Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy

A brief foreword: this is the fifth essay in my series on sex, gender, and sexuality. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are available here on Sister Outrider. With this essay, I challenge the notion that gender can be repurposed as anything other than a hierarchy. This one is dedicated to E, a stellar lesbian and feminist.


 

“It is impossible to name and act against oppression if there are no nameable oppressors.” – Mary Daly

What is Gender?

Gender is a fiction created by patriarchy, a hierarchy imposed by men to ensure their dominance over women. The idea of a gender binary was established in order to justify the subordination of women by positioning our oppression by men as a natural state of affairs, the result of how characteristics innately held by men and women manifest. Framing gender as natural not only serves to depoliticise the hierarchy, but uses essentialism in order to convince women that radical resistance to gender – the means of our oppression – is futile. Hopelessness breeds apathy, which undermines social change more effectively than any overt challenge. If abolishing gender (and therefore dismantling patriarchy) is an unobtainable goal, women have no choice but to accept our status as second-class citizens of the world. To treat gender as inherent is to accept a patriarchal blueprint for the design of society.

gender imageGender is a hierarchy that enables men to be dominant and conditions women into subservience. As gender is a fundamental element of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984) it is particularly disconcerting to see elements of queer discourse argue that gender is not only innately held but sacrosanct. Far from being a radical alternative to the status quo, the project of “queering” gender only serves to replicate the standards set by patriarchy through its essentialism. A queer understanding of gender does not challenge patriarchy in any meaningful way – rather than encouraging people to resist the standards set by patriarchy, it offers them a way to embrace it. Queer politics have not challenged traditional gender roles so much as breathed fresh life into them – therein lies the danger.

To argue that gender could or should be “queered” is to lose sight of how gender functions as a system of oppression. Hierarchies cannot, by definition, be assimilated into the politics of liberation. Structural power imbalances cannot be subverted out of existence – reducing gender to a matter of performativity or personal identification denies its practical function as a hierarchy. Any ideology which flagrantly disregards gender as the method of women’s oppression cannot be described as feminist – indeed, as queer ideology remains largely uncritical of the power disparity behind sexual politics, it is anti-woman.

The logic of gender identity is fundamentally flawed, resting on the premise that gender is innately held. As feminists have argued for decades, gender is socially constructed – a fabrication designed to grant men dominion over women. The upbringing of children, 1600-Genderbread-Persongendered even before birth, serves to divide the sexes into a dominant and subservient class. Feminism recognises that biological sex exists while opposing essentialism, opposing the idea that sex dictate who or what we are capable of being as humans. Feminism asserts that our character, qualities, and personality are not defined by whether we are male or female. Conversely, queer theory argues that one set of traits is inherently masculine and another set of traits is inherently feminine, and our identity is dependent on how we align with those traits.

 

Instead of acknowledging that there are multitudes of ways to be a man or a woman, queer theory pigeonholes people into an ever-increasing range of categories organised by stereotype. There is no scientific evidence to support the existence of gendered brains, and claims of inherently gendered brains are the product of neurosexism (Fine, 2010). Yet queer ideology positions gender as an innately held identity, claiming that gender “is what you feel.”

“The manacles of a lifetime of cultural conditioning that has tried to convince me that gender is a biological fact rather than a social construct are more difficult to shake off than I would like.” – Louise O’Neill, I Call Myself A Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty

The Trouble with Gender Identity

Despite its essentialism, the queer understanding of gender has grown increasingly mainstream within progressive and feminist spaces. It is not difficult to understand why. Gender ideology acknowledges that a binary of male and female gender roles are restrictive for individuals, but instead of advocating the extensive work required to dismantle the hierarchy of gender, it offers a far easier solution: an individual opt-out clause that enables people to make peace with patriarchy. To embrace gender ideology is to embrace a narrative of exceptionalism. To embrace gender ideology is to accept that there is a class of people naturally suited to their position within the hierarchy of gender (be it oppressed or oppressor), and a class of people who are exceptions to the traditional rules of gender.

There is a fundamental problem with queer gender ideology. As I have previously written, that problem is misogyny. To claim certain groups are naturally suited to the gender role imposed upon their sex category – “cis” people – is to endorse misogyny. The women categorised as cis, by the logic of gender identity, are inherently suited to being oppressed by men. The whole system of patriarchy is therefore whitewashed by gender ideology, presented as a natural occurrence as opposed to a system of oppression built to grant men dominion over women.

As queer identity politics are built around a narrative of exceptionalism, the power dynamics of sexual politics to be ignored altogether. Through the linguistic twist of “cis”, women’s oppression is reframed as a privilege and therefore the liberation of “cis” women from patriarchal oppression ceases to be a priority. Sexual politics are negated by self-identification, through which membership of a sex class is rendered politically invisible.

