debi withers reviews a collection on the intersection of race and queer politics, which slips between first-person narratives, manifestos and academic tracts
Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness / Raciality is the latest book from Raw Nerve, the independent feminist publishers based in the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York. The collection of essays is based on the papers from an academic conference of the same name, held in Lancaster in 2006, and attempts to cover a wide range of perspectives that examine the intersection of queer and anti-racist writing, experience and activism.
The strength of the book lies in the number of different voices in which these critiques are articulated, ranging from academic high-theory, to ethnography, to activist writings and personal testimony, manifestos and the performance diary of a gender queer drag queen. The book is divided into four sections, which address a selection of critical issues relating to the War on Terror, queerness, race, embodiment, visuality and translation. This plurality of forms is in line with Raw Nerve’s commitment to publishing books and pamphlets that do not fit neatly into academic, activist or popular writing, but instead seek to move across critical ‘genres’ and disciplines by creating a multi-voice collection (see, for example, The Feminist Seventies which similarly mixes testimonies and analysis). This really brings the energy of the conference itself into the collection, as many different lively debates are presented for the reader to engage with. For what singular voice or critical style could do justice to the immense knot of questioning and critique that needs to be mobilised in relation to the subjects of queer, race and their intersections?
That said, if the publishers were intending a market for the book outside of academic circles, they could have done better than pick Jasbir K Puar’s article, ‘Homonationalism and biopolitics’ to begin the collection; it doesn’t exactly ease the reader in gently. The article is heavily theoretical (even for me, who happily struggles through critical theory texts as a hobby) and if your mind is not amenable to such thought gymnastics and shirks away from such sentences as: “The term might reiterate the normative understanding of the radical incommensurability of the two subject positions staged together and graft a normative modernist gendered binary frame onto an otherwise far more complexly related sex-gender-desire triad”, I advise you give this article a skip. However, if you are willing to wade past the iron jargon, the article does make important critical points and is cited favourably by other writers in the collection.
‘Gay imperialism: gender and sexuality discourse in the “War on Terror”‘ casts the collection’s critical web over the new hyper-visibility of gay Muslims, in the years following 9/11, in the gay media, as well as scrutinising the dodgy political engagements of the self-proclaimed saviour of vulnerable gays the world over, Peter Tatchell. Tatchell continues to be an infuriating figure for anti-racist feminists and queers. His dogmatic ways have led him, on several occasions, to be told by activists in the countries he is trying to ‘save’ from homophobia, to keep out of their business for the damaging impact he is having on them (only in February 2007 was he told to “stay out of African LGBTI issues”). The authors isolate Tatchell as an instrumental figure in circulating ideas in public discourses where “Muslim” and “homophobic” have become synonymous. In so doing, they demonstrate how Islamophobia can be reinforced equally by those on the left and on those on the right, creating an “industry [which] proves racism more clearly than ever to be a white problem, which crosses other social and political differences”. While I do not completely agree with the authors’ assertion here I personally see racism as a problem of hierarchy that cannot be annexed to any particular race essentially the perpetuation of Islamophobia, or, more specifically, anti-Islamic racism, certainly seems to be a severe problem propagated by the factions of the LGBT, white dominated media.
The article offers an important comment on the forms of gay imperialism in LGBT media, through content analysis of publications such as The Pink Paper. It is critical of how gay Muslims are painted as victims that can be ‘saved’ from the backward, homophobic Islamic culture. Not only do these discourses, the authors argue, represent gay Muslims in one-dimensional ways (as victims without agency), they simultaneously deny gay Muslims the right to represent themselves, reinforce damaging stereotypes and fuel Islamophobia.
The closing article in this section is based on Adi Kuntsman’s fascinating ethnographic research on Russian speaking queer immigrants and online communities in Israel / Palestine. This article is not only interesting for its particular subject matter, but for Kuntsman’s writing out of her immersion in the research process which is in turns poetic, connective and lucid. Her study, which was conducted in 2001, demonstrates how these new immigrants were both victims of homophobic and racist abuse from Israelis (who saw the immigrants as Western, but “not Western enough”) and perpetrators of verbal violence towards the Palestinian people. Kuntsman argues that the Russian-speaking queer immigrants enact a kind of homopatriotism that sexualises Israeli military might and violently fetishises the oppression of the Palestinian people.
In Kuntsman’s analysis, these forms of racist violence conducted by the Russian speaking queer immigrants are linked to the forms of violence they experience as outsiders within Israeli society. However, the study refuses any kind of simplistic approach that would present her research subjects as simply victims or perpetrators of violence, but instead positions them as complexly intertwined in the production of a queer home which is “constituted by violence and saturated by it”.
The next section of the book is collected under the subtitle ‘Embodying silences in queerness / raciality’ and draws upon yet more interesting sites of ethnographic research. Esperanza Miyake uses her fieldwork with Manchester’s Lesbian and Gay Chorus as the basis of her article, and interrogates issues of silence, inclusion, community and belonging within the collective queer choir.
In the desperate yearning for wholeness and unifying resonance that underpins any marginalised group’s secret ideals for belonging (to each other), some kinds of spaces of exclusion will always crop up to ruin everything. This has, historically, been the place of race within feminist and queer movements. Miyake critiques the idea that, because you’re gay, you understand what it means to be oppressed in every instance. She highlights how gay people in the choir covered up important racial differences in order to present a public, collective voice, which in turn enacted a kind of violence against people of colour’s particular experiences of oppression that differ, qualitatively, from gay people’s.
