had never met a black person until College. And Cramblett explains that her family’s intolerance to her being gay further complicated the whole situation now that she and her partner had a mixed raced child.

Williams analyzes Cramblett’s statements and argues: “Reframed as a civil rights agenda, it might help them to see that they face no more or less than what any black family faces in the United States”4. She then states that the couple’s demand for economic compensation for an “unnecessary endurance of racial stigma” evidence the ruling racism in the Ohio town.

How does a history of IVF become so discussed, debated, analyzed and judged? Besides the intrusion of the general public in the personal lives of an Ohio lesbian couple, I venture to say this case got so much attention because it represents everything that is wrong in some judgmental, close-minded, fundamentalist society.

Posts in social medias severely criticized the couple’s decision to sue the sperm bank not necessarily because of the racism involved in the situation but because of their decision to have a child as a lesbian couple. Criticism went from judgmental heteronormative statements such as: “So I wonder if the little girl can sue the “Parents” because SHE wanted a mom and DAD?”[5] to criticism of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) or questions on how sexual minorities could be so close-minded about having a biracial child.

One might wonder what would have happened if it was a black couple who sued a sperm bank over a resulting white baby? What would have happened if a straight couple had sued the sperm bank for the same reason? The problem in this story is related to the society in which it appeared, a system where an “all white” town in the United States, where assumed and recognized racial intolerance exists, is acknowledged and accepted.

 

A history of oppression

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people

but the silence over that by the good people.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Civil Rights movement

The Civil Rights Movement has been studied as the foundation that provided a paradigm for other groups interested in challenging oppression. Although, the Civil rights leaders were initially set out to tackle one specific type of oppression, racial segregation, the movement’s learnings provided other groups with an understanding of their own situation of oppression which led to applying the Civil Rights’ movement’s analyses to their own struggles for equality of gender, sexuality and class. The Civil Rights’ movement allowed other groups to unveil other areas of oppression in two aspects. On the one hand, it exposed discrimination to the conscience of the bulk of the United States population. Rosemarie Tong (2009: 24) discusses how the booming awareness on the “myriad ways in which U.S. systems, structures, and laws oppressed blacks” led any person who was sympathetic to the civil rights movement to then see similarities between racial segregation and discrimination against women. On the other hand, while black people were united in the fight against racial oppression, they also struggled against sexism, homophobia, classism or other forms of oppression. Nancy Fraser (2001) discusses these overlapping struggles through her notion of bivalent collectivities where hybrid modes combine features of different exploitations. This allows Fraser to respond to many social movements’ increasing focus on axes of cultural difference over the focus on economic inequalities. In this sense, gender and race are bivalent collectivities that do have unshared peculiarities, but both incorporate political-economic as well as cultural dimensions through the fundamental division between paid and unpaid labor, and the cultural dimensions that dictate the arbitrary construction of privileges (Fraser, 2001: 19).

In this sense, civil rights movements intertwined sociocultural, ethnic and economic dimensions where racial and sex need of recognition also affected economic redistribution and gender norms.

From the movement to the remedies

Continuing with Fraser’s framework of analysis, exploitation is directly linked to lack of recognition and redistribution as its remedies. Redistribution, Fraser explains, claims for the equal worth of people that should result in the redistribution of wealth from the upper class to the lower class. Recognition is more related to the valorization and acceptance of difference. For example, the civil rights movement fought against oppression to ensure the recognition of people of color rights; and, movements fighting against poverty, challenge socioeconomic inequalities rooted in the political-economic structure of society, for a balanced allocation of income. The dilemma, that Fraser studies, appears when bivalent collectivities cannot be solved by only one side of the equation: recognition or redistribution. The bivalence nature, I would argue, affect basically all collectivities.

The Civil Rights Movement included women who were black, but who didn’t stop being women when they were fighting for the legal rights for people of color. And although sexism may have limited the roles these women could play in the Civil Rights Movement, the impact of female activists in the struggle to end U.S. segregation was crucial. In this line, gender and race are bivalent collectivities where both race and gender affect the reach of true equality.

Now the division between the public and the private spheres where domestic and unpaid work is arbitrarily assigned to women, result in political and economic structures that generates gender-specific modes of exploitations. In this situation, wealth would need to be redistributed, from paid men to unpaid women, a remedy that would be assigned in Frasier’s terms, to redistribution and to a traditional class struggle. The remedy of redistribution then, appears with an ideal of equal repartition for all, where each individual is worth the same than the other. This homogenization of right sometimes appear in contradiction to the recognition of difference and the valorization of other’s rights such as sex, gender and race.

