Solidarity and the Perils of Sisterhood
This is a transcript of a teaching from We Are The Culture Makers
I think we need to be careful using words like “community” and “sisterhood.”
That kind of language and those kinds of concepts evoke really positive feelings that can create false expectations of kinship, similarity and safety — and that’s how people end up getting hurt or doing damage to each other. It’s also a factor that causes collectives, groups, movements and feminist businesses to implode and self-destruct.
I think we need to explicitly acknowledge and manage these risks as we organize our movements and show up in the collective spaces that we hold as leaders and business owners.
Romanticizing our relationships with each other prevents us from navigating with skill. Why learn defensive driving if you think you’ll never be in an accident?
But we are definitely going to have accidents.
CAREGIVING AND RELATIONSHIP ARE POWER MOVES
In a previous class, I talked about how caregiving and relationship are actually power moves.
Collective power is how we create security and how we rally to save individuals. Our individual ties to each other, those points on the web, are how we build that collective power, that collective change making and protective power. There is research that shows the stronger the friendships are amongst a social movement’s members, the more movement and activities they engage in.
So our relationships with each other actually strengthen our change-making movements. Our relationships grow movements. Movements, of course, create change. Our relationships create change. Organizations and projects that we join can actually be sites for new relationship and relationship building.
That’s all lovely and positive and gets us all in our happy feelings.
SOLIDARITY OVER SISTERHOOD AND THE LANGUAGE OF COMMUNITY
Now, I want to introduce a note of caution around care and community.
You’ve probably heard this from me before (I know you have), but I want us to use a lot of caution around the word community, around the language of community and the places that we describe as community.
It’s parallel to how, in our culture, we conflate caregiving with ‘the feminine’ and then essentialize it and make it some sort of innate gender trait.
But it’s not a gendered innate trait. It’s something we learn how to do (and everyone can learn how to do it, and our society would be much better if we all learned how to take responsibility for expertly caregiving and taking care of each other).
I want us to separate the notion of caregiving from the feminine. I want us to actually retire the word of a notion of “the feminine” at all. (That’s a whole other conversation.)
And the way that caregiving and ‘the feminine’ need to be disaggregated mirrors how the word ‘community’ needs to be separated from ‘places where people gather’. They’re not the same thing.
We conflate a lot of things with community that aren’t community, and we need to use our language more precisely because otherwise we put people in danger, and we put our own leadership in danger.
The same goes for the word “sisterhood.” We need to exercise extreme caution around this concept. It’s been used for a long time to describe the way feminists organize and to give us a model for organizing. I think the idea was that we have been trained to be suspicious of each other, we have been trained to be competitive with each other under patriarchy, and so feminist organizing and relationship building needed a different model of women’s interactions. I think that’s why people sort of rallied around the notion that we are sisters. It speaks to a horizontal relationship, a relationship among equals, and we are linked by some sort of common tie.
I get that we were trying to put forward a positive model for women to women interactions that was different than histories of competition and challenge and jealousy and envy, if that was ever true, but there’s a problem here. When we describe things and our relationships and our social change movements as “sisterhoods” we run into a whole bunch of problems that we’re not necessarily intending. I think a whole bunch of harm is actually inevitable when we use that language to conceptualize our political organizing and our relationships with each other.
Let me start off by unpacking community so then you can see the parallels with being sisters in sisterhood. To me, community — I’m thinking about a small town. If you live in a small town, community is a real thing. It’s a thick web of enduring relationships. They endure across time, and because of that, we are very motivated to repair and preserve things. Repair and resolution of conflict are functions of real community. Any community that doesn’t have repair and resolution functions or people who help facilitate those things isn’t actually a real community.
In a real-life community (a little town, for example), you have to buy bread at the same bakery every day or every other day. You’re going to see this person every other day for the next 20 years, so you have to be able to resolve conflict that you have with her, otherwise you will just be all out of luck on the carbs situation, right? In a small community, you have to be able to repair relationships because you have to face that person again, and in order for both of you to get what you need, you have to be able to knit together or knit over any differences or at least manage tension. That is not the case with Facebook groups, and we often describe Facebook groups as communities.
I know when I had a Facebook group with more than 3,000 members, I often described it as a community, but it wasn’t a community, right? People throw punches in Facebook groups and then leave the room, and they never have to be confronted with the consequences of their actions. They dehumanize each other, they trash each other, and then they leave, and they never have to look into someone’s eyes and see what they’ve done. No one in those spaces has to repair anything because they never have to deal with those people ever again. They can simply cut ties and leave spaces.
