On Saturday evening I was on twitter, discussing the criminal conviction of those who threatened Caroline Criado-Perez with rape. There are many ways in which people excuse the abuse of women – she asked for it, she wanted it, she’s lying – but here’s one I hadn’t heard before: Criado-Perez was just a privileged white feminist victimising working class people for whom rape threats are a normal part of everyday discourse.
This struck me as one of those bigotry double whammies, reminiscent of a Ceefax letter I once read, claiming that if the UK hadn’t legalised abortion we wouldn’t need all those bloody immigrants. Just as someone there used racism to justify their anti-choice position, here someone was using classism to justify rape threats. Marvellous! There’s an infinite number of ways you can play one prejudice off against another, or even double them up, and in this case you can even pretend you’re on the side of the underclass (poor working class people, they do not know what they do etc.). And so I tweeted this:
So that was that, at least until mid-morning on a Sunday when my tweet was discovered by the twitter feminism police and deemed to be racist, transphobic, privileged, offensive etc. Hence a whole heap of shit came my way.
Obviously I’m really sorry I sent that tweet. Only kidding. I’m not, not in the slightest. I’ll use sarcasm and hyperbole if I want to. I’ll use whatever means I choose to call out the self-aggrandising bullshit of those who excuse rape threats, patronise and slander those whom they’ve characterised as “the marginalised” and dare to think of themselves as feminist to boot. If other people decide to read that tweet out of context, twist it and use it as an excuse to intimidate me then frankly they should be ashamed of themselves. And I would just leave it at that but this isn’t an isolated event. This kind of bullying, misrepresentation and lying happens to feminists all the time and I, for one, am furious.
I know what you’re thinking. But it’s structural. You have to put the language you used within a broader context of oppression. Damn right I will, and here’s that context: I was not misrepresented and name-called because of anything I wrote. I was misrepresented and name-called for two reasons: 1. I’m a woman, and 2. I have a New Statesman blog and am therefore considered excessively “privileged”. If that doesn’t sound sufficiently humble I don’t care. Lately, in ways I don’t tend to blog about, I’ve been through enough. Right now I’m done with the female social code that commands me to express shame at myself, assume good faith in cruel people and deny my own qualities just so that my presence isn’t too disruptive.
This abuse is because I am a woman, not because I am a white woman. I do not believe reverse racism exists, whereas misogyny clearly does. However, this abuse does need to be placed in the context of “white feminism” – after all, it’s a phrase I used in my tweet – because it’s related to the shorthand people use for a particular type of perceived female privilege (as though privilege is not a shifting, intersecting thing that everyone with access to twitter enjoys in different ways, but a line you cross which makes you less credible, less capable of experiencing pain and less capable of acting in good faith). I know that I am seen as a white feminist in terms of political positioning, in ways that others who are just as white-skinned as me are not. I think, again, this is related to misogyny and visibility and to the idea of women such as me, who don’t succumb to the pressure to create a tragic narrative out of their own twitter bio, as shameless interlopers who deserve a kicking.
Analysis of what it means to be a white woman, or a white feminist, hasn’t moved on much from Catherine MacKinnon’s 1996 piece What is a white woman anyway? There, she gives a strong summary of the misogynist mischaracterisation of white female experience (again I’d stress this is misogyny, not racism):
This creature is not poor, not battered, not raped (not really), not molested as a child, not pregnant as a teenager, not prostituted, not coerced into pornography, not a welfare mother, and not economically exploited. She doesn’t work. […] She is Miss Anne of the kitchen, she puts Frederick Douglass to the lash, she cries rape when Emmet Till looks at her sideways, she manipulates white men’s very real power with the lifting of her very well-manicured little finger. […] On top of all this, out of impudence, imitativeness, pique, and a simple lack of anything meaningful to do, she thinks she needs to be liberated. Her feminist incarnation is all of the above, and guilty about every single bit of it, having by dint of repetition refined saying “I’m sorry” to a high form of art. […] Beneath the trivialization of the white woman’s subordination implicit in the dismissive sneer “straight white economically privileged women” (a phrase which has become one word, the accuracy of some of its terms being rarely documented even in law journals) lies the notion that there is no such thing as the oppression of women as such.
Today we call women such as this Helen Lewis, or Caitlin Moran, or maybe Laurie Penny (how dare you write about your own hair!). We dehumanise them, calling their pain “cis white tears”. We don’t allow them mistakes. We are grossly, rampantly misogynist about them but this form of misogyny is supposed to be corrective, humiliating the privilege out of them. We say “we must all check our privilege” and “we must all learn” but what we really mean is “you’re privileged” and “you’re damned, you bigot”.
This doesn’t happen to men who are trying to disrupt the system but twitter and other online forums have become, for these women, the equivalent of the scold’s bridle or brank:
First recorded in Scotland in 1567, the branks were also used in England, where it may not have been formally legalized as a punishment. The kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland inflicted the contraption mostly on female transgressors and women considered to be “rude” or “nags” or “common scolds“. Branking (in Scotland and the North of England) was designed as a mirror punishment for “shrews'”or “scolds”; women of the lower classes whose speech was deemed “riotous” or “troublesome”; — often women suspected of witchcraft — by preventing such “gossips or scolds” from speaking. This also gives it it’s other name ‘The Gossip’s Bridle’
What could be more “riotous” or “troublesome” than a feminist who has strength and visibility? I know what you’re thinking: a feminist who swears a lot, calls out other women, tweets pictures of her pubes and babbles on about smashing the patriarchy. But we know this isn’t true. The latter kind of feminist is ten a penny, and conservative as they come. It’s feminists who have the nerve to put honesty before radical posturing who are unsettling. Those who genuinely claim space, which is then written off as “privilege” (because what is a woman doing there?). Such women might actually make a difference. So into the bridle they go.