Where is the dividing line between the struggles of race, class, sex and gender? How can redistribution be completed without the devalorization of difference as everybody deserves an equivalent share? And how can recognition be attained without redistribution?

From the remedies to the roots of the problem?

La propriété c’est le vol.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

As we find these bivalences and overlapping areas of oppression, we shall analyze the difficulty to conciliate the remedies with the cause of oppression. Frasier’s proposed the remedy of redistribution presupposes an unequal repartition of resources. The origin of the unbalanced repartition can be linked to the economic and political system in charge of resources’ allocation. In this sense we can support Marxist theorists who establish capitalism as the source of oppression. As the introduction of private property obliterated the shared equality enjoyed by humanity, and alienated the worker’s labor force when the outcome of production became someone else’s property. Marxist class analysis has provided both Marxist and socialist feminists with some of the conceptual tools necessary to understand the oppression of women. Rosemarie Tong (2009: 100) analyzes this theory and questions if women per se constitute a class and takes us back to Frasier dilemma of redistribution vs. recognition. Tong answers this question by analyzing women’s position toward men as wives of either bourgeois or proletarian men and complements it with women’s domestic experiences that bear sufficient similarities to motivate unifying struggles such as the 1970s wages-for-housework campaign. This unification based on similarities was the result, in Marxist and socialist feminists’ terms, of women gaining awareness of themselves as a class of workers. This leads us to sustain the revalorization and recognition of women’s domestic work as productive work and more broadly of women’s work and struggle as a motive for unification.

Frasier’s remedy of Recognition entails a cultural injustice where societal patterns of representation, interpretation and communication result in disrespected and discriminated identities of race, class, gender and sex. In this sense the source of women’s oppression would come from the arbitrary cultural norms that originate in the ruling elites created by the imperialist white supremacy heteronormative patriarchy. This patriarchy is usually the one benefitting from the neoliberalism unequal distribution of resources.

Do women constitute a class? They do. In the current established ruling system, gender, race and class are indissociable interrelated dimensions of oppression.

Who is at the source of this oppression? We shall use the socialist feminists’ concept of the “two-headed beast of patriarchal capitalism” responsible for the current neoliberal system of dichotomies between the have and the have-nots. The elites defining the cultural norms then reinforce the binaries of race, sex, gender and class, the cycles of consumption and consumerism as a result of property of rights, the unequal resources distribution, the private and the public spheres division and the overall oppression.

From the analysis of the initial movement for civil rights to the establishment of the source of an overarching ruling oppression inevitably takes us back to where we started: the social movement as an opportunity for a new social order.

 

Solidarity

Since neoliberalism and its main beneficiaries has been identified as the main vehicle of oppression, the movement to defeat it would require a line of thought and a common statement to identify with and unify the dispersed movements.

Identity vs. Difference?

Frasier’s recognition vs. redistribution dilemma materializes a dichotomy between valorizing differences as a basis for union and homogenizing the various struggles in one generalized fight against oppression. The binary between identity and difference can be analyzed through the discourses of multiculturalism and politics of identity.

Identity politics focus on differentiation in order to empower the one who is not in power, the one who deviates from the norm, the Other. This process of differentiation recognizes a common struggle between people of color, gays and lesbians, women or poor people who fall outside the norm prevalent in the system of power. For all these groups, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1994) explains, identity-based politics has been a source of strength and intellectual development where people outside the circle of power are able to unify and get their voice heard. Identity politics, however, have been criticized of isolating disempowered people based on universal assumptions that tend towards the creation of one stereotyped Other that shares a unique and collective identity of oppression. In this sense, as identity politics focus in one unique and comprehensive differentiation from the people in power, they tend to underestimate diversity within each oppressed group reinforcing the boundaries based on singular features of identity such as race, gender, sex or class. In doing so, Bruce Knauft (2008) criticizes, they implicitly accept the dominant ideology of identity and reinforce the division between the victim and the oppressor. Thus, the ideal of empowerment through identity politics encourages a situation of “separate but equal” (Knauft, 2008: 259) erasing any possibility of intrinsic valorization.

Multiculturalism tries to fill this space with the need to add a special value on the less advantaged people based on their specific source of disadvantage. Based on this view, Multiculturalism is the valorization of the differences that exist between the multiple ethnic or cultural groups within a society following the belief that cultural diversity needs to be invigorated. This emphasis of difference has the problem of falling into the essentialism of difference and particularities of the Other denying any possibility of hybridity or bivalent collectivities. Through this fragmentation of identities, social justice movements with different issues, fail to identify with one another and the possibility of unification against one system is diminished. The permanent deconstruction and focus on particularities result in scattered fights not strong or loud enough to be heard.

