i dream of being possible

#ltgsummit: thoughts on the keynote

So this is probably the first of a few posts that will be me largely processing what I heard and experienced at the LTG Summit. Our keynote speaker was Christine Williams and we had one of her speeches as an assigned reading – behind a paywall1. She somewhat discussed part of what was in that other speech, updating the notion of the glass escalator but with somewhat more emphasis on how this plays out in the current work culture and neoliberal economy.

I have two critcisms of how she presented these ideas. First, is how wholly white-centric her discussion was – particularly as it applied to her discussion of child rearing as social good. Second, the large gapping hole in her data. And these criticisms are connected via the way they singularly ignore and erase the reality and experiences of women of colour.

One of the things that featured prominently in her discussion was about the social good of having children. She noted that one of the continuing challenges of labour is creating a system that will support reproduction. At one point she noted the demographic challenges facing many white industrialized nations (as in, for Canada and the US, our birth rates are below replacement without immigration) is declining birth rates. This is partially, in her story, attributed to the difficulties surrounding work and secure employment. It sort of seems that she was saying that “white women thought they could have it all, but now that they are realizing that they can’t, they are choosing to work instead of have children.”

And, yes, I’m definitely making this about race. Because while we have white industrialized nations worried about the fact that settlers (I’m restricting my discussion to Canada and the US) aren’t reproducing enough to maintain hegemonic control over land that isn’t really ours to begin with, we also have a constant worrying – in the same nations – about the fact that there is an ‘over population’ problem in the third world.

The basic message of these two demographic concerns is: women of colour are having too many babies while white women aren’t having enough. And this is the actual problem. The US doesn’t actually have a declining birth rate. Not only because of ‘immigrants’ but because the numerically significant groups of Latin@s and/or Black people are having plenty of children2. In Canada, the Indigenous populations are actually growing fairly fast with a significantly higher birth rate than white settlers.

Unfortunately, this is the inevitable conclusion of her comments about raising children as social good. Almost no one considers is a ‘social good’ when women of colour have children. Especially not when they are having more children relative to white women.

This too, ties into her comments of work. I had a great deal of trouble taking her description of workplace problems when it was fairly clear that she was entirely erasing women of colour from the discussion. On the first pass, this is fairly evident from the gap in her data. She talks about ‘women’ in women-dominated fields and how some men (men of colour, trans men, and gay men) do not get to ride the glass escalator. But nowhere does she mention the experiences of women of colour. And the basic assumption that our experiences would be equivalent to that of white women is, well, false. Especially if we are talking about librarianship.

She discusses the disparity in promotions, salary, etc, between men who enter these fields vs. ‘women’ but not necessarily the disparity between the promotions and salary of additionally marginalized women in these fields. How much less are women of colour librarians making than white women? How much less disabled women vs. abled women? And whatever further instersections you can think of. This actually ties back to one of the points I discussed on my first blog post on the LTG Summit website, about the myth of shared experience.

This became particularly obvious when she talked about the history of women in the workplace, wherein it became obvious that she was really only concerned and discussing the history of white, middle class women in the workplace. Black women in the US have always been in the workplace. The fact that their early history of ‘work’ was via being enslaved and forced to do so without consent or compensation doesn’t actually change the fact that from the moment they were forced onto ‘American’ soil, they have been working. Yet, according to Williams’ ‘women’ fought to enter the workplace in the early/mid-20th century.

This combined with the way she discussed child care and the burden it places on ‘women’ made me cringe inwardly. For what of the Black women (and today, the Latin@ and Asian women) whose jobs were raising the children of white women – both before and after white, middle class women fought to join the workforce – who then had to go home and raise their own children? What of them? They have been struggling with the work/life balance problem long before current discussions about it began (essentially when white women started realizing that having to work full time and raise children is a really hard thing to do).

Unfortunately, none of these criticisms are particularly new. They definitely aren’t original to me. These are exactly the sorts of things that Black feminists having been criticizing white feminism for, for quite some time now. Moreover, since Williams self-IDd as a second wave feminism, these are criticisms that have been long levied by Black feminists against second wave feminism in particular. bell hooks wrote Ain’t I a Woman? over thirty years ago. It also explains why she was willing to blithely make a transmisogynist joke (to which most of the audience laughed), since the second wave is also not known for their love of trans women.

I really thought that this keynote started us off on the wrong foot and set a poor precedent for discussing the issues of the day. It didn’t do enough to challenge an audience of primarily white women, instead helping to solidify and confirm subtle biases and framing the discussion in a non-intersectional way.

  1. I’m sort of assuming that the keynote isn’t covered by the Chantham house rules because, well, the website clearly identifies who gave the speech. 

  2. Note, I will not discuss the ‘immigrant’ status of Black people and/or Latin@s. Just. Nope. I refuse to engage in a demographic framing that posits white settlers as the ‘native’ population and everyone else as ‘immigrants.’