Intersect This: White Cis Feminism in Scotland

(Trigger warning for transphobia, racism and suicide)

Before we start – if you haven’t heard much about the words ‘intersectionality‘, ‘privilege‘ and ‘cisgendered‘ before you might wanna do a bit of googling or this article might seem like a jumble of words. They’re not complicated once you have an inital think about them but I understand that they may be newish to a lot of people.

Audre Lorde

I am a cisgendered, White feminist. This means I have an unearned and dangerous position of power within the feminist movement, which is automatically gifted to me by the movement whether I like it or not. With the UK (and particularly Scotland) being such White countries, I could choose to go through life never confronting the reality of an experience of womanhood outside of my own, and in everyday life, I probably wouldn’t be challenged on that much – or I could comfortably choose not to listen when I am challenged. I could choose to shut my eyes to women of colour, and trans women, and non binary people who are labelled by society as women against their wishes – to discuss their struggles in a one dimensional way when it suits me, and then to deny and silence their experiences when they do not easily square with my own.

I am privileged in these regards, and so I would be widely supported in my decision to ignore women who may not look, talk or live like me, because to do so would be to prop up ingrained systems of power including White supremacy, colonialism, cissexism, heterosexism, and in turn patriarchy itself. These systems aren’t powered through by big bad men in a secret illuminati cabal of capitalists (in fact usually the people who think they are are quite open with their hostility to progressive politics). Systems of power are enforced by us, daily. Deciding you don’t want to play at discussing them doesn’t save you from their influence or make you more enlightened, it makes you ignorant and overindulged. When you prop these systems up society rewards you, with the privileges inherent in being at the top of a social system and with the easy ride you get from others who would rather not inspect their own privileges and their own complicity in the marginalisation and oppression of others.

There’ll be none of these

There is nothing brave or special about choosing to actively try to break down and undermine these systems of power. I am not a saint for valuing the words of People of Colour, and/or transgendered people, for sitting down and listening when they speak. There are no rewards here. The only reward is the acceptance that the privileges we have simply for existing in certain ways that are valued by society are not the kind of rewards that a good person would value. There are times when I will fail to challenge privilege and hatred in myself and others appropriately, and for that I am always welcome to be called out. The motto is ‘never get defensive’ (/YOLO).

I can’t think of anything more loving and welcoming than someone being willing to call another person out. It shows genuine care for the person who is behaving inappropriately, a care that is often undeserved. How you react to being called out most of the time says more about you than whatever problematic thing you said or did in the first place. We’re all brought in to a fucked up society which fires fucked up attitudes at us from day one, and how we choose to react to someone who knows more about their own experiences than we do says a lot about our sense of entitlement. When Women of Colour approach the subject of White feminists, they have every right to choose to ignore us, or to blast us angrily, so if someone takes the time to provide the support to you of an explanation for the offense you have caused, take that as a blessing and reflect on what you can learn.

It’s so important for White cis feminists to take on the responsibility of challenging other White cis feminists. It’s not anyone’s job but our own to do that, so we should be grateful for the opportunity to learn when others do challenge us but we also need to actively be turning that learning into a pattern of behaviour where we get comfortable with the idea of challenging. Nobody cares if it’s hard, do it. There is no excuse for enforcing power imbalances, and neither is there an excuse for misusing the name of feminism to oppress other women.

I have never done anything so beneficial for my feminism as learning how to internet. The ability to listen so directly to the words and experiences of women across the world not just in theoretical terms but to actually listen to their daily experiences and their views means it’s easier than ever for White feminists to challenge themselves and their preconceived notions. Sometimes White cis feminists will try to argue that the worlds of others are inaccessible to them and it is a privilege of being involved in academia to even be able to consider these topics. This is utter bollocks, nevermind offensive given the real nature of access to higher education. It was never that way, but now more than ever there is no reason to pretend it’s impossible to engage in learning outwith your own experience in a way that requires no qualifications or middle class background. Trust me, working class Women of Colour are out there and speaking, and working class White women are able to listen. The sooner middle class feminists stop patronisingly using working class women as a shield for false claims of the ‘inaccessibility’ of identity politics that go beyond “white feminism is everything shut up shut up stop rocking the boat” the better.

