What Did the 90s Teach Us About Feminism and Race?

Kara, I was recently on NPR’s “Tell Me More” for my new book (everyone, buy it here!), and Michel Martin asked me about talking to kids about race. She mentioned the great chapter of the new book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, which says that not talking about race makes kids self-segregate.

Essentially, even if like us you live in a diverse neighborhood, in a diverse city and have a diverse group of friends, if you’re white and don’t explicitly tell your kids that people of other races are okay, they will resort to some kind of tribalism and only hang out with other white kids.

Now, the 90s were super weird about race. On one hand, because of all the consciousness raising, inside of the feminist movement I saw a weird fetishizing of outsider status, like in theory you had more credibility if you were of color, (or gay, or an abuse survivor, etc.). Identity politics got kind of weirdly competitive.

At the same time, it seemed like middle-class white feminists were kind of writing the script, and most of the books, and setting the agenda, often oblivious to the fact that women of color had issues that were not addressed by what was being called mainstream feminism.

This tension lives on in strange ways. Once I gave a lecture on theater at a super “progressive” college and got jumped in the question and answer period. They kept asking me about minstrelsy because I showed a video of the Wau Wau Sisters, a bawdy trapeze act, and they kept saying things like, “Would Kiki and Herb have performed at Carnegie Hall if they were BLACK?!” (First of all, lots of black people have performed at Carnegie Hall. Second of all, K &H were gay, poor and at least somewhat trans. Third, I was there just to show some videos of what was going on in the downtown NYC scene, not to justify it on a personal-is-political purity scale.)

Anyway, I later learned from a teacher at that college that a class of performance students was concerned that the black students would feel oppressed by the white students in some acting exercise that involved moving each other around the stage. So their progressive answer was to have separate but equal performance studies seminars.

Where am I going with this? I’m not really sure. I just think it’s good to bring up, because in general I think there’s been such a rebellion against p.c. in recent years that everyone acts like there’s such a thing as “post-racism,” when there obviously is still loooots of racism. Since a big part of that seems to come from white people trying to ignore the issue or pretending it’s over because Obama’s in the White House, I thought I’d at least bring it up.



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2 responses to “What Did the 90s Teach Us About Feminism and Race?

  1. I supposed with third wave feminism came more awareness of people of color or just non-white non-able bodied, non american women. Black women are still left out of the “mainstream feminist” discourse, unfortunately. Because of this, black feminism is growing, and I see younger women getting into it all the time.

    I noticed that in the 90s there was a lot of political corrected that hid underlying racism. It seems that middle class white girls understood what they were supposed to say/like/do/be friends with but still didn’t really get the picture :/

  2. Wow, that was riddled with grammar and spelling errors. It’s late! Or early, whatever…

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