The Problem of Speaking For Others
This was published in
(Winter 1991-92), pp. 5-32; revised and reprinted in Who Can Speak?
Authority and Critical Identity
edited by Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, University of Illinois Press, 1996; and
inFeminist Nightmares: Women at Odds
edited by Susan Weisser and Jennifer Fleischner, (New York: New York
University Press, 1994); and also in Racism and Sexism: Differences and Connections
eds. David Blumenfeld and
Linda Bell, Rowman and Littlefield, 1995.
Consider the following true stories:
1. Anne Cameron, a very gifted white Canadian author, writes several first person accounts of
the lives of Native Canadian women. At the 1988 International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal,
a group of Native Canadian writers ask Cameron to, in their words, “move over” on the grounds
that her writings are disempowering for Native authors. She agrees.
2. After the 1989 elections in Panama are overturned by Manuel Noriega, U.S. President George
Bush declares in a public address that Noriega’s actions constitute an “outrageous fraud” and that
“the voice of the Panamanian people have spoken.” “The Panamanian people,” he tells us, “want
democracy and not tyranny, and want Noriega out.” He proceeds to plan the invasion of Panama.
3. At a recent symposium at my university, a prestigious theorist was invited to give a lecture on
the political problems of post-modernism. Those of us in the audience, including many white
women and people of oppressed nationalities and races, wait in eager anticipation for what he
has to contribute to this important discussion. To our disappointment, he introduces his lecture
by explaining that he can not cover the assigned topic, because as a white male he does not feel
that he can speak for the feminist and post-colonial perspectives which have launched the critical
interrogation of postmodernism’s politics. He lectures instead on architecture.
These examples demonstrate the range of current practices of speaking for others in our
society. While the prerogative of speaking for others remains unquestioned in the citadels of
colonial administration, among activists and in the academy it elicits a growing unease and,
in some communities of discourse, it is being rejected. There is a strong, albeit contested, current
within feminism which holds that speaking for others---even for other women---is arrogant, vain,
unethical, and politically illegitimate. Feminist scholarship has a liberatory agenda which almost
requires that women scholars speak on behalf of other women, and yet the dangers of speaking
across differences of race, culture, sexuality, and power are becoming increasingly clear to all. In
feminist magazines such as Sojourner
, it is common to find articles and letters in which the
author states that she can only speak for herself. In her important paper, “Dyke Methods,” Joyce
Trebilcot offers a philosophical articulation of this view. She renounces for herself the practice