Punk Planet 40 (Nov/Dec 2000)

by mimi thi nguyen

I was just a plenary speaker for the 12th Annual Women’s History Month Conference at Sarah Lawrence, called “The Message Is In the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music, and More,” a few weeks ago, and I am reminded that I’ve been revising these thoughts on race and riot grrrl for quite a long while. There are some parts of this that make me uncomfortable now because my analysis feels vague in retrospect.
I think the talk I gave at Sarah Lawrence (called “Aesthetics, Access, Intimacy, or Race, Riot Grrrl, Bad Feelings”) comes the closest to being the most intellectually and politically interesting iteration for me thus far (so thanks, Sarah Lawrence, for giving me the opportunity to revisit!), and I’ll probably revise it for publication some time soon, especially with all the recent nostalgia (the multiple monographs and documentaries devoted to riot grrrl) and clamor for its return (see this call for submission to the International Girl Gang Underground Zine).

As ever, I’m most interested in how race and women of color are remembered in the story of riot grrrl –as an afterthought, as additive, as interruption, as reactionary? Even as I prepared for this talk, I was contacted through a circuitous route to offer a comment for another forthcoming publication on riot grrrl, for which the author had belatedly realized the near-total absence of women of color speaking on the topic of race and racism. This comment, however, because it was solicited too late in the publication process, was to be contained as a reaction to a paragraph featuring a white woman’s words meant to teach other white persons about race and racism. I declined to comment, because I’m not interested in that kind of story-telling.

As I said at Sarah Lawrence, “How we narrate the interventions of women of color is crucial to how we remember feminisms and imagine our futures.” As riot grrrl becomes the name of an often romanticized moment of young women’s feminism, this challenge is especially crucial. In the meanwhile, this is one early version, from a FULL DECADE AGO.

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The following is something of a cheater column, because it’s an edited excerpt from a keynote speech I gave at Over My Head: Feminist Interruptions into Privilege, a March 2000 conference organized by NYU students who happen to also operate as Riot Grrrl NYC in its most recent incarnation. There are references toward the end to parts I’ve left out in this version, since I’ve written about them (and at more length) in earlier issues of Punk Planet: about the uneven politics of sex as liberation (especially in a postcolonial world), and a response to a Punk Planet article suggesting that interracial eugenics would “correct” the so-called race problem in the United States. Having said that, the conclusion should make sense. I hope.

I want to tell several stories, besides the obvious ones with plots and characters and climatic scenes. The first admits to a motive. That is, it begins with my cynicism, my disappointment and often my anger. The reasons for which follow in the second story, which is as yet half-formed: it’s the story of writing a critical analysis of a set of communities to which I ostensibly belong -whether riot grrrl, sex radicalism, the discipline of women’s studies or other sites of feminist work. The third and most obvious story is about those communities and what gets circulated under the sign of “difference” there, and what gets to count as political labor. This is then a cautionary tale, one full of intrigues, promises, conflicts, and betrayals – just like any other war or more appropriately, just like any other affair.

I want to talk about my first punk rock love, a movement that emblazoned the letters “riot grrrl” across its bodily polemic and emerged in the early 1990s to seize the cramped space of public feminist discourse and reframe insurrection. Self-proclaimed provocateurs and “truepunkrocksoulcrusaders” of the revolution, riot grrrl converts called upon a collective imaginary to redesign the hostile world with the architecture of their private/public traumas and promises of girl-love wish-fulfillment. I was fifteen, punk rock and a junior in high school in 1991 when I first learned how to be worse than queer. Riot grrrl marked the not-so-generic “whitestraightpunkboy” when it first delivered a good, swift kick to the masculinist punk paradigm, right where it counted most. Riot grrrl confronted the popular illusion of abstract punk membership and forced punk to examine its given categories of ex-/inclusion, to admit to the failures of punk’s dominant realpolitick impulse -a by-product of the influence of the New Left. And while previous –and, I think, less radical– manifestations of feminist politics in punk went the way of assertions of equality, riot grrrl made you look.

Infusing punk with a dystopian re-telling of rape, incest, and girl-girl intimacy, early riot grrrl production – in the form of the fanzines, the performances, and later the conventions and workshops- re-invented an exhibitionist feminist show-and-tell of sexual abuse and complex desire. Riot grrrl practiced an unabashedly embodied polemic, exercising an oppositional body politic that ruptured the foundation myth of punk egalitarianism. Such that riot grrrl described itself as a culturally productive, politicized counterpublic, riot grrrl was -beyond a distinctive musical styling or the mere invasion of young, mostly white women in rock– an informal pedagogical project, a kind of punk rock “teaching machine.” In fact, riot grrrl existed in and sometimes replaced the classroom as the most meaningful context for the transmission and production of knowledge among its body of participants.

That is, who listens to teacher when the cute pink-haired girl next to you might argue the same thing, but with a guitar and a fanzine in hand?

As such, riot grrrl political culture existed in a space of intimate myth-making, fusing academic and popular cultural discourses to elaborate a vision of potentially utopic feminist futures. And because it was a space of both social membership and intimate relations, riot grrrl generated theory that ultimately seeks psychic resonance in everyday lives. What emerges is a very specific model of community-building where the political and the personal are collapsed into a “world of public intimacy,” and citizenship can exact an emotional price. This coupling of public testimony and private trauma is central to contemporary North American feminist politics, and riot grrrl was no different. The feminist movement suggestion that “the personal is political” was and is a transformative logic, one that radically reorders marginalized grievances as legitimate revolutionary agenda. Or speaking plainly, certain personal experiences, like rape, were made available to reinterpretation as social phenomena with histories and political consequences. This was -and is-still a radical concept that grounds politics in our everyday lives. Such that in the process of making their bid for political legitimacy, grrrls deploy their scars with the ultimate goal of creating an intimate, protected feminist community.