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“So many genders and yet we still know, magically, which half of the human race is expected to wipe arses and scrub floors.” – Victoria Smith, @glosswitch

 

Gender is a prison, and I have compassion for everyone constricted by it. It is abhorrent that men are discouraged from empathy, kindness, and creative self-expression.  There is real cruelty in socialising boys into masculinity. That being said, there is a connection between gender ideology and the laundering of male privilege that demands scrutiny.

This issue is exemplified by the case of Ben Hopkins, one half of the punk duo PWR BTTM. Hopkins is biologically male and, as such, was socialised into masculinity. Like a great many famous persons who are biologically male, Hopkins exploited his fame and power to sexually abuse female fans. According to one of his victims, Hopkins is a “known sexual predator who has perpetrated multiple assaults, bullied other people in the queer community, and has made unwanted advances towards underage minors.” What allegedly sets Hopkins apart from a longstanding tradition of powerful male abusers is that he identifies as genderqueer. As such, queer perspective would have it that Hopkins’ actions cannot be considered male violence against women. Queer exceptionalism as it manifests through the logic of gender identity makes it impossible to name or challenge male violence as such.

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Statement from Survivor

Men are taught from birth that they are entitled to women’s time, women’s attention, women’s love, women’s energy, and women’s bodies. Yet, in accordance with the logic of gender ideology, unfortunate yet random as opposed to a likely consequence of the gendered socialisation men receive in patriarchal society. Despite identifying as genderqueer, the sexual violence Hopkins enacted against women with dramatically less social power than him follows perfectly the logic of masculinity. In what sense can a man who carries out the most toxic behaviour rooted in masculinity claim to be queering or resisting gender?

As his actions make clear, Hopkins has not consciously unlearned male socialisation or entitlement to women’s bodies. How Hopkins chooses to identify has little bearing upon the grim reality of the situation. Yet in claiming the label of genderqueer, Hopkins attempted to erase the male privilege from which he continued to benefit. Writing for Feminist Current, Jen Izaakson clearly articulates the paradox of Hopkins claiming to queer gender:

“…Hopkins used glitter, eyeliner, and vintage dresses to demonstrate an understanding of and adherence to queer ideals, to illustrate a rejection of “toxic masculinity” and the gender norms socially ascribed to males. But wearing flowery dresses and lip gloss does not necessarily lead to an actual rejection of the male entitlement and male dominance of men under patriarchy. By centering self-defined identities, individual expression, and performativity, instead of scrutinizing male violence and unequal systems of power, queer discourse has allowed misogyny easy access to the party.”

Similarly, trans activist Cherno Biko (born male) openly confessed to raping a transman (born female) with the fantasy and intention of impregnating them against their will.  Despite having publicly acknowledged committing sexual abuse, Biko was invited to speak on stage at the Women’s March in Washington and served as Co-Chair of the Young Women’s Advisory Council for New York City. This raises questions not only about the apparent lack of accountability for sexual abuse within feminist spaces, but also the extent to which progressive political movements are prepared to overlook instances of violence against women if the perpetrator identifies as transgender or genderqueer.

Acts of violence against women are both cause and consequence of patriarchy, and they are normalised by the logic of gender. Gender ideology disregards the power disparity of sexual politics – a hierarchy instituted through gender itself – and instead considers gender purely as a matter of self-identification. The queer perspective deliberately individualises the issue of identity in order to depoliticise gender, thereby avoiding difficult questions about power and patriarchy.

We are told that gender is a deeply personal matter and therefore, as all good liberals know, not to be scrutinised. Yet research demonstrates that transwomen retained a male pattern regarding criminality following sex reassignment surgery, and that the same was true regarding violent crime.” Given that one in three women will experience male violence in her lifetime, this is no small matter: 96% of people who commit acts of sexual violence are biologically male. The safety of women and girls is never an acceptable price to pay, not even in the name of inclusion. Masculine socialisation plays a demonstrable role in shaping attitude and behaviour – if women cannot name the violence we experience or identify the system that makes it possible, we cannot challenge it.

“When Simone de Beauvoir wrote that a girl is not born a woman but rather becomes one, she did not mean that an individual born into the male sex, socialised into the expectation of the masculine gender, can simply decide to take hormones and maybe have surgery and ‘become a woman’.”Dame Jenni Murray

Through the lens of gender identity, the oppressor may shed his male privilege and claim the status of oppressed. Through the lens of gender identity, the oppressed may also reject the grounds of their oppression by means of self-identification. Gender ideology aims to repurpose a hierarchy as an identity. Unfortunately, one cannot simply opt out of an oppression that is structural and systematic in nature – although queer discourse presents this as a legitimate route to women. Man is the default standard of humanity, with woman relegated to “Other” – defined purely in relation to men (Beauvoir, 1949). Is it no wonder that a growing number of women, dissatisfied by the limitations imposed by the feminine gender role and conscious that self-actualised human beings are more than the hollow stereotype of femininity, cease to identify as women.

