Sister Outrider is the award winning blog of Claire Heuchan, a Black radical feminist from Scotland. In addition to winning the Best Blog category for the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards and being shortlisted for the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize, Sister Outrider is accessed around the world and has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Dutch.
A brief foreword: Every so often, a lesbian will write a message that deeply moves me. They usually start out by thanking me for defending lesbian sexuality in a time when it is contested and then move on to express something deeper – a feeling of loneliness and despair brought about by the way lesbians are treated in progressive spaces, be they feminist or queer. Women around the world carry this feeling, and have reached out to me to express this sense of isolation it creates. I’m also carrying that sadness and, while I can’t alleviate it in myself or others, am capable of unpacking some of the factors that cause it.
Dedicated to Anne. You’re not alone.
I’m losing friendships with straight Black women. And that loss is painful. But it’s not hard to grasp the reason for it. The feminist connections between me & hetero women have never been entirely easy: there’s a kind of distance that comes into being, and obscures shared points of understanding, through their responses to my sexuality. Yet still it is difficult, because there is place and kinship in those friendships along with a lot of joy. For the benefit of those who have never been forced to weigh up the risk of racism before building a relationship, I will also point out that there is a great spiritual ease in knowing that you will not experience anti-Blackness from a friend, because she too is Black. The friendship becomes a place of safety. So much is possible when that soft, vital part of you is open instead of pre-emptively guarding against the likelihood of racism.
Quite a few of my friendships with white lesbians, some fledgling and others fully formed, have disintegrated too – over those women’s approach, or lack of, to race. Although experiencing racism is never a picnic, I am used to receiving it from white women and have adjusted my expectations accordingly. It’s less of a pressing concern because I am not particularly invested in whiteness. I learned from a very early age that when you are surrounded by a group of white people, it’s a question of when rather than if the racism is going to manifest. There is no reason to imagine that white lesbians are the exception to whiteness by virtue of their sexuality. However, I think the reason deep friendship with white lesbians remains an ongoing possibility for me is that their radical feminist politics can enable the critical, reflective work required to unlearn racism.
For the last year I have felt pulled between the expectations that straight Black women and white lesbian women have put upon my feminism. At multiple points, it seems as though what one group values about my feminism is a point of contention for the other. In the eyes of a number of straight Black women in my life, I am too radical – my unwillingness to divorce gendered aspects of the personal from the political creates a rift. With some of the white lesbians in my life, I am insufficiently radical – too invested in exploring grey areas and the pesky politics of race to fit with their understanding of lesbian feminism.
You can’t please everybody, and I haven’t the slightest desire to try. No person who lives authentically can be universally liked. Yet this split does not feel like a mere matter of liking, and neither does it feel coincidental. In fact, it can usually be traced back to the positionality of everyone involved.
At one of the conferences for women of colour I attended last year, I had the pleasure of eating lunch around a table with two other Black women, fellow speakers. Their company was at once thrilling and reassuring: because they saw my perspective as being relevant to the event and were interested in my ideas, it was possible to untie the knots in my stomach for long enough to avail myself of some delicious stew and give a talk unimpeded by nerves. There’s magic in how being seen by other Black women enables one to shake off the imposter syndrome that develops through being made continuously Other. I hope my belief in those women, my excitement in their ideas, provided a similar kind of affirmation. It was uplifting. We talked between sessions, as is the way of things. As we started to feel familiar, one asked whether I had a man and children.
It was a weird moment. I had imagined the only way I could look more obviously lesbian was by wearing a Who Killed Jenny Schecter? t-shirt. But not everyone reads lesbian presentation, least of all heterosexuals. For a second I hesitated, conscious that my honesty would remove some of the assumptions of similarity that had enabled our tentative bond. I didn’t know how to explain, and didn’t want to expose the part of myself that dreams of one day having and being a wife – less still the tentative hope that one day I’ll have sufficiently stable mental health for us to raise a daughter together. It was painful to think the women with whom I’d shared understanding might find these aspirations alien or repellent.
Audre taught me the power in a name, in claiming the word lesbian. She never let that part of herself be erased or dismissed, even when it would have been convenient for her as a woman and as a feminist. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – deny it either, but at the same time I never relish spending the mental energy required to come out to a relatively unknown person. The risk and reward don’t necessarily balance out in within those transient connections, or any other for that matter, but within those fleeting friendships it can seem like a lot to give. Coming out isn’t just a one-time thing, as Mary Buckheit once wrote. It’s the work of a lifetime, repeated over and over again – assuming it is safe enough to do so in the first place.
I’ve been out for a few years now. In that time, I’ve become a bit too familiar with that little fission – the peculiar sensation when someone’s perception of me changes in the moment they learn that I’m a lesbian. And I felt it in that moment. There was a before, and there was an after. While I do generally share an affinity with my fellow Black women, more than any other demographic, issues of gender and sexuality do bring some tensions to the surface. The obvious solution would be to invest more time & energy in Black lesbians. Unfortunately, Scotland’s Black population density is pretty low – which makes finding other Black lesbians even harder. There are a lot of white lesbians, a few lesbians of colour, and a tiny number of Black lesbians in my life. For now, at least, I must play the hand geography has dealt me. This involves following a lot of Audre Lorde’s advice and using difference creatively – as something to be explored and learned from.
Broadly speaking, the feminism of straight women and lesbian women tends to be different. Straight and lesbian are not the only two categories into which a woman’s sexuality may fall, and certainly not the only feminist standpoints worth considering, but this particular difference requires some exploration. I’m not inclined to go down the purist path of a certain political lesbianism and claim that one is stronger or worthier somehow than the other – feminism isn’t a competition, and the variety in women’s perspectives only ever enriches the movement. All the same, there are differences in those feminisms brought about by a difference between how heterosexual and lesbian women experience the world.
Straight women are sheltered by the social support system that accompanies heterosexuality (Frye, 1983), not exposed to the precariousness of a lesbian life. Every significant relationship developed during my adult life falls into the category of “fictive” kinship, nameless ties not recognised as real by a heteronormative society. Lesbian connections are positioned as lesser, unreal, unnatural. Conversely, straight women are rewarded for forging ties of “true” kinship through marriage and blood, ties which society deems legitimate because they exist in relation to men. Building a life in which men are central – prioritised, desired, and considered essential companions – is fundamentally different to building a life that is woman-centric. Each path holds contrasting limitations and possibilities for how a woman lives her feminism, which is not necessarily a bad thing for the movement. It is the approach to difference, as opposed to the difference in itself, which determines the depth of what is possible between women.
…we sometimes find it difficult to deal constructively with the genuine differences between us and to recognize that unity does not require that we be identical to each other. Black women are not one great vat of homogenized chocolate milk. We have many different faces, and we do not have to become each other in order to work together. – Audre Lorde, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities
I think that as mainstream feminism’s scope has narrowed from a collective to an individual scale, becoming more about choice than structural analysis, space for women to explore the political significance of their lived realities has dwindled. There is a lack in contemporary feminism, a lack which has led us to stop pushing for liberation and instead settle for tepid notions of equality. As a result, feminism has an ever-shrinking scope and we are encouraged to abandon feminist practice that goes beyond what is comfortable or easily explained. Those complex avenues of thought, which lead us to ask immensely complicated questions about the relationship between the personal and the political, are not places women receive great encouragement to explore. And in a way it’s convenient, because we are spared the uncertainty held within radical possibilities – but we also lose out on the freedom those possibilities offer. If we pick comfort over challenge, the safety of the familiar over the potential of the unknown, the power of the feminist movement dissipates: a radical restructuring of society remains beyond our reach.
The area where feminists have become most restricted, hemmed in by fear and inhibition, is gender. Nothing will change to the benefit of women or trans/non-binary identifying people until an armistice is reached on the so-called TERF wars. Just as the sex wars blighted feminism of the 1980s, the TERF wars undermine the modern day movement. I believe that a willingness to ask difficult questions, of ourselves and each other, is the only way feminists holding any belief about gender will be able move past this stalemate. Naturally, this involves thinking challenging and uncomfortable thoughts. To practice radical honesty, instead of thinking only what falls within the walls of convenience and straightforwardness, will at least allow feminists of differing perspectives the space to connect and understand one another better.
In calling for greater honesty around the subject of gender, in advocating a deeper radicalism, I do not mean cruelty. Scrutinising gender does not and should not require cruelty towards anyone trapped by that hierarchy. If anything, radical practice demands compassion in every direction. And there is a definite shortfall of compassion within conversations about gender and sexual politics.
There are a great many things to find upsetting about how gender discourse now happens. What I find hardest to bear is watching friendships with straight Black women unravel, fray, and snap, pulled apart by gender politics. It hurts. It’s weighing on my mind. And I don’t have the energy to resist anymore. There is a particular malice that is projected onto the motives of lesbian women critiquing gender. Responses to lesbian feminist perspectives on gender often fail to recognise that it is a system oppressing us twice over, on account of both our sex and sexuality. By some twist of logic, the harm gender does to lesbians is erased – though marginal on multiple axes, we are assumed to be the oppressive force within an LGBT context.
The way straight feminists approach queer politics suggests that a significant number do not have a solid understanding of what LGBT+ organising is actually like for the women who do fit under the rainbow umbrella. In collective organising of the 1970s and ‘80s, lesbians were marginalised by the unchecked misogyny of gay men (ed. Harne & Miller, 1996). A lot of LGB spaces were male-centric, treating masculinity as the default way to be gay or bisexual. Women’s lived realities and political interests were not a priority unless actively centred by lesbian feminists (Jeffreys, 2003). While it’s easy to get caught up in the narrative of lesbians being deliberately difficult, it’s important to remember that cooperation meant being complicit in your own oppression instead of resisting it. When the T was added onto LGB, concerns of sexuality and identity were rather clumsily amalgamated – which means there are even more competing interests under the rainbow umbrella. Somewhat predictably, women’s concerns – especially the concerns of lesbian women – have become ever more peripheral. In today’s queer context, we’re more likely to be told the term lesbian is outdated or invited to re-examine the parameters of our sexuality than receive a modicum of solidarity. Straight feminists, who don’t live or organise under the rainbow umbrella, are perhaps not best placed to pass judgement on the lesbian women who do.
Life under the rainbow isn’t all fun and games. These conflicts directly affect our lives in ways that can be hard to carry, and we’re yet to reach consensus on any possible solution. Lesbian women and gay men were recently lambasted for suggesting that we return to organising around issues of sexuality – an unfortunate backlash, in my opinion. Collective organising around sexuality and collective organising around identity would enable each respective group to pursue their political needs more effectively. Without the in-fighting, there would be potential for a new and true mode of solidarity unhindered by the tensions of today. Where there’s common ground, there would be room for coalition. Where there’s none, there would at least be an absence of competition. I’ve seen more than one queer activist make the case that “it should be just the TQ+” as “the LGB part has already been normalized into heteronormativity.” Although this perspective doesn’t account for radical lesbian and gay organising, there is a case to be made for untangling the alphabet soup.
Queer politics have brought about this myth that gays and lesbians have achieved liberation. It goes the same way as rhetoric used (often by men) to explain why feminism is now redundant: women are basically equal now. Women are not equal to men, much less liberated from them – don’t bother trying to convince me otherwise until the pandemic of men’s violence against women and girls comes to an end. Patriarchy remains part of society’s foundation. Gender, which exists as a cause and consequence of patriarchy, gives rise to heterosexism and homophobia. It’s all connected.
In a recent conversation with my mother, she spoke about why she has remained at the same place of work for nearly two decades. The company has excellent policies safeguarding the rights of gay and lesbian employees – she told me that, even if people didn’t like her sexuality, she felt confident they couldn’t express anti-lesbian sentiment towards her because of strictly enforced consequences for discrimination. I know that’s hardly the ultimate struggle, and there is a certain privilege in having been able to build a lengthy career with one organisation, but it broke my heart a bit that whether or not she would be supported against lesbophobia factored into my mum’s decision making process in choosing her job. (Yes, she is a lesbian, which makes me lucky enough to be a second generation gay.) To be a lesbian does not bring a woman any great power or socioeconomic privileges – in fact, it does the opposite. Which is why it’s disheartening that mainstream feminism has ceased to treat us as worthy recipients of compassion.
Lesbian women are not viewed as “natural” subjects of empathy, despite being marginalised, because we do not live “natural” lives. Our way of living – which involves loving, desiring, and prioritising women – is not simply outside of heterosexist values, but a direct challenge to those values (Rich, 1980). The lack of empathy we receive from straight women is influenced and enabled by lesbophobia. I invite straight feminists to consider why their go-to assumption is that a lesbian feminist perspective on gender is motivated by malice, and to ask themselves why it is easy to imagine an innate cruelty in lesbian women.
Increasingly, I see straight feminists treating their lesbian sisters in a way that they could never condone behaving towards their trans siblings. Perhaps this disparity in compassion is because trans-identifying people do not overtly challenge the foundations of a heterosexual feminist life, whereas sharing spaces with lesbian feminists invariably brings the institution of heterosexuality into sharper focus – and in so doing raises uncomfortable questions. At times straight feminists speak about certain lesbian feminist theorists in such a way that you would be forgiven for thinking they described repeat violent offenders, not women in their sixties and seventies. Linda Bellos, a committed Black lesbian feminist, was vilified for speaking about the conflict between lesbian and queer politics. If we do not speak about it openly and honestly, that horrible tension is only going to grow – but I fear that scapegoating lesbian feminists is easier than engaging with what lesbian women have to say.
Lesbians are more likely to be described as unfeeling or – more ridiculous still – dangerous than straight feminists who analyse gender as a social harm. We are pathologised even within the feminist movement, lavender menaces once more. Radical feminists – many of whom are lesbian – consider gender as a vehicle for violence against women and girls. Therefore, we aim to eliminate gender in order to liberate women and girls from violence. Being a gender abolitionist has nothing to do with cruelty or prejudice, and everything to do with wanting to make this world a better, fairer place – somewhere all women and girls can thrive. I wish that more straight women could find ways to critique the gender politics of any lesbian feminism without resorting to Othering. There is scope for disagreement without subtly pathologising lesbian desires or perspectives.
An ever-growing number of Tweets muse about the correlation between lesbian
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.
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 or 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.
During the second wave of feminism, it was argued that woman simply meant a biologically female adult human. Feminists (Millett, 1696; 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.
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.
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,..
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 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 – would have seemed more likely. 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 weaponise 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.
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.
No 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
A brief foreword: this is my second dispatch from the margins (read the first here), and this essay is dedicated to Moon for inspiring it. Also for being a really good friend.
Content warning: this essay explores themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.
