January 24, 2014

Speak for yourself

A second look at Cross’s articles on India.

About two months ago, I wrote a column expressing discomfort with the way an article written by College student Michaela Cross was being mobilized in a campus-wide (and nationwide) discourse on sexual harassment in India. On December 30, Cross posted a follow-up to her original article, also posted on CNN iReport, titled “India: the Stories I Never Got to Tell” in which she responded to both the article’s immense popularity and the feedback she received.

As a feminist and recent traveler to India, I read and critiqued the first piece with great interest and vague apprehension, but it was with a definitively sinking feeling that I read the second. I suspected, though I hoped otherwise, that Cross was not interested in engaging with the consequences of writing about “India” writ large. Her second article confirmed this in spades.

This critique, as I have said before, is not about “disproving” Cross’s story, and neither is it about arguing that the story should not have been shared (although I would argue that there are better ways to share such stories). It is simply to say that as a white feminist who believes that white feminists have unacceptably erased—and continue to erase—the agency of women of color in discourse on women’s rights, I cannot support a view of women’s rights in India in which Indian women must be legitimized and spoken for.

Indian women in both of Cross’s pieces are a mass, a background, a demure contrast to Cross’s bravery and critical eye. That Cross refers to her experience as “the story that not enough people were telling” casually neglects India’s complex and vibrant history of women’s rights activism and paints Indian culture as particularly conducive toward silence on sexual assault. When Cross writes, “In India, I was the woman who spoke up,” and when she refers to her tale about sexual assault as “the story they had been unable to tell” (emphasis mine), she is relying on an understanding that Indian women are unable or unwilling to act or speak out against violence.

I also cannot excuse flippant refusals of accusations of racism (“I was ‘racist’”) which Cross, as a white woman, ought never to take lightly, let alone completely discard without any attempt at accountability. In fact, her writing is racially homogenizing­—not just in the sense that it makes a silent monolith of Indian women, but also in the sense that it does the same for Indian men. In defense of her original piece, Cross writes, “I wrote about myself because I’m the only person I have a right to write about.” I don’t know whether or not I agree with that statement philosophically, but I definitely disagree with those first four words. The original iReport story was not about Cross alone, and could never have been.

Let me explain. A story that invokes a leering population, “eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body,” is not about one person. It is not even about the particular people who belonged to the particular eyes she had in mind. Such an image is about masses, about nations, and, regardless of the intent with which it is written, about race. Cross cannot argue that as readers we were supposed to imagine disembodied eyes, a theoretical male gaze, when we read her description of what it is like to walk down a street in India; that we weren’t supposed to imagine racialized, sexualized bodies. It is the image she wrote. It is the image we saw. It is the image we see in the photograph on top of her first article: Cross, foregrounded, with an Indian man in what is clearly and suggestively a watchful and predatory position behind her. Why this photograph? Why these images?

As a writer, Cross is responsible for the impressions that her writing evokes. And when your writing is embedded with problematic assumptions, it is never enough, nor is it particularly ingratiating, to say that it doesn’t matter because you didn’t mean it. (Cross: “I would never insult India by ascribing disrespect towards women as part of Indian culture.”) The intentions and feelings of a white writer who has told a “story” about Indian people that places her agency above theirs do not matter. The fact that one did not intend to cause harm in no circumstance invalidates or negates the harm done.

I write this article, my second on this topic, because Cross’ second piece made overt assumptions that lurked further below the surface in her first. When I responded in November, I faced a piece of writing whose racial overtones were, while interpretable, not quite explicit. But I was troubled, and there is sure evidence for trouble now. This most recent piece of writing does damage to the diligent and courageous activism, not to mention the enormous pressure for legal reform, that has transpired in India over the past several years, and whose history extends much further than Cross (or any trendy think piece on the subject, for that matter) seems to recognize. It contributes to a white feminism that sees men of color as inherently more misogynistic then white men. It contributes to a white feminism that holds that white women need to “see injustice” done to women of color before outrage and action can occur. And this is a feminism that I refuse.

Emma Thurber Stone is a third-year in the college majoring in anthropology and gender and sexuality studies.