Never underestimate the transformative power of women in hip hop

I don’t intend to use this article to discuss in any depth the racism of White feminism, there are a lot of Women of Colour (WOC) who do this a lot better than I can and it could be discussed for years. If you’re new to acknowledging the topic, then I can only make some recommendations. Read Audre Lorde. Read bell hooks. Read the Crunk Feminist Collective. Do your own research into the history (though it isn’t history) of the treatment of Women of Colour, and of colonialism. Listen to music by WOC. Acknowledge that intersectionality applies to people of all genders, and that Men of Colour are scapegoated and disproportionately imprisoned and blamed for the ills of White male patriarchy. I could recommend a number of Tumblr users privately if you email athousandflowersblog@gmail.com but I won’t link to them here in case that feeds a negative flow of traffic their way. Challenge White feminists like Lena Dunham, Caitlin Moran, Grace Dent and Hadley Freeman when they claim to speak for all women but shit all over WOC in the process.

I’d like to direct the remainder of this article at cis feminists in Scotland, though this is by no means an exhaustive look at our problems. Cissexist feminism is a problem that can be encountered anywhere, but there’s no use in trying to deflect the issue from ourselves here in Scotland. Let’s challenge ourselves directly, because we have problems that need to be discussed. Some people would call it problems of Radical Feminism, but I think on these issues Liberal Feminism falters too (plus there are plenty of feminists who don’t subscribe to labels like these) and I think it is easier to discuss it as a problem of White cis feminism because regardless of labels that is the root.

We White, cis women have a privilege that WOC and trans women often do not, and that is that we are considered by society to be women. We could truthfully talk forever about how shittily we are treated as women, but we can never really understand what it’s like to be treated as less than a woman. It’s a disingenuous feminism that refuses to acknowledge that there is a hierarchy of womanhood. In literally every way in which White cis women are placed further down the ladder than White cis men, WOC and trans women are a few rungs lower. A few examples from a very long and complex list are that they earn less than we do, they are more likely to face domestic abuse and sexual violence, and they are more likely to be murdered. And in response, they’re told what else should they expect, they’re less than women. I don’t even really see the point in googling for stats on this, they are all facts which you can take two seconds to google yourself, and if your instinct is to go ‘PROVE IT’ when we’ve come this far then you’re starting off badly. I frankly would find it patronising to trans women and WOC to even entertain the idea that the violence against them is not so much more widespread so don’t expect to find any arguments about the ins and outs of statistics here, we’re dealing in reality.

The fact is that many White cis feminists know these facts to be true, but see this as just a standard problem of facing multiple oppressions in society rather than apply an understanding of why feminism must acknowledge the inseparability of people’s identities, and the importance of acknowledging, not whitewashing, the differences amongst women. Only White women gain from the idea that all issues for women are the same and can be tackled solely as issues for women. Most feminists on the traditional left (where there is sometimes an unstated overlap of Radical Feminism and Socialist Feminism) can acknowledge where the experience of multiple and simultaneous identities is whitewashed from Liberal Feminism because most women on the left have experienced life as a working class woman (some have also experienced life outside of heteronormativity). But for many the buck stops there, and where intersectionality and the differences between working class women and middle class women can be acknowledged because it’s an immediate reality faced for many Scottish feminists, it suddenly becomes ‘fancy pants academic pish’ when we are asked to accept that some women have experiences that are sometimes different to (and yes, worse than) ours. I have honestly heard Scottish feminists denounce queer theory and intersectionality as offensive academic crap, while twiddling their thumbs and pretending not to notice that they utilise the concept of intersectionality themselves when discussing working class womanhood.

