Thursday, June 10, 2010

The potential and the danger of first person in feminist discourse

In my day job, I’m a tutor, mostly of basic composition and writing (a very problematic position for reasons I won’t delve into here). One of the things that I immediately note in every paper is the use of first person in analytical essays. While it’s great in narrative and process papers, lots of unrelated personal anecdotes and uncited “I” statements in critical assignments do not usually contribute to a satisfied instructor.

Blogging, though, is distinctly different from academic writing, where the rules are quite subjective, and where the personal and political blur. Blogging comes from a much less formal, much more casual place. The first person can be a very valuable tool, and I don’t want to silence or dictate people’s choice of voice. But in feminist and social justice writing, the first person can be applied too liberally or beyond its scope by privileged writers.

The first person is a powerful voice in feminist contexts. It’s often vital to creating a safe space, to communicating experiences of oppression, to helping readers understand the real, actual, concrete impact of the kyriarchy. With the best of audiences, it helps privileged people understand the impact of our actions. It is a way to tell our stories and claim our experiences as our own: a powerful statement in a world which endeavors to shut us down, erase, and silence us.

But its use can be less beneficial when writing about experiences and oppressions that are not our own. In these discussions, whether theoretical or based around a specific incident, first person use should be limited. When we take to task a privilege we hold, in most situations, the third person is largely appropriate. Frequent use of first person pronouns or anecdotes to begin paragraphs and sentences of pieces about oppressions unknown to us does not tell the reader so much about the oppression as the privilege we still hold and use. Instead, we are appropriating and erasing these experiences and words to talk about their own. Discussions of oppression should be centered around the oppressed.

If I write about abusive caregivers, it is not the time to discuss at length my fears about aging. If I write about police violence against people of color, it is not the time to relate a long anecdote about how one time I was intimidated by a cop. If I write about the exclusion of trans women from women’s colleges, it is not the time for me to break down my experiences with an all-male trustee board at women’s colleges. [note: links are examples of writing about issues, not illustrating any point about use of person on the part of the writer] I’m not arguing that these subjects should be segregated – used sparingly, personal experiences can be helpful to the reader, and social justice writers should consider marginalized groups in pieces about more mainstream issues and experiences. But when focusing on an oppression I do not experience, I should not use it as an opportunity to go on about myself and my privileged life.

When writing about a specific example or instance of an oppression I do not experience, I try to limit myself heavily. I’ll write perhaps about how I found something as an introduction. I’ll use small colloquialisms like “to me” or “from my limited perspective” to clarify that my point of view may not be universal. I’ll use qualifiers to establish that I am not the authority on something - e.g. “As a white/cis/able-bodied person, I don’t have the authority to say definitively that something is racist/cissexist/ableist.” Then hopefully I will link or quote some writers who do have the authority to write about their experiential oppression so I do not erase or silence them on issues of concern to them.

When I do write about my privilege directly and critically rather than systems of oppression, the ethics are a little different. Especially in the context of an apology, I use the singular first person soas to take maximum responsibility and emphasize my culpability in whatever I’ve fucked up. If it’s a bigger post in which I feel the need to call out to others who share that privilege, I try write in the plural first person (as in here). This helps readers connect themselves to the system of oppression we benefit from.

Each writer has to figure out how to navigate person and avoid centralizing their own privileges. I try to limit my own use of the extended narrative first person to the main oppressions I experience – primarily disability, but also on the axes of size*, reproduction, and sexism (of course). These are the only spaces where I’ll allow myself to begin with “I” in more than one sentence or paragraph, or use the first person in every paragraph, or use more than one personal anecdote or story.

We as oppressed individuals need to use our voices, our first person to argue our points, to tell our stories, to insist upon our rights. But we as privileged individuals need to consider the load of the benefits accrued from the kyriarchy and the crushing silence it can impose on marginalized persons. We need to shift that emphasis to those who have been damaged by voices like ours by laying off I, me, and my.

While the gist of this is critical, it's also about the power of the first person. I'd like to invite readers who are writers to share work in which you use the first person to describe and fight the oppression you experience.

*Though I really need to write outside my own experience, since I do have some measure of size privilege.


  1. Hmm, I think I have to disagree with you. I am grad student, and I've had to mark a lot of papers. I've found that when people don't want to use the word "I" it's often because they want to sound more authoritative and objective.

    Well, maybe you can see how this is a problem already. But I find that students often don't want to write things like, "I believe" because they think it's too soft. But the entire essay is about what you believe, and so using this term is more honest.

    Not to mention this belief in creating objectivity through manipulating language is problematic.

    I think people need to realize that just because someone uses the term, "I" doesn't mean that the paper is anecdotal. It is however, more sincere. It also acknowledges the ambiguities of belief. Often, what students write is not objective at all.

    Fortunately, most academic papers are now allowing the use of "I."

    Good post. :)


  2. If this were a Quaker unprogrammed worship service, the goal would be to speak a message that is not meant specifically for that person alone. This is not to say that messages meant specifically for us individually are bad, but that we ought to aim for a kind of universality that includes everyone. First person messages often toe the line between self-centered and community-centered.

    I've often thought about the topics that are posted on blogs in sequential order, comparing them to topics and subjects that preceded them. Sometimes a secondary theme in a prior post will provide a writer/poster an opening to post something deeply personal to them but not necessarily pertinent to that which came before.

  3. Sarah, I'm a tutor, not a teacher, so I usually mark it because I know that it's something a lot of professors look out for. I think it's a little too harshly graded, but it's one way to teach students that academic writing is different from speech.

    Thanks for bringing that perspective in, though - perhaps I will be a little more leniant in noting it in the future :)

  4. As an academic, I think (in my discipline) we are actively discouraged from using 'I'- because it has no authority in a 'scientific' context. As a result, when I mark u/grad essays, while I wouldn't deduct marks, I would also tell students to write in the third person (because we are training them in the discipline).

    I think writing in the third person gives writing a sense of 'objectivity' that is culturally prized in academia and so distances your writing from the criticism of being 'personal opinion'.

    In a feminist context, the use of the word 'I' is powerful as it gives voice to the female experience- and in having voice you claim authority for your experience (so is better than silence). But, this authority would not necessarily have power within an academic context, where it would tend to be dismissed as too personal and therefore not 'objective' enough.

  5. @Feminist Avatar:

    "I" is prized in Women and Gender Studies papers. I'm in Political Studies (we omit the term Political "Science" from our department on purpose.) I do know some professors who refrain from using "I" but most seem to think it's outdated.

    I can only speak for Political Studies though. I'm not sure how it is in the sciences (and my brief experience in Women's studies.) I suspect there would be more emphasis on objectivity in the sciences.

    A paper, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is not scientific (and even science has its own problems). Most of the professors in our department know this and actively encourage the use of the word "I."

    Peruse regular articles and you can see the shift. I am a huge advocate of using "I" because it reveals the ambiguities of research, mostly the fact that people actually disagree and facts are hard to come by. Why must we hide that? Authority should not be conveyed through the manipulation of language. Authority should come from decent research and the strength of argument. Using the third person adds nothing to the debate and only obscures the truth.

    I sometimes suspect that this is a difference between American and Canadian universities. Political Science, especially in the U.S, prizes positivism. While, the departments in Canada have a stronger focus in qualitative and normative methods.

    I'm not sure what country you come from though, or what department you work in, but this is certainly the case in our department. :)


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