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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

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

 

Dispatches from the Margins: On Feminist Movement Building

A brief foreword: this post is, as ever, written in the hope that it will enable women to come to a greater place of understanding. After a period of contemplation, I have decided to address the issue of racism at FiLiA 2017 because if it requires women of colour to keep quiet about racism, it’s not sisterhood and never can be. There is potential for better. It is the first in a series of personal reflective essays about feminist movement building. The second and third are available here.


 

I am tired. So very tired. There are days when I want to withdraw from the feminist movement. There are days when I want to withdraw from life. So far, I have done neither because I’m conscious that it’s a sickness that plants the seeds of suicidality in my mind. And if I have to live in this world, you can be damned certain that I’m going to try and make it a better place for women and girls to inhabit – to firmly grasp the roots of injustice with both hands and pull. While my mental health and participation in the feminist movement may not at first glance appear connected, both are consistently and adversely affected by one common factor: racism.

It is widely acknowledged by feminists that sisterhood is the most sustaining force, what keeps our movement in motion despite the weight of constant struggle. And as women who live our politics, aiming to unite theory and practice in the everyday, that solidarity between women is vital to a feminist’s being in all spheres of her life.

As I have previously written, I believe that racism is one of the greatest barriers to sisterhood between women. Since 2014 I have devoted significant energy and time to removing that barrier by challenging racism within the feminist movement. This has involved using my back as a bridge to bring white women to a place of understanding, guiding white women through the process of unlearning racism, letting my experiences of racism become teachable moments, and – frankly – showing more patience with white women’s casual racism than anyone could reasonably be expected to give. I have tried to make myself and my words a conduit for movement away from racism, movement towards true solidarity between women and girls.

In some ways, this project has been a success. It shows when a white woman has taken the time to critically examine her own racism and altered her behaviour towards women of colour. I’ve run many gentle interventions, large and small, and actually feel really proud of that work when I see a white woman is consciously unlearning racism after our conversations, when I see a change in how she practices her feminism. I don’t do it because white women deserve the Morgan Freeman treatment – members of the dominant class (in this case, white people) aren’t entitled to a unique level of understanding from people of colour. No, I do it for the women of colour whose paths will cross with those white women in feminist organising and other settings. Women of colour deserve so much better from the feminist movement than to be pushed to its margins, just as we are within a mainstream context. And so I tried to build pockets of space where white women could get to grips with basic anti-racist politics without fear of being castigated for asking questions which belied racism (again, it took an extreme degree of patience) or spiralling into defensiveness when that racism was addressed.

I think that racism flourishes because of all the silences that are allowed to grow around it. Race exists as a hierarchy, and white people are invested in upholding that hierarchy in order to retain the socioeconomic power that comes with it – and maintaining the hierarchy of race is partly achieved by making its acknowledgement taboo. Through an extraordinary feat of mental gymnastics, talking about race – in particular the realities of that hierarchy as experienced when your skin happens to be Black or brown – becomes a far greater offence than being complicit in systematic injustice.

Talking about race becomes a transgression, which is politically significant. Both within feminist spaces and in mainstream society we are all, to varying degrees, rewarded for not speaking about race and – by extension – posing no threat to whiteness as an ideology. The shame attached to talking about the dynamic of race acts as a buffer of sorts, a layer cushioning racism from in-depth scrutiny or challenge. If we cannot name or identify racism, how can we oppose it? This layer of silence creates distance between the act of racism and accountability for being racism. It is what protects the ideology behind racism from being unpicked. And so I have crafted contexts in which race may be discussed.

FiLiARecently I delivered a keynote address at FiLiA 2017, sharing my vision of interracial solidarity in the feminist movement with the conference. FiLiA was a complicated experience. For months in advance I had planned to use my time to talk about the radical and often untapped possibilities within sisterhood – but it was only the day before conference that the reality hit: I would be stepping into a predominantly white space to speak about racism, putting myself in a more exposed position than is comfortably occupied as a Black woman. And it was a very white space: I saw more Black women in the student cafeteria upstairs than in the entire conference setting. Vulnerability is a necessary part of the radical honesty that movement building demands, yet there is a fine balance between what it is to be vulnerable in talking about race and exposed to racism. Still, I gave the talk and sent those ideas out to permeate the conference.

Responses to my FiLiA address have been rather overwhelming – mostly in a good way. White women have thanked me for opening their eyes to something they hadn’t previously considered with a bit of Racism 101, shared the ways in which they plan on organising differently, and a few even said that my words changed their lives. Women of colour’s responses have been more layered, coming at the issue from a standpoint so much closer to my own, and profoundly moving. But, in the immediate aftermath, one particular response devastated me.

After the session where I spoke, I attended a panel about body positivity: Flaunting Fearlessness. Fat, disabled, and Black women are the pioneers of the body positivity movement – so their absence on the panel was immediately noticeable. The speakers consisted of four white women in the room and one Asian woman Skyping from Los Angeles: I do not name these women because a public shaming is not my objective. Instead I want to address the impact of the classism, anti-Blackness, and ableism that were woven into the conversation and uncontested by the chair. It was deeply uncomfortable and, more than that, pushed women with little social power to the margins of the movement.  Listening to that panel I grew acutely conscious that they did not view our concerns as women’s concerns, did not perceive our struggles to be women’s struggles. Having spent the morning inviting women to build interracial solidarity at the conference, it was devastating.

Sitting in the audience was acutely painful. I deliberated over whether to say anything, but a friend pointed out that the burden of challenging racism shouldn’t fall to a Black woman. So Siân raised her hand and, with real empathy, invited the panel to consider how the racism projected onto Black children has resulted in them being penalised by their school or having their hair cut off by teachers. She spoke about how money acted as a barrier to so many spaces and experiences that were being described as crucial to body positivity. She addressed the harm done by recreating hierarchies within feminist spaces. She brought up the issue of representation, or lack thereof, on the panel. And Siân, bold and brilliant, was applauded by women across the room. It was the best example of a calling in that I have ever witnessed – a genuine, compassion-filled invitation to connect.

But Siân’s invitation, like mine, was rejected. The panellist who claimed to be part of a movement so inclusive that even her dog belonged in it said “I could talk about race all day, but we can’t make everything about race.” In a society founded upon white supremacist principles, everything is already inherently racialised. To claim that those of us who address the hierarchy of race are responsible for making an issue about race is to miss the point spectacularly. Explaining that to the panel was impossible. Building a bridge was impossible. So I left the session. And I wasn’t the only one.

I left that session in tears, empty and exhausted. I found a quiet place to sit and breathe. I brought the issue to the attention of the FiLiA team, who admitted to having concerns about the Flaunting Fearlessness panel beforehand. And I agreed to help the collective as they take the necessary steps to ensure such a thing never happened at any future FiLiA conference – a point to which I will return. My reason for doing so was the same as my reason for attempting to build interracial solidarity between women in the first place: to improve a feminist space for women of colour. All the while Siân was checking up on me, making sure I didn’t feel alone.

I did not ultimately decide to leave the conference, but neither did I attend any other sessions that day. Instead I ended up sitting on the steps with Liz and letting myself be drawn into a series of comfortable conversations with women – conversations about the gendered expectations of caring, women’s spaces, and the politics of lesbian weddings. Liz Kelly is something of a litmus test for how I will engage (or not engage) with white women in a feminist setting. There are very few white feminists holding my absolute trust, but Liz is one – and so the white women she vouches for are generally among the white women I’m open to connecting with. I will not universalise this experience and say that this is an option for every Black woman: it’s not. But letting Liz’s judgements inform my own is a mechanism that saves me a lot of energy that would otherwise be spent guarding against racism in one form or another.

sisterhood

Liz has enabled me to occupy a range of predominantly white feminist environments that would otherwise not have been bearable. Siân’s courage in holding space for Black women saved me emotional labour and alienation. As I have previously written, I dislike the concept of allyship because it invariably sinks into something hollow and performative. Instead of allyship, I consider such actions as a manifestation of solidarity between women. Sisterhood is powerful – or it can be, when women are prepared to work to build it.

I value sisterhood with white women, complicated as it is. And I value solidarity with men of colour, though they are similarly complicated by context. The two are not mutually exclusive – actually, in my experience, they fit together because they are both born from living a politics of connection. The Black security guard kept catching my eye as I danced with a group of otherwise white women at the FiLiA party on Saturday night, and every time I’d laugh. Those little moments of shared understanding made me feel seen as surely as Liz or Siân did.

Within my interactions with other women of colour lies the greatest significance. But, for various reasons – all of which relate directly to power – those are the interactions about which I can say least. Most women I will not name, because they have enough to manage without being scrutinised by white women as a result of these words. Some (me included) recede into ourselves in predominantly white feminist environments, too focussed on how best to negotiate the space, too guarded against the very real risk of racism, to be fully connected with what’s going on. This is white women’s loss far more than it is a loss for women of colour. Since becoming part of the feminist movement I have watched many of the brightest and most insightful women I know clam up in spaces that are hostile to them, spaces in which their perspectives would have been of greater relevance and use than anything said by the voices centred. Such is the risk of treating white women’s voices as default.

During both days at conference I took the opportunity to connect with women from various feminist networks and communities – some of them posted about catching up with me on Twitter and Facebook, which is pretty standard of how these things go. And on more than one occasion another woman of colour messaged me privately to indicate which white women I ought to be careful around any why. (When it comes to racism, the receipts will always catch up with you.) The reach of racism in any mixed feminist space is disconcerting. And while it is grim that women of colour are in a position where protecting one another is necessary, it is a wonderful thing to be held by that sisterhood.

