Caging Confessions: My Womanhood in David Lake’s White Man’s IR

(A really long caveat): I have nothing but respect for David Lake. In the last few years, I have interacted with him professionally on a number of occasions. I have found him to be generous, open-minded, and self-reflective. I have found him to intend inclusion at every time possible. Many people in David’s position of privilege in the field either fail to reflect on the issues that David does or fail to take the risk of sharing their reflection. Many people in David’s position of privilege in the field fail to do the hard work to make the field better that David does every day. I have rarely met a more thoughtful leader, and appreciate the work that he does in the field. I think that the field is better off for David’s leadership, and significantly so. I say this because I think David’s piece is a brave thing to have done, and something he did not have to do – and it is important to note that the critique that comes here is only possible because David took that risk, and that my critique should be (and is) louder towards those who failed to take the risk. That said, I couldn’t read David’s confessional and not react. My reaction is partial – it is my experience and my confessional, rather than a full-scale engagement with the argument. Particularly, I didn’t comment extensively on the discussion of race in the confession, because I don’t think I would/could do that justice. Like David, I benefit from many of the discipline’s axes of power, and its important then to recognize that this critique can always be only partial. RelationsInternational would be happy, however, to publish both further discussion and any engagement David might want to have with this conversation.

David Lake’s White Man’s IR: An Intellectual Confession suggests that the exclusion of women and minorities from the field of IR results in intellectual convergence, “leaving other questions unasked because they do not appear relevant, other theories unexamined because they do not resonate with our intuitions, and other predictions untested.” Dr. Lake then suggests that he would be a better scholar, and IR would be a better field, if it had more a more diverse representation of scholars. As he critiques the “practices and privileges” that keep IR largely white and largely male, Dr. Lake admits to having been complicit in those practices and privileges, and benefitting from them. He then also suggests that little he writes about making the field more diverse is new, suggesting that “it is precisely as a beneficiary of the ‘system,’ however, that I hope my remarks might have some impact. I apologize nor for the lack of originality in this essay, only for my tardiness in understanding the issues and why they are important.” Lake goes on to recognize that disciplinary hierarchy and gate-keeping reify a lack of diversity, and should be questioned – “white man’s IR begets white man’s IR.” He suggests that, even when it is non-white or non-male scholars doing IR, they are constrained by disciplinary and job-related incentives.

This premise for the article, I think, is impressive: a recognition of the substantive need for diversity and an apology for not coming to that conclusion earlier. It is when Lake goes on to explain why he sees diversity as substantively important that I stop being on board with the article. His argument (paraphrasing here because this is likely already going to be a long blog post) is that lived experience shapes intuition, and intuition shapes theorizing. Because “the lived experience of white males in the US during the twentieth century, for instance, share similarities that are different from those for women, blacks, Hispanics, and other racial minorities,” their different lived experiences will cause them to contribute different theorizations.

It is true that lack of representational diversity makes for a lack of substantive (and, though not recognized by Lake, epistemological and methodological) diversity. But that realization does not necessitate an essentialist claim that women, blacks, Hispanics, and other racial minorities (either across groups, which could be read into the comments, or, more likely what Lake meant, within groups) necessarily have something in common. There’s a reason there aren’t a lot of standpoint feminists left in academia – because of the realization that there is violence in assuming that there is a standpoint which women have. That violence is three-fold: first, it suggests standards that legitimate (and therefore delegitimize) claims to womanhood exist and can be deployed; second, it suggests that biological sex is a clear and primordial thing; third, it suggests that gender maps onto sex one-to-one.

So, in one sense, I’m exactly the woman that Dr. Lake is talking about – someone whose intellectual interest is in gender, which is a topic that was traditionally ignored by the white men who constituted the field, and is getting more attention as the field gets more (but still embarrassingly not enough) diversity of scholars. On the other hand, my interest in gender in global politics comes less from being a woman than from being a person who was labelled a woman but felt intensely uncomfortable with that label itself and the expectations of femininity that come with it.