I deleted Twitter and Facebook. To 99.9999999% of the world’s population, my absence is irrelevant. To a small pocket of the feminist movement, my absence holds some level of significance. My mum was a bit surprised, because there were times when the only way I could have spent longer with my phone was if it had been surgically attached to my hand, but she was also pleased for exactly that reason. So other than a few feminists and my mum it’s unlikely that many people are really bothered. Still, there have been quite a few messages asking a) where I went b) if I’m well c) when I’m coming back – enough that I’ve decided to share some thoughts on the matter.
The first point to make is that I have a debilitating combination of depression and anxiety. I’m sick. Mental illness continuously shapes how I move through the world. That doesn’t always filter through the bright and shiny lens of social media where, even if we consciously attempt to resist building an idealised narrative around ourselves, only the good parts of our lives are consistently visible to others. On Twitter I tried to communicate some of the realities of how mental illness impacts my life without undermining my own privacy. It’s hard to gauge how successful that was. But I stopped performing wellness, because making mental illness invisible contributes to a culture of shame – it’s what leads people to conceal their problems rather than seeking help. But something shifted. My mental health declined. Twitter is all about communication, sharing thoughts and ideas. And there were nights when all I could think of, the only idea that presented itself, was suicide. Which, even in that state, I realised Tweeting about probably wasn’t the best plan. I’d retweet the @SoSadToday Twitter account in the hope of conveying no more than a socially acceptable level of despair.
Social media isn’t a great environment when you’re feeling fragile. Too many engagements become more about confrontation than a meeting of the minds, more about likes and petty point-scoring than genuine connection. There is an abundance of cruelty in digital spaces – even the feminist ones, which is an ongoing source of dismay. How women choose to interact with women who hold less power than they do – that is the ultimate indicator of how strong their feminist politics hold. Altogether too often, the women on the margins of the feminist movement are considered unworthy recipients of kindness by the women at the centre of the feminist movement. This hurts to witness, and it hurts to be subject to. No feminist should be kind only to the women who have something to offer her, or the women with whom associating may prove advantageous. Maybe more women should start thinking about kindness as a form of feminist praxis.
Choose to be kind friends, choose to be kind:
Not duplicitous, not two-faced,
Not passive-aggressive, not dishonest,
Not spiteful, not cowardly anonymous.
Have good grace, bring out the best, don’t stress.
When faced with a choice, choose kindness.
– Jackie Kay, Kinder
So often women of colour contact me because they feel overwhelmed by the cruelty white women direct towards them in feminist spaces, the casualness with which racism is weaponised against them. And I try to be supportive, try to listen to their truths that have been wilfully ignored elsewhere, try to give practical advice when possible. But it breaks my heart. And it makes me angry. That anger isn’t abstract – I feel a deep rage that women of colour are treated as expendable in a movement to which we are essential. I hate that our pain is brushed off as a mild inconvenience by the very women who cause it.
Being stuck between men of colour and white women is like being trapped between a rock and a hard place – women of colour are encouraged to accept misogyny or racism as our lot in life and liberation politics, depending upon which group we’re aligned with. Men of colour are quick to assure us that whatever misogyny they subject us to is small fry in comparison to the harms white supremacy acts upon women of colour. White women fall over themselves in the rush to claim that racism is a minor issue compared to the real threat of patriarchy.
I am tentatively prepared to reach out and build solidarity with both groups, but it is a sad irony that men of colour and white women fail to grasp that they each give women of colour as little reason to trust them as the other. Both groups represent a risk as well as the potential reward of coalition building within liberation politics. It would almost be amusing that men of colour and white women both use one another as a foil to convince women of colour that they are the less bad option, were the consequences not so devastating.
The idea of a digital detox came one afternoon when I was looking at my computer screen thinking I’d rather kill myself than keep looking at social media. It felt like death would be better than get suckered back into the cesspit of cruelty that white middle class feminists enact to avoid being held accountable for their racism or classism. Which is probably a disproportionate response but, as we have established, mental illness manifests in messy ways. And then I realised there was a third way: I didn’t have to kill myself, and I didn’t have to absorb any more of the toxic practices masquerading as feminism either. I could just delete social media, distance myself from that deluge of cruelty, and spend time doing things that make life feel worthwhile. Which is exactly what I have done.
I didn’t technically go anywhere – or rather, I went to all the same places I usually do, but without posting on social media. Mostly, I’ve been in my house. I’ve knitted one and a half scarves and crocheted just under half of a blanket. One week I went walking in the highlands, which was beautiful. Periodically I visit the local library for more books. Most days I try to fit in a walk by the river, because the writer’s lifestyle runs the risk of being sedentary. I’ve also been cooking proper meals as a form of self-care, trying to look after my body and mind both. And I’ve been present in all of those things, giving them my full focus.
Our lives have become very small, limited by the tiny size of the screens we peer down at. Sometimes the whole world and everything that’s important to us seems to be completely contained within the tiny square of glass lying in our hands.
– Tanya Goodin
There’s something insidious about how we use scrolling through social media as a way of numbing, distracting from emotions we’d rather not experience. It’s easy to do, but sooner or later we need to pay the debt on everything that’s repressed – with interest. So instead of looking for a diversion in any of the devices I own, I’ve been sitting with those difficult things and trying to resolve or make peace with them. Mostly that’s going well. So, to answer your questions, I’m not exactly alright but I’m doing the things that are necessary to become alright.
Being online has become increasingly difficult as my profile has grown. At first, being heard on Twitter was a revelation – it was the first context where I ever felt properly seen and listened to. When we talk about race or gender politics, there’s a big risk that someone would rather gaslight than have their investment in the status quo called into question. To be brought into a space where looking directly at systems of power becomes unavoidable isn’t easy, and remaining there takes courage – not everyone is brave enough. Early experiences of being dismissed as imagining things when I talked about how racism or sexism manifested made me reluctant to do so, and it was only through developing a radically feminist consciousness that I found the conviction, vocabulary, and inclination to be a dissenting voice. The women within various radical feminist communities on Twitter were vital to that process – and so, even now, I think of Twitter fondly. But my relationship with that space is no longer so positive or straightforward. As my public visibility grows, so does the scale of expectations placed upon me. It’s disconcerting to have knowledge and skill projected onto me at times when washing or feeding myself is a profound challenge.
Recently I’ve fallen in love with Bojack Horseman. I’m currently watching it again for the third time. It’s this zany black comedy about a horse/man (there are anthropomorphised animals living alongside people – don’t ask) who was in the most popular family sitcom of the ‘90s. He skyrocketed to fame. Fast forward to the present day, and it’s immediately clear that hyper-visibility has crushed every functional aspect of Bojack’s life. The series starts with him having been out of work for seventeen years, immobilised by the twin spectres of success and failure. Bojack clings to unhealthy coping mechanisms, which makes for amusing but poignant viewing, in order to escape the pervasive sense of existential dread that follows him everywhere. The opening sequence is mesmerising. It shows us Bojack waking up in his opulent Hollywoo(d) home, moving through the film studio where he works, sliding past a glamorous premiere, reeling through a fancy after party. And with every scene change the panic in Bojack’s eyes grows increasingly more apparent.
In some respects, I find Bojack very relatable – he’s wildly depressed, which he doesn’t always handle well, and struggling to cope with the ramifications of being in the public eye. I’m a moderately popular essayist, a hyper-visible Black woman on the internet. It’s not fame, and neither would I want it to be. But anonymity is gone. I don’t get to blend in and be invisible in certain contexts, and with any degree of power comes responsibility. Margaret Atwood wrote that “a word after a word after a word is power”, which is certainly true. Words have given me power – at least, substantially more power than I had before claiming voice and publishing my work.