There’s really no “inaccessibility of concepts” excuse (true or false) that can explain the number of Scottish feminists I have encountered that speak in the most disgusting transphobic manner about transgendered people. Remember that Julie Burchill Observer article in all its horror? I’ve seen women on the left in Scotland round up the troops not only in support of the freedom to say disgusting things like those no matter the consequences, but also to join in with more horrendous transphobic pish about what they think is the “real” nature of trans women. Every comment leads to the same conclusion – that trans women are really predatory men who are lying about being women in order to mock, harm and undermine “real” women and “real” feminists. Some will try to claim an insurmountable gulf between women’s rights and transgendered people’s rights, which necessarily implies that trans women are not women (clue: they are) and patronisingly state “I support you in your struggle but get out of mine” as though this doesn’t completely invalidate any acceptance of trans women’s struggles as real. Some don’t even bother with this pretence and are open in their disgust at what they assume to be the “lifestyle” of trans people whose lives they know absolutely fuck all about.

Any excuse to use this really

The left has always had problems with one-dimensional conceptions of feminism. In my experiences of being in the Scottish Socialist Party between 2006-2012 I came to realise that there were many men who were willing to understand the nature of misogyny when it was displayed by their enemies. The women of the SSP went through abuse at the hands of Tommy Sheridan and his supporters, and I have no doubt that the understanding of the misogyny of Tommy Sheridan that developed amongst the men in the SSP was genuine. Unfortunately many could not apply the same thinking to themselves or to the culture of the left more generally that elevates men to positions of power and actively undermines the efforts of women to marry their understanding of working class politics and women’s oppression. Men would speak for hours at meetings about the misogyny of others, seeing no irony in their own position, not caring that a steady stream of women had drifted away from the party and if you tried to bring it up you were called mental (because how dare you accuse an organisation that took a stand against the misogyny of Sheridan of actually still not being all that great a place to be a woman). As with everything, real progress isn’t made unless you’re willing to apply new found understandings of power to yourself and your friends. And the same is true of many Scottish feminists – we can be fantastically articulate about our own experiences as well we should, but ask us to notice where we might have contributed to the bad experiences of other women and it’s an affront to all that we have fought for. Enough is enough for many young feminists who have drifted away from the traditional left and traditional forms of feminist organising for these reasons. We want to find our voices without forgetting how to listen.

There’s really no point in denying that there is an age element to this. Not across the board of course, but in arguments about trans issues in feminism there is generally a clear divide where younger people are more willing to accept changing definitions, and let go of old offensive tropes (if people want to discuss the nuances of why this may be the comments are open). I’m going to make a direct call out here – Scottish cis feminists: stop deliberately using outdated and offensive terms to describe transgendered people and refusing to acknowledge trans people’s conceptualisations of their own experiences and lives. You blatantly know how offensive it is and you are behaving in EXACTLY the same way as RICHARD FUCKING LITTLEJOHN when you do this. If you aren’t aghast at the idea that your gender politics could be shared with Richard Littlejohn, I’m not sure what we can really do for you and you need to go far, far away. And frankly, if you think this article is directed at you it is.

Speaking of Richard Littlejohn’s attitude to trans issues, there is the sad news that a woman who was bullied in the media by Littlejohn for the crime of just existing as a trans woman who was also a teacher has committed suicide. You can read the full story here. Littlejohn is cruel and wrong to suggest that children are either incapable of understanding or “too innocent to be exposed to” LGBT* issues when they are generally both more accepting and inquisitive, and also there are many LGBT* children trying to find their place in the world. Saying that children need to be “protected” from trans people is no different than agreeing with Section 28, but you’d be hard pressed to find a feminist who supported that. It’s appalling that some feminists share the views of right wing propagandists on what they call the “predatory” nature of the trans people that they treat as sub-human. Fellow cis feminists, when you hear (if you even do hear, as it’s rarely considered newsworthy) about the suicide or murder of a trans woman, how can you truly not see the link between the vile words and the exclusion and othering you encourage and these outcomes? When feminists refuse to acknowledge the womanhood (and humanity) of trans women, they contribute to a culture where trans women are more likely to be killed by murder or suicide. And when you exclude trans women from the safety and solidarity of feminist spaces, you are saying to men: “hurt them instead of me”. I will never understand how cis feminists can know how appallingly high the rate of murder and sexual violence against cis women is, and then hear that the rates for trans women are EVEN HIGHER, and still conclude that it’s ok to exclude trans women from feminism and our fight against gendered violence.

