Black Studies: Bending the Revolution & Claiming Lesbian Feminist Politics

A brief foreword: this is a personal reflective essay about the second day of Black Studies lectures taking place in Edinburgh. You can read the first here. Since there is no formal coursework, I decided to direct the thought and energy leftover into writing about each session.


 

There are few things in this world capable of enticing me out of my bed at 6am on a Saturday morning, but the Black Studies course running in Edinburgh is one of them. I spend the train journeys reading Kwame Nkrumah’s paper on African socialism and crocheting a headwrap, feeling only the faintest hint of longing for my electric blanket. The morning session consists of a lecture from Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, and I am very much looking forward to hearing him speak about Black radical politics. Last year FiLiA’s Lisa-Marie attended one of Kehinde’s lectures as part of the effort to make Britain’s leading feminist conference an actively anti-racist space, and her enthusiasm has made me especially keen to learn from him first-hand.

We are late to begin – Kehinde jokes that this is only to be expected when most of the group is operating on Black People Time. Though we arrive in a steady trickle, every person in the room is keen to be here. One woman has travelled from Birmingham. A young man has come all the way from Cornwall. The length of these journeys speaks of how significant this Black Studies course really is. And yet it is not immune to BPT. So we get to talking about his book. Kehinde is surprised by the lack of backlash directed towards Back to Black. While he is glad that Black audiences have been supportive, Kehinde had hoped for more critical engagement. True to form, I am happy to oblige.

Back to Black

Back to BlackBack to Black offers a comprehensive guide to movements such as Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Black Marxism – it’s an incredible learning resource for anyone curious about the histories of Black liberation politics. Yet it is very much history, and rarely a herstory: of the 523 references made in Back to Black, by my count fewer than 10% are the work of Black women. Our contributions as organisers, activists, scholars, and writers are consistently missing from this narrative of Black radical politics. There is a wealth of information on Malcolm and Martin, which is fitting given the extent to which they shaped Black politics in the 20th century, but revolutionary women like Audre and Assata – who have influenced Black radical theory and practice over multiple generations – get only a passing mention. Erasing the contributions Black women creates the impression that we are not an essential part of Black liberation politics.

Similarly, Back to Black falls down around LGBT politics. Kehinde writes that “It would be wrong to assume that because Black radicalism has not explicitly centred on LGBTQ issues it excludes those who are not heterosexual.” He does not engage with the lived reality of Black LGBT people, which is this: the intersection of racism and homophobia is swept under the carpet unless it’s made explicit and challenged. When our political needs are not actively centred by this movement, they are quickly forgotten. We are pushed to the margins in Black liberation movement, just as we are pushed to the margins of society. Kehinde writes that “as police killing in America demonstrate, being gay or transgender is no protection from police bullets.” If anything, being Black and falling under the LGBT umbrella is the opposite of a protection; we face further structural disadvantage, and increased vulnerability.

Accounts from She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak outline the combined risk of being Black and gay, including: corrective rape, employment and housing discrimination, arrest, violence, and isolation. Isabella Katjiparatijivi, a lesbian seeking asylum in Scotland, is currently facing the threat of deportation. If the British government sends her back to Namibia, Isabella’s at risk of forced marriage and corrective rape. Having exported homophobia through imperial expansion, the UK continually fails the people of colour who suffer as a result. Sista!, an anthology of writing by les/bi women of African/Caribbean descent, highlights how the triple threat of racism, misogyny, and homophobia mean that we are often in a precarious political position; the very movements claiming to liberate us often end up complicit in our oppression.

But Some of UsSocial movements are forever asking us to privilege one aspect of our identity over all others – whether it’s race or class, sex or sexuality. I agree with Kehinde that Blackness is a vital point of connection, and consider anti-racist struggle essential to my survival. Yet I resent being asked to prioritise it over challenging the negative consequences attached to being female and lesbian in this society – white supremacy cannot be neatly separated from heteropatriarchy. Black men and white women both have a habit of expecting Black women to choose either our commitment to anti-racism or our feminism, often failing to grasp that those politics are interlocking and interdependent. This framing makes me think of that classic Black feminist text All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, still sadly relevant some forty years after publication.

The further a person deviates from the white, straight, wealthy, able-bodied man, the less their humanity is recognised. A politics treating straight and male as the default way to be Black – as Kehinde veers close to doing – is fundamentally incapable of liberating all Black people.

When I voice some of these thoughts, Kehinde is open to hearing them. To his credit, he doesn’t double down or get defensive. I’m interested to see what Kehinde will write about Black liberation politics in the future, and glad to be present for what he says next.

Kehinde works specifically around the politics of Black radicalism. He avoids saying ‘the Black radical tradition’, because there are many radical traditions within Black politics – plural histories and perspectives. Kehinde is conscious that there’s a lot of confusion over what Black radicalism actually is. Radicalism is often conflated with extremism when, to Kehinde’s thinking, the two are in opposition. The pursuit of freedom is a natural response to being oppressed, not an extreme one. As the word is analysed, I think of the times my mother has called my writing and politics extreme – when she says this, I can’t help but feel that she’s looking at her idea of me rather than the person in front of her. It is deeply frustrating when radical politics are collapsed into the word extreme, which does not allow for their complexity or consider the socio-economic reality necessitating them in the first place. And yet the media works hard to prop up this narrative.

Black Panther offered so many firsts in terms of Black representation on-screen, and yet – according to Kehinde – it too fell into the trap of positioning radicalism as ‘too far’, the ultimate evil to be overcome. Erik Killmonger argued that Black should unite across the African diaspora, pooling resources to rise up and overthrow the order of white supremacist imperialism. He advocated this as a solution to issues from police brutality to crushing poverty. Yet Killmonger was depicted as being bloodthirsty, war-hungry, and violent towards women – echoing the media messaging used to discredit and demonise the real life Black Panthers.

While Kehinde acknowledges the manifestations of misogyny and chauvinism within the Panthers, most notably enabled by figures like Eldridge Cleaver, he rejects the idea that Black radicalism is inherently misogynistic. I am of the view that in a patriarchal society, misogyny is the default setting unless it’s actively challenged. Given that male violence against women and girls is a pandemic phenomenon, I do not think it’s enough to simply disown men like Cleaver – those of us engaging in Black radical politics have a responsibility to consider the context that enabled gendered violence to find a place within our movement. Unless we are actively challenging men’s violence, Black women and girls will continue to be victims of it.

Although we have diverging views about Black radicalism, Kehinde’s analysis is interesting. That he weaves X-Men analogies into his lecture has great appeal to my nerd sensibilities and his critique of Marvel is on point. Like Erik Killmonger, Erik Lehnsherr – better known as Magneto – is portrayed as the threatening extreme within the world of the X-Men. In the comics, cartoons, and films, Magneto’s vision of mutant liberation is always contrasted with Professor Charles Xavier’s moderate, reasonable advocacy of mutant-human co-operation.

On numerous occasions, the X-Men fight against Magneto’s Brotherhood – their fellow mutants – to protect the very people who ostracise and threaten them. There is a striking parallel between how Malcolm and Martin are understood, and how Magneto and Professor X are depicted.  The X-Men, like the Civil Rights movement, push for equality within the current system. The Brotherhood, like the Panthers, wanted to dismantle it and build a new world free from racial hierarchies.

Kehinde talks about the importance of a global solidarity between Black people, and his words resonate deeply. Black radical politics can’t afford to stop at borders. If we frame any of the issues facing Black British people as problems that can be solved independently of other Black people – separate from their socio-political realities – then we have lost our way from liberation politics. Our struggles across the African Diaspora are a collective experience to which there are no individual solutions.

As Kehinde points out, all politics are identity politics. But white identity politics are so normalised as to be invisible. The West is united by a shared whiteness, separate nation states all invested in the same politics of white supremacy. The white curricula of modern day universities are a hangover from the Enlightenment, echoing the belief that the world was in darkness before the white, European man’s genius. “None of those great thinkers,” Kehinde reminds us, “thought that we were human.” Dead white European men are credited with inventing science, philosophy, art, and culture. But Arab, African, and Indian scholars knew the earth was round long before Galileo looked up at the stars.

Whiteness as we know it exists to justify Europe’s colonisation and exploitation of the world. And we cannot end Whiteness without ending the political economy of whiteness. Kehinde is concerned that contemporary activism focuses more on changing ourselves than changing the socioeconomic context we find ourselves in. While spiritual transformation is not without value, Kehinde worries that personal journeys are given disproportionately the focus. Radical politics are, after all, collective in focus.

Don’t Straighten the Revolution

The afternoon session answers my questions about how to avoid the trap of a male-centric Black politics, and then some. Titled Don’t Straighten the Revolution: Re-centring Black Queers in Liberation Movements, it is Jessica Brough’s first solo workshop that’s not about psychology. Yet it quickly becomes clear that she has a knack for creating radical learning spaces. When I get back from lunch, the seats are clustered around tables, Solange is playing in the background, and people are eating snacks. Jessica is running this session with the same safe space policy as Resisting Whiteness. In short:

  • Don’t assume people’s identities
  • No tone policing
  • Respect people’s boundaries
  • Be mindful of your own privilege
  • No violence will be tolerated

Not everyone has stuck around for this explicitly LGBT session, which is a pity but also predictable. Still, Jessica thanks those of us in the room and confirms my immediate impression: we’re going in a “slightly different direction” from Kehinde’s lecture. To Jessica, Black feminism gives us a sound idea of where to go after achieving the Black unity he described.

It [The Black Imagination] lives in our ability to create alternatives, whether these are alternative economies, alternative family structures, or something else entirely. – Charlene Carruthers

Historically, Black feminists have challenged multiple axes of oppression. Yet, in spite of having politics capable of bringing about meaningful change, Black feminists have traditionally been accused of distracting from the ‘real’ issues. When people aren’t ready to let go of their stake in structural inequalities, they accuse Black feminists of dividing the movement – be it anti-racist, feminist, or LGBT. To Jessica, Black feminism is about crafting liberatory strategies for all. It’s about learning from the people who came before us, not cherry-picking solutions that only work for some.

With her session, Jessica aims not to add women and LGBT people into a male-centric narrative of Black radicalism, but to centre the voices of those Black people who are most marginalised – and in greatest need of liberation.

Jessica uses the example of activism during Apartheid to highlight the difference between what is achieved with a single-issue approach to politics and what is achieved through collective struggle. She tells us about the Law Reform Group, which was led by white and middle-class gay men from 1968. They sought to have their rights recognised the government, actively distancing themselves from the Black-led movement against racialised homophobia. Only when gay rights activism moved away from white, professional, male control did lasting change begin to happen. In 1983 Beverley Palesa Ditsie and Simon Nkoli founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). Theyo rganised the first pride parade in South Africa, held in 1990, and lobbied governing bodies., always in solidarity with the anti-Apartheid movement. South Africa legalised same-sex marriage on the 1st of December, 2006, becoming the first African nation to do so.

Having caught our imaginations, Jessica sets each group the task of discussing a movement that started advocating for the liberation of only one group – with the hint of 1918. We talk about the classism and imperialist leanings of the British suffrage movement; how white women were prepared to weaponise racism by presenting themselves as a civilising influence so that white men would approve them having the vote. And we get onto the racism of the modern day feminist movement, expressing our frustrations over how the gender pay gap and the BAME pay gap are rarely treated as overlapping issues. In mainstream discussions of the gender pay gap, there is often no distinction drawn between the income of white women and women of colour. There is too little focus, we think, on how class politics determine which types of work are valued or adequately waged.

Love Your EnemyNext, Jessica talks to us about British LGBT movements. She highlights the work of the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, which called for feminists to “get rid of men from your heads and beds.” Their pamphlet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism sparked vital discussions about sexual politics, desire, and power. Julie Bindel, co-founder of Justice for Women, re-opened this subject in a 2009 op-ed:

We live in a culture in which rape is still an everyday reality, and yet women are blamed for it, as it is viewed as an inevitable feature of heterosexual sex. Domestic violence is still a chronic problem for countless women in relationships with men. Women are told we must love our oppressors, while, as feminists, we fight to end the power afforded them as a birthright. Come on sisters, you know it makes sense. Stop pretending you think lesbianism is an exclusive members’ club, and join the ranks. I promise that you will not regret it.

Straight ExpectationsIt was reading Julie’s book Straight Expectations that opened my mind to lesbian feminism – beforehand, I had insisted that I was a feminist who happened to be lesbian. While I do not advocate political lesbianism, I learned a lot from Julie’s take on the subject. Her writing about feminism and sexuality forced me to question why I had been thinking of being lesbian as something with no power to enrich my politics and perspective. The answer was linked to internalised misogyny and homophobia.

Political lesbian recently attracted a surprising supporter – Chidera Eggerue, aka the Slumflower:

So if you want to dismantle patriarchy, wouldn’t it be effective to direct your energy to the reasons WHY women have to negotiate so highly when sharing ourselves with people who murder us?

I’d never feel the need to create all these insurance barriers if I was dating a woman.

It is striking that two women from different backgrounds, with often contrasting politics, reached a very similar point of conclusion.

Jessica guides a thoughtful discussion about racism in LGBT spaces, citing the memoir of “our Lorde and saviour, Audre.” In Zami, she recounts her experiences of gay bars’ racist door policies of and the pitfalls of conditional solidarity. We talk about how Lorde was instructed that she and her siblings were encouraged to “be sisters in the presence of strangers”, unpacking the complicated politics of belonging. Jessica invites us to think about who our sisters and our strangers are; for whom we show up in solidarity, and which people hold us accountable.

Audre Lorde

Sameness is not easily found when you’re a Black lesbian living in the west coast of Scotland. Learning to successfully negotiate difference has been nothing short of a survival skill, and learning when to let go even more so. I think about how belonging is often contextual – there are times when it feels like I fit with white lesbians, and there are times when it feels like I fit with straight women of colour, but there is always a precarious element to those relationships. Increasingly it seems as though the straight feminists in my life – with boyfriends, husbands, and heteronuclear families – are unwilling to engage with the texture of my lesbian feminist politics. And while white lesbians will always be a dear part of my tribe, I can’t let go of my kinship with straight women or even men of colour – as separatists tend to expect. The Combahee River Collective hit upon this problem decades ago:

Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.

In many ways, as Jessica points out, the CRC were the beginning of what we now call intersectional feminism. We talk about the problems the Collective faced as Black lesbians – with many different groups invested in their oppression. Traditional structures of family and community can often leave vocal feminists – especially lesbian feminists – isolated.

Paradoxically, the feminist movement isn’t always there for those of us who are actively trying to live outside of heteropatriarchal structures. With this in mind, we re-write a selection of quotes from Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. It almost feels sacrilegious to tamper with Chimamanda’s writing – but, as Jessica says, it is “a useful tool for critiquing.” It’s also a very engaging exercise. Jessica does this with her books “when it feels like they’re missing something”, and in future I will join her.

We finish with group discussions about the transformative power of Black feminism. My table talks about how Black feminism challenges Black capitalism, particularly through influencer culture. We talk about the phenomenon of Blackfishing – white women doing their hair and make-up to look as Black as possible, profiting from the very same aesthetics Black women and girls are punished for. At the heart of the Blackfishing phenomenon is the Kardashian-Jenner family. Kris Jenner’s daughters seem to acquire Black partners and children like they are the latest fashion accessory.

As Yomi Adegoke writes, “the Kardashians’ babies, besties and boyfriends continue to be human shields against accusations of racism laid at the door of this ever-ignorant family. They devour Black culture and spit out the bits that don’t sit well with them.” Earlier in the week, I read a Tweet claiming “Kris Jenner has more black grandkids than Diana Ross.” Although it was funny, it had some sad implications too – proximity to Blackness offers white people social capital, but only through distancing ourselves from Blackness can Black people find a prestige that’s even close to being equivalent.

The second day of Black Studies was packed full of revelations, big and small. Though a lot of the themes we covered were painful, it was perhaps the most enjoyable learning environment I have every participated in. Safe spaces are often criticised as getting in the way of critical thought, but having that respectful atmosphere and sense of kinship that comes with being in a room filled by people of colour enabled me to think in directions I wouldn’t have otherwise have dared to. In the Black Studies classroom, I asked difficult questions of myself and the world around me – and felt enriched by pursuing those lines of critical thought.

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#SpaceWoC: Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade

A brief foreword: I believe wholeheartedly in feminist documentation. And so I have decided to write about Space International’s herstoric event, Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade. The following essay is a personal account –subjective and subject to human error. But it’s written with love, in sisterhood, and complete as I am able to make it. At points during women’s testimonies, I became too emotional to write down everything said. I have done my best to convey the essential facts, and pay tribute to each of the phenomenal women who spoke her truth.

This one is for Jenny, dedicated in the spirit of international Black feminist sisterhood.


 

On the 21st of February, Space International hosted Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade at Conway Hall. This event was the first of its kind to take place in Britain: Black, Asian, and Indigenous women – a mixture of survivors, campaigners, and service providers – sharing their perspectives on the sex industry. In mainstream feminist conversations about prostitution and pornography, women of colour tend to be spoken of rather than listened to. It was encouraging to find a feminist event where women of colour were centred without apology, something that opened up the space for a discussion about the symbiotic relationship between racism and sexism within the sex industry. So I booked a ticket and arranged a trip to London.

The journey south is blessedly uneventful. I crochet a hat and listen to The Color Purple on my headphones, a sense of calm nurtured by the magic of Alice Walker’s voice. This is the first time I have left the quiet, controlled environment of home for any significant length of time since experiencing a mental health crisis last September. But it feels important to learn from these women, and to show them support. Lots of other women feel the same way: the event is completely sold out. The hall fills up quickly. Many women attending are local to London, but there are sisters who have travelled across continents to be here – which puts my paltry six hours on a train into perspective. It’s a powerful feeling, to be in a room filled with women from all different backgrounds who are united in feminist struggle.

img_8151Taina Bien-Aimé, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, is our moderator for the evening. She begins by pointing out that this event is historic, the “first time in the UK that women of colour have got together to talk about the legacy of colonialism found in the sex industry.” To Taina’s thinking, there is no strict binary between survivors and non-survivors – as women of colour we are all survivors in one way or another, living through the racism of white supremacy and the misogyny of patriarchy. I like her way of breaking down barriers between women. When feminists talk about the sex industry, there can sometimes be too much focus on making ‘expert’ and ‘survivor’ into two different categories – which ends up othering survivors in a way that is not only cruel but illogical, given that one in three women experiences violence in her lifetime.

Session One

Session 1.png

In her opening remarks, Taina highlights that racism is a fundamental aspect of the sex industry. She shares a story of a brothel in Nevada, about an African-American woman whose pimp grew dissatisfied because she had fewer johns the white women in the group – and therefore made him less money. The politics of desirability favour white women with European features over women with distinctly African heritage. And so the brothel manager came up with a solution: he advertised KKK themed role play with the woman in question to boost her commercial attraction. This combination of racist and sexist domination appealed greatly to white, male sex-buyers.

img_8153The first member of the panel to speak is Rosemarie Cameron, a Black feminist activist with fifteen years of experience working in the women’s sector – five of which were spent working directly with Black women in prostitution. For Rose, it is very much a political choice to work within a feminist organisation. She makes a passionate case for the importance of BME-specific services, sharing the ways racist bias among mainstream services has put Black women in particular off accessing them. One woman Rose worked with had previously been told: “You don’t look as if you are a victim.” Because she was Black, a white woman was incapable of seeing her as vulnerable to or in need of protection from male violence. When a Black woman don’t fit the mould of a mainstream service , Rose says that it’s more likely that the organisation will be label her as ‘chaotic’ or ‘challenging’ rather than questioning why they are failing to meet her needs.

Workers who understand the challenges faced by Black women, the layers of stereotype attached to Black women, are essential. Yet BME services are experiencing a funding crisis. Research shows that the combined income of London’s 15 BME-specific organisations devoted to ending violence against women and girls is lower than the income of the main service provider in the city. London has the highest concentration of BME-specific services in Britain, fitting for a city where 40% of the population are people of colour. But, as Rose asserts, services geared towards women of colour are made to fight for scraps thrown down from the top table.

I’m hurt that this country doesn’t feel that BME women are important enough to deserve a safe place for us to live, breathe and work in – whether we’re seeking refuge from an individual violent partner within the same town, or whether we’re seeking refuge because another country has become unsafe for us.Marai Larasai, Executive Director of Imkaan

During Rose’s talk, she gets emotional and pauses. The women on the panel and in the audience hold space for her. I love that Rose doesn’t pretend to be separate from the issues she’s discussing, that she has the integrity to acknowledge that racism and sexism are deeply painful rather than repressing her feelings to try and meet a white, male standard of supposed objectivity. I admire that even while she’s being watched by a room full of people, Rose takes the time to find her sense of calm before continuing.

img_8152Next up is Suzanne Jay of The Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, a volunteer service group based in Canada. Suzanne reminds us that women are in prostitution because of the structural inequalities caused by racism, sexism, and enforced poverty. She observes that the prostitution of Asian women is a global phenomenon, including Canada and London. Finding my way to the venue, I noticed three different massage parlours nearby on Google Maps. Suzanne says that massage parlours, health and wellness centres, and nail and beauty salons are standard fronts for the brothels to which Asian women are trafficked. They’re beside shops, restaurants, and playgrounds, hiding in plain sight.

Many Asian women are caught in the double bind of racist stereotyping and poverty. Asian women are marketed as being small and delicate, with child-like features, to fulfil the racist fantasies of sex-buyers. The racist trope of Asian women as submissive and eager to please is used to justify their exploitation within the sex industry. Historically, Asian women have been targeted for the sex industry. Women and girls were forced into a life of sexual slavery by the Japanese Army before and during WWII – having ‘comfort women’ was, in Suzanne’s words, “a government sponsored war project.” When the US Army took over these ‘comfort stations’, it is estimated that at least 70,000 women were raped by American soldiers. This influenced the western practice of sex tourism.

Suzanne is consistently opposed to male violence against women, and objects to the revisionism behind re-framing trafficked women as migrant sex workers. Her organisation has identified a pattern of men recruiting women by going to Chinese villages, promising jobs or claiming to have arranged good marriages, securing documents for the women in question, and using their family ties as a form of coercion. When the women arrived in Canada, their documents would be confiscated by pimps. If they resisted being prostituted, the pimps would point out that their families were in desperate need of the money that was to be sent home. In this context, the concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ are meaningless.

img_8157The third speaker is Dr Vednita Carter, Executive Director of Breaking Free – an organisation devoted to helping women and girls exit prostitution. She is clear that the sex industry is “where racism and sexism intersect”, highlighting that the majority of women trafficked to be prostituted are of colour. Vednita shares a little of her own story, how she entered the sex trade by becoming a dancer – which really meant becoming a stripper. Although she joined along with a white friend, they were immediately separated – the white girl was assigned a venue with more security, while Vednita danced in more precarious places. Her experiences led Vednita to found the Breaking Free programme in her home state of Minnesota.

While Black people make around 10% of the Minnesotan population, Vednita is conscious that we are hugely over-represented in the sex industry there. This is a consequence of institutional racism. One woman to access the Breaking Free programme was picked up by a police officer, along with a white friend who was also in prostitution.  The officer told her to “go back to what she was doing” – prostitution – but took the white woman back to the station with a view to helping her find an exit programme because “she had potential.” Black women are seen as natural candidates for prostitution by law enforcement, but made to pay a bigger penalty for it.   “Racism in the courts results in Black women paying higher fines and facing more fail time than white women.”

When it comes to racist stereotyping, Vednita cites pornography as responsible for perpetuating the idea that Black women are hypersexual animals, which has a knock-on effect in shaping how we are understood and treated by others.

A variety of the worst, most harmful tropes are used and amplified within porn: tropes that we are steadily attempting to get rid of from the big screen for good. The submissive Asian woman, the spicy Latina, and sassy Black woman that we’re gradually pushing out of the mainstream continue to have a home on porn sites. And just like mainstream films, the majority of those at the production end of mainstream porn are white men – though that doesn’t seem to bother many within this context.Yomi Adegoke

Vednita concludes by asking how the feminist movement can claim to care about Black women when so many self-proclaimed feminists are prepared to ignore the racist violence taking place within the sex industry.

img_8154We are then fortunate enough to have Roella Lieveld talk to us by video link. She thinks that people outside of Amsterdam have a romanticised view of what legalising the purchase of sex looks like. Roella shares research which found that 96% of women in prostitution experience violence in Amsterdam – since buying sex was legalised with the goal of reducing violence against women, she considers this policy to have failed. Femke Halsema, Amsterdam’s first female mayor, is beginning to challenge the sexism of the Red Light District – but Roella fears she is more concerned with what image it presents to locals than listening to the voices of trafficked Black women. While the Netherlands has a progressive reputation, in Roella’s eyes the country “consistently fails women forced into the sex industry.”

Before the interval, we have a brief Q&A. The most pressing question, one which I nearly asked the panel, is this: what one thing could we do that would make the biggest difference to the lives of women in prostitution? Rose advocates the provision of secure, ample funding for women’s organisations becoming standard procedure. Suzanne argues that a basic income would improve women’s quality of life, meaning women are less in men’s control and therefore less vulnerable to abuse. Vednita encourages us to end the buying and selling of women and girls by lobbying politicians, campaigning, and throwing our weight behind existing abolitionist organisations.

Another woman asks the panel their thoughts on the terminology of ‘sex work’. Rose doesn’t mess about. She says that “If I hear the term ‘sex work’ one more time I’m going to lose my will to live. She’s a woman, not an object to be bought or sold.” Suzanne sees ‘sex work’ as “a liberal guilt phrase”. She believes people say ‘sex work’ in an attempt to “show respect for women”, but is not convinced: “if you want to respect women, you stop men from buying them.” Vendita sees the term ‘sex work’ as a way of covering up the reality of coercion, abuse, violence, illness, and exploitation.

When asked about the profile of sex-buyers, the panel were unanimous: mostly white men, many of whom are middle-class with a high income and respected profession.

Session Two: Survivor Leadership

Session 2

When she introduces the second panel, Taina tells us about a recent news story of 20,000 Nigerian women and girls being trafficked through Mali as one group. She connects it with the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, describing this as the middle passage of a journey, and points out that inter-governmental corruption is required to enable systematic mass-trafficking. In the face of all this harm, Taina reminds us of the importance of feminist organising: “What gives me hope is this survivor-led movement. They are called survivors because of what they survived, and because of all the sisters they left behind.”

img_8156Ally-Marie Diamond is the first to share her testimony. Ally was first abused by her uncle when she was five years old. He spoke words that are familiar to countless women around the world: “Nobody will believe you.” And because of her status as biracial in an otherwise white family, nobody did believe Ally. Racism and sexism built a wall of disbelief. Children at school would ask if her family could afford soap, because Ally was “brown and dirty” in their eyes. This racist bullying escalated to sexual abuse. Nobody listened to Ally or intervened on her behalf, with words like “easy” obscuring frequent sexual abuses and justifying the failure of adults in authority. “I quickly learned that the only thing men wanted from me was sex.”

A pimp recruited Ally by promising her safety, love, and security. Of her time in prostitution, Ally says that “men paid for the right to beat, sodomise, rape, and abuse me.” A white john who was well respected in the community told Ally “that’s all you’re worth.” Since men have been raping women throughout history, Ally rationalised what was happening to her by telling herself it was better to be raped and paid for it than raped and not paid. Ally’s conclusion is met with a storm of applause: “Sex work is a glorified term for paid rape. The sex industry is a sustained, international attack on women and girls.”

img_8149Bridget Perrier, co-founder of  Sex Trade 101, is next to give testimony. At 12 she was lured into prostitution from a group home, which is the average age of entry for Indigenous girls. The johns were overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. Bridget cites Pocahontas as the first documented example of a woman from her community being trafficked. In Canada, First Nations women are massively over-represented in the sex industry. 52% of women in prostitution are Indigenous. Intergenerational trauma, poverty, and displacement are all factors behind this systematic abuse. Bridget describes generations of women falling victim to the sex industry – grandmother, mother, and daughter. Despite all that she has faced, Bridget ends on a note of resistance, reading a poem by her daughter which challenges genocide. Bridget has raised a fierce young feminist.

img_8150Ne’cole Daniels echoes Bridget’s point about intergenerational trauma, describing herself as “a third generation prostitution survivor.” She is clear that intergenerational trauma is passed on as a consequence of men’s sexual violence. Ne’cole’s mother was raped by an uncle, sent away, her first child put up for adoption. She ran away at 14, and was picked up by an “infamous pimp.” Ne’cole herself was raped by a family friend who was “around all the time.” He told Ne’cole that she needed to get better at pleasing men. So in the third grade, Ne’cole performed sexual acts with boys from school. The school didn’t question that a child of her age, eight or nine, understood sex acts. They suspended Ne’cole, and her mother beat her.

Within African-American families, Ne’cole says, there can be a mentality that you “don’t air your family’s dirty laundry.” In Britain, we have a similar thing – from a young age, lots of Black kids are told that we need to behave in front of the white people otherwise they’re going to think we’re all [insert racist stereotype]. Ne’cole thinks this approach leaves girls vulnerable to sexual abuse, because the silences that are allowed to grow end up shielding men’s violence.

Ne’cole’s mother told her that “as long as you have a vagina, you’ll never be broke.” But it was the urge to protect her own young daughter that gave Ne’cole the strength she needed to exit. She found “no services for a person like me, no services run by a person who looked like me”, but ultimately moved into a shelter because there at least they would both be safe from men.

img_8155Mickey Meji, the advocacy manager at Embrace Dignity, is our final speaker. She grew up in Sea Point, South Africa, where her mother worked as a maid. The men who owned the houses would strip in front of Mickey’s mother while she cleaned – at least one forced her to watch as he masturbated. Mickey says that South African feminists describe prostitution as a gendered, racialised apartheid. It is overwhelmingly poor Black women who sell sex, and almost entirely wealthy white men who buy it. The women who go into prostitution are in desperate need of money, but according to Mickey they come out even poorer. Instead of accumulating money, they acquire physical, mental, and emotional scars. Mickey spent nine years in prostitution.

The earliest South African brothels coincided with the arrival of white imperialist settlers. Black women’s bodies were objectified and commodified. Like some hellish inversion of the Nordic Model, South Africa criminalises the selling of sex – but not the buying. Mickey informs us that white madams escape legal repercussions even as the Black women prostituted in their brothels are arrested, as the police “had no reason” to consider a white woman “involved in prostitution.”

Mickey resists attempts to separate prostitution from trafficking: “Women wouldn’t end up in all sorts of locations if men didn’t want to buy them.” Poor Black women are not seen as valuable enough to be worth protecting in South African society, or anywhere else. Black women are not seen as important enough to merit meaningful intervention where the sex industry is concerned. She finishes by challenging the racialised power dynamic at the heart of the sex industry: “When you look at who is spearheading the drive to legalise prostitution, it is always privileged white men and white women – never poor Black women.”

In Conclusion

Above the stage in Conway Hall is painted a popular quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” Every woman who spoke was true to herself, and generous enough to share her truths with others. Only by breaking the silences maintained around sexual violence can we hope to change the culture that enables it.

Our chair, Taina, drew the evening to a close by asking every man in the audience to raise his hand. There were six in total. She requested that those six talk to the men in their lives and communities about the harm done by purchasing women for sex. This is, I think, how change will happen – by taking action and using our voices wherever possible.

Session 1.png

Black Studies: On Race, Place, and Headspace

A brief foreword: A short course in Black Studies is running in Edinburgh. It is, as far as I am aware, the first of its kind in Scotland. I decided to write a series of personal reflective essays about the experience as a way of processing and sharing information.


 

Half a year has passed since I last put pen to paper with the intention of blogging the results. I do not, as I have previously written, believe that I owe anybody an explanation for how much or little I publish as Sister Outrider. And yet I believe that breaking the silences surrounding mental illness goes some way towards removing the stigma attached to it. Since experiencing a mental health crisis last September, I haven’t felt much inclination to write or share any significant aspect of myself publicly. What writing I have done is for the chapters of a book, which will make its way out into the world sooner or later. But now, with my medication in balance, my mind is starting to feel alive and curious again. It’s funny – I had always feared anti-depressants would dull my creativity and blunt the edge of my critical enquiries of the world. Instead, anti-depressants have brought me a steady stream of good days. And within those good days are good writing days.

With this newfound curiosity, I booked a place on the Black Studies course hosted at Edinburgh University. It’s an experimental series of lectures exploring themes of Black liberation politics, decolonisation, and the Africana radical tradition. The 6am start on a Saturday morning feels a small price to pay for entry to a space that is specifically for people of colour to come together and learn.

During the journey to Edinburgh, my stomach ties itself in knots. I put down Black Skin, White Masks and do a breathing exercise, letting myself be lulled by the gentle rocking of the train, and try to locate the source of my panic. In spite of knowing how much I’m likely to learn from the Black Studies sessions, I find myself anxious about going. Or rather, as I realise somewhere around Polmont, I’m anxious about going because I know how much I’ll learn.

Certain types of knowledge aren’t always easy to hold. I don’t mean the things we consider trivial or irrelevant to our lives, although that’s almost certainly why I can’t remember a single thing from the Higher Maths syllabus. There are deep and fundamental truths about the world that we cannot extract from our minds, no matter how much we might long to set down the burden of knowing. Whether or not we want to know it, whether or not we have the power to act upon it, the information stays with us. On a fundamental level, it shapes how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Deep truths, no matter how painful or challenging they may be, cannot be set aside – not even temporarily. What I settled on, in trying to pinpoint the source of my anxiety, was this:

Baby Beans

Baby Beans

The other day my mum sent a text about a dream she’d had. Her dream was about Baby Beans, a doll I’d kept with me as a child. Baby Beans was part of my daytime adventures, and she was also a core member of the Bedtime Gang; the set of dolls and plushies that had to be arranged beside me, just so, if I was to fall asleep. It would be fair to say that I loved Baby Beans – she is currently wrapped up snugly in a blanket, nestled deep in the nostalgia box under my bed. But it would also be fair to say that, as a young child, I hated Baby Beans with a fury I couldn’t make sense of. Baby Beans was the first Black doll my mother gave me.

Without anybody ever telling me so, I knew that Baby Beans was uglier than my white dolls, that she didn’t deserve cuddles and gentle treatment the way my little stuffed clown did. I knew that she was not good the way my white dolls were. Years before I ever heard about the Doll Test, my childhood played out its results.

Two African American psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clark, conducted a ground-breaking experiment in the 1940s. The experiment presents a child with two dolls, identical except for hair and skin colour: one is blonde and white, the other dark-haired and Black. The child is then asked which doll they would play with, which doll is the nice doll, which one looks bad, which one has the nicer colour, and so on. To this very day, children of all racial groupings consistently favour the white doll over the Black doll. Among other things, the Clarks’ research highlights internalised racism in Black children.

Looking back, it seems obvious that my rejections of Baby Beans were a rejection of my own Blackness. I projected all of my early fears of what it meant to be Black onto that doll. It suppose it was easier to blame that little doll for being Black than to understand or acknowledge how deeply racism is entrenched in this society.

When my mother messaged me about Baby Beans, I remembered getting into trouble calling the doll Bastard Beans. I was around 3 or 4 years old, and had picked up the curse from my grandfather – he never learned to filter his speech around children. Less obvious is where I learned to connect the word bastard with Blackness. But somewhere along the lines I had learned that bastard meant bad, and that Black was bad. I also remember my aunt asking me not to call Baby Beans a ‘dumb tourist’, because it wasn’t very nice. I have no idea where I picked up such an oddly specific phrase at such a young age, but do remember knowing that Black wasn’t seen as British. Those memories used to be accompanied by a hot rush of shame, and so I did not think about them for years. But when my mum’s message brought them to the surface, all I felt was sadness.

My train is late drawing into Waverley Station, so I make a beeline for the taxi rank. When I name the university building and show the taxi driver the map on my phone, he suggests that I don’t know Edinburgh sufficiently well. In a way, he’s right: Glasgow is my city, and the only place I can find with confidence in Edinburgh is the Book Festival. But, as the first taxi driver refuses to put the address into his GPS and drive me there, I know it’s about more than that. He denies me service because of the tension he perceives between race and place, between my Blackness and my Scottishness. The joys of getting a taxi while Black. The second taxi driver has witnessed this exchange, and talks to me kindly as he navigates the streets of Edinburgh, locating the building without any difficulty.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Waiting to greet me is Fatima, the brilliant mind behind Edinburgh’s first Black Studies course. She guides me into the building, towards the elevator. Our classroom is on the top floor, so high above the city that I feel almost separate from Edinburgh and the sense of conspicuousness I get walking through the streets below.

The first lecturer is Guilaine Kinouani, of the Race Reflections blog, who does trailblazing work connecting racism and trauma. Learning that Guilaine would speak about her work is what gave me the final push to enrol. Her plane has been delayed, so I take a seat and do a few rows of crochet to stop the shaking in my hands. Only when my mind is calmer does it fully register: everyone else in this room is a person of colour.

Stand Up to RacismThis is the first time in my experience of formal education that I’ve sat in a learning space filled completely by people of colour. I taste a dizzying kind of freedom. Is this, I wonder, how white people feel in classrooms? In school I was always one of two Black children in the class. At university, though international students made up a significant portion of the student body, I was regularly the only Black person in a lecture hall or seminar group. All of my classes were taken by white academics, with one exception, and I’ve never had a Black teacher or lecturer. There are only 25 Black female professors working in British universities, with Black women making up just 0.1% of active professors in the UK. It is a strange and welcome feeling to blend in so completely in an academic setting. I am not on guard against racism, and there is no expectation that I do the work of justifying my presence in the room.

When Guilaine arrives, we start by spending a couple of minutes in silence to “ground ourselves.” I repeat the breathing exercise and by the time the two minutes have passed, I feel calm and open, receptive and ready to learn. More classes should start like this. As Guilaine delivers her introduction to Blackness and psychoanalysis, it quickly becomes clear that she’s the kind of clever that’s about bringing everyone in the room along with her rather. Certain academics can be more about cementing their own status as a genius by showing off rather than sharing their knowledge.

We read Bobby London’s Depression is Political aloud, line by line. Though London’s account of the connection between depression and anti-Black racism resonated deeply when I read it earlier in the week, I got chills when we took turns lending our voices to her words. It was powerful to read those words aloud as a shared, collective experience – different from reading silently, individually. We said:

I am depressed because I live in a white-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist world. I am depressed because people that look like me are constantly being murdered. I am depressed because the State has purposely made it difficult for black families like mine to survive. I am depressed because I have suffered traumas from white supremacy and the police state.

