A Pox on the Patriarchy
I don’t know if writing about this is a good idea. Quite possibly it’s a terrible idea. After all, everything has quietened down a lot, and I don’t want to open wounds that are starting to close. But it is the very fact that things have started to quieten down that has given me room to think and reflect. Well, that and the words of a very wise friend. So here goes.
The past few days have been excruciating for me. I’ve watched in horror as my reputation has been torn to shreds. This would be OK if it were for something I felt I had done. But it wasn’t – in my eyes et least, and I’ll get back to this, because on reflection, I don’t think my perception is all that there is, no matter how unfair I felt the interpretation was. What I felt I was watching was people saying I’d said something I hadn’t said, and then reacting absolutely appropriately to *that* truth. It would be right to label me racist if I had said intersectionality was the same as abuse, that legitimate criticism of a white supremacy was unacceptable because it was uncomfortable to hear. It would be right to be horrified at my refusal to examine my own privilege, and to tell me that I had disgraced myself, to tell me I hurt and damaged and further delegitimised WoC, further undermining their ability to have their voices heard and be believed. It would make me no better than the men who call feminists feminazis and claim that the most oppressed of all are white men, because feminism has gone too far. I would be rightly shamed and told I no longer deserved to have my voice in feminism taken seriously.
The thing was, I didn’t feel I had said that – and I certainly hadn’t intended to. Let me tell you what I felt went down in my head. Jenni Murray asked me about how important social media had been to the revival of feminism. I replied that I thought it had been absolutely fundamental, because it gave a diversity of voices an opportunity to speak in a way no other medium has done in the past. It removed traditional gatekeepers, which is not only crucial for giving people the ability to speak; it is also crucial for having people feel like they have a right to speak. I have always wanted to write, to be involved with public, political discourse. Before the internet, I never even dared to let myself dream of it. I didn’t belong in that white male preserve. I would be turned down, laughed at, found wanting. It would be better to spare myself the shame, the heart-ache, the embarrassment, and to just not even think of it. Aim low, and you won’t fail. I’m sure I can’t be alone in feeling the internet meant I felt able to speak, without fear of being turned away at the door, before I’d even had a chance to open my mouth. So I am, despite all the threats, an evangelist for social media and blogging.
But back to the programme. Jenni posed the next question to Reni, asking her about the divisions around “check your privilege”, and how the internet wasn’t just one big love-in. Reni responded to this with a reflection on structural inequality, comparing that which exists between men and women, to that which exists between white women and women of colour – and specifically addressed the issue of white feminists having trouble getting “their heads around the fact that if you are white, as well as if you are male, you are going to be treated more favourably in society”. She said, quite rightly, that feminism is not immune from structural racism.
It was my next comments that have cause such a lot of hurt and anger over the past few days. I wanted to address the “divisions” Jenni spoke about in her first question, because while I recognised the issue Reni referred to of white feminists refusing to accept that just because they are oppressed in relation to men, that does not cancel out their privilege in relation to Black women, I also felt that this did not adequately address the issue of the divisions. Because while the divisions are often about structural racism, I felt there was a distinction to be made between the women who reject the idea of intersectionality, and the women who reject the abuse that is sometimes, cravenly, carried out in its name, by – and I did not note this at the time, which was another mistake – mostly white women. I gave specific examples of the abuse that has been meted out to me and to other women, and which I felt was doing a lot to create these divisions, and to create the impression that white women are blanket rejecting intersectionality, rather than abuse. I felt that it was an important distinction to be made, because we can’t move forward if we think we are talking about the same thing, but are in fact talking about different things. This is not to suggest that there are no white feminists rejecting intersectionality. There are, and this rejection is a racist one, which must be resisted.
I felt I had been clear in my distinction. I clearly hadn’t. Not only did I get repeatedly told that I had equated intersectionality with abuse, I also was told that I had held Reni accountable for the abuse, that I had rejected intersectionality, that I had derailed and piggybacked on Reni’s point.
The following three days involved my repeatedly stating that I was not talking about intersectionality, that I was talking about abuse, and that it was the women abusing and pretending their abuse was intersectionality that were equating the two. Someone even made a transcript of my words to prove that I had been talking about abuse and not intersectionality. But it made no difference. The narrative stuck. I felt bruised and hurt, I felt angry, I raged at what I saw as the injustice – especially because women I cared about were being hurt by the impression that I rejected a theory that mattered so much to them. In many ways, that was the worst part of it for me – the fact that women I held deep respect for, were hurt by a racist attitude.
