Sunday, 21 April 2013

Privileged Problems

I’ve come to learn something about myself over the last couple of months. Apparently, I am very underprivileged.

As a mixed-race, gay woman, I'm pretty far down the privilege pecking order and as such, my life is beset with the inevitable problems that arise as a result of my minority status.

I needn't worry though. Should I feel 'silenced' or 'oppressed', it seems I can call on a group of Twitter freedom fighters, self-identified as Intersectional Feminists (IFs), who will jump in and 'call out' my oppressors.

I've seen this happen a lot recently, and perhaps knowing they've 'got my back' should bring me comfort.

But in fact, I find it hugely troubling, dangerous and infuriatingly condescending.

Because while I acknowledge that on paper my life could seem potentially problematic, having lived it I quite like it.

Sure, I've suffered racism. I've missed out on jobs for no other discernible reason than the colour of my skin and felt my cheeks flush with anger when someone shouts something horrible at me.

Because some people aren't entirely OK about it, there are some places where I can't openly hold my partner's hand. And often, I see examples of sexism that make me question whether the feminist movement was simply a dream.

But my life today is better than had I lived 50 years ago. In another 50 years, the race, gender and sexual orientation of someone like me will hopefully matter even less, as people continue fighting for equality. 

And I know that while there are people who've lived much peachier lives than mine, there are many, many more who have had it much tougher.

So why do I feel as though I'm being pitied all the time? It's never said outright but it's implied by the way anyone with so-called privilege is constantly attacked.

If anyone with this so-called privilege dares voice an opinion, they are vilified by the IFs, in an all-out assault.

If they try to defend themselves, it is perceived as yet further proof they don't understand how lucky they are. 

If they block the attackers, they are stifling debate. And if they leave Twitter to escape the barrage, they are criticised for choosing not to stay and engage, or sneered at for “flouncing”. 

Initially, I watched all this unfold from a distance. I followed a few of the IFs and often agreed with them. How could I not? Anyone calling for us to acknowledge our own privilege in our interactions with other people is a good thing, in theory. 

But not in practice – certainly in this manifestation when increasingly, things turned ugly during exchanges that did not need to go that way.

If people used language the IFs didn't agree with, they'd be jumped on. if they expressed a different opinion, the offending tweet would be RTed in order to show its author up for their ignorance. What's wrong with engaging in a debate, and trying to listen and understand each other rather than screaming down someone who's said something you disagree with?

To me, this type of 'privilege checking' is flawed when so little is known about the 'privileged' individual being attacked. 

Society is too heterogeneous to make such blinkered generalisations. 

Too often, the IFs assume the inferiority of those who are PoC/female/gay etc which is in itself racist/sexist and homophobic. More so, by making assumptions prior to knowing someone, they ignore the complexities of humans and human relationships.

If I meet a white, straight, able-bodied cisgender male I do not assume that by definition, he has enjoyed a more privileged life than me. How could I possibly make that assumption when I know nothing of his life? How do I know he's not been subjected to sexual abuse in the past, or whether he is beaten up by his partner at home, or if beneath his 'privileged' exterior he's fighting a life-limiting illness? On the surface it might look like he's led a cushy life but for all I know, he could teach me a thing or two about oppression. 

Yet he would be a prime target for the IFs if he came to blows with someone they deemed less privileged. Because from their reductionist viewpoint, his life is automatically better than theirs.

And this privilege checking doesn't account for empathy. Is it only other mixed-race, gay women who could possibly understand me or empathise with any struggles I've had? I've never battled a heroin addiction but as an ex-smoker I understand the nature of addiction.

In that same vein, a red-headed man who hates being mocked for being “ginger” could probably understand how I feel when I've been called “chocolate face”.

Oppression can happen to anyone. It doesn't begin and end with sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or discrimination against disabled people or those with mental health issues.  A straight woman who's put up with piss-takes because of her regional accent might feel as nervous opening her mouth for the first time on her first day in a new job in East Sussex, as I might telling a new group of people that my partner is a woman and not a man.

Discrimination of anyone is unacceptable, whether of traditionally marginalised groups or the reverse; the bullying of a white middle class straight woman for being “privileged” is no more acceptable than the bullying of a black, working class gay one.

And if this brand of intersectionality and privilege-checking is about dragging those in a perceived better position down, rather than elevating those who might be more vulnerable, then it's flawed.

I've never written a blog before, but increasingly I felt I needed to say something about this issue. And it was one tweet in particular that tipped me over the edge. 

During a recent disagreement between two women, Helen and Sam – triggered by this exchange (for balance, here is what Sam said) – both women had people come forward to defend/support them. 

Two of the defenders, one from each side, engaged with each other, summarised in this exchange:

I could see the point with that final comment: “My reaction is mostly fascination. This is like a case study in group behaviour on social media,” In the context of that particular episode, it was a strong example of group behaviour played out on social media.