We have no business describing those groups as communities or spaces like that as communities, because we don’t have thick ties to each other. We don’t have enduring relationships across time, and we don’t have any incentive to make repair or make amends or even cope with the consequences of our actions. So those, I think, are the qualities of what a real community is. If those things don’t exist, then it’s not a community.
What happens is — and this is what online marketers did — they started describing all those spaces as communities because what that does is it reduces people’s suspicion and it makes them more saleable. So if you describe a space as a community and people come in, and their guards are down, and they’re thinking all the positive associations that come with the word community, they have less barriers up, less skepticism up towards whatever product or service is being sold. That’s why online marketers started calling those spaces communities, in my opinion.
Holly Truhlar is someone who’s had a lot of impact on me, and she is an incredible community builder, almost all offline community builder, and in her analysis of what the conditions are for community, if there are no mechanisms for conflict resolution, then it’s not a community. I think that’s a perfect concise indicator of yay or nay, it’s community or not. Related, Holly’s mentor, Francis Wells, has done a huge amount of work around grief. He says that you can always tell who the elders and leaders are in a community. They’re the ones with the arrows in their backs.
THE PROBLEM WITH CALLING THESE SPACES COMMUNITY
Here is the problem with calling those spaces community: It sets up a false expectation of security, and it’s especially dangerous for anyone who has a marginalized identity. If they enter a mixed Facebook group (meaning people with lots of different identities are there, people with a lot more dominant identities are there), then that feeling of warm fuzzy community /we’re all equals / we’re all in horizontal power relationship can make people with marginalized identities let down their guards prematurely.
But if the other group members don’t exercise any kind of care or respect and don’t position themselves to think about the impact of their actions or unconsciously act out their dominant conditioning, then people with marginalized identity might be setting ourselves up to put our psyches in jeopardy (especially in large or online groups like FB groups).
We expect safety, and then it’ll feel like a slap when someone micro aggresses or actually aggresses, right? That is why setting up that expectation that this is a community with horizontal power dynamics paves over social differences and differences in status and power and convinces us that it’s safe when it’s not.
The challenge there is those other people in the group aren’t actually our community members. We don’t have to look at them the next day. They can do things they might not do if we were sitting in a room together. So again, the potential for psychological harm is actually quite significant, because we aren’t bound together by thick ties. This is the loosest of loosest ties. We can cut bait and run. Here’s how I think about Facebook groups and online groups. Here’s a different way to think about them that I think is helpful.
At a concert for our favorite band or favorite performer, we all in the crowd are linked by a shared enthusiasm for that band or that performer. We all love Beyoncé. We’re all in the concert loving Beyoncé. In that concert, in the audience, we don’t necessarily expect safety, right? We’re still going to watch our wallet. We’re going to still be checking our environments. We’ll be looking for potential people who we don’t feel comfortable around. We’re going to be guarding our bodies and our money and our psyches. We know that someone could pick our pockets or steal our wallet.
So at a Lady Gaga concert, you know you’re not going to put your purse on the floor. Someone could walk off with it. You’re going to have a certain amount of vigilance and awareness about yourself and your person and not expect safety from other crowd members even as we are collectively having an amazing time and really celebrating our enthusiasm for Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or what have you. At the same time that we’re having this amazing time and we are aware of our positionality and we are guarding ourselves, there are security guards and security protocols in place at that concert.
A common interest: We all love that band. A shared purpose: We’re here to have a great time and having a terrific time together does not equal community and it does not equal safety. So we usually hear the word community and associate it with safety or associate it with harmony, but what’s actually happening in those Facebook groups is we’re there to learn from a performer. We’re there to learn from a coach or a healer. We’re all united in our enthusiasm for this person’s work or the topic, and we have a shared purpose, and we’re having, let’s say, a good time together. It doesn’t mean it’s safe. Just like with the concert, it doesn’t mean it’s safe.
I think it’s better to think about Facebook groups and online spaces not as communities, but as concerts or groups. Using the word groups is really useful. What that does, then, is ask us not to put ourselves in vulnerable positions, not to expect safety. Not that we shouldn’t have safety but understanding that the other people in the group aren’t necessarily safe.
