Edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence
Reviewed by May Lui
I remember hearing about Color of Violence for a number of months/years before it was published, and anxiously waiting for it at the time. Until 2005, I had spent almost 10 years working for the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, so I’d had years of experience in waiting for a great new book. This one in particular was significant because of the centering of women of colour in the narratives, in the analyses and in the articulation of the solutions, many of them across communities. All the essays include an understanding of intersectionality, meaning that many women have multiple sites of oppression and to single out only one site for analysis (gender) is to prioritize white, middle class, heteronormative cis-women and to mute the voices of all who don’t fall into that narrow view.
There are some well-known writers and scholars who contributed to the anthology like Andrea Smith and Julia Sudbury as well as various members of the Incite! Collective such as Janelle White, Andrea J. Ritchie and Nadine Nabar. As an emerging writer myself, I also appreciate being exposed to writers I had not previously heard of, as well as reading about movements and actions going on in various local areas and regions.
Before I get to the review, I want to share a bit about me and why Black Coffee Poet asked me to review this collection. I worked in VAW in the early 90s, doing front-line work in a group home for young women aged 14 to 18. I was there for five years and it was my first social service employment. The group home where I worked had a very strong feminist analysis, but it sadly lacked much of a class or race analysis within that framework. It was very queer-friendly for both the staff and the young women we worked with, but I could see the challenges of putting theory into practice since bureaucracy and working with institutions such as the police and the various children’s aid societies were necessary. Nonetheless, the place did good client-centric work, and the front-line workers did our best to empower the young women we worked for, to facilitate them to find their voices and to reclaim their lives after experiencing various kinds of violence, mostly within their families of origin. I’ve also worked as a manager in a VAW phone referral service agency, and for the past 6 years have worked as a consultant with mostly VAW service organizations, doing trainings, organizational support, planning and evaluation with staff teams, management teams and boards of directors.
My analysis of VAW comes from a deeply inclusive anti-racist anti-oppression feminist perspective, which encompasses the many ways in which systemic and institutional violence is perpetuated against women, as well as individual acts of violence.
Color of Violence is divided into three sections: Reconceptualizing Antiviolence Struggles, Forms of Violence and Building Movement.
When we read or hear the word “violence”, we often think of a very particular kind of violence: one person striking, hitting or assaulting another. The fact of state violence, that is, legalizing violence against groups of people, is of course included, but not always mentioned in anti-violence politics. So the idea of reconceptualizing antiviolence struggles is important.
Nirmala Erevelles’ article, Disability in the New World Order talks about the links between poverty and disability, colonialism and economic dependence from a macro-IMF-“Third World” perspective (“Third World” is in quotes as Erevelles uses it, and it’s also a stand-in for the term “communities of colour”). She connects issues of health, health promotion, inequity and disability. She describes a chilling World Bank policy in which people are ranked and valued based on the disease they have, their potential future productivity, and given aid or support on that basis. Children, the elderly, and anyone who is disabled who is assumed to be unable to work are given a value of zero and little to no access to public health services.
Also in the first section is Andrea Smith’s now-classic essay Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy. I’ve used this article many times in intermediate and advanced anti-oppression workshops that I’ve conducted over the past five years.
The first pillar is Slavery/Capitalism and “the logic of slavery” which Smith describes as Blackness being equated to property and “slaveability”. While the forms and methods of slavery have changed over the years of the existence of the state of the U.S. , the logic of slavery persists, and is a foundational reality of the formation and maintenance of the prison industrial complex.
The second pillar is Genocide/Colonialism, “the logic of genocide”. The settler mentality, in both the U.S. and Canada has been that all indigenous peoples and communities need to disappear, so that the lie of the settler state, unfettered access resources and land ownership by non-Natives can gain legitimacy. Under this logic, it’s okay to take and use land if the previous owners not longer exist.
The third pillar is Orientalism/War, “the logic of Orientalism”. Smith uses the term more broadly than Edward Said meant in his ground-breaking book Orientalism, and she describes it as meaning the process of “othering” any country that the U.S. is targeting for war or invasion. The practice of orientalism also serves to support anti-immigration policies domestically.
Smith’s analysis is that any of the pillars can be used to ignore or diminish the other two, and in order to resist this, and to prevent our movements and activism from duplicating this structure, attention must be paid to each. She brings all three pillars together with her final section on heteropatriarchy and white supremacy, which she describes as the underpinning of capitalism in the nation-state. Smith states “in order to colonize people whose societies are not based on social hierarchy, colonizers must first naturalize hierarchy through instituting patriarchy”.
The second section of the collection, Forms of Violence, describes many different forms of state violence against women of colour, all of which could be expanded to be separate volumes on their own. This section has essays and articles that cover state violence in the forms of: border patrols, prisons, wars, law enforcement, the INS and the immigration system in the U.S., and medical violence.
