Tears, Fears and Careers: Anti-Racism and Emotion in Social Movement Organizations
Srivastava, Sarita, Canadian Journal of Sociology
Abstract: Debates about anti-racism in many organizations often collapse into emotional and turbulent scenes characterized by anger and tears. The central concerns of this paper are the practices and discourses of emotional expression that shape what can be said in these organizational debates about racism and anti-racism. A predominant mode of discussion in many social movement organizations, particularly those inspired by feminist and collectivist histories, is one that privileges the disclosure of personal experiences and emotion. I demonstrate that this wide-spread mode of discussion, which I refer to as the "let's talk" approach, also produces a tightly controlled space for the expression and suppression of knowledge and feelings about racism. In particular, interviews with feminists active in anti-racist efforts shows that this "let's talk" approach often deflects and personalizes attempts at organizational change. The implication of this research is that simply "adding" feelings to organizational efforts, as some sociologists of emotion, feminist scholars and activists have suggested, is an enterprise that must be carefully interpreted. This paper suggests we should be re-thinking not only the practices of emotion in organizations, but also the historical relations of power that prompt emotional resistance to discussions of race.
Resume: Le debat sur l'anti-racisme dans nombre d'organismes donne souvent lieu a des scenes emotionnelles et turbulentes caracterisees par de la colere et des larmes. Au centre de l'article se trouvent les pratiques et les discours sur l'expression emotionnelle qui faconnent ce que l'on peut dire dans ces debats organisationnels sur le racisme et l'anti-racisme. Le mode de discussion predominant clans de nombreux organismes de mouvements sociaux, surtout ceux qui sont nes des evolutions feministes et collectivistes, privilegie la communication d'experiences et d'emotions personnelles. Je demontre que ce mode de discussion largement repandu que j'appelle la demarche << entre nous >>, produit aussi un espace tres controle pour l'expression et la suppression de connaissances et de sentiments sur le racisme. Tout particulierement, les entrevues avec des feministes actives dans l'effort anti-raciste montrent que la demarche << entre nous >> >> devie et personnalise souvent les tentatives de changement organisationnel. Les reepercussions de cette recherche signifient qu' en simplement << ajoutant >> >> des sentiments a l'effort organisationnel, comme certains sociologues d'emotions, universitaires feministes et activistes l'ont suggere, represente une approche qu'il faut soigneusement interpreter. Cet article suggere de repenser non seulement la pratique de l'emotion dans les organismes, mais aussi les relations historiques du pouvoir qui declenchent la resistance emotionnelle aux discussions sur la race.
We believe that feelings are immutable, but every sentiment, particularly the noblest and most disinterested, has a history.
Deeply divisive conflicts over racism have been some of the strongest challenges facing social movements, organizations and many institutions in North America; they have rattled the fragile unities of both "woman" and "worker" as the ground for solidarity. In my studies of organizational efforts at anti-racism, I have found that while social movement activists have often willingly gathered to discuss anti-racism, meaningful organizational change remains elusive. Between these two points--heartfelt intention and meaningful change--is a vast space of dead-ends, deadlocks, and fractious organizational debates over how to make more equitable, anti-racist spaces. Why have these discussions so often failed?
In attempting to address this question, we must first acknowledge that the context of anti-racist discussions in social movement organizations is unique. Here I am referring broadly to organizations that are inspired by collectivist or "alternative" ideals (1) such as community-building, equity, progressive social change, egalitarianism; these may include advocacy, educational, community and service organizations and institutions. The emotional tenor, the stakes, and the individual and organizational responses in anti-racist debates are heightened in social movement sites in ways that differ, for example, from bureaucratic discussions of multicultural policy among civil servants, (2) even as they share with other racial encounters an historical foundation of inequity in the production of racial knowledge and representations of race, class and gender. While New Social Movement theory has been important for exploring some of these symbolic aspects of social movement activity (LaClau & Mouffe 1985, Touraine 1988), it offers less direction for studying the social movement context of the feelings of anger, despair, shame, fear and pain that often accompany debates on racism. Attention to these emotional interactions brings the possibility of fresh and nuanced insights to our understanding of not only anti-racist change efforts, but also of social movement organizations and communities.
