by Lisa-Marlen Gronemeier
This contribution is situated within the beginning of my un-learning the single feminist story and its underlying violence, which constitute whiteness in German universities’ gender studies departments. I argue that the dominant knowledge politics enforces and normalizes white feminists’ epistemic privilege as well as practices that are “considered ‘unmarked’ – yet unmarked only if viewed from the perspective of normative whiteness”. As white feminists, ‘our’ epistemic privilege is reproduced through specific knowledge politics that has as a referent white, middle-class, cis-female herstory and experience. Insisting on ‘gender’ as isolated meta-category, this politics upholds patriarchy as a universal and transhistorical phenomenon, whilst trivializing the enmeshment of power relations resulting from (neo)colonialism and racial capitalism. Disconnected from ‘other’ (her)stories of struggle, ‘our’ story is not only produced as normative; white feminists are also authorized as ‘natural’ inhabitant of gender studies departments, with the prerogative of speaking for, on behalf, and instead of ‘others’. Thereby, knowledge politics re-produces violence against knowledge holders and knowledges beyond white feminisms’ genealogy. As Audre Lorde diagnosed long ago, white feminists’ self-centeredness and ignorance signify that “only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable”.
Moreover, I reflect on the (im)possibility of engaging in a knowledge politics that is not epistemically violent, from a structurally privileged subject position. Deeply implicated, I am unable to destabilize the coloniality of white knowledge politics. I can thus merely hope to un-learn my habit of concealing the epistemic violence constituting dominant feminist epistemologies (Piesche and Lennox 2016). I encourage justice-seeking white feminists to become aware of ‘our’ complicity in coloniality and begin un-learning the knowledge politics separating ‘us’ from ‘others’; while re-learning ‘ourselves’ as historically entangled in our oppressions/resistances. This is also a caution against ‘adding’ knowers and knowledges to the table, and instead advocates fundamentally changing the terms of the feminist conversation.
With my work, I do not claim original critique, which would perpetuate coloniality by shrouding the rich herstories of thought/praxis that challenge white feminist knowledge production in Germany. Rather, I engage with decolonial, Black, postcolonial, anti-racist feminist perspectives on epistemology cultivated by scholar-activists of colour, who have made these critical engagements with coloniality and whiteness possible. Whenever possible, I held conversations with scholar-activists engaged in the Berlin-based collectives xart splitta, Adefra, and International Women* Space (IWS) that have built living archives of resisting knowledges. The following reflections emerge from my conversations with Marion Kraft, who is a literary scholar, retired college teacher and early member of the Black German feminist movement; with Iris Rajanayagam, who is a historian, former director of xart splitta and program officer for Diversity, Intersectionality and Decoloniality at the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Germany); and with Denise Garcia Bergt, who is a journalist, filmmaker and co-founder of IWS. The reflections also engage with various sources such as scholarly articles, gender studies primers, conference notes, and blog entries.
Situating this contribution
In their speech at the Women’s March on March 8, 2021, in Berlin, the anti-racist feminist collective International Women* Space (IWS) exposed white feminists for universalizing white middle-class women*’s experience of the coronavirus pandemic. Claiming the space of ‘universal woman’, white feminists centre the deepening gendered division of labour and gendered violence in publications and conferences. This one-dimensional focus on ‘gender’ conceals how these realities are enmeshed with colonial continuities of racialization and capitalist exploitation. Facing state violence, border and punitive regimes, and racialized logics of the welfare state, women* of colour are particularly vulnerable to premature death (Thompson 2020a). As IWS highlighted, “white middle-class feminism has always been racist. It has never acknowledged our struggles because they benefit from it”. Already in the 1980s, Black feminists and feminists of colour exposed white feminists in public squares and academic halls in Germany for passing on a white herstory, while declaring it universal. They revealed that the dominant knowledge politics silences the feminist theoreticians who analyse the colonial entanglements constitutive of our present, who challenge patriarchal capitalist coloniality. A focus on colonial entanglements reveals white women*’s complicity in histories of colonization and domination, including ‘our’ reaped benefits – ‘our’ safety and empowerment are inextricable from the suffocation and disenfranchisement of ‘others’.
