When White Women Close Ranks

A brief foreword: It’s been a while since I’ve updated this series of essays on racism in the feminist movement. The racism has kept on happening, as predictable as it is painful, but I haven’t always had the energy or inclination to write about it. However, in moments of optimism that could possibly be described as insanity, I decided to try again.

Dedicated to Amanda Fucking Palmer and Victoria Brownworth

Olive Morris Print Credit: Twitter user @Extreme_Crochet


 

In many ways, although the movement is in a state of flux, this is an exciting time in Scottish feminism. Women are coming together to form grassroots organisations and independent research groups. I’ve been engaging, going to meetings, and coming into contact with lots of new women in the process. During the last few months, I’ve made some friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. Those relationships with women are an abundant source of joy. However, the flip side of meeting so many new women is that I have been exposed to their racism.

ReceiptsLike the majority of Black feminists, I can never afford to take the solidarity of white women for granted. I think some white women get offended that our shared womanhood doesn’t automatically win them my trust – but those are usually the women best avoided. With every white woman I meet, whether or not she realises it, there is a careful vetting process that takes place inside my head. I watch and listen carefully before opening myself to a connection with her.

I’m wary of white women, but open to the possibility of kinship and solidarity with them. It’s exactly the same way I feel about Black men. In a white supremacist patriarchy, there’s potential for good and harm in both of those relationships. Racism within the feminist movement has hurt me in profound and painful ways; so much so that I can’t afford to let my guard down with white women – at least, not to begin with. There will probably be some white feminists reading these words thinking that I sound paranoid or unsisterly. To them, I say: how much do you trust men?

A man you have never met before approaches you on the street, calling after you. He could be about to hand you back the umbrella you dropped without realising and continue on his way. Or he could be catcalling and following you in the hope of forcing contact you do not want. You are poised to run or scream. The metal of your house keys is hot between your knuckles. At the back of your brain flickers an animal sort of fear, the fight or flight instinct hardwired to keep us alive. It could be nothing. But, you can’t help thinking, it might be something. That’s how it works with gender.

It also works that way with race. Just as I fear sexual assault on the last train home, I fear being pelted with racial slurs. Over time, like countless other people of colour, I’ve developed a kind of spidey-sense that tingles when it’s coming: those questions designed to police and undermine the belonging of my Black body in this white, white country. Whether it’s the hands of men trying to cop a feel or the hands of white women curious about the texture of my hair, both forms of touching happen without my consent and are a part of the racialised misogyny that hugely complicates my relationship with public space.

img_1676The Scottish feminist movement is very white. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given that the majority whiteness is a consequence of Scotland’s population. Still, it can leave women of colour vulnerable within feminist spaces. I cannot take it for granted that there will be another Black woman in the room. When racism happens – which is a case of when rather than if – there is no guarantee that other women will recognise it. And even if white women do understand that what’s happening is racism, they will not necessarily be willing to acknowledge it as such. The final hurdle: those white women who recognise and acknowledge racism aren’t always willing to challenge it.

As a consequence of being in multiple minority groups, I can’t rely on members of the majority choosing to align themselves with me. Challenging racism requires white women to voluntarily step outside of the fold. Speaking out can carry a social penalty, if most white women in a space wish to repress conversations about the politics of race. They watch as my perspective is delegitimised and I am Othered, afraid of being cast out as I have been. It’s a very well documented phenomenon, which Sara Ahmed summarised perfectly:

“When you expose a problem you pose a problem. It might then be assumed that the problem would go away if you would just stop talking about or if you went away.”

Anger is weaponised against Black women in much the same way the concept of hysteria is used to undermine women of all races. Our rage is pathologised. This image of the Angry Black Woman, dark and threatening, renders us monstrous in the white imagination. We are positioned as innately hostile, impossible to reason with – in short, beast like. And if a Black feminist challenges a white woman’s racism, this regressive stereotype is wheeled out like clockwork to shut her down. If anybody plays a race card, it’s the white women trying to avoid being held accountable for their anti-Blackness.

I rarely show anger in front of white women; not in person, not knowing how it will be used against me. Not even when the world gives me good cause to be angry – whether through an accidental stubbed toe or the deliberate workings of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. The full range of human emotions is not a luxury permitted to Black women in the feminist movement.

The only white woman I expressed any anger in front of after being subjected to racism was Cath Planet. As a working class woman she knows exactly what it’s like to have her anger pathologised, to be punished for speaking truth to power. Cath never presumed my trust, and I never presumed hers, which is perhaps why we’ve been able to build a meaningful friendship over time. It’s a relationship in where neither of us has to be afraid of showing the other negative emotion.

Whether or not they realise it, all the white women who said that I was being overly sensitive about race sounded like nothing so much as a man in a position of power trying to delegitimise the complaint of sexual harassment filed against him by a junior female employee. They closed ranks, in exactly the same way Boris Johnson did when he shut down the inquiry into the conduct of Mark Field MP that began after he slammed a female protestor into the wall and dragged her from the room by her throat. White women choose to leverage their power in exactly the same way that men do, importing the patriarchy’s oppressiveness and cruelty into a movement that’s supposed to fight for the liberation of all women.

I have yet to meet a radical feminist who meets misogyny with a smile, accommodating the comfort of sexist men over the safety and wellbeing of women. And I hope that I never do. The power of radical feminism lies in its rigorous structural analysis, however uncomfortable it can be. Still, white women continue to expect me to accommodate their racism, to be polite in addressing it – or, better yet, say nothing at all.

img_3363Black women’s access to the ‘sisterhood’ is so often dependent on our willingness to stay silent about racism and ignore the hierarchy of race. One white woman recently had the gall to say she was “disappointed” I had called her racist. It was the same old story: a white woman’s comfort prioritised above a Black woman’s wellbeing. We are accused of dividing the movement when we challenge racism. But white women’s racism is what divides feminists. Many of them prefer clinging on to the power they hold through racial inequalities over finding out what the world looks like when we are all free.

Every so often a white woman will say to me “but we’re not men”, as though their violence is excusable because it’s less likely to be physical. Black women deserve so much better than choosing between the false binary of men’s misogyny and white women’s racism. We deserve to be treated with respect and kindness everywhere – especially in social movements of which we are so often the backbone. Race is a hierarchy in exactly the same way that gender is a hierarchy. White feminists can either work to disband both by actively building interracial solidarity, or cling to power in one by reinforcing the other. They must choose.

God knows it’s not comfortable scrutinising yourself as a member of the oppressor class. But that critical self-reflection is so freeing. And it opens up the most exciting possibilities for connecting with women whose lives are completely unlike your own.

When I first became active in the feminist movement, other middle class women actively warned me off trying to connect with working class women. I disregarded that advice. For those relationships to be possible, I continue to work at unlearning my own classism. Looking back, it’s obvious these middle class women feared working class feminists because of the fundamental challenge they made to women invested in structural power imbalances. Working class women connected middle class women performing politeness to harmful respectability politics, which are used to cover up all manner of injustices.

Working class feminists bring more integrity and compassion to the feminist movement than the middle class women who become the face of this movement. Having relationships with them is rewarding because of, not in spite of, how they challenge me as a middle class woman. I know what it is to realise I’m the asshole. I know it can be painful, awkward, hard work. But it’s worth it, because if you have the courage to go beyond what’s comfortable then you can access a sisterhood that’s so much more than you can imagine until you dare to be part of it. What’s easy isn’t always what’s right or good.

Compassion shouldn’t be limited to the women who look and live like you do. And marginalised women shouldn’t be made to carry the burden of their own difference within the feminist movement. Instead of the women who hold power closing ranks on the women without it, we should each be finding ways to leverage our power to the benefit of women who are vulnerable in ways that we are not.

Ending Demand: The Sisterhood vs The Sex Industry

A brief foreword: this essay is an account of Julie Bindel’s talk at an event hosted by Holyrood’s Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation on Tuesday the 4th of June, 2019. I hadn’t initially planned to write about it, but this series of essays is specifically focussed on women’s rights – and the sex industry systematically violates those rights on a scale that cannot be ignored. You can read part one here, and part two here.

Dedicated to Julie, who inspired me to be a proud lesbian feminist.


Decriminalising the sex trade means decriminalising violence against women and children. This is the title of the talk Julie Bindel is giving at an event hosted by the Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation. When my invitation arrives, I don’t hesitate before accepting. That it will take me five hours to get to the venue in Edinburgh and back again is a small concern. Julie has devoted much of her adult life to challenging and campaigning to end all forms of male violence against women and girls. She is a meticulous researcher, and has travelled across continents to document the harms on which the sex industry is built. The opportunity to learn from her is a gift.

I arrive half an hour early and whip out my knitting. Anxiety makes earliness feel like being on time, and being on time feel like lateness. The venue is part of a chain of hotels and resorts that run my grandmother’s timeshare in the highlands of Scotland. Although I have never been to this particular hotel, there is a welcome familiarity to it. And even though we haven’t met before, some of the women filtering in recognise me as the author of this blog or @ClaireShrugged from Twitter. In this context – a room full of women – I have the sensation of being seen and fitting into a community.

When Julie joins us, she envelopes me in a hug. I am delighted to see her again – this time, up north. We’ve had our share of disagreements, yet I am properly fond of her. Julie is a woman who says what she means, and means what she says. Although Julie’s irreverent way of talking about feminist politics has been the subject of more than one controversy, it’s also her greatest strength. Julie is straightforward and wickedly funny in a way that wins people over to feminist causes far more than any stilted performance of wokeness. I sometimes wonder if my generation has lost an element of feminist joy that comes so naturally to Julie. While every feminist has a responsibility to herself and her sisters, the women’s liberation movement won’t travel very far if every step is tentatively made.

We go into the conference room, and it’s encouraging to see politicians from different parties and branches of government gathered to listen to this talk on the sex industry. While we’re waiting, I strike up a conversation with an academic who has been pushed out of her staff LGBT Pride Network – which has never been a particularly welcoming place for lesbians – because she resists the idea that gender is an innate, biologically fixed quality. We have both lost friendships with straight women for differentiating between sex and gender in our feminist analysis. For all the social and legal gains made in recent years, this is an isolating time to be a lesbian.