I say all of this about community and about how using the word community which evokes safety and warm fuzzy feelings can actually put us in jeopardy and can actually make any kind of hurt exponentially more difficult to grapple with because we had an expectation. We had a high expectation of what would happen in this space. We thought it was going to be different than other spaces. Then, when it’s the same old same old, it hurts more. I’ll give you an example.
I went to a book reading in San Francisco one time by my favorite writer. Like, my favorite, favorite, FAVORITE writer. One of my feminist heroes. I spoke with her afterwards and she was so obnoxious. I held her in such high esteem,and she was so rude to me. If I had gone to go see, I don’t know, Norman Mailer (who of course is dead but stay with me…) and he was rude to me, it wouldn’t hurt me, right? Because what would I expect? I wouldn’t really expect anything different.
But somehow because I thought this woman writer and I had this shared sisterhood, it hurt me more when she just turned out to be human and perhaps prickly.
We’re not going like everyone. She didn’t like me. I didn’t like her. That doesn’t mean I need to go home and burn all her books. I still have all of them on my shelf. She’s still an amazing writer. We just don’t personally gel. Cool. No problem. But what I’m trying to say is in that moment it hurt more because I had a subconscious expectation of sisterhood. I thought maybe if we met we’d become besties. Community and the language of sisterhood can set us up to hurt more when the same old things happen that happen between other people or in other spaces. Simply not liking each other can end up becoming a much bigger deal than it needs to be, because we had romantic expectations in very practical situations.
SISTERHOOD SETS US UP FOR FAILURE
Sisterhood sets us up for failure. Sisterhood has the same positive fuzzy warm connotations that community does. We think sisterhood means we are in horizontal power relationships. We think we are equals. We think we are kin. We think we are the same. We think we are bonded together though love and affection, and that’s just not the truth of the matter.
If we look at the whole ecosystem that we exist in, there are going to be people in the feminist ecosystem (or the feminist garden) who you don’t actually like and maybe even oppose and aren’t a companion plant with. You shouldn’t be planted together, and that doesn’t mean that you both can’t exist in the garden. You just have to be two rows apart. Potatoes can’t be planted next to a whole lot of other plants right? It doesn’t mean we can’t have potatoes in our garden.
There are going to be people in the feminist ecosystem that you don’t like. They still belong there, but if we use the language of family and sisterhood, if you don’t like your sister now somebody’s got to go, right? Sisterhood paves over those differences between us. It suggests that we’re the same, but we know (because we are intersectional thinkers) that we are not all the same. We don’t come from the same place. We don’t come from the same families. We don’t look the same. We don’t have the same power statuses. We don’t have the same identities. That’s especially pronounced racially in The United States.
Sisterhood paves over those differences and suggests that if we don’t feel sisterly towards someone that they don’t belong. That, I think, sets up some of our dynamics and explains why trashing has been such a problem in the feminist community for decades. The expectation of sameness and affection in the feminist community is dangerous. It sets us up to trash each other because we get so disappointed if we are not bonded together by affection or mutual liking. If we don’t like someone or they don’t like us, the expectation of affection and sisterhood implies intimacy, similarity, family, then we think that that person doesn’t belong or maybe we don’t belong. So people exit our political communities and our political spaces and our change making movements all the time because of those interpersonal conflicts.
In fact, intimacy, affection, similarity, family, none of those things are necessary. Yes, they help, right? Our relationships do build movements. Our rich friendships make our movement stronger and more durable, but we can still politically ally together even if we don’t like someone.
I had a conversation with someone recently who said something about, like, “Oh, your nemesis.” I was like, “I don’t have a nemesis!” They might think that I’m their nemesis, but I don’t have a nemesis. But what I think what she was trying to get at is that me and this other person, we just rub each other the wrong way. We just don’t like each other. We don’t like the way that we do our work. We both would do things differently. So we are not companion plants in the feminist garden. We need to be planted two or three rows apart.
We don’t like each other and shouldn’t be planted together, but that doesn’t mean either of us have to leave the garden.
But sisterhood, as a political organizing concept and a way to build movements and relationships in our businesses and in our projects, implies that we have to be bonded together by affection and if we’re not there’s a problem and somebody needs to go.