I will be discussing Patricia Allard’s piece Crime, Punishment and Economic Violence. Allard talks about the right-wing talking points “tough on crime” and the “war on drugs” as the primary mechanisms to incarcerate different communities of colour in the U.S. She lists some statistics on rates of women in prison populations in the U.S. and how they’ve massively increased since 1980. Women are further penalized in addition to their incarceration in a few ways. Some of those ways include the infamous “welfare reform” brought in by Bill Clinton in 1996; an amendment to the Higher Education Act, making it impossible to receive federal education grants if a woman was convicted of a drug-related misdemeanor while attending a college or university; and an eviction from public housing for anyone with a felony or misdemeanor conviction. Put together, we can see how even the few options available for women to get themselves out of poverty, and many of the conditions that lead to drug-related crimes, were curtailed or eliminated over time.
This is perhaps the most challenging of all forms of violence to dismantle, given that the mechanisms are those in which we all move and function in various ways. But since these same mechanisms are killing our neighbourhoods and families, it’s vital that we find some solutions, separately and together, so that we can move past surviving to healthy and thriving communities.
The third section, Building Movement, has many practical, creative and incredible essays and articles. Topics range from building alliances to collective leadership to specific examples from a few different communities about how to resist and to make change real.
Included in this section is a statement by the Incite! Collective, called Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex. It’s powerful and moving and is worth reading and passing on to others. Another very strong statement is “Trans Action for Social and Economic Justice” by TransJustice, a project of The Audre Lorde Project, which calls for a Trans Day of Action. As an aside, for 13 years there have been international events held on November 20th, marking the Trans Day of Remembrance. The TransAction project also calls for a Trans and Gender Nonconforming People of Color Job and Education Fair in New York City.
Because of my employment history (and present), I was very interested to read Emi Koyama’s piece Disloyal to Feminism: Abuse of Survivors within the Domestic Violence Shelter System.
By adopting the view that domestic violence is not the act of one abuser against his or her victim, but all men against all women, we have made it easier to frame the violence and abuse by women against other women within the anti-domestic violence movement as individual rather than systemic, and thus, less worthy of our collective attention.
Koyama describes how shelter workers “police” the women they are working for and how the rules are applied more harshly to women of colour and women either in recovery or dealing with substance abuse issues. She became a volunteer and employee in various anti-violence organizations, hoping she could work from the inside to make changes for women of colour. She found many structural barriers. Koyama shares the stories of two women who name, among other things, not being able to talk about their struggles with substances/drugs, their involvement with sex work and for one, her experience of Transphobia. Koyama also talks about the professionalization of anti-violence work, and how it leads to depoliticization. As more government funding is received and depended upon, so are anti-violence organizations subject to greater scrutiny and restrictions placed on their work, in particular the inability to use a feminist anti-oppression framework, and constraints on advocacy and prevention projects. Koyama ends with a call to activism: “What if we had an organization that did not provide any services itself, but organized survivors and advocates to fight for survivors’ collective as well as individual interests…?” She further argues for a meta-organization to fight for the rights of front-line shelter workers. She describes this strategy as hyper-institutionalization which would in theory create a balance in the power structure, since the professionalism and government funding on the one side currently holds all the power, compared to isolated groups of survivors who seek services from shelters and other anti-violence organizations. It’s an intriguing idea.
This is an extremely important book for anyone connected to anti-violence moments, services or activism.
Many of the essays used highly theoretical language and structures that sometimes obscured the points being made. I firmly believe that writing should be accessible to all, and especially such an important work as this is, that people don’t feel like they have to be formally educated to make sense of the ideas and theories of the various contributors. At the same time, the inclusion of poetry, journal and personal-narrative style pieces were a welcome grounding for me, since the theory must be practiced and actualized in order to become real. The hope and energy to make a difference in all the ways in which violence is perpetuated against people considered “other” or those who don’t matter to the status quo must be practiced and actualized.
I had admired the work of the Incite! Collective for a few years prior to the publishing of this anthology. A radical, grassroots U.S.-based collective founded and run by radical feminists of color, they are an inspiration to how feminist politics could be practiced in Canada.
Since the publication of Color of Violence, the collective has published The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Andrea Smith, co-founder of Incite! wrote Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. There are also numerous free publications in pdf format available on their website: www.incite-national.org
May Lui is a Toronto-based writer who is mixed-race, anti-racist, feminist and an all-around troublemaker. She blogs at maysie.ca, ranting and raving at any and all injustices and uses the f-bomb regularly. She’s been published in the Toronto Star, Fireweed Magazine, Siren Magazine, in the anthology With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, at section15.ca and rabble.ca. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet.com Wednesday December 7th, 2011 for an interview with Michelle Basha of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre.