Race, bordering and disobedient knowledge, episode 2, transcription: Whiteness and feminism

Length of recording: 34 minutes

Participants: Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin and Nelli Ruotsalainen

Transcription notes:

ASH: Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin, Interviewer

NR: Nelli Ruotsalainen, Respondent


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ASH: Welcome to episode two of Race, Bordering and Disobedient Knowledge. My name is Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin and I’m here today in Helsinki with Nelli Ruotsalainen who will tell us more about her research. So Nelli, could you tell in general terms [music starts] to the public about what your research is about?

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NR: Yes, thank you, Amiirah. So yeah, first I can say a little bit about myself. I’m one of the PhD candidates on the (-) project, which is the Intersectional Border Struggles and Disobedient Knowledge funded by the Academy of Finland. And from this project, I’ve been working on my PhD for the past two years.

And so, in terms of my research, in my research, I’m interested in how… The research title is called Contesting Normative Whiteness in the Finnish Feminist Movement. And I’m interested in how actors who organize in feminist spaces and under the banner of feminism who do not themselves experience racism take up antiracist practices as part of the work that they do. And so, what that means for the general public is that I’m interested in a context like Finland where society is built on normative whiteness: how do people who understand discrimination and oppression from some angles through a feminist analysis; maybe they understand it through gender discrimination or homophobia or something like that. How do they (incorporate it in) [01:25] antiracist analysis and what does that look like. And how do actors in those spaces articulate their relationship to whiteness and antiracism.

ASH: Thank you for that. What has been some of the interesting findings so far in terms of your research?

NR: Well, as any researcher probably seen this situation that it’s still very much doing the research. I have completed one article that I’m submitting, resubmitting again this fall. In that article, I looked at the Finnish Feminist Party, which was founded in 2016, and how that party ran its first campaign in the municipal elections in 2017. And how one of the big slogans or big missions of that campaign was to have a city without racism. On a municipal level. So I think that some of the findings that are coming out of that indicate that, while it’s really good that feminist actors take up space and want to further antiracism, that still it’s difficult, because (of the) [02:35] societal climate at the time was really hostile towards feminist organizing, but also really hostile towards any antiracist organizing, and there was lot of racism and xenophobia in the Finnish society, politics, and public sphere at the time.

So I think that maybe a finding could be that these societal constraints influence the capacity to which actors are able to take up feminist and antiracist space. But then also, that it… I don’t know how to say this. But it’s also important that the analysis ideally goes beyond just communicating about it, (but) permeates also the organizational structure of those actors that take up feminist space and advocate for antiracism. (--) needs to be clear – hopefully in the future – that if you have, for example, a party programme that talks about antiracism, what that would mean in practice if people were elected. How would the political goals transition into antiracist practice upon election?

ASH: So I understand that this (research was) [03:44] based on municipal elections that happened quite some time ago. So with a lot of the changes that has happened in recent years, why is this research impactful at this time?

NR: That’s a good question. I think that this research only becomes more and more impactful. I think that everyone who is involved in this (-) project has done research that will have implications and practical applications just beyond academia also. For me, I think about this research currently in the context of many organizations, including the university, that are striving to incorporate antiracist practice into their organizational structure, also a lot of companies are doing that. The private sector, public sector. And I think that a lot of this research coming out of this project, but also the research that I was doing, could help organizations understand that what it means to undertake antiracist practice, especially from the majority position. And (especially as) actors who benefit from white privilege.

ASH: And you mentioned that one of the implications (of it could) be the effect on the party programme and things like that. What (other) practical implications can come out of your research (do you reckon)?

NR: The second phase of my research involves interviewing actors (or) analysing the data that I’ve interviewed with actors who are involved in antiracist and feminist organizing who don’t themselves experience racism. And I think that in those interviews some of the… What will come out after I analyse them, this is my hypothesis, is that people don’t really know how to take up antiracist practice and don’t really know how to negotiate the tension between taking up too much space as an actor who is white and benefits from white privilege, but then also is vocal and understanding that the destruction of white supremacy belies on white people also taking action.

And I think that from those contradictions and tensions that come out in my research, I hope that there will be more practical applications for actors that they can then take up and not get bogged down by those questions and understand that people will make mistakes. The ultimate goal here is, like I said, the destruction of [laughs] white supremacy that we’re (--) [05:50].

So I’m hoping that that will be one, and I think that that has far-reaching practical applications in terms of these feminist organizations or feminist spaces that these people have been involved in, that they could take the research that I have done, (and their own participation in, and) maybe apply it in the context that they’re working in. But then also, looking broader beyond just academia, beyond just feminist activist spaces.

ASH: Thank you. So the title of our podcast is (--) and Disobedient Knowledge. The term disobedient knowledge is also in the name of our research group. What does disobedient knowledge mean in your research? What is disobedient about your research?

NR: That’s a good question, and this is actually something that I have thought about a lot in the context of this research project since it began. I think that disobedient knowledge can refer to many things in the context of the research. I think it can be a methodological undertaking. It can be going against the grain of what’s conventional in academia. But I also think that disobedient knowledge can be knowledge that goes against societal power structures in a way. So I think that different people in this research project have applied it differently, whether it be disobedient knowledge coming from (person’s subject) [07:17] position in society or (whether not).

For me, I think, at least in the context of this first paper that I’m about to hopefully publish, is a methodological choice. It’s an autoethnography, and I think that autoethnography gets lot of bad rap in academia, because… for a good reason, I think, also, but I think that taking an insider position in a feminist organizing space that I was involved in and then looking critically at that is a reflexive practice that I think is inherent in feminist research also. And I think that feminist research still, even though it is getting [laughs] more and more mainstream in the university, is kind of a disobedient position, a positionality to take, especially if that reflexivity carries throughout the research without it becoming so-called navel-gazing.

And so I think that one way to do disobedient knowledge is methodology. And other people in this research project have also used the idea of participatory action research and things where the researchers’ positionality isn’t so self-evidently imbued with authority. And in that context, be disobedient.

And of course, some discourses around critical whiteness studies or whiteness studies involve the idea that you… as an actor who benefits from white privilege in society, there’s no other alternative but to be disobedient to that positionality and constantly think about what that means for your research but also for your activism (--) [08:55] disobedient towards white supremacy.

ASH: What are some of the misconceptions? Are there any misconceptions that people have about your research? Or something controversial perhaps?

NR: Yeah, I think… I mean, I don’t even know where to start [laughs]. (--) say that as a person who graduated with a Master’s in Arts in gender studies. That has been (--) so rife with misconceptions, because I don’t think people really understood throughout my career what gender studies means, I mean, I’ve been asked by a taxi driver for advice on fertility, for example. [laughs]. Similar situations where gender studies background or feminist research isn’t understood as quote-unquote serious position in university.

But I think that what I touched on earlier, the use of autoethnography is one that creates controversy in academia. It’s difficult to execute well, without it… It’s difficult to outline, I think, the positionality of saying that I was intimately involved in something and now I’m producing research from that vantage point. And I think that for a lot of people who aren’t familiar with that autoethnography kind of seems like an easy way to get off the hook. Or, also I’ve heard that it’s like a quote-unquote millennial tendency in which so-called millennials are just preoccupied with themselves through the idea of taking selfies and through the idea of putting themselves out there in a way that perhaps is a little bit strange for prior generations. And so I think that some people might consider that odd. But I think that also looking critically at your own work comes from the feminist research background. And I think that even if it were (--) [10:45] academia, I think that… Why not? I mean, if it is a generational reflex to do that, (then why not problematize) that?

Maybe also… I’m trying to think about the interviews that I conducted. What misconceptions people might have or some controversial ideas. I think that one idea that may be considered controversial is that people who are involved in feminist organizing often have this idea of themselves as very egalitarian: an understanding that they can kind of do no wrong. Or especially (what) Catrin Lundström calls the contradictory location of white women as being, like, simultaneously oppressed in some ways and simultaneously being the oppressor. And so then, kind of calling in or calling out that positionality to be, like, your relevant minority position as a member of a gender-sexual minority or as a woman who’s experienced sexual harassment or violence doesn’t kind of let you off the hook for white privilege. And so, I think that that oftentime creates a lot of (--) [11:46] and pushback. And I think especially – and this is just a hypothesis – but in Finland, where feminist organizing, at least until maybe the past 10-15 years, has gone unchallenged and has been very much invested in gender equality feminism, at least on the state level and the NGO level. Bringing the intersectional analysis to that has been something that (-) activists in Finland have been doing.

And so, since you asked about the misconceptions around this research, one of the other things that came to mind is the theoretical framework that I’m working with, especially in this first article that looks at the campaign of the Finnish Feminist Party is affect theory. And I think that when I try to explain that to people outside of academia, they’re like, first of all, what does affect mean, and second of all, when I explain it, they’re like, so you’re analysing emotions? [laughs]. Or (--) meanings and understandings that relate to emotions. And I think that that for some people can be considered kind of research that isn’t serious or research that is unquantifiable in some way. But the field of affect theory is very big and established already, but I think that’s something that outside of academia it’s hard to talk about. And in the context of this research, I’m looking at especially what kind of (--) [13:05] like Sara Ahmed says, (stick around) the use of antiracism and racism in the public space.

So the Feminist Party had these posters that said: a city without racism, and then those posters were tarnished by people who – you know – defaced them in many different ways, having Nazi symbolism and slogans on them, and I think that (the outward) racism was so potent in that, and that’s why it caused this big emotional reaction. So I’m looking at in what contexts racism is mobilized, because then the message obviously was that look at how badly this was dealt with by the right-wing activists and white supremacists, (or however you wanna call them), anti-immigrant organizing. And so, then, it kind of reinforced the message that this message is needed.

And so I’m wondering about in what context organizations strategically deploy slogans like something-something without racism, or (how racism is used, and what) [14:08] kind of meanings stick to it, ‘cause as we know from prior research, from research in this project, the idea that Finland has somehow gone without racism sticks to some parts of society, or that Finland still has this some sort of innocence or egalitarian notion of itself, and then, suggesting that we need a city without racism, it means that there is racism here. And so I think that what kind of cultural [laughs] emotional understandings are related to that. And also at the time… Now we have everyone saying that they’re feminist, which is great, and we have a government that has intersectionality as a word in its gender equality programme, but at the time, the Finnish government declared that they don’t need a gender equality programme at all. Let alone one that has [laughs] such progressive ideas as intersectionality in it. And I think that in the research that I’m looking at, the word (feminism was still one) that was affectively potent in a way that really galvanized people into two different directions: either, like, hell yes, we need this, or like, no, those people need to be quieted down, and this is a threat, (to some understandings of) hegemonic whiteness and hegemonic (masculinity).

So yeah, I think that affect theory is very interesting, but (at some times), I find it a little bit difficult to explain outside of academia – what it is that I’m actually doing. (I think it leads to a) lot of misconceptions.

ASH: Thank you for that. So what can somebody who wants to do similar kind of research learn from your work?

NR: That’s a good question. I think that one of the things that will come out of the future of this research is something that someone might… If someone is interested in researching their own peer group, for example, because I am doing this research, because I have been involved in a lot of different forms of feminist organizing in Helsinki and in Finland. And now I’m kind of interviewing people who I have met through those contacts and who have contacted me and wanna partake and participate in this research.

But that’s kind of a interesting positionality to negotiate. And so, I think that if someone were doing similar research, in which they were interested in people who occupy their own relative positions, would be how to carry reflexivity, but how to also carry sensitivity towards the research participants, especially if some of the findings are ones that might cause them to [laughs] reconsider some of the things that they have thought or said as part of the feminist organizing. This ties into the idea of… a little bit (to white fragility) [16:44] and stuff like that. And then also maintaining some sort of distance (in the) negotiating the positionality that the researcher inherently has authority. And even if we try to partake in participatory action research, for example, it’s still good to acknowledge that and to keep that in mind, and that the researcher ultimately has the responsibility over the research.

