We White, Western, Heterosexual, Middle-class Women

"Hi, my name is Mukandayisenga", she said, when she called me at the university. "I think you should interview me for your research project on immigrant women."

Women who want to take part in the study have contacted me before. But nobody has ever asked to be interviewed as forcefully as Mukandayisenga. On the contrary, the women who wish to take part in the study are usually very humble and almost timid when they approach me. Neither has any interviewee ever attacked me as a feminist researcher as fiercely as Mukandayisenga did.

“We black women differ from you in that we belong to the colonised. You white middle-class women benefit from the actions of the colonisers and from the racial oppression under which other women have suffered and still suffer. This is something you easily forget. When you talk about the oppression of women, you should look back in history and see how your status is based on lies invented by white colonisers. The kind of oppression you white middle-class feminists regard as what you must liberate yourselves from is a relatively small part of the experience we black or other immigrant women in Sweden endure. Your feminism”, says Mukandayisenga, “embraces the racist prejudices which are the immigrants’ worst enemy”.

Taking part in the debate

The aim of my article is to partake in the debate on ethnocentricity and on the white, western, heterosexual bias prevalent in feminist research. This bias, which has been discussed in many contexts over the years, has given rise to texts on the difficulty of representing others, on the problem of power and, for example, on feminism and race (see e.g. Bhavnani, 1993; Frankenberg, 1993; hooks, 1981). However, I would claim that the findings of these texts have had far too little impact on the research results presented by us Nordic feminists in our articles, reports and books. On the contrary, ethnocentric and other assumptions of ‘superiority’ are apparent in much of what we write. Thus, we are, alarmingly enough and contrary to what many of us claim we want to be, active participants in a system which aims at strengthening white supremacy and at counteracting the opportunities for women to unite in a common feminist struggle.

My intention is to discuss how I myself became aware of my own privileged position and power as a scholar as a consequence of the interview I did with Mukandayisenga. I will not be able to present an exhaustive analysis of the problem of power, because the space here does not permit it, but I will try to explore a relatively complex problem in feminist research and describe how I have handled this issue in my research.

We dominate without analysing ourselves

Mukandayisenga immediately fixed me with her eyes when we met and said that we white, western, heterosexual, middle-class women totally dominate feminist debate and research. The only time she said she recognised herself and felt welcome was when the ‘ordinary’ feminist debate focused on the special theme of “ethnicity”. She claims that we make non-Swedish or non-Nordic women invisible as women, but also that we forget (intentionally?) that we ourselves are also living an ethnicity.

We, who regard ourselves as “ordinary” feminists, reject male normativity and the so-called objectivity of “mainstream” researchers, but seldom analyse practices specific to our own research. We rarely stop to scrutinise our theoretical knowledge from the perspective of power relations and compare what we think we know with theories and experiences of groups of women who live different lives from ourselves. We may think the thought, but we never act on it, Mukandayisenga emphasises. We are simply feminists who set the discourse, without paying much attention to our own biased view of the world.

This kind of statement is hard to hear when one, as myself, is studying the situation of immigrant women in a racist and sexist Swedish class society. In my work, I have focused on how women with an immigrant background, who today are excluded and marginalized because of their gender, class, race and ethnicity, could be served more adequately by society and in working life. I do not want to be told that I hold a prejudiced, biased view of the world. Having done several hundred reflexive interviews and analyses based on theory, I think I do have certain knowledge (facts, insight, understanding). I will however confess, that in spite of this, I find it difficult to pursue issues which would result in actual change.

The Swedish lens

“It’s because you’re Swedish without really thinking about it. You cannot see that your eyes have a lens, which makes everything Swedish normal and everything else deviant”, Mukandayisenga says in my interview with her.

“As long as this lens is in your eye, you will not be able to influence anything. Because you cannot see what you should influence. You say you think immigrant women are marginalized and excluded because of their gender, class, race and ethnicity. In actual fact, they are com pletely invisible, partly because of the likes of you.”

At several points in the interview she says that we Swedish academic feminists lack awareness of the role that “Swedishness” performs in our work and that this is a serious shortcoming in the knowledge we produce. We simply know too little about the function of our own ascendancy: how it works, what it is based on and what constitutes it. If Swedishness is deconstructed, she says, we can find an implied superiority in terms of race (we belong to “the white” race: “the owners” and “the rulers”), gender (we belong to a majority in the female population, which is thought of as consisting of “better women” with “the right kind of femininity”) and class (relatively strong on capital and resources). But we do not want to see ourselves in this way, she says, and this greatly limits feminist research and debate. What to an outsider seems like disagreement and dissension among women of different ethnic origins, is actually only an effect of the fact that we white, heterosexual middle-class women create our selves using the privileges and advantages handed out to us by “the rulers” (white, heterosexual middle-class men).

You do not want to give up those privileges and that is why we cannot fight together with you against the same oppression, Mukandayisenga says.