Transphobic feminists, you are not “defending women”, you are killing them. You are complicit in the culture of violence and hatred, and I don’t care if someone called you a nasty radfem. Start dealing with this now, start listening and changing and challenging yourself when you feel the urge to use a slur or accusing LGBT* people of invented offences. Trans women are women. Transphobic feminists are not feminists. Denial of reality is not an option. Women of Colour and trans women will not lie down and let you claim authority on womanhood, and I and others will be firmly on their side.

13 responses to “Intersect This: White Cis Feminism in Scotland

  1. You are right about the terrible situation for many trans people and the failure of some feminists to empathise with them. However this does not mean that the radical feminist critique of some of the concepts and ideas promoted by the trans movement (such as “cis”) are not valid or worthy of debate. The accusations of “transphobia” that often fly around are sometimes justified (with regards to Burchill for example) but in other cases seem more of a silencing tactic by people who are unwilling to seriously debate the issues and concerns brought up by radical feminists. Maybe you would be interested in reading and saying how you feel about this well-argued critique of “cisgender”: http://liberationcollective.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/a-feminist-critique-of-cisgender/

    I think it is extremely problematic to demand that women accept they are “privileged” as a result of their gender in a patriarchal society where women are murdered, raped, silenced and oppressed on a mass scale. Being a woman is never a “privilege” in today’s world and arguing to the contrary is extremely damaging to the feminist movement which has always been based on the understanding of gender as a hierarchical system in which men systematically control and dominate women. Transpeople of course also suffer as a result of the patriarchal gender system but it is not radical feminists who are physically attacking them or denying them their rights. Why then is it almost exclusively radical feminists who many transgender activists are directing their anger at and trying to silence? Why is it primarily radical feminists who are being demonised for not recognising their “privilege” or feeling guilty enough about the plight of transpeople?

  2. White cis and trans women who claim that it’s ‘intersectional’ for them to appropriate WOCs’ experiences of oppression and speak authoritatively about race and / in feminism because they’ve read Audre Lorde and bell hooks give me such a bad vibe. More often than not they tend to be the same white cis and trans women whose knee-jerk reaction when confronted with sexist or transphobic remarks is saying, ‘nobody would say stuff like this about blacks!!!!’ – everybody says that about POCs, all the time, your white privileges just makes you not care. The number of ‘white feminists’ I had to walk away from angrily because during the Suzanne Moore debacle they kept saying this bullshit is unbelievable. I hate how so many people militating for wider recognition of trans women’s rights have to constantly try to suggest that the struggles of (cis?) WOCs are somehow equivalent to those of white trans women or intrinsically tied – or they just try to copy critiques WOCs have made of (white) feminism word by word, simply replacing ‘WOCs’ with ‘(white) trans women’. This is completely unnecessary and unhelpful and racist, transness does not make your white privilege go away, transphobia and racism are different phenomenons which work in different ways. A lot of the things that white pro-trans rights feminists militate for just throw WOCs (cis and trans) under the bus – e.g. all the energy that’s being put into pressuring prestigious women’s colleges in the US to accept trans women – of course I think Smith etc should accept trans women, but it’s so obvious that super expensive really white elitist institutions like that don’t admit WOCs and lower class women and by fighting only for the right of (white?) relatively well off trans women to attend them, it feels like we’re silently endorsing the classism and racism of the whole system. So often it feels like white trans women’s primary goal is to be accepted into the select club of privileged white cis women, not to break up that club. A lot of other times it feels like white trans women lump all cis women in the same group and claim that they all hold ‘cis privilege’ to the same extent, although the ‘womanhood’ of WOCs is not considered legitimate in the ways that white women’s womanhood is (and although they said exactly that two paragraphs before in order to prove their point that trans women are just like WOCs). Discussions of ‘trans / feminism’ are just so un-nuanced and based on such a limited number of ‘cis womanhood’ experiences, for all the talk about intersectionality, it feels like WOCs are only important when they provide you with arguments against cis women, otherwise their voices can be safely ignored.