Ruth Maguire MSP, who is Co-Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, welcomes us to the event and introduces Julie with great enthusiasm. She talks about Julie’s work as a journalist, researching and reporting on various forms of male violence against women and girls. As Ruth highlights the importance of her work as co-founder of Justice for Women, I feel frustrated that purity politics prevents more feminists from recognising the tangible good that Julie’s work has brought to countless women’s lives.
img_1482Julie is here to tell us about the research conducted for her book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. She advocates the decriminalisation of selling sex and the criminalisation of buying it – what’s known as the Nordic Model. To Julie, it is abhorrent that any prostituted person should be punished by the legal system. In this we are agreed. According to the End Violence Against Women Coalition, 85% women in prostitution report physical abuse in the family, with 45% reporting familial sexual abuse. Research by CARE describes prostitution as “one of the most dangerous occupations in the world”; it is a minority of women who do not experience violence within the sex trade.

As Julie points out, the vast majority of people selling sex are women. Sex buyers are, overwhelmingly, male – and Julie has more than a few choice words to describe them. In prostitution, we see the sexual politics of patriarchy writ large. Feminists cannot work towards ending male violence against women and girls without engaging fully with the misogyny underpinning the sex trade. The women who survive the sex trade, and the many who do not, are our sisters in feminist struggle.

In my view, those survivors spearheading the abolition movement represent the very best of the feminist movement. I have had the honour of hearing testimonies given by women who have survived prostitution and are now campaigning to end demand. The courage of women like Fiona Broadfoot, Ali-Marie Diamond, Mickey Meji, Ne’cole Daniels, and Bridget Perrier is an inspiration. For all that they have suffered, each of these women works to make the world a safer place for women and girls. I don’t have the words to capture the sheer generosity of spirit this requires. The most powerful voices in the abolition movement are those belonging to the women who have survived the sex industry – and these are the voices Julie amplifies.
img_1502To radical feminists like Julie, it is evident that prostitution hinges on inequality. Hierarchies of race and class as well as gender dictate which women are most vulnerable to the sex industry. Across Europe, “there are so many women in prostitution, many of these women having been imported – by pimps – from African countries.” Julie rejects the professional language used to cover up the reality of this situation, such as the phrase “migrant sex worker.” In her words, the sex industry would have us believe that large groups of African women are “hopping on planes to Sweden to do a bit of sex work.” Trafficking is not spontaneous or casual, but a systematic exploitation of impoverished women living in the global south.

In Julie’s eyes, people who are fine with prostitution but opposed to trafficking are following a twisted logic. Trafficking and prostitution are fundamentally connected. The two cannot be neatly separated, each made into a distinct phenomenon. The sex industry is reliant on trafficking to fulfil demand. Government research shows that only 19% of women working as prostitutes in British flats, parlours and saunas were born in the UK.
The trafficking of women is not an anomaly, but part and parcel of the global sex trade. The EVAW Coalition describes Britain as “a significant site of international and internal child trafficking”; the majority of children trafficked in Britain are aged 14-17, and have been trafficked for sexual abuse and exploitation.

Julie identifies a pattern. Arguments that the buying of sex should be legalised tend to frame it as a rights issue. Decriminalisation is positioned as progressive, likened to legalising gay sex. Words like ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ are used by lobby groups to tell us that women want to sell sex. They assert that “it’s a woman’s right to be a sex worker.” But in this process, the men buying the sex are made invisible. We should be asking why men believe they have the right to buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Julie directs a question towards the audience, and it will stay with me for hours afterwards: “What else do we call a sexual act between two people where only one of them is consenting and finding pleasure?”

If indeed these acts of physical and psychological violence occurred in another context, they would be considered as sexual attacks, cruelty, abuse and rape. Why is it that when they occur within prostitution, they are not considered as such? Is it the money that makes them different?European Women’s Lobby

img_1489During her research, Julie has travelled everywhere from New Zealand to Nevada. There are European countries in which a man can pay €60 for a beer, a burger, and the opportunity to abuse as many women as he pleases. Perhaps naively, I am shocked that women’s bodies are served to men alongside food and drink. As Julie talks about everything that she has witnessed, I am filled with admiration at her courage. Documenting the systematic abuse of women, recording and analysing the details of this degradation, is essential feminist work. But it must be difficult to absorb so much human suffering on this scale.

There is one encounter that weighs on her particularly. At a café in Cambodia, a white British man was buying a 16 year old boy to go home and live with him. The parents had agreed, accepting a sum of money from him, and he phoned the British embassy to make the necessary arrangements. 16 is the age of consent. To classic liberals, there is no ethical issue. To those of us campaigning against the sex industry, there is everything wrong with this situation. It is the result of an unholy union between colonialism and capitalism.

In Ukraine, Julie came across a white man from Delaware, Texas who was looking to buy a bride. Bob was approximately 60 years old and recently widowed. He was looking for a young replacement for his wife and opted for a Ukranian woman in the hope that “she would be submissive and compliant”, unlike the women back home who were “too modern” for Bob’s taste. The word “modern”, according to Julie, is easily substituted with “feminist.” Bob wanted a woman easily controlled; someone pliable and impressionable enough to accept his (mis)treatment.

A minority of men currently demand prostitution, but prostitution demands something of them too. They have to be proficient in viewing women as dehumanised sexual objects. It is a prerequisite for a man actually being able to stand having sex with a woman who doesn’t freely want to have it with him, let alone desiring this and forking out for the privilege. In paying for sex, not only do punters deem consideration of the genuine feelings and wants of women they are paying a trifling irrelevance to the act, many require the performance of the brutal charade that [prostituted women] don’t even possess these basic human faculties. – Kat Banyard, Pimp State

Policy makers are told by the sex trade lobby that New Zealand Model is ideal. This means that prostitution, brothel-keeping, living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation are all legal. Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue that legalising commercial brothels is preferable, because it means that women in prostitution don’t have to work on the street – where they are more vulnerable to men’s violence. But since New Zealand fully decriminalised the buying and selling of sex fifteen years ago, street prostitution has quadrupled.

The intensity of men’s violence against women in prostitution is horrifying. I find most of Julie’s anecdotes deeply upsetting. In particular, the story she tells about meeting a young woman whose bones had been so badly broken by johns that she needed a zimmer frame to walk – something that plenty of sex-buyers liked. Her health had been ruined by men’s violence, along with drug and alcohol addiction. Research shows that 87% of women involved with street-based prostitution in Britain use heroin. When men’s violence is an everyday reality, any form of escape would be welcome.

The Nordic Model isn’t perfect, in Julie’s view, but “there is a normative shift when the buying of sex is criminalised.” Cultural values are more important than the letter of the law. In the future, Julie wants to see generations of girls and boys raised to see buying sex in the same light as smoking in a public building: unthinkable, harmful, a departure from acceptable behaviour. She doesn’t believe the law alone should be a deterrent. Rather than seeing men in jail for abusing women, Julie wants the pandemic of male violence to cease altogether – and with it, the demand for prostitution.
img_1507While a lot of what Julie describes makes for difficult listening, the alternative is looking away – which means being complicit in the violence men enact against women and children around the world. Julie’s vision of a world free from the sex industry makes me feel optimistic. As she points out, no other manifestation of inequality is treated like it’s inevitable. Child poverty has existed for as long as prostitution, and – rightly – many people work to abolish it. In the same spirit, we must band together and collectively work to dismantle the sex industry.

I leave the hotel with a copy of Julie’s book tucked under my arm. Walking back to Edinburgh Waverley, I try to envision a world in which the choices available to women aren’t defined by poverty, racism, or gender. Even my choice of route to the station – where and when I will walk through which streets – is influenced by a fear of male violence. We have a long way to go. But with women like Julie at the vanguard, a feminist revolution feels possible.

Lessons from Canada: On Women’s Libraries and Liberation

A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series, written about events in Scotland which explore and champion women’s rights. (You can read the first, my account of Meghan Murphy’s talk at the Scottish Parliament, here.) This essay describes the phenomenal talk Bec Wonders gave at the For Women Scotland event held on Friday the 14th of May, detailing her experiences as co-founder of Vancouver Women’s Library and the value of knowledge produced by second wave feminists. Again, this is my personal account of the event. Although I have tried to be faithful to each contribution in letter and spirit, there is always the potential for human error.

Dedicated to Bec, who truly is a wonder. Never have I met a woman with a more fitting name.


Secret locations and covert meetings are typically associated with espionage, not feminist politics. And yet, in the year 2019, women are often forced to keep the venue secret if we are to meet up and discuss our rights in safety. It is essential for any oppressed group to organise collectively if we are ever to overthrow the system that makes us marginal – in this case, patriarchy. Despite the fresh waves of criticism and controversy, there is a new wave of women’s groups starting to form across the United Kingdom.

Down south there is Woman’s Place UK, who have run a series of successful panel discussions about women’s sex-based rights and recently released a manifesto. Their aims include universal free childcare, sustainable investment in the women’s sector, and increased representation of women in public life. And here up north we have two new grassroots groups campaigning around women’s rights: Women and Girls in Scotland, and For Women Scotland. I have been following their work with interest. And so, when For Women Scotland release tickets for an event in Glasgow, I book a place.

 

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Lessons from Canada is the second official meeting co-ordinated by FWS. The speakers are Meghan Murphy, editor of Feminist Current, and Bec Wonders, co-founder of Vancouver Women’s Library and doctoral researcher. The day before the event, FWS contacts ticket holders directly with the venue details. Boarding the train to Glasgow, I am filled with a sense of excitement. The sun is shining and the sky is blue, which isn’t an everyday occurrence in the west coast of Scotland. And I am going to spend an evening talking, laughing, and drinking with women from a broad range of backgrounds. What more could a feminist ask for?