Race as an analytical concept

We privileged feminists, who rarely personally suffer racial oppression (which in Sweden and similar countries often takes the form of what we call “hostility towards immigrants” or discrimination of immigrants), do not even know whether we dare use the concept of “race”. Is it not an obsolete term connected with a prejudiced biologism? we ask with thin voices. No, says Mukandayisenga. Race is as important in the analyses of people’s lives as gender is. But perhaps we need to find a term for race which could do the same that gender has done for analysis of the sexes. Something, which would make us dare to realise that the concept has to be used analytically, that this is a question of social power structures and the interpretations of the privileged and not of characteristics or biology. Just as easily as so-called “mainstream research” has been able to exclude women because they are so difficult to relate to – since one is not allowed to simply regard gender as a characteristic – we exclude race as well as other social structures from our feminist analyses.

Still, many of us today acknowledge and claim that identities of race and class, oppression and privilege create differences in our lives. In our feminist texts, we even say that differences resulting from racial and class oppression are so great that the evils of gender inequality have a relatively small impact on practical everyday life. I say this in my writings. However, Mukandayisenga says that what I emphatically claim merely represents “the lip service of an ambitious feminist”. It sounds eloquent when she says it, but it hurts me. She says that I must dare (and be allowed to) see how I myself contribute as an oppressor, before I can say anything which will take feminist knowledge and the real work for change forward. I have to also start analysing the oppression I take part in and the advantages I have thanks to the advances of the colonialism and racism of employment officers, the marginalisation tendencies of political decision-making, and the exclusion techniques of companies which I so harshly criticise.

Us, them and privilege

I try to counter, or rather, meet Mukandayisenga’s criticism by describing the fear that I and many others feel about creating more differences than already exist. We do not want to regard those we are studying as different. We do not want to concern ourselves with the “us and them” way of thinking. We refuse to categorise and carry out comparative research. We are all women, all working for the same aims, I say. Mukandayisenga does not agree with me, but argues that she and I have totally different aims

“Your whole status is based on the fact that you are as similar to the ruling men as it is possible to be. We “immigrant women” have no wish to reach the same level as the Swedish men. We are grateful if we reach the same level as the Swedish women”, she says.

She gives me to understand that what I should analyse are the privileges which I and other white heterosexual middle-class women enjoy. I should think about gender as a concept contaminated by race and class. I should dare see the exercise of power by men and the state as something desirable in the everyday lives of white women. Only then will I be able to understand oppression. Because, says Mukandayisenga, the oppressed are formed to act in a way that does not threaten the prevailing order: thus they are rewarded for their compliance.

“The oppressed do not see what they could gain by no longer being victims. And neither do you Swedish women see what you could gain by them no longer being so”, Mukandayisenga says.

For me, the words of Mukandayisenga meant a trying turn in my research. I read her criticism into other interviews I hade made and I could no longer produce a single line on the circumstances of immigrant women in Sweden. Whatever I wrote, I saw “my Swedish lens” and my superior position. I could not use my favourite theories, because I realised that they are dictatorial and ethnocentric. I could no longer discuss my results with my favourite colleague, because she, too, is ethnocentric. I was sitting in a cage. But suddenly one day, the bubble of self-contempt that I had created burst and my hand started producing texts which are different from those I have written previously. They are no longer about the views of immigrant women on, for example, employment measures. They now discuss how these measures arise in a situation where the Swedish ways of living, raising children and applying for a job are regarded as normal; where the constantly underlined similarity between women hides a real discrimination, a discrimination desirable for us middle-class women in the majority population – and how this is experienced by women with an immigrant background.

Changed focus of research

My texts now explore how we women in the majority population benevolently start projects and activities which enable immigrant women to continue living in their subordinate position. They describe how women (and men) very like myself, work towards creating jobs (at the bottom of the social hierarchy), meeting places (with only women in the same situation) and women’s projects (focused on traditional female tasks and harmony) of the type we think immigrant women need. In my texts, I write that the actual purpose of ventures aimed at helping immigrant women actually serve to maintain the prevailing power relations. I further say that the political strategy not to see women with an immigrant background as a single group, rather “focusing on the individual” within employment measures, is a way of concealing the general oppression of immigrant women. I write that all activities intended for immigrant women must be thoroughly examined in terms of their purposes and the question as to whose interests the existence of the activities actually serves should continually be raised. I observe that I have never before been invited to speak about the results of my work to as many political gatherings as now. But I also note that my constant questioning of whose interests I myself serve, always gives rise to the same irritated reaction.

By Heléne Thomsson

Notes:

Frankenberg, Ruth (1993): White Women, Race Matters: The social construction of whiteness. London: Routledge.

Bhavnani, Kum-Kum (1993): “Talking racism and the editing of women’s studies” in Diane Richardson and Victoria Robinson: Introducing Women’s Studies. London: Macmillan.

Hooks, Bell (1981): Ain’t I a woman? Black women and feminism. Boston: South End Press.

First published in NIKK magasin 3 2001 © NIKK

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