White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome

A reply to Nancy Fraser

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In her recent piece in Comment is Free, “How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden — and how to reclaim it” Nancy Fraser draws on her own work in political theory to argue that feminism at best has been co-​opted by neoliberalism and at worst has been a capitalist venture of the neo-​liberal project. What appears at first glance to be a reasoned self-​reflection, one that takes stock and responsibility for past alliances and celebrations of strategic moves for the betterment of women’s lives, at second glance reveals the innate and repetitive myopia of White feminism to take account, to converse and think along with Black and Third World Feminists.

Writing from the early 1970s onwards, these scholars and activists have systematically engaged a feminist critique of not only state capitalism, but of a globalised capitalism rooted in colonial legacies. These feminisms have not prioritised “cultural sexism” over economic redistribution. The literature is vast, the examples myriad, and thus, it’s all the more tiring when White feminists speak of second-​wave feminism as if it were the only “feminism” and use the pronoun “we” when lamenting the failures of their struggles. Let us just say there is no such thing as a “feminism” as the subject of any sentence that designates the sole position for the critic of patriarchy. For such position has been fractured ever since Sojourner Truth said “Ain’t I a woman too?” There is though a feminist subject-​position, the one Fraser is lamenting, which has sat very comfortably in the seat of the self-​determined, emancipated subject. That position, of course, is that which she identifies as a contributor to neoliberalism. But that is no surprise, for both her feminism and neoliberalism share the same liberal core that Black and Third World feminists have identified and exposed since very early in the trajectory of feminisms.

The work of A.Y. Davis, Audre Lorde, Himani Bannerji, Avtar Brah, Selma James, Maria Mies, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Silvia Federici, Dorothy Roberts and scores of others, have shattered the limited and exclusionary nature of the conceptual frameworks developed by White feminists in the English speaking world. These scholars and activists have created frameworks of analysis that simultaneously surmount a challenge to and provide a dramatic corrective to both Black Marxist and anti-​colonial theory that failed fundamentally to theorise gender and sexuality, and Marxist and socialist feminist thought that continues to fail, in many ways, to account for race, histories of colonisation, and the structural inequities between the so-​called developed and developing nation states. And yes, Mies, Federici, and James are white, but Black and Third World Marxist feminisms aspire to political solidarity across the colour line.

The scholars we speak of have consistently developed critiques of capitalist forms of property, exchange, paid and unpaid labour, along with culturally embedded and structural forms of patriarchal violence. Let’s take the example of rape and violence against women. In the path-​breaking Women Race and Class, A.Y. Davis argued forcefully that many of the most contemporary and pressing political struggles facing black women are rooted in the particular types of oppression suffered under slavery. Rape and sexual violence are faced by women of all classes, races and sexualities, as Davis noted, but have a different valence for black men and women. The myth of the black rapist and of the violent hypersexual black male caused scores of lynchings during the antebellum era in America. This persistent racist myth provides explanatory value for the contemporary overrepresentation of black men in prisons convicted of rape, and led to the reluctance on the part of African-​American women to become involved in early feminist activism against rape that was focused on law enforcement and the judicial system (Davis, 1984). The expropriation of black labour rooted in the logics of slavery repeats itself in the expropriation of convict labour in the post-​slavery era, and today, in the unfree labour endemic in the prison industrial complex. (Davis, 2005)

Sexual violence is thus understood as something deriving from slavery and colonisation, affecting both women and men. This history of black women’s bodies as commodity objects to be used, violated at the pleasure of white men remains as a psychic, social, racial trace in contemporary American society. With respect to Native American and First Nations women, colonial era stereotypes of the “squaw” continue in contemporary racialised imaginaries, rendering Indigenous women vulnerable to forms of sexual violence that are always-​already racial and recall patterns of violence that emerged through the dispossession of their lands, languages, resources and yes, cultural practices. (See P. Monture-​Angus, Kim Anderson, Sherene Razack)

Recent suggestions that feminists should turn their gaze towards unpaid work, the work of care, was analysed by Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Power and Consciousness. She emphasises that for African-​American women, work in the home that contributes to their families’ well-​being can be understood by them as a form of resistance to the social and economic forces that collude to damage African-​American children and families. Black feminists have also led the wages for housework campaign, challenging bourgeois norms of the family economy. Following A.Y. Davis, we note that White feminists need to recognise when they engage political strategies that Black and Third World feminists have already been theorising and practising for a long time.