“Of course, deconstruction begs reconstruction.” (Knauft, 2008: 257) A way of moving away from the debate between erasing and emphasizing difference can be to refocus this debate and reconstruct the signification and meaning of this difference. For instance the work of Judith Butler (1993) exemplifies the potential for a re-creation of new meaning, a resistance to the previous signified through performance, in particular the performance of sex and gender as two socially constructed elements. The critical theories of sex and gender open a discussion outside the binary of difference vs. identify and sex vs. gender that permeates other dimensions that can’t be subsumed under the binary either. Butler then refers to queer politics where the term queer is a starting point to collective contestation, challenging the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and imagine-the-future outside the dichotomy of sex vs. gender, men vs. women or white vs. black. Sedgwick (1993: 8) reinforces this point by establishing that queer politics propose a new path for recognition and empowerment as:

“Queer can refer to: open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses, excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, or anyone sexuality, aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically”

Theoretical queer politics propose a new avenue of reflection outside the dichotomy of power, race, or gender however, when analyzed practically, Sheila Jeffries writes about its limitations and “the queer disappearance of lesbians”. She argues that in queer theory, lesbians only appear through the eye of male culture and politics dominated by gay men. She explains that the lack of particular acknowledgment of women’s and lesbian needs becomes dangerous as far as lesbian’s recognition is concerned.

In this back and forth between unification and segregation, the call for union and its tendency to quiet the most oppressed voices within the union, how is it possible to re-signify difference without falling into the total erasure of particularities? Are the concepts of valorization of difference and the unification of struggles two irreconcilable ideas? And, who benefits from this back and forth?

Lisa Duggan (2004) argues that neoliberalism profits from the “balkanized” rights-claiming groups and the division of the contestation that fosters scattered identities against coalition, thus “disintegrating” social justice movements. Grewal and Kaplan (1994) complement this declaration by stating that given contemporary global conditions, feminism and the possibility of change for women will only transcend through questioning the conditions of neoliberalism.

In this sense, as long as specific movements continue to divide based on particularities and targeted identities, the ruling system will not be defeated and power will remain in the hands of a few.

Bridging the gap between difference and identity

The cyclical debate between difference and identity is maintained partly because of its dichotomized analysis of the problem. Escobar (2008) reviews Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari analysis of the Rhizome:

“We are tired of trees, we should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial root, adventitious growths and rhizomes.”[6]

The metaphor of the rhizomes suggests networks of heterogeneous elements that grow in unplanned directions depending on the day to day situations they encounter (Escobar, 2008: 274). Escobar interprets this as a need to move away from ways of thinking based on binarism, totalities, preassumed unities and genetic determination. These dichotomies, he explains, are the basis for dominant institutions of modernity to rule the world. In this sense, the struggle to define the social movement’s discourse and its failure to unify rescind in its impossibility to move beyond the binaries (Escobar, 2008: 296).

Crenshaw (1994) moves away from the reconciliation between identity and difference explaining that the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, but that it frequently ignores intra group differences often resulting in tension and fragmentation amid the oppressed group. This disintegration is then addressed by targeted solutions that tackle gender, race and class issues independently dismissing many of the commonalities between gender, race and class. Crenshaw proposes the concept of intersectionality to denote the various ways in which race and gender interact. Understanding oppression through the intersection of race, gender and class is justified by the simple fact that being a woman of color correlates strongly with poverty. Moreover, class and gender affect the access to education, work and housing resulting in an interlinked determination of one’s access to wealth. The phenomenon of discrimination is reproduced both through race and gender identity. This hybrid identity between race and gender is also the primary source for resources distribution that ends up with observable class differences. Thus, in a lower socioeconomic class, race and gender structures shape the particular ways that women experience poverty. Crenshaw’s theory can be used to cover the limitations of identity and queer politics by accounting for the multiple sources of oppression without ignoring the difference within these oppressed groups.

Agency

Arturo Escobar (1992) defines social movements as “autopoietic entities”: self-producing and autonomous systems whose basic internal organization, despite important changes, is preserved in their interaction with the environment. He combines this concept with the Network as a dynamic system that combines the stable endogenous patterns of behavior and the environment heterogeneous elements. This network and Crenshaw’s intersectionalities allow for the possibility of heterogeneity within the unification of a movement.

The belief in a tangible line separating race, gender, class and sex makes it impossible to address one collectivity without affecting the other. Agency appears in the recognition of intersections between collectivities despite the identification of intrinsic differences. To do so, the identification of the common source of oppression as a shared target of fight is crucial for the liberation of the Other.