IMG_20171103_102643_562.jpg

The final product

On the second day of FiLiA I carried a bag of knitting around with me – having a repetitive, constructive action from which something beautiful grows is soothing. I joked to friends that returning for the next day of conference after addressing the issue of racism felt a bit like being Maleficent at Aurora’s christening. Knitting was a way to retreat from those worries and find a sense of calm. Over the lunch break I sat on the steps with a group of friends and knitted, having reached the level of anxiety at which eating food ceases to be a viable option. One of those friends was a woman I first met at the previous conference, when it was still known as Feminism in London – we had both been quiet with one another, feeling out of place (read: conspicuously brown) in that context. Although that same discomfort persisted, we had a frank and gentle conversation about anxiety – I felt seen by her, and hope she felt seen by me too, which can be the greatest gift when you are conscious of being made Other.

Later on, after knitting my way through a panel on specialised women’s services, I felt like food was possible. In the queue I bumped into Rahila Gupta and another woman. We talked about the politics of voice – who is heard, who is ignored. We talked about public speaking, when we preferred to read from notes or speak off the cuff. And Rahila asked for my perspective. It was nothing short of astonishing to me that a woman as brilliant as Rahila Gupta would treat me as a peer. Long before meeting her, I read of Rahila’s work with Southall Black Sisters in archive materials at Glasgow Women’s Library.

That interaction stayed with me all through the day and long after the closing session of FiLiA. Maya Angelou, who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contributions to literature, once lamented that “I have written eleven books,maya-angelou-quote but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” As was often the case, her words lit upon a truth – one which I find highly relatable. Part of me suspects that sooner or later it will emerge that my ideas are worthless – all writing opportunities withdrawn, prizes and nominations revoked, and so on. Even being invited to give a keynote by the FiLiA organising team, I did not have a sense that it was legitimate for me to occupy that space and worried that my thoughts on feminist movement building would immediately be discredited. The things I wonder ‘is it legitimate for me to say this?’ are often the things that most desperately need saying. And yet…

Imposter syndrome isn’t uncommon among women of colour. In fact, imposter syndrome is rife within the networks of Black & brown women who make up my peer group. They achieve extraordinary things, build extraordinary spaces, create extraordinary works – and continue to be plagued by self-doubt. That self-doubt is informed by context: it is what happens when we absorb the racism and misogyny thrown our way in this society. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is one of the finest journalists of this generation, yet she too is familiar with imposter syndrome:

“This is the key difference between the imposter syndrome suffered by women of colour and others: the strong forces telling our subconscious that we are undeserving of success and that we don’t belong in the environments we inhabit. We don’t see people who look like us, hear accents like ours, or, necessarily, have role models. Our insecurities over our achievements are the effect of people reacting with shock when they realise how well [we are] doing…”

If the feminist movement is truly concerned with the liberation of all women and girls then we as feminists must ensure that our spaces do not replicate the same old hierarchies, but instead create a viable challenge to those hierarchies. If those spaces happen to be racially mixed, white women have a responsibility to uplift women of colour – to centre our voices instead of pushing us to the margins. White women have a responsibility to actively unlearn their racism. It is the white women who cling to racism that should doubt the legitimacy speaking on feminist politics, not the women of colour whose words are a fundamental challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In the weeks after FiLiA I was hugely conflicted, but ultimately I stand by my radical vision of sisterhood – one in which true interracial solidarity between women is possible. Whether or not I have the energy to help bring that vision into being is another question altogether.  I am not a well woman. Neither am I a resource for white women to mine. And, in the spirit of honesty, it is far more tempting to devote all that energy to becoming a crochet master – something sustaining, not draining.

Still, I have spoken with Lisa-Marie – the founder of FiLiA – about the conference. To me, the most significant factor is how a white woman responds to racism – will she deny the issue is there, or will she grasp it at the root? Lisa-Marie was adamant that FiLiA is to be a space where women can engage with feminist politics free from racism, classism, ableism, or any other form of prejudice. She fully acknowledges that FiLiA is imperfect in its present form and is determined that the space engages with issues of structural power – which is why I offered Lisa-Marie my perspective on how FiLiA can evolve and gave her permission to check in with me on developments. FiLiA is flawed, but something good can grow there. Perhaps, with enough work, FiLiA will become a place where interracial sisterhood flourishes. Like I said on the stage: “to be a feminist is to be an optimist.”

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Loud and United – Reflections of a Black Feminist on the Road

Dedicated to my mother, Angela, without whom this adventure would have been impossible. Thank you, mum – for getting me to the airport and for encouraging me to spread my wings.


The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. – Gloria Steinem

Before

At the beginning of this year – the first lived without the guidance of my grandfather – I challenged myself to two things: more travel and more adventure. The writer’s life is typically one of books and ideas, and although writing has the power to transport both author and audience to extraordinary places, across the vast expanses of human imagination, I sometimes wonder if I use writing as an excuse to retreat from the world and into myself. By inclination I crave routine and solitude, neither of which can be depended upon in the great unknown. That is, perhaps, why it is so important to push myself outside of the comfort zone so easily constructed around the familiar and open myself to new experiences. Through the unexpected, the unpredictable, we grow and learn more about ourselves in the process. When static, we too often see what we expect to see as opposed to what’s really there in front of us.

20170607_142308Feminist theory is meaningless without the ability to put it into practice. And life, though it can at times be daunting, requires living. So I am on a plane to Brussels for Loud and United, an event which marks twenty years of the Observatory on Violence Against Women. The Observatory was created to put political pressure upon governments across Europe to eradicate male violence against women and girls.

Loud and United is split into two parts: a symposium in which experts, politicians, and activists discuss the realities of male violence against women, and a march through the streets of Brussels to protest that violence. Loud and United is the perfect balance of words and deeds, what Audre Lorde described as the transformation of silence into language and action. In coming together, naming the agent, and resisting the insidious idea that male violence is a ‘natural’ part of women’s lives, we resist the very foundations of patriarchy. I want to be part of that resistance. And it doesn’t hurt that Gloria Steinem is to give the keynotes address.

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This isn’t my first trip to Brussels – last September I was there for what turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life so far: Young Feminist Summer School. Fifty women from across Europe came together to exchange activist experiences and learn from each other’s feminist perspectives. Sharing space and time with my AGORA sisters developed my understanding of the relationship between feminist theory and practice like nothing else, radically altering my approach to feminist organising. Being part of that group blew away the cynicism that threatened to take root in me, dealt with the weariness that came from challenging racism within the feminist movement, and restored my belief that anything is possible when women work together. AGORA also imparted a degree of self-confidence, a sense of my work being legitimate and having a place within the context of the feminist movement.

Attending Young Feminist Summer School changed so much for the better. And I almost didn’t go – partly out of the panic that stems from chronic anxiety, partly due to a heavy bout of Imposter Syndrome, and partly because my grandfather was dying. On the final day of Summer School, I received a call to say that he couldn’t be released from hospital until I had been taught to feed him through a tube – which I did for the final month of his life. It was a difficult time. Becca, one of my AGORA sisters, introduced me to spoon theory during Summer School – a disability metaphor coined by Christine Miserandino to explain the extra limitations capping the available energy to spend on the day to day tasks that make up everyday life. And now, almost a year on, I have even less spoons within reach. In caring for my grandfather I ceased caring for myself, which created something of a spoon deficit.

I have taken leave of absence from university owing to depression, scaled back professional and social responsibilities, and entered a kind of hibernation period to focus on my health. I have set three rules to live by: 1) go to therapy 2) volunteer at the Women’s Library at least one day every week 3) look after yourself properly. It’s a cliché, a bourgeois twenty-something going to Europe to find herself, but I will not apologise for that. After Young Feminist Summer School I can think of no better place to look for that bold young woman with a radical spirit than the city of Brussels, no better point to reconnect with my politics and the passion behind them than Loud and United.  People living with debilitating illnesses and disabilities are expected to justify every last speck of joy, but I am going to grab it with both hands and without apology.

When the plane touches down in Brussels, I begin to feel hopeful. Armed with enthusiasm and a basic grasp of the French language, I set off to board the shuttle bus to the city centre. I spend the journey alternating between staring at the lush expanses of green fields and blue sky and reading Gloria Steinem’s most recent book, My Life on the 20170614_174803Road. Steinem’s reflections are thoughtful, and something about the way she connects physical movement through the world with a development of ideas strikes a chord. What I like most about Steinem’s writing is that from her early essays to recent reflections delivered in her eighties, she doesn’t pretend to know everything and is therefore always open to learning and improving her own feminist praxis. If there were such a thing as total and definitive understanding of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem would have more right to claim it than most. But there isn’t. Feminism is a socio-political movement propelled by women’s actions and ideas – it’s a continuously ongoing process, not a destination. Its progress is best marked not only in the accordance of women’s rights, but in the development of surrounding ideas and attitudes.

Ilaria, a fellow graduate of Young Feminist Summer School, is waiting for me at the bus stop. She introduces me to her girlfriend Michela and we work out how best to communicate. Ilaria and her girlfriend moved to Brussels from Italy last September, which – being a total homebody – I find incredibly brave. Michela speaks French with a little bit of English. I speak English with a little bit of French. We meet somewhere in the middle, with Ilaria translating what Michela and I cannot. As they guide me back to their flat, I feel none of the anxiety of being away from home alone. Because I am not alone.

We drop my luggage off at the Tetris House, affectionately termed as everything has an exact space, to head out for dinner and drinks. As we walk, I am struck by the beautiful art nouveau design of the buildings. Ilaria fills me in on the area’s history. She and Michela live in the most diverse part of Brussels – half of the population is white, and half of the population is people of colour. Houses that were once the pied-à-terre of Belgium’s upper classes are now flats occupied, more often than not, by migrant families. It’s the first port of call for people from all around the world when they first move Brussels. Sure enough, as we meander through the city I see a gorgeous spectrum of brown skin. It is nothing short of divine to feel so inconspicuous.