Why does that matter? Is it just that one confessional deserves another?

Its not. Its that it is as biased and as discriminatory (though more subtly so, certainly) to expect that members of traditionally underrepresented groups to represent different viewpoints or lived experiences. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Because there is not an experience of being a woman, or of being a part of any other group. There are many, and some of those experiences cluster, but many of them don’t. Whether it is by life experience or seduction or pure coincidence, for example, my work and my commentary on others’ work questions the possibility of objective knowledge (and perhaps even knowledge at all). Other privileged, white women with whom I have significant personal and life commonalities test hypotheses and report results understanding that to be objective knowledge, or an approximation of the possibility of objective knowledge. This is a pretty significant intellectual difference, right? Certainly, I would argue that my epistemological skepticism has intellectual foundation in post-structural feminism, but that clearly is not a linear result (or even a curvilinear one) of women’s life experiences in the field.

In fact, the more times I read over Lake’s arguments about the different things women and minorities have to say than men do, the more uncomfortable it makes me. I agree with the conclusion – like Dr. Lake says – many have been saying it for years – that allowing white men to continue to set the standards of IR constitutes IR as something that will always favor white men, and that needs to change. Dr. Lake and I disagree, I think, about the revolutionary versus incremental nature of the change needed, though I fall closer to Lake on some of those questions than some of my more revolutionary colleagues. It makes me uncomfortable because it paints me into a category in which I have never fully felt comfortable – that of a woman – and then it assigns me traits and characteristics based on that categorization.

I think this has the three harms that I talk about above about standpoint feminism. First, Lake does not explicitly talk about what it is he perceives women to have in common in terms of life experiences, so its not clear what that might be. But that leaves my imagination running. Is it motherhood that women have in common? Because then I don’t qualify to be one. Is it the constant physical insecurity and fear of being raped when alone that Catharine MacKinnon talked about? Because then I hope that my work isn’t shaped by terror. Is it some trait associated with femininity? Because I feel a pretty deep discomfort with most of those. Is it the rampant sexism that exists in schools, workplaces, and around society? Because I don’t want to write from a grudge. Am I, actually, a woman, in David’s shared experiences narrative? How would I know? Why would I want to? Why do I have to figure it out?

Second, it assumes that sex categories are a thing. It assumes that there are biological men, and biological women, and that people can be put into those classes with relative ease. Certainly, the response to this critique is that persons who are neither/nor or both/and (see Cynthia Weber’s expansive discussions of these terms) can just form a separate category, more diversity, an additional viewpoint. Even if that were true and those people might have something essential in common, it is the presumed naturalness of sex with which most feminist scholars have parted ways. As Judith Butler has argued, sex is not a material given, but “a regulatory ideal whose materialization is forced … as an effective of power” (Bodies that Matter, xii). Rather “to invoke matter is to invoke a sedimented history of sexual hierarchy and sexual erasures” – to take the idea of men and women as dichotomous and clearly bounded is to internalize a process of social differentiation that produced and reified that dichotomy (Butler, Bodies that Matter, p.22). Instead, “it is no longer possible to take anatomy as a stable referent that is some how valorized or signified by being subject to some imaginary schema” (Butler, Bodies that Matter, p.35). There is not a category of ‘woman’ out there with essential commonalities.

As a corollary, then, there is not a “gender” related to a “sex.” People labelled as, or understood to be, or even self-identified as, women, do not necessarily have anything in common, whether that be in life experience, in personality trait, or, in David’s words, in intuition.

I want the field to be more diverse, representationally and substantively. But I don’t want my contribution to substantive diversity of the field to be valued because, or valued related to, my contribution to representative diversity. I do not want people to read my feminist work as a woman’s contribution, or the contribution of including women in the field. I want women to be included in the field because they, however defined, are freaking people too. And I want feminist theory to be taken seriously in the field because its insights complicate and overturn the work in the field. I don’t want feminism to be included in the field because it is what women do, or me to be included in the field because I am a woman so must have a distinct viewpoint. Relating an essentialized life experience to intuition and theorizing makes those ties inescapable, and is therefore not worth the price.