Chandra Mohanty (2008) urges people to identify the most dangerous enemy produced by the global capitalist hegemony that challenge women and the Other. As global economic and political processes are becoming “brutal”, aggravating economic, racial, and gender inequalities, the system in power, she argues, needs to be demystified, reexamined, and rewritten. This demystification needs to be the locus of struggle for all oppressed groups.

A starting point is to follow Marxist and socialist feminists analysis, who explain it is not possible for anyone, to achieve true freedom in a class-based society, where wealth produced by the workers’ labor force ends up owned by the very few in power (Tong 2009). Therefore, the only possibility to fight women’s oppression, in socialist feminists’ estimation, is to kill the “two-headed beast” of patriarchy and capitalism. As capitalism and patriarchy are interconnected, the defeat of the former would also defeat the system that promotes the generalization of the norms established by white supremacist heterosexual men.

The question that endures is: how to do so without falling into cultural relativism and dismiss difference?

Mohanty explains that feminist works must consider the micropolitics of the context as well as to the macropolitics of global economics. She argues for the possibility of a “multilayered, contextual analysis” (Mohanty, 2008: 501) that reveal how “the particular can be universally significant, without using this universal to erase the particular”. Thus, the construction of intersections between feminist thoughts and political organizing can only be achieved by paying attention to and theorizing the experiences of the oppressed, the Other, and envision anticapitalist resistance by fighting classism, sexism, racism and discrimination altogether. In this sense, Mohanty argues, one of the tools to fight the heteronormative patriarchal system is to give voice to the struggles of the Other and build on solidarities across the divisions of place, identity, class, gender and race.

So agency in a way, lies within awareness, within teaching, writing and speaking up.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness”[7].

Class consciousness is, in the Marxist framework, the opposite of false consciousness, a state of mind that impedes the creation and maintenance of true class unity. Marx saw social change as difficult but possible with the understanding of the functioning bases of the system. Through social theory, he looked forward to make people aware of the superstructure and the systems of class oppression to then be able to create a new consciousness.

A social action will be achieved through the understanding of oppression, of its sources, its arbitrary classes and heteronormative norms. Social change could only be fostered by an overall consciousness of One Common Revolution need.

Conclusions

Through the analysis of identity and difference, we analyzed overlapped dimensions of oppression introduced by the case of the lesbian couple of Ohio who generated a raging debate on sex, gender, class and race. If we return to the initial questions: should this particular couple be more understanding of racial struggles? Should transsexuals be more sympathetic to the black women’s oppression? They should.

In a world where population is segregated in binaries, where White or Black is a check in an IVF application form and where the confusion of these results in an irremediable conflict of identity as these people where “entitled” to a white baby, they should. In a system where, there is still a white-only town in the United States as a result of racial segregation, and a set of arbitrary norms where two people of the same sex are questioned by their decision to have a child, they should.

As long as the current system of power remains, there will be an Other and there will be a supremacist group determining the faith of this Other. And as long as this remains, Otherness should be a starting point to unify the fight against the system. As long as power resides in the hands of a few, awareness and unification amongst the many are the only chance for a global social change.

[1] Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/03/sperm-donot-lawsuit-racism-eugenics-lesbian-couple-black-donor

[2] Retrieved from: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-wrong-sperm-glanton-talk-20141013-story.html

[3] Retrieved from: http://mic.com/articles/100242/white-mom-s-lawsuit-over-black-baby-exposes-ugly-truths-about-white-privilege

[4] The Value of Whiteness: A lawsuit is being waged against the “wrongful birth” of a black child by Patricia Williams. Retrieved from: http://www.thenation.com/article/190489/value-whiteness#

[5] Retrieved from: http://www.libertynews.com/2014/10/white-lesbian-couple-to-sue-sperm-bank-for-giving-them-black-donors-sperm/

[6] Guattari, Felix and Deleuze, Gilles. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.

[7] Karl Marx. (1859). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. 1993a. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York Routledge.

Duggan, Lisa. 2004. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Beacon Press.

Escobar, Arturo. 1992. Third World and Post-Colonial Issues. Duke University Press.

Escobar, Arturo. 2008. Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Grewal, Inderpal and Kaplan, Caren. 1994. Scattered Hegemonies. Univesity of Minnesota Press.

Knauft, Bruce M. 1996. Genealogies for the Present in Cultural Anthropology. New York and London: Routledge.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Under Western Eyes Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles. Chicago Press.

Tong, Rosemarie. 2009. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. University of North Carolina. Westview Press.

Williams, Kimberlé Crenshaw. 1994. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. In: Martha Albertson Fineman, Rixanne Mykitiuk, Eds. The Public Nature of Private Violence. New York: Routledge. Pp. 93-118.

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