I try not to devolve into a performance of myself. I try, for my own sanity, to maintain boundaries between what is public and what is everyday. I try to keep my personal life and my @ClaireShrugged life in harmony, to keep balance between being Claire Heuchan and Sister Outrider, which isn’t always easy in the face of expectation. Social media and the extent to which our lives are now lived online complicates all of those objectives. It was discombobulating, the number of times I’d move from digital to analogue space and back again. Occupying digital space has given me voice, but becoming hyper-visible in digital space has to some extent distorted my sense of self. Marina Diamandis writes about this conflict with real insight:
I can’t remember when I first became conscious of it but I started to feel like there were two parts of me, artist self and private self, and there was nothing in between to link the two anymore. I was one or the other, and neither part of my personality could be present in the same environment….When one part of a personality dominates, other parts shrink and life can take on an unreal, two-dimensional quality. I felt confused as to why I no longer felt like I fit into the world I’d built.
Diamandis also wrote a song called Disconnect about the cycle of anxiety and alienation caused by reliance on social media. Her lyrics, as ever, capture a lot of relevant details about modern life. That song has basically become my anthem. I’ve switched off to look after my health and take a breath. I’m taking the space and time to recalibrate. My goal is to integrate my public/creative self with the person I am when nobody is watching, or at least find a way for the different aspects of me to complement one another. During this digital detox, I’m also trying to evaluate social media’s impact upon my mental health.
I know there’s a correlation between my wellbeing falling apart and internet usage – it’s not the reason I’m depressed or anxious, but both my depression and anxiety are exacerbated by certain elements of digital space. Twenty years from now, there will be a wide array of writing on the impact of living within a digital golden age – in particular, the effects of coming of age in a time when smart technology is omnipresent. There’s a reason Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and so many Silicon Valley executives have chosen to raise their children in tech-free environments. Kids using phones for three hours per day are significantly more likely to be suicidal, and there’s no obvious reason to believe it’s any different for adults.
At present it seems unlikely that I’ll come back to Facebook. I don’t want to be added to any more so-called radical feminist groups where cruelty is currency. Those groups are never as private as women think (I’m not even on Facebook now, yet still I ended up with receipts), and their behaviour is not without consequence – the foremost of which is harm to women with less power than them. I don’t want to watch any more of the bullshit performative dramas that certain feminists (who are mostly white/middle class/straight) wage against other feminists (who are mostly of colour/working class/lesbian). If only a middle class woman weaponising racism and classism against her fellow feminists generated the same outrage as a working class woman using the word cunt in anger… I don’t want Facebook pressuring me to reply to messages on my Sister Outrider page at 11pm, when I’m trying to chill out and knit with my grandmother, in order to maintain an “excellent response rate.” The idea of being permanently publicly available is, frankly, horrifying. Facebook is so much needless stress. Facebook makes me feel tired and unhappy. Facebook is cancelled. The only things I’m going to miss are the depression memes and all the photos of my friends’ adorable brown babies.
As for Twitter, I’ll come back when I’m good and ready. There was some joy on that site, and meaning in the connections I made there. There was also a lot of messed up shit. Last year there was a police investigation into the abuse I received following my first article in the Guardian – some of it was Tweets, some of it was comments left on this blog. There is one particular memory that stands out: crying silently as I printed out the abuse at the request of the two officers who visited the house, praying my grandmother wouldn’t come into the room and see any of the words in front of me. I’d put all the relevant screenshots into a file, thinking I could just email it to the police, but apparently their system wasn’t up to that. So I printed them all out, one by one. Not going to lie: that was a traumatic experience. After that day it was impossible to go on deluding myself that the digital and the physical worlds could be kept at a safe distance from one another; that online abuse didn’t seep into my everyday life.
I love Book Twitter, Black Twitter, and Gay Twitter far too much for this goodbye to be final. But my way of being on Twitter will have to change somehow, when the time comes. It..
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.
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.
A brief foreword: this post is, as ever, written in the hope that it will enable women to come to a greater place of understanding. After a period of contemplation, I have decided to address the issue of racism at FiLiA 2017 because if it requires women of colour to keep quiet about racism, it’s not sisterhood and never can be. There is potential for better. It is the first in a series of personal reflective essays about feminist movement building.
I am tired. So very tired. There are days when I want to withdraw from the feminist movement. There are days when I want to withdraw from life. So far, I have done neither because I’m conscious that it’s a sickness that plants the seeds of suicidality in my mind. And if I have to live in this world, you can be damned certain that I’m going to try and make it a better place for women and girls to inhabit – to firmly grasp the roots of injustice with both hands and pull. While my mental health and participation in the feminist movement may not at first glance appear connected, both are consistently and adversely affected by one common factor: racism.
It is widely acknowledged by feminists that sisterhood is the most sustaining force, what keeps our movement in motion despite the weight of constant struggle. And as women who live our politics, aiming to unite theory and practice in the everyday, that solidarity between women is vital to a feminist’s being in all spheres of her life.
As Ihavepreviously written, I believe that racism is one of the greatest barriers to sisterhood between women. Since 2014 I have devoted significant energy and time to removing that barrier by challenging racism within the feminist movement. This has involved using my back as a bridge to bring white women to a place of understanding, guiding white women through the process of unlearning racism, letting my experiences of racism become teachable moments, and – frankly – showing more patience with white women’s casual racism than anyone could reasonably be expected to give. I have tried to make myself and my words a conduit for movement away from racism, movement towards true solidarity between women and girls.
In some ways, this project has been a success. It shows when a white woman has taken the time to critically examine her own racism and altered her behaviour towards women of colour. I’ve run many gentle interventions, large and small, and actually feel really proud of that work when I see a white woman is consciously unlearning racism after our conversations, when I see a change in how she practices her feminism. I don’t do it because white women deserve the Morgan Freeman treatment – members of the dominant class (in this case, white people) aren’t entitled to a unique level of understanding from people of colour. No, I do it for the women of colour whose paths will cross with those white women in feminist organising and other settings. Women of colour deserve so much better from the feminist movement than to be pushed to its margins, just as we are within a mainstream context. And so I tried to build pockets of space where white women could get to grips with basic anti-racist politics without fear of being castigated for asking questions which belied racism (again, it took an extreme degree of patience) or spiralling into defensiveness when that racism was addressed.
I think that racism flourishes because of all the silences that are allowed to grow around it. Race exists as a hierarchy, and white people are invested in upholding that hierarchy in order to retain the socioeconomic power that comes with it – and maintaining the hierarchy of race is partly achieved by making its acknowledgement taboo. Through an extraordinary feat of mental gymnastics, talking about race – in particular the realities of that hierarchy as experienced when your skin happens to be Black or brown – becomes a far greater offence than being complicit in systematic injustice.
Talking about race becomes a transgression, which is politically significant. Both within feminist spaces and in mainstream society we are all, to varying degrees, rewarded for not speaking about race and – by extension – posing no threat to whiteness as an ideology. The shame attached to talking about the dynamic of race acts as a buffer of sorts, a layer cushioning racism from in-depth scrutiny or challenge. If we cannot name or identify racism, how can we oppose it? This layer of silence creates distance between the act of racism and accountability for being racism. It is what protects the ideology behind racism from being unpicked. And so I have crafted contexts in which race may be discussed.
Recently I delivered a keynote address at FiLiA 2017, sharing my vision of interracial solidarity in the feminist movement with the conference. FiLiA was a complicated experience. For months in advance I had planned to use my time to talk about the radical and often untapped possibilities within sisterhood – but it was only the day before conference that the reality hit: I would be stepping into a predominantly white space to speak about racism, putting myself in a more exposed position than is comfortably occupied as a Black woman. And it was a very white space: I saw more Black women in the student cafeteria upstairs than in the entire conference setting. Vulnerability is a necessary part of the radical honesty that movement building demands, yet there is a fine balance between what it is to be vulnerable in talking about race and exposed to racism. Still, I gave the talk and sent those ideas out to permeate the conference.
Responses to my FiLiA address have been rather overwhelming – mostly in a good way. White women have thanked me for opening their eyes to something they hadn’t previously considered with a bit of Racism 101, shared the ways in which they plan on organising differently, and a few even said that my words changed their lives. Women of colour’s responses have been more layered, coming at the issue from a standpoint so much closer to my own, and profoundly moving. But, in the immediate aftermath, one particular response devastated me.
After the session where I spoke, I attended a panel about body positivity: Flaunting Fearlessness. Fat, disabled, and Black women are the pioneers of the body positivity movement – so their absence on the panel was immediately noticeable. The speakers consisted of four white women in the room and one Asian woman Skyping from Los Angeles: I do not name these women because a public shaming is not my objective. Instead I want to address the impact of the classism, anti-Blackness, and ableism that were woven into the conversation and uncontested by the chair. It was deeply uncomfortable and, more than that, pushed women with little social power to the margins of the movement. Listening to that panel I grew acutely conscious that they did not view our concerns as women’s concerns, did not perceive our struggles to be women’s struggles. Having spent the morning inviting women to build interracial solidarity at the conference, it was devastating.
Sitting in the audience was acutely painful. I deliberated over whether to say anything, but a friend pointed out that the burden of challenging racism shouldn’t fall to a Black woman. So Siân raised her hand and, with real empathy, invited the panel to consider how the racism projected onto Black children has resulted in them being penalised by their school or having their hair cut off by teachers. She spoke about how money acted as a barrier to so many spaces and experiences that were being described as crucial to body positivity. She addressed the harm done by recreating hierarchies within feminist spaces. She brought up the issue of representation, or lack thereof, on the panel. And Siân, bold and brilliant, was applauded by women across the room. It was the best example of a calling in that I have ever witnessed – a genuine, compassion-filled invitation to connect.
But Siân’s invitation, like mine, was rejected. The panellist who claimed to be part of a movement so inclusive that even her dog belonged in it said “I could talk about race all day, but we can’t make everything about race.” In a society founded upon white supremacist principles, everything is already inherently racialised. To claim that those of us who address the hierarchy of race are responsible for making an issue about race is to miss the point spectacularly. Explaining that to the panel was impossible. Building a bridge was impossible. So I left the session. And I wasn’t the only one.
I left that session in tears, empty and exhausted. I found a quiet place to sit and breathe. I brought the issue to the attention of the FiLiA team, who admitted to having concerns about the Flaunting Fearlessness panel beforehand. And I agreed to help the collective as they take the necessary steps to ensure such a thing never happened at any future FiLiA conference – a point to which I will return. My reason for doing so was the same as my reason for attempting to build interracial solidarity between women in the first place: to improve a feminist space for women of colour. All the while Siân was checking up on me, making sure I didn’t feel alone.
I did not ultimately decide to leave the conference, but neither did I attend any other sessions that day. Instead I ended up sitting on the steps with Liz and letting myself be drawn into a series of comfortable conversations with women – conversations about the gendered expectations of caring, women’s spaces, and the politics of lesbian weddings. Liz Kelly is something of a litmus test for how I will engage (or not engage) with white women in a feminist setting. There are very few white feminists holding my absolute trust, but Liz is one – and so the white women she vouches for are generally among the white women I’m open to connecting with. I will not universalise this experience and say that this is an option for every Black woman: it’s not. But letting Liz’s judgements inform my own is a mechanism that saves me a lot of energy that would otherwise be spent guarding against racism in one form or another.
Liz has enabled me to occupy a range of predominantly white feminist environments that would otherwise not have been bearable. Siân’s courage in holding space for Black women saved me emotional labour and alienation. As I have previously written, I dislike the concept of allyship because it invariably sinks into something hollow and performative. Instead of allyship, I consider such actions as a manifestation of solidarity between women. Sisterhood is powerful – or it can be, when women are prepared to work to build it.
I value sisterhood with white women, complicated as it is. And I value solidarity with men of colour, though they are similarly complicated by context. The two are not mutually exclusive – actually, in my experience, they fit together because they are both born from living a politics of connection. The Black security guard kept catching my eye as I danced with a group of otherwise white women at the FiLiA party on Saturday night, and every time I’d laugh. Those little moments of shared understanding made me feel seen as surely as Liz or Siân did.
Within my interactions with other women of colour lies the greatest significance. But, for various reasons – all of which relate directly to power – those are the interactions about which I can say least. Most women I will not name, because they have enough to manage without being scrutinised by white women as a result of these words. Some (me included) recede into ourselves in predominantly white feminist environments, too focussed on how best to negotiate the space, too guarded against the very real risk of racism, to be fully connected with what’s going on. This is white women’s loss far more than it is a loss for women of colour. Since becoming part of the feminist movement I have watched many of the brightest and most insightful women I know clam up in spaces that are hostile to them, spaces in which their perspectives would have been of greater relevance and use than anything said by the voices centred. Such is the risk of treating white women’s voices as default.
During both days at conference I took the opportunity to connect with women from various feminist networks and communities – some of them posted about catching up with me on Twitter and Facebook, which is pretty standard of how these things go. And on more than one occasion another woman of colour messaged me privately to indicate which white women I ought to be careful around any why. (When it comes to racism, the receipts will always catch up with you.) The reach of racism in any mixed feminist space is disconcerting. And while it is grim that women of colour are in a position where protecting one another is necessary, it is a wonderful thing to be held by that sisterhood.
The final product
On the second day of FiLiA I carried a bag of knitting around with me – having a repetitive, constructive action from which something beautiful grows is soothing. I joked to friends that returning for the next day of conference after addressing the issue of racism felt a bit like being Maleficent at Aurora’s christening. Knitting was a way to retreat from those worries and find a sense of calm. Over the lunch break I sat on the steps with a group of friends and knitted, having reached the level of anxiety at which eating food ceases to be a viable option. One of those friends was a woman I first met at the previous conference, when it was still known as Feminism in London – we had both been quiet with one another, feeling out of place (read: conspicuously brown) in that context. Although that same discomfort persisted, we a frank and gentle conversation about anxiety – I felt seen by her, and hope she felt seen by me too, which can be the greatest gift when you are conscious of being made Other.
Later on, after knitting my way through a panel on specialised women’s services, I felt like food was possible. In the queue I bumped into Rahila Gupta and another woman. We talked about the politics of voice – who is heard, who is ignored. We talked about public speaking, when we preferred to read from notes or speak off the cuff. And Rahila asked for my perspective. It was nothing short of astonishing to me that a woman as brilliant as Rahila Gupta would treat me as a peer. Long before meeting her, I read of Rahila’s work with Southall Black Sisters in archive materials at Glasgow Women’s Library.
