A Collective Reflection on Women-of-Color Feminisms Study Group

Facilitated and compiled by Hui Wilcox

A group of St. Kate’s faculty and staff members gathered from June 4 through June 8, to engage in a study group with the theme of “Understanding Women-of-Color Feminisms.” We offer a collective reflection, mirroring our week-long process of collaborative learning, accountability, and transformation.  

We begin with Camilo Malagón’s reflection, as he modeled for us thoughtful written reflection all week long. His work also exemplifies the rigor and care necessary for the building of community, coalition, and allyship around women-of-color feminisms. Following Camilo’s piece, a few participants offer their thoughts on the questions that guided the design and the process of the study group. Our discussions were organic and free-flowing. We all took turns facilitating discussions, we listened to music, drew, and did embodied exercises, and almost no one gave any lectures (although Hui verged on this a couple of times!). Mostly we read (a lot!), listened to each other and held sacred each other’s stories and ideas. Our reflections demonstrate the power of compassionate listening.

As a group, we also grappled with the tension between different ways of knowing and the conflicted roles of women-of-color feminist scholars in both the academy and their communities of origin or struggles. We recognize that written words, especially those in the academic contexts, can also be exclusive and oppressive, even as they serve as vehicles of empowerment for some of us. So we disagreed and challenged each other. These moments of disagreement were necessary for our individual and collective growth and healing. What mattered is that we showed up for each other, and we spoke with and listened to each other.

Final Reflection WOC Feminisms Workshop
by Camilo A. Malagón

The work of this week has been intense, enriching and powerful. A group of passionate members of the St. Catherine University community, led by Mission Chair and Professor Hui Wilcox took the time to reflect deeply on texts written by Women of Color (WOC), to think about the theoretical practices explained in the texts and to think about how these texts have a bearing on our disciplines and our lives.

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I especially appreciated the range of texts that we read from the last thirty to forty years: it elucidated for me, and for the rest of the participants, the breadth of the feminist thought produced by women of color. We read many authors’ writing from a variety of humanities and social sciences disciplines and had a chance to reflect on this long history. I particularly enjoyed reading and learning about the work of Patricia Hill Collins, Sarah Ahmed, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Trinh T. Minh-ha, bell hooks and Audre Lorde, among many others. Audre Lorde and bell hooks are well-established feminist thinkers whom I have heard of before but never got the chance to read their work with some depth before attending this workshop, and it was enriching as these two writers lay down the foundation of WOC feminist thought by proposing definitions for feminism based on reflections not of specific acts or agents of sexism and oppression, but rather reflections upon the different interlocking systems of oppression. These systems of oppression and their analysis create an economic structure and cultural superstructure that feminist work wants to undo.

Moreover, the work of Hill Collins, Sarah Ahmed, Mohanty and Minh-ha provided different theoretical entries onto feminism, wanting to provide an epistemology of black feminist thought, providing a phenomenological approach to the concept(s) of orientation(s), reflecting upon feminism as a transnational practice and writing at the intersection of postcoloniality and feminism respectively. I especially appreciated the work of Ahmed, as the concept of “orientation” can be very valuable for my work on space and Latin American cultural production for different reasons.

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First, the concept of “orientations” can be used as a category that helps understand the specific plot of a novel through an analysis of space and subjects: how do subjects “orient” themselves in the story? How do their choices of orientation have a bearing on the development of the story? Second, “orientations” can serve to understand the context of the artifacts themselves within a system or a tradition: how does the text “orient itself” within a specific tradition? Is a writing within or against a specific set of texts? Moreover, how does the text circulate, and how does this set of market orientations determine its context, validity, and cultural capital? Third, I can reflect on the “orientation” of my work, the philosophical, ideological, methodological presuppositions of my work and how these have helped determine my objects of study (and the limits of such study) and finally, I can reflect on my own orientation, not only my positionality as a subject, but my personal trajectory and how that impinges onto my reflections, my ideas, my academic project and career.

I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to take part on this seminar, and I wished that it would have lasted a month and not just a week. Hui Wilcox’s leadership was both inviting and thoughtful as she made the seminar a place of reflection for a group of staff and faculty from various disciplines and with different goals for the week. The seminar has opened many different avenues for inquiry and provided many different authors that I hope to keep exploring in the coming months and years at St. Kate’s. Thank you for a wonderful week!

How are women-of-color feminisms defined? How are they historically related to and differentiated from white feminism?