Belgian fries are in a league of their own, so we get chips for dinner. Mine are accompanied by a falafel wrap, which makes going abroad and getting chippy for tea seem acceptably cosmopolitan. The greatest difference between Brussels and Glasgow is how each city’s inhabitants occupy public space. In the cobblestone courtyards, the pavements are full of tables and chairs set out by nearby bars. To my surprise, Ilaria says that we can sit outside a pub of our choice and eat our meal there. She and Michela choose from a long list of fancy beers – one Belgian treat I decline owing to an unapologetically femme taste in drinks.

At the bar, there are five fridges full of craft beers. They are as mysterious to me as the rules of any sport that isn’t Quidditch. I search for a fruit cider, the closest acceptable approximation to beer. The bartender takes pity on me and comes over to help. He laughs, not unkindly, when I explain what I’m looking for and says that they don’t stock any such thing. I struggle to understand the Flemmish accent to his French. When he realises that not only do I speak English, but that I am Scottish, the bartender is delighted. “Glasgow? I love Glasgow,” he tells me. “That city is CRAZY!” He pantomimes the sort of argument that is characteristic of the city, mimicking those interactions that walk the fine line between masculine bonhomie and pure aggression. It involves a lot of gesticulation and “FUCK YOU!”  That’s Glasgow alright. Perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of the fear that he has given offence, the bartender pours me what can only be described as a triple gin and tonic. He moves the gin to a pint glass upon realising that both ice and tonic will not fit. Fortunately, Glasgow has taught me how to hold my drink.

Back at the table, we discuss lesbian politics and culture. Ilaria and Michela moved to Brussels because it’s a better place to be a lesbian couple than Italy. Life away from Catholic homophobia and social conservatism is happier. Scotland isn’t perfect but, by comparison, I feel fortunate. Two leaders of Scottish political parties are lesbian. Holyrood is “the gayest parliament in the world.” Not bad at all.

We talk about our first forays into lesbian culture – how much the shows with even a couple of lesbian characters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or even solid lesbian subtext (Xena) had meant to us all growing up. We all watched The L Word. There were so many sex scenes in it that I would wait until my grandparents went to church before watching an episode on Netflix lest they overhear. Needless to say, feast days and holidays of obligation (extra church on days other than Sunday) were always welcome – thanks be to God! Michela thinks this is hilarious. She watched Sugar Rush when it first aired, despite not having much English, and would watch programmes in any language provided there were lesbian characters. The lengths to which lesbians will go to see ourselves represented in the media know no bounds.

On the way to the bar, I had spotted people drinking what looked like irn-bru in wine glasses. Ilaria told me that it was, in fact, aperol spritz and suggested we have some next. She asks what’s in irn-bru. Aside from sugar and colour, I haven’t the faintest idea. Does anybody? For a time irn-bru was banned in America, which says a lot about the ingredients in Scotland’s other national drink. At first I’m not convinced by aperol spritz. Michela taps an inch down the glass and reassures me that by this point in the drink, the taste will improve. She’s right.

During

Having been anxious about Loud and United since the moment my plane tickets were booked, I feel remarkably at ease with the world on the day. Ilaria can’t make it, has to go to work first thing in the morning. Michela makes a delicious breakfast and we head out. In the lobby we pass two older women, and Michela pauses to talk to them. I assume they are neighbours, perhaps another lesbian couple, and feel glad for Ilaria and Michela. Older lesbians make the world a better place. But when she joins me on the street, Michela explains that the women go from door to door trying to convert people to Christianity. When Michela told them that she’s a lesbian, they responded that God would still love her. For a split second I wonder if it’s truly a love-thy-neighbour Christianity being advocated here, but Michela explains the catch: God is prepared to love lesbians provided we don’t have sex with women. Neither of us can keep a straight face. I asked Michela what she said to that. She replies, with a mischievous grin: “No way. I love sex with women.” Our laughter carries throughout the street. In this we are agreed. I’ll take lesbian sex over God’s love on any day ending in y.

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Michela guides me through the metro and leaves me at Grand-Place.  The square is even more beautiful than I had remembered, a magnificent display of gilt and Gothic architecture. Spotting a security guard, I explain that I’m here to help the European Women’s Lobby set up for their event. He doesn’t let me in, says the EWL aren’t here yet, and so I sit at the edge of the square and scribble away in a notebook until another volunteer arrives. With a confidence that is uniquely American, she talks security into hallletting us inside. The EWL are nowhere to be seen, so we explore the building and marvel over the opulence of Brussels. The room is extraordinary. Wooden walls panelled with richly painted murals, a high ceiling supported by ornately carved beams, and even pews lining the back – it looks more like a church than a feminist meeting space. There is something delicious about repurposing places that symbolise male wealth and power for women’s liberation. The meeting space in Glasgow Women’s Library, where we recently held an all-female literary festival, used to be a gentlemen’s reading room.

When the EWL team arrives, I am filled with relief. We set up signs and flags, put out badges, organise seat reservations, and arrange a selection of literature about the European Women’s Lobby’s projects – tasks that are comforting in their familiarity after three years of volunteering at the Women’s Library. Believing passionately in feminist documentation, I snap pictures as we go. I take a photo of Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls and text it to Liz Kelly.

Liz theorised the continuum, radically altering the way male violence is framed and conceptualised not only within feminist theory but support and prevention work. I think she’ll be pleased by the way her work is being applied but, more than that, I think she’ll enjoy “disrupting.” It’s a good word. Disruption is very Liz: being so thoroughly radical in her feminism has created a boldness in her this is catching. Being radical in my own feminism lends me a certain courage, too – not once do I question my right to be at Loud and United, or the legitimacy of being there.

As soon as we are ready, the doors open. Two hundred and fifty women from around the world enter the hall, united by a commitment to ending male violence. Edith Schratzberger-Vécsei, President of the European Women’s Lobby, gives the opening address. She talks of how habituated to male violence societies across the world have become, invites us to “disrupt an ancient system” in dismantling patriarchy. “All the forms of violence that we’ll be discussing today have one goal: to silence women.” It is fitting, then, that we should be loud as well as united.

The first panel is HERstory. Women’s organisations from across Europe share their expertise in resisting male violence against women. The agent is named. The root cause 20170608_135151is addressed. Biljana Nastovska is exactly right in her assessment of patriarchy: “violence against women is a manifestation of unequal power relations between women and men. Violence against women is not accidental, but structural and political.” There is something profoundly moving about witnessing the women of the Observatory’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls, the passion of their belief in this cause. Vanja Macanovic explains why she works for the Observatory: “As long as one woman is raped or beaten, prostituted or trafficked, the European Women’s Lobby Observatory will be there to fight it.” Her words, so resolutely spoken, have a superhero quality about them.

I wish that frontline workers in women’s organisations were celebrated and valourised the same way Wonder Woman is – while Diana Prince provides a symbol of hope, the work the women’s sector do is very real. In Britain, 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced street harassment. 45% have experienced it in a form of unwanted touching. And when women of colour resist street harassment, we get racist abuse too. The support and prevention work done in the women’s sector is vital. It makes this world a better place. The Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt neatly sums up the endemic of male violence against women: “when we talk about gender-based violence, it is violence because you are a woman.” In every society, we are punished and abused simply for having been born female.

The second panel is Inspiring Initiatives by Women’s Rights Activists. Inspiring is right. The organisations represented are La Maison des Femmes, Sexual Violence Centre Cork, Lilies of the Street, and Women’s Tribunal. These women stare unflinchingly at the very worst of male violence in order to support women through it, enduring in the hope of creating a world in which male violence is eliminated. The words of Mary Crilly (Sexual Violence Centre Cork) in particular stand out. She talks candidly about the rage she feels against male violence, how the horror of male violence weighs upon her, and feeling burnt out as a result. Mary acknowledges how high the cost can be. And then Mary describes why she keeps going, why every woman in the room must keep going too. She says “at some point in your life someone will come to you and say ‘this happened to me’. If you are open to hearing it, they will tell you.” I think of that telling. I think of being told. Mary is right when she says that meeting such a disclosure with empathy is one of the most important things any of us will ever accomplish.

The mechanism of violence is what destroys women, controls women, keeps women in their so-called place. If we want to end male violence against women, we must think of the most vulnerable and leave no woman behind. – Salome Mbugua

Next, we hear testimonies of women who have survived male violence. Witnessing this panel is an extraordinary privilege. Monica Weissel Alvarez speaks with radical honesty about her experience of intimate partner violence. The total absence of institutional support she received – Monica’s helplessness to escape her abuser, being “trapped in circles of domination” – is devastating to hear about. Alisha Watts recounts her experience of online grooming, of how she was isolated and exploited by her abuser. As Alisha’s voice trembles, I am in awe of her courage – the bravery required to share something so raw and painful in front of two hundred and fifty people in the hope of helping other women and girls. That iconic Maggie Kuhn quote springs to mind: “Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.”

The final panellist to speak is Fiona Broadfoot, who became an abolitionist campaigner upon exiting the sex industry. Nothing on this earth could have prepared me for hearing Fiona’s story. She was groomed into prostitution at fifteen and spent eleven years in the sex trade.

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Of that time, Fiona says “I was at immediate risk of extreme sexual violence and abuse. I lost my identity and what little self-confidence I had. Rape became an occupational hazard.” She repressed the trauma by telling herself it was a job like any other. At 17, Fiona told herself “innocent women will be raped if I don’t do this.” Fiona begins to cry while sharing her story, for which she makes no apology: “it’s a sign I’m a healthy human. I used to distance myself and display no emotion.” It’s only then that I notice the tears on my own face, notice that women all around the room are in tears too. There is no shame in crying. I never want to become the kind of person who can look at such injustice and remain unmoved.