Sisterhood, with its implication of kinship and sameness, can also be exclusionary and racist. Black and Brown feminists have been writing about this for years, perhaps most famously bell hooks and Toni Morrison. They have been writing about this for decades. There is the language of sisterhood without the actual practice of solidarity in our feminist movements, in our white-dominant feminist spaces for sure. This expectation of sisterhood becomes exclusionary, sets us up for failure, and it sets us up to trash each other. So if we don’t like someone and our political glue is affection, somebody’s got to go.
Hence, we shun them. Hence, we exile them. Hence, we trash them.
We need to rethink this as a way to relate to each other. This isn’t the way of our culture-making future.
The other problem with sisterhood is that it implies, and maybe even reinforces, an essentialist gender binary. For a long time, Desiree Adaway was writing these columns or these little Facebook updates that were usually just one sentence. It would say, “Dear Sister…” and then it would say something really amazing and provocative.
All of her posts started like this:”Dear sister…” then in brackets he would put, “(Not just cister).” In doing that, she was trying to draw attention to the fact that sisterhood in feminist communities has often been used to exclude trans folks and she was instead explicitly inviting transwomen into this conversation. She was also drawing attention to the fact that that has not always been the case; and indeed we’re still seeing those kinds of conflicts with trans exclusionary radical feminists, often using the language of sisterhood.
The language of sisterhood can reinforce a gender binary that suggests that “we” are all women or that biological sex is necessary for access to antipatriarchal spaces or feminist movement or feminist-oriented businesses. That’s a real problem. It’s a current problem. It’s an enduring problem in our feminist communities. It’s an exclusionary practice that we really need to think through.
Sisterhood implies horizontal power relationships, but we know because we think intersectionally, that within our community some people have more power and more dominant status than others. Sister and the language of sisterhood erases all those differences in power status from view. When we erase those power statuses from view, when we create the expectation that there will be no conflict and no difference, it sets the stage for extreme difficulty.
So back in the day (it must have been 20 years ago now), I volunteered and worked at a rape relief organization in Vancouver. In the very short time that I was there, I was astonished. My political innocence was punctured. Remember how I said when we have high expectations of spaces or people and find out they’re just human it hurts more? This is what happened there. I joined this feminist organization that I thought was doing amazing work in the world — and is in fact doing amazing work in the world — and the constitution of that organization at that time said that we had to make decisions as a collective by consensus. Consensus means everybody agrees, right? There’s no divergence possible. We’re not voting and taking majority vote and nine out of ten votes wins or six out of ten votes wins. No, we have to obtain 100 percent consensus.
Do you know how awful it was and how much politicking and backbiting and burning up the phone the night before a decision was happening because of that mandate for consensus? Can you imagine the pressure, coercion and the psychological bullying that went on? The most horrible backbiting betrayal kind of stuff happened in that organization because we had to do whatever it took to get to 100 percent consensus. That meant steamrolling people. That meant bullying people. That meant organizing cliques, trash talking each other, intimidating each other. It was horrendous, and I left shortly after I saw this in action.
What I’m trying to say is when we create the expectation of 100 percent consensus or similarity or sameness and hold that as what we’re striving towards, we set ourselves up for that bullying and backbiting and intimidation. That is where it comes from, from that false and unrealistic expectation.
In fact, when we’re in relationship and real community, we have to expect conflict, and coming back to Holly Truhlar’s point, we have to be able to resolve conflict, not erase it or intimidate it out of view. We actually have to be able to grapple with it.
The expectation of harmony and consensus, on the other hand, created fierce politicking and cliques and conflict, more conflict! We had no way to mediate or manage tension or disagreement because, again, the expectation was consensus. So, again, it was a shit show.
We need to be realistic about conflict in real communities and in our feminist spaces. We need to have ways to deal with conflict and resolve conflict and still have our relationships endure across time. I’ve had a lot of conflict with my parents over the years, but we have a relationship that endures across time, and so no one little conflict is going to break us because we have something else that’s uniting us together. In our feminist ecosystem, there will be conflict. What we need is commitment to each other and commitment to our movement and commitment to our political principles. That’s why we stay, right? Expecting sisterhood instead of conflict makes conflict an even bitter and more dramatic problem. It can be a game-changing problem, but conflict doesn’t have to be a problem. Conflict is inevitable whenever there’s more than one person in the room. My god, there’s internal conflict in me and I am one person! So conflict is inevitable if we’re human.
