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

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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.

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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.”

 

Interracial Solidarity in the Feminist Movement – #FiLiA2017

A brief foreword: this is the transcript of the keynotes address I delivered at FiLiA 2017, on Saturday the 14th of October. I was initially hesitant to share this speech, as I can no longer think of interracial solidarity between women of colour and white women as a viable project. However, out of commitment to feminist documentation and the women who requested it be made public, I have decided to post the transcript.

Writers and theorists who remain immobile, closed to any shift in perspective, ultimately have little to offer. Perhaps in the future I will return to advocating interracial movement building. Perhaps not. Either way, this transcript is an outline of the thoughts I held on the matter.


It is an honour to be here with you all today, and a privilege to share the stage with Kate, Sophie, and Cordelia. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this year’s FiLiA conference. As someone who is passionate about movement building, it is a pleasure to be here speaking about the radical potential within feminist sisterhood. As Adrienne Rich once said, “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” Given their revolutionary potential, I think that as feminists it’s worth exploring the possibilities contained within the connections between women – some of which remain largely unrealised or underexplored. For this reason, I’m here to talk to you about interracial solidarity within the feminist movement – a mine of untapped potential within our politics and many women’s lives.

Before we get going, it’s important to say that the burden of self-reflection and action required to improve the dynamic of race within the feminist movement lies with white women. This is at points a tough conversation, but it’s also a necessary one, and for the white women hesitant about engaging fully with it I’d like to point out that racism is consistently undermining the efforts made by feminist women – the benefits to fully unpicking racism from feminist spaces and communities are legion. To the women of colour in the audience, I have decided to focus on this specific issue because it is vital that all the Black and Brown girls coming into this movement experience better from it than what has gone on before in mixed feminist spaces. Every last one of them deserves more.

Feminism is a social movement devoted to the liberation of women and girls from oppression. The oppressions we experience are the result of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – quite a mouthful, but it is vital to acknowledge that these hierarchies are all interconnected. Systems of oppression cannot be neatly divided into separate entities when they constantly overlap in our everyday lives. Since you’re engaging in a feminist space that’s all about trying to develop ideas on how to improve our movement and make this world a better place to live in, I’m working in the belief that most of you will be receptive. We are all here at FiLiA as feminists who understand the value of movement building. I’ll try to be gentle, but not at the expense of the radical honesty this conversation demands.

The reality is that race politics are where a lot of white women fall down in their feminist practice. Not all white women – but enough that women of colour are reasonably wary of those interactions. White liberal feminists have a habit of failing to consider racism in terms of structural power. White radical feminists can be quite unwilling to apply the same scrutiny or structural analysis to the hierarchy of race as they do to the hierarchy of gender. Both liberal and radical white feminists often carry the expectation that women of colour should prioritise challenging misogyny over resisting racism, as though the two issues are mutually exclusive and not woven together in the fabric of our everyday lives.

For years amazing women such as Stella Dadzie, who will be speaking to you tomorrow morning, have been documenting and challenging the racism and misogyny that Black women experience in Britain. I’m not here to prove that racism exists or has negative consequences for women of colour in Britain: it does. I am here to talk about how we – as feminists, as women who share a social movement – can unpick racism from feminist communities. I’m going to talk about movement building, the dynamic of race in the feminist movement, and practical steps towards building interracial solidarity between women.

As we participate more in feminist spaces and conversations, women build a deep understanding of patriarchy – how it works, and where we are positioned by the hierarchy of gender. Feminism has enabled women to connect the personal with the political in our analysis of patriarchy. Nothing about feminist politics or theory is abstract – it all connects back to some element of women’s lives. The movement also gives us space to think about how structural inequalities have impacted upon our experiences, shaped our realities. And once you start to join the dots between the personal and the political, the extent to which women are marginalised around the world becomes clear.

White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed sex class. And I think that it’s because white feminist women fully understand the implications of belonging to the dominant class that exploring what it means to be part of the dominant racial class can be so challenging. This awareness punctures the fundamentally misguided belief that all women are positioned the same within structures of power.

