Passing privilege, and other curses in disguise

My mother is Turkish, my father Pakistani. I have absolutely no Anglo-European blood in me. I am relatively light-skinned, but I am neither ethnically or phenotypically white…

…which has not stopped people from telling me I’m “too white to talk about racism” about half a dozen times in the last week alone.

They tell me anonymously. They tell me while I’m relating my lived experiences of racial abuse and harassment. They tell me while I’m expressing solidarity with my darker-skinned friends and loved ones. They tell me while they mock my appearance in Reddit threads devoted to lambasting me. “This bitch,” they say, “is practically white anyway. She just wants to feel like a victim.”

Day after day, I am forced to defend my identity. I am half-Turkish, half-Pakistani, Australian by birth and upbringing but ethnically no more white than I am male or straight or neurotypical (mind you, people challenge those aspects of my identity constantly as well – but I digress). But because I possess that most tenuous and contingent of privileges – the ability to “pass” – my lived experience of racism and abuse is constantly dismissed, trivialised or outright silenced.

I was educated at predominantly white Catholic schools, but at home, I recited the Qur’an with my father, learned skerricks of bad Turkish from my mother, watched Bollywood movies with subtitles, ate curries and naan and Turkish lentil soup. I wore the hijab for eight years. I still wear it when I pray. I finished reading the Qur’an in Arabic when I was seventeen years old. I call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle”, speak in broken Turkish to my grandmother on the phone. I have become adept at acting white in public because doing so means I face less abuse and ridicule, but I am not white, just someone who knows how to play-act for the amusement and pleasure of her oppressors.

I am tired of having to defend myself. That you believe me to be white does not undo the years of slurs and racial abuse I have received not just because of the colour of my skin or because of my Muslim faith, but because of the times I have dared not to conform to ideals of whiteness in public. You can deny my heritage, my culture, my lived experiences, but you cannot make unreal the sidelong glances from passers-by, the yelled threats from people driving past me as I walk home carrying groceries, the obnoxiously loud “SO HOW ARE YOU LIKING OUR COUNTRY?” from well-meaning but misguided whites on the bus. You cannot undo the times people have assumed I was my father’s wife because they think all brown men take child brides, or the times people have assumed my mother doesn’t speak English even though she has lived here since she was sixteen and speaks as fluently as any native, albeit with a slight accent. Those things happened to me and to my family and no amount of denial on your part will undo them.

I am not white. I can pass as white if I must, though the intentional erasure of my true identity feels like going without a limb or a vital organ. I can talk white and act white to appease white people, to deflect the abuse and the mistrustful glances and the whispering behind my back that I must be a terrorist or a radical or that I probably believe in honour killings. I can do all of those things, and I often have to, because survival in a white-dominated society comes at a price and one must pay it one way or another. Given the choice, I suppose I’d rather pay in assimilation than in violence and torture and death. It’s not much of a choice, mind you, but it’s the only one I have.

Sometimes I think to myself that it’s somewhat ironic that I have become so good at passing as white that people insist I must be even when I assure them that I’m not. Have I merely beaten myself at my own game? Am I too good an actress? Or is it rather that people see what they want to see, and they’d rather see Jay, their example of successful assimilation into “civilised” society, than Aaminah, who still says insha’Allah when she makes a commitment and prays in Arabic and wears tights under her skirts because she doesn’t like to bare her legs? I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the latter – that people would rather believe me to be white because it makes their lives less complicated than having to deal with the complexities of my life as a brown girl negotiating white society.

Here’s the thing, though – passing privilege is contingent. And there’s the rub; I’m only white as long as they want me to be. I’m white in discussions of race because it’s an effective way of silencing my voice, my lived experience, the truth of my struggle. I’m white amongst people who don’t want to have to think about the implications of my non-whiteness. I’m white when people want to love me but don’t want to think about what loving me entails.

But I stop being white once they want to oppress me.

I was not white when, the night before last, a man yelled at me to “go back to where [I] came from” as he drove past me. I was not white when people called my boyfriend a “n****r-lover” for being in a relationship with me. I was not white in the aftermath of 9/11, when one of my fellow students tormented and bullied me for months until I gathered up the courage to tell the school counsellor. I am not white when people can’t pronounce my “foreign” name and ask if they can call me something else instead. I am not white when it does not suit white people for me to be so.

I am not white unless white people want me to be.

I tire of having to explain myself and defend myself. I tire of people who arrogantly assume they know more of my ethnic heritage than I do. I tire of being mislabelled, mistaken, mistreated. I tire of having to carry both the burdens of a non-white woman and the expectations of a white-passing one.