“While I don't have a comprehensive definition in mind as of yet, my initial thoughts are that women-of-color feminisms give voice to the ways in which women of color have thought about, experienced, practiced, and developed feminism over time and in relation to white women feminists — but not secondary or as an extension of white women feminists. Women-of-color feminisms address time, space, ways of knowing, historical myths & fallacies, and anti-feminist perspectives & systems that have perpetuated the disregard, marginalization, and violence towards women of color.” –Carey Winkler

“WOC feminisms are more radical, inclusive, and courageous. It takes courage to tell those with relative power (white women) that what you have isn't for me, doesn't work for me, and that I need something different and more real. They are also more complete. A feminism that does not clearly and intentionally consider race, class, etc. is incomplete.” –Sarah Park Dahlen

“Through the readings provided and discussions in the group, I am reminded that women of color feminism are defined through the history of each community. The term in itself is very broad, women of color feminism. We simply cannot cluster women of color experiences into one version of feminism. And we certainly cannot rely on definitions of white feminism because it does not include our unique experiences. It is not a one size fits all. Each community's feminism is founded and defined by the experiences of the women from that community. We do a disservice to ourselves when we do not include the intersectionality of women of color's identities and experiences.” –Anonymous participant

“I am growing as a feminist. I am still learning to understand my own position within feminism. I align with the definition of feminism that is about undoing oppression in all its forms. I struggle with the idea that feminism has a westernized bent/or is understood as western which in turn excludes me, or looks down on me as third world, someone who needs to be saved by the western feminists. ‘Oh without the women's studies courses at UW Madison maybe she would have had ten kids by now and still being abused by her Hmong husband whom she married at age 17.’ I am rejecting the white savior notion of feminism. Still trying to find my own place.” –Pa Der Vang

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“While I think I was aware that WOC found feminism problematic, before this seminar, I didn’t really understand how. The readings — especially those by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa as well as the anthologies This Bridge Called my Back and Colonize This! — resonated with me most, providing theory and narratives that articulated the micro and macro ways WOC are left out of feminism. For instance, I as struck by the connection between white women rejecting patriarchy in the name of feminism, but oppressing women of color in the process. Digesting this was simultaneously maddening, humbling and painful, but I’m learning more and more that this place of discomfort is where real understanding and learning begins.

“I'm appreciative for the deeper understanding of the history, development and structure of feminism, especially through academic channels, and from the perspective of women of color. I think this is where the ‘learn from, not about’ part comes in for me: the most impactful part of the seminar was hearing stories from my WOC colleagues — their personal experiences with racism, sexism, tokenism and appropriation; their family relationships, cultural traditions; and how they feel moving through their work, family and social environments. I find myself thinking often of their stories. They have helped me re-frame my understanding of feminism. Their stories also challenge me to remain self-aware, especially in terms of my role — as a cis middle-class white woman — in their experiences.”  –Nicole Watson

How do we understand intersectionality in ways that speak to our work and lived experience?

“My initial thoughts about how understanding intersectionality relates to my work and lived experience is that it is an essential aspect of thinking expansively about how to understand both individual and group experiences, building bridges of communication, empathy, and solidarity, and critically analyze systems, policies, and practices that diminish & disenfranchise individual and group identities. I've been thinking a bit of a slide puzzle in that there is a lot of movement in concert with others required to get the full picture. While there are patterns, they are not static and will change depending on who is a the table — heard, seen, and felt in the world.” –Carey Winkler

“We have to have open hearts and open minds. We have to see each other and look for commonalities and strengths, as well as the things we are each concerned with. We have to know and understand that we are each complex beings with multifaceted identities and histories and relationships, and therefore see ourselves and each other as whole persons, rather than essentialized persons.” –Sarah Park Dahlen

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“I am simultaneously fascinated and overwhelmed by the complexities of intersectionality. Because intersectionality is so complex, I have a hard time holding all of the pieces at one time. For me, my own intersectionality is a big mess — and I heard (and didn't hear) this from our group as well. I am a member of many different groups of identities because I mostly fit in in that group, but it’s actually not my entire reality. I really appreciated having the primary lens for this week be color. One silence that I noticed is gender — non-conforming gender or gender fluidity was only mentioned briefly a couple of times.” –Carol Geisler

How do feminisms/feminists of various communities meet each other and hold each other accountable? How do we support each other and hold each other accountable?

“My field of art, art history, art interpretation and galleries/museums could be a really productive space for different feminist communities to encounter one another. As we discussed in the seminar, the art world has been full of controversial and complex stories of racism, appropriation and sexism, especially during the last year. I know I can use my role as a purveyor of art to bridge communities of difference, and to offer a space to engage WOC feminisms. It’s been a goal of mine to do a better job facilitating these themes through our exhibitions, and this seminar gave me the foundational knowledge I knew I needed to even start that kind of work. (Wouldn't a whole exhibition on WOC feminisms be amazing? What would that look like?)