Instead of identifying the feminine gender role as the problem, and working to dismantle the hierarchy of gender, women are encouraged to stop identifying as such if they behave or feel as human beings do. Instead of giving women the tools to unlearn internalised misogyny, gender ideology encourages them to disown womanhood and claim to be individual exceptions to the rule of gender. Through positioning full humanity and womanhood as being mutually exclusive, gender ideology invites women to participate in I’m-Not-Like-Other-Girls: Queer Edition.

It is understandable that women are eager to escape the feminine gender role – indeed, women’s liberation from the hierarchy of gender is a core feminist objective. But the feminist movement advocates the liberation of all women from all forms of oppression, not simply the liberation of those who believe their individual oppression through gender is wrong – those who “don’t aspire to any kind of womanhood.”

The Homophobia of Queering Gender

gay liberationDespite talk of queer community, an alliance between members of the LGBT+ alphabet soup, homophobia has always been at the root of queer politics. Queer ideology emerged as backlash to lesbian feminist principles, which advocated radical social change through the transformation of personal lives (Jeffreys, 2003). The political interests of lesbian women and marginalised gay men – primarily the abolition of gender roles – were dismissed within queer spheres. Individualism precluding any concentrated focus on feminist and gay liberation politics, which queer discourse began to describe as old-fashioned, dull, or anti-sex.

In recent years, this derision has escalated into openly anti-gay sentiment. Attempts to erase lesbian women and gay men are now standard practice within a queer setting. In an opinion piece that questions whether lesbian identity can “survive the gender revolution”, Shannon Keating claims that lesbian and gay sexualities are obsolete:

“Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?”

There is a persistent strain of homophobia within gender ideology. It manifests so regularly because that homophobia is woven into queer gender politics. Same-sex attraction is relentlessly problematised because it acknowledges both the existence of biological sex and its significance in determining the potential for attraction – a contradiction of the claim that gender, not sex, is the defining unit of identity.

Earlier this year Juno Dawson, author of The Gender Games, claimed that being a gay man was merely a “consolation prize” for those unprepared to opt into a life of transwomanhood. Prior to transition, Dawson lived and loved as a gay man – therefore, it is particularly troubling that Dawson proclaimed homosexuality to be anything less than worthy of respect and recognition as legitimate. Dawson positioned life as a gay man as an inferior alternative, a poor substitute, for repressed transwomanhood. When gay men and lesbian women objected to this homophobia, Dawson delivered a non-apology which hit upon a fundamental truth about the politics of gender identity and sexuality: “Lots of trans men and women previously lived as gay men or lesbians prior to transition so I think it’s a really important thing to discuss…”

It is wildly regressive to argue that gay men are really unfulfilled women on the inside. By that logic, only the most straight and toxic of masculinities is authentically male. And if gay men are really straight transwomen, there is no such thing as gay men. Homosexuality has been ‘cured’ – an agenda that traditionally belonged to social conservatives, but can now be found within queer ideology. And it is not coincidence that so many of those who choose to undergo surgical or medical transition are gay men or lesbian women who, upon undertaking transition, live as heterosexuals. In Iran, where same-sex relationships are punishable by death, clerics are prepared to “accept the idea that a person may be trapped in a body of the wrong sex.”

Gender ideology is fundamentally conservative. It is based on the premise that gender roles are absolute, that those who stray from the gender role ascribed to their sex must belong to another category. Lesbian women and gay men defy the gender roles simply by loving someone of the same sex, by deviating from the heteropatriarchal patterns of dominance to create a sexual politics of equality. If we are transitioned into heterosexuality, into compliance with gender roles, we are made to conform to the gender roles mapped out by patriarchy.

Nobody is born in the wrong body. A body cannot, by definition, be wrong. The system of gender, on the other hand, is wrong in every way. Problematising bodies as opposed to the hierarchy which confines them only replicates the destructive ideology at the heart of patriarchy. It is an upside-down approach to the politics of liberation, misguided at best and complicit with patriarchy at worst.

Conclusion

Critiquing gender ideology is strongly discouraged – I suspect this is because the more one explores the queer perspective of gender, the more apparent its misogyny and homophobia become. Once the progressive veneer begins to crack – once it grows clear that gender ideology is at best complacent about patriarchy and the harms patriarchy visits upon women – queer politics become much harder to sell to the general populace.

fuck gr

And so those feminists who do question gender ideology are branded bigots, the criticisms and those women brave enough to make them rendered illegitimate. Women who question gender ideology are derided as TERFs – we are told time and time again that their only motive in critiquing gender is malice, as opposed to meaningful concern for the well-being of women and girls. To that, I echo the words of Mary Shelley: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Any attempt to discourage women from addressing our oppression is deeply suspect.

Gender ideology creates a false dichotomy of people who are innately bound to traditional gender roles and those exceptional few who are not. Gender politics are the most elaborate and harmful example of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Why queer gender when we can abolish it? Why waste energy trying to subvert oppressive practice when we can do away with it altogether?