That knowledge does not fit alongside the claim that a unilateral, one-size-fits-all approach to feminism is going to work – that really gender is the main problem women have to contend with, and everything else can wait. So in order to side-step any difficult conversations about race and power within feminism, we’re fed this idea that talking about race divides women. In addition to protecting white women from the having to confront their own racism, this argument suggests that the energies of all feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression – if we follow this logic, it leads to the expectation that women of colour work towards an agenda that sees a great many white women liberated while we are left within exploitative hierarchies.

Focussing on misogyny alone isn’t going to solve all of the problems created by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, let alone dismantle that system of power. Being selective about the forms of exploitation and dominance that we analyse is not only ineffective, but a contradiction of core feminist principles. Every feminist knows that revolution isn’t brought about by half-assed politics. We have to live those politics and let them diffuse throughout every aspect of our lives. There’s no way that we can drive a cultural shift towards women’s liberation if we don’t make sure that feminism recognises and prioritises the needs of all women – of colour, working class, disabled, migrant, lesbian, bi. All women.

It isn’t talking about race that divides women – it’s racism that divides us. To be specific, women as a political class are divided by the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, acts as a barrier between mutual trust.

So It’s not really a secret that certain strands of feminism have an ongoing problem with race. The feminist movement didn’t form inside of some sort of social vacuum, separate from white supremacist values or beliefs. Everyone in this society absorbs racism. People of colour internalise it. White people weaponise it against us. Even within the movement. Here are some examples of how.

Less so now that intersectionality has become so fashionable, but some white women have a tendency to position racism and sexism as totally distinct and separate problems, issues that do not overlap and do not therefore need to be analysed together. This perspective completely disregards the lived realities of women of colour. While a significant amount of early radical feminist writing and activism was what we would now describe as being intersectional in nature, white womanhood was too often treated as the normative standard of womanhood within the second wave of feminism. As a result, women of colour were and continue to be further marginalised in a context that is supposed to be about the liberation of all women.

Another issue is the response when we try to address racism in the feminist movement. When white women disregard and speak over those women of colour who do voice concerns over racism, that’s not sisterhood. If anything, that pattern of behaviour undermines sisterhood by exploiting the hierarchy of race. Telling us that we’re angry, scary, imagining things, being overly sensitive, or playing on any other racial stereotype to shut down the conversation and assert the innocence of white womanhood is racism, plain and simple. Yet it happens so routinely.

And then there are the hierarchies that manifest within feminist organising, hierarchies that only replicate the system of value created by white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. The balance of authority tipping towards white women in mixed feminist spaces is not neutral. Women of colour ending up on the fringes of a feminist group or campaign, brought to the centre of the team only when there’s a camera about, is not neutral.

Looking over patterns that unfold within feminist spaces, there are three main areas which I invite white women to consider for future collective projects within the movement. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every single issue that stems from racism within the movement, and neither is it a definitive guide. The politics of engagements between white women and women of colour are contextual, relational, and shifting – nothing is set in stone, and truly organic connections can’t be pre-scripted. That being said, perhaps some of these points will prove helpful in shaping approaches to those interactions.

The first point is white women acting as gatekeepers of the feminist movement, positioning themselves as authorities of feminism above other women. Of course white women have developed a rich body of knowledge throughout their participation in feminism, but feminism is a global movement containing multitudes of women – however worthwhile it may be, white women’s theorising cannot reasonably be assumed to hold universal or absolute feminist truths applicable to all women. This tension manifests in a lack of understanding towards the perspectives held by Black and Asian feminists – there can be a tacit assumption that our ideas aren’t worth meeting or building upon within mainstream feminism. Or, if we approach an issue from a different angle to white women, there’s often an implication that if our ideas were a little more developed or nuanced, the disagreement wouldn’t exist. And that makes it very difficult to enter a feminist conversation on an equal footing.

Feminist organising is another area worth drawing attention to. It takes such energy and commitment to sustain a group or campaign. I fully appreciate that, and commend all the women who are part of creating that magic. All the same, it’s important to keep working towards best feminist practice – and improving the dynamic of race within mixed feminist spaces is very much an achievable goal. If there are no women of colour in your group, team, or collection, ask why not. Please don’t fall into the trap of complacency and think that no women of colour are interested in working collaboratively. If there are none, there’s a reason for our absence. Reflect on what it might be about the project that’s off putting and try to work out steps to change it. Give women of colour reason to trust you. Think about it this way: how much time would you realistically spend in an optional activity where being on the receiving end of misogyny was a distinct possibility?