Ending oppression, violence against women, violence against men, particularly of the neo-​liberal variety, means embracing the historical, materialist, anti-​racist thought of Black and Third World Marxist feminists. Are the White feminists who persist in throwing in the word “race” or “racism” in their otherwise left-​liberal approaches to feminism willfully blind/​deaf? Are they unable to cede the floor to Black feminism because it would mean the loss of a certain racial privilege? The persistent claim to universalism, which is the core of this White feminism, renders the experiences, thoughts and work of Black and Third World feminists invisible, over and over again. Time’s up!

Brenna Bhandar, Senior Lecturer, SOAS School of Law.
Denise Ferreira da Silva, Professor, Queen Mary School of Business and Management.

  38 comments for “White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome

  1. 21 October 2013 at 7:54 am

    I hope no one will suspect me either of institutional bias (for Denise) or institutional nostalgia (for Brenna) if I register my congratulations on a cogently, powerfully written piece. This is the most thought-​provoking reply to Fraser I’ve read so far.

  2. nilmini
    21 October 2013 at 10:27 am

    Brilliant response, thank you. I have actually woven Fraser’s analyses with Black and Postcolonial thought, but the point needs to be made explict that her article “disappears” the political and intellectual labour of feminist of colour . A point also made regarding intersectional theory by Nikol G. Alexander-​Floyd, which has also been co-​opted and enacted by White feminism which allows race to be disappeared. (in Disappearing Acts: Reclaiming Intersectionality in the Social Sciences in a Post-​Black Feminist Era. ) When WF ask what can they do to “help” Black.migrant women, I say, MOVE OVER. That’s all. Indeed, I have long suspected that the great interest in Arab, African, Asian, Indigenous feminisms and calls by WF for “transnational feminisms” is more of benefit to WF than to the women activists in situ, who are dealing with the issues. So many conferences and trips and research projects…and “expert groups”. As Arundathi Roy said, There’s a lot of money in poverty”.

  3. Eugene Egan
    21 October 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Western feminists have been working hand in glove with the so=called ‘war on terror’ and have therefore become part of the imperialist game-​plan.

  4. Ange-Marie
    21 October 2013 at 5:28 pm

    I appreciate this response and would like to direct you to the Politics of Intersectionality book series, where we have taken this topic on directly with five different books on a wide/​global variety of activist topics. Books are more recent than PHC, as wonderful as her work is: 2011, 2012, & 2013…we are also accepting manuscripts if you have one in this vein. Here’s the link: http://​us​.macmillan​.com/​s​e​r​i​e​s​/​T​h​e​P​o​l​i​t​i​c​s​o​f​I​n​t​e​r​s​e​c​t​i​o​n​a​l​ity
    I co-​edit this series with Nira Yuval-​Davis, UEL

    • nilmini
      21 October 2013 at 11:14 pm

      Thanks Ange-​Marie, for that series. Has it been recently released? It doesn’t always come up on Google searches (including scholar). I would have thought they would be there, along with Nura Yuval Davis, Crenshaw, Lykke.

  5. 22 October 2013 at 1:45 am

    It’s a minor point, really, but when is the whole Cold War ideology of the “Third World” going to end? While it may have once described a sociopolitical reality, that context has all but vanished with the breakup of (the counterrevolution in) the Soviet Union in 1991. Politics often seems to me a dead language.

    Fraser’s article in The Guardian was okay, though the ending was something of a letdown. I have no idea what “constrain[ing] capital for the sake of justice” has to do with Marxism, which I’ve always understood to advocate the supersession of capital for the sake of freedom. Still, the lameness of her economic redistributism aside, the objections listed here seem to miss the mark. How is the “standpoint” advanced in this critique any different from a rehashed version of standpoint epistemology?

  6. Chris
    22 October 2013 at 10:43 pm

    “White fem­in­ism”

    Now that’s an ad hominem. You can’t do that, it’s a logical fallacy. By all means disagree with what she says, but you can’t bring who she is into the debate or you lose automatically.