Woman is a sex class – nothing more, nothing less. Man is a sex class – nothing more, nothing less. To claim the scope of our identity is defined by the gender role pressed onto our sex class is to legitimise the project of patriarchy. As a feminist, as a woman, I reject queer politics and the gender ideology it advocates. Instead, I argue that women and men living outside of the script set by gender – be it the queer or patriarchal classifications – should be embraced as revolutionaries. Only through the abolition of gender can we achieve true liberation.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex.

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.

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

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

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics.

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

Cherríe Moraga & Gloria E. Anzaldúa (eds.). (1981). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

Bonnie J. Morris. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture.

Victoria Pepe (ed.). (2015). I Call Myself A Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. More Radical with Age.

 

 

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For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity

A brief foreword: this is the conclusion to my series of essays on race and the feminist movement. Parts 1, 2, and 3 can all be accessed here. The following knowledge was acquired at great personal expense. Use it how you will. Dedicated to every woman – Black, brown, and white – who has sustained me through sisterhood.


Whenever I discuss racism in the feminist movement, this question is invariably asked as a result: white women wonder “what, specifically, can I do about racism? How can I create solidarity with women of colour?” It’s a complicated question, which I have been considering closely for over a year now, and there is no one simple answer. Instead, there are many answers, of which none are static and all of which are liable to shift in relation to context. The reality of the situation is that there is no quick fix solution for the hundreds of years’ worth of racism – racism upon which our society was built, its hierarchies of wealth and power established – that shape the dynamic between women of colour and white women. That imbalance of power and privilege colours personal interactions. It creates the layers of justifiable mistrust that women of colour feel towards white women – even (perhaps especially) in a feminist context.

Altering that dynamic in which race exists only as a hierarchy, building sustainable forms of solidarity between women, is going to require persistent self-reflection, effort, and a willingness on the part of white women to change their approach. Here is my perspective on the practical steps white women can take to challenge their own racism, held consciously and subconsciously, in the hope that it will create the potential for them to offer real sisterhood to women of colour.

“The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.”
Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

Acknowledge the differences brought about by race. Do not define women of colour by our respective ethnicities. Equally, do not pretend our lives are the same as yours. Not seeing race means not seeing racism. Not seeing racism means allowing it to flourish, unchecked. Start by recognising our humanity, seeing women of colour as self-actualised people with insight, powers of critical thought, and – that which is most often neglected in this conversation – feelings. Begin with examining how you think about women of colour, and build from there.

Gatekeeping and Authority

Many problems are perpetuated by white women positioning themselves as gatekeepers of feminist discourse, authorities uniquely qualified to determine what is and is not Proper Feminism. It is no coincidence that women of colour’s contributions, in particular commentaries addressing racism or white privilege, are frequently dismissed as a distraction from the main feminist concern, i.e. issues which have a directly negative impact upon white women.

The tacit assumption that a white woman’s perspective is more legitimate than ours, more informed, that if women of colour simply learned more about a particular issue then our outlook too would become nuanced, is persistent. Underpinning that assumption is the belief that white women are the guiding experts of the feminist movement, women of colour in a position of subservience. The same situation unfolds in the context of class politics, with working class women dismissed as uninformed when their feminist perspectives do not align with those of middle class women. Reinforcing these hierarchies is the greatest hindrance to solidarity between women.

White women have a habit of arbitrating what is and is not feminist in a way that centres white womanhood, positions it as the normative standard against which female experience is measured. If white womanhood is standard, Black and brown womanhood become deviant forms by definition – a paradigm which contributes to women of colour being Othered.

Feminism is a political movement devoted to the liberation of women from oppression. Some of that oppression is gendered. Some of it is racialised. Some of it is class-based. Some of it relates to sexuality. Some of it concerns disability. And within these categories, there is always the potential for overlap. A failure to acknowledge the intersection of identities ensures that the most marginalised women will continue to be oppressed – not a feminist objective by any set of standards. Responding with “this isn’t your moment, guys” when women of colour address racism is a direct contradiction of feminist principles. Expecting women of colour to remain silent for the greater good, i.e. for the benefit of white women, is not an inherently feminist act. The idea that there is a time and place for acknowledging a form of oppression experienced by women undermined the principles upon which the feminist movement is built. White women need to stop derailing critiques of racism and instead listen to what women of colour have to say on the subject.

There is an unfortunate pattern of white women framing themselves as the enlightened saviours, men of colour as savage oppressors, and women of colour as passive victims of an oppression stemming purely from men falling within our own ethnic group. This model acknowledges that women of colour experience gendered violence whilst simultaneously erasing the racialised oppression to which we are subject. Furthermore, it denies the reality of white women belonging to an oppressor class – a deft and disingenuous manoeuvre that absolves white women of their role in maintaining systematic racism. If the problem of racism does not exist, it need not be discussed. If racism is not discussed, white women may continue to benefit from it unimpeded.

For inter-racial solidarity to exist within the feminist movement, the question of ownership must be addressed. Time and time again, white women behave as though the feminist movement is their exclusive property, something with which women of colour may join in but never lead in establishing discourse or action. This approach not only erases the crucial role women of colour have historically played in the feminist movement, but denies the possibility for future collaborative efforts to occur on an equal footing.