Engaging with the rich scholarly and activist works challenging white feminisms in Germany, I began interrogating how my coming-to-know and emancipation as a white, middle-class, cis-gendered woman relate to the subjugation of ‘others’, how such knowledge is made absent and unintelligible, and how these erasures are normalized. This made me question whether the dominant feminist knowledge politics is at all suited for facing contemporary crises, or whether it entrenches coloniality – the concealed processes of domination, expropriation, and exploitation at modernity’s underside. In dialogue with friends, I began asking if my knowledge practices contribute to social justice or if they perpetuate harm instead.
Guarding the borders of ‘feminism’
White feminists in Germany have historically guarded the borders of ‘feminism’ by refusing to decentre colonial epistemologies and whiteness. White feminist theory became increasingly academicized in the mid-1980s, precisely at a time when feminist of colour activists, intellectuals, and artists had a pronounced presence in feminist spaces in Germany. Black German feminists disrupted the universalist categories of ‘woman’ and ‘gender’ by showing that they constitute normative, particularistic characters and conceal the enmeshment of power relations (Eggers and Mohamed 2014, Kinder 2011, Kraft 1988). Instead of responding to the epistemic challenges, gender studies programs confirmed dominant social and epistemic hierarchies and institutional structures. Feminists of colour theorizing in and on the German (post)colonial context were erased; their theoretical insights apparently limited by their social locations. Rather than feminist theoreticians on social conditions, ‘they’ only appeared as objects of study, as ‘victims’ of patriarchal violence.
Marion Kraft (2020, personal conversation) explains that these erasures result from “the Eurocentric epistemic structures and relations of domination. The frame of reference is white”. Kraft speaks about the exclusion of an entire knowledge archive, about the continued failure of white feminists to recognize Black women*’s epistemic authority. Feminists of colour continue to be marginalized as “non-serious academics” whose works may be included as “individual perspectives” but are rejected as fundamental traditions of feminist theorization (Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2016b, Kraft 2020, personal conversation). The white knowing-subject is unmarked, occupying a place of universal epistemic authority and “disembodied neutrality” (Dennis 2018: 192). She can ‘discover’, classify and validate knowledges, translate them into existence (Sow 2014). Meanwhile, the knowledges cultivated by feminists of colour are understood to be “plausible and carry explanatory weight only in relation to [‘their’] specific experiences, but [to] have no use value in relation to the rest of the world” (Alexander and Mohanty 1997: xvii). This arrogant perception derives from an understanding of white women*’s reality as one-dimensional and unentangled with ‘others’, which conceals ‘our’ complicity in colonial structures of domination.
By insisting on the primacy of patriarchy, painting men* as oppressors and women* as oppressed, white feminists represented the ‘dissident’ who dared to point to differences, to power relations between women*, as potential ‘traitor’ to the ‘feminist cause’ (Baader 1993: 84-85, Benhavio 1993: 73-74). Iris Rajanayagam (2020, personal interview) explains that today, speaking as a Black, postcolonial, or decolonial feminist is dismissed as ‘identity politics’ that undermines feminist alliances. When white feminists accuse feminists of colour of identity politics, criticizing that ‘they’ divide feminist politics or essentialize experience, ‘we’ claim authority to define the terms of a universal, non-identitarian feminist politics. Feminists of colour are asked to give up ‘their’ struggle and interests for the alliance to be possible.
Re-production of epistemic injustice in ‘diversifying’ gender studies
Meanwhile, white feminists’ engagement with intersectionality in German gender studies has been accompanied by the denial of its origin in Black feminist thought/praxis. Some white feminists even undertake efforts to ‘broaden the genealogy’ by presenting a range of white feminist scholars as forgotten forerunners of intersectionality. This move serves the white appropriation of intersectional perspectives, which are transformed into academic formulas and theoretical musings that divert attention from “real contradictions or omit them completely” (Kraft 2020, personal conversation). Kraft (2020, personal conversation) describes intersectionality as a striking example of appropriation: “Its origins and point of departure are completely neglected. It is reinterpreted, diluted, and all sorts of things become subsumed under it but racism and multiple oppression of BIPoC are erased”. White feminists rarely relate ‘our’ work on intersectionality with a politics of location, ignoring a central demand of feminists of colour. Rather than recognizing the situatedness of knowledge creation, ‘we’ disentangle it from ‘our’ geo-political and historical location. Thereby, white, middle-class women* re-secure ‘our’ position as normative subjects of feminism.
In the neoliberal German university, epistemic and social exclusions are gradually replaced by the selective inclusion of ‘difference’ without unsettling the university’s colonial pillars. Women* of colour are included as ‘tokens’ in German gender studies departments, serving the re-invention of the university as post-racist. Maisha Auma asks Humboldt University Berlin to self-critically reflect on its normalization of the underrepresentation of Black scholars, while simultaneously exhibiting or making object of study Afrodiasporic knowledges, history, politics, lives, and cultural creations, without redistributing resources. Scholars of colour mostly hold temporary and precarious employment, resulting in the erasure of ‘their’ epistemologies. Neoliberal German universities “sell the myth that they are ‘open’ and actively working towards inclusiveness”, without questioning who has the power to include and define the terms of inclusion. Critical feminist of colour perspectives are included as ‘new objects’ of study and research, whilst who teaches these knowledges and to whom they are accessible is not problematized (Gutiérrez Rodríguez et al. 2020: 5-7, Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2016b: 4). When decolonial, Black, postcolonial feminist theorizations are rendered into ‘fields of expertise’ dominated by white feminists, the centrality of white subject positions is consolidated. This selective incorporation leaves intact and deflects scrutiny of the systemic exclusions and colonial logics underpinning gender studies (Ahmed 2006: 118,121, Dhawan and Castro Varela 2016: 22, Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2016a: 173-174).
The epistemic framework dominant in German gender studies is characterized by an additive approach to social categories, which is based on the prioritization of gender as the umbrella paradigm under which all other ‘variances’ are subsumed (Rajanayagam 2020, personal interview). Listing “diverse grounds of discrimination without employing a historical as well as transnational perspective”, white feminists silence analyses of the colonial rootedness and global interdependencies of systems of oppression. Moreover, by presenting intersectionality, postcolonial and decolonial thought as novel, innovative perspectives, white feminists erase histories of resistance (Rajanayagam 2020, personal interview) and demonstrate ‘our’ ignorance of Black knowledge cultivation (Kraft 2020, personal conversation). Thereby, epistemic perspectives rooted in local anti-racist feminist struggles are transformed into ‘digestible’ formulas within the neoliberal university (Rajanayagam 2020, personal interview). The whiteness of gender studies departments is thus entrenched despite, or through, claims of ‘doing diversity’. People of Colour are ‘welcomed’ if ‘they’ do not intend to transform the institution. Rajanayagam (2020, personal interview) explains:
“Black people and People of Colour are singled out to do the diversity work or are supposed to diversify the institution but then they’re not allowed to step out of line. As soon as they start doing their work properly, they start being confronted with the walls.”
Meanwhile, diversity politics renders some the “Others of diversity”, whose differences are perceived as unassimilable and disposable. Notably, asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and refugees without ‘leave to remain’ are barred from entering the university as staff or students, as ‘their’ legal status prohibits ‘them’ from study and work.
The (im)possibility of a knowledge politics otherwise
Peggy Piesche asks white people to assume responsibility by recognizing where ‘we’ are situated, acknowledging ‘our’ complicity in power, and reflecting on how this informs ‘our’ epistemologies and practices. Educated in social scientific methods that reproduce epistemic violence, it was important for me to enter dialogue and collaboration across onto-epistemic difference. However, I learned about the (im)possibility of engaging in collaborative research and sustained dialogue in the context of a pandemic, which would have meant an even heavier workload for the scholar-activists. Moreover, I recognize the importance of limiting the burden on feminists of colour to guide those with structural privilege through un-learning. This has also meant problematizing the possibility and desirability of dialogue: A dialogue that does not emerge from relationships of trust and reciprocity can amount to the exploitation of intellectual labour. Therefore, I take seriously the demand that I must first become attentive to resisting knowledges and be answerable to what they convey.
The understanding that feminism is separable from anti-racist, decolonial praxis is premised on negation, under a singular framework of oppression. As white feminists, can ‘we’ cease to lead segregated and compartmentalized (knowledge) politics and embed the struggle for epistemic and social justice within a deep awareness “that we are in fact interdependent – neither separate nor autonomous”? (Alexander 2005: 282) This demands examining how the premises and praxis of white academic feminisms are constituted by erasures and their concealment. It demands reckoning with how dominant feminist politics is implicated in colonial and imperial projects, the fortification of border and punitive regimes, the removal of rights and deportations. Challenging epistemic injustice through my research from a location of structural privilege is an (im)possibility in the neoliberal university. As a white feminist inhabiting the university and doing research toward anti-racist, decolonial feminist knowledges, I am deeply implicated in a rationality that reinforces power through critique (Raghavan 2019). Rather than a decorative addition to my research, a box that must be ticked within the ‘diversifying’ university, doing feminism otherwise from a position of privilege demands a commitment to a radical ethics – an ethics that embraces epistemic justice and restitution.
At its most elementary, it requires an acknowledgement and honouring of the sources of knowledges and local struggles that enable me to work on this topic and be answerable and accountable to their protagonists (Erel et al. 2010: 291-292). However, taking seriously resisting knowledges is insufficient. Instead, Vanessa E. Thompson asks ‘us’ to engage in an abolitionist ethics, which begins with a fundamental and systematic un-learning, a radical questioning of modern promises, subjectivities, and the social order – constituted by the exclusion, contempt, and impossibility of breathing for the colonized. This entails centring perspectives that speak from the underside of policing and carcerality in the context of gendered violence, in theorizing and political practice. Instead of offering ‘sisterhood’, whereby white women* define the terms and thus slam “the door to a coalition that would really include” women* of colour, ‘we’ must begin reconstituting ‘ourselves’ as coalitional and cede power and space, epistemically and materially. From my situated understanding, this involves uncovering and breaking with learned knowledges and violent practices, while relearning ‘ourselves’ in relation to ‘others’ – “so that we can become integral to each other’s sense of resistant and liberatory possibility” (Roshanravan 2018). Breaking down separation also means radically rethinking feminism in terms of caring with people exposed to systemic violence through repressions, confinement, and border and punitive regimes (Thompson 2021, 2020b).
Disconnected from anti-racist praxis against the material barriers to epistemic authority in Germany, my research does not escape the non-performativity of anti-racist critique. Selective incorporation without material redistribution risks entrenching social and epistemic hierarchies, as material barriers and casualization of racialized staff are the precondition for white writing/citing/teaching/learning about and profiting from resisting knowledges, and for the reproduction of white knowledge elites (Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2016b: 4, 169, Raghavan 2019, Sow 2014). Understanding ‘diversity’ as reparations rather than generous gestures of ‘adding the other on’ demands a coalitional praxis at the service of (im)material decolonization, which involves an engagement with “the materiality of being, and the systems that produce life and death” (Rutazibwa 2018: 172). Participating in a coalitional praxis within and beyond the university means refusing to re-produce my epistemic privilege and decentring my own knowledges, perspectives, and concerns. It means cultivating radical alternatives that transgress the separations and hierarchical binaries of coloniality forming ‘our’ knowing-being (Icaza and de Jong 2018: xvii-xviii, Motta 2018: 33, Piesche and Lennox 2016: 281).
My deepest gratitude to Iris Rajanayagam, Dr. Marion Kraft, Denise Garcia Bergt and International Women* Space for sharing your time and knowledges, for supporting me during my MA research, and for reading the drafts. A heartfelt thank you to Johana Collantes Tirado, Olívia Andrade de Almeida, and Katharine van Amburg for your invaluable comments on earlier drafts and for the shared moments of un-/learning, and to Dr. Rosalba Icaza for your continued guidance and support.
Lisa-Marlen Gronemeier is a recent MA graduate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Specializing in Women and Gender Studies, she wrote her research paper on epistemic injustice in feminist academia in Germany. She is currently a research assistant in collaborative projects on solidarities and feminisms at the ISS.