“Regarding accountability: I'm working hard to understand my own biases, and the ways those biases affect my relationships and my work. This seminar challenged me to be self-aware in new ways (i.e. understanding that my version of feminism looks different than the feminism of others).” –Nicole Watson

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“I am going to be sitting with that for a bit longer. As a white woman, I know that it is important for me to continue to put myself in positions of being a listener and being reminded of my privilege. At the same time, I must hold myself accountable and lean into my fears in practicing allyship. I also have to continue growing my willingness to sit in the not-knowing and not-having. And, I have to continue working on de-colonizing my thinking — and I have to talk to other white people about this — to learn from and challenge each other.” –Carey Winkler

“I think our increasingly connected/networked world offers a lot of possibilities for encounter, but at the same time, it's become very easy to retreat into silos and safe spaces. We need both. We need to look around and look for and see one another, and we also need safe spaces where we can heal from the daily aggressions and assaults. Thanks to social media, I've become part of a few small, online groups with other IWOC, and these have basically become my support groups and lifelines during very difficult periods. They are spaces where we both support one another, as well as push each other to research, publish, and speak up for our communities. We need to recognize when we are in communities like these, and give as much as you get to your people.” –Sarah Park Dahlen

“Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. My greatest teacher about intersectionality has always been my own lived experience — figuring it out in real time in real space with real people. It's how I learn best. The readings were fabulous — and created new spaces my mind that lead to new thinking/understanding about ideas — but it was the rich, deep, and vulnerable dialogue that jolted me to new places to understanding about people. I am still night dreaming, daydreaming, journaling, drawing about the uncomfortable places and new understandings for me.” –Carol Geisler

How do we build community across differences?

“I can’t express how grateful I am to WOC seminar participants for graciously sharing ways in which I can be a better ally to them. They did this through their stories, but also directly (‘here is an example in which you can be a better ally’), challenging me to better support them at St. Kate’s and beyond.” –Nicole Watson

“Building individual relationships that include a sense of bravery, a willingness to make mistakes, and accountability.

“My take is that St. Kate's is currently in a state of flux with its identity and that it will take all voices to land on a path forward that feels both salient and true to the values, mission, etc.

Humility, listening, caring, thinking and acting more collectively.” –Carey Winkler

“I think this begins with intersectionality — not all Asian women or Black women are the same, and we may have intersecting identities and concerns with people who are very unlike us in other ways. As well, we have to recognize that we are stronger together, so we should have the mindset that building community is important and necessary. We should also appreciate differences — love them, respect them, learn from them.” –Sarah Park Dahlen

“Education, dialogue, and dissemination of new ideas. By education, I mean a collaborative group format where we are all teachers/learners looking at our own power over/with/under ourselves and each other in the context of our lives. Readings/information/various viewpoints/films/music/arts/dance give us a place to start. Next is the messiness of dialogue.    I think deep dialogue requires a kind of commitment — to hang in there and work through things even when it's really messy and painful. I would be willing to be in a group dialogue about whether or not we collectively/individually want to make this kind of commitment and continue the work in this form. I also really understand that it might be a space where it's better if I'm not there given who I am in the world. Part of my own discernment is how/where/in what format can I make my best contribution? Dissemination — in any form — gives us something to work towards. A workshop, a piece of writing, a dance, developing a new course (graduate! or undergraduate), a curriculum for new employee orientation, working with small groups of faculty and staff, creating co-curricular programming that helps students explore these issues, helping departments review syllabi/course assignments based on WOC feminisms — whatever we co-create — it helps us come together for a purpose.” –Carol Geisler

Other expected or unexpected outcomes:

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“I was so inspired by this week! I definitely received this: ‘I know that this kind of structure allows me to read deeply, think, and engage in thoughtful dialogue — rather than just reading information on my own.’

“I think my own scholarship will probably take a turn as a result of this week.  I always had some awareness about cultural appropriation and lack of women of color voices in my academic discipline of holistic health - but the readings and the dialogue have moved me to a place of action.  I don't quite know yet what the action will be — but I can feel it welling inside of me.  I am returning to one of my childhood homes in India this summer for a month — and I think from that something new will emerge.” –Carol Geisler  

“I learned so much from the rigorous readings as well as from other seminar participants. The readings served as a good launching point for me as I know that I need to spend more time with this material and continue to delve deep into women of color feminisms. I appreciated the mix of highly theoretical pieces with personal narratives — they met my learning style and served as a good model for bridging theory and practice.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to meet people from across campus. I particularly appreciated hearing various perspectives on the challenges experienced at St. Kate's as employees and in terms of what students are experiencing. Again, I appreciated hearing both the systemic perspectives as well as the individual experiences of people experiencing discrimination and oppression.” –Carey Winkler

“Although I still feel like I am digesting the information last week and I now want to go back and re-read the articles or even the full books after the discussions that took place last week. Now that I have been exposed to a broader range of women of color feminists and authors, going back to the material again and again will only strengthen my understanding of the work. As a result, my confidence in lifting them up in my scholarship and my work will only help a larger group of people also become exposed to the material.  