What makes discussions of racism in social movement organizations distinct from other sites? A number of anecdotal and sociological observations indicate that the emotional context of these organizational sites may be notably different from that of other kinds of organizations: the yelling, crying and passionate exchanges that can characterize discussions of race (Anzaldua 1990, Friedman 1995), the cautionary tales and discussions of "burnout," or the emotional exhaustion that many activists experience (Forman & Slapp 1985), and the central importance of social and emotional ties within social movement organizations (Rothschild-Witt 1979, Kleinman 1996, Edwards and Oskamp 1992, Gomes 1992, Wittig 1979). Looking primarily at feminist and community organizations in Toronto, my research has further highlighted some unique features of social movement sites that affect debates on racism and anti-racism: a profound investment in a particular, universal vision of equity, an assumption that social movements are uniquely egalitarian spaces, a strong sense of familial, emotional and political community, and, quite often, a closet full of informal and formal tools to produce political knowledge and to express emotions and experiences (Srivastava 2005, 1996).
In this paper, I am interested in exploring more closely how this context can shape and stall discussions of anti-racism and other equity concerns. My central focus here is the prevalent practices and discourses of emotional expression that shape what can be said in these organizational debates about racism and anti-racism. I show that the organizational practices that regulate self-expression within many social movement or "alternative" organizations also produce a tightly controlled space for the expression and suppression of knowledge and feelings about racism. In organizations shape by feminist and collectivist histories, the disclosure of personal feelings and experiences is often framed as desirable, principled, and important for reform. I refer to this as the "let's talk" approach to discussion; it has become a wide-spread and enduring approach for dealing with organizational problems--and therefore for dealing with internal conflict over racism. I argue that this "let's talk" mode of discussion shapes anti-racist discussion in ways that can deflect, suppress and personalize anti-racist change efforts. In this paper, I focus on one aspect of this "let's talk" model: the use of consciousness-raising and therapeutic practices to focus on white participants' emotional concerns about anti-racism.
I begin by placing my inquiry in the context of the relatively new terrain of "sociology of emotion." I continue by tracing some of the historical social movement discourses and practices that come together to produce the "let's talk" mode of discussion as tenacious and wide-spread--an enduring "personal is political" discourse, feminist theories of emotion and care, and practices of consciousness raising and feminist therapy. I then turn to my own interviews to demonstrate how this "let's talk" approach can defuse anti-racist change efforts. I end by highlighting the rejection of this mode of discussion by many anti-racist activists, particularly by many feminists of colour, who instead advocate a closer focus on changing organizational practice and policy.
Focussing primarily on feminist organizations, I have based my analysis on 21 semi-structured, confidential interviews with 15 feminists involved in antiracist efforts in 18 women's organizations based in Toronto, including drop-in centres, shelters, feminist advocacy groups, feminist publications and publishers. (3) The women self-identified in a variety of ways, including as women of colour, white, Jewish, Muslim, lesbian, lesbians of colour and so on. Some of the women were interviewed more than once, as several had been involved in anti-racist efforts in more than one organization. I also draw on observations of 12 anti-racist workshops or workshop series, as well as numerous organizational meetings, in a variety of sites including feminist, environmental, social justice and popular educational organizations, and an aboriginal youth conference. In five of these workshop series, I was either participant or facilitator. Finally, I have reviewed and analysed theoretical and popular commentary on "the personal is political," therapy and emotional expression in the context of social movement organizations.
