Online feminism and privilege laundering: Some concerns

I’ve been away from twitter for most of the past fortnight. This is not, I hasten to add, because I’ve been off on some non-intersectional white feminist flounce. Chance would be a fine thing. I’ve been camping with two small children in rainy Wales, miles away from wifi, central heating and dry clothing. Would that I had the privilege of indulging in a modern-day cyber-sulk (I’ve had to settle for grumpily hogging most of the double sleeping bag while telling my partner, bitterly, that this was all his stupid idea).

Anyhow, I’m back and I see that people still aren’t playing nicely (to use the most condescending words possible to refer to others being genuinely upset). Don’t worry, though, I’m here to sort it out. Because I’m mega-privileged but I’m also apologetic, and that makes everything alright.

First off, I’d like to mention the recent hashtag #fuckcispeople. I’m cis and I’m not offended by it. Did you get that? I said, I’M CIS AND I’M NOT OFFENDED BY IT. I think it’s important that I make that clear. It’s not enough to look at the wrongs being highlighted by a particular thread and examine one’s own complicity. What’s the point unless everyone else can see that you’re doing it (and are thereby less complicit than they are)? To be fair, Hannah Buchanan (no relation to Mike, AFAIK) wrote a powerful post on why she is offended by the hashtag. Except it would be offensive of me to think it’s powerful, so I don’t. Or maybe I do? Best leave that thought where it is ….

Second, there’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen. If ever there was a thread into which white women shouldn’t intrude – one which indeed insists that they shut the hell up and listen – this was it. But then again, if you’re a white woman, how can anyone know you’re listening unless you tell them, ideally in a patronizing way which suggests you’re pretty sure they’re not listening? Even better, why not mention Helen Lewis (the perfect foil when it comes to setting up an imaginary good white feminist/bad white feminist paradigm)? Because obviously, if you go on and on about shared guilt in racism, it makes you less guilty (except it doesn’t. It’s that bit – the admitting that it doesn’t – that does. Or something).

If I sound a bit muddled, it’s because I am. Or rather, I am uncomfortable. I am concerned that the intersectional feminism which, on the one hand, challenges privilege is, on the other, becoming itself a plaything of the privileged. We should listen, yes, but it’s how we’re answering back – and the “worse than me” examples we’re dragging into the mix – that rankle.

Privilege itself means that people like me – white, cis, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied – have choices in how to approach intersectionality. We could use it to listen and reconsider our own position, certainly. However, we can also use it to our own advantage. We can use it to hide the fact that our voices remain louder. We can use it to position ourselves at the outer edges of our own privilege. I don’t think we should do this. I don’t think that’s fair.

For a while now, I’ve been suspicious that often when people such as Lewis and Caroline Criado-Perez – White Feminists With A Platform – are criticised for failing in their intersectional duties, there’s a kind of “privilege laundering” taking place. Fellow white feminists take ire that would – and should – be directed at all of us and focus it on a supposedly super-privileged few. It’s sometimes presented as “being an ally” but to me, it can smack of the sort of “I’m one of you” posturing mocked in Common People, or even the “pick on my brother” amorality of the Billy Goats Gruff. It feels exploitative. Indeed, I think of Caitlin Moran’s reference to gay people as her “pets, like sea monkeys with amazing hair/shoes” and sense something similar in the way in which it’s possible, as a privilege person, select a range of less privileged people whom you can “nobly” defend/use to polish your own image (Melissa Thompson is good at expressing how this can feel for some of those being “defended”, but again, I don’t know whether I’m allowed to appreciate that. After all, what are my true motivations?).

I write this, not to have a total downer on intersectional feminism or to suggest that white cis women can’t be part of it, but because, apart from anything, I recognise these less admirable impulses in myself. I want to do the right thing, but I also want to be seen to do the right thing — and I want to be liked. And I think, for me at least, this leads to dishonesty. For instance:

Thought process 1: “This hashtag is ace. It would be wrong to tweet it because it’s not about me, indeed it’s about experience that isn’t mine. But it’s good that I’m finding it ace, though. And looking ace by association is just another way of showing support, right?” Result: say something when you shouldn’t.

Thought process 2: “Those people are being unfair to X. Mind you, if I said anything, people would just see it as the privileged defending the privileged. And then Y wouldn’t like me any more. Best shut up” Result: say nothing when you should speak.

