A lot of women and other people have said what I’m about to say far better than I can, with reference to their own lived experience. Please read their thoughts, and don’t just take my word for things!
Colonize This!, edited by Daisy Hernandez, Bushra Rehman and Cherrie Moraga
Anything and everything by bell hooks
Over the past few days (weeks, months, years) Twitter has exploded with conflict between different groups of feminists. Many of these clashes have been between two loose groups; one made up of women of colour, trans* women, queer women, disabled women, and the people who support them, and one made up of predominately white, cis women, many of whom have significant media platforms. These clashes have often been incredibly painful and ugly for all involved. There has been a lot of anger on both sides, and a lot of grievances. However, this anger, and this pain, and these grievances, have not been equal.
Over the past few days (weeks, months…you get the picture), I have seen WOC feminists accused of being ‘divisive’, spawning hashtags like the rather clunky #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity. I have seen queer women being shamed for their sexualities. I have seen women conflating criticism from marginalised feminists with abuse in the form of rape and death threats. (I absolutely condemn all rape and death threats. However, I also condemn representing all criticism as abuse, and lumping women who receive rape and death threats on a daily basis themselves in with the people who make those threats). I have seen women of colour, trans*, queer and disabled women being monstered and dismissed by people with far greater levels of social power. I have even seen people shamed for speaking out about those facts of their lives, even though by doing so, they are countering dominant narratives which try to force them to be ashamed of and hide things like mental illness, trans* status, disability and queerness.
Something is rotten in the state of white feminism*. To a certain extent, I can understand why it’s happened. As I noted, a lot of the women who have been at the forefront of these clashes have considerable media platforms, a position which has been, and continues to be, dominated by white men. A woman who has managed to break into such an environment will have had to fight to do so, and will have to continue to fight against sexists who believe that she shouldn’t be there. Coming out fighting becomes an instinct, and when the people you’re fighting are those men who are trying to push you back out, fighting is just fine.
But when those people are other women, who don’t have the benefits of white or cis or able-bodied privilege, who just want some space for themselves, or have noticed a way you’re erasing or misrepresenting them and would like you to stop – then that’s a very different matter. Fighting back? No. You’re kicking down.
Everyone screws up. No-one is expecting anyone to be perfect. What people are asking is for others to listen when they’re told that something they’ve said or done has hurt others. But white feminism isn’t doing this. Instead, the group locks shields like Roman soldiers forming a testudo, and ploughs through the marginalised women, spears raised. Criticism is positioned as abuse, and the critics as bullies who should just stop being so mean.
Here’s the thing – criticism isn’t abuse. As a writer and a perpetual student, I can tell you that criticism is immensely valuable. No-one is perfect, and criticism helps you identify things you haven’t understood or haven’t expressed well, and gives you a foundation from which to work towards being better in future. If someone points out some unintentional bigotry on your part, they’re not trying to shame you, any more than someone who points out that your fly is undone or your skirt is tucked into your knickers. They’re telling you that there’s something you’ve overlooked. Demonising them for doing that is a pretty shitty thing to do.
There’s a fantastic blog post that I’ve often shown my male friends, which explains the concept of privilege: Straight White Male – The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is. I believe that some white, cis, straight, able-bodied feminists, although aware of the basics of intersectionality and privilege, have forgotten that their whiteness, their heterosexuality, their cis and able-bodied statuses, means that they are effectively on the second-lowest difficulty setting. Yes, we get marginalised for being women. But the women who get marginalised for being women AND black/trans*/disabled/queer? We need to listen to them.
Not only do we need to start listening, but we need to stop getting cross because marginalised women are angry. This has been the thing about these clashes that has confused me most. White feminism has accused marginalised women of pandering to patriarchy, of attempting to silence them, of being too angry and aggressive. But challenging whiteness and cissexism and disablism isn’t pro-patriarchy, because patriarchy supports all of those different axes of oppression. Asking not to be erased or misrepresented isn’t silencing – it’s a call for more voices to be heard. And being angry about being ignored or demonised or told to shut up and stop splitting the movement is perfectly understandable. If we tell marginalised women that their anger is invalid, we’re aping patriarchy, not tearing it down. We’re being exactly like those men who told us “I would listen to you, if you weren’t so rude and confrontational.”
White feminists, let’s pause and think. When a woman of colour tells you something is racist, your gut reaction might be “But I’m not a racist, I’m a good person!” Put that feeling aside, just for a moment, and consider why she said it, and the context in which she said it. If she’s willing to get involved in a discussion, ask her what was problematic and how you can do better. And, if you have enough of a platform to do so – and if she wants it – budge up and give her a little space.
In roller derby, there’s a move called a whip, where a player lets a team mate grab her arm, then uses her own momentum to propel that team mate forwards. White, cishet, able-bodied feminists, let’s do the same for marginalised women, and leave the patriarchy and the kyriarchy eating our dust.
*Just to clarify – I would hope this would be obvious, but “white feminism” does not mean “every single feminist who happens to be white”, just as “patriarchy” does not mean “every single man”. Instead, it means a strand of feminism that has internalised and centred whiteness, rather than attempting to unpick and deconstruct its own white privilege.