Passing privilege is a curse in disguise. It’s a reason for white people to invalidate your oppression whilst simultaneously only granting you the privileges of whiteness if you choose to conform to their standards and ideals. Honestly, I would rather not be mistaken for white at all if it would mean I could stop having to pretend to be someone I’m not in order to please people who are not prepared to face the truth of me. But since I am possessed of the privilege of light skin (and I know that within the broader community of women of colour, this is a privilege whether I like it or not), I am forced to play-act as someone I’m not, only to be told I’m not doing it well enough when white people tire of the pantomime.

I am not white. I just play a white girl on the internet.

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Navigating male entitlement, or: how I learned to stop caring and block dudebros

There’s this funny idea people have about free speech.

See, here’s how it actually works. You can say whatever you like, so long as what you say doesn’t harm anyone. If you can find a platform for yourself, even more power to you. Start a blog, make a Twitter account (make ten Twitter accounts!), post on Reddit, find your happy place and go for it. Free speech, whilst not constitutionally protected the world over, is a basic human right.

Here’s what’s not a human right: an assurance that anyone will listen.

Yeah. This is where it gets funny.

I get cat-called a lot. I mean, I get cat-called a lot. And before you rush to say something snarky about my outfit choices or the height of my heels (I see you in the wings, slut-shamers – you’re not as subtle as you think), I’ve been cat-called in my daggiest jeans and my oldest t-shirt and my rattiest sneakers and no makeup. I’ve been cat-called by old men and young men and men with their young sons in the passenger seat next to them. And the one thing all those men have had in common is the idea that they have the right to make me listen to their opinions. It’s not enough for them to have the opinions; it’s not enough for them to voice those opinions to their friends (or, I suppose, their young children – seriously, dude who did that, I will never stop judging you); they have to voice them to me. They have to make sure I hear them. They think they have the right to make me listen.

And the thing is – and like I said, here’s where it gets a bit funny – the thing is, they don’t have that right at all.

One afternoon, a guy tried talking to me for the entirety of my bus journey home. I had earphones in and I was doing a sudoku puzzle on my phone and I very, very purposefully ignored him – I even had my back turned. He tried talking to me anyway. “Hey, love,” he whined from a seat behind me after I refused to make eye contact and took a seat far in front, “hey – I’m talking to you.” He kept it up as I got off the bus, too. I loudly thanked the driver and waited until the bus had departed before walking to my gate, lest the guy figure out which house was mine by watching through the window.

Recently, I was sitting near a bus stop waiting for an evening bus into town, earphones in, when a man came up to me. I didn’t notice that he was trying to talk to me, so he walked right up and started waving his hands in my face. Thinking something had fallen from my purse, I took an earphone out, looked up and asked what was wrong.

He wanted to tell me I “looked cute”. I gave him my best “not in your wettest, wildest dreams” stare and responded with a, “move along, dude,” in the kind of voice one uses for pronouncements such as oh, look, the new puppy isn’t house-trained yet. I mean, seriously? He waved his hands centimetres away from my face for that? I own a mirror, and even if I didn’t, I don’t think strangers on the street would be my go-to resource for fashion critiques.

He broke into an expletive-laden tirade about what an uptight bitch I was. I put my earphones back in, turned the volume up and waited until he was gone.

(I was lucky – it was a crowded area and he was pretty small. I doubt I’d have been brave enough to reject unwanted advances so brazenly otherwise. Even surrounded by people, it took a fair amount of chutzpah to pretend I was unruffled by the spittle flying from my harasser’s lips as he screamed epithets at me. Guess those public speaking classes paid off.)

I recently noted that the threats directed at Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, were born of the idea that violence against women, particularly women of colour, is an appropriate “punishment” for non-conformity. It’s the oddest thing – people don’t seem to like it when we express our right to free speech. As though to prove my point, I was inundated with replies verging from the nonsensical (“you’re racist against white people!”) to the sickening (“I hope you die, you ugly bitch!”) to the simply tiresome (“but why are you trying to oppress our freedoms?”). I merely made an observation – that white “progressives”, when forced to choose between allyship and protecting their own, will invariably protect their own. When I refused to engage in “debate” on whether or not racism against white people exists (it doesn’t), I was met with more vitriol still. I was silencing people (by…letting them talk without responding to them?); I was a white-hater (because…I pointed out that if white people don’t want to be seen as racist, they should probably stop doing racist things?); I was unwilling to “defend my arguments” (you might just as well ask me to “defend” my belief in the existence of gravity).

At first, I amused myself by inventing colourful ways of telling the trolls to fuck themselves (my favourite is still “go fellate yourself with a chainsaw”), but after a while, responding to the barrage of internet word-vomit grew tiring. I blocked any new troll accounts, made an announcement that I would not be engaging further, and went to bed.