As with Monica’s story, it is devastating on two levels: that Fiona experienced this violence, and that institutional misogyny meant structures that should have helped her worked against her. Fiona’s pimp was on first name terms with the Vice Squad. She was criminalised and he was not. When she tried to rebuild her life, Fiona was kicked out of her college course due to having been arrested for prostitution. Afterwards, she returned to prostitution. Fiona’s words will stay with me for the rest of my life, as will her strength and dignity. Even with so much cause to be angry at the world, Fiona spends her life trying to make it a better place for the girls who live in it. I am determined to follow her example, to emulate Fiona’s generosity of spirit. Getting called SWERF (sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist) on Twitter is a tiny, tiny price to pay for standing beside Fiona and all the women in her position, of which there are many. Although not all women survive the sex industry. The mortality rate of women in prostitution is up to forty times above the average. Between 60 and 80% of women in prostitution experience regular physical and sexual abuse by men. The sex industry isn’t revolutionary or liberating, but a manifestation of patriarchy and capitalism. It is time to end demand, to end men’s belief they are entitled to sexually access women’s bodies.

After the Stories of Survivors of Male Violence panel, I am emotionally exhausted. And so I fulfil that millennial stereotype and check my phone for a bit, retreating into the world of WhatsApp and Twitter. Liz has replied, asking if the continuum was referenced in the EWL literature. I read through the pamphlet, find no direct reference to Liz or her research, and write back to tell her. This is a difficulty within feminist theorising. Good Loud United Badgesfeminist practice involves sharing ideas and making information as widely accessible as possible. Radical feminism can challenge ownership and institutional power as following patterns of male dominance. But there is something inherently radical about acknowledging women’s work, the development of women’s ideas over time and who made it possible. As Virginia Woolf observed, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Making women’s ideas invisible, treating them as common knowledge rather than giving credit, only serves to further the erasure of women in public life. The continuum is a widely known concept. Upon seeing the pamphlet, I thought immediately of Liz’s work. But if I hadn’t read Surviving Sexual Violence (Kelly), hadn’t known where the continuum came from, making that connection would be impossible. Other women could read the pamphlet without being able to trace the idea back to its source.

Referencing women’s ideas is a revolutionary act. It is a form of resistance to say that a woman made this, a woman did this, a woman thought this. And so I reference Liz publicly, Tweeting about the use of her theory in Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls. Liz responds to my Tweet, saying that she loves this use of her work but believes as feminists we have a responsibility to acknowledge one another. The European Women’s Lobby get back to her immediately and positively. I’m confident they will add the appropriate references to the publication, and glad to have nudged them in the right direction. Acknowledging women’s ideas is at the heart of my life with Glasgow Women’s Library.

It’s just as well I do check Twitter. My friend Pauline has Tweeted her astonishment at finding me here, so far from Scotland. I fizz with excitement at the thought of Pauline here in this room. Sure enough, her Tweets pepper #LoudUnited. We make plans to meet up after the symposium. This will be the first time I have met Pauline in person, though we have been friends for over a year. We met through radical feminist Twitter. My favourite thing about Twitter is that it has the power to connect women around the world, that it hosts such a fertile ground for feminist discourse.

As the panel changes over for the final time, a woman sat in the row in front turns to face me. She asks “are you Claire? Do you write Sister Outrider?” Guilty as charged. I nod. She recognised me from Twitter, says that my writing is exciting and that she is glad to have met me. After she turns back to face the front, I mull over her words. It’s not totally uncommon to be recognised at home, buying books or visiting libraries. Those are settings in which I am expected, places where I have worked. But this is a continent away from those contexts. Although my writing has been translated, I could not have predicted that anyone would connect me to it. It is in parts disconcerting and thrilling. I vow not to let myself develop an inflated sense of self-importance, regardless of how far my writing ever reaches.

And then in walks Gloria Steinem, a masterclass in humility from which a good few writers could learn. Her presence is assured yet unobtrusive, though heads swivel. Nothing about the way Gloria conducts herself is designed to monopolise attention. She sits in the second row awaiting introduction whilst Twitter explodes with her arrival.

When Gloria takes the stage, there is heartfelt applause. She holds up one fist in a feminist salute, just like in that iconic photograph of her with Dorothy Pitman-Hughes. It

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Gloria Steinem addresses Loud and United

was Gloria’s commitment to joint speaking tours with Black women, her approach to interracial solidarity between women, that drew me to her work. And now the woman whose words have come to me through books, videos, and podcasts is speaking to this audience directly. She highlights that the women in this room have overcome boundaries of difference to come together in support of women’s liberation. Observing that patriarchy is under five thousand years old, that it was not universal and is not permanent, she creates a feeling of optimism. It is possible in that moment to imagine that a better future is within reach, a world free from male violence.

Although the word intersectionality (Crenshaw) is never explicitly used, the principles are there in what Gloria says. She talks of race and class and caste alongside gender, about how all hierarchies are interconnected, sharing her theory of supremacy crimes: acts of violence and domination committed not for material gain, but with a view to maintaining the privileges that come with being at the top of a hierarchy. Gloria credits Black Lives Matter as being “a brave and important movement” and goes on to discuss the crimes of George Zimmerman. Before he murdered Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s history was littered with acts of violence against women. In her view, these are both forms of supremacy crime. “Supremacy crimes are related. One predicts another.”

Next comes the part I have been silently dreading: the march. At risk of confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about keyboard warriors and slacktivism, I hate going to protests. It’s not a question of if I will experience an anxiety attack, but rather how many. The crush of people, the noise, the difficulty in getting away – these are difficult. Discursive activism is what comes naturally. Earlier this year I went on the Women’s March in London to protest Trump’s inauguration and the erosion of women’s rights. It was powerful to be part of that resistance. It was also terrifying. I put on an oversized pair of sunglasses and prayed that Liz – so bold and determined – wouldn’t notice that I was crying. There was a point when I wanted to ask her if we could go to one side while I closed my eyes and did a breathing exercise, but in the rush I just couldn’t find the words. So I didn’t talk to her for whole stretches of time, lost in my own panic. Liz tried to steer us through the crowds as quickly as possible. Afterwards, knowing what it cost, she told me that I did a brave thing in marching. Liz is a good friend. But today I am here alone, une femme seule. I make a beeline for Joanna, the EWL Secretary-General, and decide to keep a member of the team within sight at all times. So radical.

On the way out of the building, I hand Gloria a Glasgow Women’s Library badge. It’s one of my creations – badge-making is one of the many unexpected skills I have picked up at GWL. Another is confidence. I ask Gloria to sign her book for me, and she obliges. Joanna takes a picture of us together. And for the first time in memory I don’t look at the image wondering whether I look sufficiently thin or pretty. I look truly happy, and that is enough.

The protest is in turns brilliant and scary. Provided I keep the EWL team in sight, the panic is manageable. As we march, we chant: “Sol-sol-sol! Solidarité avec des femmes du monde entire!” Solidarity with women of the entire world. This, I believe in wholeheartedly. Loud and United feels like a fitting description of the group. People stop to listen to our message, to watch the protest go past. The crowd is dotted with pussy hats and feminist banners. We are a force to be reckoned with. A shout goes up: “keep your rosaries away from my ovaries!”

A stage is waiting in the middle of the square. Various women’s organisations wave banners and lead chants. Balloons are blown up. T-shirts and badges are handed out. On the other side of the square, women draw the Venus symbol in purple chalk. In the middle, they lay flowers in memory of all the women killed by male violence. A feeling of harmony between women makes alright simply to occupy this space.

IMG_20170609_224917_653Wielding an impressive megaphone, Joanna takes the stage to introduce Gloria. Perhaps it is my imagination, but Gloria seems more at ease in the midst of a protest than behind a lectern. She observes a truth that is obvious to women of colour yet often disregarded within mainstream feminist spaces: “Sexism and racism go together. You can’t fight one without the other.” The Black women beside me cheer, and I do too. It feels good to have the connection between racism and misogyny acknowledged, highlighted by a woman who is arguably the world’s most recognisable living feminist. There is always that danger in feminist space that white will be treated as the standard unit of womanhood.

Girls line the front of the stage holding up the Loud and United banner. It is moving to see the future of feminism standing before a woman who is emblematic of the second wave, the past and the future woven together in the present. The smallest girl raises her fist like Gloria. When the rally is over, Gloria gestures to the girl’s father who lifts her onto the stage. I love this *picture. It captures the joy, the hope, and the solidarity of the day.

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(*Image shared with the express permission of the child’s parent. Not to be recirculated.)

As the rally disbands, two young women sat smoking on the stage call me over. Both recognise the Glasgow Women’s Library logo on my tote bag. One of their friends was an ERASMUS exchange student in Edinburgh and frequently travelled through to GWL. Many women in and around Glasgow consider the Library a home away from home, a peaceful place to work or while away the hours. It’s nice to think of that Women’s Library joy sending ripples across the continent, of international connections between women.

After

Following the buzz of the protest, it is a relief to sit and chat with my AGORA sisters: Ilaria, Ahinara, and Aurelie. Ahinara has a Spanish translation of Gloria’s book, which I 20170609_224529admire. We get drinks and snacks from a nearby supermarket and listen to a salsa band play live music. It feels good to simply be in that moment. Michela joins us when she finishes work, and I finally get to chat to Pauline in person. We talk about the power of radical feminist Twitter, how online misogyny works to silence women, and anonymity on social media. Wary of threats and violence, Pauline doesn’t share her name or location on Twitter. This layer of privacy enables her to maintain a distance between life online and offline. Men tend to exploit anonymity, use it as a shield from consequence when sending abuse, whereas women often use anonymity as a way of protecting ourselves from abuse. To an extent I regret not creating a separate Twitter account for Sister Outrider and remaining anonymous, but at first it never occurred to me that more than a dozen people would actually bother to read this blog.