EveryoneRacial trauma has been on my mind a lot recently. Being Black in Scotland is like death by a thousand cuts. I have heaps of racial trauma, and the interest rate on it is high. But the thought of speaking it aloud, outside the safety of a therapy session, has terrified me. Or, to be more accurate, white people’s inevitable denials of that trauma is terrifying. And yet in this room we speak the words: racial trauma. No shame is attached to them. Nobody sneers or laughs, as though racial trauma is some far-fetched fairy tale. I say the words racial trauma without a second thought to a woman who was, until half an hour ago, a total stranger. It feels natural and right. The tightness eases from my lungs. To paraphrase Guilaine, the pain of that trauma is cut in half when it is acknowledged.

Guilaine shares the results of her doctoral thesis with us. Her work is brilliant, though I will not go into detail as she hasn’t yet published. She speaks of the silences that are built around racism, even within a family context. Children as young as 5 hide their experiences of racism with their parents to keep from burdening them. Parents don’t talk to their children about racism in the vain hope that maintaining this silence can shelter them. She talks about how silences are maintained in a wider social context, with shame used as a deterrent to keep people of colour from talking about racism. If you raise the subject, you have a chip on your shoulder or you’re too sensitive. Guilaine describes silence as a transmission agent of racial trauma. And I’m certain that the work she does as a psychotherapist is crucial to breaking those silences.

Although therapy is necessary for my ongoing survival, I am conscious that it has harmful roots. I have heard lesbian feminists dismiss therapy as reducing political struggles to purely personal problems. Some reject psychoanalysis as a form of social control designed to keep women from becoming conscious of and rising up against the injustices of heteropatriarchy. And, as Guilaine points out, racism and homophobia have historically shaped the field. Psychoanalysis – especially when it is centred around a white, western, masculine perspective – has the potential to be harmful. But it also has the potential to do real, solid good.

In my last round of therapy sessions, I unpacked the relentless isolation of being Black in an overwhelmingly white country, community, and family. My therapist recognised the political dimension to the sheer loneliness I feel in this context. He listened without judgement as I talked about what it meant to watch white relatives all take white partners, having white children who go on to take white partners of their own – the result being that my Blackness will always be an anomaly in that family setting. By keeping the personal tied firmly to the political, my therapist enabled me to imagine a future living somewhere my Blackness not only blends in but is reflected in the community around me – a future when I might build a Black family of my own. Mental healthcare is inherently political. De-politicised treatments lack the capacity to deal with harms that are structural and systematic in nature.

We cannot separate what happens psychologically with what happens socially and politically. You cannot separate the social from the psychological. – Guilaine Kinouani

Towards the end of her lecture, Guilaine talks about white people’s tendency to situate their discomfort with racial politics with people of colour in the environment. By making people of colour into the location of disturbance, they’re able to maintain a sense of equilibrium and avoid being conscious of their own role in a racialised dynamic. This stays with me.

During lunch, I mull over all that Guilaine has said. Her words on the location of disturbance call to mind a quote from Sara Ahmed:

Feminists who give the problem a name can then become a problem for those who do not want to register that there is a problem (but who, at another level, know that there is a problem). You can cause a problem by not letting a problem recede.

still-we-rise.pngIn the feminist movement, there is space for women to acknowledge the toll men’s hatred and violence takes on us. But a lot of (white) women don’t make room for feminists of colour to talk about the sheer burnout caused by repeated acts of racism. This is because white feminists regularly inflict racial traumas on the Black and Brown women, inside the movement and out. To acknowledge the harm their racism causes would be to take a step towards accountability – something that white women, racially coded as innocent in all things, are notoriously bad at doing. Through dismissing feminists of colour who name the problem of racism as ‘uppity’ or ‘angry’ – making us into the location of disturbance – they can avoid the problem of racism and their own role in maintaining it.

The second lecture is by Georgia Mae Webster, inspired by her pioneering thesis: The Effects of Racism on Psychosis – Decolonising Mental Health Care. Georgia’s talk is brilliant. It is also full of devastating revelations. In Britain, Black people are almost six times as likely as white people to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. For every one white person detained under the Mental Health Act, four Black people are held. I wonder if there’s a connection between Black people being over-represented in British diagnoses of schizophrenia and Black people being over-represented in British prisons.

Historically, the medical industry justified the enslavement of Black people through pseudo-scientific claims of inferiority (to white people). Georgia points out that this rhetoric is still deeply ingrained in society, normalised by celebrated scientists. James Watson, heralded as the father of DNA, claimed that he was “gloomy over the prospect of Africa” because “…all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – where all the testing says not really.” For all its claims of objectivity, science is as subject to racist bias as any other field.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, psychiatrists Walter Bromburg and Frank Simon outlined a new category of schizophrenia: protest psychosis. The two main symptoms were given as ‘hostility’ and ‘anger’. Black men were overwhelmingly among those diagnosed with protest psychosis. Treatment was described as necessary to maintaining the social order of white America. Over time, Georgia explains, the diagnostic criteria of schizophrenia shifted and were used as a political tool.

In the Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes once compared the trauma caused by witnessing and being subject to segregation-era racism to the shell-shock of soldiers. Georgia draws a parallel between Jim Crow shock and the trauma caused by consuming images of Black people being hung, beaten, and killed that circulate freely on the internet. Being exposed to anti-Black violence and Black pain, often without warning, is deeply damaging. While these images are vital to documenting anti-Black violence, evidence that can be used to hold perpetrators to account, they are soul-destroying to look at. There are days when I can’t bear to check Twitter for fear of seeing yet another video of a Black child being dragged or thrown by a white authority figure.

CybermanAfter the lecture draws to a close, I stop to chat with faces familiar and new. Before leaving, I make a point of telling Georgia how brilliant her lecture was and how brave she is to take on this work. The academy can be a very hostile environment for women of colour to inhabit, and it doesn’t tend to build the same confidence in us as it does our white male peers.

There is a spring in my step as I venture out onto Edinburgh’s cobbled streets. I have plans to meet up with a friend at a little gay café. And for all the challenging material covered, the first day of Black Studies has left me feeling optimistic about this life and the connections we can make in it. From beginning to end, there was a sense of community in the classroom. Free from the work of making ourselves understood, we could direct our energies to making this world a better place to live in.

 

Dispatches from the Margins: Disposable Women

A brief foreword: I ask that every woman who reads this essay reflects on how she can better extend sisterhood to women who have less power than she does – and know that I will be thinking on the same thing.


 

Several white women have recently told me that, for the sake of unity within the movement, issues of racism and lesbophobia should only be discussed in private – if at all. And so I have made a point of writing about both issues publicly, raising what voice I have to full volume, in order to object: both to racism and lesbophobia within the feminist movement, and the idea that either should be hushed up for the sake of appearances. No unity can exist within the feminist movement while women are actively upholding and complicit in the oppression that other women experience.

The whole notion of a private sphere was created to cover up men’s violent & exploitative behaviour, enabling them to avoid accountability and maintain appearances. We can’t now use it in the feminist movement to cover up white women’s racism & lesbophobia. To suppress talk about these issues is to build on weak, unstable foundations: collapse is inevitable. For the sake of future feminist struggle, and women currently pushed to the margins of the movement, we must have open conversation about the structural divisions between women.

I am not particularly open, I just refuse to participate in a notion of privacy that is a curtain behind which I and other women suffer abuse and injustices. – P. J. Samuels

The feminist movement can be a hostile place for the women most in need of its shelter from the forces of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Time and time again, we are shown that our political needs, our safety, and our wellbeing are all of little concern to women holding more power than us. They are often white, middle class, and securely heterosexual women who aspire towards the same grasp on power as white, middle class, heterosexual men. The scope of such women’s ambition for the feminist movement is severely lacking in imagination: when so many women have outlined visions of liberation, parity with men seems totally lacklustre as an aspiration. Even more than imagination, the feminist politics of such white, middle class, straight women is utterly devoid of compassion towards women whose lives do not exactly mirror their own. Feminist principles and empathy both seem to go missing in the Bermuda triangle of whiteness, class privilege, and heterosexuality – that standpoint, it often seems, is where solidarity between women goes to die.

WPUKIn this context it is a rare but wonderful thing for a white-led feminist organisation to condemn racism, so I wholly support A Woman’s Place UK in their decision to remove a certain woman from their line-up of speakers for the Cornwall meeting. The woman in question has voiced Islamophobic views on multiple occasions and called for the sterilisation of any females who have ever identified as male (many of whom happen to be lesbian). There is cruelty in the contempt straight feminists direct towards lesbian women and, more than that, a deep-rooted fear of what it means to live outside the feminine gender role. And I respect WPUK for taking swift, decisive action when this woman’s behaviour was brought to their attention.

A number of white women have tried to evade the issue of racism by arguing that Islamophobia isn’t racist because Muslims aren’t a race. Let us be clear: Islamophobia is rooted in racism. The world’s second most popular religion, Islam is the foremost faith in the Middle East, North Africa, and a substantial portion of Asia too. Islam is predominantly practiced by people of colour. The Othering and stereotyping of Muslims is fundamentally racialised. And as a Black feminist I stand beside my Muslim sisters in solidarity.

Racists… are excusing their own bigotry by gleefully pointing out Islam is not a race. Whilst it’s true that Islam is a world religion, with Muslims found from Chile to China that in itself does not mean Islamophobia and racism are separated. The West perpetuates a certain type of Muslim when considering Islam, terrorism and the Middle East.

 

The man will almost always be brown, hooked noise, bushy eyebrows with a beard of some length. A manic look and an open snarling mouth no doubt illustrated to portray a person of hate, spouting bigotry against the ideals of the West.

 

The woman will almost always be in some form of a headscarf, a niqab or burkha. She will be with 2-3 other women dressed similarly, perhaps looking meek or obedient to suit the western perception that women of Islam are oppressed.Yasin Bangee

Christianity is inherently oppressive to women, and yet – unlike Islam – white western feminists manage to critique its sexual politics without resorting to racism. White feminists treat hijabi women in particular as an opportunity to play the white saviour, replicating a colonialism that is in no way compatible with feminist principles.

An Exercise in Empathy and Imagination

When women who are white and middle class and straight do harmful things, we in the feminist movement are often encouraged to look the other way. A layer of silence coats their actions, maintained at the expense of every woman who suffers as a consequence of them. Women of colour, working class women, lesbian women – feminists will frequently gaslight us when we talk about the harms we have been subjected to within the movement. This is because engaging with what we have to say would raise all sorts of difficult questions about power, and certain women would be forced to reckon with what it means to be the oppressor, not simply the oppressed – which, when unpacked, has huge implications for their sense of self as well as their way of practicing feminism. For them, it is both comfortable and convenient to look the other way. And when WPUK spoke up, a lot of women did choose to look the other way. As that evergreen meme goes, disappointed but not surprised. But expecting it doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

For years, feminists like bell hooks have warned us of the danger in making stars of women in the feminist movement, the risks that go with raising any woman onto a pedestal until she is above criticism. This incident, where a woman’s racism becomes unmentionable, proves the necessity of those warnings.

So now I write directly to those women – the ones who are white and middle class and straight and have nothing to lose (except for the trust of women who lack the power or the profile to be useful to them in some way) by defending the racism and lesbophobia of a woman whose life is very similar to their own. Let us try this exercise in imagination.

Say there is to be an event about an issue of vital importance to you. Say it’s a panel about that issue, and one of the speakers is a man named *Peter. You have known for a while that Peter says some fairly sexist things on the internet. Peter is not a fan of women having political representation. Peter thinks that women’s distinct social and cultural spaces are a threat to the natural order of things. Peter falls back on misogynistic stereotypes, like women being inherently suited to domestic work, to justify his comments. You have been wary of Peter for some time now, as you are wary of coming across any misogynist, because the community of people who organise around this issue is fairly small and tight-knit. But a lot of men who are involved in the cause think he is fantastic. Peter has quite a following.

And then something unexpected happens: the organisers of the event cut Peter from the line-up in opposition to his sexism. This is a huge relief. You let yourself hope that this is the time, that people are finally ready to talk about the culture of misogyny that has been allowed to thrive in lots of spaces built around this issue that is your passion. You are sick and tired of how women are treated here – pushed to the side-lines of discussion, treated as lesser, viewed mostly as a secondary concern. Still, maybe things are changing for the better: now Peter’s sexism has been exposed, the sexism of other men will slowly but surely be challenged too.

But no. The women who speak against Peter’s sexism are told off for being trouble makers, you among them. It is implied that you and your sisters are being hysterical. You are told that, as your comrade, Peter deserves your loyalty and support – despite the fact that he has given nothing of the sort to women involved in the cause. You are told that even though Peter doesn’t always say things in the right way, in the politically correct way, he is a good guy who is definitely not sexist. It is suggested that you women are being too angry about this so-called sexism, and maybe you’re all a bit hormonal because it’s that time of month, eh?

You are asked not to speak about Peter’s sexism in case it damages his reputation or looks bad for the cause around which you have campaigned. You close your eyes. You wonder why you fucking bother. You exchange some comforting messages with the women hurt by Peter and his defenders. You don’t know what will happen next except that, with the inevitability of the tide coming in, this will happen all over again. There will always be another Peter clinging on to misogyny. There will always be people who should have been your comrades in struggle looking the other way.

Think of all the reasons men give you to mistrust them. That’s exactly how many reasons that white women give women of colour not to trust you. This is what it’s like navigating racism in the feminist movement, and it’s exactly how racism snakes through the feminist movement: you are Peter, you are Peter’s defenders. And we are wary of you in the same way that you are wary of men, and it puts us in an even harder position because we have to be wary of men too. I don’t know how to make it plainer. If you are not willing to do the work it takes to understand women of colour, to feel empathy for women who are not white, then we are not sisters. The division between women is of your making – I am trying to fix it, though I swore it wasn’t worthwhile.

Respectability politics have been weaponised against women of colour for hundreds of years, and I refuse to let white women capitalise on that history to silence women speaking up about the harm visited upon us by a toxic white femininity. Politeness is used by the most powerful women in the feminist movement to cover up the harm they enact against women with the least power. It happens with race, class, disability, sexuality… And it’s relentless. This idea that we can’t challenge racism because it makes the movement look flawed is bullshit. The movement is already flawed, regardless of how it looks, and the only way to fix it is by addressing the problem: in this case, racism. White, middle class, straight feminists are invested respectability politics and ‘appearances’ because both conceal the reality of how these women weaponise their power against women with less power. Feminism isn’t about politeness or appearances. It’s about the liberation of women & girls. And the path to liberation is often uncomfortable, because it demands we give up the convenient falsehoods that prop up the status quo.

The Politics of Voice

There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard. ― Arundhati Roy

The politics of voice in the feminist movement are complicated. Not every woman is allowed the space to speak in the first place. And of those women who are able to speak, some are listened to and others ignored. Vectors of race, class, sexuality, disability, nationality, and so much more go into determining which women are heard in the feminist movement. The closer you are to the normative standards of womanhood – white, middle class, straight, and so on – the greater your chance of being listened to and engaged with. The further away from those criteria, the more likely it is that you’ll end up pushed to the margins and wondering whether homing pigeon or smoke signal would be the more effective way of communicating with the women at the centre – because they’re clearly not hearing your voice.

I’m conscious of being in a fortunate position. If I were to put my pen down tomorrow and never write again, my writing would still have influenced feminist thought in a way that can’t be undone. I have voice and a sizeable audience of women who read my blog. I’m also comfortably middle class and relatively light-skinned. Every so often I stop and question whether a working class, dark-skinned Black woman with the same level of writing skill would be heard in the same way or afforded the same opportunities. This is not a comfortable reflection, and nor should it be. As my writing continues to find a home through the publishing industry, I could and would not claim that I am unheard. Rather, the issue is the women who cannot see what I’m saying for all the layers of racism they’re projecting onto me. When I send my writing out into the world, I am negotiating a space where I’m Othered, stereotyped, and subject to overt racism – being aware of that changes how I write with an audience, though there is no way to protect myself from it.

If I talk about that racism in the feminist movement, I become a lightning rod for the racism of white feminist women. Despite my efforts towards patience, empathy, and kindness, I am pathologised as the Angry Black Woman – a hostile force, and a threat to white women. And if I condemn white women’s racism it is, of course, trashing. But critiquing racism in the feminist movement is not the same as trashing. Trashing implies an equality of sorts, but the hierarchy of race tips the playing field entirely in favour of white women. The game is rigged in their favour, as every woman of colour knows and many white women deny. Reducing Black women’s critiques of racism to trashing takes a legitimate criticism and turns it into the product of rage or aggression. And if we’re just Angry Black Women, there’s no need for white women to hear what we’re saying & address their own behaviour. Racism makes its own convenient get-out clause. And so I try to be vigilant towards racism, even and especially when it’s a form I don’t experience.

Like many feminists, I’m enthusiastic about badges and have a pretty decent collection. Wearing some of them, like the vagina cupcakes or “lesbian, not queer” or “I’ve read IMG_20170817_131210_957.jpgabout sex in the Women’s Library”, results in a degree of backlash. But none of my feminist badges have ever attracted the same level of anger as the one depicting three women of colour posed like Rosie the Riveter. The badge is a personal favourite, as it shows women of colour side by side and united in sisterhood. One of the women wears a hijab. And every time I wear it in a mixed feminist space, without fail, a white feminist will make a big show of asking why I’m showing something that features a hijabi. “What’s with the scarf?”, “Why would you wear that image?”, “Don’t you know Muslim women are oppressed?” And so on.

It’s a strange logic, imagining that removing visual representations of hijabis in a feminist setting will bring them any closer to being liberated as women, but then whiteness is quite a drug and often gets in the way of reason.

I’m not an authority on Muslim women’s realities and cannot write or reflect on their political struggles from a place of lived experience. I’m not going to speculate about whether the hijab is a good or bad thing, which is a grossly simplistic way to think about anything. It’s not my place and there are women far more qualified to go there. But as a Black feminist I am going to stand against the racism directed towards Muslim women – that’s what I believe sisterhood is.

If any women reading this want to know more about Muslim women’s lives or feminism, they should make a point of listening to Muslim women’s voices and reading their words. The book I’m most excited about reading is Cut From the Same Cloth, an anthology of essays written by British hijabi women. If a white feminist had coordinated such a ground-breaking project with such incredible writers, it would never have taken so long to crowd-fund. The usual suspects would have got behind it and recognised this book for what it is: a vital collection of women’s writing containing valuable insights into women’s lives, a fine example of  écriture feminine. My suspicion is that if white, western feminists were to engage properly with what hijabi women say for themselves, they’d have to stop playing in the dark and give up their fantasies of the Other – therein lies the root of their reluctance.

Holding white women accountable for racism is not throwing women under the bus. Looking the other way when that racism harms women of colour, however, is. Having to face consequences for your harmful actions is not the same as being victimised, though people seem to get confused when it’s a white, middle class, straight woman inflicting the harm. Imagine for a second what would become possible in the feminist movement if white, middle class, straight women stopped speaking over women less powerful than they are, and instead amplified voices different to their own. Imagine if, instead of weaponising their power, they leveraged it to make space for all the women with less power than them. That is what sisterhood should be.