And then, the other thing is looking at… I’m hoping that, as my career progresses, and I’m also a writer, so I think that one of the things that interest me about autoethnography is also the idea that you can use creative writing in an academic context to bring out something that would otherwise be lost. And so, I think that furthering ideas of qualitative research that have to do with art and poetry and creative writing in a more essay style that’s perhaps also more accessible to people is something that I’m interested in. I hope to find a community around that and I hope that maybe through my research (--) [17:40] people could also learn something.

ASH: Thank you. So what’s the next thing that you plan to do?

NR: That’s a good question. I think that for a lot of us who are in academia, especially early-career researchers, that question is one that (gives us pause). It’s not guaranteed that we will have funding. And for example, my funding is ending for this project, and I didn’t get funding for my own project in the round of funding that would happen this spring. Of course, the fall is something to look forward to, but I think this ties into a broader conversation about academia and the position of researchers and especially early-career and PhD researchers. And (--) [laughs] livelihood that comes with that and the constant stress.

And I think I wanna, like, highlight that it is not about whether or not a person is resilient enough to, like, bob along in the academic (currents, which are tumultuous) [18:42, laughs] and (-). And that sometimes people do have to make choices that lead them away from academia on intervals, just so they can make sure that they get paid. And so, I don’t know, I’m wondering about this question in general. And my peers who are PhD researchers who are in this funding cycle and then to know also that the university isn’t really invested in funding the research.

Yeah, so I don’t know, maybe… I don’t know if you have any… As a fellow PhD researcher [laughs], do you have anything you wanna say about this, too?

ASH: I mean, well, I’m currently unfunded for my research, so I suppose I’m in a more (rocky boat) [laughs] compared to you in this academic life at the moment. Yeah, I mean, it’s a tough one. So…

NR: Yeah, and I think that it’s especially tough for us researchers who look at… whose research wants to do something like disobedient knowledge, wants to do something like challenge existing power structures. And then, just still be tied into that system. So I’m wondering how to kind of problematize the authority that comes with academia as a platform to stand on. Because I think that that’s one of the reasons, honestly, why we’re here today: (the) [20:05] idea that an academic prestige can lend a platform to something that we both think is important and needs to be heard. ‘Cause other than that, we’d be doing it outside of academia. But I’m kind of wondering about that [laughs].

ASH: (-) outside of academia.

NR: Yeah, wondering about how long are we gonna legitimate this institution [laughs] that ultimately is against us (--) put it that way!

ASH: That’s a big question to ask, Nelli. But I suppose it’s also part of the ideas that we are trying to unpack through our research project. (--) this whole idea of disobedient knowledge. So types of academic knowledge that is seen as the only legitimate form of knowledge in all aspects of life, you know, in all parts of society. (And how do we) navigate that, as you said before.

NR: Definitely, I think that’s why it’s good that a lot of the research coming out of this research project is invested in this kind of revolving door between academia and society and doing participatory action research forms where the idea is that this knowledge (can get launched into) [21:22] academia, that has to be in conversation. Like a polyphonic, conversation, not just a dialogue [laughs], outside of the academia, whether or not it’s disseminated through this podcast, for example, or like, a poem that I might read, or like, what (-) is doing, for example, with involving students in developing an antiracist (app and stuff). So I think that… And there will be more about that on this podcast later, as we delve into the research from other researchers in this. But I think that that in its way is inherently a disobedient (--) towards university, even if we rely on university structures to get it through, so it’s contradictory, but I think that it’s also a good sign that we got this funding for this, and I do trust that this research will be carried out, especially in terms of your research, which we will hear about in the next episode when we talk about it.

ASH: Yeah, and, well, hopefully, you know, we will get continued funding [laughs] to do both of our research, so that we can further unpack these questions through our research. So thank you so much, Nelli, for explaining more about your research in this episode. And (look) [22:49] forward to more episodes on this podcast on (--) and Disobedient Knowledge.

NR: Thank you, (-), and for anyone listening to this, if there is something that piqued your interest or maybe something that you found controversial, I really look forward to hearing from you, and my email door – so to speak – is open. You can email me at nelli.ruotsalainen@helsinki.fi. [music starts]. And I would love to be in contact. Thank you.

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