Some of these women spoke to me privately, for which I’m hugely grateful, as it started off a chain of thoughts, which culminated in a point made by another friend today, which is that I have been trying to put across a personal, individual perspective of what had happened – and the people who had been hurt by it were addressing it from a structural perspective. And when I type it out like that it seems so stunningly clear that I feel like an absolute fool. Because, in that context, it makes perfect sense that my individual insistence on my individual words, and my individual intent, were irrelevant if the debate was about structures.
To make an analogy from my own experience, when I talk about “men” doing x, y, z, sexist thing, I am not talking about individual men, many of whom are of course my friends, people I deeply love. I am talking about men as a class. And there is almost nothing more irritating than when individual men then pipe up to say that “well not all men are like that”. This is for a number of reasons, one obviously being that I hear it so many times it’s an immediate rage switch from sheer tedium. But more than this, it is enraging, because it so clearly shows the priorities of those men. They care more about them individually not being included in this class of men, being recognised as a ”good guy”, than in the oppressive behaviour of their class as a whole. A class to which they belong and from which they benefit, no matter how hard they try to live by feminist principles. They also make the conversation about them, rather than about the woman who has been damaged by whichever behaviour she is talking about. The conversation becomes about this man’s feelings, rather than the oppression of women. And a lot of this is down to male privilege, but I think it can also be down to a confusion between talking about classes, and talking about individuals.
When Reni told me she felt I had piggybacked on her point, I felt bad that I had made her feel that. I could sort of see what she meant, but I was too hurt by the many tweets saying I’d said something I felt I hadn’t said, too focused on my right to talk about the genuine abuse I have received from women who are pretending that it has anything to do with intersectionality, to really totally get what she was saying. I sort of understood that perhaps my timing had been off, but I didn’t really understand in full – and I think it comes back to the structural versus individual. I think this interpretation is given more credence by the fact that Reni specifically said “structural racism” in her answer. She spoke about structural – and I brought it back to the individual women who are meting out abuse. And from that perspective it seems much clearer why what I said was interpreted as an attack on intersectionality. Because, considered from a structural perspective, I was doing what men do who say “not all men are like that”. I know it’s not a direct analogy, because I didn’t say “not all white women are like that”, and I was talking about abuse, whereas these men are just talking about their reputations, so my intent was different. But, from a structural perspective, there is little to no difference.
In my head, this makes sense now. I don’t know if I’ve managed to get it across, but I certainly feel much better, simply because I now understand why, when I thought I was clearly differentiating between intersectionality and abuse, it came across so disastrously differently. It was not the wilful, unfair misreading I thought it was. It was a logical response to a structural debate. I apologised to Reni before, but while I was genuinely upset that I had upset her, I didn’t really understand. I thought that she was just wrong about what I said, but I felt she was owed an apology anyway, because I must not have been clear enough…or something. I wasn’t really sure. I now see that I actually owed Reni an apology, not because she was wrong and I wasn’t clear, or because she was hurt (although obviously that too), but because I failed to acknowledge that my individual experience did not belong anywhere near her structural analysis.
And here seems as good a place as any to explain another individualistic reason for my rushing in with my distinction. A few weeks earlier I had been on NightWaves, talking about feminism, and intersectionality had come up. That debate had taken place while I was in a room with Reni, but also one of the white women who had abused me and many other women all the while claiming she was acting according to intersectionality. In fact, she had been abusive that day, in a way that left me feeling sickened, humiliated and violated. I had almost pulled out of the debate, but went through with it because I felt I couldn’t let everyone down. I felt too intimidated by her abuse to bring the issue up then – which I regretted, because it was a perfect setting. And it made me determined to bring it up if I ever got a chance again. Which led to this poor, insensitive and frankly, selfish decision of mine.
I do not retract my right to talk about the abuse I have suffered. I still think that it is important that where people are abusive, that we note it, and that we point out if they are being hypocritical, if they are pretending to be progressive, when in fact they are being abusive. But the way I did it, the timing, my conflation of structural with individual, and my three day insistence on repeating the details of what I said, rather than acknowledging the context in which I said them, were deeply wrong. And I am really, truly sorry.
I don’t tend to go in for big sweeping self-abasing apologies, because I think they are cringeworthy in general and are about assuaging white guilt, rather than helping any women of colour. Maybe that is all I’m doing here. I hope though, that this reflection is a bit more than that, and that it will help to bring some peace to the people I’ve hurt. I’m not going to promise not to make more mistakes – of course I will. But I can say that this has been a steep learning curve for me – a harsh, difficult and very public lesson. And I hope that I will be much more careful in future to make sure I’m not conflating the structural with the individual again, and that I will be much more willing to listen when so many people are telling me I’ve got something wrong, rather than insisting on repeatedly putting my narrative across.