  7. Jessica
    23 October 2013 at 8:26 am

    Nancy Fraser argues either that neoliberalism has tricked us, or we’ve tricked ourselves, into the grinding gears of the capitalist machinery; whe provides good reasoning and a verifiable critique of observable reality… and your only answer is “check your privilege, white feminists”?

    You believe yourselves more in the right and morally superior to white feminists simply because of your race, which I guess makes you racists. The irony.

    • Denise
      24 October 2013 at 2:50 am

      Jessica,

      Given that we employ White Feminisms and Black/​Third World Feminisms to designate racial-​political positions (not identities, as you seem to have read it), it seems that you missed the point of our reply to Fraser. Here is is again:
      1 — The White feminist position she writes from (and call feminist) could not have been tricked by neoliberalism because it is no different ontologically. That their programmes and projects were appropriated is due to the fact that they were ‘appropriate’ to a liberal programme.
      2 — The call to them was not ‘check your privilege’ but wake up and smell your fundamentally liberal ‘coffee’!
      3 — We also say that the feminist predicament she describes — which is of a certain feminism — it is only that of a certain feminism which has refused to rethink itself even after over 100 years of statements, analyses, etc that show how limited its understanding of the construction of patriarchy it is.
      4 — What we say then is not that Black/​Third World feminisms are better but that they have advanced (continually ignored) critiques of capitalism which, because of how (and that we didn’t say explicitly but is implied) racial and colonial subjugation, demarcate a political (as well as ontoepistemological) position that signals the limits of any emancipatory (racial, gender-​sexual, etc) project that is not a radical critique of liberalism.

  8. apwld
    23 October 2013 at 9:45 am

    When Nancy Fraser’s article was released we shared this with our members and social media with the comment that, while making a critical point, she had ignored the many feminist movements that challenge neo-​liberalism. This article similarly ignores feminist movements and focuses only on academic critique. It would be great if feminists who have the power of international media and voice would acknowledge the work of local movements who are genuinely struggling to break and expose the malevolence of neo-​liberalism. Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).

  9. Brenna Bhandar
    23 October 2013 at 9:23 pm

    First, thanks for all of the positive comments on the post. Thanks Ange-​Marie for drawing everyone’s attention to the Politics of Intersectionality Books Series — Nira Yuval-​Davis’ work of course being essential reading for those interested in Black and Third World Feminisms.

    Chris/​Jessica/​Rolfe: The terms Black and Third World are used to denote particular political positions, not race or racial identity. Just as the term White feminist is used to describe the political position that we are critiquing in this piece. Third World feminism is a particular body of scholarship, and the term is not used to describe particular geo-​political formations; if this is still not clear I encourage you to read Talpade Mohanty or Mies on this point. While standpoint epistemology does inform some of the analytical frameworks developed by Black and Third World Marxist feminists, their theories are not based solely on their ‘experiences’ as women of colour. Thus women who are racialised as ‘white’ subscribe to and have been key figures within these feminisms. This is important to grasp. If you still are having difficulty with this concept, please do pick up and read any of the authors we refer to.

    APWLD: Most of the women we refer to in the blog piece are life-​long activists as well as academics. And the wages for housework campaign that we refer to, if you click on the hyperlink you will see, is a fine example of local feminist organising for concrete political demands.

    • ka
      25 October 2013 at 10:38 am

      Is this only on smartphone or might it be that the formatting of this Site/​the copied nature made blanks in the text? Its hard to read because for me its like this:
      ” society. With respect to Nat ive Amer ican and First Nations women, colo nial era ste reotypes of the “squaw” con tinue in contemporary racial ised ima ginaries, ren dering Indi genous women vulnerable to forms of sexual viol ence that are always-​already racial and recall patterns of violence that emerged through the dis possession of their lands, lan guages, resources and yes, cul tural […]”

      Yo u s ee all the _​_​in th e Te xt? Thi s makes it ver y hard to read.
      Is this only on Smartphone?
      It seems that the text was copy-​pasted out of a word or open office-​document and all the _ were transfered.
      For ppl like me with adhd ist hard to read-​reading good but complicated stuff is hard enough but all the _​_​makes it even harder.