That was when the real hate began.

I won’t sicken you with the details. Suffice it to say that waking up to threats of murder and sexual abuse was something of an object lesson in my original point. Exercise free speech to criticise white progressives and watch the mask of liberalism crack and shatter. Freedom, it would seem, is a one-way street.

With privilege comes an overweening sense of entitlement – entitlement to our spaces, entitlement to our stories, to our culture, to our voices, to our resources, to our time. When I tell men I’m not interested in talking to them, they treat it like a personal affront. How dare I, a woman, refuse to pander to them? How dare I refuse to warp my universe until they are at its centre? How dare I – and this is what really underlies it all – say no?

But you see – and I said, didn’t I, that it’s funny how this works – you see, while they might have the right to speak, I have the right not to listen and a mandate handed to me by the good citizens of the Republic of Myself to take advantage of that right whenever I like.

I’m not obliged to listen to your cat-calls. I’m not obliged to make uncomfortable small talk with you at bus stops. Online, I’m not obliged to indulge your desire for a “debate” when you interrupt me mid-story to derail the conversation and re-centre it around your own experiences. I’m not obliged to pander. I’m not obliged to serve you in any way at all. “Republic of Myself” is a bit of a misnomer. My space is not a democracy. I make the rules and enforce them as I wish. And what I’ve decided after years of politely acquiescing to men in positions of authority, after years of submitting to men who knew what was best for me even when they didn’t, after years of being told that men have the right to my personhood is that…well, no, they really, really don’t.

Make your troll accounts; inundate me with abuse and threats; scream until you lose your voice. I will tell you to fuck off in a delightfully colourful fashion and then I will block you or walk away or slam the door in your face because you are not entitled to any more of me than I am willing to give. Not my time, not my energy, not my resources, not my voice, not my personhood, not my anything. Scream into the void, though I think you’ll find the echoes cold comfort and poor company. I’m not obliged to let you scream at me.

Enjoy your freedom of speech. I’m putting my earphones back in.

Fairy tales for privileged kids: “the anti-white racist”

A disclaimer before we begin: what I’m about to talk about here are facts. This means they are not up for debate. There are not multiple sides to this story. You are not owed a “reasonable discussion” about this, nor will I “agree to disagree” with you. I’m talking about things that are abjectly, incontrovertibly true. Okay? Okay.

Let’s start things off with a little mathematical proof:

 

(A) RACISM = [racial prejudice] * [institutional power]

(B) SUM OF [institutional power] held by black people = 0

sub (B) into (A)

RACISM against white people = [racial prejudice] * 0

therefore RACISM against white people = 0

 

As you can see, because multiplying by zero will always give you an answer of zero, racism against white people equals zero for any and all values of “racial prejudice”.

See, racism isn’t just about prejudice. Is it possible for non-white people to be prejudiced against white people? Sure. I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I lived in a community where land and house prices were soaring because of gentrification, leading to me having to give up my home, I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the people driving me out onto the street. If I were to be looked over for a promotion because my boss didn’t want a non-white person being a public face of the company, I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the people who made the decision that a non-white spokesperson would seem too threatening to be effective. If my son were, say, shot dead in cold blood by a white man who was then found not guilty of murder because my son was walking home on his own wearing a hoodie, then…yeah, I guess I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the assholes who ensured my son’s killer was never brought to justice.

So yeah, non-white people can be prejudiced against whites.

Can they be racist against whites? Nope.

Racism, like any other -ism, requires not just prejudice, but power. And the fact (see that word, fact? that means this is a thing that’s true and not up for debate) is that in the world in which we currently live, every single institution worth a damn is controlled by white people. Banks? White-controlled. Entertainment and news media? White-controlled. Educational institutions? White-controlled. Legislature? Despite America’s Black President, still majority white-controlled. The judiciary in most countries? White-controlled. Wide scale economics and trade? You guessed it: white-controlled.

So how can non-white people be racist against the people who hold all the cards and the balance of power? They can’t.

Racism isn’t just about slurs and curse words, though when uttered by people who have institutional backing, those things certainly have a great deal of power. Racism is about the systemic and institutional violence that contributes to the continued oppression and dehumanisation of non-white people around the world, even in majority non-white countries (their financial systems are still contingent on white-controlled international trade and their cultures are still heavily influenced by their white colonisers). Racism isn’t an angry, disenfranchised black person calling a white man “cracker” or “whitey”; racism is that white man’s ability to move on from that insult completely unscathed in every single way that matters because the black person who yelled that insult doesn’t have the power to back it up in any meaningful way.