And when there are women of colour within the feminist space, think about your approach to us. Do you give us the same support, encouragement, and understanding that you would another white woman? When we speak, do you listen to our voices and engage with the layers of what we have to say? Do you think of us as full members of the collective, necessary to the work done by the feminist movement, or as tokens and boxes to be ticked on a diversity form? How you answer those questions make a profound difference. Those are deciding factors in whether sisterhood can exist.

The most direct step is to reconfigure how you think about women of colour. I don’t really like the word ally, because allyship tends to devolve into something hollow and performative. It also doesn’t really offer the scope for a mutual connection, which is what interracial solidarity between women is. But unpicking racism has a steep learning curve. How could it not when white supremacist values are at the foundation of this society? During the course of that learning process, especially during the early stages, try and keep in mind that most feminist women of colour have had these conversations about race dozens and dozens of times. And those conversations cost us more than they cost you. There are plenty of quality books and resources on the subject, so make use of them.

And now I have some points for women of colour who are pursuing any kind of solidarity with white women – less advice than reminders. Look after yourself. Don’t forget to prioritise self-care. Your needs are important, and it’s okay to take whatever space and time you need. I think because of the superwoman quality that gets projected onto Black women especially, we are not always positioned as in need of gentleness or empathy – so it is crucial that we take care of ourselves and each other.

Remember that you can say no. It is a complete sentence, short and sweet. And you don’t owe anybody an explanation as to why.

You’re not a learning resource, and you’re not the Morgan Freeman type character in a white woman’s story – you’re a human being with her own story. So don’t be afraid to set boundaries, assert needs, and follow your own instincts.

There is something fundamentally freeing about spaces that are built by and for women of colour. Those spaces have a joy and easiness to them, and there is this indescribable feeling of connection – it’s very nourishing to experience. Women come out of our shells and share so much of ourselves that it is impossible to be unmoved by a women of colour space. Last weekend I was in Amsterdam for the second annual Women of Colour in Europe conference, and inhabiting a space like that is sustaining. That feeling is what I think of when I picture sisterhood. And I think we’ll have achieved a greater degree of interracial solidarity when there is greater scope for women of colour to access that feeling of ease and belonging in mixed feminist spaces.

If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. And I can’t think of a better place to start building it than FiLiA. Although our movement struggles with the dynamic of race, it can improve here and now. To be a feminist is to be an optimist – to retain the belief that structural inequalities can be dismantled, the belief that better is possible.

When women of colour address the racism demonstrated by white women, we are seeking to overcome the ultimate barrier between women. I don’t think many women waste their breathe on a critique if they don’t think it can bring about positive results. I’ll finish with this quote by Chandra Mohanty, which sums it up beautifully: “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.”

Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy

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


 

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

What is Gender?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Trouble with Gender Identity

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Statement from Survivor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Homophobia of Queering Gender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

fuck gr

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

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

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


Bibliography

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

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

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

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

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. More Radical with Age.

 

 

Seu silêncio não te protegerá: o racismo no movimento feminista

Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Racism in the Feminist Movement is now available in Portuguese! Thanks to QG Feminista for the translation.


Este é o primeiro de uma série de postagens de blog sobre raça e racismo no movimento feminista. Não é algo agradável. Igualmente, não é uma reprimenda. É feita para despertar — algo que espero que seja respondido.


Prefácio

A solidariedade entre as mulheres é vital para a libertação. Para que o movimento feminista seja bem-sucedido, os princípios feministas devem ser aplicados tanto na ação quanto nas palavras. Embora a interseccionalidade seja usada como uma palavra-chave no ativismo contemporâneo, de muitas formas nos desviamos do propósito proposto por Crenshaw: trazer as vozes marginalizadas da periferia para o centro do movimento feminista, destacando a coexistência das opressões. Mulheres brancas com políticas liberais rotineiramente se descrevem como feministas interseccionais antes de falar em cima e desconsiderar aquelas mulheres que negociam com identidades marginalizadas de raça, classe e sexualidade em acréscimo ao sexo. A interseccionalidade como sinalização de virtude é diametralmente oposta à práxis interseccional. A teoria não surgiu para ajudar as mulheres brancas na busca de biscoitos — foi desenvolvida predominantemente por feministas negras com o objetivo de dar voz às mulheres não-brancas.

As feministas brancas de todas as vertentes estão caindo no cruzamento da raça. As feministas liberais frequentemente não consideram o racismo em termos de poder estrutural. As feministas radicais muitas vezes não estão dispostas a aplicar os mesmos princípios de análise estrutural à opressão enraizada na raça como no sexo.

Mulheres brancas que são autoproclamadas feministas tem o hábito de esperar que mulheres não-brancas escolham entre suas identidades de raça e sexo, priorizar a misoginia desafiadora em relação ao racismo opositor, em nome da irmandade. Textos de feministas negras clássico datando do início de 1970 em diante detalha esse fenômeno e fala que muito pouco sobre a dinâmica inter-racial entre as mulheres mudou desde sua publicação. O que mulheres brancas costumam falhar em considerar é que, para mulheres não-brancas, raça e sexo são intrinsecamente conectados em como nós experimentamos o mundo, como nós estamos situadas dentro das estruturas de poder. Ademais, a discussão sobre raça costuma ser tratada como um descarrilhamento das Reais Questões Feministas (isto é, aquelas relacionadas diretamente a mulheres brancas), a implicação de que mulheres não-brancas são, no máximo, um subgrupo dentro do movimento.

Independentemente de como sua política feminista se manifesta, a questão da raça é aquela que não é tão facilmente respondida, ou até mesmo reconhecida por muitas mulheres brancas. Através da teoria e do ativismo feminista, as mulheres desenvolvem uma compreensão estrutural da hierarquia patriarcal e onde estamos posicionados dentro desse sistema. Técnicas como conscientização e organização coletiva permitiram que as mulheres ligassem o pessoal com o político — e é profundamente pessoal. No feminismo, as mulheres se tornam plenamente conscientes de como somos marginalizadas pelo patriarcado. As mulheres brancas consideram que pertencem à classe oprimida em termos de sexo. Sendo conscientes das implicações realizadas por pertencer à classe dominante, as mulheres brancas são, portanto, desconcertadas pela noção de ser o partido opressor na hierarquia da raça (hooks, 2000). Isso nos leva à nossa primeira falácia:

“Fazer [o movimento feminista] sobre raça, divide as mulheres.”

Uma e outra vez, esta linha é usada por mulheres brancas para circumnavigar qualquer discussão significativa da raça, para evitar a possibilidade desconfortável de ter que enfrentar o espectro de seu próprio racismo. Este argumento sugere que o esforço das feministas se concentraria melhor em desafiar a opressão baseada no sexo, excluindo todas as outras manifestações de preconceito. Ao adotar uma aproximação tão estreita ao ativismo, tais mulheres impedem a possibilidade de abordar a raiz da misoginia: patriarcado capitalista da supremacia branca (hooks, 1984). O único foco na misoginia é, em última instância, ineficaz. A análise estrutural seletiva só nos levará até certo ponto. O racismo e o classismo, como a misoginia, são pilares do patriarcado capitalista da supremacia branca, defendendo e perpetuando estruturas de poder dominantes. O patriarcado não pode ser desmantelado enquanto os outros vetores na matriz de dominação (Hill Collins) permanecem no lugar. Essa política e ativismo do laissez-faire carece de profundidade, rigor e de consistência ética necessário para impulsionar uma mudança cultural para a libertação. Também implora a pergunta: Que tipo de feminismo se vê indiferente quando a injustiça prospera?

Não, falar sobre raça não divide mulheres. É o racismo que faz isso — especificamente, o racismo que as mulheres brancas dirigem para as mulheres não-brancas, o racismo que as mulheres brancas observam e não conseguem desafiar porque, em última análise, elas se beneficiam disso. Seja intencional ou casualmente entregue, esse racismo tem o mesmo resultado: mina completamente a possibilidade de solidariedade entre mulheres não-brancas e mulheres brancas. A falta de vontade das mulheres brancas para explorar o sujeito de raça, reconhecer as formas em que eles se beneficiam da supremacia branca, impossibilita a confiança mútua.