 

(*My deepest apologies to Spider-Man, who has done nothing to deserve this comparison.)


Bibliography

Sabeena Akhtar (ed.). (2018). Cut From the Same Cloth

Toni Morrison. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (ed.). (2018). Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection

Race, Place, and Feminist Space

A brief foreword: this is a personal reflective essay about my recent trip to Liverpool for Writing on the Wall, the experience of being in this city, and the thoughts it shaped in me.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of violence against women & girls, including rape and FGM.


 

Getting There

This year I’ve said no to a lot of things. Girls aren’t typically taught to say no, and women are discouraged from setting boundaries, so getting into the habit of saying no not only felt like some much needed character development but a way of unpicking the threads of gendered socialisation that tie women to the role of pleasing others at the expense of our own needs. This year I decided to prioritise two things: my writing and my mental health, which mostly complement one another but can be in conflict as deadlines draw in. And I’ve said no to everything likely to compromise either or both of those things, including a few panels. I think a couple of people have felt slighted by my no, cushioned as it was in politeness, but ultimately that’s their issue. Leaving my home to speak before people can cost quite a lot of energy, especially if it involves long hours of travel and an overnight stay away from home. The mental and physical resources aren’t always mine to spare.

Still, there are times when saying yes is impossible to resist – when the cost -benefit IMG_-ki1vps.jpganalysis balances out. Last week I was part of Glasgow International for After Dark, a creative conversation between LGBT artists of colour. I’d never been called an artist before, and still don’t see myself as one. Writer, yes – I feel that in my bones, and have external validation from the publishing industry. But, artist? Funnily enough, another participant questioned his own right to the label of writer because of the way Black people go largely unrecognised as ‘legitimate’ cultural critics. Or not so funny. A recurring theme, whatever the medium we worked with, was that none of us had been encouraged to think of ourselves, our work, our voices as having authority. But it was satisfying to connect, to talk about our work and the lives that inform it. Opportunities to meet other creatives who are both LGBT and people of colour are a rare, exquisite thing.

As a girl I’d never have imagined a future where I’d enter the Gallery of Modern Art under the label of artist. The GoMA is a beloved part of Glasgow’s cultural landscape. But,IMG_20180515_101715.jpg like so many of the city’s architectural wonders, the building was funded by the labour of enslaved Black people. Growing up amidst the tensions created by that repressed history, it was impossible for me to develop a sense of belonging. When Blackness and Scottishness are often treated as two mutually exclusive identities (a seemingly endless number of white Scots can’t get their head around Black people being born ‘here’, raised ‘here’, from ‘here’), how could it be otherwise? It felt powerful to sit and talk and eat and drink in the Gallery, to claim a space that was never meant for us.

Another event I couldn’t resist saying yes to is Beyond #MeToo, a panel at Writing on the Wall – Liverpool’s longest running literary festival. I like the North of England: it has a higher Black population density than Scotland, and is cheaper and less affected than the South. And, like a great many feminists, I’m passionate about talk of women’s rights, bodies, and boundaries. The other panellists – Winnie Li, Hibo Wardere, and Vanessa Olorenshaw – are all women I’ve been keen to meet. Going felt instinctively right. So I did.

Usually my journeys to unfamiliar places involve a constant companion that goes by the name of anxiety, but getting to Liverpool is actually alright. I crochet a few rounds of a blanket and listen to St. Vincent (since taking up white gay Twitter’s recommendation, I’ve been hooked). Even through delay and disruption, it is possible to hold onto a sense of calm – which is uncharacteristic, but feels like a good omen. I’m getting there; getting there in the literal sense, physically approaching Liverpool on the third and final train of the journey; getting there in my head, too. When I’ve been struggling with mental health problems and am starting to reach a place of wellbeing, “getting there” is the answer I give when anybody asks how I am. It’s not a bullshit answer the way “fine” is, but the fine layer of euphemism coating the honesty makes it feel safe.

Beyond #MeToo

I get to Liverpool later than planned, but still with enough time to drop off my bag and draw on my brows before the event. In the hotel lobby I meet Vanessa, and we immediately click. Her vision of maternal feminism and no-nonsense approach to sexual politics grab my attention, and I make a mental note to track down a copy of her book. There’s something deeply enriching about engaging with feminist perspectives coming from a standpoint that’s different to your own, learning about women’s experiences and politics that don’t necessarily mirror what you have lived or known. Then Winnie joins us, and she’s even more of a badass than Twitter has led me to believe – I say badass, because speaking openly in public about your experiences of sexual violence the way she does takes serious guts. She has a self-possessed quality, a way of occupying public space, that I can’t help admiring. Much like saying no, a woman carrying herself in this way is not an intended outcome of female socialisation. We talk, during the taxi journey to the Women’s Organisation, about everything from our writing habits to the FiLiA conference. Their company is galvanising in a way that’s unique to space shared between women.

Hibo, the last remaining panellist, is waiting for us at the Women’s Organisation – or maybe that should be first, because she was at the venue before us. But Hibo is the last of the women I meet in person. She is every bit as resolute in her opposition to violence against women and girls, every bit as resplendent, as she appears on Twitter. When we compliment her, Hibo laughs and says “I am a rainbow walking. Always in colours.” During the panel Hibo reveals that for years after undergoing female genital mutilation she hid herself away, and wearing bold colours was a way of celebrating being in her body. To my thinking, it is an act of resistance for any woman whose body has been made into a site of trauma to reclaim herself; to find ways of being fully present and perhaps even taking delight in her physical self.

IMG_20180510_001036.jpgWe get to know each other over pizza (which should be mandatory in every green room), sharing bits of our lives without glossing over trauma. So much is possible when women come together and talk openly about violence. When you have the support of feminist women, and are free from the worry of whether your disclosure will be shamed or disbelieved, it is much easier to get to the root of how and why violence against women happens. There is also a lot of joy in those connections.

The panel goes well. Maggie O’Carroll, Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Organisation, has a gift for chairing – an unaffected warmth that stops the event from feeling too formal. It’s also worth pointing out that one advantage of doing panels without men is you are much less likely to be spoken over. Women, especially those who are part of the feminist movement, tend to be good at holding space for one another to speak. And speak we do, about our writing and activism and everything in between.

Dark-Chapter-by-Winnie-M-Li-_-Legend-PressWinnie reveals that she loved writing as a child, but never anticipated that her first book – Dark Chapter – would be based on the story of her own rape. The perpetrator left her with 39 separate injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Winnie quit her job, went about the business of putting herself back together, and rebuilt her life. Her writing perfectly captures the reality of experiencing sexual violence. In an interview with the Guardian she said that “it’s like you’ve been gutted like a fish – it was like somebody had gouged the Winnie out of me,” words which have stayed with me ever since. Winnie talks about the layer of silence that surrounds sexual violence, even between female friends, and her determination to break it. Winnie’s point about that silence resonates. Before I started spending time in feminist spaces, building friendships with feminist women, it would have been unthinkable to talk about my experiences of male violence.

Rather poignantly, Winnie says she was “‘lucky’ to be a victim of stranger rape”, believed by those around her and the criminal justice system because she met society’s standards of a perfect victim. It’s a terrible indictment of this world that any woman would feel fortunate to experience one type of violence over another. But the reality is the majority of women who are raped fall into the category of imperfect victims. At least 70% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Most of us knew and perhaps even liked or trusted our rapists beforehand, meaning that – despite this being a common pattern of sexual violence – it is easier not to believe us, the imperfect victims. Believing that only strangers are rapists means you don’t have to confront the full extent of the problem, the reality that male violence against women and girls is endemic. It means you don’t have to sit with the difficult knowledge that rapists are not shady monsters, but average men: men we know socially or professionally, men who are husbands or boyfriends or fathers. This is the ugly truth of life under patriarchy: women & girls are at risk of sexual violence – overwhelmingly committed by men – and the few of us who get believed are comparatively lucky.

Hibo recounted her experience of FGM and how it has influenced the trajectory of her life. She said “I can remember every little detail of that day, the smell of my blood in the cut-one-womans-fight-against-fgm-in-britain-today-9781471153983_lgroom.” A procedure that took 45 minutes would have repercussions for the rest of her life. Hibo underwent type three FGM, which she wrote about in her memoir Cut. Of this experience, Hibo says “you don’t heal from it, you learn to cope with it.” During her work in schools, Hibo was compelled to start challenging FGM when she realised young girls were at risk. Explaining her advocacy, Hibo says “I used my trauma as a tool for education.” Her work has changed how the education system, the British government, and even the FBI approach the issue of FGM. Hibo is proud of how attitudes have begun to shift against FGM in recent years, a change to which her work has greatly contributed, but is adamant there’s still a long way to go before this particular battle is won. Every 11 seconds a girl is cut. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but nobody has yet been prosecuted for carrying the procedure out on a girl.

IMG_-c2bx6e.jpgNext it’s my turn to speak. I have boundless respect for the other women on this panel and feel honoured to sit alongside them. Yet there are no pangs of imposter syndrome, which is another recent positive step. I tell the audience about the context that shaped my work, the isolation of growing up Black in Scotland, the ways in which gas-lighting is used to cover up racism – which the country has long since struggled to acknowledge as a social, political reality. It’s easy enough: there’s no scarcity of women of colour in the room. I talk about the importance of having found feminist community in digital spaces; that it felt natural to raise a dissenting voice online in a way that it didn’t in person, offline. I share my motivation in creating a learning resource for women trying to engage with feminist politics, how it’s done with the goal of helping build a truly anti-racist feminist movement that really is committed to the liberation of all women. And then I turn to Vanessa.

In her own words, Vanessa advocates for “women’s rights, as mothers, in the public Liberating Motherhoodsphere.” Before having children she was a barrister, which shows in how she forms an argument. As a new mother, no longer practicing her profession, she was conscious that “my political power was gone, my economic power was gone, my body had changed.” She struggled against the idea mothers are not political, a misconception “which Mumsnet prove wrong.”  To Vanessa there is no doubt that women’s bodies exist as the site of oppression in patriarchal society. She calls for an embodied feminist politics that recognise the significance of sex in determining how we experience the world. Vanessa points out that boys begin assaulting girls from a young age, highlighting the patterns of violence that emerge through gendered socialisation.

In particular, Vanessa calls for greater recognition of care work and models beyond outsourcing domestic tasks – often to women who are working class and/or of colour. Despite being vital to the continuation of humanity, care work is devalued as feminised labour and made invisible through essentialist claims that nurturing is a natural part of being female. When her first child was born, Vanessa was asked relentlessly when she planned to go “back to work” – nobody who asked recognised that she was constantly working to look after a new baby, as she wasn’t getting paid to do it. Ideas of what counts as ‘real’ work are upheld by the pillars of patriarchy and capitalism. Vanessa cites Adrienne Rich as an inspiration for her work, crediting Of Woman Born as an essential read on motherhood and feminism.

The Q&A is as interesting as it is challenging. Mandy Vere, a bookseller at News From Nowhere, asked our thoughts on the relationship between shifts in language and feminist politics. Winnie felt this most keenly in the difference between ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ in discussions of sexual violence. She thinks the shift towards ‘survivor’ is a “push to use the word less full of horror and trauma”, that ‘survivor’ offers a more positive and media-friendly spin. Most importantly, Winnie points out that surviving sexual violence is not a linear experience. Ten years on, she sees herself as a survivor, but is conscious that she could struggle again and identify more with the term ‘victim.’ “Trauma can return.” Hibo talks about vagina – specifically, the stigma attached to the word and the sexism in making it unspeakable. She is quite right in observing that without vagina none of us would have been born, so a bit more appreciation is due.

I pick up on the shift from ‘lesbian’ to ‘queer’ in recent years. While it’s a positive thing that more people are finding language that fits them, lesbian gets dismissed as “old fashioned” in a way that’s deeply harmful and ultimately lesbophobic. For hundreds of years, lesbian lives and loves have been erased or broken apart, often with violence. Lesbian is a less palatable word than queer because it is a sexual boundary that explicitly excludes men from women’s desire, whereas queer is ambiguous – and so less threatening to the status quo. Patriarchy depends on men having access to women’s sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour. Lesbian says no to all of that. Lesbian is women directing our love and energy towards women. It’s a powerful word, and an important one to use. Vanessa critiques the term “gender based violence” on the grounds that it obscures the power dynamic typically in action. She says “we don’t commit violence with our gender, but with our bodies” – often male bodies against female bodies.

People ask about everything from ethics to the implications of self-identification. But the comment that most stands out comes from a woman, let’s call her Valerie, who shares that she is a survivor of sexual violence. She speaks up because she doesn’t want Winnie alone to carry that burden of being ‘out’, and because she is conscious that many women in the room will be in the same boat. Valerie’s courage is powerful to witness. Her voice shakes, and mine does too as I clutch the microphone and tell her she’s not alone. After the event, Valerie approaches me. She says that being Black was a huge factor in why the police didn’t support her when she went to tell them about being raped. I tell her that knowing how I’d be seen as a young Black woman was a huge factor in why I never alerted the authorities. Ultimately neither of us could heal the other, but throughout our conversation we could hear and understand one another – which made a world of difference.

I do not feel obliged to disclose my experiences of sexual violence. I do not owe those details to anybody – not as a woman or a feminist or a writer. And it’s entirely possible that I won’t ever write or speak publicly about this subject in any greater detail. But it’s there: me too.

Afterwards

Afterwards, we each grab a slice of leftover pizza and head off for dinner and drinks. On our way out of the Women’s Organisation, Winnie and I notice a poster for the panel on the bathroom door: fame at last. Being something of an introvert I had initially planned to spend my evening in the bath, reading a book, looking out at the lights across Liverpool from the vantage of my hotel room. But I’m enjoying spending time with these women and want to share their company for a bit longer. We sit down in a bar and begin the lengthy process of setting the world to rights. It is in here that I make an important discovery: Liverpool has a quality gin scene. Mine comes in a glass that looks like an infinitely fancier variation of the fishbowls that were popular to drink from when I was an undergrad, complete with pomegranate seeds and blueberries. I could grow to like Liverpool very much.

I’ve known Mandy (the radical bookseller) online for what feels like forever, but this is the first time we’ve been together in person. We get to know one another better. She tells me about what it’s like to be part of a radical collective of booksellers (spoiler alert: pretty damn cool), what drew her to Liverpool, and her family. At a few points through the evening, the nature of my accent is queried. It’s exhausting to have a Scottishness that is never assumed and always in need of explanation. Even without malice, as in this context, it must be qualified in a way that invariably leaves me feeling like an outsider looking in on Scottishness. Still, there is belonging to be found in this group of women – transitory though our meeting is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in patriarchy female friendships are always framed as being of secondary importance to relationships with men, when talking and connecting with women is what enables us to spot the traps gender has laid for us, and for every other woman too. What is gender but a series of restrictions imposed upon a girl, until she learns to restrict herself?

In the morning I have a delicious vegetarian breakfast that fuels my upcoming adventures. It even includes vegetarian black pudding. Never having tasted black pudding before, vegetarian or otherwise, it was a masterclass in creative use of beans and pulses. At the table beside mine, conversation mainly seems to consist of a man talking at his wife, pontificating about everything from Kim Jong-un to the merits of scrambled eggs. I feel sorry for her, until she finally does offer an opinion: that it’s refreshing to see a hotel staffed only by the indigenous population. Indigenous, native, Briton, from here ‘originally’ – there are so many coded ways of saying white, but the racism behind them never varies. A world away from last night, when having a panel that was majority women of colour was a cause for celebration.

I shoulder my backpack and set off to News From Nowhere. Having followed the bookshop on Twitter for years, I am desperate to see it in person. Getting there is easy. For once, I don’t struggle with the map. Above the door is a gay pride flag, and in the window display – alongside the books – is a cardboard cut-out of Theresa May in a police uniform. Yes, I have found News From Nowhere. The shop smells like homemade candles and books – heaven, in short. There’s fiction, feminist theory, biography, zines… There are books on disability rights, sexual politics, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh history, a whole shelf devoted to Liverpool’s own Black community. When I arrive, they’re in the process of changing the display table from books about anti-racist activism to mental health. This is my kind of place. I browse, dreamy and happy, and chat with the booksellers.

Winnie meets me in the bookshop. We talk, lingering by the Women’s Prize for Fiction display, and I recommend Meena Kandasamy’s book When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. Like Winnie, her writing gives voice to deep truths about violence against women, addressing the link between gender and power. It’s a devastating read, but this book burns with resistance and is exquisitely crafted. It would have been great to talk to Winnie more, but we’ll both be at Bare Lit fest at the end of the month. The booksellers very kindly offer to watch out bags, and we each head out to explore the city.

20180518_151742.jpgI walk to the International Slavery Museum, taking in Liverpool as I go. The architecture is striking against the blue sky, and cherry blossoms line a walkway towards the dock. It’s a beautiful city in spring. There are a number of art spaces and cafés I could happily delve into but this mission, I feel, is important. So many of Scotland’s ongoing problems with racism are rooted in an unwillingness to examine the country’s history with race, a refusal to acknowledge how that past shaped the present reality. Earlier this year I visited Berlin, and there are public monuments to the victims of World War 2 placed throughout the city. Each monument included explanations of how and why these people died, giving history to provide context. It was deeply emotional, but there was something healing in giving public space over to recognising those atrocities. Repressing a history only adds to the trauma – which is why I am determined to visit the Slavery Museum.

The Slavery Museum is “the first museum in the world to deal with transatlantic slavery 20180510_124136.jpgand its legacies”, exploring not only the past but how it has informed life in modern day Britain. Beside the entrance is an invitation for people to write about the thoughts and feelings evoked, and stick their postcard on a wall. I like that people are given the space and encouragement needed to try and grapple with the painful knowledge held here. The realities of the slave trade were horrifying. Black people were beaten and raped and killed and worked to death for the profit of white people. Denying it doesn’t help the African people who were forcibly removed from their homes, and it doesn’t help anybody now either.

On display are chains once used to shackle people, brands that once glowed white and burnt into human flesh. A model plantation shows the horrifying living conditions of the enslaved people, and explains that a group of escapees committed mass suicide rather than going back when capture was imminent. The sound of waves plays on loop, clashing with the testimonies of enslaved people being read. I feel overwhelmed. It is explained in detail that enslaved people were dehumanised to legitimise the violence inflicted upon them by their white owners, to justify that ownership in the first place. And this tactic of dehumanisation continues to influence the ways Black people are racialised today.

There are interactive maps of popular routes for transporting enslaved people, explanations of where they were taken and why (always to the place that would bring white people the biggest profit), and ledgers recording the sale of human beings. Generations of enslaved people lived and died without ever tasting freedom or human dignity. The display I found hardest showed samples of cloth that were traded for African people. With a scrap of material, it was once possible to purchase a human being and have them work beyond the limits of endurance for the rest of his or her life. This horror cuts deep.

On my way out of the museum, I am caught by a stream of schoolchildren on a trip. All of the kids I spot are white. Some of them mess around, the way children do, but I hope that what they see here today plants a seed of awareness that will grow over time. I take a minute to breathe, and then head back to the bookshop. On my way I see a monument to Melusine, the river goddess, and spend a moment by her side to find a sense of peace. It works. I say goodbye to the booksellers, News From Nowhere, and finally the city itself.

