Jun 23, 2015

playing the other to show your solidarity with them

There seems to be widespread agreement that it was wildly unethical for Rachel Dolezal to pretend to be black, and particularly to use her false identity to gain a job working for racial justice with the NAACP.  Perhaps she didn't consciously think of it this way (did she really have much clear self-reflection?), but one (perhaps too charitable) interpretation is that she was pretending to be the other as a misguided way to be in solidarity with them.  

It has been much more common in the US and Canada for white folks to pretend to be native (a la Grey Owl) - so much so that there is an entire book about it, and the fabulous term pretendian. Actually Rachel also claims to be native and, get this, to have been born in a tipi.  Because I guess being pretend black wasn't enough?

I assume that most readers of this blog would think it was a bad idea to dress like a stereotype of a native person to express your solidarity with indigenous people, and to repudiate and raise awareness of ongoing violence against them. Even if it were only for a day, I think most of us would think it was offensive to, say, do a campaign to wear a headband with a feather for a day to raise donations to end the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada (#MMIW).

How is it then that campaigns where men dress up like stereotypical women for a day to raise awareness of sexual violence are somehow more acceptable and gaining traction? There is not only one but two of these that are spreading across the US, Canada and Australia and happen annually in April and May.

The Australian campaign is called 'red my lips' (see photo) and money raised goes to a, as they put it, "rape and domestic violence" 24-7 hotline.

Recently Toronto media was full of photos from the annual Walk a mile in her shoes action, which has the slogan "heels heal". A bit bizarre really, since in my experience, and according to most podiatrists and back experts of all sorts, they actually hurt you. 

Heels are certainly not my shoes, and these days they're really not most women's shoes, but somehow for this action they are being used to symbolize standing with women against gender based violence.

As they put it, "By wearing heels and acting in solidarity with women, we want to show that we'll do whatever it takes to make this a safer world for everyone." Because, you know, wearing heels is an extreme act for a cisgendered (ie, not trans) man. So much so that many seemed to feel the need to otherwise assert their masculinity. Even the headline in the Toronto Star proclaimed, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes is no small feat, and the article writes about men feeling women's pain. Well, I regularly write on this blog about the dangers of empathy experiments, but let me say it again. Men who walk a mile in pumps that few women wear really have only the very slightest taste of what it is like to live as a woman in a patriarchy - but thinking that they know more about it than they do might actually do more harm than good. 

For the record, I do appreciate that the money that the Toronto event raises goes towards educating men and boys on how to build healthy equal relationships, how to stop street harassment, etc.. But the main site for this event, based in the US, seems to be quite a business.  It's full of trademark signs and merchandise.  You can buy your extra large red high heels here, as well as branded t-shirts, stickers, etc. 

These play the other campaigns are even more problematic than the dress like an "indian" for a day scenario, because of the additional complication of transphobia.  Rather than blurring it, these campaigns seem to harden a gender binary. Rather than making it more normal to think that more male identified people might sometimes choose to dress in more feminine ways, it is presented as something slightly outrageous, courageous even. It is done only one day a year, to great acclaim, and rewards of actual donations to your cause. 

Ironically these campaigns reinforce the heteropatriarchy's systems of power that they claim to be working against. This is just not the kind of respectful solidarity I would appreciate as a woman living in a world full of gender based violence.  But 

I realize that this is a cranky feminist post and I'm open to hearing other perspectives on these actions, please respond in the comments!