And so it goes on. Is it really just me who does this? Either way, it’s not right. It is a form of privilege laundering. It might make you feel temporarily cleansed, but you’re the only one who benefits. Meanwhile “the privileged” are reduced to a tiny number to be vilified for things they actually haven’t done, while “the non-privileged” are treated like feminism’s sea monkeys by those who’ve already passed the buck.

No feminist, whatever side of the intersectional “divide”, exists to make you look better. When feminism starts to feel like posturing, it probably is. We all should want more.

4 thoughts on “Online feminism and privilege laundering: Some concerns

  1. I thought someone like Captain Awkward (@cawkward) was doing a good job last week of re-tweeting some of the #solidarityisforwhitewomen tweets – ones which made a good clear point without necessarily needing the context of the rest of the discussion – to her followers, without doing much in the way of editorialising or re-framing things in a “yeah, me too!” way. There’s a sweet spot somewhere that’s about boosting the signal without getting too self-aggrandising about it, and ignoring the bits that seem to much like electing figureheads of wrongness.

    Though actually, I think there’s maybe also something about Twitter making it clearer and also blurring the boundaries between who is real-life friends or colleagues and who’s just a name in a masthead? I find it easy to just go, “oh, spat between Helen Lewis and Stavvers? Huh.” and just scroll on. I probably have some thoughts about the correctness of their respective positions and the degree of invective with which they’re stated, but I don’t have any urge to share them. If it was someone attacking someone I knew personally offline, I’d probably not be so equitable. I don’t know if this is actually the case, but it often looks like when these very personal fights occur is that a lot of people are actually defending people they’re personally attached to, so it’s political positions that people are really passionate about magnified by it being a very small world where a lot of people know each other personally, overlooked by a lot of people who don’t. That’s a pretty good recipe for messiness.

  2. Great post. You’ve articulated really well something I’ve been noticing for a while and not known how to say, namely that there are a few vocal ‘activists’ around who seem to be more about making themselves look worthy and getting rid of their own guilt/private anger than actually helping anyone. One of the best illustrations I’ve seen of this is someone who works for a unnamed social justice-oriented org and spends all day online furious at racism/cissexism/mainstream media, apparently unaware of the irony that the best thing said org could be doing for social justice is actually employing someone from a marginalised group rather than a hand-wringing white cis person.

    I think the problems you’ve described happen because some people who’ve been marginalised in life not because of socio-economic disadvantage but due to general trauma or – frankly – not being very adept socially, align themselves with marginalised groups who they then hinder more than help. I’ve unfollowed/stopped reading a few people recently, not because I think their sentiments are wrong but because their constant rage at every slight is just too much. And I wonder if in some cases having therapy to address bullying, abuse or whatever’s happened to them in life would be an all-round better use of their time for a while than activism. I understand the issue of ‘tone policing’ anger, but people who are angry at everyone and everything all the time are impossible.

    On a trivial unrelated note, I try and resist the trend among some people my age and below in the UK for discussing politics a) as though the UK is America b) using Americanisms. Much as I may love America and Americans I live in the UK where we do and say things differently.

  3. Great post. You’ve articulated really well something I’ve been noticing for a while and not known how to say, namely that there are a few vocal ‘activists’ around who seem to be more about making themselves look worthy and getting rid of their own guilt/private anger than helping anyone. One of the best illustrations I’ve seen of this is someone who works for a unnamed social justice-oriented org and spends all day online furious at racism/cissexism/mainstream media, apparently unaware of the irony that the best thing that org could be doing for social justice is actually employing someone from a marginalised group rather than a hand-wringing white cis person.

    I think the problems you’ve described happen because some people who’ve been marginalised in life not because of socio-economic disadvantage but due to general trauma or – frankly – not being very good socially, align themselves with marginalised groups who they then hinder more than help. I’ve unfollowed/stopped reading a few people recently, not because I think their sentiments are wrong but because their constant rage at every slight is just too much. And I wonder if in some cases getting professional help to address bullying, abuse or whatever’s happened to them in life would be an all-round better use of their time for a while than activism. I understand the issue of ‘tone policing’ anger, but people who are angry at everyone and everything all the time become impossible after a while.

    On a trivial unrelated note, I try and resist the trend among some people my age and below in the UK for discussing politics a) as though the UK is America b) using Americanisms. Much as I may love America and Americans I live in the UK where we do and say things differently.

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