“Mas as mulheres brancas não se beneficiam da supremacia branca”.

Argumentar que a misoginia é o agente principal na opressão de todas as mulheres é assumir que a categoria de “mulher” se sobrepõe inteiramente a “classe branca” e “classe média”, o que claramente não é o caso. A hierarquia da raça tem tanto impacto nas experiências vividas das mulheres não-brancas como a hierarquia do gênero. Quando cerca de 70% de pessoas britânicas que estão em empregos que pagam salário mínimo nacional são mulheres, é evidente que a classe desempenha um papel fundamental na vida das mulheres da classe trabalhadora.

Muitas vezes, as mulheres brancas queixam-se de esquerdomachos — a tendência dos homens de Esquerda de permanecer misteriosamente incapaz de perceber como a hierarquia da classe social é refletida pelo gênero. Esta é uma crítica válida, uma crítica necessária. É também uma crítica inteiramente aplicável às mulheres brancas autoproclamadas feministas que não querem se envolver com políticas antirracistas. Mesmo que experimentem o classismo e/ou a lesbofobia, as mulheres brancas continuam a beneficiar de sua branquitude.

De acordo com a Fawcett Society, a diferença de remuneração de gênero para empregados em tempo integral fica em 13.9%. As pessoas do BAME (Negros e Minorias Étnicas) com GCSEs são pagas 11% menos do que os nossos pares brancos, um déficit que eleva-se para 23% entre graduados. Além disso, os formandos do BAME têm mais de duas vezes mais probabilidades de estar desempregados do que os graduados brancos. As mulheres não-brancas enfrentam um duplo risco, nosso trabalho é subestimado tanto por motivos de raça quanto de sexo. Zora Neale Hurston descreveu as mulheres negras como “mule uh de world”, uma observação que se mostra quando aplicado à diferença salarial. As mulheres do BAME também são mais propensas a serem perguntadas sobre nossos planos relacionados ao casamento e à gravidez por potenciais empregadores do que mulheres brancas. As mulheres brancas são objetificadas pelos homens, resultado da misoginia. As mulheres não-brancas são objetificadas, são vistas e tratadas como intrinsecamente diferentes e estranhas, fetichizadas e tratadas como selvagens hipersexuais pelos homens, resultado da misoginia e do racismo. BAME e mulheres migrantes também “experimentam uma taxa desproporcional de homicídio doméstico”.

Mesmo que você não esteja preparado para ouvir o que as mulheres não-brancas têm a dizer sobre racismo, os fatos e os números sustentam esse fato.

“As mulheres são mais fortes quando todas estamos juntas”.

Sim. A irmandade é uma poderosa força de sustentação. Mas esperar que as mulheres não-brancas permaneçam em silêncio sobre o assunto de raça por causa do conforto branco não é irmandade — pelo contrário. A irmandade não pode existir desde que as mulheres brancas continuem a ignorar a hierarquia da raça, enquanto simultaneamente esperam que as mulheres não-brancas dediquem nossas energias unicamente para ajudá-las a ganhar igualdade aos homens brancos. Este paradigma é explorador, uma manifestação tóxica do direito branco dentro do movimento feminista.

Para que a irmandade exista entre mulheres não-brancas e mulheres brancas, devemos ter uma conversa sincera sobre raça dentro do movimento feminista. O privilégio branco deve ser reconhecido e oposto pelas mulheres brancas. A branquitude deve deixar de ser tratada como o padrão normativo da feminilidade dentro da política feminista. A mesma lógica que é aplicada para criticar a misoginia deve ser aplicada a desaprender o racismo. As questões enfrentadas pelas mulheres não-brancas devem ser consideradas uma prioridade e não uma distração a ser tratada após a revolução. As mulheres não-brancas devem deixar de ser tratadas como algo que você faz simplesmente por ser algo que você é obrigado a fazer e, em vez disso, reconhecidas pelo que somos, o que sempre fomos: essenciais para o movimento feminista.