White women who want trust and solidarity with women of colour must first consider how they position women of colour in their minds, how they conceptualise us – do you see us as sisters, or someone to whom you pay lip service without ever properly listening to? Are we a central part of feminist struggle, or a box-ticking exercise? Honest inward reflection is essential. Analyse how you think of us, critically explore why that might be, and work from there.

Feminist Organising

Are you planning a group for women? Creating a feminist event or space? Building a feminist network? Every gathering of women creates new possibilities for the feminist movement, one of which happens to be an opportunity to improve upon the dynamic of race in a feminist context. With collective organisation, there is a question which white women must ask themselves: are there women of colour in this group? If not, there is a reason. It is all very well talking about how women come together as friends or a set of activists sharing a particular goal, but the way in which that group was formed did not take place inside a social vacuum. It happened in a society where women of colour are racialised and Othered to the point our womanhood is perceived as fundamentally lesser. As a result, our grasp of women’s political issues and therefore feminism is perceived as inferior.

For example, the stronger my commitment to Black politics, the more my feminist credentials are policed by white women caught up in two fallacies: first, that it is impossible to care about multiple issues simultaneously, second, that the politics of liberation can be neatly divided because no overlap of identities need ever be taken into account. The perception that my support for Black liberation must come at the expense of my support for women’s liberation, diluting my feminist politics, misunderstands the essence of how both sets of politics were established and the fact that they are inherently connected through Black women’s lives.

If there are no women of colour involved in your feminist set, consider how that came about and subsequently how it can be addressed. What about your way of organising, your content, your feminist praxis, could be alienating? Critical self-reflection is by no means a comfortable process, but it is a necessary one for solidarity to be possible. A key element of this subject is the way in which white women behave towards women of colour.

Treating women of colour as an exercise in diversity as opposed to authentic members of the team betrays a form of racism in how we are conceptualised. Our skills, knowledge, and commitment to women are not considered the natural state of affairs in a feminist setting in the same way that white women’s contributions to the group are. The assumption that we can only ever be present as a means of filling quotas conveys an obliviousness to our humanity. Set aside that line of thought. Look for our value as individuals in the same way you are automatically inclined to look for it in a white woman, and you will grow accustomed to seeing it. Unpick your racism with the same vigour you unpick internalised misogyny.

It is important that there are women of colour involved at an organisational level, as part of the team designing your events and campaigns. Let go of the paternalism that assures you, as white women, you are in a position to speak for all women.

Behaviour

The most obvious point: do not be racist, in word or in deed. One way or another, it will come to light. If you are saying something about women of colour in a private context that you would not voice in a public context, consider why it is that you differentiate between the two settings – the answer usually relates to white women not wishing to appear racist. Appearing racist has, paradoxically, become more taboo than racism in itself.

And if your racism is addressed, do not treat this as a personal attack. Do not be the white women who makes it about her own hurt, the white woman who cries her way out of accountability for her actions. Reflect instead upon the magnitude of the hurt dealt to the women of colour subject to that racism – I guarantee it is so painful that your own discomfort is small by comparison. Give women of colour experiencing racism the empathy you would extend to a white woman experiencing misogyny.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Do not remain silent when your friends are racist. Do not look the other way. Do not pretend that nothing has happened. Your silence makes you complicit in that racism. Your silence normalises that racism, is part of what legitimises that racism in a mainstream context. It’s not easy to confront someone with whom you are close, someone with greater power or influence than your own. But the right thing isn’t always easy to do.
Lastly, do not grow complacent. In a recent interview with Feminist Current, Sheila Jeffreys lamented the rise of identity politics, which she conflated with intersectional praxis, claiming that because men never got caught up in being expected to do everything, women shouldn’t either. This attitude is not atypical among white feminist women. However, Jeffreys’ perspective begs the question: since when did radical lesbian feminism model itself after the behaviour of men? Feminism is not a race to the bottom, it is a radical political movement. And that involves some intensive critical thought – a consistent of challenging of structural oppression that is not selective, but thorough.

It will not be comfortable. It will not be easy. But it opens up whole new avenues of support and sisterhood between women. Solidarity that will sustain and nourish all women as we work towards liberation.


Bibliography

Bilge, Sirma, & Hill Collins, Patricia. (2016). Intersectionality.

Grewal, Shabnam. ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women.

King, Martin Luther. (1968). The Trumpet of Conscience.

Parker, Pat. (1978). Movement in Black.

 

BBC Woman’s Hour – Misogynoir

womanshour

I appeared on BBC Woman’s Hour to discuss misogynoir, Black feminism, and Black women’s experiences of online abuse. Their producer contacted me following the publication of Self-Care or Speaking Out? A Black Feminist Dilemma. It was an honour to be invited, to receive an opportunity to speak about a subject that is ignored altogether too often. The other interviewee was Natalie Jeffers, a truly phenomenal woman, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter UK.

Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, Olympian Gabby Douglas, and Michelle Marie, a black woman who took over the official Ireland community twitter account last week have all been inundated with racist abuse. Jane talks to Claire Heuchan a Black radical feminist from Scotland and Natalie Jeffers, co-creator of Black Lives Matter UK.

The segment starts at around the 21.40 mark. It was recorded on August 22nd and aired on August 31st, 2016.

Listen here.

Writing as a Feminist – a Speech

As part of the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities, a symposium Women, Media, Politics took place at Glasgow Women’s Library on the 21st of June, 2016. I was invited to speak on my experiences of writing as a feminist. This is the speech I delivered.


 

Some of you will know me as Claire, @ClaireShrugged from Twitter, or maybe Sister Outrider the blogger. I write from the perspective of a Black radical feminist, dealing with topics like racism in the feminist movement, building interracial solidarity between feminist women, the application of intersectionality – all that sort of thing. The difference between me as a person and me as a blogger is rather like when Diana Prince becomes Wonder Woman.

Of all the questions I’m asked, why I started writing my blog is the easiest to answer. I noticed problems that had a tendency to repeat themselves, to recur in a way that created or contributed to a pattern. For example, the ways white feminist women can turn a blind eye to racism in a way that their politics wouldn’t allow them to disregard misogyny, how they don’t always consider the overlap between racism and misogyny, and how these factors shapes the experiences women of colour have in feminism and life in general. Patterns like that grew increasingly obvious to me the more involved I became in feminist politics. Addressing incidents of that individually on Twitter was getting exhausting as well as being incredibly time-consuming, and I found that the same questions would always come up when I engaged with women about these subjects, so having something thorough and long-form to outline my perspective in depth was appealing.

Yet in some ways, I was hesitant to start my blog. There was a kind of feeling like I was an imposter or not quite good enough, which I think is so common with women in this society, and an expectation on my part that someone smarter, more qualified, more experienced than me would step in and intervene, do a better job of articulating all the things I wanted to say. And that doesn’t really make sense. I’m currently writing the dissertation for my MLitt in Gender Studies, and during that course I’ve specialised in Black feminist theory. It’s become the staple of everything I do professionally as well as personally. Black feminist principles have underpinned my work as a journalist, covering the Predatory Peacekeepers campaign or writing about the way Black women who go missing get virtually no press coverage. Living as a Black woman, I’m conscious that this is all very much relevant to my life in the “real world” and the lives of other women too – there’s a very obvious practical application for Black feminist theory, and I think feminist writing bridges that gap.

That hypothetical perfect Black feminist blogger never materialised, and it occurred to me that she probably never would. More importantly, I realised nothing would actually change unless someone spoke out. And so it reached a point at which my impatience with racism in the feminist movement outweighed my reticence, and I created Sister Outrider. I haven’t looked back since, though some of the comments people leave make me want to take my laptop out into the garden, douse it in petrol, and set it on fire. Mostly it’s good, though. Don’t let people’s hate or derailments discourage you – that’s what they want, for you to stop and be silent.

Writing works well as a medium for me, because I wasn’t particularly brave or confident when I started out, and working with that format enabled me to make active use of my voice in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Starting out, I wasn’t in a position where I’d challenge racism in a conversation with white feminist women in a one-on-one dynamic, let alone collectively. But since I started writing as Sister Outrider, that has changed completely. Now I never let the casual or intended racism slide. That’s mainly because of the response other women of colour have had to my writing, saying that what I write resonates with them, that their experiences have been the same, and that having more feminist writing dealing with the intersection of race and sex makes them feel acknowledged.

Writing about feminism forces you to think critically, to think carefully about the implications for other people too. With white women, I noticed that the most positive feedback I received for my writing came from working class and lesbian women who were enthusiastic about my structural, radical analysis of oppression. There’s a degree of responsibility that comes with gaining an audience.

The things people say still overwhelm me a bit. Since people were engaging with my ideas, and writing isn’t always an interactive way of communicating, I decided to open submissions for questions on race in the feminist movement. It was all dealt with anonymously, which gave women the freedom to be really honest. Their openness was amazing. There are points where I’m sat thinking ‘okay, but I’m just some random girl with a blog’. But if you make a positive difference to even one woman’s life, it’s worthwhile. That doubt recedes. So if you want to write, write.

Writing is a necessary part of how we develop feminist praxis – that’s a slightly unfashionable term, meaning the connection between feminist theory and activism. It’s a way of using the theory we have, modifying it, and trying to make things better in a way that’s sustainable. A lot of the things I’m writing about now are things I’d hoped for more guidance on, wished there was a feminist blueprint of sorts on how vectors like race work alongside gender. Maybe what I write will make things clearer for the women who come into the movement after me – that’s the hope.