White people control our legal system, our educational and financial institutions and our media. White people decide what is beautiful, what is respectable, what is acceptable. White people set the benchmarks for culture, for progress, for enlightenment. White people control who succeeds in business, who gets into the best schools and who will get off on their minor criminal charges instead of serving out an unnecessarily harsh jail sentence. White people export media that is absorbed into non-white culture until it changes the standards of beauty, respectability and acceptability even within those societies. White people decide what is good and what is bad and which way society’s moral compass points. White people, numeric minority they may be, control the world.

Tell me, what is a black person shouting “cracker” against all of that?

The simple fact (again, FACT) is that it is impossible to be racist against people who hold the balance of power. The n-word has power and weight as a slur because it is a reminder that white-dominated society sees black people as second-class citizens. Words like “exotic” as applied to women with non-white skin have weight and power because they are reminders that non-white women are being held against the white beauty standard and being found different (and therefore wanting). By contrast, the word “cracker” does not contribute to a culture in which, for example, white people are forced to earn less, are underemployed, over-incarcerated, devalued, dehumanised, shunned and oppressed. “Cracker” is just a word. It has no power behind it. It is not indicative of a culture of control and oppression. It is, to quote the Bard, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Here are some facts:

  • Even white women earn more than non-white men, despite a pay gap that generally favours men over women
  • Non-white men are incarcerated at a rate exponentially greater than white men
  • Non-white people are under-represented in federal legislature, in positions of power in the business world, and on the governing bodies of educational institutions
  • Despite the ethnic and racial makeup of many “white” countries, it is white beauty standards that remain the benchmark in magazines, on billboards, in movies and on our TV screens
  • Non-white women are raped more often than white women, report the crime less often, receive less police support when they do and see their rapists brought to justice less often than white women
  • The legal and judicial systems are profoundly skewed against non-white people to the point that both “stop and frisk” and “stand your ground” laws have been empirically shown to favour whites (see: Trayvon Martin, whose murderer is still a free man who attends conferences and signs autographs, vs Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot to scare off an intruder in her home and was originally sentenced to twenty years in prison)

Again, these are not opinions. This is not up for debate. It is demonstrable, incontrovertible, empirical fact that the balance of power is held by white people, and that in every way that counts, non-white people are at a significant systemic and institutional disadvantage.

So tell me again – what is “cracker” against all of that?

It’s Not About You, and other adventures in privilege

The other day, as I was contributing a few choice witticisms to the hashtag #whitefeministsbelike, I heard the dreaded wailing in the background.

Someone had sounded the NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE KLAXON.

For the next twenty-odd minutes, my mentions were inundated with the thoughts, feelings and opinions of a self-proclaimed “white feminist” who desperately needed me to know how badly I’d hurt her feelings by implying that she was racist. I had not mentioned her name. I didn’t even know who she was. My tweets did not read “#allwhitefeministsbelike” or “#everysinglewhitepersoneverbelike”. The hashtag was clearly about whiteness-as-power-structure, not whiteness-as-her-personal-life-experience-that-she-needed-to-share-like-RIGHT-NOW.

But here I was, being tearfully reprimanded by a complete stranger, because my critique of a power structure that oppresses me had hurt her feelings.

I am not, despite my frequent jesting, anti-white. I do not hate white people or white culture. Actually, I quite enjoy Shakespeare and Mad Men and the odd visit to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger with that cheese that I’m fairly sure has never had even a passing relationship with the stuff that comes out of cows. But whiteness-as-power-structure? Whiteness-as-supremacist-ideology? Whiteness-as-oppressive-ideal? Those things, I do not like so much. Those things are responsible for taunts and bullying and my mother being yelled at by strangers on the street and my sisters being harassed and, on a memorable occasion that I’m sure will haunt me until the day I die, my father once threatening to beat the shit out of a couple of boys at a Hungry Jack’s who were making fun of my niqab. (He had removed his belt and was preparing to tan their hides with the buckled end before management intervened and made the young men in question leave, but I’m sure those seats still smell like adolescent male fear-sweat to this day. My father is a very imposing man.)

Whiteness, in short, is something I am very much committed to critiquing, de-centring, and even tearing apart a little. Whiteness is the reason there are very few role models for black and brown children in mainstream entertainment media. Whiteness is the reason that when I see a Muslim character on television, they’re more likely to be a terrorist than a love interest. Whiteness is incredibly problematic and we can and should question it and the ways in which it affects and harms people of colour. Because that’s what it’s about, see – not making white people feel bad, not white guilt or white-shaming or reverse racism. It’s about tearing off the shackles that bind us.

It is, in other words, Not About You.