      If its the fault of my smartphone i ask for sorry( also english is not my native language)

      • Admin
        25 October 2013 at 11:12 am

        Sorry to hear you’re having problems with the formatting. The problem may be to do with your smartphone. We have tested the site on a newish Android smartphone and on iOS and it looks fine to us.

  10. Samia Bano
    24 October 2013 at 9:21 pm

    This is an intelligent, insightful and thoughtful response to Frasers work. Many feminist scholars and activists including Avtah Brah, Nira Yuva-​Davis and Floya Anthias (amongst many others)have raised these points for many years. For those involved in anti racist and post colonial feminist struggles a critique of the western liberal project must include a radical critique of liberalism (as Denise says) and one that goes beyond identity politics and a crude analyses of intersectionality. An important intervention.

  11. Sarah
    25 October 2013 at 2:31 am

    This fight between “black and white feminists” stinks of fight over privileges and academic credits, rather than being motivated by a genuine concern for the dispriviliged, be it black, yellow, female, intersex, old, disabled. As I see it, this response is written in a competitive spirit and so it is more in line with neo-​liberal logic that it tries to critique by throwing in the such words as “Marxist”, “third world” “anti-​racist”. A little bit of self-​reflexivity would be spot on:
    Yes, prominent white feminist academics are privileged, they sit comfortably in their chairs, but so do all mentioned prominent black academic; and yes, white feminists might produce imperfect but still incredibly insightful theories, and so do black feminists. And yes prominent white feminists might have self-​inflated egos, but so might black ones – like most prominent people who climb high up the social ladder, academia not being an exception. What I am trying to say is, instead of fighting over academic credits, I would prefer to see an act of solidarity across the boundaries of color, gender, that would join forces to fight inequality in cooperative, rather than competitive spirit. Good willed criticism is welcomed and productive, but I don’t see this article as such. Sadly.
    Authors expressed the essence of this article in one of the concluding sentences of the last chapter: “Are they unable to cede the floor to Black feminism because it would mean the loss of a certain racial privilege?” Ergo, this article is about fight over positions within academia, a world of privileged. Very privileged, What is evident from surplus of energy and time that allows for production of a multitude of futile articles.

  12. Elena
    25 October 2013 at 9:22 am

    Thank you for the article that I hear as a reminder of the problematic of why white feminism (referred to as an ideology) repeatedly excludes Black, Third World, and more generally minotarian critiques that addressed the brutal effects of capitalism.
    It’s aim is, as the authors point is a call for solidarity, but a solidarity that does not forget past/​present feminist achievements –struggles accross the globe by reducing themto a universal ‘we’ that has been eaten up by neoliberalism. The fact that such groups exist and work against the neo-​agenda is an indication of not yet being eaten up. So I see the article as a call for solidarity.

  13. Brenna & Denise
    25 October 2013 at 12:29 pm

    To Sarah, wherever you may be, whoever you are:

    Unfortunately, people not familiar with these bodies of work, and who cannot transcend a liberal worldview based on identity politics, can’t seem to comprehend that this piece is about frameworks of analysis, and politics. This is not about people who are racialised as white or black, or to adopt your peculiarly Lamarkian discourse, “yellow”. This is about ideology, as Elena mentions, about critique. It’s about the theoretical tools we develop to engage in political analysis of things like neo-​liberalism. To say that this “is a fight between black and white feminists” is to entirely miss the point. The limits of your liberal frame of analysis could be usefully challenged by reading the work of any of the feminist scholars we mentioned. We named them in order to make people aware of these bodies of work, which seem to be quite routinely ignored by the likes of Fraser and others.

    Another important fact to understand is that many Black and Third World feminists have not easily risen up the ranks of academia, not only because of racism and sexism, but more to the point of this article, because their frameworks of analysis challenge mainstream understandings of history, political economy, law, literature, sociology, etc…. which have neither been easily accommodated nor embraced by many academic and other institutions. Ask any of them! Between the two of us, we can recount scores of Black Feminists who have occupied precarious work conditions for years before being made permanent (something which sadly is becoming the norm across the board); faced racial and sexual harassment; have been denied tenure on the basis that their work is perceived as being outside the perceived bounds of the discipline in which they are located; have worked for lower pay for years than their white male counterparts; and the list goes on… We find your comments that so easily assume that Black and White feminists have the same experience of academia to be steeped in a very liberal “colour-​blind” sort of mentality, and to be woefully ignorant of recent history. (As an aside, and to disabuse yourself of the fantasy of people of colour easily rising up the ranks of academia in the UK please see UCU’s report released earlier this year: http://​www​.ucu​.org​.uk/​b​m​e​w​o​m​e​n​r​e​p​o​r​t​h​ere )