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As ever, I am astonished by the energy of my AGORA sisters. Ahinara goes to do more work, and Aurélie departs for a feminist meeting. The rest of us wander through Brussels in search of food. Over dinner we discuss how male violence shapes the very fabric of society. More importantly, we discuss forms of resistance. There is a slight irony to sipping a neon blue cocktail named after Walter White, a character who typifies Toxic Masculinity: Nice Guy™ edition, as the conversation unfolds. Pauline tells us of a case in which a violent father used his last weekend of unsupervised visitation rights to murder his two children and commit suicide in order to punish his wife for ending their marriage. Their bodies, well-hidden, were found by chance. He had intended for her to spend the rest of her life wondering what happened to her missing children. It’s a harrowing story, not an isolated incident but part of the pattern of male violence. Sometimes I think the company of other women – their understanding and encouragement – is the only thing that makes life under patriarchy bearable. That, and good food.

Before she goes, Pauline invites me to come for a visit in her home country. I accept. In the style of Shonda, this is my year of yes – no more turning down adventures or opportunities. Radical feminist Twitter is a brilliant community, connecting women around the world. It’s filled with challenges and complexities, but also women looking to share and develop their ideas. It’s also a good place to make friends. My generation were warned about stranger danger online, yet there are few things I delight in more than meeting radical feminists from Twitter in person. There is something wonderful about being together with someone that has shared space and ideas with you. Bridging the gap between community space online and offline isn’t always practical, but it can be wonderful.

 

Ilaria and Michela take my for my first authentic Belgian waffle, which tastes like heaven, and tour of the Brussels gay scene, which feels like home. In both aesthetic and atmosphere, the bar we gravitate towards reminds me of nothing so much as Delmonica’s, though no doves hang from the ceiling. But first they give me a tour of LGBT 20170609_224229art around the area. For Pride, a crossing is made into a rainbow. In the alley beside Rainbow House, there are gorgeous protest murals as tall as the surrounding buildings. It’s touching to witness this art as resistance, touching that Ilaria and Michela thought to show it to me. There is a popular saying in radical lesbian circles: “A day without lesbians is like a day without sunshine.” Ilaria and Michela remind me of the truth in those words. We discuss lesbian culture over cocktails, including mounting tension between lesbian and queer politics. Like every lesbian I know back home, Ilaria is frustrated that LGBT spaces are dominated by gay men. Still, there is something undeniably wholesome about seeing men sharing tender gestures – holding hands, cuddling on benches, and kissing one another on the mouth in greeting. It’s a refreshing change from the brutality of conventional masculinity.

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“I hope you realise that what you see in porn is not real life lesbian sex! It’s just girls having sex the way men would want them to…”

The next morning, I’m up early – a little fuzzy after the previous night’s antics, but filled with purpose. Pierrette has invited me to join an abolitionist meeting she is facilitating with young activists from across Europe. During Young Feminist Summer School Pierrette ran a workshop on prostitution, the sex industry, and why the European Women’s Lobby endorses the Nordic Model called Whose Choice? – I was impressed by how she conducted that session and am keen to see what other forms her work takes. Like so many great things, the meeting happens in a library. Stickers on the spines of books make books about women, sexual politics, and gender easy to find.

Often we are told that ending demand is impossible, that in this world men will inevitably buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Proponents of the sex industry commonly fall back on the defence that “it has always been this way”, positioning opposition to the prostitution of women as naïve. Similarly, social conservatives tell us that male dominance over women is part of the natural order. Both rely on a sense of hopelessness at the scale of the problem to discourage feminists from pursuing social change. Yet this network of activists demonstrate such commitment to ending demand that I can’t help feeling hopeful, even if it is an uphill struggle. They care. That’s such a simple thing to say, but it’s true. They care. And how one views the sex industry does ultimately boil down to a question of empathy. To feel empathy with women, one must recognise us as fully human. And it is impossible to simultaneously feel empathy with women and view our bodies as sexual objects which money entitles men to access.

20170609_225123A narrative of “choice” is often used to whitewash the structural power imbalances upon which the sex industry depends. According to research, “poverty, family loss, homelessness, drug addiction and a history of physical and sexual abuse combine to make young women vulnerable to entering prostitution.” Consideration of choice without analysis of context is meaningless when discussing the realities of women – and they are overwhelmingly women – prostituted as part of the sex industry. When we talk about choice in relation to prostitution, it is important to scrutinise the choice of the men who buy sex. We must question why so many men feel entitled to sex with women, why they consider sexual access to our bodies an inalienable right. This meeting is one of those rare occasions in life when I am truly happy to see that men are part of the group, giving wholehearted opposition to the sex industry. After all, demand will not end until men’s attitudes towards women change.

Mid-way through the session, Gloria Steinem makes a surprise appearance. I don’t notice her straight away, having returned from the bathroom, although she is sitting directly in front of me. Gloria fits into the group quite naturally. She participates in but does not dominant the conversation between activists and experts, making the odd suggestion when useful. I like that her public profile hasn’t distracted Gloria from feminist activism and organising. The way she occupies group space, present and unassuming, is true to good feminist practice. Though I could happily spend all day learning from this group – not simply what they say, but how they say it – I must resume my own life on the road.

As I leave the room, Hanuka presses a copy of her book into my hands. Big City Violets is a diary of her time as a social worker, filled with difficult truths and delicate line drawings, which makes this gift all the more personal. I begin to read it on the journey home, until the turbulence grows too much. Even then it stays in my thoughts. Writing can be cathartic, a way of giving voice to painful things that are hard to express and making sure they no longer go unseen. Hanuka’s book shows a cycle of trafficking and prostitution and drug addiction and violence, a cycle that decimates women’s lives. Not only did Hanuka contain those truths within herself, she put them out into the world. So the seeds of liberation are planted.

Exhaustion catches up with me as I zig-zag through passport control. I wonder what Brexit will mean for determining airport lines, how we will queue – such a British worry. But dividing people by whose passport is EU and whose isn’t becomes redundant. Both trips to Brussels filled me with an appreciation for the European Union, in particular all the social good it has made possible. A familiar feeling of horror sets in as I consider anew the consequences of Brexit. What good are the politics of isolation?

Airports are terrible places for grief. I think it’s because the world is filtered into a binary of home and elsewhere, the familiar and the unknown. A part of me cannot help but expect that my grandfather will be there waiting for me, as he so often was, eager to hear what I have achieved during the course of my absence from our home. I remember his delight as I stepped onto the ward last September – the promise of home I brought to him, as he so often brought to me. I remember the scratchy blue wool of his jumper against my cheek. But my mother is waiting for me, has driven over an hour to collect me. There’s work to do at the Women’s Library, on Sister Outrider, and in so many other spaces. I have stories to share and truths to tell. Coming back is not always easy, and neither is continuing. But if we do not return from one adventure then we cannot begin the next.


Bibliography

Kat Banyard. (2016). Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. (1989). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color

Gail Dines. (2010). Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality

Liz Kelly. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence

Hanukah Lohrengel. (2016). Big City Violets

Audre Lorde. (1977). The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

Christine Miserandino. (2003). The Spoon Theory

Rachel Moran. (2013). Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution

Gloria Steinem. (2015). My Life on the Road

Grasping Things at the Root: On Young Women & Radical Feminism

A brief foreword: a number of young women have contacted me in the last year, writing to ask about what it is like to be publicly radical in my feminism. That young women embrace radical feminism makes me optimistic for the future. That young women are too scared to be open about their radical feminism is utterly grim. And so this post is dedicated to every young woman bold enough to ask questions and challenge answers.

Update: this post has since been translated into French.


 

Why does radical feminism get so much bad press?

Radical feminism isn’t popular. That’s not exactly a secret – Pat Robertson’s infamous Holy Cow! Too Funny!!!!!!claim that the feminist agenda “…encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians” has set the tone for mainstream discussions of radical feminism. While Robertson’s perspective on radical feminism verges upon parody, his misogyny served with a side of blatant lesbophobia, it has also served to frame radical feminism as suspect.

If radical feminism can be written off as something sinister or dismissed as the butt of a joke, none of the difficult questions about the patriarchal structuring of society need to be answered – subsequently, power need not be redistributed, and members of the oppressor classes are saved from any challenging self-reflection. Rendering radical feminism monstrous is a highly effective way of shutting down meaningful political change, of maintaining the status quo. It is, therefore, predictable that the socially conservative right are opposed to radical feminism.

What’s often more difficult to anticipate is the venom directed towards radical feminism thought by the progressive left, which is assumed to support the politics of social justice. For women to achieve that justice, we must be liberated from patriarchy – including the constraints of gender, which is both a cause and consequence of male dominance. Yet, when one considers why that hostility emerged, it becomes sadly predictable.

Two factors enabled the left to legitimise its opposition to radical feminism. Firstly, the way in which liberation politics have been atomised by neoliberalism and replaced by the politics of choice (Walter). Personal choice, not political context, has become the preferred unit of feminist analysis. Therefore, critical analysis of personal choice – as advocated by radical feminism – has become a matter of contention despite its necessity in driving meaningful social change. The second factor is the gradual mainstreaming of a queer approach to gender. Instead of considering gender as a hierarchy to be opposed and abolished, queer politics position it as a form of identity, a part to be performed or subverted. This approach ultimately depoliticises gender, which is far from subversive, disregarding its role in maintaining women’s oppression by men. Feminists who are critical of gender are treated as the enemy, not gender in itself.

As a result, we find ourselves in a context where radical feminism is reviled across the political spectrum. On social media it feels as though radical feminists are just as likely to be abused by self-proclaimed queer feminists as we are men’s rights activists – the main difference between the two groups is that MRAs are honest about the fact they hate women.