To the white girl who felt the need to tell me I’d hurt her feelings, I have to ask – what were you trying to achieve? Did you really need the reassurance of a random brown stranger that you aren’t a bad person because of the colour of your skin? Did you need to be preened and petted so much that you had to interrupt a brown person’s narrative – the narrative of a person who is interrupted, silenced and shoved aside by white people constantly –  so that everyone in the metaphorical room could attend to your needs and desires for a little while? What did you stand to gain by pointing out huffily that you, individually, were not racist? Did you want a medal for basic human decency, perhaps? A ticker-tape parade with a float staffed by non-white people showering you in confetti and holding up a big sign saying “This White Person is Not Like the Others”? A lovingly-baked cookie containing the blood, sweat, tears and gratitude of a brown person, delivered to you in a little box with a card reading, “thanks for achieving the minimum standard required for being a tolerable human being”?

Because that’s the message you send when you derail conversations about whiteness-as-power-structure to point out that you, an individual white person, are not racist. You are saying: my feelings as a white person who is complicit in and bolstered by white privilege are more important than your right to talk about the power structures that oppress you. You are saying: I cannot abide a conversation that does not centre me, my feelings and my worldview. You are saying: me. Me me me me me me me me me me me. Also, me.

And let me tell you, that gets kind of intolerable after a while.

Yes, individual white people, I get it. You’re better than the others because you have black and brown friends, because you donate to charities that benefit non-white people in need, because you told a black woman her hair was neat and resisted the urge to touch it. And now, having achieved the standard of good behaviour we might expect of a house-trained puppy, you feel the need to tell every. single. non-white. person. ever. You are so desperate to differentiate and distinguish yourself from Those White People, the nasty racist ones who oppress blacks and aren’t as enlightened and caring and compassionate as you, that you need to make every conversation not about our continuing plights, but about how You Are Better Than Them and we need to acknowledge all the hard work you’ve put in.

How many times do you need to be told this? Being an ally or standing in solidarity with a group of oppressed people is not about you: it’s about the people you are trying to help. And that means that when those oppressed people are talking about the ways in which power structures marginalised and silence them, contributing to that silencing by talking loudly over us and ignoring our objections makes you part of the problem, not the solution. A white person who really does make an effort not to be complicit in white supremacy does not need to trumpet that fact. In fact, they don’t have time to do so, because they’re busy rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty with the rest of us. Ask yourself, well-meaning but self-absorbed white woman whose name I don’t even remember any more because this happens to me literally every single time I write about whiteness, why most of the people criticising you and asking you to pipe down were also white. Was it because they had something to prove? Was it because they wanted brownie points and a pat on the back?

Or maybe, just maybe, was it because they were seeing something you weren’t?

If you really are Not Like the Others, prove it to me not with your words but with your actions. Be an amplifier and supporter of non-white people. Give us space to speak. Listen to and internalise our stories when we share them (because believe it or not, hearing those stories is a privilege, not a right, and should be treated accordingly). Share our stories with your white friends. Stop your fellow white people from perpetrating the dozens of microaggressions that perpetuate and reinforce white supremacy every single day. Lobby for fairer representation of non-white people on television, in politics, in the corporate world, in academia. Fight anti-blackness. Ask before partaking of our culture so that you can be sure you’re not taking something that’s not yours to take. For the love of whatever you deem holy, DO NOT touch our hair or our niqabs without our permission. See us as people, not as curiosities. And stop equating your hurt feelings at being forced to confront the reality of white supremacy with the real hurts non-white people experience because of the insidious influence of white supremacy in their everyday lives.

Solidarity and intersectionality are not labels. They are things you practice. They are ways of living and being. If you truly want them to apply to you, stop making everything All About You and start listening a bit to all of us.

We all have opinions. Here’s why I don’t care about yours.

I spent four years in medical school. My professors were experts in their fields – accomplished physicians, prolific researchers, sometimes even pioneers in their areas of interest. From them, I learned the foundations of biomedical science – anatomy, physiology, histology, biochemistry – as well as the details of the various specialities of medicine.  There was no question at any point that these people who had spent their lives and careers becoming experts, amassing lifetimes of experience between them, knew more about their areas of interest than I did. This is why I was the student and they were my teachers. Generally, this is how education works.

I was born non-white. I grew up non-white. Non-whiteness has been a central fixture in my life for every single day of my existence, from the day I was born and my mother’s doctor remarked that I looked “like a little monkey” to the first time someone called me a terrorist for wearing the niqab to the numerous times I’ve been told my looks are “exotic”. One could say that I’m something of an expert in the field of non-whiteness and how it shapes a person’s life and experiences. This is my life, after all. Who could possibly know more about it than me?

