Colonisation · Gender · Political · Whiteness & racism

Laying down our weapons

I left a comment on this post which I found very problematic and abusive. In the exchange that ensued, I asked

“[you say] ‘We would get further’ – but towards what? I feel there are different directions of desire often overlooked – this is where I think the need to listen to Women of Colour is most urgent.”

The author replied with an invitation I could not resist:

“Towards dialogue and working out strategies to chip away at the structures that we all want to resist. If you do want to say more about ‘different directions of desire’ I would be very interested to hear your thoughts. I have listened to Women of Colour – I do listen, but what I hear most loudly is the critique of whiteness as a sign (which I agree with), and of individual women as bearers of that sign (which I don’t necessarily), and being told that I don’t understand that there is any other type of structural oppression other than gender, and that I need to listen. And then when I listen, I hear something similar again. If there is something I am not hearing that you think pertains to these ‘directions of desire’ then I’d be very interested to.”

This is my reply:

I don’t want to speak for Women of Colour but I do hear something different (I don’t understand how to critique Whiteness as a sign? Surely the ACTIONS of the sign Whiteness are critiqued. Actions of White supremacy are critiqued. And White women are criticised for their complicity in it, for their lack of accountability. You say people are not structures, but structures are embodied in us – they are nowhere else! We enact them, sometimes even, as I said, AGAINST OUR INTENT) so I will try to say a few things. I have found our exchange disheartening because I don’t feel I’ve succeeded in changing any minds, and since you invite me so openly to try again…

I agree that hearing ‘you don’t understand’ can be difficult. I try not to hear ‘you can’t understand’. I accept that I don’t understand, and try to work out why. I work on it. There are plenty of White women who get beyond not understanding; Whiteness is not an excuse!

I hear, and I agree, that White feminism tends to assume that Women of Colour are seeking to be “included in feminism”. This construction itself suggests that Women of Colour are not already doing feminism, or that White feminism/mainstream feminism is the real thing and Black feminism is some kind of subsidiary or sub-type inside it. I hear Women of Colour saying they do not want to be included in a feminism that has ignored and continues to ignore their concerns and interests. I hear them deconstructing the idea of them as guests at the party. White feminism continually issues edicts on the rules of engagement in feminist discourse, as if we own the discourse.

In her bilious diatribe against Reni Eddo-Lodge, Louise Mensch tweeted “feminism is one struggle, anti-racism another”. I have to admit that some scales fell from my eyes at that moment – perhaps try to ask yourself if you agree or if you act as if you agree. This is White feminism. To me White feminism (ie feminist politics that does not attend to race, as opposed to White feminists – see this post) is a LACK, an insufficient discourse: it cannot achieve its own aims insofar as it seeks to be a liberation movement for women since it actively erases and works against some women seeking liberation. And I am not suggesting it is possible to articulate a *complete* feminism, but if you believe in White supremacy, if you believe that racism is not over(!) you have to look for it and fight it especially in your own mind and your own activism. So often we behave as if other people are inflicting racism, as if the structure of White supremacy weren’t embodied in us and perpetuated and inflicted by our complicity… So I seek to find a place for myself in a feminism in which marginalised women lead the way or are placed at the centre. I try to hear what they are saying even when it is not about me.

You say ‘towards dialogue’ and I thought, but you just open dialogue, you are already within the range of hearing. But then I thought no – we are, it seems from what you say, at the 140 character distance where it is possible to read signs but difficult to hear the meanings of words. And thinking about where your words come from, against ‘slinging invective’, I propose that in going towards dialogue we need to throw down our weapons. What are our weapons? OK, invective is one; that can harm. But bigger ones are the ear of the media, large platforms visible in wider society, the privilege of speaking in a discourse still largely shaped around your ideas, body, your feelings as normative, human and justified, in which you aren’t seen as a troublesome angry minority. I am not very good at describing White privilege, but you take my point about who has these weapons.

In an interview ‘Moving into and beyond feminism’ bell hooks answered her own question ‘how do we cope with difference?’ with an invitation to consider falling in love! I know many activists feel ill at ease with this idea – we must work together whether we love each other or not, they say – but I am with hooks; I think love is the way (my friend @Artemissian inspired me when she said ‘in the end, everything is personal’). And approaching dialogue (because it’s us White women who want the dialogue! Those outside White feminism are doing just fine without us.) with someone who has been hurt by people like you and by the structures you represent… is something that requires great respect, compassion, and the courage to give up contextual power and privilege as far as possible.

Have you read Sara Ahmed’s work? It is so wonderful! If you haven’t, do go and see what you hear when you listen to her.

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