When I was an undergraduate, I took a module on postcolonial theatre under the tutelage of a Nigerian director called Bisi. In one of our practical classes, I was handed a monologue to read. The character was a Somali woman who had lost two sons and her husband to war and conflict. After I finished, Bisi asked me how I felt about reading it. I said I had found it really difficult, because this woman’s experiences were so distant from my own and I had never experienced anything remotely approaching that level of trauma or oppression. I said I did not know how to read it with authenticity.
Bisi told me, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, that I must use my experiences of being oppressed as a woman and bring them to bear on the piece.
I was shocked. I think I spluttered a bit. I was barely twenty years old and I knew everything (obviously.) I wasn’t oppressed, I told him. Women in Ireland have equal rights to men. Being a woman has never prevented me from doing anything I wanted to do. He smiled and asked me if I honestly though that – “as a woman, in this country” – I was free from any sort of oppression? Yes, of course, I said stubbornly. He laughed at me and moved on with the class.
I felt patronised. I felt embarrassed. I felt that Bisi was endlessly wrong and I was right. I was furious.
I also promise I’m going somewhere with this.
If you haven’t been on the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag on Twitter yet, you should really go and do that. Especially if you’re a white woman. There is a lot of anger on there and it is not going to be easy to read.
If you’re currently wondering what the hell #solidarityisforwhitewomen is, here is a quick catch up on how it got started.
- Mikki Kendall explains why she started hashtag in response Hugo Schywzer’s massive twitter meltdown, and expands on it in her Guardian article, Women of colour’s issues with digital feminism.
- Brilliant article from Shannelle Matthews on The Frisky: On #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen; Feminism Is Not Black And White
- Here’s the Storify and an article on Al Jazeera.
But really , you should just go and trawl through the hashtag because that’s where – for the past 48 hours or so – feminists of colour have been pointing out that mainstream feminism has a huge race problem. To let us know that they are angry and disappointed by the myriad of ways that mainstream feminism silences, excludes, ignores and minimizes their realities, their voices and their work. To let us know that mainstream feminism has failed them and needs to do better than this
A lot of white feminists have been responding thoughtfully and respectfully. A lot of white feminists have been responding in exactly the same way men frequently respond to conversations about patriarchy, about misogyny, about rape culture, about privilege. I’ve seen derails and tone arguments and words like “whining” and “bitching” and “screeching” and accusations of “creating divisions where there are none.” Some white feminists are seriously responding with the reverse racism “argument.”
It’s embarrassing and it’s shameful.
Look, I’m incredibly white. I know it’s difficult not to kneejerk. I know it’s difficult not to think “but I’m not like that!” and try to distance yourself. Being confronted with your own privilege is a harrowing experience and it should be harrowing experience. You may feel guilty. You may feel attacked. You may feel defensive. You may feel like all this is silly because we’re all working towards the same goals (as defined by white women) and we should all be supporting each other (which means paying lip-service to intersectionality while continuing to largely ignore WOC issues. I am guilty of doing this and I am sorry.)
You may feel really angry and hurt that anyone would make generalisations about you based on the colour of your skin.
Then you might want to take a good long step back from that sentence.
Of course, a lot of users are not on the hashtag to have any kind of serious discussion. They are there to laugh at all the silly feminists attacking each other. The people (and feminists among them) who are characterising this hashtag as “feminist in-fighting” are actually saying a lot about their own attitudes to both feminism and to any dialogue that seeks to overturn the status quo. They think anger is never productive. They think feminism is a monolith. They think internal dissent is a sign of weakness.
Anger has always been part of feminism. It’s part of feminism because we have an awful lot to be angry about and because nobody ever overturned the system by asking politely. There is power in anger.
Feminists have never walked in lockstep. Feminism has never been even remotely in agreement with itself. Women are fifty per cent of the globe’s population. We are too many, from too many cultures, races, religions, backgrounds and belief systems to ever draft a single global feminist agenda. And I don’t think we need one. There is power in diversity.
But if we expect people to listen to white feminists in our anger, we cannot simultaneously try to silence feminists of colour in theirs. Even if it is directed at us. Even if it is not fucking polite. Because I think if there is one thing we can all agree on, it is that we are tired of being told to speak to power in more pleasant tones.
This can still go two ways. It can be the time a load of feminists had a catfight on twitter and the conservatives and the misogynists and the racists had a great laugh about it and nothing changed.
Or it can be the time that mainstream feminism acknowledged that it had a massive race problem and decided to fix it. It can be the time white feminists faced the blaze of anger from black feminists, Latina feminists, Asian feminists, First Nations feminists, and let it make us better at listening, better at acknowledging our own privilege, better at supporting and advocating for those who do not have the privileges that come with the colour of our skin. It can be the time feminism was more than the sum of its parts.
It can be the time, several years later, when Bisi walked into the shoe shop where I was working as a sales assistant and the memory of that class came crashing down around my ears and I realised he was right about everything. I realised the colossal arrogance of believing that I have nothing in common with a Somali woman just because I am white and come from a rich country. Conversely, I realised how profoundly I will never ever understand the reality of that Somali woman’s life. I realised that these two realisations can exist in tandem and that is the inherent contradiction of solidarity. Bisi wanted me to read her words, but I felt that this was not my place. If I try to tell her story, I might tell it wrong. Some people might be angry with me. They might tell me I should have tried harder. They might tell me that I just need to shut up altogether. Either way, I was scared of that anger.
Now I realise that anger is useful and I need it. Now I realise that anger is not an excuse not to try.
“MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!”
– Flavia Dzodan
Here is an incredibly comprehensive resource list on white privilege.