    Another point that we make very explicitly, which you have apparently overlooked, is that Black Feminists have had as a major objective, a politics of solidarity that does not only transcend the colour line, but engages a range of different issues, from homelessness, to migration politics, to violence against women, to police brutality, the list goes on… This has little to do with academia; but rather, with politics. So we are not at odds on that point.

    It should be quite clear that academic competitiveness is the furthest consideration from the minds or motivations of the authors. Fraser touched a very raw nerve amongst Black Feminists all over the place, and we happened to respond to what we viewed as a deeply flawed analysis. We are quite frankly perplexed by this criticism. The final challenge “to cede the floor” has to do with the failure of mainstream, liberal and White socialist feminists to actually embrace the frameworks of analysis and modes of political organising developed by Black and Third World Feminists. Without re-​iterating the main arguments here, all we can suggest is that you read Fraser’s piece, and then consider the substance of our arguments again. Having the read piece, though, as you have, as being about academic competitiveness, likely says more about your own preoccupations than anything else. Unlike the people who have engaged in fairly strong attacks in the comment section (based on a lack of understanding of the fact that Black and White are being used to designate political positions, rather than identity) we have no problem putting our (full) names to a point of view that is sure to win us no favours amongst mainstream, liberal feminists or others, as this post so clearly attests to.

    • Tori
      9 April 2014 at 10:13 am

      This is a bit late, but I just wanted to take a moment to sincerely thank you for this response to Sarah’s criticisms. As a white female who strives for an intersectional approach to feminism, these issues are often difficult for me to parse with people from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, especially older mainstream feminists who simply don’t seem to see things the same way. Your language here is a reminder of how best to approach such colorblind approaches in a firm but polite and appropriate manner. Thanks for writing a great article, too.

  14. 27 October 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Thank you for this very useful article and your equally helpful explanations in the comment thread!

  15. gramsci1@hotmail.com
    4 November 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Martha Gimenez’ critique of intersectionality theory seems to the point. I’ve suspected that the neoliberal trends in white feminists’ writings can likewise be found in feminists of colors’ writings. Await a systematic review of the literature. http://​www​.colorado​.edu/​S​o​c​i​o​l​o​g​y​/​g​i​m​e​n​e​z​/​w​o​r​k​/​c​g​r​.​h​tml

  16. Raphael Neves
    9 November 2013 at 10:35 pm

    The article is interesting, but I think it misreads Fraser’s arguments. Fraser is concerned with second-​wave feminism because it articulated an ambiguous critique against “state-​managed capitalism” that has been reformulated in individualistic terms. It somehow ended feeding neoliberal discourses. So, it’s important to notice, first, that Fraser is careful enough to point out that second-​wave feminism was ambiguous (as third-​wave feminism made us all aware). Second, when the authors mention A. Y. Davis’ book (1981) and Selma James’ Wages for Housework Campaign (1972) as examples of how Black Marxist and anti-​colonial feminism are attempts to tackle neoliberalism, they simply didn’t mention that both are prior to Reagan administration (1981 – 1989) and, therefore, the “disorganised, globalising, neoliberal” capitalism Fraser attacks. In Hegelian terms, one might say that Fraser’s point is that second-​wave feminism brought in itself contradictions that allowed it to be co-​opted by capitalist exploitation and she’s trying to bring its “emancipatory forces” back, without any prejudice to what has been achieved by other feminist struggles.

  17. Frances
    11 December 2013 at 2:16 am

    Sadly I feel this piece missed a great opportunity to actually address the points made in initial article, perhaps from a WOC feminist perspective, and do something more than whine about not addressing Black & 3rd World feminists. A better use of time and space would have been to actually quote the very feminists you felt were alienated and use their words to address each point.