20180510_121502.jpg

I liked Liverpool very much, and also the person I felt myself to be here – capable and calm. A return visit is definitely on the cards, next time with a bigger bag for more books and zines. Travel makes life seem full of possibilities, or rather it highlights the possibilities we are liable to forget in the course of everyday life. When Mandy asked about my life in Scotland, I had told her the truth – there are things I deeply love about my home country, but it isn’t a place I can live indefinitely. I’m tired of living in a country where my body, my hair texture, my voice, my presence in public life, must all be justified. It would be nice to walk around with some kind of disclaimer that says “Yes, I’m Black. And my accent – like the rest of me – is Scottish. Those two things can co-exist.” But, in the words of Sonya Renee Taylor, the body is not an apology. And folding my body into the confines of an apology over and over again is not a price that I’m prepared to keep on paying.


Bibliography

Meena Kandasamy. (2017). When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife

Winnie M. Li. (2017). Dark Chapter

Heather McDaid & Laura Jones (eds.). (2017). Nasty Women

Vanessa Olorenshaw. (2016). Liberating Motherhood: Birthing the Purplestockings Movement

Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Books for White Women to Read About Race and Feminism

A brief foreword: I hope this list helps women, in ways big and small. And while I hope it contributes to the education of white women and assists the unlearning of racism, it’s important to point out that my main motivation in writing this list was to help create a feminist movement that is not hostile – but instead nurturing – towards women of colour. My decision to undertake this labour was driven by the politics of necessity rather than political principle. Here’s the thing: we should be beyond lists like this. It’s not a comfortable truth, but there it is. That being said, should often requires us to divorce theory from practice and has limited use in movement building.

All the same, it’s necessary to observe that I can only afford to undertake educational projects geared towards white women from a place of well-being, when I have the mental and emotional energy to spare – which isn’t always the case. Don’t read these words and feel bad: that’s not productive in either direction. Instead, think about what it costs women of colour to reach out to and try building trust with white women; do your best to minimise that cost, and work out ways to carry it yourself. Happy reading, and may these books take your mind to interesting places.


 

White women often approach me in feminist spaces or get in touch to say that my writing was the first time they considered that race politics and feminist politics were related. What this makes me feel is complicated and, at points, conflicted. On one level there is an appreciation that these women have accepted my invitation to begin practicing radical honesty about race and the feminist movement. It’s affirming to see that they’ve started doing the work of unpicking their own racism, figuring out exactly how it manifests (including within feminist contexts), and trying to improve. I also find it moving that this work stays with them, and has changed their way of being. Yet there is also an acute pinch of something between pain and frustration as I am made to look directly at the extent to which racism is the norm within feminist spaces, so unexceptional that it’s invisible. It’s a bit like being set on fire and then being told by the woman holding a can of gasoline and a smoking match that she hadn’t noticed the flames.

Still, it’s impossible – or at least I find it impossible – to be cynical in response to someone making a wholehearted effort to change and do better. From birth, we breathe in the values that define the society around us; internalising the logic of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy is all but inevitable. And so we all fail at points. Failure is inevitable, even and especially when it comes to practicing feminist values. The only question is whether or not a woman is prepared to get back up, dust herself off, and try again.

So I curated this list of book recommendations for white women who want to learn more about race politics, how they integrate with feminist politics, and the requirements for interracial solidarity between women. It’s not an exhaustive list. It’s not a definitive list. But these are all texts which articulated certain truths that ought to be brought from the margin to the centre of the feminist movement.

I have quite deliberately chosen books by writers living in Britain, because conversations about race politics tend to become Americentric unless we consciously resist it – which enables that old excuse of racism being an American problem, not something we need to worry about in the UK. Writers of colour are doing revolutionary things in Britain, and deserve more recognition for work that deals with ongoing socio-political problems.

  1. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

Why I'mThis book is the place to start. It explores Black British history, connects that history with the present, and provides highly relevant insights about what it’s like to be a Black woman in contemporary British society. A substantial portion of Why I’m is devoted to the thorny issue of feminism and race politics. In a chapter called The Feminism Question, Eddo-Lodge writes candidly about her love for the feminist movement and the sense of alienation created by white women’s racism.

If you don’t understand why the hierarchy of race creates tension between women of colour and white women, this is an excellent introduction to the surrounding politics. It’s written in straightforward language, expressing difficult ideas in a way that makes them easy to engage with. If I had pots of money, I’d buy enough copies of this book to hand out to almost every white woman that I know.

If feminism can understand the patriarchy, it’s important to question why so many feminists struggle to understand whiteness as a political structure in the very same way.

Why I’m is so important because it contains a wealth of truths that are often repressed. The book holds the kind of truths that are apparent to most people of colour as a result of our lived realities, and there comes a certain relief in hearing them acknowledged when whiteness is so invested in covering them up. The truths found here are also what many white people consider to be a revelation – never having thought about how people of colour experience certain aspects of life, and not having encountered enough of our perspectives for them to seem like a standard part of human experience, white readers might encounter ideas totally new to them. And that’s ultimately a positive thing.

  1. The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (2016)

The Good Immigrant is an extraordinary collection of essays written by people of colour TGIabout their experiences of British life. The combined insight of the writers will blow your mind. More than half of the contributors are women, though I would encourage you to be open to the essays that are not. Think about it this way. Within the canon of books and ideas we are taught to think of as being central to feminist thought, white women’s experiences are often treated like the normative standard of female experience. There is an underlying assumption that what holds true for white women will have universal relevance for all women. And while all women do experience oppression through the hierarchy of gender, gender is inextricably linked with race in women of colour’s lived experiences. It’s not a case of deciding which one is worse or trying to separate the two: that luxury isn’t available to us, although it’s something white women seem happy enough to speculate about when trying to convince women of colour to pick ‘a side’ in the false binary of feminism or anti-racism.

What makes The Good Immigrant such a powerful book is that is doesn’t try and separate forms of oppression into their own distinct boxes, but instead acknowledges they have a common root: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. None of the writers try to split themselves into one camp or another for the sake of one-dimensional political analysis. It’s honest, relevant, and – at times – really funny.

There’s something white women can be quite resistant to hearing, from me or anyone else: women of colour have just as much in common with men of colour as we do white women. The similarities and differences we share with each group effectively balance out. Sometimes, one set of commonalities looks like a negative image of the other. So if you don’t immediately see the value of reading every essay in The Good Immigrant to better understand women of colour’s experiences, remember that we share an experience of race with men of colour to the same extent we share an experience of gender with white women.

  1. Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection, ed. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (2018)

sistaOften we turn to the words of lesbian women for valuable feminist insights, which makes a lot of sense. Who better to learn about loving, centring, and prioritising women from than lesbians? But white is often treated as the default standard of womanhood – including lesbian womanhood. So I’d like to direct your attention towards Sista!, a mind-blowing collection of writing from lesbian and bi Black women.

I can already feel some women bristling at the phrase “same gender loving” in the title, and do think there is a critique to be made somewhere down the line. However, and far more pressingly, there is an unfortunate pattern of white women seeing the differences between their ways of practicing feminism and Black women’s ways of practicing feminism as proof that Black women are somehow insufficiently radical. White women can be very quick to act as feminist gatekeepers on the assumption that those differences exist because women of colour are less informed, and with a bit of educating we’ll catch up. And so I invite you to read Sista! before criticising.

This book is a kaleidoscope of amazing perspectives about women’s art, women’s community organising, women’s dating practices outside of heterosexuality, women’s bodies, women’s politics, and women’s inner-lives. It contains a wealth of truth on what it’s like to be a Black woman in Britain, and some of the writers – like Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the Director of UK Black Pride – share a lot of valuable information about lesbian feminist organising that doesn’t centre whiteness. Sista! absolutely deserves to be recognised as a significant work of British feminist writing.

  1. Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch

Aside from the genius title, you should read Brit(ish) because Afua Hirsh manages to Britishexpress a lot of topical truths about what it’s like to be constantly in the position of outsider because of your race. She makes deft connections between the personal and the political by unpacking Britain’s complicated and – more often than not – ugly history with race and linking it with the realities of being a person of colour in modern day Britain. It’s a striking blend of memoir and cultural criticism, which works well because of the extent to which Black people have been erased from British history. If l’ecriture féminine is your thing, if you enjoy books where women find ways to articulate their own experiences in ways that don’t fit into the masculine logic of genres, this is definitely one for you to read.

Brit(ish) shines a light on a kind of female experience that isn’t always acknowledged as relevant to British culture or the feminist movement. Hirsch addresses issues like colourism and class privilege in a really straightforward way, showing how they manifest in everyday life – that they’re not abstract, and have very real material consequences.

What else makes this book shine is the way Hirsch demonstrates that you can be privileged on one count and marginalised on another at the same time. Drawing from her own life for examples, she conveys how it’s possible for someone to benefit from the hierarchy of class while simultaneously being oppressed as Black and female. (Full disclosure: I’m also a Bougie Black girl.) If you’re uncertain about how intersectionality works, this book does a great job of illustrating how power can flow in multiple and – at points – opposite directions.

  1. Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, ed. Shabnam Grewal, Jackie Kay, Liliane Landor, Gail Lewis, Pratibha Parmar (1988)

Charting the JourneySome truly extraordinary feminist writing emerged in Britain during the 1980s – though overshadowed by the seventies, it was a decade when a number of pivotal feminist perspectives were first published. And while I don’t dispute the lasting importance of any woman’s writing, and the worth of continuing to cite our foremothers, there is a problem with how they are remembered. As is so often the case, white women’s contributions to the feminist movement are enshrined as part of the canon and the words spoken or written by women of colour are treated as having limited relevance or forgotten altogether.

Charting the Journey is one of the boldest and most urgent books British feminism has ever produced. And yet it’s out of print, largely unrecognised. This book challenges misogyny, imperialism, racism, classism, heterosexism – just about every ‘ism’ going – and was pioneering in its criticism of how dominant structures of power acted against women.

A mixture of essays, poems, and interviews from women of colour, reading this book now is useful not only because it uplifts the spirit, but also because it fills in some of the gaps about women of colour’s political organising that exist as a consequence of the selective feminist memory. If you think it’s at all important to know about the feminism that unfolded before the present day, the women’s work that paved the way for what we have now, Charting the Journey is an essential read. There are some dazzling moments. Maud Sulter, a trailblazing artist and Black Scottish feminist, interviews Alice Walker. Women overlooked and underappreciated shine, and they do so unapologetically.

This book also takes an international perspective on the feminism, so if you’re uncertain about how the movement functions globally or want to learn more about how the lives of women are connected around the world, Charting the Journey is a worthwhile starting point.

 

Dispatches from the Margins: Lesbian Connection & the Lavender Menace

A brief foreword: Every so often, a lesbian will write a message that deeply moves me. They usually start out by thanking me for defending lesbian sexuality in a time when it is contested and then move on to express something deeper – a feeling of loneliness and despair brought about by the way lesbians are treated in progressive spaces, be they feminist or queer. Women around the world carry this feeling, and have reached out to me to express this sense of isolation it creates. I’m also carrying that sadness and, while I can’t alleviate it in myself or others, am capable of unpacking some of the factors that cause it.

Dedicated to Anne. You’re not alone.


I’m losing friendships with straight Black women. And that loss is painful. But it’s not hard to grasp the reason for it. The feminist connections between me & hetero women have never been entirely easy: there’s a kind of distance that comes into being, and obscures shared points of understanding, through their responses to my sexuality. Yet still it is difficult, because there is place and kinship in those friendships along with a lot of joy. For the benefit of those who have never been forced to weigh up the risk of racism before building a relationship, I will also point out that there is a great spiritual ease in knowing that you will not experience anti-Blackness from a friend, because she too is Black. The friendship becomes a place of safety. So much is possible when that soft, vital part of you is open instead of pre-emptively guarding against the likelihood of racism.

Quite a few of my friendships with white lesbians, some fledgling and others fully formed, have disintegrated too – over those women’s approach, or lack of, to race. Although experiencing racism is never a picnic, I am used to receiving it from white women and have adjusted my expectations accordingly. It’s less of a pressing concern because I am not particularly invested in whiteness. I learned from a very early age that when you are surrounded by a group of white people, it’s a question of when rather than if the racism is going to manifest. There is no reason to imagine that white lesbians are the exception to whiteness by virtue of their sexuality. However, I think the reason deep friendship with white lesbians remains an ongoing possibility for me is that their radical feminist politics can enable the critical, reflective work required to unlearn racism.

For the last year I have felt pulled between the expectations that straight Black women and white lesbian women have put upon my feminism. At multiple points, it seems as 20171029_152443though what one group values about my feminism is a point of contention for the other. In the eyes of a number of straight Black women in my life, I am too radical – my unwillingness to divorce gendered aspects of the personal from the political creates a rift. With some of the white lesbians in my life, I am insufficiently radical – too invested in exploring grey areas and the pesky politics of race to fit with their understanding of lesbian feminism.

You can’t please everybody, and I haven’t the slightest desire to try. No person who lives authentically can be universally liked. Yet this split does not feel like a mere matter of liking, and neither does it feel coincidental. In fact, it can usually be traced back to the positionality of everyone involved.

At one of the conferences for women of colour I attended last year, I had the pleasure of eating lunch around a table with two other Black women, fellow speakers. Their company was at once thrilling and reassuring: because they saw my perspective as being relevant to the event and were interested in my ideas, it was possible to untie the knots in my stomach for long enough to avail myself of some delicious stew and give a talk unimpeded by nerves. There’s magic in how being seen by other Black women enables one to shake off the imposter syndrome that develops through being made continuously Other. I hope my belief in those women, my excitement in their ideas, provided a similar kind of affirmation. It was uplifting. We talked between sessions, as is the way of things. As we started to feel familiar, one asked whether I had a man and children.

It was a weird moment. I had imagined the only way I could look more obviously lesbian was by wearing a Who Killed Jenny Schecter? t-shirt. But not everyone reads lesbian presentation, least of all heterosexuals. For a second I hesitated, conscious that my honesty would remove some of the assumptions of similarity that had enabled our tentative bond. I didn’t know how to explain, and didn’t want to expose the part of myself that dreams of one day having and being a wife – less still the fledgling hope that one day I’ll have sufficiently stable mental health for us to raise a daughter together. It was painful to think the women with whom I’d shared understanding might find these aspirations alien or repellent.

Audre taught me the power in a name, in claiming the word lesbian. She never let that part of herself be erased or dismissed, even when it would have been convenient for her as a woman and as a feminist. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – deny it either, but at the same time I never relish spending the mental energy required to come out to a relatively unknown person. The risk and reward don’t necessarily balance out in within those transient connections, or any other for that matter, but within those fleeting friendships it can seem like a lot to give. Coming out isn’t just a one-time thing, as Mary Buckheit once wrote. It’s the work of a lifetime, repeated over and over again – assuming it is safe enough to do so in the first place.

I’ve been out for a few years now. In that time, I’ve become a bit too familiar with that little fission – the peculiar sensation when someone’s perception of me changes in the moment they learn that I’m a lesbian. And I felt it in that moment. There was a before, and there was an after. While I do generally share an affinity with my fellow Black women, more than any other demographic, issues of gender and sexuality do bring some tensions to the surface. The obvious solution would be to invest more time & energy in Black lesbians. Unfortunately, Scotland’s Black population density is pretty low – which makes finding other Black lesbians even harder. There are a lot of white lesbians, a few lesbians of colour, and a tiny number of Black lesbians in my life. For now, at least, I must play the hand geography has dealt me. This involves following a lot of Audre Lorde’s advice and using difference creatively – as something to be explored and learned from.

Broadly speaking, the feminism of straight women and lesbian women tends to be different. Straight and lesbian are not the only two categories into which a woman’s sexuality may fall, and certainly not the only feminist standpoints worth considering, but this particular difference requires some exploration. I’m not inclined to go down the purist path of a certain political lesbianism and claim that one is stronger or worthier somehow than the other – feminism isn’t a competition, and the variety in women’s perspectives only ever enriches the movement. All the same, there are differences in those feminisms brought about by a difference between how heterosexual and lesbian women experience the world.

Straight women are sheltered by the social support system that accompanies heterosexuality (Frye, 1983), not exposed to the precariousness of a lesbian life. Every significant relationship developed during my adult life falls into the category of “fictive” kinship, nameless ties not recognised as real by a heteronormative society. Lesbian connections are positioned as lesser, unreal, unnatural. Conversely, straight women are rewarded for forging ties of “true” kinship through marriage and blood, ties which society deems legitimate because they exist in relation to men. Building a life in which men are central – prioritised, desired, and considered essential companions – is fundamentally different to building a life that is woman-centric.  Each path holds contrasting limitations and possibilities for how a woman lives her feminism, which is not necessarily a bad thing for the movement. It is the approach to difference, as opposed to the difference in itself, which determines the depth of what is possible between women.

…we sometimes find it difficult to deal constructively with the genuine differences between us and to recognize that unity does not require that we be identical to each other. Black women are not one great vat of homogenized chocolate milk. We have many different faces, and we do not have to become each other in order to work together. – Audre Lorde, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities

I think that as mainstream feminism’s scope has narrowed from a collective to an individual scale, becoming more about choice than structural analysis, space for women to explore the political significance of their lived realities has dwindled. There is a lack in contemporary feminism, a lack which has led us to stop pushing for liberation and instead settle for tepid notions of equality. As a result, feminism has an ever-shrinking scope and we are encouraged to abandon feminist practice that goes beyond what is comfortable or easily explained. Those complex avenues of thought, which lead us to ask immensely complicated questions about the relationship between the personal and the political, are not places women receive great encouragement to explore. And in a way it’s convenient, because we are spared the uncertainty held within radical possibilities – but we also lose out on the freedom those possibilities offer. If we pick comfort over challenge, the safety of the familiar over the potential of the unknown, the power of the feminist movement dissipates: a radical restructuring of society remains beyond our reach.

The area where feminists have become most restricted, hemmed in by fear and inhibition, is gender. Nothing will change to the benefit of women or trans/non-binary identifying people until an armistice is reached on the so-called TERF wars. Just as the sex wars blighted feminism of the 1980s, the TERF wars undermine the modern day movement. I believe that a willingness to ask difficult questions, of ourselves and each other, is the only way feminists holding any belief about gender will be able move past this stalemate. Naturally, this involves thinking challenging and uncomfortable thoughts. To practice radical honesty, instead of thinking only what falls within the walls of convenience and straightforwardness, will at least allow feminists of differing perspectives the space to connect and understand one another better.

In calling for greater honesty around the subject of gender, in advocating a deeper radicalism, I do not mean cruelty. Scrutinising gender does not and should not require cruelty towards anyone trapped by that hierarchy. If anything, radical practice demands compassion in every direction. And there is a definite shortfall of compassion within conversations about gender and sexual politics.

There are a great many things to find upsetting about how gender discourse now happens. What I find hardest to bear is watching friendships with straight Black women unravel, fray, and snap, pulled apart by gender politics. It hurts. It’s weighing on my mind. And I don’t have the energy to resist anymore. There is a particular malice that is projected onto the motives of lesbian women critiquing gender. Responses to lesbian feminist perspectives on gender often fail to recognise that it is a system oppressing us twice over, on account of both our sex and sexuality. By some twist of logic, the harm gender does to lesbians is erased – though marginal on multiple axes, we are assumed to be the oppressive force within an LGBT context.