Young women in particular are discouraged from taking up the mantle of radical feminism. We have been raised on a diet of hollow buzzwords like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’, taught to pursue equality instead of liberation. From the ‘90s onwards, feminism has been presented as a brand accessed through commercialism and slogans instead of a social movement with the objective of dismantling white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks).

guerilla girlaThe third wave of feminism was marketed as a playful alternative to the seriousness of the second wave, which is routinely misrepresented as joyless and dour. Manifestations of women’s oppression, such as the sex industry, were repackaged as harmless choices with the potential to empower (Murphy). If young women are not prepared to accept pole dancing and prostitution as a harmless bit of fun, we risk being tarred by the same boring brush as the second wave; we are denied the label of “cool girl” and all the perks that come with remaining unchallenging to patriarchy. It is no coincidence that “pearl-clutching” and “prude”, accusations commonly directed towards radical feminists, are loaded with ageist misogyny – if radical feminists are presumed to be older women, the logic of patriarchy dictates that radical feminism must be boring and irrelevant. Both the desire for male approval that is drilled into girls from birth and the tacit threat of being associated with older women are used to keep young women from identifying with radical feminism.

Liberal feminism has gained mainstream appeal precisely because it doesn’t threaten the status quo. If the powerful are comfortable with a particular form of feminism – liberal feminism, corporate “lean in” feminism, sex-positive feminism – it is because that feminism presents no challenge to the hierarchies from which their power stems. Such feminism can offer no meaningful social change and is therefore incapable of benefiting any oppressed class.

What are the negative consequences of being openly radical?

The backlash to being openly radical is the least fortunate element of it. I won’t lie: in the beginning, that can be intimidating. With time that fear will fade, if not dissipate. You will stop thinking “I couldn’t possibly say that” and start wondering “why didn’t I say that sooner?” The truth demands to be told, regardless of whether or not it happens to be convenient. Backlash and abuse directed towards radical feminists is a silencing tactic, plain and simple. Whether it comes from the conservative right or queer feminist left, that backlash (Faludi) is a means of silencing dissenting women’s voices. This realisation is freeing, both on a personal and political level. Personally, the good opinion of misogynists is of little value. Politically, it becomes clear that speaking out is an act of resistance. You will simply stop caring.

It takes energy, carrying the hatred people direct towards you – at some point you will realise that you’re not obliged to shoulder that burden and give yourself permission to set it down. Spend that energy on yourself instead. Read a book. Play an instrument. Talk with your mum. Do your nails. Binge-watch The Walking Dead. The time you spend worrying what people say about you, worrying if people like you, is a precious resource that cannot be recovered. Do not give them the gift of your worry – it is exactly what they want. Evict haters from your headspace.

You’re scared of being called a TERF. Let’s be real. That fear of being branded a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is why so many feminists are afraid to be openly radical, are increasingly unwilling to acknowledge gender as a hierarchy. And that’s alright to feel that fear – it’s meant to be scary. However, the fear needs to be put into perspective. The first time I was ever called “TERF” was for sharing a petition opposing female genital mutilation on Twitter. And when I pointed out that girls were at risk of FGM precisely because they were born female in patriarchy, that the girls who are cut are often of colour, often living within the global south (Spivak) – not exactly enjoying a wealth of cis privilege – the accusations only continued.

It spreads like wildfire. Because I did not repent for sharing that petition, because I did not condemn other women to save myself in the court of public opinion, it went on. That I am a lesbian (a woman who experiences same-sex attraction, i.e. disinterested in sex involving a penis) has only fanned the flames. My name can now be found on various shit lists and auto-block tools across the internet, which is pretty funny. Sometimes you do just have to laugh – it’s the only way to stay sane.

What’s less amusing is being told that I am dangerous. There is an insidious idea that any feminist who queries or critiques a queer perspective on gender is some sort of menace to society. Women who have devoted their adult lives to ending male violence against women are now described, without a trace of irony, as being violent. On a political level, it’s disturbing that disagreement over the nature of gender is positioned as violence within feminist discourse. There is an undeniably Orwellian quality to those opposing violence being described as violent, a double-speak perfected by queer politics. Framing gender-critical feminists as violent erases the reality that men perpetrate the overwhelming majority of violence against trans people and, in doing so, removes any possibility for men to be held accountable for that violence. Men are not blamed for their deeds, no matter how much harm they cause, whereas women are often brutally targeted for our ideas – in this respect, queer discourse mirrors the standards set by patriarchy.

Radical feminism is commonly treated as being synonymous with or indicative of transphobia, which is deeply misleading. The word transphobia implies a revulsion or disgust that simply is not there in radical feminism. I want all people identifying as trans to be safe from harm, persecution, and discrimination. I want all people identifying as trans to be treated with respect and dignity. And I do not know another radical feminist who would argue for anything less. Although radical and queer perspectives on gender are conflicting, this does not stem from bigotry on the part of the former. Abolishing the hierarchy of gender has always been a key aim of radical feminism, a necessary step in liberating women from our oppression by men.

As is often the case with structural analysis, it is necessary to think in terms of the oppressor class and the oppressed class. Under patriarchy, the male sex is the oppressor and the female sex the oppressed – that oppression is material in basis, reliant on the exploitation of female biology. It is impossible to articulate the means of women’s oppression without acknowledging the role played by biology and considering gender as a hierarchy – deprived of the language to articulate our oppression, language which queer politics deems violent or bigoted, it is impossible for women to resist our oppression. Therein sits the tension.

joan jettUltimately, getting called names on the internet is a cost I am more than willing to pay if it is the price required to oppose violence against women and girls. Were it otherwise, I would be unable to call myself a feminist.

Did I choose to be ‘out’ as radical?

At no point did I make a decision to be publicly radical. Even in its most basic form, my feminism understood that ‘sex positivity’ and porn culture were repackaging women’s exploitation as ‘empowering’, that endless talk about choice only served to obscure the context in which those choices are made. I also recall being puzzled by the words sex and gender being used interchangeably in contemporary discourse – the former is a biological category, the latter is a social construction fabricated to enable the oppression of women by men. Seeing gender treated as an amusing provocation or, worse, something innate in our minds, was deeply disconcerting – after all, if gender is natural or inherent, so too is patriarchy. I was conscious that my views were considered old-fashioned but, although it was slightly isolating, not troubled by the tension between me and what I now know to be liberal feminism.

It was only through finding radical feminist Twitter that I realised plenty of International-Feminism-01contemporary feminists thought with the same framework, that these ideas did not exist solely in books that had been written some twenty years before I was born. I do not say this to disparage the feminism of the 1970s, but rather to point out that there was an almost wishful nostalgia to my conceptualisation of that era and the politics it embodied. The second wave felt impossibly far away – thinking about it was like thinking of a party for which you are already decades too late. It felt like that feminism, of radical ideas and action, was gone. Now I realise that is exactly what young women are conditioned to think in the hope that we will grow complacent and accept our oppression instead of challenging it at the root.

Having grown up and developed my ideas, it now seems unlikely I would have found a place had I been of that context – as lesbian feminists go, I am fairly apolitical with regard to sexuality: I’m still not convinced it is possible to choose to be a lesbian, do not know that I would choose to be a lesbian even if the option had been there (there is an undeniable appeal to being slightly more ‘of’ than Other), and oppose the notion that bisexual women are being half-hearted in their feminist praxis because they will not ‘become’ lesbians. Yet, I would not have found my way into those conversations without radical feminist Twitter.

As my political consciousness was catalysed by radical feminist Twitter, a community that continues to challenge and delight me, it seemed natural to participate in that discourse publicly. I was more concerned about developing my ideas – learning from and, later on, teaching other women – than any potential reaction. Perhaps naïvely, I had not fully considered the convenience of closeting my politics. Being connected to radical feminist discourse, engaging with its ideas and the women behind them, was always the priority. I did not initially consider the possibility of acquiring public profile, and now consider it as a largely unfortunate by-product of my participation in feminist discourse as opposed to something worth maintaining in its own right – perhaps why I do not self-censor for the sake of popularity.

Are there professional consequences for being a radical feminist?

It depends on what you do. Countless radical feminists have been reported to their employers for differentiating between sex and gender. Being openly radical when you work in the women’s sector carries a particular risk. Similarly, women who are academics or hold some form of institutional power are in a delicate position, faced with the dilemma of jeopardising a career or speaking out. I know dozens of radical feminists who achieve more social good for other women by saying nothing explicitly radical whilst doing the most extraordinary, necessary work. None of that work would be possible if those women chose to die on the hill of gender politics. A direct result of that would be other women losing out – from literacy classes to policy on male violence, there would be very real consequences if covertly radical women lost their positions. There are times when staying quiet is the smarter option, particularly in conversations about gender politics, and I will not condemn women who make that tactical decision.

My career is freelance – in this respect, being directly accountable only to myself is useful. That being said, a freelance career is dependent on organisations being willing to commission my writing or workshops. Becoming a pariah is fairly counterproductive in that respect. At points people have contacted (or at least threatened to contact) places where I study, volunteer, and write. Nothing has ever come of it. Why? Their accusations are false. I have nothing to hide about feminism – there is no shameful secret at the heart of my sexual politics. I will only ever say what I believe in, what I can back up with evidence, what a substantial body of feminist theory supports.

Being able to speak with conviction and follow through when questioned is crucial. Those qualities are also what appeal to the people and organisations who hire me. A recurring theme with commissions: at least one person within the organisation has covertly voiced support for my radical feminism. Radical feminism is less of an anathema than we are made to believe.

I am commissioned to produce work that I believe in. Nothing my detractors have said or done changes that fact. To quote Beyoncé, the best revenge is your paper.

How do non-radical feminists react?

Badly. Not always, but often. Some of the most rewarding and thought-provoking engagements are with women who are not radical feminists yet engage in good faith. Unfortunately, those interactions are in the minority.