“I went into this week hoping that the reading would help support my doctorate work. Little did I know that it would help me completely change my thinking and my approach to my dissertation? Although I have been aware of the fact that the traditional way of delivering higher education may not be the best way to approach the new students enrolling in college. I have been focusing on curriculum delivery and traditional means of support that have been in place for students. Even though I was resisting tradition, I myself in my own work have been considering the theoretical frameworks of Foucault. But, why not someone else? Why not lift up a woman and or a woman of color in this section of my dissertation? The work of Paulo Freire is what initially influenced my work, so I am not sure I can completely walk away from him, but I am committed to exploring alternative authors that deserve as much recognition as those who have been so systematically engrained in the higher education theory.

“It is through this commitment that I will support feminists from different communities. The more we share their work, the more they will be recognized as the experts and the scholars that they are!” –Heidi Anderson-Isaacson

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“I was thrilled to join my esteemed colleagues in the understanding women-of-color feminisms week long seminar. The reading list was inclusive and captured the intersectional issues impacting race and gender. There is something powerful about finding people who are feel the same way about injustice. Reading and discussing feminist writing by Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Trinh, Minh-Ha, Patricia Hill Collins and others opened a new way of thinking for me and a week was hardly enough to get through the text. One of the readings by Audre Lorde touched on how difference can be weaponized against use if we do not examine it and name it for what it is and that my silence will not protect me. I was challenged, uplifted, inspired and validated." –Leso Munala

“I am currently in the process of writing a paper about Hmong women’s empowerment. I have struggled with this paper for a long time because I could never really wrap my head around what feminism meant for me, how it applied to Hmong women, and [even its] application to the progress of Hmong women’s empowerment. The readings that Dr. Wilcox assigned gave me deeper insight into these questions.” –Pa Der Vang

“The format of the seminar felt intellectually, physically and emotionally productive to me. The embodied exercises grounded me in our gatherings, the free-flowing discussion was conducive to meaningful storytelling and having the opportunity to be a "student" of my peers was gratifying. In particular, (and probably not surprising) Carol and Carey's art making exercise was most engaging, challenging and fulfilling for me. I appreciated the ways everyone brought their disciplines and areas of expertise into our discussions.” –Nicole Watson

Bibliography on Women-of-Color Feminisms

Ahmed. Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. “Introduction”

Alexander, M. Jacqui. 2005. Pedagogies of Crossing. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2007 (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 3rd ed. San Francisco, Aunt Lute Books.

Brooks, Siobhan. 2002. “Black Feminism in Everyday Life: Race, Mental Illness, Poverty and Motherhood.” in Colonize This! On Today’s Feminism, eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. New York Seal.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2009 (2000). Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge.

Collins, Patricia Hill and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

Crenshaw, Kimberle.

Combahee River Statement” 

hooks, bell. 2015. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. New York: Routledge.

Keating, AnaLouise. 2013. Transformation Now! Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Lopez, Adriana. 2002. “In Praise of Difficult Chicas: Feminism and Femininity.” in Colonize This! On Today’s Feminism, eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. New York: Seal.

Lorde, Audre. 2007 (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.

Moraga, Cherríe. “La Güera” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table Press.

Rojas, Maythee. 2009. Women of Color and Feminism. Berkeley, CA: Seal Studies.

Shah, Sonia. 1994. “Presenting the Blue Goddess: Toward a National, Pan-Asian Feminist Agenda.” in The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s, ed. Karin Aguilar-San Juan. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Smith, Andrea. 2015 (2005). Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Smith, Taigi. 2002. “What Happens When Your Hood is the Last Stop on the White Flight Express?” in Colonize This! On Today’s Feminism, eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. New York: Seal.

Swarr, Amanda Lock and Richa Nagar. 2010. “Theorizing Transnational Feminist Praxis,” in Amanda Lock Swarr and Richa Nagar, eds. Critical Transnational Feminist Praxis. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Trinh, Minh-Ha. 1989. Women, Native, Other. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Part III.

Tumang, Patricia Justine. 2002. “Nasaan ka anak ko? A Queer Filipino-American Feminist’s Tale of Abortion and Self-Recovery.” in Colonize This! On Today’s Feminism, eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. New York: Seal.

Vang, Mai Der. 2016. Afterland. Grey Wolf Press.

Woo, Merle. 1981 (1983). “Letter to Ma,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table Press.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2004. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hui Wilcox, PhD, is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Women's Education and Director of the Otte Initiative at St. Catherine University. She is an associate professor of Sociology, Women's Studies and Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity.