Monday, 22 October 2012
It’s not in-fighting to call each other out
Ok, so this is a post that’s been stewing in my head all day, and it’s probably going to be a bit garbled and confused because I’m basically throwing down those circulating thoughts after a long day at work, as my casserole cooks in the oven. But, here goes…
It feels like over the last couple of weeks there have been a lot of accusations flying around within the feminist movement about ‘in-fighting’. But in my experience, this accusation only flies around when someone has said something stupid, and then said person wants to make sure no-one blames her, and accuses critics of ‘in-fighting’. See the Elly Levenson article on the F Word as a case in point – we weren’t in-fighting, we were just questioning her statement that rape is just a penis.
This recent round began with a tweet Caitlin Moran said in response to a question as to why she didn’t ask the writer Lena Dunham’s lack of women of colour in her hit show ‘Girls’. Moran tweeted that she couldn’t give a shit. Women who were angry with Moran’s tweet (which I was, although in general I don't have strong feelings about Caitlin Moran either way. Her book was funny.) called her up on her privilege. Defenders of Caitlin Moran accused her critics of in-fighting and said we should focus on the “big” issues such as fighting patriarchy – as if the marginalisation of black women’s voices isn’t one of the big issues and part of patriarchy.
I believe it's wrong to characterise this as ‘in-fighting’. Because calling out any woman for saying she doesn’t ‘give a shit’ about the representation (or lack thereof) of black women in popular culture is simply that – calling her out. It’s saying that one of the issues in feminism has been and still is a lack of intersectionality and the prioritising of white, cis, straight, non-disabled, middle class women’s voices and needs – both in the media and in the movement. And saying that this is a problem. And therefore it’s a problem when it’s ignored, or side-lined, or considered ‘not as important as, like, fighting patriarchy’ (again, as if patriarchy only effects the lives of white, cis, straight, non-disabled, middle class women? I don’t get it!). We need to be able to criticise each other without being accused of cattiness or bitchiness.
There seems to be a real anger or fear about being called out for having privilege. Which is quite concerning, in my opinion. Having privilege isn’t a fault. It’s only a bad thing if you refuse to recognise it, and that refusal leads to you being rude, or un-inclusive. But understanding we have privilege, and understanding intersectionality, is a really important aspect of moving the feminist movement forward. And it’s ok to be called out on it when you get it wrong. I saw a commenter on the Bim Adewunmi piece on the Girls row say that being called a racist was ‘almost as bad’ as being the victim of racism. That’s such bullshit. If you get called out for saying something offensive, then take responsibility and apologise and make sure you don’t make the same mistake. Listen! Don’t try and make out you’re the victim all of a sudden.
I’m a white, cis, non-disabled, middle-class (with working class roots) woman. I’ve got a helluva lot of privilege. In my time, that privilege has led me to say some stupid things and I’ve been called out on it. For example, when planning the first Bristol Reclaim the Night, I tried to explain on the poster that all self-identifying women were welcome to march in the women only section. I messed up and phrased it in a way that wasn’t very trans-inclusive. A trans woman emailed me, and asked if I could change it. I didn’t throw a tantrum and say ‘how dare you, I’m not transphobic, I’m TRYING!’ I apologised, accepted I had made a mistake, took her advice and tried not to make the same mistake again. It wasn’t hard. I have cis privilege and I didn’t know, so when someone called me out, corrected me, I was happy to be better informed (similarly, please call me out on any fuck ups in this post).
Another occasion – on the receiving end this time. I’ve had straight people online try to tell me about bi-phobia and homophobia, with no knowledge of my sexuality and family history, and of course I’ve had men trying to tell me about sexism. Mansplaining, if you will. I would call them out and hope that they would listen to me, and respect my lived experience. I wouldn’t expect them to refuse to listen and instead lecture me on how they’re not bi-phobic, homophobic or sexist. As feminists we expect this of men all the time. For example, when a man called me hysterical after I wrote for Liberal Conspiracy, and we called him out for sexism, he insisted he wasn’t being sexist. He didn’t want to check his privilege that meant for him hysterical isn’t a word loaded with gendered meaning.
I can understand why people might feel embarrassed or awkward when people call them out, why they might get defensive. But seriously? It’s not that bad. It’s not as bad as centuries of oppression. I get it wrong all the time. We all do. So we have to listen, to make sure we get it right next time.
So anyway, the main reason this post has been floating around my head like a bee all day was because of an article in the New Statesman written by the Vagenda women that frustrated me and plenty of women on Twitter. It was a piece defending Caitlin Moran and ‘populist feminism’.
The article rightly argued that feminism needs to be accessible, but then seemed to take issue with the word ‘intersectionality’, saying that mainstream feminism was too intellectual and not relevant to women’s real lives.
Of course, in many respects this is true, hence why intersectionality is an issue in the first place. This isn’t helped by documentaries purporting to tell the history of women’s movement that feature no black women working class women, or trans women, or disabled women. Or articles about how ‘feminism’s back’ in the newspapers that are so excited about featuring men that they don’t feature black women, or working class women, or trans women, or LGBQ women, or disabled women.
Vagenda criticise the feminist movement for not relating to women’s lives, with the idea that feminists are sitting around talking about how many women are on boards, at the expense of the impact of the cuts on single mums. But I don’t believe this is true of the feminist movement on the ground. It’s true of how the feminist movement is portrayed in the media.
One of the issues I have with the Vagenda article is that whilst they are rightly talking about intersectionality, they’re also failing to acknowledge the vast number of feminist voices out there who don’t fit their portrayal of a feminist as someone privately educated, white and doesn’t understand poverty. It's also a failture to acknowledge that intersectionality means that women can have all sorts of different privileges. And in doing that they are joining the mainstream media who also never bother to mention the hundreds if not thousands of women who don’t get featured in their headline articles.
I should say that I mentioned this on Twitter and Vagenda said to email them with info about grassroots activism so they can publicise it. Which is great, and I did.
The article is right to criticise when the feminist movement is not accessible, but we must not do this at the expense of the voices that are truly fighting for an intersectional feminist movement that includes all women’s voices. Like this group, for example.
Making feminism comprehensible and accessible is not at odds with intersectionality. If the feminist movement is going to develop we must be intersectional and not be afraid to call out privilege. Even when calling out that privilege means we have to criticise each other.
The article says
‘Moran at least speaks a language that we all understand. And how many other feminists can you credit with that?’
I can credit many, many feminists who speak a language we can all understand.
They’re in the grassroots, discussing, talking, activist-ing, making speeches, running workshops, running rape crisis centres, doing and talking and making change happen. And yes we make mistakes and yes many, many of us need to do better at being intersectional (me included). And no, we don’t get many articles written about us.
I don’t think we get better at being intersectional by joining in with the silencing of many activist women’s voices. We do it by recognising them. What’s more, we don’t succeed at being intersectional when we refuse to call out successful, privileged women for saying offensive things because to do so ‘would distract from bigger issues like patriarchy’. It's ok to call out each other out. It's not infighting, it's something we need to do if we want to be a better, stronger, more open movement.
Right, my casserole is ready. Sorry it’s so garbled. Please call me out if I am guilty of anything I am criticising. I won’t be offended.