    What happened with the Daily Mail makes me angry. It makes me angry that yet another trans woman has died – it breaks my heart and reminds me that every queer person I have in my life is a gift, that queer, especially trans survival is something we should all remember to celebrate and treasure. But what makes me so angry I’m too angry to cry is the fact that we have all been telling (white) people that the Daily Mail is extremely racist and that it has a huge impact on increasing racist attitudes and hate crime in the country for years and years and years and nobody was willing to hear us out. And I am sure that this time around, just like with Suzanne Moore etc, there will be plenty of people saying, ‘this would never happen to blacks!!!’, who’ll completely ignore all the racial hate crimes the Daily Mail promoted / caused and allow the problem to continue. As long as it’s okay for a major publication to promote hate against one oppressed group in the name of ‘freedom of speech’, they’ll know it’s okay to promote hate against any oppressed group – you might be shielded by your white privilege for a while, but they’ll eventually get to the oppressed group you’re part of too.

  3. Radfem, I’m just putting your comment through to show how ridiculous it is. Being considered a woman IS a privilege relative to being considered less than a woman. You don’t get to co-opt discussion of male privilege which came out of work done on conceptualising white privilege and then deny your whiteness, for example. Just not happening. Someone else can fuck with the rest of your comment if they like, I can’t be bothered.

    Andy, thank you for your comment. I don’t have any special insight into the lives of POC or trans people obviously, and I hope that I haven’t come across as thinking that I do but I’m really sorry if that’s the place that I’ve written from. I’m also sorry if I have too easily conflated the struggles of WOC and trans women. I wasn’t really sure where this article was going to end up but what I had in mind when I was writing it was really a specific type of (both White and cis) women on the left in Scotland (and in the feminist media in the wider UK) who I have seen openly rubbish the idea of intersectionality and recognising any differences among women on the basis that they hate trans women. In fact they’ve really done the opposite of “they’d never say this about Black people” and have shown their arses as racist too when they’ve been frothing at the mouth to denounce trans women. I am also very very uncomfortable at any “you’d never say this about POC” because it’s blatantly untrue and is disrespectful and appropriative as fuck. I guess the point of this article was meant to be that while you get the types like Radfem above in the comments who will try to pretend they are just really passionate about some theoretical basis for hate speech, the root of it is actually a fundamental rejection of intersectionality and a disdain for any critique of what influences and hierarchies the feminist movement has been embroiled in over the years. They ARE racists as well as transphobics and they should be named as such.

    In this instance I felt “White cis feminists” was the best way to describe the kind of attitudes we’re dealing with in the people I’m discussing who choose to know very little about racial politics and who are vehement and open in their hatred of trans politics and people, but maybe there’s a better way to talk about it. You’re right that at every stage of these conversations WOC are considered last if at all. I feel like I know more about Black women’s criticisms of White feminism than I know about trans women purely because of the corners of the internet I spend time in (I still don’t know an awful lot), but in the wider UK certainly there is a greater understanding of trans politics now and we have a long LONG way to go in taking our understanding of racial politics to anywhere even close to the same levels. It is clear that WOC are seen all round as easier to ignore, and I do believe that if (big if) there is less vehement hate for WOC in the very white UK feminist movement than there is for trans women it’s not because anyone is enlighted about WOC’s lives, it’s purely because they’re not even entering our thoughts at all.