When I arrive at the venue, there are two security guards keeping watch. Their presence is a comfort. We have all been told to bring ID as part of the security protocol, so I show my driver’s license and sign in. The FWS team are all generous in their praise of the blog post I published about Meghan’s talk at Holyrood. One woman tells me I took the heat right out of the subject – and considering conversations about gender have reached boiling in Britain, this is the best possible feedback I could have hoped for. Nobody wins when the discussion surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality becomes antagonistic – or rather, nobody wins except straight white men. The sooner this conflict is resolved, the more energy women and gender non-conforming people can direct towards dismantling white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.

 
img_1175While waiting to go in to the lecture theatre, I bump into women I know from the digital and analogue spheres of my life. This is one of the great joys that come with occupying feminist space. I am always glad to see Magi Gibson, whose poetry and boldness are both an inspiration. During her time as Reader in Residence at Glasgow Women’s Library, I was too shy to talk to Magi much. But the stories she read us each week, all excerpts of women’s writing, began to nourish a confidence in me.

The books Magi read from, the way they grabbed my imagination and tugged at my heart, unpicked the threads of misogyny I had internalised. After hearing them, it became impossible to think of women’s writing as lesser or insignificant – the way formal education often positions women’s writing in relation to men’s. And seeing the way Magi carries herself, poised with an element of playfulness, was part of what allowed me to stop making myself smaller in public space. Positive female role models make a powerful difference.

When I go through to the lecture theatre, the room is buzzing with positive energy. Crowds are often a source of anxiety for me, and yet I feel at peace in this lecture theatre. The room has a good vibe. Once more, it is mostly women in attendance; women from broadly different social and economic backgrounds finding common cause together.

Susan Smith, from the FWS team, kicks off the proceedings. She tells us that this is only For Women Scotland’s second public meeting, and I am impressed that in such a short period of time they have connected with an international sisterhood. According to Susan, FWS has members from the Scottish borders right up to the highlands. They are keen to support and encourage sister groups around the country.

 

FWS
There is a moment when Susan describes the FWS team as “our ladies” before correcting herself; “women”, Susan says, to applause. Many women in the room, me included, have fought to escape the confines of ‘lady’ – it feels good to hear a term that is loaded with gendered expectations being so roundly rejected. And there’s more applause for Joan McAlpine, the first MSP, and Joanna Cherry, the first MP to bring these conversations about sex and gender into the political mainstream.

On this note Susan introduces Bec Wonders, who is our first speaker of the night. Bec is working on a PhD researching print culture within the second wave of the feminist movement, and from the moment she starts talking it’s evident that Bec has found a sound balance between feminist theory and practice.

img_1224In February 2017, Bec opened Vancouver Women’s Library with a friend. To begin with, the Library consisted of 80 books from their personal collections. It opened from the “shared belief that women’s writing is revolutionary, women’s perspectives are world-changing, and women’s histories profoundly matter.” The Library’s purpose was “sharing books by women among women.”

From her research, Bec has reached the conclusion that “women’s presses, bookstores, and libraries were not intended to exist in isolation.” She describes reading as “relational, a call to action that demands feminist accountability.” There must always be a connection between feminist ideas and feminist actions – this, I agree with completely.

A feminism that is rooted solely in academia runs the risk of valuing the production of knowledge over women’s lived realities – it is unlikely to take the action required to change those lived realities for the better. Equally, it isn’t possible to unlock the full revolutionary power of feminism without a grasp of the principles and beliefs that have driven generations of change-makers. To Bec, the unnatural split between theory and practice is why so many younger feminists are trying to reinvent the wheel instead of understanding themselves as part of a movement that has spanned continents and decades.

Publications like WIRES – the Women’s Information and Referral Enquiry Service – emerged as a “reaction to the way women found themselves trapped and isolated” by the patriarchal division between public and private spheres. Women shared information across channels that were not controlled or regulated by men, which was an incredibly powerful strategy for resistance.

In recent years, Bec believes that feminist publishing has regressed. Although we are seeing a resurgence of feminist titles, and even reprints of classics by writers such as Audre Lorde and Simone de Beauvoir, there are fewer independent feminist presses, bookshops, and community spaces now than there were back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Mainstream publishing houses are interested in movement as market.”

Van_Womens_Library_DXGiven the need for feminist spaces that exist independently of the market, the importance of learning resources available to all women without the barrier of cost, it would be natural to assume that Vancouver’s feminist scene would welcome the addition of a Women’s Library. Many local women did – when they opened, the VWL team were overwhelmed by women trying to sign up as members and participate in Library life. But there was also intense and malicious anti-feminist backlash.

When Vancouver Women’s Library held their launch party, an organisation known as Gays Against Gentrification crashed the celebration. A group of 24 protestors intimidated women, and physically barred them from entering the Library despite the evening’s sub-zero temperature. They poured wine on books, tore down a poster of Valerie Solanis’ SCUM Manifesto, spray painted the outside of the venue, stole wine from the Library’s makeshift bar, and pulled the fire alarm in an effort to prevent women from gathering there. Protestors chanted “No SWERFs! No TERFs!”, disrupting multiple women’s attempts at mediation.

Listening to Bec recount these horrors, I am filled with fury that anybody would treat a women’s community space in this way. The culprits were allegedly ‘against gentrification’, but there is nothing further from gentrification than a Library set up by grassroots feminist organising. From this angle, their motivation looks much more like woman-hating than anti-capitalist protest.

In addition, GAG demanded that the Library remove 20 out of their 80 books from circulation. The books GAG found objectionable were mostly written by second wave feminists, many of whom are lesbians. GAG claimed that VWL “enact[s] violence on sex workers by working to deny their access to resources and support. They work alongside the colonial government to pass bills that do direct violence to sex workers, such as Bill C-36.” However, Bill C-36 was introduced in 2013 – four years before the inception of Vancouver Women’s Library. More to the point, the Library contained the accounts and political writings of multiple Indigenous women who survived the sex industry. Living at the intersection of race, class, and gender, Indigenous women are grossly over-represented in Canada’s sex trade.

To say that women who take a global view of prostitution and see it in a context of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and misogyny — [feminists] who aren’t just focused on white Western middle class camgirls — are ‘exclusionary’ makes no sense. It doesn’t hold up to any cognitive scrutiny.Jindi Mehat

GAG also objected to the Library’s statement of values, which said “we welcome all women regardless of creed/class/gender/race/sexuality.” GAG’s statement denounced this advocacy of intersectional sisterhood, saying “…this language is used by cis women as a move to innocence from their complicity in violence against transwomen. It is used to mark transwomen as ‘Other’ and centre themselves as victims of patriarchy.”

GAG, like any other members of the public, were free to use the Library’s suggestion function to influence which books would become part of the collection, and whose voices could be found within the Library’s shelves. Bec tells us that not a single protestor used the suggestion before or after GAG’s attempts to shut down the Library launch. I believe that it is important for the voices of all people made marginal in a society to be heard and recognised. That being said, women have been made marginal for centuries – so it is a radical and subversive act to confer value on women’s writing.

According to Bec, it is right and good for women to centre ourselves as victims of patriarchy. In this we are agreed. From birth, girls are encouraged to prioritise the interests of other people over their own needs. It is part of feminine socialisation, designed to make us into compliant women who do not resist men’s attempts to subordinate us.

From her work with the Vancouver Women’s Library, Bec has learned “not to let men take up my time with arguments meant to distract us.” This is a worthwhile lesson, as efforts to derail feminist action and conversation are designed to direct us back towards the status quo: patriarchy. Bec describes sisterhood as “powerful”, but “necessarily difficult if we are to take it seriously.”

Bec points out the sexist double standard of venerating male philosophers like Freud, Foucault, Plato, and Nietzsche while dismissing great feminist thinkers such as Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Andrea Dworkin as outdated. There is love in her voice as Bec describes the “rich treasure trove” of resources on women’s resistance and organising written by earlier generations of feminists. She is passionate about the importance of learning from the women who have gone before us, the necessity of modern day feminists understanding ourselves as a continuation of a powerful social movement.

After Bec and Meghan finish talking, there is an interesting Q&A. Women talk openly about everything from sexual violence to traumatic experiences of childbirth. I think that it’s a mark of successful feminist space when women feel comfortable disclosing such deeply personal harms. One woman speaks about the way queer community fails lesbian women, and how isolated her daughter feels as a consequence. What she says resonates deeply with me. Gill Smith talks about the way she was pathologised by doctors as a lesbian teenager, and rejected by the LGBT community when she de-transitioned and resumed life as a lesbian. Julie Bindel, Gill says, is one of the few people who stood up for women like her.

A young academic tells us that she’s part of the generation who were taught that all women’s major battles were won, but now she’s feeling the same struggle that our foremothers did – and it’s “fucking awful.” She’s not wrong. Still, there is one great consolation: we are heading to the pub. When Susan announces the name of the bar, where FWS have booked a room for us, there is a mass exodus.
img_1247I have been on many a night out in Glasgow. But this is the first night out when I have managed to let go of anxiety to the point that I stop worrying about the time and simply enjoy life. It is an amazing opportunity to speak in person with women I have, until this point, only ever communicated with online. It is a delight to meet Shona Craven, a journalist who has made valuable contributions to the Scottish conversation about sex and gender. A young lesbian feminist speaks with me about the possibility of organising together. I accept with enthusiasm. Gill and I talk about Sheila Jeffreys’ Unpacking Queer Politics. I also meet Councillor Caroline McAllister, and quickly come to admire her – she’s a welcome change from the posh white men who gravitate towards life as career politicians.

I also speak to Meghan, which is a real treat. While the internet is amazing at connecting women across continents, you can’t take meeting a sister in person for granted when there are ordinarily thousands of kilometres and an ocean between you. Though she hasn’t been here for long, the steady calm and rationality Meghan has brought to the gender debate has inspired several Scottish feminists – me included. Meghan has enjoyed her tour of the UK, though she has spent more time in lecture halls and pubs than seeing the sights. Her next visit, Meghan vows, will involve more time exploring. I am glad that there will be a next time.

img_1235The night flies by. I connect with women and drink gin – the best way to spend a Friday night. After a round of photographs to document the celebration, I glance at my phone and see that it’s almost time for the last train home. I make a hasty exit; if I’m quick, there’s enough time to get some chips to eat during the journey.

As the train glides out of Central Station, I am perfectly content. Bec’s perspective on the feminist movement, Meghan’s ideas about sex and gender, and my conversations with women all flit through my mind. Bec is right that sisterhood is complicated; as a Black lesbian, it’s not something I can safely assume extends to women like me in every feminist space. Still, sisterhood is the driving force behind my life and politics. I believe in a sisterhood that bridges differences of race, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and age to encompass all women – and that is what I found in these Lessons from Canada.

Sisterhood and Shortbread: Meghan Murphy at the Scottish Parliament

A brief foreword: this essay is the first in a series, written about events in Scotland which explore and champion women’s rights. Each of these events is taking place within the space of a fortnight, and it feels like a turning point in mainstream conversations about sex and gender – worth a spot of feminist documentation. This one describes Meghan Murphy’s talk at Holyrood on Wednesday the 22nd of May, 2019. It is my personal account of the event, and – although I have tried to be faithful to every contribution in letter and spirit – prone to human error. In the next instalment I will write fully about the perspective of Bec Wonders, another Canadian feminist and badass who deserves an essay of her own.

Dedicated to Joan McAlpine, MSP, for her courage.


When Joan McAlpine invites me to the Scottish Parliament, I am pleasantly surprised. It’s a real privilege to receive an invite to Holyrood, and a delight to have the opportunity to hear Meghan Murphy speak. Meghan is the founder of Feminist Current, a radical feminist blog and podcast. I have followed her work for a number of years, and contributed to Feminist Current at the beginning of my life as a feminist blogger. Meghan writes about abortion rights, male violence against women and girls, the harms of the sex industry, misogyny in popular culture, and – increasingly – the competing political interests of women and people identifying as transgender.

Though based in Canada, Meghan uses the platform she has built to highlight feminist issues around the world and amplify the voices of women across different backgrounds. I particularly enjoy the work of Raquel Rosario Sanchez, a bold and brilliant feminist writer from the Dominican Republic who contributes regularly to Feminist Current. Meghan is someone who never flinches from speaking truth to power. She is also a fellow Mean Girls enthusiast. And so I am looking forward to learning from her directly.

Just as I’m about to begin the journey to Edinburgh, my phone pings with an email alert. It’s an invitation to appear on BBC Scotland’s The Nine, subject to change with any major announcements from the Prime Minister. They want me to discuss Meghan Murphy’s visit to Holyrood, and the protests that have been planned as a result.

Until this point I have refused any and all TV requests for two reasons. The first is a deep-rooted fear of the racist, sexist abuse that is directed towards Black women who are visible to the public eye – just look at how Fiona Bruce mistreated Diane Abbott, during her most recent appearance on BBC Question Time. Bruce implied that the first Black woman to be elected as an MP gained a position in the Shadow Cabinet due to a past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. She interrupted Abbott more than any other panellist, and wrongly contradicted Abbott’s statistics. Bruce’s behaviour normalised the constant stream of misogynoir directed towards Diane Abbott and any other Black woman who claims a place in public life.

The second reason I have declined previous TV requests is a strong distaste for confrontational formats that are designed to bring about arguments instead of creating the space for consensus building – again, see BBC Question Time. But The Nine is a new programme on a new channel. BBC Scotland’s representative speaks to me about wanting to host a respectful discussion instead of a rammy, taking a sensitive approach to the subject at hand and those talking about it. The Nine could be an opportunity for a different, less aggressively macho way of hosting public conversations to take root in television. And so I say yes.

By the time I’ve transferred over to the Edinburgh train, the BBC Scotland representative has called to say the segment has been cancelled owing to Theresa May’s latest announcement. They are keen to cover this subject and have me on to discuss it in the future, but think that it’s irresponsible to squeeze something so important into a couple of sound-bites. I agree wholeheartedly, and appreciate the principles that go into making The Nine. When the time comes, I will gladly accept another invitation from them.

This leaves only anxiety about the planned protest, and the bout of Imposter Syndrome that tells me a mistake has been made, my name won’t be on the guest list, and I’ll have to leave the Parliament under a cloud of embarrassment. Neither worry, it turns out, was worth stressing over. I arrive early enough to avoid the protestors, and am ushered upstairs to a conference room without incident.

Before the talk begins, there is a palpable sense of excitement. There is a community vibe that is characteristic of the most enjoyable feminist spaces – although we are in parliament, many of the women here are from grassroots feminist organisations that receive no government funding, or women’s services that receive altogether too little of it. A woman behind me shares out a packet of sweeties. Another woman, when she finds out that there isn’t any catering on offer, goes out to buy biscuits for everybody and offers them round on a tray. In this moment, I am quite literally sustained by shortbread and sisterhood. Looking at the women around me – for it is primarily women here – I wonder how protestors would reconcile their idea of hate-filled “TERFs” with the clear-eyed and generous feminists in this room.

img_1085When our speakers arrive, there is a heartfelt round of applause. Joan McAlpine, the MSP who organised this event, opens the meeting by reminding everyone to keep the discussion respectful. She points out that not everybody in this room shares the same views, which is a positive sign about the openness of this conversation. Joan goes on to point out the pattern of women on the progressive left who have devoted so much of their lives to women’s rights being demonised – Linda Bellos, the gay & lesbian rights activist who brought Black History Month to Britain, Julie Bindel, co-founder of Justice for Women, and Helen Steel, a woman who has shown immense courage speaking out against undercover police officers spying on so-called “left-wing extremism.”

For Joan, the “privacy, safety, and dignity of women” are crucial. She condemns the violent threats and abusive language that have come to define gender discourse online – in particular the misogyny and anti-Semitism directed towards Professor Rosa Freedman, a legal scholar, for her opposition to sex and gender being conflated in the Scottish Census.

Joan herself is resistant to attempts to reframe sex as gender, reminding us that sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. She opposes self-identification policies, highlighting the infamous case of Alex Drummond – a member of Stonewall’s advisory board. Drummond is a self-described ‘lesbian’, despite being bearded and male-bodied. Some would argue it is offensive to deny that Alex Drummond is a woman or a lesbian. To Joan, the risks self-ID policies create around women’s safety are what should be considered truly objectionable:

I find it offensive that any man who has a history of abusing women may declare himself a woman and access women’s spaces without any experience of what it is to be a woman.

When Meghan begins speaking, she is like a breath of fresh air. Despite the abuse and threats that have been hurled her way since she became vocal about the differences between sex and gender, she betrays not a flicker of fear. Her voice is steady, her words rational. Meghan starts by defining each of the terms she uses. By ‘sex’ she means biology; whether an individual is male or female. “When I say gender, what I mean is the stereotypes and social roles that are imposed on men and women because of their sex.” By woman, Meghan means “adult human female.” By man, “adult human male.”

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More controversial is the phrase “gender ideology.” It’s not an expression I have ever used, because I expect the average person who identifies as trans is more worried about the challenges of rejecting the gender role they have been socialised into since birth than imposing an ideology on anybody. But what Meghan says makes sense. She defines ‘gender ideology’ as the belief that it is possible for someone to be born in the wrong body or change sex. And like a great many feminists , she completely rejects the label of ‘cisgender’. By saying there are women naturally suited to the feminine gender role, a person argues that there are women who are naturally suited to the oppression enacted within patriarchal society.

I do not use the term ‘cis.’ I do not have a gender identity. No-one does. I refuse to define myself by a set of stereotypes used to oppress women.

As a feminist, Meghan believes that we should encourage all people to step outside of traditional gender roles. She wants to live in a world where how we define ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ isn’t limited to a restrictive set of sex stereotypes. A girl is still a girl when she plays with what are labelled boys’ toys. A boy is still a boy is he wears clothes that are classed as girl’s clothes. And vice versa. With this, I am in complete agreement. “Gender under patriarchy is not our friend, is not liberatory, and not to be embraced.”

As the literature handed out says, male free spaces exist for a reason. Meghan points out that single-sex spaces were created in the understanding that women fear men because men are a threat to our safety.

Feminists fought to build transition houses [shelters] for women fleeing domestic violence, and are now being told single-sex spaces are discriminatory. Funding to Vancouver Rape Relief, Canada’s longest running service, was cut after an orchestrated complaint challenging the fact they don’t allow males to train as counsellors or access the shelter. The city pulled their grant for public education about relationships and health, which VRR provided to everyone – male or female – for free.

Meghan says that “there’s no reason why we can’t protect the rights and provide services specific to people who step outside of the gender boundaries attached to their sex while acknowledging sexual dimorphism.” This is a good point. In Britain, women of marginalised ethnic and religious backgrounds have made it their life’s work to build specific services. Southall Black Sisters, Jewish Women’s Aid, Imkaan, Hemat Gryffe, and Shakti are all examples of this vital work. Why not also build services specific to trans and non-binary identified people?

Often, conversations surrounding gender a directed towards feelings. This is not necessarily a bad thing – holding compassion across difference is something I consider key to feminist praxis. However, as Meghan points out, not all feelings are ascribed equal value in this discussion:

If we’re going to talk about feelings, I want to know why the feelings of women don’t matter. What about the feelings of girls who don’t want to see a man’s penis as they change? Survivors of male violence who are afraid to share shelters with male-bodied people? Women competing against male-bodied athletes in sport? We’re putting women and girls in danger to accommodate the feelings of a tiny minority of people. We can treat people with dignity and provide them with the services they need without throwing women under the bus.

Meghan finishes to great applause. Joan opens the floor for questions. I ask how Meghan manages to keep going the face of intense misogynistic abuse, violent threats, and being treated like a pariah. I have a lot of time for Meghan’s politics, but her resilience is what has truly inspired me tonight. Her response: get offline and go to the bar. On a more serious note, Meghan recommends having a solid community of women.

Johann Lamont MSP observes that feminists have spent years fighting for the right to recognise and identify predatory males. She makes a neat analogy: just as criticisms of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church aren’t about saying all priests are predatory, talking about the risks of self-ID isn’t about framing transgender people as a threat. “Predatory men understand how to create a space for themselves with vulnerable people. All of history shows us how devious violent men can be.” And self-ID policies are ultimately exploitable.

Inevitably, the subject of Scotland’s women’s sector is raised. To avoid putting anyone on the spot, I will not name any individual women or the organisations for which they work. A representative from one women’s org is struggling to find ways to voice concern over self-ID. The women’s sector is massively underfunded, and no organisation wants to be put in the same predicament as Vancouver Rape Relief.

A woman who works within this organisation – let’s call her V – told us that women accessing this service want single-sex spaces. When the organisation asked for their views, women accessing the service expressed anxiety over sharing communal spaces with anyone male-bodied. V talked about the potential for further traumatisation, as the overwhelming majority of women are accessing the service as a consequence of experiencing male violence.

According to communications Joan has received from women spread across various organisations, single-sex services are effectively provided in the everyday – but messages coming from the top of certain organisations are causing some women to self-exclude over reservations about accessing a space operating with the policy of self-ID. This is hugely worrying.
img_1139Still, there is cause for optimism. Women holding a broad range of political perspectives have found consensus in this area. Politicians representing different left-wing political parties are a part of the audience, receptive to what Meghan has said. While women are at risk of public shaming, abusive messages, and threats of violence for echoing Meghan’s views, it is clear that many are unwilling to cave in and fall silent.

Joan McAlpine opened by talking about some of the abuse she had received for differentiating between sex and gender in her feminist analysis. But as she closed, Joan talked about the cards and messages of thanks women from across the length of the country and breadth of the political spectrum had sent her. I’ve decided to send Joan a thank you card of my own.

Black Studies: Bending the Revolution & Claiming Lesbian Feminist Politics

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


 

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

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

Back to Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Straighten the Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audre Lorde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#SpaceWoC: Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade

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

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


 

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

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

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

Session One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Two: Survivor Leadership

Session 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

Session 1.png

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman as a Sex Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Womanhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesbian Sexuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


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

Eternal Sunshine

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bojack 5

Bojack Horseman

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zadie Smith. (2000). White Teeth

Aux femmes blanches qui veulent être mon amie : guide féministe Noir de solidarité interraciale

For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity is now available in French! Many thanks to the amazing women of Révolution Sorore.


Bref avant-propos : il s’agit de la conclusion de ma série d’essais sur la race et le mouvement féministe. Les parties 1, 2, et 3 sont toutes accessibles ici. La connaissance présentée ici a été acquise à mes dépens. Utilisez-la comme vous le souhaitez. Je dédie cet essai à toutes les femmes – Noires, racisées, et blanches – qui m’ont soutenue sur le chemin de la sororité.

Dès que je parle de racisme dans le mouvement féministe, cette question revient constamment : les femmes blanches demandent « que puis-je faire de concret contre le racisme ? Comment puis-je être solidaire des femmes racisées ? ». Il s’agit là d’une question compliquée, à laquelle je réfléchis depuis maintenant un an, et il n’y a pas de réponse simple. Il y a plutôt plusieurs réponses, aucune n’étant fixe et toutes étant sujettes à des adaptations contextuelles. La réalité de la situation est qu’il n’y a pas de réponse simple et établie aux siècles de racisme – racisme sur lequel notre société est fondée, et sur lequel ses hiérarchies de richesse et de pouvoir sont établies – qui façonnent les rapports entre les femmes racisées et les femmes blanches. Cette asymétrie de pouvoir et de privilège affecte les interactions personnelles. Elle crée les strates de défiance justifiées que les femmes racisées ressentent envers les femmes blanches, même (et peut-être tout particulièrement) en milieu féministe.

La modification des rapports dans lesquels la race n’existe que comme hiérarchie et construire des formes de solidarité pérennes entre femmes va nécessiter une introspection et un effort constants, ainsi qu’une volonté de la part des femmes blanches de changer leur approche. Voici ma perspective sur les étapes concrètes que les femmes blanches peuvent passer afin de remettre en cause leur propre racisme, qu’il soit conscient ou inconscient, dans l’espoir de leur donner la possibilité d’être véritablement sorores avec les femmes racisées.

« La première chose que tu dois faire est d’oublier que je suis Noire. La seconde est que tu ne dois jamais oublier que je suis Noire » Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

Reconnaissez les différences causées par la race. Ne définissez pas les femmes racisées par nos ethnicités respectives. De même, ne prétendez pas que nos vies sont les mêmes que les vôtres. Ne pas voir les races revient à ne pas voir le racisme. Ne pas voir le racisme revient à le laisser prospérer sans remise en question. Commencez par reconnaître notre humanité, en voyant les femmes racisées comme des personnes pleinement accomplies, dotées de perspicacité, de capacité à penser de façon critique, ainsi que – et c’est souvent le point le plus négligée dans cette conversation – de sentiments. Commencez par examiner la façon dont vous pensez les femmes racisées, et construisez à partir de ça.

Monopolisation du féminisme et autorité

Les femmes blanches qui monopolisent le discours féministe et qui se présentent comme les seules autorités qualifiées à déterminer ce qui est et ce qui n’est pas le Vrai Féminisme perpétuent de nombreux problèmes. Ce n’est pas un hasard si les contributions des femmes racisées, en particulier leurs commentaires s’adressant au racisme ou au privilège blanc, sont fréquemment reléguées au rang de distraction par rapport aux enjeux principaux du féminisme, c’est-à-dire les enjeux qui ont des conséquences négatives directes sur les femmes blanches.

Le présupposé tacite selon lequel la perspective d’une femme blanche est plus légitime et plus informée que la nôtre, que si les femmes racisées se renseignaient simplement davantage sur un enjeu particulier alors notre regard deviendrait lui aussi nuancé, est persistant. Ce présupposé est soutenu par la croyance selon laquelle les femmes blanches sont l’avant-garde du mouvement féministes, et que les femmes racisées sont au second plan. La situation est la même s’agissant de la politique de classe, avec les femmes des classes populaires étant catégorisées comme non informées quand leurs perspectives féministes diffèrent de celles des femmes de classe moyenne. Le renforcement de ces hiérarchies est le plus grand obstacle à la solidarité entre les femmes.

Les femmes blanches ont l’habitude de trancher entre ce qui est féministe et ce qui ne l’est pas d’une façon telle qu’elles centrent le vécu des femmes blanches et le positionnent comme la référence normative du vécu des femmes. Si le vécu des femmes blanches est la référence, le vécu des femmes Noires et racisées devient, par définition, la forme déviante – et ce paradigme contribue à altériser les femmes racisées.

Le féminisme est un mouvement politique dédié à la libération des femmes de l’oppression. Cette dernière est en partie genrée, mais aussi en partie basée sur la race, et la classe. Elle est aussi en partie reliée à la sexualité ou encore au handicap. Et au sein de ces catégories, il y a toujours possibilité de recoupement. L’incapacité à reconnaître l’intersection de ces identités maintient l’oppression des femmes les plus marginalisées, ce qui n’est en aucun cas un objectif féministe. Dire aux femmes racisées qui dénoncent le racisme « les filles, ce n’est pas votre moment » rentre directement en contradiction avec les principes féministes. S’attendre à ce que les femmes racisées gardent le silence pour le bien général, c’est-à-dire au bénéfice des femmes blanches, n’est, par nature, pas un acte féministe. L’idée qu’il y a un lieu et une heure pour reconnaître une forme d’oppression vécue par les femmes mine les principes sur lesquels le mouvement féministe est construit. Les femmes blanches doivent écouter ce que les femmes racisées ont à dire sur le racisme au lieu de détourner les critiques.

Les femmes blanches ont une fâcheuse tendance à s’imposer comme les sauveuses éclairées tout en présentant les hommes racisés comme des oppresseurs barbares et les femmes racisées comme des victimes passives d’une oppression qui ne vient que des hommes de leur groupe ethnique. Cette logique reconnaît que les femmes racisées subissent des violences genrées tout en effaçant l’oppression basée sur la race que nous subissons. De plus, cela nie la réalité de l’appartenance des femmes blanches à une classe oppresseuse – façon habile et déloyale de retirer aux femmes blanches toute responsabilité dans le maintien du racisme systémique. Si le problème du racisme n’existe pas, il n’y a pas besoin d’en parler. Si on ne parle pas du racisme, les femmes blanches peuvent continuer à en bénéficier sans remise en question.

Afin que la solidarité interraciale existe au sein du mouvement féministe, la question de la propriété doit être soulevée. Encore et encore, les femmes blanches se comportement comme si le mouvement féministe était leur propriété exclusive, auquel les femmes racisées peuvent à la rigueur participer sans jamais contribuer à la définition du discours et des actions. Non seulement cette approche efface le rôle historique essentiel des femmes racisées dans le mouvement féministe, mais elle nie la possibilité que les futurs efforts de collaboration se produisent sur un pied d’égalité.

Les femmes blanches qui veulent établir un rapport de confiance et de solidarité avec les femmes racisées doivent d’abord réfléchir à la façon dont elles pensent les femmes racisées, à la façon dont elles nous conceptualisent – est-ce que vous nous considérez comme des sœurs ou comme quelqu’un à qui vous apportez un soutien de façade sans jamais vraiment nous écouter ? Sommes-nous une partie centrale de la lutte féministe ou une simple case à cocher ? Une honnête auto-critique est essentielle. Analyse la façon dont vous nous pensez, étudiez avec critique les raisons, et travaillez à partie de là.

Organisation du militantisme féministe

Etes-vous en train de monter un groupe pour les femmes ? De créer un événement ou un espace féministe ? D’établir un réseau féministe ? Chaque rassemblement de femmes crée de nouvelles possibilités pour le mouvement féministe, et il se trouve que l’une de ces possibilités est l’amélioration des rapports de race en milieu féministe. En termes d’organisation collective, les femmes blanches doivent se poser la question suivante : y a-t-il des femmes racisées dans ce groupe ? S’il n’y en a pas, c’est pour une bonne raison. C’est bien beau de dire que des femmes auparavant amies s’organisent ou que quelques militantes partagent un but précis, mais la façon dont ce groupe s’est formé n’a pas eu lieu dans un vide social. Il s’est formé dans une société où les femmes de couleur sont racisées et altérisée à tel point que notre vécu de femmes est perçu comme fondamentalement moindre. Par conséquent, notre compréhension de la situation politique des femmes, et donc du féminisme, est perçue comme inférieure.

Par exemple, plus je m’investis dans la cause Noire, plus ma légitimité féministe est contestée par des femmes blanches qui persistent à croire deux idées erronées : la première, qu’il est impossible de s’occuper de plusieurs causes en même temps, et la seconde, que la politique de libération peut être clairement divisée puisque le chevauchement des identités n’a jamais besoin d’être pris en compte. L’idée selon laquelle mon soutien à la libération des Noir-e-s ne peut être qu’au détriment de mon soutien à la libération des femmes, qu’il dilue ma politique féministe, ne saisit pas la façon dont l’essence de ces deux engagements politiques a été établie et le fait qu’ils sont intrinsèquement connectés dans la vie des femmes Noires.

S’il n’y a aucune femme racisée engagée dans votre groupe féministe, réfléchissez au pourquoi et ensuite à la façon d’y remédier. Peut-être que votre organisation, votre contenu, ou votre praxis féministe est aliénante ? L’auto-critique est loin d’être un processus confortable, mais elle est nécessaire pour que la solidarité soit possible. Un élément fondamental de cet enjeu est la façon dont les femmes blanches se comportent avec les femmes racisées.

Considérer les femmes racisées comme un simple gage de diversité, et non comme des membres à part entière de l’équipe, trahit une forme de racisme dans la façon dont nous sommes conceptualisées. Nos compétences, savoirs, et engagements pour les femmes ne sont pas vus comme étant aussi évidents que la contribution des femmes blanches au groupe en milieu féministe. Le supposé selon lequel notre présence ne sera jamais qu’une façon de remplir des quotas ignore notre humanité. Oubliez cette façon de penser. Regardez notre valeur en tant qu’individues, comme vous en avez l’habitude avec les femmes blanches, et vous finirez par notre humanité aussi. Déconstruisez votre racisme avec la même vigueur que vous déconstruisez votre misogynie intériorisée.

Il est important que des femmes racisées soient impliquées au niveau organisationnel, en tant que membres de l’équipe qui conçoit les événements et les campagnes. Laissez tomber le paternalisme qui vous persuade que vous, en tant que femmes blanches, vous êtes en position de parler pour toutes les femmes.

Comportements

Point le plus évident : ne soyez pas racistes, ni dans vos mots, ni dans vos actes. D’une façon ou d’une autre, cela se verra. Si vous dites quelque chose à propos des femmes racisées en privé que vous ne diriez pas en public, réfléchissez à la raison pour laquelle vous différenciez ces deux environnements – la réponse est souvent liée au fait que les femmes blanches ne veulent pas être vues comme racistes. Paradoxalement, être vue comme raciste est devenu un plus grand tabou que le racisme même.

Et si votre racisme est confronté, ne voyez pas cela comme une attaque personnelle. Ne soyez pas les femmes blanches qui ramènent tout à leurs propres souffrances, dont les larmes les exemptent de toute responsabilité pour leurs actions. Réfléchissez plutôt à l’étendue des souffrances subies par les femmes racisées en raison de ce racisme – je garantis que c’est si douloureux que votre propre inconfort n’est rien en comparaison. Ayez la même empathie pour les femmes racisées qui subissent le racisme que pour les femmes blanches qui subissent la misogynie.

« A la fin, nous nous souviendrons non pas des mots de nos ennemis, mais des silences de nos amis » Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ne restez pas silencieuses quand vos ami-e-s sont racistes. Ne regardez pas ailleurs. Ne prétendez pas que rien ne soit arrivé. Votre silence vous rend complice de ce racisme. Votre silence normalise ce racisme, et fait partie de ce qui le rend plus légitime en général. Il n’est pas facile de défier quelqu’un dont on est proche, ou quelqu’un avec plus de pouvoir et d’influence. Mais la justice n’est pas toujours la chose la plus facile à mettre en pratique.

Enfin, ne vous reposez pas sur vos lauriers. Dans un récent entretien pour Feminist Current, Sheila Jeffreys regrette l’essor des politiques identitaires, qu’elle associe à la praxis intersectionnelle, affirmant que parce qu’on n’attend jamais des hommes qu’ils fassent tout, on ne devrait pas l’attendre des femmes. Cette attitude n’est pas rare parmi les femmes féministes blanches. Toutefois, l’attitude de Jeffreys soulève la question suivante : depuis quand le féminisme radical lesbien prend-t-il exemple sur le comportement des hommes ? Le féminisme n’est pas un nivellement par le bas, c’est un mouvement politique radical. Et cela implique une intense pensée critique, une remise en cause constante de l’oppression qui ne soit pas sélective mais totale.

Ce sera inconfortable. Ce ne sera pas une tâche aisée. Mais cela crée des pistes entières et nouvelles de soutien et de sororité entre les femmes. Solidarité qui soutiendra et nourrira toutes les femmes dans notre chemin vers la libération.

 

Binair of een spectrum, gender is een hierarchie

Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy is now available in Dutch! The original essay is available here. By her request, the translator remains anonymous – I am extremely grateful for her work.


Een kort voorwoord: dit is het vijfde essay in mijn serie over geslacht, gender and seksualiteit. Deel 1, 2, 3 en 4 zijn hier bij Sister Outrider te lezen. In dit essay, bestrijd ik het idee dat gender begrepen kan worden als iets anders dan een hiërarchie. Dit essay is opgedragen aan E, een ster van een lesbiënne en feminist.


 

 “Het is onmogelijk onderdrukking te benoemen en bestrijden als er geen benoembare onderdrukkers zijn” – Mary Daly

Wat is gender?

Gender is een verzinsel, gecreëerd door de patriarchaat, een hiërarchisch systeem opgedrongen door mannen om hun dominatie over vrouwen te garanderen. Het idee van een binair gender werd ingesteld om de ondergeschikheid van vrouwen te rechtvaardigen door de onderdrukking door mannen als de natuurlijke stand van zaken af te schilderen. Door gender als natuurlijk af te schilderen, wordt niet alleen de hiërarchie gedepoliticeerd, maar overtuigt er eveneens vrouwen van dat radicale weerstand ten opzichte van gender, het middel van onze onderdrukking – vergeefs is door uit te gaan van essentialisme. Deze hopeloosheid leidt tot apathie, wat sociale verandering meer ondermijnt dan onomwonden verwerping van gender. Als het afschaffen van gender (en daardoor het ontmantelen van het patriarchale systeem) een onbereikbaar doel is, hebben  vrouwen geen andere keuze  dan hun status als tweede klas burgers van de wereld te accepteren.  De visie op gender als een aangeboren eigenschap is het accepteren van de patriarchale blauwdruk voor de samenleving.

gender imageGender is een hiërarchie die het mogelijk maakt voor mannen om dominant te zijn en creëert de condities voor de ondergeschikte positie van vrouwen. Omdat gender een fundamenteel onderdeel is van de witte, kapitalistische samenleving (Hooks, 1984), is het is bijzonder ontzettend om te constateren dat elementen van het ’queer discours’ beweren dat gender niet alleen in het aangeboren en onveranderlijk,  maar zelfs heilig is.

Het ’queer maken van gender’ is verreweg een radicaal alternatief voor de status quo, in plaats daarvan versterkt het de normen die door het patriarchale systeem zijn opgedrongen door middel van het repliceren van patriarchaal essentialisme. Een queer begrip van gender daagt het patriarchaat niet op een zinvolle manier uit – in plaats van mensen aan te moedigen om de door de patriarchie gestelde normen te weerstaan, biedt het hen een manier om deze normen juist te omarmen. Queer politiek daagt  traditionele geslachtsrollen niet zo zozeer uit, maar blaast deze nieuw leven in– en hierin schuilt het gevaar.

Door te stellen dat gender ’queer’ kan of moet worden gemaakt, verliest men uit het oog hoe geslacht functioneert als een systeem van onderdrukking. Hiërarchische systemen kunnen per definitie niet worden opgenomen in een politiek van bevrijding. Structurele machtsongelijkheid kan niet omgebogen worden tot deze niet meer bestaat – de1600-Genderbread-Person opvatting van  gender als een kwestie van performativiteit of persoonlijke identificatie ontkent haar praktische functie in een hiërarchie. Elke ideologie die gender niet als een manier van onderdrukking van vrouwen onderscheidt, kan niet als feministisch worden omschreven – inderdaad, aangezien queer ideologie grotendeels onkritisch blijft ten opzicht van machtsverschillen achter de seksuele politiek, is anti-vrouw.

De logica van geslachtsidentiteit is fundamenteel gebrekkig, gebaseerd op het uitgangspunt dat gender aangeboren en essentieel is. Zoals feministen al decennia lang hebben beweerd, is gender sociaal geconstrueerd – een fabricage ontworpen om de dominatie van vrouwen door mannen mogelijk te maken. De opvoeding van kinderen, in zelfs voor de geboorte al ingedeeld in man/vrouw, dient de seksen te verdelen in een dominante en ondergeschikte klasse. Feminisme erkent dat biologisch geslacht bestaat terwijl het tegelijkertijd essentialisme bestrijdt, het ageert tegen het idee dat seks bepaalt wie of wat we kunnen zijn als mensen. Feminisme beweert dat ons karakter, kwaliteiten en persoonlijkheid niet bepaald worden door de vraag of we man of vrouw zijn. Queer theorie stelt daarentegen dat een reeks kenmerken intrinsiek mannelijk is en een andere reeks kenmerken inherent vrouwelijk, en dat onze identiteit afhankelijk is van hoe we met deze eigenschappen overeenkomen.