The way straight feminists approach queer politics suggests that a significant number do not have a solid understanding of what LGBT+ organising is actually like for the women who do fit under the rainbow umbrella. In collective organising of the 1970s and ‘80s, lesbians were marginalised by the unchecked misogyny of gay men (ed. Harne & Miller, 1996). A lot of LGB spaces were male-centric, treating masculinity as the default way to be gay or bisexual. Women’s lived realities and political interests were not a priority unless actively centred by lesbian feminists (Jeffreys, 2003). While it’s easy to get caught up in the narrative of lesbians being deliberately difficult, it’s important to remember that cooperation meant being complicit in your own oppression instead of resisting it. When the T was added onto LGB, concerns of sexuality and identity were rather clumsily amalgamated – which means there are even more competing interests under the rainbow umbrella. Somewhat predictably, women’s concerns – especially the concerns of lesbian women – have become ever more peripheral. In today’s queer context, we’re more likely to be told the term lesbian is outdated or invited to re-examine the parameters of our sexuality than receive a modicum of solidarity. Straight feminists, who don’t live or organise under the rainbow umbrella, are perhaps not best placed to pass judgement on the lesbian women who do.

Life under the rainbow isn’t all fun and games. These conflicts directly affect our lives in ways that can be hard to carry, and we’re yet to reach consensus on any possible solution. Lesbian women and gay men were recently lambasted for suggesting that we return to organising around issues of sexuality – an unfortunate backlash, in my opinion. Collective organising around sexuality and collective organising around identity would enable each respective group to pursue their political needs more effectively. Without the in-fighting, there would be potential for a new and true mode of solidarity Screenshot_20180211-104222.jpgunhindered by the tensions of today. Where there’s common ground, there would be room for coalition. Where there’s none, there would at least be an absence of competition. I’ve seen more than one queer activist make the case that “it should be just the TQ+” as “the LGB part has already been normalized into heteronormativity.” Although this perspective doesn’t account for radical lesbian and gay organising, there is a case to be made for untangling the alphabet soup.

Queer politics have brought about this myth that gays and lesbians have achieved liberation. It goes the same way as rhetoric used (often by men) to explain why feminism is now redundant: women are basically equal now. Women are not equal to men, much less liberated from them – don’t bother trying to convince me otherwise until the pandemic of men’s violence against women and girls comes to an end. Patriarchy remains part of society’s foundation. Gender, which exists as a cause and consequence of patriarchy, gives rise to heterosexism and homophobia. It’s all connected.

In a recent conversation with my mother, she spoke about why she has remained at the same place of work for nearly two decades. The company has excellent policies safeguarding the rights of gay and lesbian employees – she told me that, even if people didn’t like her sexuality, she felt confident they couldn’t express anti-lesbian sentiment towards her because of strictly enforced consequences for discrimination. I know that’s hardly the ultimate struggle, and there is a certain privilege in having been able to build a lengthy career with one organisation, but it broke my heart a bit that whether or not she would be supported against lesbophobia factored into my mum’s decision making process in choosing her job. (Yes, she is a lesbian, which makes me lucky enough to be a second generation gay.) To be a lesbian does not bring a woman any great power or socioeconomic privileges – in fact, it does the opposite. Which is why it’s disheartening that mainstream feminism has ceased to treat us as worthy recipients of compassion.

Lesbian women are not viewed as “natural” subjects of empathy, despite being marginalised, because we do not live “natural” lives. Our way of living – which involves loving, desiring, and prioritising women – is not simply outside of heterosexist values, but a direct challenge to those values (Rich, 1980). The lack of empathy we receive from straight women is influenced and enabled by lesbophobia. I invite straight feminists to consider why their go-to assumption is that a lesbian feminist perspective on gender is motivated by malice, and to ask themselves why it is easy to imagine an innate cruelty in lesbian women.

Increasingly, I see straight feminists treating their lesbian sisters in a way that they could never condone behaving towards their trans siblings. Perhaps this disparity in compassion is because trans-identifying people do not overtly challenge the foundations of a heterosexual feminist life, whereas sharing spaces with lesbian feminists invariably brings the institution of heterosexuality into sharper focus – and in so doing raises uncomfortable questions. At times straight feminists speak about certain lesbian feminist theorists in such a way that you would be forgiven for thinking they described repeat violent offenders, not women in their sixties and seventies. Linda Bellos, a committed Black lesbian feminist, was vilified for speaking about the conflict between lesbian and queer politics. If we do not speak about it openly and honestly, that horrible tension is only going to grow – but I fear that scapegoating lesbian feminists is easier than engaging with what lesbian women have to say.

lavender menace

Lesbians are more likely to be described as unfeeling or – more ridiculous still – dangerous than straight feminists who analyse gender as a social harm. We are pathologised even within the feminist movement, lavender menaces once more. Radical feminists – many of whom are lesbian – consider gender as a vehicle for violence against women and girls. Therefore, we aim to eliminate gender in order to liberate women and girls from violence. Being a gender abolitionist has nothing to do with cruelty or prejudice, and everything to do with wanting to make this world a better, fairer place – somewhere all women and girls can thrive. I wish that more straight women could find ways to critique the gender politics of any lesbian feminism without resorting to Othering. There is scope for disagreement without subtly pathologising lesbian desires or perspectives.

An ever-growing number of Tweets muse about the correlation between lesbian IMG_20171116_231114.jpgsexuality and “TERF” politics, including such dubious pearls of wisdom such as this: “repeated use of the word ‘lesbian’ is also a dog whistle for TERFs.” If even saying lesbian can be taken as proof of transphobia, something has clearly gone wrong in this conversation. As Black feminist theory has long held (Hill Collins, 1990), self-definition is an essential step in the liberation of any oppressed group – including lesbians. And yet straight feminists are often willing to be complicit in lesbian erasure or, worse still, deny that erasure is happening even as lesbians challenge it.

For the most part I try not to write in anger, but there is something uniquely galling about being asked to consider how lesbian sexuality upholds oppressive practices by women who are married to and raising children with men. Lesbians experiencing same-sex attraction is casually problematised in conversations about gender – often by women who are exclusively attracted to the opposite sex and consider partnership with men to be the “natural” trajectory of their lives. And because relations between men and women are positioned as “natural” in heteropatriarchy, they are not subject to a fraction of the scrutiny that lesbian (and, increasingly, gay) sexuality faces. It’s sad but predictable that heterosexuality is rarely critiqued as part of gender discourse, even as expression of lesbian sexuality is treated as evidence of transphobia.

As the tension between gender and sexual politics grows, the mainstream feminist movement tends to forget that lesbians are women doing our best to survive life under patriarchy – perhaps even to break free from it if we’re lucky. Lesbians are not and never have been the women mainstream feminism is concerned with protecting: our vulnerability, unlike that of heterosexual women, evokes no great sympathy. Straight women treat lesbians as expendable to the feminist movement, although we have always been at the heart of feminism, in order to create enough distance to safely avoid being branded lesbian themselves.

The terror of Black Lesbians is buried in that deep inner place where we have been taught to fear all difference – to kill it or ignore it. Be assured: loving women is not a communicable disease. You don’t catch it like the common cold. Yet the one accusation that seems to render even the most vocal straight Black woman totally silent and ineffective is the suggestion that she might be a Black Lesbian.  – Audre Lorde, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities

There is irony in straight women condemning lesbian feminists for our gender politics: it is, of course, our very refusal to live within the confines of gender that makes us the legitimate targets of their Othering. The distance between straight and lesbian feminists stems from het women’s failure to use that difference as a mine of creative energy. Difference can function as a source of solutions, not problems, if we are bold enough to seize upon it.

Ultimately, it’s not difficult to see why so many straight Black feminists are receptive to the notion of gender as identity. White lesbians ask me about this routinely – why so many heterosexual Black feminists have embraced queer gender politics – and my answer revolves around the following points. White women’s gender politics have historically been antagonistic towards Black women, compounding the racist oppressions we experience. Black women know what it is to be positioned outside of the acceptable, recognised standard of womanhood. Therefore, some sense parallels between the struggles of being born into Black womanhood and finding transwomanhood. The shared pains and challenges that come with being an outsider act as a bridge. What’s more, single-issue, gender-only feminism was only ever a viable option for the most privileged white women. Gender might not even be the most keenly felt form of oppression that manifests in a Black woman’s life, and so accepting its continuation may seem like a viable political compromise when it brings about fresh potential for solidarity.

The part I do not understand – or rather, do not want to understand – is the reluctance of some straight Black women to extend the same empathy or willingness to understand towards their lesbian sisters. Shared similarities between straight and lesbian Black women do not mean that I will hesitate to challenge an Othering approach to our differences. But it is not a criticism that I relish having to make. With certain women, there is a choice to be made: I can have my principles, or I can have those friendships. Principle wins every time. It’s simple, but also excruciatingly complicated.


Bibliography

Marilyn Frye. (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory

Lynne Harne & Elaine Miller, eds.. (1996). All the Rage: Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism

Patricia Hill Collins. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics

Audre Lorde. (1988). A Burst of Light: And Other Essays

Audre Lorde. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Adrienne Rich. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence

Womanhood: On Sex, Gender Roles, and Self-Identification

A (not so) brief foreword: this essay was originally commissioned by an independent publisher looking to release an anthology on gender. In 2017 they asked if I’d be interested in writing an essay on womanhood. I was a little surprised, the publisher being explicitly queer and me being a radical feminist, but ultimately pleased: their goal was to publish a collection with plural perspectives on gender, and I believe wholeheartedly that having the space for plural perspectives on any issue is essential for healthy, open public discourse. I knew that my lesbian feminist essay would probably be in a minority standpoint, and felt comfortable with it being published alongside contradictory perspectives. Given the extreme polarity of gender discourse, which results in a painful stalemate between queer activists and radical feminists, it was encouraging to think we had reached a point where multiple views could be held and explored together.

So I wrote the essay, made the requested edits, and produced a final draft with which the publisher and I were both delighted. Their words: “We’re really happy with the edits you’ve done and the areas you’ve developed on upon our request. You did a splendid job refining the essay.” However, certain people objected to the inclusion of my essay before having read it. Some early readers gave the feedback that they were unhappy to find a perspective that they were not expecting, and alarmed that I had connected my personal experience of gender as a woman to the wider sociopolitical context we inhabit. Backlash escalated to the point that the publishing house faced the risk of having their business undermined and their debut collection jeopardised.

They gave me the option of writing another essay for the gender anthology, or having this essay published in a future collection. I declined both choices, as neither felt right – fortunately, there are more projects on my horizon. That being said I have great sympathy for the publisher’s position, and find it regrettable that their bold and brilliant venture should be compromised by the very people it was designed to support. Furthermore, I wish the publisher every success with this project, and all future endeavours. As for the essay, controversial even before being read, I have instead decided to publish it here as the seventh part of the series on sex, gender, and sexuality. It is, in my opinion, a good essay and deserves to see the light of day.

If you enjoy or learn from this essay, and can afford to do so, please consider donating to cover the lost commission of this work. [UPDATE: the publisher has offered partial payment depending on the success of their crowdfunding campaign. Thank you to everyone who has supported me. It means a great deal.]


 

Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. – Ntozake Shange

I absolutely love women. I love women in a way that leaves me breathless, in a way that catches just behind my ribs and gently tugs at my heartstrings until they unravel. I love women with a depth and fervour that is fundamentally lesbian. And in loving women I find extraordinary reserves of strength, the will to keep on challenging white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984), the motivation to chip away at every hierarchy and oppression that acts as a pillar upholding the ills of society. A love of women is central to my feminism, for bonds between women – links of solidarity and sisterhood in particular – have a revolutionary power unequal to any force on this earth.

According to Adrienne Rich, “the connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” The connections shared by women, and all that flows across connections between women, open the possibility for radical social change – which is why lesbian existence and feminist politics are complimentary forces in a woman’s life.

Loving women as I do, I have spent a great deal of time musing upon what it is to be a woman, from where the appeal of women springs. As many young lesbians do, I speculate about the nature of the draw which compels us to watch all sorts of random crap on television simply because the middle-aged actress we fancy has a small role in the production. Having grown up in this world as a girl and subsequently learned how to negotiate this world as a woman, I have also reflected upon the social and political significance of the category – the weight which is undeniable. The question of what it means to be a woman has been central to feminist discourse for hundreds of years: establishing what womanhood is, pinpointing the means and motive behind woman’s oppression under patriarchy, and working out how to end that oppression are central feminist concerns.

At present the feminist movement is split in two over how to conceptualise woman and woman’s oppression. The tensions between queer ideology and sexual politics have proven every bit as divisive as the sex wars of the 1980s. The source of the split lies within gender – specifically, whether gender ought to be conceptualised as a hierarchy or as an identity within feminist analysis. Feminists have historically identified gender as the means of women’s oppression: patriarchy is reliant on gender to establish and maintain a hierarchy that enables men to dominate women.  But by the turn of the century queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam began to suggest that gender may be subverted and experimented with until the very fabric of society is no longer recognisable.

Owing to the mainstreaming of queer ideology, we have entered an unprecedented era governed by the logic of postmodernism – a time in which the relationship between the physical body and material reality is untethered by the politics of identity.  As such, those engaging with the progressive politics – be they liberal or radical – begin asking ourselves anew: what does it mean to be a woman?

Woman as a Sex Class

A key element of feminist analysis is the recognition of woman as a sex class. By this I do not mean that all women’s experiences meet the same universal standards, or that all women are positioned similarly within the world’s power structures: factors such as race, disability, social class, and sexuality all shape where a woman is situated in relation to power. Rather, this perspective offers an acknowledgement of the role in which patriarchy plays in determining the power dynamic between women and men. Women’s struggle against patriarchy is collective, and emancipation from systemic oppression cannot be found through individualising a structural issue. Women of all colours and creeds, women of all classes and castes, are actively subjugated from birth – a political analysis which fails to incorporate this reality cannot truly be thought of as feminist. Women’s oppression is a direct result of having been born female-bodied into a patriarchal society. Considering woman as a sex class is, therefore, fundamental to meaningful feminist critique of patriarchy.

This mode of analysis – radically feminist analysis – can grate when misapplied by white women who seek to deny any difference between women’s lives. But when carried out correctly, with rigour and consideration, it has the potential to change the world.

My own womanhood is hardly conventional, Black and lesbian as it is. I do not meet white Eurocentric standards of female beauty or womanhood and no longer aspire towards those standards, which are rooted in racism and misogyny. Owing to skin pigmentation and hair texture, my Blackness is impossible to conceal – even if it were possible, having begun to unpick the misogynoir I have internalised from an early age, I would not choose to hide it in order to assimilate. To be visibly Other is to live with an increased vulnerability, to be perpetually open to manifestations of structural oppression. For a time I despised both my Blackness and my womanhood as a result of the painful alienation misogynoir brought into my life. I have since learned to place the blame firmly where it belongs, with the source of these cruelties: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Since embracing radical politics I have learned to love both Blackness and womanhood, to love myself as a Black woman, in a way that was never possible during my pursuit of conventional beauty standards.

My lesbian presentation (Tongson, 2005) is a further rejection of those beauty standards. I style my hair in a fashion that is distinctly lesbian and have maintained a crisp undercut since coming out. At various points certain members of my family have attempted to enforce compulsory heterosexuality by shaming any outward presentation of a lesbian aesthetic, endeavouring to guide me back into the feminine role. I am told that returning to conventionally feminine presentation would render me “softer”, “more approachable”, and closer to the ideal of beauty. And while I could choose to pass for heterosexual, allowing an assumption that I am available and receptive to men to cushion me from a degree of marginalisation, I do not. I have no desire to appear soft or approachable, least of all to men – the oppressor class. Alice Walker proclaimed that “resistance is the secret of joy”, and she was quite right: there is a feeling of pure elation that flows from resisting the trap and trappings of heteropatriarchy.

Like every single woman living in a patriarchal society, I experience systematic oppression as a consequence of being female. Women – all women – are bound by the rigidity of the gender role ascribed to us on the basis of our biological sex. We are socialised from birth to be soft, compliant, nurturing so that we are primed to adopt the caring role required for upholding the domestic sphere owned by a man, be he husband or father. As Mary Wollstonecraft notably lamented, women are actively discouraged from pursuing our full potential as self-actualised human beings. Instead, women are subjected to a deliberate social (and often economic) pressure designed to create in us an ornamental source of sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour for men.

From Sojourner Truth to Simone de Beauvoir, there is a long and proud tradition of feminists critiquing the role of femininity. During her time as an abolitionist orator, Truth deconstructed womanhood to great effect, asking “ain’t I a woman?” Arguing against the hierarchies of race and gender that determined how the category of woman was understood in North American society during the heights of the transatlantic slave trade, Truth offered her own story as testimony to the falsehood of femininity. Truth used her own strength and endurance as empirical evidence, asserting that womanhood was in no way dependent on or related to the characteristics which construct femininity. Her opposition to gender essentialism and white supremacy continues to influence feminists’ perspectives on womanhood to this very day.

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir further critiqued femininity, connecting the socialisation of gender to the oppression of women by men. She theorised that man was the normative standard of humanity and woman understood purely in relation to him:

Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.

That woman is relegated to the Other, lacking in positive definition, mandates a life that is male-centric. If woman exists as the negative image of man, she is forever bound to him. Self-definition has long been recognised as a necessary tool for the liberation of an oppressed group, and if women remain dependent on men for definition then the root cause of our oppression can never be fully tackled. Adrienne Rich once claimed that “until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves” – as is often the case, her words contain more than a little truth.

Gender is normalised through essentialism, positioned as a natural and inevitable part of life. From the get-out-of-accountability-free card that is ‘boys will be boys’ to the constant refrain of “she was asking for it” when men act upon the cultural conditioning that assures them they are entitled to women’s bodies, the hierarchy of gender maintains the gross power imbalance at the root of sexual politics. Here is how I understand the connection between biological sex and gender roles:

Gender is a socially constructed trap designed to oppress women as a sex class for the benefit of men as a sex class. And the significance of biological sex cannot be disregarded, in spite of recent efforts to reframe gender as an identity rather than a hierarchy. Sexual and reproductive exploitation of the female body are the material basis of women’s oppression – our biology is used as a means of domination by our oppressors, men.

We teach boys to dominate others and disavow their emotions. We teach girls to nurture others at the expense of their own. And I think this world would be a better place if we encouraged more empathy in boys and more daring in girls. If gender were abolished, if we raised boys and girls in the same way, patriarchy would crumble. Like a great many feminists before her, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advocates the elimination of gender:

The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations… Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialisation exaggerates the differences, and then starts a self-fulfilling process. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

It is impossible to consider the position of women in society, the reality that we are second-class citizens by design of patriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of the harm done by gender. Womanhood is caught up in the constraints of the feminine gender role, prevented from escaping male dominion. In the abolition of gender lies a radical alternative. In the abolition of gender lies women’s liberation.

Therefore, recent reframing of gender as an innately held identity has proven problematic in ongoing feminist struggle. Gender identity politics rely on essentialism that feminists have fought for hundreds of years, an essentialism that argues women are naturally suited to the means of our oppression. If gender is inherent – a natural phenomenon after all – then the oppression of women under patriarchy is legitimised.