It’s also pretty exciting. There’s such a rich body of feminist theory and scholarship – so many brilliant ideas – and seeing how women build on that, by acknowledging what has gone before and adding to it with their own perspective, is incredible. I named my blog Sister Outrider as a kind of play on Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider. Her way of using difference to challenge and provoke self-reflection in others is exactly what I try to do. I also need to credit bell hooks for getting me to think about how various forms of structural oppression connect, and seeing that comfort is never the priority with feminism. Angela Davis is also a real influence, particularly with my work on interracial solidarity, because of the kinship she extended towards other marginalised people from situations different to her own. So my advice is to identify the framework that’s the foundation of where you’re writing from, and that gives your blog a consistent perspective.

Also, especially when so much Black feminist scholarship gets overlooked or side-lined, I do see it as an inherently feminist thing to highlight the work that’s gone before, to demonstrate its ongoing value, and explore how that fits in with what we do next. Honour your foremothers, and think about the implications for your little sisters too. What we write now will influence the women who come after us.

On that note, it’s particularly important that I mention the work of Patricia Hill Collins. She’s essential to Black feminist theory, and also an important contributor to the understanding of how feminist writing is significant in public discourse. The phrase she uses is “intellectual activist”, which does feel really self-aggrandising, but it also fits the definition of what we’re doing exactly. I write both from a scholarly perspective, and with a view to the politics of liberation. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, as Patricia Hill Collins points out, writing critically about power creates the possibility to drive meaningful change – the more people your ideas reach, the greater that possibility is, and feminist writing creates a lasting resource. In a digital context, it has never been easier to share your work widely.

Thank you.

Black Feminism in Triptych

What you are about to read is the first proper thing I ever wrote about Black feminism. It was originally submitted as coursework for my Gender Studies programme in February 2015. The tutor asked that we write a 1,500 word personal reflective essay on any three feminist texts – not necessarily academic, or even in the medium of print – that had strongly influenced our feminist praxis. It was at this point that I ceased actively distancing myself from Blackness in order to pursue the politics of respectability. It was at this point that I embraced Blackness, including the scholarship and creativity of Black women.

If I had to write it again, there are certain parts that I’d change – tightening up my articulation of geopolitics, for example – and yet I remain genuinely fond of this essay. I have chosen to share it to demonstrate that in feminism, as with all things, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Full disclosure: my feminism was once abysmal. We all start somewhere, and this was it for me.


 

Just as there are many schools of thought within the feminist movement, there are a great many paths to the feminist movement – to becoming a feminist. Furthermore, identifying as a feminist is not the end of a process, but rather the beginning of one:

“Feminists are made, not born. One does not become an advocate of feminist politics simply by having the privilege of having been born female. Like all political positions one becomes a believer in feminist politics through choice and action.” (hooks, 2000)

Although I have considered myself a feminist since early adolescence, my ideas, words, and deeds relating to the movement have – mercifully – evolved in the subsequent decade. This essay aims to explore three texts central to my development as a feminist – specifically, as a Black feminist. The first of my chosen texts is Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks, a book which played a significant role in my understanding of feminist theory. The second text is We Should All Be Feminists, the written adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, which opened my eyes to the relevance of the feminist movement operating beyond a Western context. The third and final text is Nicki Minaj’s music video Anaconda, a record-breaking riposte to the objectification of Black women within the genre of rap music. All three subjects are the respective works of Black women. The texts in question are responsible for the development of my understanding of the connection between gendered and racialised identities.

In spite of its innocuous title, Feminism is for Everybody made for uncomfortable reading the first time around: until that point, I had been one of those feminists – of whom hooks is deeply critical – who denied that identities beyond gender had any bearing upon the oppression of women . This book challenged the notion of sisterhood – of universally shared female experience – the grounds on which my understanding of feminism had been based, and yet feminist theory had never resonated so well with my own lived experience. Feminism challenges a patriarchal model that is “imperialist, racist, sexist, and oppressive” (hooks, 1981), yet more privileged women often oppose nothing beyond the sexism, as they themselves are not oppressed by other symptoms of the existing hierarchy.

It was hooks that forced me to ask why, although I had read an extensive range of feminist literature produced by white women, racial inequalities faced by women of colour were never mentioned. And, to an extent, it was hooks that provided the answer:

“They [white women] entered the movement erasing and denying difference, not playing race alongside gender, but eliminating race from the picture. Foregrounding gender meant that white women could take center stage, could claim the movement as theirs, even as they called on all women to join.”

However, hooks’ solution raised more questions for me than it resolved, particularly surrounding the notion of self-hood. As Patricia Hill Collins observes, “black women’s lives are a series of negotiations that aim to reconcile the contradictions separating our own internally defined images of ourselves as African-American women with our objectification as the Other.” The self-perception of Black women is, to an extent, warped by internalised misogynoir. Stereotypes inspired by “historically constructed conditions… shaped by structural inequalities, such as racism and sexism” (West, 2003) continue to be shape how Black women view themselves and are viewed by others. Hooks was the first feminist writer I had encountered whose theory encapsulated that reality:

“By repudiating the popular notion that the focus of feminist movement should be social equality of the sexes and by emphasizing eradication of the cultural basis of group oppression, our own analysis would require an exploration of all aspects of women’s political reality. This would mean that race and class oppression would be recognised as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexism.” (hooks, 1984)

The lived experiences of Black women are strongly influenced by racial and gendered oppression. Without the writings of bell hooks, in particular Feminism is for Everybody, I would have remained wilfully blind to that reality. Therefore, this text was essential to me claiming the label of Black feminist.