According to the internet, the answer to this question is, “anyone with an internet connection and the means to communicate their thoughts to me.”

I cannot tell you how many times in the last week alone I’ve been interrupted whilst talking about my own lived experiences by white people who “just want to share their opinions”. Everyone, it seems, has opinions to share about my life and whether or not I’ve truly experienced it the way I say I have. From the well-meaning but misguided “I would never do that to you!” to the dismissive and trivialising “but I’ve never seen that happen!”, white people seem to be possessed of the need to tell me how they feel about my life and about my apparently audacious decision to talk about it in public.

The thing is…hmmm, how do I put this as bluntly as possible? White people, I could not care less about your thoughts on my lived experience if I tried.

You know what I never did during pharmacology lectures? Interrupt my prof mid-slide to let her know I had “thoughts” on the pharmacodynamics of anti-epileptic medication. Do you know what I never said to my consultant during ward rounds? That I had “thoughts” on his catheterisation technique or his provisional diagnoses of complicated patients. Do you know what I never said to the lab techs who taught me histology? That I had “thoughts” on microscopy that I really, really desperately needed to interrupt them to share. That would have been foolish. That would have been ridiculous. They had years of experience, knowledge and expertise that I did not. How could I possibly contribute positively to the discussion by sharing my uneducated, uninformed “thoughts”?

White people, let me lay this out for you. You do not know more about my life or my history than I do. You have not lived in this body for twenty-four years. You do not experience the multiple microaggressions I do every day. There is nothing in your life that you have experienced due to having white skin that is even slightly similar to what I have experienced due to having brown skin or what others have experienced due to having black skin. Nope, nothing. Not a single thing.

You may have “thoughts” about racism. You may have ideas about what we coloured folks need to do in order to better ourselves or improve our situation. Let me stress this again: your opinions could not be any more worthless. Until you have lived as a non-white person, until you have carried on your shoulders the burden of non-whiteness, until you know all of our stories and history and have borne our scars, your “thoughts” on non-whiteness are not only irrelevant, but completely worthless. I mean that in the bluntest, most direct way possible. I do not care what you have to say about non-whiteness. Nobody does. You talking about what it’s like to be non-white would be like me asking my pharmacology professor to take a seat while I talk about antibiotics.

I know you hate hearing this. If my mentions are any indication, you find the idea that nobody cares about what you have to say offensive. I am here to tell you that nobody cares about your hurt feelings, either. Not me, not my other non-white friends whose discussions you insist on hijacking and derailing. These are our lives we’re talking about. Our lives. The racism we experience is a direct result of white supremacy. What could a white person possibly have to say that could be of value to us, other than, “I’m sorry – what can I do to help?” (And even then, do you have to interrupt us to say it? Can’t you wait until we open the floor to questions?)

White people are used to their opinions carrying weight by virtue of the speaker being white. Maybe this is why they insist on barging into every conversation as though it’s their God-given right to take centre stage. Let me be the one to thoroughly disabuse you of this notion. White people, we do not care about you. We do not care about your opinions. We do not care about what you think being non-white is like. We do not care that you have “thoughts”. And most of all – and it is my great, great pleasure to tell you this – we do not care that this hurts your feelings. Your feelings are irrelevant in discussions of racism and white supremacy.

Here is what white people are welcome to do when non-whites are discussing racism and white supremacy: sit down. Shut up. Take out a notebook. Start taking notes. Ask questions when invited to and not before. Be humble. Be quiet. Remember that while you may be the centre of your own universe, you are not the centre of mine or ours. This is my story. These are our stories. If you aren’t prepared to listen to a lecture or two without keeping your worthless thoughts to yourself, please exit the auditorium before class begins. People are trying to learn here, you know.

A white woman walks into a bar. She claims it.

Once upon a time, a white woman came into my life and proceeded to cast me as a background character in her life story.

It’s a perplexing feeling, being relegated to second fiddle in the course of living your own life. It feels strange to watch, almost from the outside, as you are repositioned far from the centre of your own tale so that you can be part of the scenery in someone else’s. It doesn’t stop feeling strange the second time, or the third time, or the tenth, or the hundredth. It never stops feeling strange, actually. It always feels the same – like you have been uprooted, shoved out of the way so that something bigger and more important than you can proceed without interruption.

To white people, that’s what I am – an interruption.

Intersectionality as a concept has been around since the nineteenth century, but it was given a name and definition by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 (the year of my birth!) in her paper, Mapping the Margins. Since then, it’s been adapted in theory and practice not just by women of colour, but by queer women, disabled women, trans women, non-binary people, sex workers, poor and uneducated women, women in the developing world and many others. Intersectionality gives us a framework within which we can discuss and try to understand the tangled webs of oppression and privilege that we’re forced to navigate throughout the course of our everyday lives.