But here is where I want to reconsider what we meant when we said “community,” “safe space,” and of course, “the personal is political,” because somewhere along the way, the utopian impulse broke down and something dangerous happened. See, the assumption of safety is all too often an assumption of sameness, and that sameness in riot grrrl -and in other feminist spaces– depended upon a transcendent “girl love” that acknowledged difference but only so far. That is, in the process of translating the urgencies of political realities into accessible terms of personal relevance, a fundamental misrecognition occurs that ruptured riot grrrl’s fabrication of a singularity of female/feminist community. It was assumed that riot grrrl was, for once, for the first time, a level playing field for all women involved, regardless or in spite of differences of class or race. But what became painfully clear, for those of us in the midst of the fray, was this: that the central issues was not one of merely acknowledging difference,” but how and which differences were recognized and duly engaged.

In an essay about the new “management” of race in diversity-training workshops and some classrooms, South Asian feminist Chandra Mohanty writes, “The 1960s and 1070s slogan ‘The personal is political’ has been recrafted as ‘The political is personal.’ In other words, all politics is collapsed into the personal and questions of individual behaviors, attitudes, and life-style stand in for political analysis of the social. Individual political struggles are seen as the only relevant and legitimate form of political struggle.” And so at workshops held at numerous riot grrrl conventions all over the country, race and racism proved to be the stumbling block that most obviously -and heartbreakingly- threw the promise of “girl love” all askew. The move to act on “the political as personal” manifested in problematic ways: racism was addressed almost exclusively as an interpersonal dynamic of cross-cultural miscommunication or a lack of knowledge about “other cultures,” and the specific “differences” of any one woman of color stood in for the whole collective she is imagined to represent. Confessions were offered by white girls –they admitted to a lack of friends of color, pledged to work on their racism to become a better person- all of which made me, at least, feel claustrophobic. I wasn’t sure if they wanted absolution or punishment, or both, and I didn’t want to be responsible for either.

It exploded in 1995 or 1996 when in a zine called Wrecking Ball, two girls conducted an interview with one another that neatly “ate the Other,” to paraphrase black bell hooks, taking the notion of “colonizing blackness” to new levels. Citing a “possible Ethiopian ancestor,” a white girl shared with her riot grrrl reading public her decision to “claim” blackness. She then went on to speak about an “us” defined as “African people all over the world,” ignoring the material privileges of being nationally and racially hegemonic. The emphasis here on a depoliticized “love” –she invokes the Sister Sledge hit and insists “we are family”– performs a kind of amnesia, disguised as something utopian, by abandoning an analysis or engagement with structural inequalities for a privatized, individualized solution and conservative-liberal platitudes about family, love, and humanity. And when we objected vigorously and loudly and repeatedly, we met were with a stony wall of silence. (It’s worth noting that the above white girl is still offering workshops to girl conventions about “challenging racism” to create “true human connection.”) These encounters -whether workshops, fanzines, or shows– were both a psychic drain and a political failure; in speaking of race and racism only in terms of personal and individual relevance, questions of history and social and structural inequality were reduced to manageable psychological scripts that too often cast girls of color into two-dimensional roles and “social change” a matter of behavioral and attitudinal adjustments.

A friend of mine named Bianca Ortiz used to do a zine called Mamasita and in a piece called “educator/enemy,” she wrote: “I am sick of being the example, the teacher, the scapegoat, the leader, the half-Mexican girl in the group of ‘allies’ who either attempt to praise or destroy me, or both at once. I too often find myself in these rigidly defined roles, my whole life defined in over-simplistic terns; I am only educator or enemy.”

While there is a more thorough history of riot grrrl to be written, I want to suggest that it was the difference of race -and to a lesser extent class– that confounded the overdetermination of utopian “girl love” fulfillment; that disrupted the curative importance embedded in the “neutral” quality of female empathy.

This was the first time I learned this lesson, but it wasn’t the last. What I do is by necessity a “politics of repetition,” and so I tell these stories of love and war over and over. To pull at the thread that draws lines and makes connections between these seemingly disparate stories, I want to make a few observations. One, that these redemptive fantasies of “love” and sex avoid confronting complicity, privilege, and those discourses of power that are instrumental in creating these uneven conditions. They present themselves as witnesses to, or dreams of, racially unequal subjects merging or becoming one, communicating lovingly in spite of the great chasm of inequality; but of course, neither “love” nor sex are neutral qualities but fields upon which battles for power and domination are fought. Locating of the source of “oppression” and “change” -as girl love, interracial breeding, radical fucking, the desire to be one with the Other– in individuals suggests an elision between ideological and structural understandings of power and domination and individual, psychological understandings of power.

So this is my very, very modest suggestion; that we cannot let all the complex and contradictory histories of love and sex, cultural production and social movements, political work and collective memory, dissolve into the murk of assumptions of safety or sameness, of personal revelation at the cost of political accountability. We have to conceive of our feminist politics as embodied and personal, but also strategically responsible and critically, importantly public. After all, at some point in both love and politics, a girl has to take a few risks.