Here is a true story: In the early 1980s, my dad and his friends were involved in the May Day parade in our town. The theme of their particular charity float was “Around the world in 80 days”. So my dad decided to black up with Kiwi shoe polish and go as Idi Amin. We have, conveniently, now lost the photos, but I’m absolutely sure I didn’t dream this. Indeed, I was in some of the pictures myself, dressed as Mrs Mop (whoever the hell she is - I’m guessing that since my dad had racism covered, I was doing my bit for class prejudice by dressing as a cleaner).
Whenever I tell people about this (and I don’t tell them often), the response is typically one of amazement. Where the fuck did you come from? they ask, terrified and amused in equal measure at the thought of the redneck backwater whence I came. And yes, rural Cumbria in the 1980s was a funny place. It’s a funny place still. But even so, there are times when I could do without the liberal horror of peers whose skin is every bit as white as mine, peers who just happen to hail from more metropolitan quarters and who may even boast about having attended school with real, live black people. Ha ha! they chuckle. What a terrible family! What a thoroughly racist town! But it didn’t feel weird or racist at the time. It felt normal. It felt the way things feel now, the way they’ll always feel to those with advantage. Years later we’ll wonder how we ever thought this was okay, yet at the time it’s an incredible effort to picture the world being any different.
These days I check my privilege all the sodding time.* All the same, I hate “checking my privilege”, just as much as I hate the word “intersectionality”. Only privileged people use words and phrases like that, people who – regardless of their background – have still got the time to sit around analysing experience and offering up alternative ways of being. All the same, privilege is relative. It’s one thing to write a tremendously fair-minded, carefully worded article on intersectional friction, as Bim Adewunmi did yesterday; quite another to have the time and self-serving bile to wait for such an article to appear, only to shoot it down with pointlessly time-wasting comments about how pointlessly time-wasting it all is.
Right now, certain prominent white journalists and writers are expressing frustration at the anger currently being directed at Caitlin Moran over her infamous “literally could not give a shit” tweet.** Zoe Williams has tweeted the following:
I cannot fucking stand this self policing bullshit feminism.
She goes on to clarify this by offering “I get incredibly infuriated when feminists police each other for not being feminist enough”, while Deborah Orr offers this:
It’s horrible, women being attacked because they don’t represent other women enough. In autobiographies.
Meanwhile Dorian Lynskey complains that “a friend of mine was being called racist on no fucking basis whatsoever”, while Graham Linehan fumes about people “actually DEMANDING tokenism”. All of this seems to me a gross misrepresentation of the issues being raised and the genuine hurt felt by those who are being told such things don’t matter. Nonetheless, there is a bit of me – a privileged/unprivileged bit – that identifies with the big-name writers. Isn’t all this anger directed at Moran a bit smug? Why are people being so mean about someone who is so nice? Isn’t the response in and of itself privileged and bullying? Since when was everyone else so perfect? I get all this, I really do. But it’s still not right.
Understanding that what you think is normal is alienating to others is difficult. It’s hard to do it on your own, and it’s hard to point it out to others without sounding like a self-satisfied knob who can’t see the mote in his or her own eye. Don’t you know about intersectionality? Ha! I know about intersectionality. As discourse goes, this is really fucking irritating, especially when you’re being told this by someone who appears to have sod all personal experience of being any less privileged than you. Hence the trend is increasingly to say that all the discussion amounts to is competitive feminism, competitive privilege-checking, willful showing-off at the expense of someone who just happens to disagree with you on one little thing. Even so, I don’t believe it’s possible to mass-interpret motivations in this way. It’s incredibly easy to ridicule people who use unfamiliar words to criticise that which to you is just “how things are”. And it appears to me that many journalist and writers whom I’ve admired are all too eager to form a closed circle, protecting and reflecting their own experience of “how things are” while misrepresenting the criticisms of those who don’t share their vision.
I think my dad still uses Kiwi shoe polish, but just for shoes these days. Still I bet back then, if anyone had challenged him, we could all have closed ranks. We could have claimed not to be able to stand “this self policing bullshit charity work” and expressed outrage at how people were “actually DEMANDING we all look white”. But this was all in the days before twitter. It’s much more normal now.
* Although not as much as Laurie Penny, who checks hers “in the manner of an anxious homemaker constantly checking that the gas is off”. Is it me being on privilege hyper-alert, or is the “anxious homemaker” image just a little bit on the patronising side? …
** Analysing the tweet yet again, I’m wondering if a possible late-in-the-day defence for Moran could be that while she “literally” couldn’t give a shit, she “metaphorically” still could. Unfortunately, I fear subsequent tweets have put paid to this line of interpretation.