Tudo isso é imperativo para alcançar uma verdadeira solidariedade — e isso é possível. No que diz respeito às coisas, cabe às mulheres brancas chegar e reparar qualquer fenda que ocorra com base em raça. Em última análise, isso nos aproximará da libertação.


Bibliografia

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class. (Disponível em português)
Grewal, Shabnam, ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women.
Hill Collins, Patricia. (2000). Black Feminist Thought.
hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.
hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.
Lorde, Audre. (1984). Sister Outsider.
Wallace, Michele. (1978). Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman.


Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

Weiße Menschen, die “Weißen Feminismus” kritisieren, halten weißes Privileg aufrecht

Exactly 18 months after it was originally published, White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege has been translated into German by the radical feminist collective Die Störenfriedas. I am profoundly touched that these women considered it a worthwhile use of their time and energy. It is something of a surprise that my earliest blog post continues to do the rounds in feminist discourse, and I hope that German readers find it useful.


 

Wenn du online in feministische Diskurse eingebunden bist, ist es wahrscheinlich, dass dir ein bestimmter Begriff aufgefallen ist, der immer geläufiger wird: Weißer Feminismus. Manchmal wird sogar ein Trademark-Logo zur Unterstreichung hinzugefügt. Der Begriff „weißer Feminismus“ wurde zur Chiffre für ein bestimmtes Versagen innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung; von Frauen mit einem gewissen Grad an Privilegien, die es versäumen, ihren marginalisierteren Schwestern zuzuhören; von Frauen mit einem gewissen Grad an Privilegien, die über diese Schwestern hinwegsprechen; von Frauen mit einem gewissen Grad an Privilegien, die die Bewegung auf die Themen ausrichten, die innerhalb ihres eigenen Erfahrungsspektrums liegen. Ursprünglich wurde der Begriff Weißer Feminismus von Women of Colour benutzt, um Rassismus innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung zu thematisieren – eine notwendige und berechtigte Kritik.

Auch wenn weiße Frauen durch die auf Misogynie (Frauenverachtung) aufgebauten bestehenden sozialen Ordnung auf persönlicher und politischer Ebene benachteiligt sind, sind sie auch Nutznießerinnen von institutionellem Rassismus – ob sie das wollen oder nicht. Sogar Frauen mit dezidiert anti-rassistischen Grundsätzen können nicht einfach aus den Vorteilen eines weißen Privilegs aussteigen, angefangen von der größeren (wenn auch immer noch zu geringen) Medienpräsenz weißer Frauen, über eine größere Lohnlücke für Women of Colour bis zu der deutlich erhöhten Wahrscheinlichkeit von Polizeigewalt, die die Lebenswirklichkeit Schwarzer Frauen bestimmt. So funktioniert weißes Privileg. Wir leben in einer Kultur, die durch Rassismus geprägt ist und in der ein großer Teil des Reichtums unseres Landes aus dem Sklavenhandel stammt. So wie Misogynie braucht es viel Zeit und Bewusstsein, sich Rassismus abzutraineren. Es ist ein Lernprozess, der für uns niemals wirklich abgeschlossen ist. Women of Colour, die Rassismus innerhalb der feministischen Community anfechten, geben uns allen die Möglichkeit, uns bewusst von Verhaltensweisen zu lösen, die innerhalb des weißen rassistischen Patriarchats belohnt werden.

Der Begriff Weißer Feminismus wird allerdings nicht mehr ausschließlich von Women of Colour benutzt, um den Rassismus anzugehen, dem wir begegnen. Neuerdings ist es unerlässlich für weiße Feministinnen geworden, anderen weißen Feministinnen, deren Meinungen sie nicht teilen, vorzuwerfen, sie verkörperten weißen Feminismus. Weiße Menschen haben damit begonnen, andere weiße Menschen anzugehen für … ihr Weißsein. Ohne Scheiß. In einem neueren Beitrag für das Vice Magazine beklagt Paris Lee ironischerweise, dass “weiße Feministinnen die größte Medien-Plattform haben”. Künstlerin Molly Crapable, die sowohl über eine Plattform als auch ein beträchtliches Einkommen verfügt (es sei denn, Samsung groß zu machen, war ein Akt der Nächstenliebe), nutzte Twitter um die die Ansichten “schicker weißer Ladys” wegen ihrer Privilegien abzutun. Nun, aus meiner Sicht hier schauen Molly und Paris ziemlich bequem aus.