    Also yeah you’re right about getting too comfortable with having read bell hooks etc, would like to make it clear that I don’t think any White feminist is ever past the stage of needing to be called out

  4. That you’ve resorted to deleting my (completely reasonable, respectful and inoffensive) post is a sign that you’ve lost the argument or have decided to close your ears to anything that remotely challenges your post-modernist, queer ideology. Well that is fine: stay in your comfortable little middle-class, academic, queer bubble but please stop trying to get in the way of the real feminists who are actually out there fighting against the patriarchy and standing up to male power. And remember what feminism is about: the liberation of women from patriarchal oppression. Are we not even allowed one ideology that focusses primarily on women or does it have to be watered down so much in your view that the struggle against patriarchy becomes invisible? It is appalling that you think feminists should have to devote an equal amount of attention to trans people (who are 1 in every 10,000 people or so) as they do to fighting for the liberation of 50% of the world’s population from male violence and oppression. If you want to focus on trans issues why not join the trans movement and stop bothering and harassing feminists with it?

    • Right I’m not sure why your comment has been put through because I wasn’t going to, but now it’s been responded to so it will have to stay. My only response is read the comments policy and gtf. You’re really showing yourself up here with the Julie Burchill parroting pish

    • To reduce the oppression trans people suffer to a series of numbers is what’s truly appalling here. That you don’t see and feel the strong link between feminism and LGBT rights is not just infuriating but disappointing. You say “stop getting in the way of the real feminists” (and thanks for judging who gets to be a feminist, btw) but it is people like you who hold feminism back and cling to an outdated notion that feminists cannot and should not be champions for the rights of all people. The patriarchy will not be smashed if you insist on dividing people up into boxes and assigning them to causes.

  5. Radfem – I don’t read Tarzan Girl’s article as a call for feminism to fight the battles of the transgender population but as a call for feminism to fight the battles of all women without discrimination (i.e not treating transgender women as not “real” women). Wouldn’t you say that’s a more than fair thing to ask? Women as a whole are indeed fighting patriarchy, violence, rape, oppression but do you not believe that within that category of “women” there are women who have deeper struggles than others? I certainly do. As a woman I feel as though I fight those battles but I acknowledge that there are women who not only fight those battles but who also fight the battles of racism, homophobia, poverty, poor education, trans-phobia, and that I need to be a part of fighting those things too in order to be fighting the overarching battles which affect *all* women. How can we as women and feminists be a united force in battling those things which oppress and harm us if ignore the divisions that exist among us?

  6. And am I right in reading your comment: “Are we not even allowed one ideology that focusses primarily on women or does it have to be watered down so much in your view that the struggle against patriarchy becomes invisible?” to mean that you don’t believe transgender women to be “women”?

  7. To state that being a ciswoman is a privilage is to say that being female is a privilage. Savita Halappanavar would never have died had she been a transwoman.

    women – cis and trans – are fucked over in different ways. Intersectionality is about appreciating where commonality in struggles lie, not about ranking the oppressions

    • This is no different than saying that cis women who cannot get pregnant or choose not to are privileged over cis women who do get pregnant or are able to get pregnant. Utter offensive fucking bollocks.

      Attacks on reproductive rights are one way of many in which women are oppressed, you are no less of a woman if you cannot (for whatever reason) or choose not to have anything to do with reproduction. This is such a fucked up way of defining womanhood.

      And I’m extremely offended that you think it’s ok to bring up a dead woman whose death had absolutely nothing to do with this issue as some kind of trump card. Who the fuck do you even think you are? And that’s not even bringing in the fact that trans women absolutely ARE routinely denied healthcare, jesus you’re so gross to even try to go down this road.

      And btw anyone attempting to get comments approved that start out claiming that Caitlin Moran has been “trashed” can think again.

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