‘What are you doing here?’ examines how bodies become racialised in social spaces through “the look”, by offering two contrasting experiences of night out in a busy Manchester gay nightclub. The co-authored piece combines personal reflections and critical material, and explores the different experiences the two authors, one white woman and one black woman, have in their evening out.
Nina conveys the ease in which she moved through the space of the nightclub, feeling at home in the mostly white nightclub (even if she is self-conscious about how white the space is).
Tara describes her “overwhelming feeling of dread” before she enters the space and admits that she would not have gone in if she was by herself. She describes how just by being there, she felt like she “had transgressed some unwritten, but widely understood secret code” and the look that she received from others “should have been enough for me to realise this and go back to where I came from”.
The article is an astute exploration of how race is not something that is in anyway natural or given, but is socially produced – bodies become racialised within cultural space through other people’s (equally racialised) looks. How you receive these looks, and what kind of looks are given to you as “an everyday practice, which is experienced on the body”, these authors convincingly demonstrate, depends upon the colour of your skin.
The close of this section sees Thomas Viola’s diary of drag performance that seeks to ‘Un/Stage’ white beauty. The diary takes the reader through Viola’s self-conscious preparation for the performance, and explores numerous critiques of whiteness through which sh/e seeks to dislodge the normative presence of white’s beauty on stage. Like so much of the collection, that explores the sticky and implicated positions we occupy as racialised subjects, Viola foregrounds their privilege and humbly presents the limits of their critique how ultimately, in their whiteness sh/e “still has the privilege to decide when and where to present…critique, and I still have the privilege to deploy the position of a white drag beauty if I want to”.
As the collection progresses, you do get the sense of it being like a tasty critical mixtape, with the amount of different voices that get a look in. Carmen Vazquez’s personal manifesto for voice and visibility idealistically and (a)rousingly jars against the more theoretical moments in the collection whose authors, I am sure, would cringe at his mobilisation of “authentic” working class, Puerto-Rican, male-identified, lesbian experience. This is, however, testimony to the editors and publishers who are brave enough to include what would seem by some “critically queer” standards as unsophisticated and essentialist identity politics who shirk away from any invocations towards “authentic” or “real” experience (“sophisticated” subjectivity is constructed, rather than politically claimed). We are not yet, however, beyond the attempt to touch a common humanity, even within critique, and that Vazquez talks so unrestrictedly of “individual and collective liberation” is encouraging.
What collection of queer theory would be complete without giving The L-Word a look in? Love it or hate it, that TV show is certainly fodder for any cultural theorist wishing to cast their critical compass over contemporary queer culture, and why not, it’s all good fun isn’t it? This time, the article, complete with Audre Lorde epigraph and “baggy monster” treatment courtesy of queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, gives The L-Word a good once-over from a critical race perspective. Miriam Strubbe finds the show to be both progressive and normative and says it leaves her feeling decidedly ambivalent about it. Bet she’s glued to every episode though, in order to reach that conclusion.
The final section of the collection returns to the more theoretical voices. Anniruddha Dutta’s article examines English-language Indian newspapers, while Maria Amelia Viteri’s article explores the border crossings enabled by her being “Latina / queer / migrant / white / mestiza”, combined with the unfolding the numerous trans-locations her research participants inhabit. She presents the transformation of the racialised queer body as it moves across borders: “The symbolic and material implications of what appears as ‘only’ swimming across a river, ‘only’ walking through an imaginary of clearly defined national border, constitutes in itself a corporeal process of translation”, demonstrating that queer not only refers to the travel of gender and sexuality across borders, but also refers to transformations in embodiment as they cross actual geographical borders; in the act of translation (which is always incomplete, insufficient or additional) the body becomes something else.
The final word of the collection comes from Jin Haritaworn and his writing buddies, as they powerfully explore what they describe as the depoliticisation of the “intersectionality talk”. Intersectionality is a bit of a buzz work in academic and activist circles, where you might hear something like “we must attend to the intersections of race, sex and class in our analysis.” However, many feminist and queer activist spaces remain white, and race is implicitly meant to refer to black or non-white people, sex = women and class = working class.
It rarely opens out into a full-blown analysis of the structures and mechanisms that mark us all as racialised, classed, sexed, gendered, disABLED, old, young or wherever we may be multiply positioned within the order of things.
The authors argue that it has become a rather convenient mantra for the politically correct to protect themselves from accusations of negligence, without necessarily doing any of the hard work the concept requires: the work of building strong and challenging coalitions that delve into the painful truths of privilege and disadvantage that our lives carry within them. The article also contains a really good history of anti-racist feminist writing, and is a strong introduction for anybody wishing to sharpen their tools in this area.
A vigorous, queer, anti-racist methodology and activism is yet to be built, the authors argue, and they impress upon the need for a “collective political memory, which honours and acknowledges the basis upon which we are attempting to construct new emancipatory knowledges”. They offer strong words to finish the collection, which will, I hope, enable new departures in the arena of critical race theory from a queer and feminist perspective.
Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness / Raciality covers a wide range of styles and perspectives, but does it really offer something for everyone? It probably errs on the side of the academic, and I did certainly have to have my wits about me while reading it. It differs from your traditional academic book in that it does include so many non-traditional forms of critical voices and the way it mixes experience and critique, and draws upon eclectic, and at times quirky, material for its ethnography. This means that it is lively enough to appeal to a wider audience – although the need to be intellectually bent, and not just bent, is probably desirable to really get what all the articles are about. For the conscientious queer feminist anti-racist activist and scholar the book is a must, and a bit of an adventure.