Abuse from strangers, while it can be frightening, is something to which I have grown habituated. I report it to the relevant authorities and move on. Following the most concentrated period of abuse I have endured, it was not the threats that weighed on my mind, but the responses of queer and liberal feminists. A number openly celebrated my abuse and its consequences. Theirs is the type of feminism that is opposed to racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. up until the point those prejudices damage someone whose politics do not align with their own. That was disconcerting. Be prepared for those moments. Be prepared to lose false friends, too.

It’s a strange position to be in. If the label TERF has ever been applied to you, it strips away something of your humanity in the eyes of the wider public. You are no longer viewed as a worthy recipient of empathy or even basic human decency. This isn’t surprising, because TERF is often used in conjunction with violent threats and graphic descriptions of abuse. It legitimises violence against women.

TERF functions something like “witch” in The Crucible. Only by condemning other women can you avoid that condemnation yourself. There is a frantic edge behind the panic it spreads. There are plenty of feminists who will be prepared to monster you to save their own reputations. They are not worth your respect, let alone the time it would take to puzzle out their motives.

It is also worth considering the responses of feminists who are not publicly radical. Women routinely tell me that I am saying what they believe, express gratitude that I speak out, tell me that my words resonate. And this is gratifying, yes, but it is also isolating. An almost supernatural courage is projected onto openly radical women, an exceptionalism that is often used by other women to justify their silence. Glosswitch often speaks about this phenomenon, and she is right – it would be far more rewarding if the women who offer private support would publicly claim their own radical politics instead, provided they are in a position to do so.


 

Bibliography

bell hooks. (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

Feminist Current

Miranda Kiraly  & Meagan Tyler (eds.). (2015). Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism

Gayatri Spivak. (1987). In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

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

 

 

 

But Some of Us are Brave – Questions on Race and Feminism

Since starting Sister Outrider, I have received questions about race and feminism on a regular basis. Now I’m going to take those questions and answer them publicly – all queries will be dealt with anonymously, so you have nothing to lose by asking. Anything asked in good faith will be answered in kind, so email your questions to me at SisterOutrider@outlook.com. This first Q&A was a delight to conduct – with the thought and the honesty women put into their questions, how could it be anything else? So please don’t be shy.


 

Question: What are the main differences in UK and US feminism based on race?

First off, it’s important to state that my life, and subsequently my activism, has all been lived and carried out in the context of the UK – I’m Scottish. I’m also Black and, as a result, will restrict my observations to that because it is both my lane and my area of expertise. Although the majority of Black feminist theory and activism influencing my own work was and continues to be North American, that’s not the same as having the experience of activism in an American setting. In fact, I’d be fascinated to hear what Black women across the pond would make of this same question… But here is my answer:

Although discussion about race in the feminist movement is far from perfect in the USA, in many ways it strikes me as being more open. Maybe that has something to do with British repressiveness. Irrespective of whether white women engage with what their Black sisters have to say in the States, historical racism is more difficult to sweep under the carpet because slavery took place on American soil. It’s much harder to deny. On numerous occasions, white feminist women have informed me – without a trace of irony – that racism is “all over there”, in the American feminist movement. They speak as though women of all races are listened to and prioritised equally within our branch of the movement, and feign a sort of colour-blindness on the understanding that we’re all sisters together. This approach is in keeping with how Britain as a whole treats racism, completely overlooking Britain’s own colonial legacy; how much wealth was generated from slavery; the racial hierarchy used to justify imperialist expansionism; how that wealth and that world view shape today’s political landscape, even within the feminist movement. As a result, white women can be quite disingenuous when talking about race.

In other ways, I think it’s very similar. The problems that African-American feminists talk about relating to race and feminism are almost entirely the problems that Black feminists face in Britain, too. On a daily basis, I see Black women from the UK and the US dealing with the same racism from white women. That shared experience is, in part, why Black feminist texts originating in the States are influential to Black feminist praxis in the UK.

Question: How can non-Black feminists begin to understand the experiences of Black women?

For white women: By listening to us, engaging with what we are telling you, and reflecting on it. By looking at the dynamic of race with the same critical eyes you turn towards examining the dynamic of gender. By accepting that Black womanhood is an entirely plural thing, meaning that our experiences vary due to factors such as class, sexuality, disability, and where we are situated by geopolitics. By ceasing to conceptualise Blackness as something distinct to, separate from, womanhood. By understanding that – no matter how well intentioned – claiming our experiences mirror those of white women is ultimately deeply unhelpful, as it erases a significant part of our reality.

For non-Black women of colour: Though our experiences are not the same, the road to solidarity between us is a smoother. Acknowledging those differences and amplifying one another’s voices is the way to continue paving it, to develop mutual understanding.

Question: Beyond listening to our sisters of colour, are there any practical and direct actions that white women can take with race and feminism? Or any recommendations on books/articles/movies etc. that you feel have covered this subject in an honest and useful way?

Listening is only the first part of a process. Be open to learning, honestly exploring what we say, and even changing your perspective. Think critically about which voices you listen to and value within the feminist movement, which feminist writers you read, which feminist thinkers influence your praxis – what is prioritised and what is not. Since whiteness is treated like a neutral standard, even within the feminist movement, it can be very easy to fall into a pattern of engaging with only white women’s words and ideas. I know I was once guilty of this. You can break that cycle by actively seek out writing by women of colour. After a time, it will become second nature. In addition to challenging racist assumptions, reading our work also makes it more difficult for white women to dismiss us as a subgroup of womanhood, to categorise us as Other and, subsequently, less relevant to the feminist movement.

When interacting with women of colour, remain mindful of the dynamic of race – the difference in structural power, how that manifests. A key problem is that when women of colour voice our experiences, articulate how race intersects with sex, white women speak over us. For example: “That doesn’t happen/I’ve never noticed that.” White women position their own experiences as objective, accepted as standard within feminist dialogue, yet treat what women of colour have to say about race as subjective – based more in our skewed perception than in the material reality of structural inequalities. So often, white women would rather contradict us rather than confront the possibility of their own racism. By applying the same critical thinking to racism as misogyny, actively exploring the resultant ideas even when it becomes uncomfortable, white women can support women of colour.

The first piece of writing I recommend is the conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. It can be found in Sister Outsider, a collection of Lorde’s essays, reflections, and speeches. This is described as an interview but, in truth, it’s more of a dialogue – a mutual process. Lorde and Rich were both radically lesbian women, sharing not only a great deal of common ground, but a mutual affinity: they explored each other’s ideas fully, shared an honesty that made their negotiation of race authentic. To put it plainly, they got each other. That relationship demonstrates the best of possibilities for relationships between Black and white feminist women. That Lorde spoke so openly on the subject of race, about how her Blackness shaped her experiences, to Rich – a white woman – indicates a rare ease between them. Throughout that exchange, it is also clear that Rich is conscious of where her whiteness positions her in relation to Lorde.

To a large extent I think it was enabled by their adherence to lesbian ethics. Although lesbian feminism is frequently treated with derision, lesbophobic stereotyping used as a foil to reassure young women that fighting for equality will not, in fact, result in them becoming ugly, angry man-haters, I think it has a lot to offer the contemporary feminist movement. Particularly with regard to race and interracial solidarity between women, a lesbian approach is so far ahead of most other forms of feminist praxis – queer feminism included. With this answer, it would be impossible (and somewhat dishonest) to ignore that my meaningful connections with white women are predominantly between me and white lesbians. That’s out of step with fashionable thinking, of course, but it is the deepest truth I have to offer.

I would also recommend the work of bell hooks, starting with Feminism is for Everybody. She writes in a way that is both direct and accessible about interracial dynamics in feminism, discomfort, and how to achieve sustainable solidarity. Another important work to consider is Angela Davis’ autobiography – in her struggle against all forms of structural oppression, Davis worked alongside people of both sexes, people of all colours and creeds. That she was receptive to this is attributed to the influence of her mother, Sallye Davis, who taught a young Angela the importance of marginalised groups being able to unite. In terms of fiction, the writings of Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jackie Kay all offer a great deal of insight into how race works in practical and social terms.

Question: What is your view on political Blackness?

The idea has been a part of British activism since the 1970s at least, so I’m slightly puzzled as to why this has only just become a controversy. Initially, political Blackness was used in much the same sense that people of colour is used now – an umbrella term to denote solidarity based on shared experience resulting from where we are positioned by race.

I first encountered the term with my research into Black British feminist activism that took place during the early 1980s. When I met with my supervisor to discuss my placement, she asked – as a number of Black groups I encountered were in fact women of colour – if the scope of my research included political Blackness. I explained that I wanted to focus specifically on Black women’s work. To her credit, she (a white woman) did not try to persuade me otherwise and simply reminded me to outline the parameters of my research, including a justification of how and why I shaped them. That was that. Although bemused by the term on occasion, sometimes concerned by its implications, I was mainly impressed by what women of colour achieved together. Wrongly, I assumed it had faded from the activist lexicon over time and so did not give its subsequent use a great deal of thought. I had imagined it was like when an old person says coloured instead of Black – disquieting, but not representative of how things are typically described: an unfortunate throwback.

Although I fully support interracial solidarity between people of colour, the term political Blackness glosses over nuances that need to be fully explored for that solidarity to exist. It conceals anti-Black racism. It erases the cultures and identities of non-Black people of colour. The idea of political Blackness also makes me uncomfortable, because Blackness isn’t something I can opt in and out of – it’s an inherent part of me that shapes every aspect of my life, overtly political or not. If we flipped it and had Black people describing ourselves as politically Asian, that would be both ludicrous and deeply inappropriate. Black people have no right to claim the experiences or identities of Asian people as our own, for any purpose. The end doesn’t justify the means, especially not when we can use unifying terms like people of colour to describe ourselves collectively.