Womanhood

During the second wave of feminism, it was argued that woman simply meant a biologically female adult human. Feminists (Millett, 1969; French, 1986; Dworkin, 1987) made the case that womanhood could and should exist purely as a biological category, unfettered by the feminine gender role – a vision of women’s liberation. This perspective is directly contradicted by a queer understanding of gender, which primarily focuses on gender as self-expression:

The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality. – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

A queer notion of gender presents it as a matter of performativity, arguing that dominant power structures may be subverted through transgressing the barriers of masculine and feminine gender roles. Identification with the characteristics associated with a gender role is taken as belonging to the category. Those who identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as cisgender. Those who do not identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as transgender. From a queer standpoint, sex is not a fixed category but rather an unstable one. Queer politics are formed gender as a mode of personal identification. Radical feminist analysis, in which gender is understood as a hierarchy, is dismissed as old-fashioned.

If one cannot say with absolutely clarity what is woman and what is man, the oppressed and oppressor classes are rendered unspeakable. Subsequently the hierarchy of gender is made invisible and feminist analysis of patriarchy grows impossible. Without words used as markers to convey specific meaning, women are deprived of the vocabulary required to name and oppose our oppression. Postmodernism and political analysis of power structures make uneasy bedfellows.

Here is where the controversy lies, where gender discourse grows explosive beyond the point of reconciliation between queer and radical feminism. If gender is a matter of personal identification, it is a purely individual matter and, therefore, depoliticised. The power differential between oppressed and oppressor is negated by a failure to consider man and woman as two distinct sex classes. Gender ceases to be visible as a means of oppression, further obscured as the categories of man and woman are considered immaterial. If sex classes are unspeakable, so too are the sexual politics of patriarchy.

If womanhood can be reduced to the performance of the feminine gender role and a personal identification with that gender role, there is little scope for distinguishing between the oppressor and oppressed. Womanhood ceases to be indicated by the presence of primary and secondary sex characteristics and instead becomes a matter of self-identification. The oppressor may even benefit from a lifetime of the privilege conferred upon men through the subordination of woman and then claim womanhood. Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of BBC Woman’s Hour, came under fire for highlighting that prior to transition, transwomen benefit from the social and economic privileges accorded to men in patriarchy. Shortly afterwards, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received backlash for differentiating between the experiences of women born as such and transwomen:

 I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switch gender – it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one.

If it is no longer possible to consider the experiences of those born female, to analyse the relationship between sex and socioeconomic power, feminists can no longer identify or challenge the workings of patriarchy. This is a particularly unfortunate consequence of embracing queer ideology. Women’s rights are human rights, as the slogan goes – inalienable and absolutely worth fighting for. The injustices faced by women around the globe are intolerable: one in three women will be subject to male violence within her lifetime. Yet, if the linguistic tools necessary to critique patriarchy are removed from the feminist lexicon, women’s liberation hits an insurmountable stumbling block: you cannot challenge an oppression you cannot name, after all.

The cultural significance attached to the word woman is in a state of flux. As queer politics would have it, womanhood is simply the performance of the female gender role. As radical feminism would have it, the female gender role exists purely as a sexist stereotype of woman rooted in essentialism and misogyny. The only escape queer politics offers women from patriarchal oppression is for all those who are biologically female to identify out of the category ‘woman’. To claim the label of non-binary, genderfluid, or transmasculine – anything other than a cisgender woman, who is naturally suited to her status as a second-class citizen – is the only route queer politics offers biological women to being recognised as fully human.

Women, by queer logic, cannot be self-actualised and have no meaningful inner-lives. We are simply Other to men. It is for this reason that queer ideology has been able to reduce women to “non-men” – to “pregnant people”, “uterus-havers”, and “menstruators.”  It is worth asking: does trans-inclusivity depend upon women being written out of existence? While queer theory has reflected upon the nature of masculinity, it has not deconstructed the category of man beyond the point of recognition. Just as in mainstream patriarchal society, man is the normative standard of humanity and woman defined in relation to him. The positive definition of womanhood is treated as expendable within queer discourse.

As linguist Deborah Cameron asserts, women’s power to self-define is of immense political significance:

The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.

However one understands the category of woman, its erasure can surely be recognised as a disastrous impediment to the liberation of women.

Lesbian Sexuality

The controversy over how womanhood is defined manifests most acutely around lesbian sexuality. An unfortunate consequence of queer politics is the problematising of homosexuality. Lesbian women and to a lesser extent gay men (for it is women’s bodies and sexual practices that are fiercely policed within patriarchy) routinely face allegations of transphobia within queer discourse. A lesbian is a woman who exclusively experiences same-sex attraction. It is the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics that create at least the potential for lesbian desire – gender identity is of little relevance to the parameters of same-sex attraction. As it is governed on the basis of biological sex rather than personal identification with gender, the sexuality of lesbian women is under scrutiny within queer discourse.

These words are not written with detachment. It is not an abstract concern alive only in theory. The reality is, this is a particularly uncomfortable window of time in which to be lesbian. We face mounting pressure to expand the boundaries of our sexuality until sex that involves a penis is considered a viable option. And sex that involves a penis quite simply isn’t lesbian, whether it belongs to a man or a transwoman.

I am deeply concerned by the shaming and coercion of lesbian women that now happens within queer discourse. The queer devaluation of lesbian sexuality – from the insistence that lesbians are a boring old anachronism to the pathologising of lesbian sexuality that occurs when we are branded “vagina fetishists” – is identical to the lesbophobia pedalled by social conservatives. Both the queer left and religious right go out of their way to imply something is wrong with lesbians because we desire other women.

Lesbian women are attracted by the female form. In addition to sharing a profound emotional and mental connection with other women, lesbians appreciate the female form – the beauty of women’s bodies is what sparks our desire. If biological sex ceases to be recognised as determining womanhood (or, indeed, manhood), it can no longer be said that there is such a body as a woman’s body. If the distinct set of sex characteristics which combine to form womanhood are rendered unspeakable, attraction inspired by those characteristics – lesbian desire – is made invisible. Something vital is lost when women are deprived of the language to articulate how and why we love other women (Rich, 1980).

Lesbians are being coerced back into the closet within the LGBT+ community. We receive strong encouragement to abandon the label of lesbian, which we are told is comically archaic, and embrace the umbrella term of queer in the name of inclusivity. But no sexuality is universally inclusive – by definition, sexuality is a specific set of factors which when met offer the potential for attraction. It is unreasonable – and frankly delusional – to imagine that sexuality can be stripped of any meaningful criteria.

A queer woman is less challenging to the status quo than a lesbian, easier for men to get behind, for queer is a vague term that deliberately eschews solid definitions – a queer woman may well be sexually available to men, her sexuality in no way an impediment to offering men the emotional, sexual, or reproductive labour upon which patriarchy is dependent.

Queer stigmatising of lesbians is a tactical manoeuvre designed to undermine acknowledgement of the female sex category. If there is no need to address same-sex attraction between women, the significance and permanence of sex categories demands no scrutiny. That encouraging lesbian women to consider sex that involves a penis has become newly acceptable, a legitimate line of discourse within the progressive left, is a terrible puzzle. The logic of it is straightforward enough, yet the underlying truths about what is happening within LGBT+ politics are not easy to look at. Yet still I cannot help turn it over and over in my mind, working at the ideas like a Rubik’s cube until the pieces fall into place. Queer ideology seeks to enforce compulsory heterosexuality in the lives of lesbian women just as surely as the standards set by patriarchy. By denying the possibility of lesbians exclusively loving other women, by delegitimising lesbians living woman-centric lives, queer politics undermines our liberation.

Conclusion

There is a persistent thread of misogyny running through queer politics, from the inception of queer to its present incarnation. Queer was the product of gay men’s activism, concerned primarily with sexual freedom and transgression: as such, queer did not represent the interests of lesbian women when it came into being during the 1980s and does not represent the interests of lesbian women now (Jeffreys, 2003). Queer is less about collectively challenging structural inequalities at their root than an individualised subversion of social norms.

Though it promised a radical, exciting alternative – one which many women have embraced, along with men – queer politics are ill equipped to dismantle systematic oppressions. Queer erasure of womanhood, queer disregard for women’s boundaries if they happen to be lesbian, and queer obscuring of the gender hierarchy breathes a new lease of life into patriarchy, if anything.

I dream of a world without gender. I dream of a world where men can wear dresses and be gentle without either being treated as a negation of manhood. But much more than that, I dream of a world where no assumptions are made about what it means to be woman beyond the realm of biological fact. And if that makes me a heretic in the church of gender, so be it – I’m an atheist.

Gender roles and the hierarchy they maintain are incompatible with the liberation of women and girls from patriarchal oppression. It is because I love women, and because I am a woman, that I cannot afford to pretend otherwise. Embracing gender as an identity is the equivalent of decorating the interior of a cell: it is a superficial perspective which offers no freedom.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex. London: Vintage

Judith Butler. (1990). Gender Trouble. London: Routledge

Andrea Dworkin. (1987). Intercourse. New York: Free Press

Marilyn French. (1986). Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals. California: Ballantine Books

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press

Jack Halberstam. (1998). Female Masculinity. Carolina: Duke University Press

bell hooks. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press

Kate Millett. (1969). Sexual Politics. Columbia: Columbia University Press

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate

Adrienne Rich. (1979). On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

Adrienne Rich. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.

Ntozake Shange. (1982). Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo. New York: Picador

Karen Tongson. (2005). Lesbian Aesthetics, Aestheticizing Lesbianism. IN Nineteenth Century Literature

Mary Wollstonecraft. (1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

 

Dispatches from the Margins: On Women, Race, and Class

A brief foreword: this is my third dispatch from the margins – the first and second of my personal reflective essays on feminist movement building are available here. This one is dedicated to Jo & Cath Planet, and Siân Steans – women who are there for other women in every way that matters. I’d also like to thank Liz Kelly for opening my eyes to the ways in which power can be used, and the responsibilities that come with its accumulation.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.


Writing is really a way of thinking – not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet. ― Toni Morrison

Eternal Sunshine

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

My relationship with the feminist movement is struggling. I feel like this truth might make tough reading for some of the women who attach significance to my voice, but in a way that makes sharing it all the more necessary. I have no desire to be placed upon a feminist pedestal. Therefore, I am resistant to having my reputation as an essayist or feminist theorist obscure the aspects of my life which are too messy to fit within the limits of public expectations. Please don’t read anything I have written and imagine that I have all the answers to any set of questions – I’m a low-functioning depressive trying to negotiate a range of ongoing problems; “just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind.” It’s tempting to buy into the vision behind the public expectations placed upon me, of this intellectual Amazon who fears nothing and gets shit done, but it would also be deeply dishonest.

Everything good that I’ve said or done came from a place of uncertainty, which is the home of radical possibility. I never imagined that Sister Outrider would go this far, or I’d have written it anonymously. At the time of starting out it was inconceivable that women around the world would read my words and engage with my ideas – it seemed infinitely more likely that nobody would be interested in my perspective. It never fails to surprise me when women assume that I began this blog with a belief in the importance of my own words or ideas. That belief never did materialise, although I am now confident of the instinct that tells me what to examine. Which is why it’s possible to write all of the following…

There needs to be scope for women to explore the lows as well as the highs of practicing feminism – in particular, space for women marginalised through race, class, and sexuality to address problems created in our lives when the women who have more power than we do decide to wield it against us. Those exchanges are painful and demanding, but without them the women who ought to be centred within feminism end up pushed to the margins or growing so alienated that they leave the movement altogether. I have watched women with good hearts, sharp minds, and highly relevant critiques leave the feminist movement when the women holding the lion’s share of power refuse to hear them.

Radical feminists pride ourselves on being women who speak truth to power, and rightly so – but so much of what is good about our movement breaks down when women among our ranks are the power to whom truth must be spoken, when those women refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of critiques directed towards them. As a result, racism and classism flourish within the British feminist movement. It’s soul-destroying to watch a movement that is supposed to be about women’s liberation recreate the same hierarchies we’re meant to be dismantling – hierarchies with real, damaging consequences for women around the world.

When I first started to engage with radical feminist communities, I dared to let myself hope that I had finally found my tribe. Growing up a biracial Black girl in Scotland (a country whiter than a thousand packets’ worth of Uncle Ben’s rice) was an incredibly isolating experience. Add a large dose of mental illness and irrepressible lesbian tendencies to the mix, and we have ourselves a black sheep. There was never a context in which I fully belonged, or so the world told me on a daily basis. And then, as a young woman, I found this glorious, mismatched set of women who wanted to escape the elaborate pink prison society trapped us in – a prison called gender – and dismantle it brick by brick.

Radical feminist spaces nurtured my ideas and pushed me irreversibly down the path of liberation politics. I have made lasting friendships within these communities, forged connections with women I am honoured to call sister. I have also been hurt repeatedly by women behaving in ways incompatible with feminist values: white women who caucasityweaponise racism against me, white women who expose me to graphic racism because they wish to capitalise on my response, white women acting as though anti-racist politics must come at the expense of my commitment to feminism, white women treating women of colour like tokens instead of self-actualised human beings, white women approaching women of colour as a handy source of progressive ally cookies as opposed to valued comrades in political struggle, white women who don’t see race because acknowledging it would complicate their feminist utopia (remember how Charlotte Perkins Gilman casually endorsed white supremacy and eugenics in Herland?), and white women using sisterhood to claim that women of colour addressing all of this racism are the real problem because undermining solidarity between women. It’s exhausting. Carrying all this on a daily basis is mentally and emotionally exhausting.

I’m out of whatever combination of optimism, energy, and naïveté led me to believe I could do anything to improve upon the dynamic of race within the feminist movement. It’s painful to admit, but I don’t actually know if a feminist movement in which women willingly divest of hierarchical power is possible anymore. I’d like to keep believing that it is, but carrying hope around in both hands leaves you exposed and less able to defend yourself. This prolonged feeling of despair makes it very difficult for me to both reconnect with any feminist spaces and take sufficient care of my mental wellbeing. For months now I’ve been thinking about how to continue engaging with the feminist movement in a sustainable way, and there is no obvious answer. My relationship with feminism is struggling because of racism, because of that barely concealed disdain straight women reserve for lesbians, because of the spectacular array of cruelties visited upon women who voice truths inconvenient to the wider (and whiter) feminist movement.

We can rise up from our screwups, failures, and falls, but we can never go back to where we stood before we were brave or before we fell. Courage transforms the emotional structure of our being. This change often brings a deep sense of loss. During the process of rising, we sometimes find ourselves homesick for a place that no longer exists. We want to go back to that moment before we walked into the arena, but there’s nowhere to go back to. What makes this more difficult is that now we have a new level of awareness about what it means to be brave. We can’t fake it anymore. We now know when we’re showing up and when we’re hiding out, when we are living our values and when we are not… Straddling the tension that lies between wanting to go back to the moment before we risked and fell and being pulled forward to even greater courage is an inescapable part of rising strong. – Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I want to repair my relationship with feminism. This movement – the project of liberation – is everything to me. Feminism isn’t something I can simply put down or let go of – it has filtered through into every aspect of my life, shaped my way of being, and changed how I engage with the world for the better. I want to get back to a place where I feel like part of something so much bigger than myself, linked with women around the world in purpose. How to do that remains unclear. There is no way to undo knowledge or experience, so I can’t find a stronger connection with the feminist movement by going backwards. Instead I must locate a path onwards, even if I must build it from nothing. Zadie Smith once wrote that “you are never stronger than when you land on the other side of despair” – and the place beyond despair is my eventual destination, even while the route remains unknown.

I’ve asked an assortment of friends who are seasoned feminists what brings them back to the movement, and each of them speaks of a connectedness that eludes me – a way of finding joy in women, the unexpected and delightful moments opened up by practicing feminist principles, or an act of resistance bringing about results. And while all of these experiences – especially shared connection with women – are uplifting, they no longer keep me tethered to the movement after so many repeated onslaughts of racism and cruelty.

Bojack 5

Bojack Horseman

For months on end I had this recurring fantasy of driving a blade into one of my arteries, of the profound calm that would descend as I lost blood – a sense of euphoria better than having your first orgasm or the last slice of pizza. The reality would, I expect, be far more panicked and utterly horrible. Yet the idea grew into a fixation. These are what healthcare professionals refer to, through the veil of euphemism, as “intrusive thoughts.” Though it scared me, this vision appeared so vividly and frequently that it felt like a permanent fixture in my mental terrain (mental being the operative word). It has now been a month since this scenario appeared in my mind. It has now been a month since I last participated in Facebook, Twitter, or any feminist space. That doesn’t feel coincidental. I share this information to remind women that their conduct in feminist spaces, digital or material, has an impact on other women. Damage done may manifest in a whole variety of ways, not all of which are necessarily linked to mental illness. The degree of impact will differ from woman to woman, because some of us are coming from a stronger place than others.

Being in contact with feminist spaces where cruelty was not only permissible but actively encouraged has contributed to the decline of my mental health. There are at least two dozen women in my life who have, in one way or another, been damaged by toxic practice in feminist spaces. This problem is widespread and threatens the very foundations of our movement. It’s one of those things we never talk about, how cruelty and dominance have found a home in radical feminism. Fear has created a layer of silence around this problem, perhaps because so many women are afraid to acknowledge the extent to which toxic practices have been normalised within feminist space. Another part of that reluctance stems from women’s fear – particularly white women’s fear – of considering what it means to be the oppressor, and not the oppressed, in any political analysis. There is a false kind of safety in feminism which looks only at the hierarchy of gender, as it protects white middle class feminists from having to do the difficult work of critical self-examination and unearthing truths that are less than flattering.

White women seem to take the phrase ‘white feminism’ very personally, but it is at once everything and nothing to do with them. It’s not about women, who are feminists, who are white. It’s about women espousing feminist politics as they buy into the politics of whiteness, which at its core are exclusionary, discriminatory and structurally racist.

 

For those who identify as feminist, but have never questioned what it means to be white, it is likely that the phrase white feminism applies. Those who perceive every critique of white-dominated politics to be an attack on them as a white person are probably part of the problem. – Reni Eddo Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Feminist consciousness is a process, not a destination, which lasts women a whole lifetime. There is no end point to feminist consciousness: developing it involves effort, critical self-reflection, and a willingness to divest of whatever advantages we hold as a result of structural power imbalances. In short, as feminists we can always learn more – especially from the women we are arrogant enough to believe have nothing to teach us – and grow from that knowledge.

It is essential that we as feminists are prepared to give up a position of dominance to ensure the liberation of all women and girls. Exploring the full implications of what it means to belong to any dominant political class is not comfortable work, but confronting those difficult truths is necessary work. It’s important to remember, however hard it may feel, that unlearning a prejudice is a minor inconvenience in comparison to being subjected to that prejudice. For feminism to be truly radical, for feminism to succeed as a liberation movement, we must consistently go to the root of structural inequalities.

women race classNo practice which upholds the hierarchies of race and class can be described as radical, let alone feminist. Feminism is a political movement aiming to bring about the liberation of all women and all girls, not merely the white and middle class. However, there is a persistent strain of what masquerades as radical feminism – led by women who are predominantly white, middle class, and heterosexual – which aims to dismantle the gendered inequalities experienced by certain women whilst clinging to the privileges brought to them by hierarchies of race and class. It ought to go without saying that weaponising racism and classism against women who hold less social power than you do is a fundamental contradiction of feminist principles, yet this pattern of behaviour is rife within the British feminist movement.