In plaats van te erkennen dat er veel manieren zijn om man of vrouw te zijn, schuift queer theorie mensen in een steeds groter aantal categorieën georganiseerd door stereotypes. Er is geen wetenschappelijk bewijs om het bestaan van typisch mannelijke of vrouwelijke hersenen te ondersteunen, en claims voor het bestaan van mannelijke of vrouwelijke hersenen zijn het product van neuroseksisme (Fine, 2010). Toch positioneert queer ideologie gender als een aangeboren identiteit, waarbij wordt gesteld dat gender is ’wat je voelt’.

‘De levenslange handboeien van culturele conditionering die me hebben geprobeerd mij te overtuigen dat een geslacht een biologisch feit is in plaats van een sociaal construct, zijn moeilijker te schudden dan ik zou willen.’ – Louise O’Neill, ik noem me een feminist: Opinies van vijfentwintig vrouwen onder dertig

Het probleem met ’gender identiteit’

Ondanks haar essentialisme is het queere begrip van gender steeds vaker in de progressieve en feministische ruimten te vinden. Het is niet moeilijk om te begrijpen waarom. Gender ideologie erkent dat een binaire mannelijke en vrouwelijke genderrol beperkend is voor individuen, maar in plaats van te pleitn voor het uitgebreide project dat nodig is om de hiërarchie van geslacht af te breken, biedt het een veel makkelijker oplossing: een individuele opt-out-clausule waarmee mensen zich kunnen verzoenen met het patriarchaat. Het omarmen van de gender is het omarmen van een verhaal van exceptionalisme .  Het omaremen van gender-ideologie is het accepteren dat er een klasse van mensen is die van nature ingesteld is om hun positie binnen de te accepteren (onderdrukt of onderdrukker) en een groep mensen die uitzonderingen zijn op de traditionele genderregels.

Er is een fundamenteel probleem met queer gender ideologie. Zoals ik eerder heb beschreven, is dat probleem misogenie. Door te beweren dat bepaalde groepen van nature geschikt zijn de geslachtsrol die hun sekscategorie heeft opgelegd, zogenoemde “cis” –personen, moet je misogynie onderschrijven. De vrouwen die als cis worden gecategoriseerd, zijn door de logica van geslachtsidentiteit inherent geschikt om door mannen onderdrukt te worden. Het hele patriarchale systeem wordt derhalve gekleurd door gender ideologie, gepresenteerd als een natuurlijke stand van zaken in tegenstelling tot een systeem van onderdrukking die ontworpen is om mannen de heerschappij over vrouwen te verlenen.

Omdat queer identiteitspolitiek gebouwd is rond een verhaal van exceptionalisme, wordt de machtsdynamiek van seksuele politiek volledig genegeerd. Door de taalkundige verdraaiing van “cis” wordt de onderdrukking van vrouwen als een voorrecht aangevoerd en daarom wordt de bevrijding van “cis” -vrouwen uit patriarchale onderdrukking opgeheven. Seksuele politiek wordt afgewezen door zelfidentificatie, waardoor het lidmaatschap van een seksklasse politiek onzichtbaar wordt gemaakt.

Screenshot_20170904-124333

“Zoveel genders en toch weten we, op magische wijze, welke helft van het menselijke ras verwacht wordt billen af te begen en vloeren te schrobben”  – Victoria Smith

Gender is een gevangenis, en ik heb compassie voor iedereen die daardoor wordt beperkt. Het is afschuwelijk dat mannen ontmoedigd worden om empathisch, vriendelijk te zijn en zich op een creatieve manier te uiten. Er is wreedheid bij het socialiseren van jongens in de mannelijkheid. Er wordt gezegd dat er een verband bestaat tussen gender ideologie en het witwassen van mannelijk voorrecht dat de controle vereist. Dat gezegd hebbende, er is een connectie tussen gender ideologie en het witwassen van mannelijk privilege.  

Dit probleem wordt geïllustreerd door het geval van Ben Hopkins, de helft van het punk duo PWR BTTM. Hopkins is biologisch man en is als zodanig gesocialiseerd in zijn mannelijkheid. Zoals veel bekende mensen die biologisch man zijn, exploitteerde Hopkins zijn roem en macht om zijn vrouwelijke fans seksueel te misbruik.  Volgens een van zijn slachtoffers is Hopkins een “bekend seksueel roofdier die veelvoudig heeft toegeslagen, andere mensen in de queer community heeft gepest en ongewenste advances heeft gemaakt op minderjarigen.” Wat Hopkins onderscheidt van de lange traditie van machtige mannelijke misbruikers is dat hij zich identificeert als genderqueer. Als zodanig zou het queer perspectief, Hopkins acties niet als mannelijk geweld tegen vrouwen beschouwen. Queer exceptionalisme, zoals deze zich manifesteert door de logica van genderidentiteit, maakt het onmogelijk om mannelijk geweld als zodanig te noemen of te bevechten.

 PWR-BTTM-sexual-abuse-screenshot

Mannen worden vanaf hun geboorte aangeleerd dat zij recht hebben op de tijd, de aandacht, liefde, energie en lichamen van vrouwen. Toch ontvangen mannen, in overeenstemming met de logica van genderideologie, ongelukkige, maar willekeurige, in tegenstelling tot een waarschijnlijk gevolg van de gendered socialisatie in de patriarchale samenleving. Ondanks de zelf-identificatie  als genderqueer, heeft het seksuele geweld dat Hopkins tegen vrouwen met dramatisch minder sociale macht dan hij, perfect de logica van mannelijkheid gevolgd. In welke zin kan een man die het meest toxische mannelijkheid gedrag vertoont, beweren dat hij gender queer heeft gemaakt.

Zoals zijn acties duidelijk maken, heeft Hopkins niet bewust de mannelijke socialisatie of zijn recht op vrouwenlichamen afgeleerd. Hoe Hopkins kiest om te identificeren, heeft weinig invloed op de gruwelijke realiteit van de situatie. Door te claimen genderqueer te zijn, probeerde Hopkins het mannelijke privilege waarvan hij profiteerd onder het tapijt te schuiven. Jen Izaakson schrijft voor Feminist Current over de paradox die schuilt in Hopkins’ claim genderqueer te zijn:

“… Hopkins gebruikte glitter, eyeliner en vintage jurkjes om een ​​begrip van en navolging van queer idealen te demonstreren, om een ​​afwijzing van” giftige mannelijkheid” te illustreren evenals een afwijzing van  gendernormen die sociaal toegeschreven worden aan mannen. Maar het dragen van bloemrijke jurken en lipgloss leidt niet tot een feitelijke afwijzing van het mannelijke recht en mannelijke dominantie van mannen onder het patriarchaat. Door middel van zelf-gedefinieerde identiteiten, individuele expressie en performativiteit, in plaats van het mannelijk geweld en ongelijkmatige machtsstructuren te onderzoeken, heeft queer discourse het mogelijk gemaakt voor misogynie om gemakkelijk toegang te verkrijgen tot het feest.”

Evenzo heeft de transactivist Cherno Biko (geboren als man) openlijk bekend dat een transman (geboren vrouw) verkracht te hebben met de fantasie en de bedoeling om deze tegen hun wil te bezwangeren. Ondanks publiek erkend te hebben  seksueel misbruik gepleegd te hebben, werd Biko uitgenodigd om tijdens de vrouwenmars in Washington op het podium te spreken en was de medevoorzitter van de adviesraad van de jonge vrouw in New York. Dit roept vragen op over niet alleen over het schijnbare gebrek aan aansprakelijkheid voor seksueel misbruik binnen het feminisme, maar ook in de mate waarin progressieve politieke bewegingen bereid zijn om geweld tegen vrouwen door de vingers te zien zodra de dader zich als transgender of genderqueer identificeert.

Geweld tegen vrouwen zijn zowel de oorzaak en het gevolg van het patriarchiaat, en ze worden genormaliseerd door de logica van het genderdenken. Genderideologie onderschrijft de machtsongelijkheid van seksuele politiek – een hiërarchie die door gender zelf is ingesteld – en in plaats daarvan beschouwt het gender als een kwestie van zelfidentificatie. Het queer perspectief individualiseert de vraag van identiteit om gender te depolitiseren, waardoor moeilijke vragen over macht en patriarchie worden vermeden.

We worden verteld dat geslacht een diep persoonlijke kwestie is en dient daarom, zoals alle goede liberalen weten, niet grondig te worden onderzocht. Desalniettemin blijkt dat transvrouwen ‘een mannelijk patroon behouden met betrekking tot criminaliteit na een geslachtsveranderende operatie’ en dat ‘hetzelfde geldt voor gewelddadige misdaad’. Gezien het feit dat één op de drie vrouwen in haar leven mannelijk geweld zal ervaren, is dit geen kleinigheid: 96% van de mensen die seksueel geweld plegen zijn biologisch mannelijk. De veiligheid van vrouwen en meisjes is nooit een aanvaardbare prijs om te betalen, zelfs niet in de naam van inclusiviteit. Mannelijke socialisatie speelt een aantoonbare rol in de vorming van houding en gedrag. Als vrouwen het geweld dat we ervaren niet kunnen benoemen noch systeem dat dit mogelijk maakt, kunnen we deze niet bestrijden.

