Tears, Fears and Careers: Anti-Racism and Emotion in Social Movement Organizations

By Srivastava, Sarita | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

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.

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We believe that feelings are immutable, but every sentiment, particularly the noblest and most disinterested, has a history.

--Michel Foucault

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. …

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