No intersectionalist believes that oppression is some kind of competition. There’s no prize to be won for being “most oppressed”. What I love about intersectionality, in fact, is how open and permissive it is, how it creates a space for all of us to share our lived experiences and learn from each other. I share this space with native women who share my experiences of coming from a colonised culture; with trans women who share my experiences of feeling pressure to pass as a member of the dominant group in order to survive; with sex workers who share my experiences of navigating sexuality and agency whilst beset on all sides by people trying to rob them of both. Our experiences are not the same, but there is a thread of commonality that links us – we experience oppression and privilege in varying ways, and we understand on a very profound level what it means to eke out a life, as it were, on the margins, leveraging our privileges against our oppressions so that we might stake whatever claims we may on this territory people call “humanity”. We have found, by battling through our differences and disputes, an ideal many claim to aspire to but few ever achieve. We have found that thing called solidarity, and while it doesn’t mean we never step on each others’ toes, it means that at least we’re getting better at apologising for it.

Alas, to the last bastions of privileged cisgender white feminism, this rich and complex tapestry of human experiences we have woven is nothing but a backdrop, a mere insignificant detail adding a little colour to the scenery as they play out the stories of their lives on a stage that should belong to all of us.

I do not hate white women. I would go so far as to say I don’t hate anyone. This stage is truly big enough for all of us. There is space for every voice, a place for every story, and they are all important and valuable and worth telling and hearing. I do not believe a rich white woman’s experiences with sexism are trivial or that they should be dismissed. What I believe is that anyone who is willing to make other people into scenery so that they can become the stars of everyone else’s stories is not just dangerous, but malicious. On a stage with room enough for everyone, it takes a very specific kind of person – someone blinkered by greed and egocentrism and vanity – to demand that everyone else surrender all available space to them. It takes a mindset that is nothing short of toxic to expect that all concerns must always be and will always be secondary to one’s own.

No intersectionalist believes this, but many white feminists do.

I am not a supporting character in anyone’s story. I have eked out this space for myself on the stage, a space where I can tell my story, but also a vantage point from where I can listen to others. I am not particularly territorial about my space. I’m happy to share it, exchange it, hand the mic over to someone else with a story to tell, carve out sections for others who don’t have spaces of their own. I lose nothing by sharing my space. But I lose everything by having it taken from me. I lose everything by having myself relegated to supporting cast in what is meant to be an ensemble production. I lose everything by being denied my right to play out my own story because someone else has decided I’m in the way of them playing out theirs.

A white feminist walks onto the stage and demands the spotlight – and once she has it (and she will have it, or there will be hell to pay) – she insists it must be hers forever. No sharing, no exchange, no back and forth, no taking turns. The white feminist colonises the stage as she colonises the bodies of women of colour, the gender identities of trans women, the agency of sex workers. The white feminist takes our tapestry and rolls it up and bundles it off in a corner because it’s taking up space she wants for herself. And when we dare to protest – after all, this is everyone’s stage – she calls us bullies, bitches, beasts. She pushes us further outwards into the margins. She is not content until the spotlight does not shine on us at all.

This is the toxic and insidious work of modern-day white feminism. There is no solidarity in it. There is no sharing, no back and forth, no time or space for other people to live their lives and be acknowledged. There is just a white woman in the spotlight, demanding that everything be about her. And the sad thing is, had she just asked, we’d have happily shared our space with her. We are not greedy or selfish or grasping, at least not more so than any other human being – intersectionality is beautiful in that it is about the intersections between every kind of privilege and oppression we experience. There is no need for this false dichotomy of white neo-colonial feminism and intersectional feminism. It exists because white women created it, and all in a last-ditch effort to take over the entire stage for themselves.

It saddens me to see that so many white feminists refuse to embrace intersectionality. It saddens me and hurts me and makes me angry. It makes me wonder how insecure they must be in their power, if even the thought of sharing a stage with other people makes them blanch so. Mostly, it just makes me tired – tired of fighting, tired of being cast as a bully, tired of being pushed into the background mid-sentence so that someone who already has a platform a hundred times the size of mine can speak over me. One’s back can only be used as a stepping-stone on the way to a pedestal before it breaks, and mine, I fear, is close to breaking. I am very tired of being a rung on a white woman’s ladder to greater heights.