“Toen Simone de Beauvoir schreef dat een meisje niet als een vrouw geboren is, maar eerder een wordt, bedoelde ze niet dat een individu van het mannelijke geslacht, gesocialiseerd in de verwachtingen van de mannelijke genderrol, simpelweg kan beslissen om hormonen te nemen en wellicht operatie te ondergaan en zo ‘een vrouw worden”- Dame Jenni Murray

Door de lens van genderidentiteit kan de onderdrukker zijn mannelijke voorrecht vebergen en de status van onderdrukte opeisen. Door de lens van genderidentiteit kunnen de onderdrukten ook de basis van hun onderdrukking verwerpen door middel van zelfidentificatie. Genderideologie wil een hiërarchie als een identiteit voorstellen. Helaas kan men niet aan structurele en systematische onderdrukking ontkomen – hoewel het queer discours dit als een legitieme route voor vrouwen voorstelt. De man is de standaard voor de mensheid, terwijl de vrouw die zich bezighoudt met ‘Andere’ – gedefinieerd alleen in relatie tot de man (Beauvoir, 1949). Het is geen wonder dat een groeiend aantal vrouwen, ontevreden over de beperkingen die door de vrouwelijke genderrol worden opgelegd en zich bewust zijn dat mensen meer zijn dan het holle stereotype van vrouwelijkheid, stoppen met het zich identificeren als vrouw.

In plaats van de vrouwelijke genderrol als het probleem te identificeren en de genderhiërarchie te ontmantelen, worden vrouwen nu zich niet langer als zodanig te identificeren als ze zich gedragen of voelen zoals mensen nu eenmaal doen. In plaats van vrouwen de middelen aan te reiken om hun geïndividualiseerde misogynie af te schudden, moedigt de geslachtsideologie hen aan om vrouw zijn te verwerpen en zich te beroepen op individuele uitzonderingen op de gendersysteem. Door volledige mensheid en vrouwelijkheid als wederzijds exclusief uit te nodigen, nodigt genderideologie vrouwen uit om deel te nemen aan Ik-Ben-Niet-Zoals-Andere-Meisjes: De Queer Editie.

Het is begrijpelijk dat vrouwen graag de aan vrouwelijke genderrol willen ontsnappen – inderdaad, de bevrijding van vrouwen uit de genderhiërarchie is een kerndoel van het feminisme. Maar het feminisme pleit voor de bevrijding van alle vrouwen van alle vormen van onderdrukking, niet alleen de bevrijding van degenen die stellen dat hun individuele onderdrukking vanwege hun gender verkeerd is – diegenen die “niet een soort ’vrouw zijn’ ambiëren“.

De homofobie van het ’queer’ maken van gender

Ondanks dat er gesproken wordt over een ’queer community’, een alliantie tussen ledengay liberation van de LGBT + alfabet soep, ligt er altijd al homofobie aan de basis van queer politiek. Queer-ideologie kwam op in reactie op  lesbische feministische principes, die een radicale maatschappelijke verandering bepleiten door het transformeren van persoonlijke levens (Jeffreys, 2003). De politieke belangen van lesbische vrouwen en gemarginaliseerde homoseksuele mannen – met name de afschaffing van geslachtsrollen – worden door queer politiek van tafel geveegd. Individualisme voorkomt elke geconcentreerde focus op feministische en homoseksuele bevrijdingspolitiek, wat door queer discours wordt beschreven als ’ouderwets’, ’saai’ of ’anti-seks’.

In de afgelopen jaren is het openlijk anti-homo sentiment gestegen. Pogingen om lesbische vrouwen en homoseksuele mannen uit te wissen zijn nu bon ton in de ’queer’ wereld. Shannon Keating schrijft in een opinie waarin de vraag wordt gesteld of de lesbische identiteit de genderrevolutie kan overleven dat de ’lesbisch’ en ’homoseksueel’ verouderde termen zijn.

“Tegen de steeds kleurrijkere achtergrond van gender diversiteit, begint een binair label als ‘gay’ of ‘lesbisch’ muffig en saai te voelen. Als er zo veel genders zijn, is het dan niet ’close-minded- of erger nog, schadelijk en exclusief- als je je identificeert mete en label dat  impliceert dat je alleen maar aangetrokken bent tot één van hen?”

Er is een volhardende tak van homofobie binnen de genderideologie. Deze manifesteert zich zo regelmatig, omdat deze homofobie verwoven is met genderpolitiek. Aantrekking tussen mensen van gelijk geslacht, wordt halsstarrig geproblematiseerd omdat deze het bestaan van biologisch geslacht erkent, alsmede haar betekenis voor het bepalen voor potentiele aantrekkingskracht – iets wat ingaat tegen de claim dat gender in plaats van geslacht van belang is voor iemands identiteit.

Eerder dit jaar beweerde Juno Dawson, de auteur van The Gender Games, dat het zijn van een homoman eigenlijk niets anders is dan een ‘troostprijs’ voor diegenen die niet bereid zijn om te kiezen voor het leven als een transvrouw. Voor Juno’s transitie leefde en had hij lief als een homoseksuele man, daarom is het is het bijzonder lastig dat Dawson homoseksualiteit verklaarde als iets dat minder respect en erkenning verdient.  Dawson schetste het leven als een homoman als een minderwaardig alternatief, een armzalig substituut, voor de onderdrukking van zijn van een transvrouw. Toen homoseksuele mannen en lesbische vrouwen bezwaar maakten tegen deze homofobie, maakte Dawson een niet-verontschuldiging die een fundamentele waarheid over de politiek van geslachtsidentiteit en seksualiteit blootlegt: “Veel transmannen en- vrouwen leefden voor hun transitie als homoseksuele mannen of lesbiennes dus ik vind het een heel belangrijk punt om te bespreken… ”

Het is ontzettend regressief om te betogen dat homomannen eigenlijk onvoltooide vrouwen zijn. Volgens deze logica is alleen het meest heterosexuele en giftigste van mannelijkheid werkelijk mannelijk. En als homoseksuele mannen in werkelijkheid transvrouwen zijn, bestaat er niet zoiets als een homoseksuele man. Homoseksualiteit is ‘genezen’ – een agenda die traditioneel tot sociaal conservatieven behoorde, maar nu binnen de queer ideologie wordt betoogt. En het is geen toeval dat zoveel van degenen die kiezen voor een chirurgische of medische transitie, homoseksuele mannen of lesbische vrouwen zijn, die na hun transitie als heteroseksueel leven. In Iran, waar relaties tussen mensen van hetzelfde geslacht met de dood worden bestraft, zijn geestelijken bereid om ”het idee te accepteren dat een persoon in een lichaam van het verkeerde geslacht kan worden gevangen”.

Geslachtsideologie is fundamenteel conservatief. Het is gebaseerd op de veronderstelling dat genderrollen absoluut zijn, dat diegenen die afwijken van hun opgelegde genderrol moeten behoren tot een andere categorie. Lesbische vrouwen en homoseksuele mannen dagen genderrollen uit, simpelweg door van iemand van hetzelfde geslacht te houden en  door af te wijken van de heteropatriarchale patronen van dominantie om een ​​seksuele politiek van gelijkheid te creëren. Als we overgaan naar heteroseksualiteit, in overeenstemming met de genderrollen, moeten we ons aanpassen aan de genderrollen zoals die door het patriarchiaat worden voorgeschreven.

Niemand is geboren in het verkeerde lichaam. Een lichaam kan per definitie niet verkeerd zijn. Het systeem van gender is daarentegen onjuist op alle fronten. Het problematiseren van lichamen in plaats van de hiërarchie die ze beperkt, repliceert alleen de destructieve ideologie in de kern van het patriarchiaat. Het keert de benadering van de politiek van bevrijding om, in het beste geval heeft het het patriarchiaat verkeerd begrepen, in het slechtste geval is het er een onderdeel van.

Conclusie

 Kritiek op genderideologie wordt sterk ontmoedigd. Ik vermoed dat dit komt doordat hoe meer men het queere begrip geslacht verkent, hoe duidelijker haar misogynie en homofobie wordt. Zodra de progressieve glans begint te verbleken – zodra het duidelijk wordt dat genderideologie in het beste geval gedienstig is aan het patriarchaat en de schade die deze berokkent aan vrouwen, wordt de queer politiek veel moeilijker om te verkopen aan de algemene bevolking.

 

fuck grEn zo worden de feministen die gender-ideologie bevragen als onverdraagzaam gebrandmerkt, de kritiek en die vrouwen die dapper genoeg zijn om deze te maken, worden als illegitiem weg gezet. Vrouwen die genderideologie in vraag stellen, worden TERF’s genoemd – we worden er telkens verteld dat hun enige motief voor hun kritiek op genderideologie valsheid is, in tegenstelling tot een betekenisvolle zorg voor het welzijn van vrouwen en meisjes. Daarmee citeer ik Mary Shelley: “Pas op; want ik ben onbevreesd en daarom krachtig.” Elke poging om vrouwen te ontmoedigen om onze onderdrukking aan te pakken, is diep verdacht.

 

Geslachtsideologie creëert een valse dichotomie van mensen die vanaf hun geboorte gebonden zijn aan traditionele geslachtsrollen en een uitzonderlijk kleine groep die dat niet zijn. Geslachtspolitiek is het meest uitgebreide en schadelijke voorbeeld van het gebruik van de methodes van de meester om het huis van de meester te ontmantelen. Waarom gender queer maken als wij deze helemaal kunnen afschaffen? Waarom verspillen wij onze energie met het omkeren van onderdrukkende praktijken als we deze helemaal kunnen afschaffen.

 

’Vrouw’ is een geslachtsklasse – niets meer, niks minder. ’Man’ is een geslachtsklasse – niets meer, niets minder. Stellen dat de reikwijdte van onze identiteit wordt bepaald door de genderrol die onze geslachtsrol wordt opgelegd is het legitimiseren van een patriarchaal project. Als feminist, als vrouw, verwerp ik de queerpolitiek en de geslachtsideologie die deze bepleit. In plaats daarvan stel ik dat vrouwen en mannen die buiten het script leven op basis van gender- of het nu queer- of patriarchale classificaties is – omarmd worden als revolutionairen. Alleen door de afschaffing van gender kunnen we ware bevrijding bereiken.