Have you ever tried to keep track of the number of words you say in a day? No. Of course you haven’t, no one has. It’s because language is so ubiquitous and accessible that we don’t stop to think about it. You don’t tell someone to “choose their words carefully” for nothing. With all these free words running around it seems a little funny that we can easily become bogged down in them.
My inspiration for this blog comes from the keynote address at this year’s NWSA conference. Delivered by the brilliant and funny (p.s. who knew she was funny?) Patricia Hill Collins the speech touched on the future(s) of feminism and some of the issues surrounding the current state of language and identifiers within the field of women’s studies. She seemed to be making the claim that we (as feminist academics) are getting stuck on what we call ourselves and losing sight of the work we’re doing. For instance she called out programs that use identifiers such as: “post modern women’s studies” and “critical race studies” asking, “aren’t all race studies critical?”
I felt validated to hear such a prominent and prolific scholar address many of the problems I have been experiencing within the field. For many years I have encountered people, both within the classroom and the larger field, who seem to be more concerned with the latest terminology than with the meaning behind the words. People who are so busy ensuring that they are using the “right” words that they can’t be bothered to do the class readings, you know who I’m talking about. But I thought it must have just been the people in my spaces, I had little idea that this is a field-wide issue. Indeed, an issue large enough that PHC felt compelled to direct an entire keynote address towards it.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should pay no attention to the words we use or the categories by which we identify, but rather that those things are not the most important things. In fact, I would argue that they are not even the second or third most important things. What I believe should matter is the work behind the words. As 3rd wave feminist scholars we owe it to ourselves to thoroughly examine our spaces, our bodies, and our cultural texts in order to establish new epistemologies and uncover lost histories. It seems to me that in lieu of aggressive scholarship we have substituted aggressive concern for linguistics. Once again, I do not mean to suggest that all the current WGS scholars are guilty of this crime but am merely making observations about larger trends within the field.
So where do we go now? This is the question PHC posed to the NWSA audience, and the question to which she gave no concrete answers. As much as I would have appreciated a how-to handbook from PHC I recognize that there is no one way to remedy this issue. It requires, in part, that we allow ourselves to be a little less concerned with political correctness. Meaning, don’t let your fear of potentially offending someone stop you from pursuing the larger question. It also means that those of us within the WGS community need to be a little more receptive and welcoming to people who might not know what it means to be “cis-gendered” or have a clue what “post modern critical queer theory” is all about. And most importantly, for me at least, is the restoration of a sense of urgency and relevancy within the field at large. Let’s not get so mired in words that we forget what our focus is, the meaning behind those words.