But then Sam's defender followed up with this on her feed. It wasn't a direct response but was clearly a continuation:

This was the tweet that did it. The one that led to me writing this.

At best, that tweet was misleading and at worst, manipulative. Helen's defender never said it was the “harassment of a woman of colour” which was the “fascinating case study”. It was the whole event, and she was right. If a commentator on social media was looking for an event that demonstrated mob mentality on Twitter, this would more than suffice.

It also implied there was a racist element to the alleged harassment, which again was not relevant to that discussion – unless the harassment was racist in its nature.

And I find this sort of misinterpretation/manipulation of events common in the IFs arguments.

Yes, Sam had said she'd received racist abuse from people purporting to speak in support of Helen, as I was told by several people (see below). But Helen had also been subjected to abuse, and this was not the point - neither Helen nor Sam can be held for whatever anyone else said in their defence, unless they actually condoned it.  And Helen specifically said when asked that she did not condone it. 

So then I asked if the alleged “harassment” of Sam was of a racist nature. And if it wasn't, how was the fact she's a WoC relevant? This was the response (it's upside-down, read from the bottom up):

It didn't help. So Helen “let” her followers on Sam. Really? Because to me it just seemed as though she wanted to set out her position for the record in relation to an ongoing dispute. Sam simply wouldn't answer Helen, and seemed intent only on attacking her. So Helen set out her version of events in a storify. She was perfectly entitled to do that. 

To me, many of these response suggest that it's somehow worse to harass a WoC. It really isn't. Harassment's shit no matter what colour a person is and to suggest otherwise is itself racist in a peculiarly patronising way. 

That's the whole point. Equality isn't about treating some people better than others. It's about treating people in exactly the same way regardless of who they are. Rosa Parks didn't refuse to give up her seat to a white person so she could be chauffeured in a limousine. She just wanted to be treated the same. 

Let's remember, Sam falsely accused a public figure of racism. Yes, she apologised to that person but she did not apologise to Helen for mocking her when she asked for proof of this allegation.

Even now, this is how Sam describes Helen’s request for proof:

I struggle to see how that is a legitimate statement, and yet the IFs have applauded it.

And it's funny because when I first saw Sam make this allegation back in January, I was intrigued, just as Helen was. 

The public figure she was accusing is someone I respect a great deal and an unsubstantiated allegation of racism could do huge damage to her career. 

But I soon realised that there was no basis for the allegation, and by then the mob had descended anyway. As I've always done previously, until now, I kept out of it.

But what if I had asked the same question? Would I have been treated in the same way? I bet I wouldn't have had half the grief Helen did – because I am black and therefore deemed to have special entitlement to ask things those who are more privileged are not. That is not fair. If people want a level playing field, it must be level for everyone. 

Apparently, Helen is fair game, because of this:

So does this mean that because of her colour, among other things, she has fewer rights? Because that sounds like prejudice to me. 

I've also noticed some of the white IFs asking for themselves to be 'called out' in case they are racist – even going so far to say they 'must' be because they are white.

These are some examples: 

“And call me out too. I'm white, and therefore probably racist as hell sometimes.”

And: “...(urgh, sorry you get so much crap. Do call me out if I screw up, as I am sure I must from time to time, being white).”

This makes me so uncomfortable. This constant preoccupation with how we're all so different is so wrong. Surely they should be encouraging us to celebrate our differences, rather than seeing difference as a potential pitfall in how we get along?

Perhaps the suspicion they seem to treat others with is a projection of their own self-doubt. I honestly don't know.

In case it is suggested, I do not know Helen personally and have only just recently started following her on Twitter - in fact as a result of this twitterstorm. This isn't about sticking up for who I feel most allied with, it's about standing up for what I believe is right. 

People interpret things differently. And yet often the IFs don't grasp this - so 100% sure they are completely, irrefutably in the right.


And I'd like to add that this is not directed at all Intersectional Feminists, but to a specific group, some of whom are included in screengrabs in this piece.
So to these IFs, I say this. 'Call people out' as much as you want. Order them to 'check their privilege' and flagellate yourselves about your own privilege as though by acknowledging it, you're somehow a better person.

But know that you do not speak for me. I don't need you to tell me what I should be offended at, or to wrap me in cotton wool, and I certainly don't need your protection or condescension.

You claim to speak for the dispossessed, to be fighting for a more equal society. But yours is a counter-productive brand of empowerment, and it is dangerous. You shut down discussion, attack those you disagree with and refuse to listen to any other perspective, shouting louder than everyone until you get your own way or you silence whoever you're engaging with. 

Perhaps you're genuinely motivated by honourable intentions. I can't tell any more. But to me, too often you just seem like bullies who perpetrate the very prejudice you claim to fight against.