    Ms. Fraser, regardless of her academic accolades or misstep in not bringing race into the conversation, brings up key points that feminists of color need to address for the benefit of each other and ourselves. By neglecting to discuss Fraser’s arguments and instead attack Fraser and white feminism as a whole, a further division was created, especially among those of us who are interested in furthering a meaningful discussion about unpaid care-​giving and its value within the feminist movement.

    What I see here is a knee jerk reaction (defense) that pushes its own agenda while ignoring and dismissing a sister who is doing their best. This reeks to me of a type of sexism masked as feminism, in that a woman’s opinion is devalued rather than explored in a spirit of community, process, and, mutuality.

    I lovingly challenge you to discuss Fraser’s points through your (our) lens and discuss feminism’s role is modern capitalism. Fraser’s points included:

    –Critique of the family wage
    –Over focus on identity politics
    –Critique of welfare-​state paternalism

    We are all learning. Let’s focus on respect rather than division. What we have in common & where our differences can enhance our work, whether it’s paid or not. Thank you.
    F

  18. Tired too
    4 January 2014 at 10:14 pm

    I’m not sure if I posted this here before, and it wasn’t approved as a comment, or if I thought about it and thought I posted, but didn’t. In case it was my error, I want to post again, but if it wasn’t, apologies for the duplication.

    As a person with chronic fatigue syndrome, I find the use of “White [or any hegemonic metaphor] feminist [or any person type]” deeply upsetting. Its an ablest use of catchy metaphor to explain what is also a legitimate and valid experience. I get being tired of something that is repeatedly deeply, structurally unfair, repressive and damaging and aware of it. However, the use of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disorder whose name has been used to deny people basic rights as humans — and has been conflated with white women themselves to the detriment of all people with CFS/​ME/​Fibro/​GWS etc. — as a catchy literary metaphor to invoke a feeling regarding another hegemony is in itself repeating deeply, structurally unfair, repressive and damaging ableism and being unaware of it.

    I’m not angry in as much as, I know that if you experience privilege in an area, it is simply inherent that it is difficult to see why this helps perpetuate dismissive destructive repression on those not blessed with your privilege. In this case, those who reject the hegemony of whiteness in feminism or the general public sphere (hegemony being the implicit structuring that white bodies or white feminists needs and experiences are more important than all others) casually take up this metaphor because it rings true to them — ie their experience as able bodied people who have never experienced the destruction of not only chronic fatigue syndrome, but the hideous consequences of the treatment of the name of the disease. It completely ignores its place in an ableist structure re-​inforcing ableist oppression. It does so in part by not taking into account those who have disabilities, and particularly those who have been disabled by this disorder or the label of this disorder.

    What I mean is, in repeating this catchy title that appeals metaphorically to how you feel, you don’t even think about the impacts on people with CFS. Because you don’t have it. You don’t experience it. And that is your privilege. Its one I’m glad you have, but also means that repressive tropes like this can flourish, even — or especially — in spheres where repressive structural hegemony is seen as a thing to be removed in order to provide all individuals with equal rights, autonomy and value.

    I guess what I’m saying is, please out of respect for those that have suffered and continue to suffer, please find another way of saying that you are tired of the needs and direction of White [or any other oppression hierarchy] feminists [or anything other type of people] being placed supreme above all else. In fact, how about just saying that. “I’m tired of White feminists being everywhere, deciding everything.” rather than co-​opting our pain out of the ignorance of privilege.

    Again, I understand this may not be intentionally harmful — you may not have even thought of this in the search for a good literary allusion. Which is why as a person with CFS I’m sharing it. You can’t know what you don’t know!

  19. SJ
    6 July 2014 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks for an insightful and relevant piece from two brilliant scholars! I find it painfully ironic that commenters accusing the piece of ‘reverse racism’ are reproducing the logic that the essay critiques: they are ignoring a history of scholarship that addresses those fears instead of learning about that scholarship themselves (even though this essay, in fact, tries to help with that learning by offering sources)!

    Nancy Fraser’s recent talk at the Futures of American Studies Institute was similarly problematic, yet escaped criticism, so I’m doubly grateful.

  20. Hannah Comierre
    22 August 2014 at 10:25 pm

    It’s about race? Got it.
    What –I’m the wrong race? NOW I SEE !!!

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