(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.
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 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 transgender 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 transgender 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 transgender 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.
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 transgender 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.