That interaction stayed with me all through the day and long after the closing session of FiLiA. Maya Angelou, who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contributions to literature, once lamented that “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” As was often the case, her words lit upon a truth – one which I find highly relatable. Part of me suspects that sooner or later it will emerge that my ideas are worthless – all writing opportunities withdrawn, prizes and nominations revoked, and so on. Even being invited to give a keynote by the FiLiA organising team, I did not have a sense that it was legitimate for me to occupy that space and worried that my thoughts on feminist movement building would immediately be discredited. The things I wonder ‘is it legitimate for me to say this?’ are often the things that most desperately need saying. And yet…
Imposter syndrome isn’t uncommon among women of colour. In fact, imposter syndrome is rife within the networks of Black & brown women who make up my peer group. They achieve extraordinary things, build extraordinary spaces, create extraordinary works – and continue to be plagued by self-doubt. That self-doubt is informed by context: it is what happens when we absorb the racism and misogyny thrown our way in this society. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is one of the finest journalists of this generation, yet she too is familiar with imposter syndrome:
“This is the key difference between the imposter syndrome suffered by women of colour and others: the strong forces telling our subconscious that we are undeserving of success and that we don’t belong in the environments we inhabit. We don’t see people who look like us, hear accents like ours, or, necessarily, have role models. Our insecurities over our achievements are the effect of people reacting with shock when they realise how well [we are] doing…”
If the feminist movement is truly concerned with the liberation of all women and girls then we as feminists must ensure that our spaces do not replicate the same old hierarchies, but instead create a viable challenge to those hierarchies. If those spaces happen to be racially mixed, white women have a responsibility to uplift women of colour – to centre our voices instead of pushing us to the margins. White women have a responsibility to actively unlearn their racism. It is the white women who cling to racism that should doubt the legitimacy speaking on feminist politics, not the women of colour whose words are a fundamental challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
In the weeks after FiLiA I was hugely conflicted, but ultimately I stand by my radical vision of sisterhood – one in which true interracial solidarity between women is possible. Whether or not I have the energy to help bring that vision into being is another question altogether. I am not a well woman. Neither am I a resource for white women to mine. And, in the spirit of..
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 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 – de 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.
“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.
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 leden
A brief foreword: this is the transcript of the keynotes address I delivered at FiLiA 2017, on Saturday the 14th of October. I was initially hesitant to share this speech, as I can no longer think of interracial solidarity between women of colour and white women as a viable project. However, out of commitment to feminist documentation and the women who requested it be made public, I have decided to post the transcript.
Writers and theorists who remain immobile, closed to any shift in perspective, ultimately have little to offer. Perhaps in the future I will return to advocating interracial movement building. Perhaps not. Either way, this transcript is an outline of the thoughts I held on the matter.
It is an honour to be here with you all today, and a privilege to share the stage with Kate, Sophie, and Cordelia. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this year’s FiLiA conference. As someone who is passionate about movement building, it is a pleasure to be here speaking about the radical potential within feminist sisterhood. As Adrienne Rich once said, “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” Given their revolutionary potential, I think that as feminists it’s worth exploring the possibilities contained within the connections between women – some of which remain largely unrealised or underexplored. For this reason, I’m here to talk to you about interracial solidarity within the feminist movement – a mine of untapped potential within our politics and many women’s lives.
Before we get going, it’s important to say that the burden of self-reflection and action required to improve the dynamic of race within the feminist movement lies with white women. This is at points a tough conversation, but it’s also a necessary one, and for the white women hesitant about engaging fully with it I’d like to point out that racism is consistently undermining the efforts made by feminist women – the benefits to fully unpicking racism from feminist spaces and communities are legion. To the women of colour in the audience, I have decided to focus on this specific issue because it is vital that all the Black and Brown girls coming into this movement experience better from it than what has gone on before in mixed feminist spaces. Every last one of them deserves more.
Feminism is a social movement devoted to the liberation of women and girls from oppression. The oppressions we experience are the result of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – quite a mouthful, but it is vital to acknowledge that these hierarchies are all interconnected. Systems of oppression cannot be neatly divided into separate entities when they constantly overlap in our everyday lives. Since you’re engaging in a feminist space that’s all about trying to develop ideas on how to improve our movement and make this world a better place to live in, I’m working in the belief that most of you will be receptive. We are all here at FiLiA as feminists who understand the value of movement building. I’ll try to be gentle, but not at the expense of the radical honesty this conversation demands.
The reality is that race politics are where a lot of white women fall down in their feminist practice. Not all white women – but enough that women of colour are reasonably wary of those interactions. White liberal feminists have a habit of failing to consider racism in terms of structural power. White radical feminists can be quite unwilling to apply the same scrutiny or structural analysis to the hierarchy of race as they do to the hierarchy of gender. Both liberal and radical white feminists often carry the expectation that women of colour should prioritise challenging misogyny over resisting racism, as though the two issues are mutually exclusive and not woven together in the fabric of our everyday lives.
For years amazing women such as Stella Dadzie, who will be speaking to you tomorrow morning, have been documenting and challenging the racism and misogyny that Black women experience in Britain. I’m not here to prove that racism exists or has negative consequences for women of colour in Britain: it does. I am here to talk about how we – as feminists, as women who share a social movement – can unpick racism from feminist communities. I’m going to talk about movement building, the dynamic of race in the feminist movement, and practical steps towards building interracial solidarity between women.
As we participate more in feminist spaces and conversations, women build a deep understanding of patriarchy – how it works, and where we are positioned by the hierarchy of gender. Feminism has enabled women to connect the personal with the political in our analysis of patriarchy. Nothing about feminist politics or theory is abstract – it all connects back to some element of women’s lives. The movement also gives us space to think about how structural inequalities have impacted upon our experiences, shaped our realities. And once you start to join the dots between the personal and the political, the extent to which women are marginalised around the world becomes clear.
White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed sex class. And I think that it’s because white feminist women fully understand the implications of belonging to the dominant class that exploring what it means to be part of the dominant racial class can be so challenging. This awareness punctures the fundamentally misguided belief that all women are positioned the same within structures of power.
That knowledge does not fit alongside the claim that a unilateral, one-size-fits-all approach to feminism is going to work – that really gender is the main problem women have to contend with, and everything else can wait. So in order to side-step any difficult conversations about race and power within feminism, we’re fed this idea that talking about race divides women. In addition to protecting white women from the having to confront their own racism, this argument suggests that the energies of all feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression – if we follow this logic, it leads to the expectation that women of colour work towards an agenda that sees a great many white women liberated while we are left within exploitative hierarchies.
Focussing on misogyny alone isn’t going to solve all of the problems created by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, let alone dismantle that system of power. Being selective about the forms of exploitation and dominance that we analyse is not only ineffective, but a contradiction of core feminist principles. Every feminist knows that revolution isn’t brought about by half-assed politics. We have to live those politics and let them diffuse throughout every aspect of our lives. There’s no way that we can drive a cultural shift towards women’s liberation if we don’t make sure that feminism recognises and prioritises the needs of all women – of colour, working class, disabled, migrant, lesbian, bi. All women.
It isn’t talking about race that divides women – it’s racism that divides us. To be specific, women as a political class are divided by the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, acts as a barrier between mutual trust.
So It’s not really a secret that certain strands of feminism have an ongoing problem with race. The feminist movement didn’t form inside of some sort of social vacuum, separate from white supremacist values or beliefs. Everyone in this society absorbs racism. People of colour internalise it. White people weaponise it against us. Even within the movement. Here are some examples of how.
Less so now that intersectionality has become so fashionable, but some white women have a tendency to position racism and sexism as totally distinct and separate problems, issues that do not overlap and do not therefore need to be analysed together. This perspective completely disregards the lived realities of women of colour. While a significant amount of early radical feminist writing and activism was what we would now describe as being intersectional in nature, white womanhood was too often treated as the normative standard of womanhood within the second wave of feminism. As a result, women of colour were and continue to be further marginalised in a context that is supposed to be about the liberation of all women.