Statt die Stimmen von Women of Colour zu stärken oder ihre Plattform zu nutzen, die Intersektion von Race und Gender aufzuzeigen, hat eine Reihe liberaler weißer Feministinnen die Kritik an Rassismus gekapert, um ihr eigenes Image als progressiv aufzupolstern – als das der richtigen Art Feministin, nicht einer Weißen Feministin. Aber die Analyse von Rassismus durch Women of Colour innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung zu vereinnahmen, entspricht genau dem Verhalten, das durch die Schaffung des Begriffes “Weißer Feminismus” verhindert werden sollte. Weiße Menschen, die “weißen Feminismus” kritisieren, halten weißes Privileg aufrecht. Das eigene Image über die von Women of Colour angeführten anti-rassistischen Kämpfe zu stellen, ist bestenfalls narzisstisch und schlimmstenfalls rassistisch. Diese Aktionen stützen die Ansicht, dass der von Women of Colour erlebte Rassismus eine Nebensache und nicht ein Hauptanliegen innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung ist.

Weiße Frauen, die den Begriff “Weißer Feminismus” als einen Knüppel benutzen, um sich gegenseitig niederzumachen anstatt als Aufforderung, ihren eigenen Rassismus zu hinterfragen: das ist angewandtes Weißsein in Reinform. In ihrer Eile, “Privilegien reinzuwaschen“, werden weiße Feministinnen zu der gefürchteten Weißen Feministin, in dem sie die Begriffe ihrer marginalisierten Schwestern zu ihrem persönlichen Nutzen aneignen und zweckentfremden.


 

Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

Intersectionality – a Definition, History, and Guide

 

Intersectionality has been a common theme in feminist theory, writing, and activism for the last few years. It has even become something of a buzzword. And yet there remains a great deal of misunderstanding over what intersectionality actually means and, subsequently, how it is supposed to manifest within the feminist movement. This confusion has resulted in a degree of backlash, claims that intersectionality distracts women’s energy from the key aims of the feminist movement – dismantling patriarchy, ending male dominance and violence against women – when in fact it is only through a truly intersectional approach that these goals become possible for all women, not simply the white and middle-class. And feminism is about uplifting all women, a goal which becomes impossible when only those aspects of women’s experiences relating to the hierarchy of gender are considered. This is where intersectionality becomes essential.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a framework designed to explore the dynamic between co-existing identities (e.g. woman, Black) and connected systems of oppression (e.g. patriarchy, white supremacy). The term was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and challenges an assumption continuing to undermine the feminist movement – that women are a homogeneous group, equally positioned by structures of power. In a feminist context, it allows for a fully developed understanding of how factors such as race and class shape women’s lived experiences, how they interact with gender.

Intersectionality is actually a pretty straightforward idea: if forms of prejudice have the same root, growing from the dominant power structure of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks), then challenging one aspect of structural power alone is almost entirely ineffectual. Opposing one facet of systematic oppression also requires a degree of selectivism, treating one form of structural power as a bigger threat than the others, e.g. when white middle-class feminists argue that gender is the primary means of oppression in all women’s lives, disregarding the realities of working class women and/or women of colour. For an effective feminist movement that tackles the very root of persisting inequalities, in the words of Audre Lorde, “there can be no hierarchies of oppression.”

The lens of intersectionality allows for the overlap between identities of race, sex, class, sexuality, etc. to be fully incorporated in structural analysis, thus providing feminist analysis with the perspective to encompass the true range of all women’s lives, the scope to understand all women’s experiences. Intersectional praxis prevents marginalised women from being further side-lined within the feminist movement. It also defies the expectation that feminists of colour ought to prioritise sex in our analysis:

Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of colour to a location that resists telling. (Crenshaw)

Where did intersectionality come from?