After having abandoned the belief that feminism was solely concerned with gendered oppression – and that it was the movement ‘led’ by white women – I was no longer able to consider the movement first and foremost in western context without challenging the imperialistic perspective on which that prioritisation was made. My first foray into African feminism was the TED talk delivered by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a speech which showed me that Black feminism was not some abstract concept, irrelevant to feminism as I had previously understood it, but rather the most relatable branch of the movement that I have yet encountered. Adichie faced claims that “feminism was not our [African] culture” , yet – if we are to accept Adichie’s definition of feminist: “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes…” – feminism is fundamentally oppositional to every culture that is built upon a patriarchal structure. Therefore, feminism is no more or less compatible with African culture than European or American.

What surprised me most about Adichie’s words were the similarities between her experiences of feminism and my own. In Nigeria, Adichie experienced the same negative stereotypes surrounding feminism, from man hating to bra burning ; she faced the same erroneous assumptions that gendered inequalities were a thing of the past ; she was irritated by other people’s tacit assumption that the man in her company was in the position of authority, of being rendered “invisible” by it . Adichie is firm in her opposition to traditional roles, exploring the ways in which the potential of girls is limited by the cultural expectations rested upon femininity:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man… But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man?” (Adichie, 2014)

Furthermore, Adichie outlines the ways in which patriarchal roles restrict boys as well as girls. She is not the first feminist to consider the ways in which masculinity is damaging to men – in fact, although Adichie and hooks define feminism by different criteria, they are both critical of the cultural expectations surrounding masculinity – yet Adichie’s comments struck me as particularly insightful. By proposing that society consciously shifts collective behavioural patterns regarding gender, Adichie highlights how simple it would be to dismantle patriarchal values in a matter of generations. Adichie’s input allowed me to understand the power of feminism when applied on a global scale, to see that considering feminism in a purely Western light was deeply restrictive.

Finally, although it has not shaped my understanding of feminist theory, my awareness of feminist practice deepened considerably with Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. To appreciate the cultural significance of Anaconda, the content of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back (sampled heavily by Minaj) must first be considered: the video begins with two white women scrutinising and stereotyping the figure of a Black woman, who remains silent throughout the exchange, until Sir Mix-a-Lot interrupts. Yet the defence is hardly gallant, being based entirely on the sexual worth Sir Mix-a-Lot places upon Black women, culminating with the iconic line: “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon.” Anaconda serves as an obviously phallic metaphor, a powerful and predatory representation of male sexuality. In Sir Mix-a-Lot’s video, Back women dance for his pleasure whilst he passes comment on their physical merits, a common premise within the genre:

“African American men who star in music videos construct a certain version of manhood against the backdrop of objectified nameless, quasi naked Black women who populate their stage. At the same time, African American women in these same videos objectify their own bodies in order to be accepted within this Black male-controlled universe.” (Hill Collins, 2005)

With her own video, Minaj dismantles the tropes exemplified in Baby Got Back. Unlike Sir Mix-a-Lot, Minaj performs alongside the dancers – there is no hierarchy in place. They are free from the critical eyes of white women or the proprietary observation of black masculinity: Minaj and company dance for their own entertainment. That the women, Minaj included, are scantily clad, twerking, and gyrating – doing so without the intent of providing men gratification – is an assertation of independent sexuality. Indeed, Minaj’s inversion of clichés caused me to consider the source of my perceptions of Black womanhood and move beyond them. Though a music video carries less academic weight than a textbook or journal, the feminist message behind Anaconda developed my awareness of the intersection between race and gender.

Contrasting with the images of peaches and pears used by Sir Mix-a-Lot to represent Black women’s buttocks, Minaj snaps a cucumber in half and cuts a banana to slices. What this phallic imagery lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in effectiveness. Minaj clearly rejects a male sexuality in which she is expected to play a passive role, preferring instead to be an active participant. Drake – the only male featured in the video – appears close to the end (demonstrating his irrelevance to the process), and it is notable that Minaj leaves the frame when he attempts to touch her without her consent. Seeing Minaj not only reject a man, but the male sexualisation of the Black female body, was powerful. Until Anaconda, it hadn’t occurred to me that a music video, or any similar medium within popular culture, could spread a feminist message.

Anaconda caused me to re-evaluate the representation of Black women within popular culture, and also the way in which feminism can occur outside of the academic sphere. Like bell hooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nicki Minaj challenged my preconceptions surrounding race and gender, catalysing real development in my perspective as a feminist.