Often acknowledgements of privilege become rhetorical exercises rather than true engagements with individual locations within systems of oppression: we pay lip service to the fact that we have some kind of advantage, but we do not stop to consider how that advantage serves a system of oppression and plays out so that others are invisibly subjugated beneath us. A reminder of how this works came from, of all places, the Globe and Mail, in an article by Naomi Wolf.
Wolf describes the liberating effects of cheap, mass-produced fashion for Western women. We can readily enjoy the pleasures of shopping and with little money purchase new items and expand our wardrobes. Considering the closets of my friends, not to mention my own bulging-beyond-capacity closet, this is certainly true. Neither my friends nor I would classify ourselves as anything beyond middle class — and in fact we often claim the status of starving students — and yet we manage to find the money to regularly buy new dresses, shirts, stockings, purses, necklaces, earrings, as the mood strikes us, encouraged in this affordable materialism by television shows and movies that work hard to convince us that a pair of heels is what we need to feel good about our lives.
In her article, Wolf succinctly strips shopping of its glossy veneer:
But what has been liberating for Western women is a system built literally on the backs of women in the developing world.
And she forcefully reminds us that the inexpensive clothing we love to pick up is the result of the exploitation of women, whose material reality far differs from our own. How is such clothing produced?
By starving and oppressing Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexican, Haitian, and other women, that’s how. We all know that cheap clothing is usually made in sweatshop conditions – and usually by women. And we know – or should know – that women in sweatshops around the world report being locked in and forbidden to use bathrooms for long periods, as well as sexual harassment, violent union-busting, and other forms of coercion.
Wolf is right. My friends and I know that consumer goods are mainly the result of a capitalist system dependent upon not only a division of labour according to class but deeply racialized and gendered work forces. Some kind of cognitive dissonance seems to be at work when we shop, for our complicity in benefitting from and perpetuating this sytem eludes us in the moment of finding a pretty bargain.
Faced with issues such as this, we have to ask ourselves what kind of feminism we practise. We have faced marginalization and worse within a white women’s feminist movement that has made little space for us and overlooked us in its conviction that white women’s experiences and concerns are universal. And we haven’t been okay with that. We need to scrutinize our own feminism and ask ourselves, “Who’s included in it? Who do we stand in solidarity with? And can we justify a feminism that excludes our sisters in the Global South?”