Another issue is the response when we try to address racism in the feminist movement. When white women disregard and speak over those women of colour who do voice concerns over racism, that’s not sisterhood. If anything, that pattern of behaviour undermines sisterhood by exploiting the hierarchy of race. Telling us that we’re angry, scary, imagining things, being overly sensitive, or playing on any other racial stereotype to shut down the conversation and assert the innocence of white womanhood is racism, plain and simple. Yet it happens so routinely.
And then there are the hierarchies that manifest within feminist organising, hierarchies that only replicate the system of value created by white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. The balance of authority tipping towards white women in mixed feminist spaces is not neutral. Women of colour ending up on the fringes of a feminist group or campaign, brought to the centre of the team only when there’s a camera about, is not neutral.
Looking over patterns that unfold within feminist spaces, there are three main areas which I invite white women to consider for future collective projects within the movement. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every single issue that stems from racism within the movement, and neither is it a definitive guide. The politics of engagements between white women and women of colour are contextual, relational, and shifting – nothing is set in stone, and truly organic connections can’t be pre-scripted. That being said, perhaps some of these points will prove helpful in shaping approaches to those interactions.
The first point is white women acting as gatekeepers of the feminist movement, positioning themselves as authorities of feminism above other women. Of course white women have developed a rich body of knowledge throughout their participation in feminism, but feminism is a global movement containing multitudes of women – however worthwhile it may be, white women’s theorising cannot reasonably be assumed to hold universal or absolute feminist truths applicable to all women. This tension manifests in a lack of understanding towards the perspectives held by Black and Asian feminists – there can be a tacit assumption that our ideas aren’t worth meeting or building upon within mainstream feminism. Or, if we approach an issue from a different angle to white women, there’s often an implication that if our ideas were a little more developed or nuanced, the disagreement wouldn’t exist. And that makes it very difficult to enter a feminist conversation on an equal footing.
Feminist organising is another area worth drawing attention to. It takes such energy and commitment to sustain a group or campaign. I fully appreciate that, and commend all the women who are part of creating that magic. All the same, it’s important to keep working towards best feminist practice – and improving the dynamic of race within mixed feminist spaces is very much an achievable goal. If there are no women of colour in your group, team, or collection, ask why not. Please don’t fall into the trap of complacency and think that no women of colour are interested in working collaboratively. If there are none, there’s a reason for our absence. Reflect on what it might be about the project that’s off putting and try to work out steps to change it. Give women of colour reason to trust you. Think about it this way: how much time would you realistically spend in an optional activity where being on the receiving end of misogyny was a distinct possibility?
And when there are women of colour within the feminist space, think about your approach to us. Do you give us the same support, encouragement, and understanding that you would another white woman? When we speak, do you listen to our voices and engage with the layers of what we have to say? Do you think of us as full members of the collective, necessary to the work done by the feminist movement, or as tokens and boxes to be ticked on a diversity form? How you answer those questions make a profound difference. Those are deciding factors in whether sisterhood can exist.
The most direct step is to reconfigure how you think about women of colour. I don’t really like the word ally, because allyship tends to devolve into something hollow and performative. It also doesn’t really offer the scope for a mutual connection, which is what interracial solidarity between women is. But unpicking racism has a steep learning curve. How could it not when white supremacist values are at the foundation of this society? During the course of that learning process, especially during the early stages, try and keep in mind that most feminist women of colour have had these conversations about race dozens and dozens of times. And those conversations cost us more than they cost you. There are plenty of quality books and resources on the subject, so make use of them.
And now I have some points for women of colour who are pursuing any kind of solidarity with white women – less advice than reminders. Look after yourself. Don’t forget to prioritise self-care. Your needs are important, and it’s okay to take whatever space and time you need. I think because of the superwoman quality that gets projected onto Black women especially, we are not always positioned as in need of gentleness or empathy – so it is crucial that we take care of ourselves and each other.
Remember that you can say no. It is a complete sentence, short and sweet. And you don’t owe anybody an explanation as to why.
You’re not a learning resource, and you’re not the Morgan Freeman type character in a white woman’s story – you’re a human being with her own story. So don’t be afraid to set boundaries, assert needs, and follow your own instincts.
There is something fundamentally freeing about spaces that are built by and for women of colour. Those spaces have a joy and easiness to them, and there is this indescribable feeling of connection – it’s very nourishing to experience. Women come out of our shells and share so much of ourselves that it is impossible to be unmoved by a women of colour space. Last weekend I was in Amsterdam for the second annual Women of Colour in Europe conference, and inhabiting a space like that is sustaining. That feeling is what I think of when I picture sisterhood. And I think we’ll have achieved a greater degree of interracial solidarity when there is greater scope for women of colour to access that feeling of ease and belonging in mixed feminist spaces.
If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. And I can’t think of a better place to start building it than FiLiA. Although our movement struggles with the dynamic of race, it can improve here and now. To be a feminist is to be an optimist – to retain the belief that structural inequalities can be dismantled, the belief that better is possible.
When women of colour address the racism demonstrated by white women, we are seeking to overcome the ultimate barrier between women. I don’t think many women waste their breathe on a critique if they don’t think it can bring about positive results. I’ll finish with this quote by Chandra Mohanty, which sums it up beautifully: “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.”
The Vanishing Point: A Reflection Upon Lesbian Erasure is now available in French! Many thanks to TradFem for the translation.
« Il est impossible de nommer l’oppression et d’agir contre elle si aucun oppresseur ne peut être nommé. » (Mary Daly)
Qu’est-ce que le genre?
Le genre est une fiction créée par le patriarcat, une hiérarchie imposée par les hommes pour assurer leur domination sur les femmes. L’idée d’une structure binaire de genre a été créée dans le but de justifier la subordination des femmes en décrivant notre oppression par les hommes comme un état naturel, résultant de la façon dont se manifestent des caractéristiques innées prêtées aux hommes et aux femmes. La présentation du genre comme naturel ne sert pas seulement à dépolitiser la hiérarchie, elle recourt à l’idéologie essentialiste pour convaincre les femmes de la futilité de toute résistance radicale au genre comme mécanisme de notre oppression. Le désespoir engendre l’apathie, laquelle entrave le changement social plus efficacement que toute répression manifeste. Si l’abolition du genre (et donc le démantèlement du patriarcat) est un objectif non réalisable, nous les femmes n’avons d’autre choix que d’accepter notre statut de citoyennes de deuxième classe dans le monde. Traiter le genre comme inhérent à la nature humaine équivaut à accepter un modèle patriarcal comme conception de la société.
Le genre est moins comme ceci que comme cela…
Le genre est une hiérarchie qui permet aux hommes d’être dominants et conditionne les femmes à l’état de servitude. Comme le genre est un élément fondamental du patriarcat capitaliste de la suprématie blanche (hooks, 1984), je trouve particulièrement déconcertant de voir des éléments du discours queer soutenir que le genre n’est pas seulement inné mais sacro-saint. Loin d’être une alternative radicale au statu quo, le projet de « queerer » le genre, avec son caractère essentialiste, n’a pour effet que de reproduire les normes établies par le patriarcat. Une interprétation queer ne défie pas le patriarcat de manière significative : plutôt que d’encourager les gens à résister aux normes établies par le patriarcat, il leur offre un moyen de s’y rallier. La politique queer a moins contesté les rôles traditionnels de genre qu’elle ne leur a insufflé une nouvelle vie, et c’est là que se trouve le danger.