I’m not the woman in Dr. Lake’s account of diversifying the field, and I hope that no one has to be caged into that role to make IR more diverse. Representational diversity is important, but it doesn’t in itself constitute substantive diversity. And some of the text of Dr. Lake’s piece evinces remaining barriers to that substantive diversity. Particularly, as I mention above, Dr. Lake’s argument that the field’s narrowness (among other things) “leaves predictions untested” suggests that the new substantive diversity that comes from desirable representational diversity might fit neatly within the epistemologically positivist, KKV-style mode of inquiry that the dominated-by-white-men field has so long used as a standard of measuring good inquiry. In my view, so long as substantive diversity is limited by epistemological and methodological narrowness, even a representationally diverse field will be seriously limited.

  • David Lake

    I want to thank Laura for her interesting and thoughtful post. I take her point about the dangers of assuming that individuals with some shared ascriptive trait have identical (or near Identical) life experiences. But I want to make clear that I am not essentializing race, gender, or other categories. I do not believe there are universal traits of feminity, for instance. Rather, common life experiences derive not from internal attributes of any individual but from social practices that treat members of ascriptive categories in similar ways. An extreme but obvious case is that clearly not all young black males are criminals (and certainly not innately criminal), but the society in which young black men live treat them as if they could be criminals – stop and frisk being only the most obnoxious manifestation of this suspicion. But being treated with suspicion – stopped and frisked with a much higher probability that any other subpopulation – creates a common life experience that other ascriptive groups do not share. Being treated as a possible criminal, however, cannot but help but shape the views of black males about politics, justice, etc. Again, I don’t argue that anyone is born with certain views or attitudes towards politics. Rather – -this is the constructivist within me – we are all socialized by larger practices over which we have little control because others use ascriptive characteristics as cues on how to treat us. White men tend to benefit from these social practices, women and minorities typically do not, and this creates intuitions about politics and social life that correlate across these ascriptive characteristics. Life experience is not determinative. No one within any ascriptive group lives the same life as anyone else, and thus we differ in our world views. But social practices do create privileges and harms for various ascriptive groups that we too often fail to recognize at our peril as citizens and, as I tried to point out in the essay, as scholars.

    • Meera Sabaratnam

      Hi Laura and David, Thanks for these thoughtful comments. Unfortunately I cannot see any more than the abstract of David’s piece which precludes me from looking at his argument but I felt like weighing in in support of some need for standpoint thinking to make sense of categories as such as ‘woman’, ‘black’, ‘queer’ etc as politically meaningful. That doesn’t necessarily collapse into a simple one-way unreflexive relationship between experience and knowledge but it also means that it’s *not* all a wash as to whether the people who we turn to to understand political phenomena are involved in them and in what ways (rather than just women as ‘humans’ – why would it then matter if there were women there or not?) Anyway, this is a long-standing discussion in the field but I like Charles Mills on it and that reply of Patricia Hill Collins to Susan Hekman. I don’t see much purpose in increasing the numerical representation of women principally because women are human but rather because they are collectively subject to forms of sexism which act to constrain them as well as everyone’s understandings of the world.

      • LauraSjoberg

        Both? But I don’t like the idea of expecting more out of women (whether it is as scholars or as leaders) than you expect out of men. The burden on women to represent women, or to diversify the field, seems problematic to me. Its not that I fully discount the idea of standpoint mattering (though it has always felt personally very viscerally uncomfortable), but it is that _expecting_ standpoint to do something for the discipline seems to me to be a problem. BTW, if you email me I can send the PDF.

    • LauraSjoberg

      Thanks for this, David. I think, for me, there is some truth to the fact that there are some fairly common experiences; but I 1) wouldn’t want to universalize them; 2) wouldn’t want to expect that the reactions to them shaped the people that they happened to; and 3) wouldn’t want to expect the people that experienced them to be a certain sort of person or scholar for the field.