Sociology of Emotion
A decade ago sociological work on emotions was almost non-existent. Emotions have often been characterized as innate, inner and individual--surely more appropriate for the study of psychology, than for the analysis of social relations. Yet the suggestion that emotion might be relevant to social analysis is nothing new: Weber (1978:5) advocated "emotional context" as important data, arguing that "empathic or appreciative accuracy is attained when, through sympathetic participation, we can adequately grasp the emotional context in which the action took place." We might even venture that Marx's association between alienation and the relations of production (Williams & Bendelow 1998: xv), Durkheim's correlation between anomie, social unhappiness and suicide, and Goffman's (1959, 1967) interest in the emotional expressions that arise when one "loses face" or attempts to "save face," provide some interesting precedents. Dorothy Smith's (1990:22) feminist sociology is explicitly aimed at understanding the social organization of experience and emotion, and its exclusion from mainstream sociology (Smith 1987:64, 71). Yet it is only in the last few years that there has been a concerted and rapidly growing focus on the sociology of emotion, (4) and even an interest in studying emotions in social movements (Goodwin et al. 2001) and feminist organizations (Taylor 1995, Morgen 1995). These studies point to the importance of emotions in the origin, maintenance and even decline of social movements (Goodwin et al. 2001).
However, as sociological study of emotion has developed, there have also been attempts to counter the erstwhile silence on emotions by suggesting that they be made more central not only to the study of social life, but also to the very work of organizations (Putnam & Mumby 1993) and pedagogy (Boler 1999). Drawing on feminist theory, these authors frame the exclusion of emotion as masculinist and bureaucratic, and the analysis and integration of emotion as feminist. Putnam and Mumby (1993:55) argue that "an emphasis on work feelings" in organizations would counter bureaucratic rationality, and is a means to "enhance community and interrelatedness." In particular, they contend that "sensitivity to other people's feelings is essential for understanding diversity in the workplace and may form the foundation for organizational change" (55). However, a look at social movement organizations--many of which have already embraced this approach for several decades--shows that there are serious pitfalls. While I agree that we must add an understanding of discourses of emotion to social analysis, I contend that the use of emotional disclosure as organizational practice, particularly as the basis for "understanding diversity" and changing organizations, is entirely another matter, one which must be carefully analysed in the context of inequitable relations of race. Sherryl Kleinman' s (1996) study of an alternative health organization, for example, includes an analysis of how its "vocabulary" of emotion prevented members from acknowledging gender inequality. This study similarly examines how social movement discourses and practices of emotional expression can prevent organizations from challenging racism.
My own approach to analysing emotional expression is informed by poststructuralist and Foucaultian concerns with language and power relations. Rather than assessing the "true meaning" behind emotional expression, the real feeling that prompts it, I focus on the relations of language and power through which it becomes significant, through which it is produced. What techniques prompt people to speak about their emotions regarding racism? What is done with their utterances? Who is doing most of the talking? How are representations of emotion racialized? The point of these questions is to understand the power relations of anti-racist discussion which produce and are produced by practices of emotion and knowledge.
While a Foucaultian approach may seem incompatible with studies of emotion, as Michel Foucault was largely silent concerning emotion, (5) his work nevertheless directly and indirectly highlights the historicity of feelings, (6) their organization through discourse and technologies of power, and their importance as "the main field of morality" and ethics (Foucault 1983:238). Megan Boler (1999:22), for example, argues that Foucault's descriptions of pastoral power as a mode which relies on surveillance and self-policing, reveal emotions as a site of social control: fear, shame, humiliation and desire for conformity shape one's discipline of self.
Emotion and Race
What do emotion and race have to do with one another? The emotional character of anti-racist discussion is underscored by writers whose historical analyses have emphasized both the psychic investments in racial hierarchies and the psychic effects of racial oppression (Roediger 1991, Stoler 1995, McClintock 1995, Said 1979). Analysing the colonial context of Algeria, Frantz Fanon argued that only a psychoanalytical analysis of the black-white relationship "can lay bare the anomalies of affect that are responsible for [its] structure" (1967:10).
These descriptions of the deep emotional undercurrents and foundations of racial conflict are reflected in contemporary discussions of racism. As Philomena Essed' s (1991:274) study of racism and Black women in the Netherlands shows, reluctance to deal with racism commonly leads people to react by feeling "offended," leading to "very emotional" reactions, and even "emotional …
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Publication information: Article title: Tears, Fears and Careers: Anti-Racism and Emotion in Social Movement Organizations. Contributors: Srivastava, Sarita - Author. Journal title: Canadian Journal of Sociology. Volume: 31. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2006. Page number: 55+. © 1997 Canadian Journal of Sociology. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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