Expecting there to be no conflict, organizing so that there can’t be conflict, using language of consensus and community and sisterhood erases conflict from view, and what that does is make our movements and our relationships and our communities more fragile. It actually sets us up to shun people or be shunned, because if there’s conflict, the person that’s causing the conflict, even if they’re doing it righteously and correctly, is going to have to go in order for the ecosystem to be able to maintain itself if the ecosystem is built on the notion that we are all the same, we are all sisters.
Sisterhood also sets us up to only be in relationship with people who are very similar to us. Traditional sisterhood is going to exclude nonbinary folks from feminist spaces. Anywhere that sisterhood aligns with a racial identity, it’s going to exclude the non-dominant folks from those spaces, and that’s what’s happened in white feminism across the years. We need a different way to relate to each other. We need a different way to support each other and be in allyship with each other, that isn’t depending on affection, isn’t depending on similarity or homogeneity, isn’t requiring a lack of conflict, and isn’t sort of dependent on whims or feelings. We need to be in relationship with each other and political movements with each other based on commitments and a willingness to be allies. We need to make political commitments. We need to be committed to the future we’re trying to build. We need to be committed to our practices. We need to be allies to each other. We don’t need to be best friends. We don’t even need to like each other. In other words, solidarity is the kind of glue that will hold us together and move us forward into that future that we’re dreaming of. Solidarity over sisterhood.
WHAT IS SOLIDARITY?
What is solidarity? Solidarity is about actions. It’s about commitments. It’s not about affection. Solidarity implies that there’s difference and that we are organizing and committing to each other across that difference. We are connecting across the difference. It doesn’t erase difference from view. It doesn’t set up a false and dangerous expectation of harmony and kinship, which then, of course, creates unbelievable drama and fragility. Solidarity allows us not to like each other. I told you about that feminist hero of mine who was, like, not really my BFF, who was a little bit rude to me — no, a lot rude to me. I don’t have to like her to buy her book. I don’t have to like her to respect her. I don’t have to like her to share her really brilliant work and ideas. We don’t have to be sisters. We can be allies. We can be in solidarity with each other. We might not be companion plants. We have to be planted apart, but we all belong in the feminist ecosystem. Solidarity can be a more inclusive way of being together and belonging to each other that doesn’t require the bonds of affection 24/7 or the expectation of a lack of conflict.
We can still be part of the feminist ecosystem and in solidarity with each other even if we don’t personally like each other. Even if we are massively different from each other we can be in solidarity with each other. That is not necessarily true about sisterhood. That’s why I think it’s more important for us in our relationships, our political relationships, our political commitments, our teambuilding in our leadership roles to orient around solidarity rather than the expectation of sisterhood. I think it’s more durable. I think it’s more realistic. I think it will help us manage conflict without shunning or exiling each other. I think it will help us not have unrealistic expectations and be profoundly disappointed with each other. I think it will help keep ourselves safe because it will moderate how vulnerable we are with each other, and we will only offer our vulnerability to people who have established themselves as safe for real in practice. I think it’s way better for all of us, individually and collectively, if we use solidarity as our mode of interaction or our core — if we use that as our organizing principal, I guess.
Doctor Kimberly B. George, on Instagram, recommended this when we were talking about this notion of solidarity over sisterhood. She cited Gloria Anzaldúa who writes that, “Solidarity means we decide collectively what is needed for the common good and we provide it through systemic means.” These are political decisions, and political commitments, and culture-making commitments that we are making to each other to change the system so that it’s good for all of us. This is exactly what I mean when I say I’m here for a future in which we all flourish. We’re all going do our part. We are making a commitment as a collective to create a future in which we all flourish, even if we’re different, even if we don’t like each other, even if we don’t all have the same ideas, we are going to commit to being in solidarity with each other so that we can all flourish, and we’re going to create mechanisms for that flourishing to be possible.
EMBRACE “COALITION” INSTEAD OF “COMMUNITY”
Language that I think is more useful than community is coalitions. I’m actually loving the word coalition. Let’s embrace coalition instead of community. Coalition doesn’t imply friendliness, affection, safety. It implies people of different backgrounds, different focuses, different priorities coming together over a shared priority. I like coalitions over community, and I like solidarity over sisterhood, because again, it doesn’t imply that we have to be in affection to be in political relationship with each other.
I think coalitions and solidarity are more durable ways to organize and relate and lead and lead teams and culture-make. Solidarity over sisterhood, always.
This was drawn from a class in We Are The Culture Makers