As is the case with colourism, this is one of those subjects that white journalists are going to write poorly informed think-pieces about that only serve to muddy the water. This is a discussion that needs to take place between people of colour – a conversation that is vital, but cannot be used by whites to undermine our solidarity or collective political action.

Question: Should we [women of colour] take a global approach? Join forces? How do you see feminism creating that bridge?

Absolutely! A global feminist movement is essential to driving any meaningful cultural shift away from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Feminism is capable of creating that bridge, of connecting all women, but to do so it must cease prioritising white, middle-class, and corporate women above their less privileged sisters – actively challenge all forms of oppression beyond gender. Quite a lot of Black feminist theory provides a blueprint for this. I would recommend starting with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, We Should All be Feminists, which has also been adapted into a short book. It’s very accessible, but deals with complex themes – structural inequality, feminism in a global context, how different prejudices can overlap. The work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty is also essential when considering visions of global feminism.

Question: How do I talk to white people about intersectionality? How do I make them understand that teaching on women’s leadership entirely through the white lens doesn’t deal with people of colour’s experiences? That there are people coming from a different social environment?

That’s an excellent question, and one that I’m still grappling with. If a white person has never before been expected to consider their own privilege in relation to a person of colour, to explore the idea that their reality is cushioned by a layer or privilege that comes at the expense of another, it can be a very difficult conversation. Rather than engage with what you are saying, quite a lot of white people will reframe the discussion as personal attack, making their hurt feelings the centre of that conversation. Initiating this dialogue has the unfortunate side-effect of providing you with a masterclass on white fragility – by the time it’s through, you’ll be an expert in how that works. Yet, despite how tiring gets explaining that those hurt feelings are a luxury compared to life under structural, systematic racism, it is vital that we speak out. I respect you for taking a stand, sister.

If there is a perfect method, I am yet to find it, but this is how I talk to white people about intersectionality. Initially, I avoid using words like ‘privilege’ or ‘oppression’ in order to keep them from going on the defensive – that all comes into play once you establish a dialogue with them. Find some mutual ground and work with them from there. With white women, I talk with them about our experiences of misogyny until we have an understanding of sorts and then link in how racism overlaps with that in relation to sexual harassment (white men’s assumption that Black women are hypersexual savages), gendered perceptions of my emotions (being written off as an Angry Black Woman), etc. Mostly that works. With men of colour, I reverse that process and transition from our shared experience of racism to my co-existing experiences of racism and sexism. With white men, it can be more difficult because there is less common understanding of oppression. In queer spaces, it varies. Some gay white men are open to that discussion, capable of applying the logic of their own situation to yours. Other white gay men are utterly convinced that nobody has ever been more oppressed than they are, and nothing you can say will change that level of irrational belief. It’s difficult.

Being personal will help with conversations on power and privilege. It demonstrates the practical application of intersectionality, and makes it seem more relevant – an approachable concept rather than abstract feminist jargon. It also makes the whole thing seem more human.

Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the third in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement, in which I explore the pitfalls of feminist theory treating white womanhood as the normative standard. Part 1 can be accessed here, part 2 here.


 

Throughout the rich and varied body of feminist theory, within every facet of feminist activism, the rights of women are a central concern – and that is all to the good.  Whether the issue relates to women’s bodily autonomy, socio-economic standing, or political representation, challenging the secondary position women occupy in society is fundamental to feminist theory and practice alike. Yet the question of which women are prioritised within feminism and why cannot be easily dismissed – hierarchies are established and maintained, even under the politics of liberation. Given the feminist movement’s flawed relationship with race, it is a question that requires thorough consideration before it can be answered honestly.

In 1851, an emancipated slave by the name of Sojourner Truth addressed the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and posed the following question: ain’t I a woman?  That Truth’s speech was distorted by the white gaze in the process of transcription, her dialect roughened and reshaped to fit the popular image of Negro then held by the public imagination – a Southern slave – does not detract from the power of her words. Truth provided one of the earliest and most meaningful deconstructions of womanhood found within feminist theory, unpicking the racism and misogyny defining the cult of true womanhood. Truth was a staunch advocate for the human rights of all women, irrespective of race, and Black men. Her critique of the normative standard of woman remains relevant to this very day.

Feminism has an ongoing problem with race. The movement did not form inside a social vacuum, separate and distinct from white supremacy – indeed, many among its earliest American campaigners became staunch supporters of white superiority when it appeared that Black men would receive the right to vote before white women.

“White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” – Carrie Chapman Catt, 1859-1947 (Founder of the League of Women Voters)

White women made use of racism, exploited racist assumptions, for their own benefit (Davis, 1981). That is an unavoidable truth. White racism is an undeniable part of feminist history, has continually influenced the development of feminist theory, and can be traced directly from early to contemporary feminist discourse.

Mary Wollstonecraft drew numerous unfortunate comparisons between the plight of white women, often with a degree of material and class privilege, and that of their enslaved Black sisters. Wollstonecraft was an abolitionist, a pioneering feminist thinker, yet her otherwise rigorous challenge to the dominant social order was undermined by the polemic slavery analogy (Ferguson, 1992). The argument is of course made that Wollstonecraft was a product of her time, that within her context she was a revolutionary. Except that with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft unwittingly set a pattern of behaviour that continues to manifest in feminist praxis: a failure to acknowledge how women are positioned by race.

The Feminine Mystique, a book frequently credited with catalysing the second wave of feminism, relied on both racist and classist assumptions. In her study of “the problem that has no name”, Betty Friedan completely overlooked that women of colour and working class women worked outside of the home out of sheer necessity, treating the white, middle-class and college educated woman’s experience as standard (hooks, 1982). In Against Our Will, a book that revolutionised the understanding of rape, Susan Brownmiller exploited racist assumptions of a bestial Black masculinity, the flip-side of which is a hypersexual Black femininity (Davis, 1981) – small wonder that women of colour were alienated by popular feminist thought. Although a great deal of radical feminist thought operated on what would now be considered an intersectional basis, writing from the second wave often treated white womanhood as normative, and women of colour were routinely marginalised within feminist activism (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981. Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982).

Little changed with the third wave of feminism – if anything, emphasis on the individual circumvented any meaningful analysis of structural racism. Even as intersectionality has come to shape recent developments in the feminist movement, white women routinely use it as a means of virtue signalling. Intersectionality is often treated as a way of paying lip service to women of colour without meaningfully exploring any factor shaping our realities beyond the hierarchy of gender. Numerous feminist books published within the last five years have a token chapter (if we’re lucky…) devoted to the intersection of race and sex. To give an example, in a chapter of Everyday Sexism (2014) Laura Bates explored “double discrimination”, her phrase for co-existence of multiple forms of oppression. Though she acknowledged the ways in which women of colour are fetishised as a sexual Other, our experiences were framed as niche, irregular.

White feminists also have an unfortunate habit of discussing racism and sexism as two entirely separate forms of discrimination, which do not meet in a common site and are therefore not worthy of joint consideration. Emer O’Toole’s otherwise stellar analysis of gender roles in Girls Will Be Girls (2013) is undermined by the casual erasure of women of colour resulting from the following phrase: “people of colour or women.” This is, of course, a false dichotomy that positions white womanhood as standard.

Treating white womanhood as normative not only serves to marginalise women of colour within the feminist movement, but positions our needs as secondary to those of white women, propagating the hierarchy of race within feminism. Considering white womanhood as normative defines who is valued as a source of knowledge relating to women’s experiences, and who is not. It shapes the criteria for who is heard within the feminist movement, and who is overlooked by default. If the concerns of white women become simply the concerns of women, then race – conveniently – ceases to be a feminist issue. Women of colour critiquing racism can therefore be dismissed as threats to feminist unity, accused of “trashing” white women when we critique their racism. The racialised depiction of passion, particularly common in the Angry Black Woman trope (Harris-Perry, 2011), automatically invalidates any attempt women of colour to address racism. This is why women of colour are so frequently subject to tone policing in feminist discourse. Silencing criticisms of their own racism enables white feminists to avoid the challenge of uncomfortable self-reflection – they justify doing so by claiming that they act in the name of sisterhood.

However, as Mohanty says, “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.” White women disregarding and speaking over women of colour are not enacting sisterhood, but rather undermining it through exploiting the hierarchy of race. Contrary to the derailments used to silence women of colour in feminism, it is white racism that stands between the feminist movement and interracial solidarity. In addressing that racism, women of colour seek to overcome the ultimate barrier between women.

I will conclude by encouraging white feminists to apply the same tools of analysis they use in critiquing misogyny to their own racism, to the racism of other white women – to speak out when they see it. When discussing race with women of colour, I advise white women to consider their expectations of men when discussing misogyny – to draw the parallel of oppressor class and oppressed class, and apply those principles to their own conduct. Whether or not white women are aware of it, they are positioned at an advantage over women of colour – the only way they will learn more about it is by listening to our voices, acknowledging our perspectives, and reflecting on what we have to say.

I would also add that there is no shame in making a genuine attempt to improve and getting it wrong. Responding with white defensiveness and attempting to silence a woman of colour is, however, reprehensible. In my relationships with white feminist women, there is a clear distinction: those who are prepared to learn when it comes to race, and those who are not. The former group I trust and value as my sisters. The latter group I’m too wary of for true solidarity to be a possibility. I do not ask for perfection – who does? – but simply that you try.


Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Ferguson, Moira. (1992). Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery. IN: Feminist Review, No. 42.

Harris-Perry, Melissa. (2011). Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

hooks, bell. (1982). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

eds. Hull, Gloria, Scott, Patricia Bell, & Smith, Barbara. (1982). But Some of Us are Brave.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

eds. Moraga, Cherríe & Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back.

Smith, Barbara. (1998). The Truth that Never Hurts.