Soutenir que le genre pourrait ou devrait être « queeré » équivaut à perdre de vue la façon dont le genre fonctionne comme système d’oppression. Les hiérarchies ne peuvent, par définition, être assimilées à une démarche de..
C’est une époque étrange où être une jeune lesbienne. Eh bien, assez jeune. Durant le temps qu’il m’a fallu pour évoluer du stade d’apprentie baby dyke à celui de lesbienne complètement formée, la tension entre la politique d’identité queer et la libération des femmes est devenue tout à fait insupportable. Facebook a ajouté le drapeau de la fierté gaie à ses emojis de réactions le même mois où ils ont commencé à bannir des lesbiennes pour s’être identifiées comme dykes. À mesure que sont progressivement normalisés la législation sur le mariage pour tous et les droits d’adoption de conjoints du même sexe, on voit le droit des femmes lesbiennes à s’auto-définir et à tracer leurs limites sexuelles être sapé au sein même de la communauté LBGT+. Si de telles contradictions sont caractéristiques de l’époque actuelle, cela ne les rend pas plus faciles à vivre au jour le jour.
L’amour est l’amour, à moins que vous vous trouviez à être une lesbienne, auquel cas votre sexualité sera déconstruite implacablement parce que soupçonnée de faire preuve d’ »exclusion ». Comme je l’ai écrit dans un texte précédent, toute sexualité est par définition exclusive. La sexualité est un ensemble de paramètres qui régissent les caractéristiques auxquelles nous sommes potentiellement attirées chez les autres. Pour les lesbiennes, c’est la présence de caractéristiques sexuelles féminines primaires et secondaires qui créent (mais ne garantissent pas) la possibilité d’une attirance. C’est le sexe et non le genre (ni même l’identité de genre) qui est le facteur clé. Mais dans un contexte queer, comme dans la société patriarcale traditionnelle, le mot lesbienne devient une étiquette litigieuse.
Les lesbiennes sont plutôt encouragées à se décrire comme queer, un terme si vaste et si nébuleux qu’il en devient dépourvu de sens particulier, en ce sens qu’aucune personne munie d’un pénis n’est perçue comme étant entièrement au dehors de nos frontières sexuelles. Jocelyn MacDonald décrit bien cette situation :
« Les lesbiennes sont des femmes et on enseigne aux femmes que nous sommes censées être sexuellement disponibles comme objets de consommation publique. Nous passons donc beaucoup de temps à dire « Non ». Non, nous ne baiserons pas des hommes ni ne nous associerons pas à eux ; non, nous ne changerons pas d’avis à ce sujet ; non, notre corps est un no man’s land. Que nous soyons lesbiennes, hétéro ou bisexuelles, nous les femmes sommes punies chaque fois que nous essayons d’affirmer une frontière. Le queer comme expression indéfinie rend vraiment difficile pour les lesbiennes d’affirmer et de maintenir cette limite, car il rend impossible de nommer cette frontière. »
À une époque où la simple reconnaissance du sexe biologique est traitée comme un acte d’intolérance, l’homosexualité est automatiquement problématisée – et les conséquences imprévues de la politique d’identité queer s’avèrent de très grande envergure. Ou plutôt, il serait plus exact de dire que c’est la sexualité des lesbiennes qui est rendue problématique : l’idée de femmes réservant exclusivement nos désirs et nos énergies l’une pour l’autre demeure suspecte. Étrangement, le modèle des hommes qui placent d’autres hommes au centre de leur vie ne subit jamais la même réaction hostile. Ce sont les lesbiennes qui constituent une menace pour le statu quo, qu’il s’agisse de l’hétéropatriarcat ou de la culture queer. Lorsque les lesbiennes rejettent l’idée de prendre un partenaire muni d’un pénis, on nous qualifie de « fétichistes du vagin » et de « gynéphiles » – puisque la sexualité lesbienne est systématiquement qualifiée de pathologique dans le discours queer, tout comme la sexualité lesbienne est traitée comme pathologique par le conservatisme social. Je ne trouve donc pas surprenant que tant de jeunes femmes succombent à la pression sociale et abandonnent le terme de « lesbienne » au profit de celui de « queer ». L’effacement est le prix de l’acceptation.
« Ce n’est pas un secret que la peur et la haine des homosexuels imprègnent notre société. Mais le mépris pour les lesbiennes est distinct. Il est directement enraciné dans l’horreur éprouvée envers la femme qui se définit, se détermine, la femme qui n’est pas contrôlée par le besoins, les ordres ou la manipulation des hommes. Le mépris envers les lesbiennes est le plus souvent une répudiation politique des femmes qui s’organisent en leur propre nom pour acquérir une présence publique, un pouvoir significatif, une intégrité visible.
Les ennemis des femmes, ceux qui sont déterminés à nous nier la liberté et la dignité, utilisent le mot « lesbiennes » pour attiser une haine de femmes qui refusent de se conformer. Cette haine retentit partout. Cette haine est soutenue et exprimée par pratiquement toutes les institutions. Lorsque le pouvoir masculin est remis en question, cette haine peut être intensifiée et enflammée au point de la rendre volatile, palpable. La menace est que cette haine va exploser sous forme de violence. La menace est omniprésente car la violence faite aux femmes est applaudie culturellement. De sorte que le mot « lesbiennes », lancé ou chuchoté comme accusation, sert à concentrer l’hostilité masculine sur les femmes qui osent se révolter, et il sert également à effrayer et intimider les femmes qui ne se sont pas encore révoltées. » (Andrea Dworkin, « Words », publié dans Letters from a War Zone)
À en croire la politique d’identité queer, le fait que des femmes biologiques soient exclusivement intéressées à se lier à d’autres femmes serait un signe d’intolérance. Ne gaspillons pas de paragraphes en équivoque. Ce monde contient bien suffisamment de silences sur la question du genre, et ce sont toujours les femmes qui paient le prix le plus élevé pour ces silences – dans ce cas-ci, les femmes qui aiment d’autres femmes. Et donc je vais parler clairement : la raison pour laquelle la politique queer qualifie de « transphobes » les lesbiennes qui nient catégoriquement la possibilité de prendre un partenaire muni d’un pénis est parce que cette position ne comprend pas les transfemmes dans la sphère du désir lesbien. Quant à la lesbophobie inhérente à la réduction de la sexualité lesbienne à un simple facteur de validation, elle ne suscite, bien sûr, aucune objection.
Pourtant, la sexualité lesbienne n’exclut pas nécessairement les personnes qui s’identifient comme trans. La sexualité lesbienne peut s’étendre à des personnes biologiquement féminines qui s’identifient comme non binaires ou genderqueer. La sexualité lesbienne peut s’étendre à des personnes biologiquement féminines qui s’identifient comme transhommes. Comme une proportion relativement élevée de transhommes auto-identifiées vivaient comme lesbiennes butch avant leur transition, il n’est pas inusité que des transhommes fassent partie de relations lesbiennes.
Où se situe la frontière entre une lesbienne butch et une transhomme ? Au cours de ses réflexions sur la vie lesbiennes, Roey Thorpe note que « … il y a toujours quelqu’un qui pose la question : ‘Où sont passées toutes les butchs ?’ » La réponse courte est : du côté de la transmasculinité (et la réponse longue appelle un billet à elle seule). À quel point dans le spectre de l’identité est-ce que finit la butch et commence la transhomme ?
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