The question of difference (Part two of three):  Meaning of difference

Sleeping, turning in turn like planets

Sleeping, turning in turn like planets
rotating in their midnight meadow:
a touch is enough to let us know
we’re not alone in the universe, even in sleep:
the dream-ghosts of two worlds
walking their ghost-towns, almost address each other.
I’ve wakened to your muttered words
spoken light- or dark-years away
as if my own voice had spoken.
But we have different voices, even in sleep,
and our bodies, so alike, are yet so different
and the past echoing through our bloodstreams
is freighted with different language, different meanings —
though in any chronicle of the world we share
it could be written with new meaning
we were two lovers of one gender,
we were two women of one generation.

By Adrienne Rich

I learned of difference through the writing of black feminists. Because my feminist birth was as a Third World feminist located in the West, black voices were my theoretical mentors – leading me through the quagmire of feminist theory that could be as disorienting as it was powerful. I learned from them that the question of difference and domination are not far apart, and this conversation of difference has historically and socially been constituted. I learned from them that representation is subordination – I am representing Mira; she is not representing me – and that the study of one is not very different from study of the ‘other’. I learned the value in understanding the power of representation and the importance of difference that is central to this power. In fact, all feminists have been engaging with this for a long time – about who can speak, for whom, in what situation, under what circumstance, what does speaking entail, and who is listening to this speech and so on and so forth. So, the question of difference and representation are closely linked, and I learned that we have to engage with it together.

Feminists such as Joan Scott have long been rejecting the very idea of a universal women or a singular narrative and have been embracing the uncomfortable-ness of paradox, of contradiction, of ambiguity. They have been, instead, strongly advocating for difference being central to understanding the subversive potential and agency of feminism and of feminist study. To that end, I found the notion of living in the borderlands to be quite powerful –

To live in the borderlands

To live in the borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra espanola
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from;
To live in the Borderlands means knowing that the India in you, betrayed for 500 years,
is no longer speaking to you,
the mexicanas call you rajetas, that denying the Anglo inside you
is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black;
Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half-both woman and man, neither-a new gender;
To live in the Borderlands means to
put chile in the borscht,
eat whole wheat tortillas,
speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent;
be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints;
Living in the Borderlands means you fight hard to
resist the gold elixir beckoning from the bottle,
the pull of the gun barrel,
the rope crushing the hollow of your throat;
In the Borderlands
you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger,
the border disputes have been settled
the volley of shots have scattered the truce
you are wounded, lost in action
dead, fighting back;
To live in the Borderlands means
the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off
your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart
pound you pinch you roll you out
smelling like white bread but dead;
To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.

By Gloria Anzaldua

What does being a cross-roads mean when you are functioning from the position of privilege? What I have found fairly often in our work is that conversations of difference is concentrated along. . . well, differences. So, if I am a Savarna woman, the politics that I have to be aware of employing in the context of Dalit women is fairly clear to me. But I rarely question or engage with the politics of power that I am employing with other Savarna women in my position. Just as Dalit women are universally brushed with the same flattening brush – so also are the politics of difference and power between Savarna women. So, the concentration on difference is not just useful for between communities of women, but also within the communities of women. If we have to use an example, we already know that Mira and I are not seen as equals – our transient friendship is not a harmless one. But the power that adjudicates our roles in this relationship is a lot more visible and therefore, easier to identify than the ones between my friend and me in that methodology class. For me, the cross-roads are these spaces: where we are sitting in the middle ground; the uncomfortable borderlands of not belonging to or not wanting to belong to; the borderlands where we are implicated by those who are not us, and by those who are us; the borderlands where our position appears fixed, but is constantly moving with the changing social scenery around us  – the borderlands where we are going somewhere and nowhere at the same time.

To me, the crossroads and the borderlands are good analogies for thinking of the question of difference because it means that I cannot deny the skin in which I was born in and therefore, to the privilege to which I was born. And yet, it allows me to move beyond my own subject position to see where my body and my skin is – to essentially move across the boundaries to know where they are. My black feminist mentors have taught me that none of my identities are so exclusive that we can measure out our differences, in the same simplistic way that we measure out our identities. Instead, we have to accept that even within us are competing identities, and although discourse has created a methodology around boundaries on who gets to claim an identity and who cannot, identities themselves are organic, fluid, multiple, and are focused on location, context and practice. The road to engaging with identity alone is fraught with problems, as identities have become so fragmented that they run a risk of “a conceptual descent to ‘nothingness’ by fragmenting women’s experiences” (De Rues, Few & Blume, p.g. 7). So, while I believe that difference and domination are twin forces, I also believe that they are historically and socially constituted and cannot be fixed into particular universal categories.

One of my friends worried that I might be representating all acts of representation as one. She provided the very useful analogy of punching up and punching down – that when someone is representing the person higher up on the hierarchies of power and privilege, it is fundamentally different from one when you are representing someone lower down the totem pole. She asked me, for example, whether I’d be okay with a man writing a treatise on the MeToo movement. Honestly, I would be. I would prefer a feminist man writing one than a woman who is not. Maybe, I do not take the politics of gender identity too seriously (as I ought to), because my feminist mentor was a white hetereosexual male, and he has taught me to question all manners of labels that we tend to stick on ourselves and then onto other people. So, my argument is actually that context matters and there can be moments of mutuality across and through difference. There can be a listening, and a hearing, and a speaking and a talking and a crying and a laughing and all those emotions that my black mentors have taught me are part of the larger feminist vocabulary.

Perhaps, that is the reason why I like Anzaldua’s idea of crossroads and the idea of borderlands is because of their ability to capture the multi-facetedness of our existence. All too often, we are drawn to our descriptors, and I am beginning to think that sitting quietly in these crossroads, or the borderlands of the identity quagmire that we find ourselves in might be a useful exercise. Even the enterprise of theorising about difference rests very much on the power that difference bestows. Yet, it is still an important one to ask, precisely because of the power that privilege bestows upon me.

So, I invoke Mira again and again as someone who spoke to me (literally and figuratively). My interactions with Mira were deeply personal. Some of the details that she told me over the course of the day was not something that she had shared with anyone outside of her family. She didn’t know me, and yet, my being there opened up something between us. Perhaps she told me because there was space for her to tell that story. Perhaps, the fear of violence and the fear of rape is so universal that it does bind us in that one conversation together – each knowing what the other is saying and what the other is not saying. I think of Mira often not because she refused my notion of what violence feels like, but my notion of what she needed to be because she was a victim of violence.  Mira taught me that structures and identities do define us, but they cannot be made into prisons or traps for ourselves. They provide space for pushing, for subversion, for defiance, for non-conformance. Just like patriarchy provides a systems of bargains within its systems of oppression, as Deniz Kandiyotti claimed a few decades ago, there are spaces in between our differences and our identities that can make room for the concept of the imagination. I’ll end the three-part blog series by writing about the implications of the poverty of imagination.

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

Niveditha Menon
Senior Research Advisor, CBPS

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