goto Appendx main menu The Places of
Feminist Criticism
:
Kim Anne Savelson
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In March 1990, Princeton University's School of Architecture held an important symposium entitled "Sexuality and Space." In the introduction to the published proceedings, Beatriz Colomina explains the concerns that prompted its organization: Although recent years have seen a "growing reciprocity in the exchange of ideas" between contemporary critical theory and architectural theory, all the different kinds of work on representation and desire developed over the last fifteen years by feminist theorists have been conspicuously ignored in architectural discourse and practice." Consequently, "the issue of sexuality remains a glaring absence."1  The symposium was therefore designed to set up "some kind of interdisciplinary exchange in which theories of sexuality are reread in architectural terms and architecture is reread in sexual terms." 2 

In effect, this conference sought to account for the fact that the "politics of space are always sexual, even if space is central to the mechanisms of the erasure of sexuality."3  Following this argument, and as a way of introducing the questions I intend to ask here, I want to call attention to the sexual politics of space operating within the symposium itself: What is sexual about the virtual exclusion of race as a central issue? By presenting a collection of primarily color-blind critiques, "Sexuality and Space" aligned itself with a long-standing (though now less prevalent) tendency in feminist theory to keep issues of race in the closet. In general, feminist criticism still centralizes the struggles of white, middle-class, heterosexual women, helping to maintain a major rift between feminist politics and the politics of other culturally victimized groups. One way to approach this rift is to follow up accusations of negligence by continuing to explore the intersections of differently structured oppressions. In this paper I attempt to do this by reiterating race and gender as interlocking systems of domination. 

Specifically, feminist politics have largely remained and are perceived as separate from antiracist politics; as I imply above, this is partly due to the fact that feminist discourse and movement, dominated by white voices and interests, almost routinely assert a political agenda that excludes nonwhite women and antiracism. This situation, perpetuated by color-blind feminist criticism, has helped to make race and gender politics mutually antagonistic. In the end, this means that "both interests lose."4  As this point is taken up most ardently by black women, it seems important to establish here that I am a white woman—important because my experience of this subject position tells me that I have a personal stake in demarginalizing the intersections of (supposedly separate) hierarchies of power. As a white woman,  however, I am on preAppendx 1 page break 116 | 117carious ground if I want to engage in antiracist feminist criticism, for this often entails 

theorizing experiences that are not my own from a position of racial privilege. Because I cannot represent the realities of women and men of color without understandably raising suspicion, it seems appropriate to offer a brief response to the question of why I have the desire to speak about race and a nonwhite social experience in a white supremacist social order. For starters, this question does not seem entirely distinguishable from the question of why a white woman should want to speak about these things in a discourse that fully and openly welcomes challenges to all of its formulations.  

Perhaps the best way to begin this response is to explain why I concentrate on "race" to the seeming exclusion of "ethnicity." Although I think of ethnicity as a category closely linked with race, I do not think that they are the same category. The imagery of the term "race" suits my project here, for more than "ethnicity," the term "race" seems to have a biological discourse; it implies that certain visible attributes distinguish differences and therefore different groups of people. In this view, racial difference implies a difference that goes beyond culture/cultural practice. The imagery of 'race" (especially in the United States) overwhelmingly implies a difference based on physical appearance or color, on an oppositional paradigm of white/nonwhite, whereas "ethnicity" seems to indicate cultural difference, but not necessarily visible difference. To the extent that there are people of "ethnic" identity who can still appear "white" and thus occupy the subject position of "whiteness," I use the term "race" to emphasize a color-conscious category that imposes difference according to a definite visible dichotomy of white and nonwhite.  

In addition, this discussion risks repeating a version of the very problem that I intend to criticize, for I am not going to focus on class issues, in the strict sense of economic privilege, nor will I address, in any detail, issues of sexuality outside of the sexualization of gender and race. I must stress, however, that my decision to neglect specific questions of class and sexual orientation does not mean that I think these categories have any less relevance to a discussion of sexuality, gender, and space than do questions of race and ethnicity; certainly class and sexual orientation are factors that figure just as prominently in the construction of space. Yet insofar as my discussion is concerned primarily with a distinct economy of vision, a theory of the �other� based on visual representation, I do not focus on the categories of class or sexual orientation simply because the identities constructed by these categories are not visible or embodied 

in a physical sense. Although visual representations are of course medAppendx 1 page break 117 | 118iated by class and sexuality, it is not possible to know a person's class affiliation or sexual orientation merely by looking at the person. And this seems true even when a person is looked at while occupying a certain space. By contrast, race and gender are categories to which people are publicly and unalterably assigned on the basis of their bodies and skins. I am aware that the practices of "passing," cross-dressing, and transvestism all undermine a claim to permanent visible status for the categories of race and gender, but generally speaking, these practices (along with other potential subversions) are not common enough to undermine this claim as part of the framework for the issues I want to raise here. 

Above all, I speak about a nonwhite social experience because I want to emphasize that a failure to grasp the relationship between racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, classism, and homophobia is a failure to understand the strategy of divide and conquer, which ultimately must be understood if any afflicted group wants to transform the system. In this sense, I do encounter racism as a problem, and not only because of the way it hurts people of color, although this would seem to be enough from an ethical standpoint. 

Beyond and besides ethics, as a white woman I feel it is a mistake to think that my skin color is a ticket to subjecthood, for my whiteness does nothing to rescue me from my femaleness. Even when my whiteness does deliver the privileges it promises, these privileges come at a high price. On one level then, I experience racial hierarchy as a problem because I am a woman: I can see how my particular experience of oppression is intimately bound up with my being "white." Having access to privileges that women of color are denied does not mean that my race is not also a part of my disempowerment and exploitation, for it is. As Marilyn Frye puts it, white women are only deceiving themselves if they think that they "can escape the fate of being the women of the white men" (160). Furthermore, to the extent that white women delude themselves as to "where their privilege originates" (Rich, 287), they stand in the way of feminist progress. 

White women feminists often ignore the fact that many women cannot separate racism and sexism; that it is a privilege to do so; and that feminist criticism that does so compromises its own purported goals and potential political efficacy. The possibilities for women's empowerment, for an effectual women's movement, rest on the recognition of real issues of difference among women; we simply cannot afford to overlook the selective treatment of women under patriarchy and racism. Instead of Appendx 1 page break 118 | 119searching for ways in which we are the same when some of us are black and others white, some lesbians and others not, we must therefore strive to make our common ground the shared understanding that we are different. 
On a related note, I often think of how my white skin would do nothing to save me as a Jew if I had lived, or were to live, in Nazi-occupied territory. It is true that the politics of skin color in present-day American society allow me a favorable anonymity in terms of my Jewishness: for the time being, in most of the spaces I occupy, I count as white, as part of the dominant race. My Jewish education, however, has taught me that I cannot rely on this white status, nor would I want to. 

Ultimately, all of these issues inform my motives for the critical project I engage here. Asserting a politics of self-interest alongside a code of ethics might seem a repugnant gesture, yet I am making it anyway. I believe white women stand to benefit from a feminist approach that recognizes the relationship between racism and sexism and fights both. The axiom I employ in this critique is quite simple and not at all new: There can be no liberation for those dominated by gender hierarchy if racial hierarchy is left intact, nor can there be liberation for those dominated by racial hierarchy if gender hierarchy is left intact. This is a simple and unoriginal premise, but it is far from understood, or utilized, as a guiding principle in race and gender politics. next page

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