Despite the concept of intersectionality being relatively new, that mode of connecting forms of oppression together in structural analysis can be traced back throughout the activism and liberation theory within modern history. For example, when the abolitionist Frederick Douglass championed women’s suffrage during the mid-19th century, he did so in the belief that women (both of colour and white) were every bit as entitled to participate in democracy as Black men – unlike numerous suffragettes, Douglass resisted prioritising the struggle of the group to which he belonged above the struggles of others, a commitment to universal equality that ultimately strengthened the position of both women and Black men pursuing suffrage.

Intersectionality also manifests in Black feminist writing from the 1960s onwards. Michele Wallace was a pioneering thinker in this respect, her criticism of misogyny within the Black Power movement highlighting the dynamic between misogyny and racism and, subsequently, the nature of oppression faced by Black women. The writing of Angela Davis was pivotal in unveiling the racism and classism of the women’s liberation movement, analysing the history of Black women being further marginalised within feminism. Her work gave a clear demonstration of the relationship typically existing between race and class, and explored the role played by both in the oppression of women. bell hooks too asserted that racism and sexism are inherently connected forms of structural oppression, that Black women are positioned in such a way that makes that link undeniable.

Kay Lindsay postulated that as Black woman are relegated to the sidelines by both the misogyny within Black liberation politics and the racism of feminism, we find ourselves as outsiders in both movements despite being the object of the oppressions they seek to address. This position of marginalisation twice over is what Frances Beale first termed a “double jeopardy“.

It was this context from which Crenshaw drew on in providing a comprehensive description of the relationships between identities and oppressions. Patricia Hill Collins built upon her theory, arguing that multiple forms of oppression connect to form a “matrix of domination” – just as identities overlap, so too do the hierarchies by which structural power imbalance is maintained.

Part of the ongoing feminist resistance of intersectionality stems from the marginalisation of Black women’s scholarship, where the theory has predominantly been developed – dismissing it as jargon is easy as it requires no critical self-reflection from white feminist women, whereas engaging with an idea with the power to radically alter praxis and deepen understanding of structural power demands a significant level of honesty both in dealing with yourself and others.

How does intersectionality work?

 

Intersectionality proposes that the greater a deviation from the Cartesian subject – the standardised ‘norm’ of a white, wealthy, heterosexual male – the more layers of prejudice the individual in question must face, those prejudices combining to form a matrix of domination. Looking through the lens of intersectional feminist theory demonstrates that there is not one fixed reality to be lived by all those sharing a single umbrella identity (such as woman), but rather a multitude of realities, the experience of which is determined by co-existing identities (hooks). In other words, a Black woman and a white woman will both experience womanhood differently owing to the vector of race. One is not “more” woman than the other. Treating white womanhood as a definitive standard, particularly during structural analysis, erases Black womanhood and propagates racism within the feminist movement.

Separating identities, and indeed the experiences that arise as a consequence of those identities, is highly implausible. As Audre Lorde said, “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

An intersectional approach to feminism considers social inequality beyond that which is part of your individual experience. The discomfort of acknowledging that you, in some hierarchies, belong to the dominant class is essential to the redistribution of structural power. An intersectional approach also requires a thorough consideration of power – how it operates as a dynamic on both an individual and collective basis. Intersectional thought rejects the binary assumption that a person must belong to either one group or the other (e.g. woman OR person of colour). The relationship between multiple identities is acknowledged and considered in feminist praxis. An intersectional approach to feminism is also mindful of context, conscious of how comparative privilege can shape and even limit perspective. (Hill Collins & Bilge)

Intersectionality extends the reach and relevance of the feminist movement. This is because intersectional praxis has the power to dispel the misconception that feminism is simply “a white thing”, by and for white women. Intersectional praxis is crucial if feminist sisterhood is to exist. It has the power to foster solidarity between women – all women – and make our movement stronger.


Bibliography

ed. Cade Bambara, Toni. (1970). The Black Woman: An Anthology.

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

Hill Collins, Patricia (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

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

hooks, bell. (1981). Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism.

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

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

Wallace, Michele. (1978). Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman.

Writing as a Feminist – a Speech

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.