Of course, if you think about it for half a second, there is no point in even attempting to analyse intersections of gender, race and class if you’re not prepared to include an examination of your own misogyny, or even to admit that it exists. The woman-hatred of those who smack down “media feminists” is difficult to challenge precisely because it plays into all the sexist stereotypes outlined by MacKinnon. In addition, any challenge is portrayed as a denial of white supremacy. As a white feminist, I would say it is easier – much, much easier – to play along with this. You get to enjoy the privilege of being white and appear superior to the “mere” white feminists who just don’t “get it”. There’s an absurdly careerist edge to this. If you view feminism not as a movement for social change, but as the route to a media career you’ve got to admit it’s a competitive arena. Using other people to play at being the best white intersectional feminist has been seen by some as a gap in the market. Donning the metaphorical tin hat to shout down “bad” peers is a USP. When you boil it down, such “feminists” are arch capitalists, seeking to commodify not just feminism but the exclusion and lived experience of others. It is emotionally manipulative and disgracefully self-serving, but it doesn’t involve laying yourself on the line. You get to be a privileged white woman without looking like one.
I’ve done this myself (what you do is take the example of a media feminist being vilified, explain to everyone what intersectionality is and why you get it, thereby implying she doesn’t without actually referring to context, then sadly suggest you hope she’ll listen and learn, making it clear that you don’t hold out any such hope). It is easy but morally untenable, insofar as it uses ideas of intersecting oppressions not to offer context and understanding, but to reinforce privilege by the back door and to silence dissent. I think of it as a form of privilege laundering. I think it is an example of white people exploiting the narratives of women of colour and it sucks.
But now I am on the other side of that imaginary, exploitative privilege line, I see other benefits to approaching feminism not as liberation, but as a self-interested cookie hunt. I didn’t appreciate at the time how much I shielded myself from misogyny by putting the “bad” white feminists out in front. Now I have undermined my own voice by saying the things I know to be true. Now, not only is my right to speak being questioned, not only am I being told that the more effectively I use rhetoric, the less credibility I have, not only am I being told my anger and sense of justice doesn’t matter –– all of which are everyday experiences for anyone faced with discrimination – but it is being done in the name of inclusion. None of you have the right to manage how I talk back to authority, to discredit my thought, to reposition the discrimination and oppression I seek to articulate. None of you have the right to tell me what my own words mean, to tell me what my thoughts are, to reconstruct my words and reality without my consent. None of you have the right to damage my mental health, make me doubt my capacity to think, to make me feel unable to trust anyone because of the whispering and distortion that follows. None of you have the right to do this just because I’m a feminist and, if flawed, nonetheless a bloody good one too. None of you has the right to expect perfection from me. None of you have the right to place the scold’s bridle on me, to shame and silence me because I don’t fit in with your hackneyed, conservative misreading of revolution.
Nothing I articulate will be unfamiliar to others who experience oppression in other ways. But what I experience remains unacceptable. There is no “good,” corrective sexism. To think that is simply to think that sexism is not really oppression. Interestingly, MacKinnon argues that there is a fear of not aligning yourself with another form of oppression, even at another person’s expense, “because that means being in the category with “her,” the useless white woman whose first reaction when the going gets rough is to cry”:
I sense here that people feel more dignity in being part of a group that includes men than in being part of a group that includes that ultimate reduction of the notion of oppression, that instigator of lynch mobs, that ludicrous whiner, that equality coat-tails rider, the white woman. It seems that if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed, as opposed to inferior. Once a group is seen as putatively human, a process helped by including men in it, an oppressed man falls from a human standard. A woman is just a woman–the ontological victim–so not victimized at all.
I think a skim through the twitter bios of a number of white feminists who consider themselves “more aware” than so-called media feminists makes the continuation of this misogynist impulse glaringly obvious. I don’t list all the lived experiences I have which, while I should be able to share them, I know I could misuse as “currency”. But I could. I know the lingo I’d use. It would make me more than “just” a woman, but that’s why I don’t do it. Being a woman who defines herself by her actions and words should be enough.
Obviously clicking publish on this post is not going to make me friends. I am tempted to write the responses to it in advance, to save you time, so you can copy and paste into the comments box or onto twitter. About how I don’t get it. About how I’m saying feminism should focus only on gender and not the interaction with other oppressions. About how I’m defending my white supremacy. About how I’m seeking to discredit intersectional feminism on the sly. About how I think people being mean to me is more important than those less privileged getting a voice. About how I think misogyny is structurally embedded in a way racism isn’t. Go on, take your pick and knock yourself out. After all, you’ll never know the darkness of my soul, so why not make any possible prejudice more real than word and deed?
But know that you are not doing this for inclusion, equality, or to give the marginalised a voice. You’re doing it to silence some women because you don’t like any women. The damage you do to us is real but that’s just misogyny and the conservative impulses of the superficially radical, isn’t it? That’s not going to go away any time soon. Nevertheless, the women who answer you back sure as hell aren’t going anywhere either.