This strain of white middle class feminism cherry picks which oppressions to challenge and which to enact on the basis of self-interest. The sad irony is that all oppressions share the common root of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. It is impossible to eradicate misogyny when you’re holding onto racism and classism with all of your strength.

Sisterhood is love and solidarity in action. Sisterhood is rejecting mean-girl cliques. Sisterhood calls out and calls in. Sisterhood is quiet, tender, loud, and joyful. Sisterhood is hard. Sisterhood is rewarding. Sisterhood is leading with love and letting go when love’s lost. Sisterhood is celebrating womanhood in all of its forms and facets.Crunk Feminist Collective

Periodically I am asked what I consider to be the biggest challenge facing feminists today. The answer is this: the dogmatic tribalism of white middle class feminists shielding each other from being held accountable for their hierarchical race and class politics. For women who claim to oppose “identity politics”, they participate in those politics frequently, abandoning reason and empathy both in order to protect women sharing their privileged identities from being challenged in any meaningful way. That Lean In brand of feminism, all about advancing the interests of comparatively privileged women at the expense of less powerful women, acts as a barrier not only to solidarity between all women but to the radical thoughts and deeds essential to liberation politics. It has to stop.

This total absence of critical self-reflection, enabled by a politics of individualism that is the antithesis of collective struggle, means that oppressive practices are imported from the mainstream into the allegedly radical. Gaining power has superseded liberation as their objective, meaning that those white middle class women who consider racism and classism legitimate extensions of their feminist practice are a threat – both to the feminist movement, and to women who hold less socioeconomic power than they do. These women sneer at any feminist analysis which addresses privilege precisely because that feminist analysis challenges the hierarchies from which their own power stems.

Where we are positioned in relation to power is not always static, and often determined by context. A nuanced analysis of power is central to feminist critiques of patriarchy – pretending that any hierarchy is somehow not relevant to or worth addressing within our analysis of power is an exercise in self-defeat. As feminists, we’re fighting in resistance to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – a system of power which Patricia Hill Collins describes it quite succinctly as a matrix of domination. Hierarchies of race, class, and gender are interlocking, interdependent, and fundamentally connected.

Although it was forged though being relentlessly Othered, I believe that never having an walls angela davisinherent sense of belonging has ultimately served me well; it is for this reason that I am usually open to the possibility of connection with women who are different to me, whether this difference means that they hold more power than I do, less power than I do, or something close to parity. As is often the case when one is visibly Other, learning to use difference creatively has been essential to my survival. Being positioned on the fringes of groups in which I have some level of belonging also gives me a handy vantage point – my eyes are drawn to common causes, sites where coalitions may be built between people marginalised in various ways. The authenticity of my ways of knowing the world gets challenged in pretty much every setting, meaning that it’s virtually impossible to sink into complacency and ever make the assumption that I know everything. If I had grown up taking my own belonging for granted, I very much doubt that I’d be a woman who writes or thinks in this way. Not bad, as silver linings go.

To be Other on multiple counts is profoundly challenging, but it also creates rich standpoints and fertile ground for movement building. I almost wish that it were possible to bring white middle class feminists en masse to a standpoint rooted in Otherness, even briefly, so that they would be more open to empathising and connecting with those Audre Lorde knew to “stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older…” I’d like to share the joy in what Otherness makes possible with white middle class feminists because, having felt it, practicing cruelty and domination against women with less power would be at least become harder to countenance. Replicating hierarchies would, perhaps, lose its appeal if a true vision of radical alternatives could be witnessed. Or maybe that’s foolish talk. Either way, I’m glad it’s a hypothetical scenario – if white middle class feminists chose cruelty and dominance over kindness and connection, it would crush what hope I have left for this movement.


Bibliography

Brené Brown . (2015). Rising Strong: The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution

Nathan Connolly (ed.). (2017). Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class

Brittney C. Cooper, Susana M. Morris, & Robin M. Boylorn. (2016). The Crunk Feminist Collection

Reni Eddo-Lodge. (2017).  Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Audre Lorde. (1979). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Patricia Hill Collins. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment

Zadie Smith. (2000). White Teeth

Dispatches from the Margins: Depression & Digital Detox

A brief foreword: this is my second dispatch from the margins (read the first here & the third here), and this essay is dedicated to Moon for inspiring it. Also for being a really good friend.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.


I deleted Twitter and Facebook. To 99.9999999% of the world’s population, my absence is irrelevant. To a small pocket of the feminist movement, my absence holds some level of significance. My mum was a bit surprised, because there were times when the only way I could have spent longer with my phone was if it had been surgically attached to my hand, but she was also pleased for exactly that reason. So other than a few feminists and my mum it’s unlikely that many people are really bothered. Still, there have been quite a few messages asking a) where I went b) if I’m well c) when I’m coming back – enough that I’ve decided to share some thoughts on the matter.

The first point to make is that I have a debilitating combination of depression and anxiety. I’m sick. Mental illness continuously shapes how I move through the world. That doesn’t always filter through the bright and shiny lens of social media where, even if we consciously attempt to resist building an idealised narrative around ourselves, only the good parts of our lives are consistently visible to others. On Twitter I tried to communicate some of the realities of how mental illness impacts my life without undermining my own privacy. It’s hard to gauge how successful that was. But I stopped performing wellness, because Screenshot_20170525-233335.jpgmaking mental illness invisible contributes to a culture of shame – it’s what leads people to conceal their problems rather than seeking help. But something shifted. My mental health declined. Twitter is all about communication, sharing thoughts and ideas. And there were nights when all I could think of, the only idea that presented itself, was suicide. Which, even in that state, I realised Tweeting about probably wasn’t the best plan. I’d retweet the @SoSadToday Twitter account in the hope of conveying no more than a socially acceptable level of despair.

Social media isn’t a great environment when you’re feeling fragile. Too many engagements become more about confrontation than a meeting of the minds, more about likes and petty point-scoring than genuine connection. There is an abundance of cruelty in digital spaces – even the feminist ones, which is an ongoing source of dismay. How women choose to interact with women who hold less power than they do – that is the ultimate indicator of how strong their feminist politics hold. Altogether too often, the women on the margins of the feminist movement are considered unworthy recipients of kindness by the women at the centre of the feminist movement. This hurts to witness, and it hurts to be subject to. No feminist should be kind only to the women who have something to offer her, or the women with whom associating may prove advantageous. Maybe more women should start thinking about kindness as a form of feminist praxis.

Choose to be kind friends, choose to be kind:

Not duplicitous, not two-faced,

Not passive-aggressive, not dishonest,

Not spiteful, not cowardly anonymous.

Have good grace, bring out the best, don’t stress.

When faced with a choice, choose kindness.

– Jackie Kay, Kinder

So often women of colour contact me because they feel overwhelmed by the cruelty white women direct towards them in feminist spaces, the casualness with which racism is weaponised against them. And I try to be supportive, try to listen to their truths that have been wilfully ignored elsewhere, try to give practical advice when possible. But it breaks my heart. And it makes me angry. That anger isn’t abstract – I feel a deep rage that women of colour are treated as expendable in a movement to which we are essential. I hate that our pain is brushed off as a mild inconvenience by the very women who cause it.

Being stuck between men of colour and white women is like being trapped between a rock and a hard place – women of colour are encouraged to accept misogyny or racism as our lot in life and liberation politics, depending upon which group we’re aligned with. Men of colour are quick to assure us that whatever misogyny they subject us to is small fry in comparison to the harms white supremacy acts upon women of colour. White women fall over themselves in the rush to claim that racism is a minor issue compared to the real threat of patriarchy.

I am tentatively prepared to reach out and build solidarity with both groups, but it is a sad irony that men of colour and white women fail to grasp that they each give women of colour as little reason to trust them as the other. Both groups represent a risk as well as the potential reward of coalition building within liberation politics. It would almost be amusing that men of colour and white women both use one another as a foil to convince women of colour that they are the less bad option, were the consequences not so devastating.

The idea of a digital detox came one afternoon when I was looking at my computer screen thinking I’d rather kill myself than keep looking at social media. It felt like death would be better than get suckered back into the cesspit of cruelty that white middle class feminists enact to avoid being held accountable for their racism or classism. Which is probably a disproportionate response but, as we have established, mental illness manifests in messy ways. And then I realised there was a third way: I didn’t have to kill myself, and I didn’t have to absorb any more of the toxic practices masquerading as feminism either. I could just delete social media, distance myself from that deluge of cruelty, and spend time doing things that make life feel worthwhile. Which is exactly what I have done.

I didn’t technically go anywhere – or rather, I went to all the same places I usually do, but without posting on social media. Mostly, I’ve been in my house. I’ve knitted one and a IMG_20171228_165010_683.jpghalf scarves and crocheted just under half of a blanket. One week I went walking in the highlands, which was beautiful. Periodically I visit the local library for more books. Most days I try to fit in a walk by the river, because the writer’s lifestyle runs the risk of being sedentary. I’ve also been cooking proper meals as a form of self-care, trying to look after my body and mind both. And I’ve been present in all of those things, giving them my full focus.

Our lives have become very small, limited by the tiny size of the screens we peer down at. Sometimes the whole world and everything that’s important to us seems to be completely contained within the tiny square of glass lying in our hands.

– Tanya Goodin

FB_IMG_1493853686713.jpgThere’s something insidious about how we use scrolling through social media as a way of numbing, distracting from emotions we’d rather not experience. It’s easy to do, but sooner or later we need to pay the debt on everything that’s repressed – with interest. So instead of looking for a diversion in any of the devices I own, I’ve been sitting with those difficult things and trying to resolve or make peace with them. Mostly that’s going well. So, to answer your questions, I’m not exactly alright but I’m doing the things that are necessary to become alright.

Being online has become increasingly difficult as my profile has grown. At first, being heard on Twitter was a revelation – it was the first context where I ever felt properly seen and listened to. When we talk about race or gender politics, there’s a big risk that someone would rather gaslight than have their investment in the status quo called into question. To be brought into a space where looking directly at systems of power becomes unavoidable isn’t easy, and remaining there takes courage – not everyone is brave enough. Early experiences of being dismissed as imagining things when I talked about how racism or sexism manifested made me reluctant to do so, and it was only through developing a radically feminist consciousness that I found the conviction, vocabulary, and inclination to be a dissenting voice. The women within various radical feminist communities on Twitter were vital to that process – and so, even now, I think of Twitter fondly. But my relationship with that space is no longer so positive or straightforward. As my public visibility grows, so does the scale of expectations placed upon me. It’s disconcerting to have knowledge and skill projected onto me at times when washing or feeding myself is a profound challenge.

Screenshot_20180105-013559.jpgRecently I’ve fallen in love with Bojack Horseman. I’m currently watching it again for the third time. It’s this zany black comedy about a horse/man (there are anthropomorphised animals living alongside people – don’t ask) who was in the most popular family sitcom of the ‘90s. He skyrocketed to fame. Fast forward to the present day, and it’s immediately clear that hyper-visibility has crushed every functional aspect of Bojack’s life. The series starts with him having been out of work for seventeen years, immobilised by the twin spectres of success and failure. Bojack clings to unhealthy coping mechanisms, which makes for amusing but poignant viewing, in order to escape the pervasive sense of existential dread that follows him everywhere. The opening sequence is mesmerising. It shows us Bojack waking up in his opulent Hollywoo(d) home, moving through the film studio where he works, sliding past a glamorous premiere, reeling through a fancy after party. And with every scene change the panic in Bojack’s eyes grows increasingly more apparent.

In some respects, I find Bojack very relatable – he’s wildly depressed, which he doesn’t always handle well, and struggling to cope with the ramifications of being in the public eye. I’m a moderately popular essayist, a hyper-visible Black woman on the internet. It’s not fame, and neither would I want it to be. But anonymity is gone. I don’t get to blend in and be invisible in certain contexts, and with any degree of power comes responsibility. Margaret Atwood wrote that “a word after a word after a word is power”, which is certainly true. Words have given me power – at least, substantially more power than I had before claiming voice and publishing my work.

I try not to devolve into a performance of myself. I try, for my own sanity, to maintain boundaries between what is public and what is everyday. I try to keep my personal life and my @ClaireShrugged life in harmony, to keep balance between being Claire Heuchan and Sister Outrider, which isn’t always easy in the face of expectation. Social media and the extent to which our lives are now lived online complicates all of those objectives. It was discombobulating, the number of times I’d move from digital to analogue space and back again. Occupying digital space has given me voice, but becoming hyper-visible in digital space has to some extent distorted my sense of self. Marina Diamandis writes about this conflict with real insight:

I can’t remember when I first became conscious of it but I started to feel like there were two parts of me, artist self and private self, and there was nothing in between to link the two anymore. I was one or the other, and neither part of my personality could be present in the same environment….When one part of a personality dominates, other parts shrink and life can take on an unreal, two-dimensional quality. I felt confused as to why I no longer felt like I fit into the world I’d built.

Diamandis also wrote a song called Disconnect about the cycle of anxiety and alienation caused by reliance on social media. Her lyrics, as ever, capture a lot of relevant details about modern life. That song has basically become my anthem. I’ve switched off to look after my health and take a breath. I’m taking the space and time to recalibrate. My goal is to integrate my public/creative self with the person I am when nobody is watching, or at least find a way for the different aspects of me to complement one another. During this digital detox, I’m also trying to evaluate social media’s impact upon my mental health.

I know there’s a correlation between my wellbeing falling apart and internet usage – it’s not the reason I’m depressed or anxious, but both my depression and anxiety are exacerbated by certain elements of digital space. Twenty years from now, there will be a wide array of writing on the impact of living within a digital golden age – in particular, the effects of coming of age in a time when smart technology is omnipresent. There’s a reason Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and so many Silicon Valley executives have chosen to raise their children in tech-free environments. Kids using phones for three hours per day are significantly more likely to be suicidal, and there’s no obvious reason to believe it’s any different for adults.

At present it seems unlikely that I’ll come back to Facebook. I don’t want to be added to any more so-called radical feminist groups where cruelty is currency. Those groups are never as private as women think (I’m not even on Facebook now, yet still I ended up with receipts), and their behaviour is not without consequence – the foremost of which is harm to women with less power than them. I don’t want to watch any more of the bullshit performative dramas that certain feminists (who are mostly white/middle class/straight) wage against other feminists (who are mostly of colour/working FB_IMG_1498781060309.jpgclass/lesbian). If only a middle class woman weaponising racism and classism against her fellow feminists generated the same outrage as a working class woman using the word cunt in anger… I don’t want Facebook pressuring me to reply to messages on my Sister Outrider page at 11pm, when I’m trying to chill out and knit with my grandmother, in order to maintain an “excellent response rate.” The idea of being permanently publicly available is, frankly, horrifying. Facebook is so much needless stress. Facebook makes me feel tired and unhappy. Facebook is cancelled. The only things I’m going to miss are the depression memes and all the photos of my friends’ adorable brown babies.

I am tired of explaining

And of seeing so much hating

In the very same safe haven

Where I used to just see helping.

– Amanda Palmer, Bigger on the Inside

As for Twitter, I’ll come back when I’m good and ready. There was some joy on that site, and meaning in the connections I made there. There was also a lot of messed up shit. Last year there was a police investigation into the abuse I received following my first article in the Guardian – some of it was Tweets, some of it was comments left on this blog. There is one particular memory that stands out: crying silently as I printed out the abuse at the request of the two officers who visited the house, praying my grandmother wouldn’t come into the room and see any of the words in front of me. I’d put all the relevant screenshots into a file, thinking I could just email it to the police, but apparently their system wasn’t up to that. So I printed them all out, one by one. Not going to lie: that was a traumatic experience. After that day it was impossible to go on deluding myself that the digital and the physical worlds could be kept at a safe distance from one another; that online abuse didn’t seep into my everyday life.

I love Book Twitter, Black Twitter, and Gay Twitter far too much for this goodbye to be final. But my way of being on Twitter will have to change somehow, when the time comes. It can’t absorb so much of me when I have so little to give. There were two FB_IMG_1497130315418.jpginstances last year when I could have met with feminist friends from other countries and had to cancel at the last minute because I’d shifted from passively to actively suicidal. Both times I was honest about being ill, if not the exact nature of the problem. Is there a polite shorthand for “sorry to flake on you, but I’m trying really hard not to kill myself and need to remain in a safe, controlled environment until this feeling passes”, or is that wishful thinking? Sometimes literally all of my energy has to go on not self-harming. Last summer I made a series of desperate calls to suicide prevention hotlines. Things got bad. Each time the person on the other end would talk me down, explaining that my family and friends would not, in fact, be better off if I died. At the time I’d thought it was just a natural dip in my mental health, which has been completely destabilised since my grandfather died in 2016, but one factor behind these oscillations is caused by being hyper-visible in digital space.

There are those who probably worry I’m exposing vulnerable parts of myself. And they’re right. Those same women probably think this is unwise in a time when so much hostility is being directed towards those of us who practice a feminism that seeks to dismantle every facet of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. And possibly they’re right about that too. Maybe not, though – I think part of the problem within digital feminist spaces is how quickly some forget (or ignore) the humanity of women whose questions take them to uncomfortable places of critical reflection. There are layers of contradictory meanings, different stories told to different women, levels of duplicity that need to be weeded out and replaced with radical honesty. The only way to enact a lasting, meaningful change is to be part of it, so this is my truth: I’m mentally unstable and heartsick over cruelty.

A number of feminist friends have been in touch since my digital departure. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg tells us, no actual friendship needs Facebook. The comments of one friend in particular (you know her as @Bigoldsupermoon) stayed with me. We were texting one afternoon, slagging off the commercialised idea of wellness that wealthy white women sell – the steamed vaginas and at-home coffee enema kits that make up Gwyneth Paltrow’s unfortunate cultural legacy. And then a notification came through. I’d turned off notifications for every app, save WordPress, and couldn’t help but be curious: the alert showed me that someone had linked to my blog at the words “crazy lesbian”, a description entirely more accurate than the OP realised. He went on to argue that, owing to the Bible and Qur’an, “we can also conclude through divine law that feminism is a Satanic doctrine.” I know I shouldn’t read any of this trash, but it was actually quite nice – I hadn’t felt that comparatively sane for months.

Anyway, Moon suggested that I write about the blesbiarchy – her term for my flavour of

FB_IMG_1506421298442.jpgBlack lesbian feminism – through the lens of mental illness and self-care. Moon is basically a genius. The idea stayed with me, as all ideas that demand to be written into being do. I’ve put together a little playlist to go with it, songs that I’ve had on loop through this digital detox.

 


  1. Disconnect, by Clean Bandit (feat. Marina and the Diamonds)
  2. Enjoy the Silence, by Depeche Mode
  3. Bigger on the Inside, by Amanda Palmer
  4. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, by Bessie Smith
  5. Mama Said, by Dusty Springfield
  6. Uncomfortable, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  7. Fatal Gift, by Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton
  8. Fade Together, by Franz Ferdinand
  9. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, by Nina Simone

 


Bibliography

Marina Diamandis. (2017). It Takes a Long Time to Get Over Yourself

Tanya Goodin. (2017). OFF. Your Digital Detox for a Better Life

Jackie Kay, ed. (2017). Ten Poems of Kindness