I find my strength where I always have – in the women here on the margins with me, staking their claim to whatever space they can find, sharing their stories and living their lives and banding together. We have no need to cast each other as background characters or use each other as props. Our strength comes from encouraging each other, amplifying each other, celebrating our successes together, commiserating together when we feel grief, helping each other up when one of us falls. This is that ideal they call solidarity – not unthinking devotion to one cause over another, not unresisting compliance, but a space within which we are free to raise our voices in harmony, not in unison. We are different in so many, many ways, but we have in common the only things that matter – humanity, love, compassion, a desire to create a better world for each other and for those who will come after us. We don’t always agree and we don’t always get along, but we always support each other and we are always there for each other in times of need. Solidarity doesn’t mean a lack of dissent – it means working together to overcome our differences and move forward. It means nobody left behind. It means humanity.

A white woman walks onto the stage and claims it. The rest of us shrug and find another stage, because whatever white feminists may think of those of us in the background, we play second fiddle to nobody. We are not bit parts. We are not props or pieces of scenery. We have our own stories and we will tell them whether white women want to listen or not.

I dedicate this to everyone with whom I stand in solidarity, and everyone who has ever stood in solidarity with me. Our stories are ongoing. In time, we will find a space to tell them all.

Dear white people: STOP TALKING. (Just for a second. Please?)

Take a seat, white people. Take a stadium full of seats, actually, because we have a lot to discuss.

Let’s take a quick look at what white feminists have been doing on Twitter so far in 2014:

  • Trying to “reclaim” intersectionality from the women of colour who created it because they feel like intersectional feminism is simultaneously “too intellectual” and “not academic enough” (and also, when did white people ever see a thing created by black people that they didn’t want to steal and make their own?)
  • Claiming that they can absolve themselves of the responsibility to own their privilege by claiming to be green instead of white (yes, REALLY)
  • Storming into hashtags like @Auragasmic’s #WhiteWomanPrivilege to sound the NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE KLAXON

Damn. We’re only halfway through January. What’s the rest of the year going to be like?

I thought white feminists had hit critical mass in 2013 with the whole “Miley Cyrus is feminist, stop slut-shaming her! (but really, is Beyonce feminist tho?)” thing, but it seems like they were only getting started. Women of colour are, depending on who you talk to, either too intellectual or not intellectual enough, too outspoken or not outspoken enough, too aloof or too crass, or, y’know, just big ol’ scary bullies. White women have built us up into some kind of collective bogeyman (bogeywoman? bogeyperson?) – a looming monolith of coloured folks who won’t stop whining when they misstep, who won’t sit down and shut up when they start making white folks uncomfortable, who’ve made feminism hostile to women who want to feel like they own it.

Sorry, whiteys. This movement belongs to all of us. Accept that you don’t get to call all the shots or get left behind. I don’t really care which, to be honest – at this point, I could take or leave most of you without shedding a tear. But if you’re going to stay (and really, I’d like for you to stay even though I can’t stand you, since I do support all women), we are going to need to talk about how this is going to work moving forward.

Here are some things you need to stop saying if you want to be a useful part of the feminist movement in 2014 and beyond.

1. “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE”

Every now and then, a woman of colour will be talking about her experiences when she begins to hear that all-too-familiar wailing sound. That sound is…

…the NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE KLAXON.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, white folks, but we know full well that not every single white person on the planet has done the thing we’re talking about. You do not need to interrupt us as we share our lived experiences to tell us that you would never act that way, or that none of the women you know would do those things. Maybe that’s the case and maybe it isn’t, but how does that affect the veracity of our stories? Unless you personally know every single white person in the world and can vouch for the fact that not a single one of them has ever done [x], you need to sit the hell down and let us finish talking. We’ll take questions at the end if we feel like it, not before.

Discrediting a WoC’s lived experiences by sounding the NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE KLAXON isn’t just rude and demeaning – it’s downright racist. It derails conversations and re-centres them around white people and their perceptions and experiences. You hate it when men do that to you, so why would you do it to other women?

2. “But what about ME?”

A WoC is sharing her experiences and you just have to jump in and point out that, hey, that happens to white women too, why isn’t she talking about that? Is she…reverse racist?

No, she’s just trying to have a discussion about WoC, and you’re derailing it. Again.

This has happened to me several times in the last two weeks alone. I try to talk about sexual violence against WoC and someone HAS to point out that white women experience sexual violence as well. YES, I KNOW. But I’m talking about the hyper-sexualisation of WoC in particular and why that leads white men to target them disproportionately, not about sexual violence in general (I talk about that all the time, why not join in on those discussions rather than trying to make this one All About You?). Or I’ll bring up the perpetuation of racist stereotypes in the NFL and someone will have to point out that the NFL mistreats white athletes as well. Yes, it does! I’m a huge fan and I’m aware of this! But what does that have to do with the fact that DC’s NFL team has a racist name and mascot and the NFL commissioner refuses to do anything about it and has even supported anti-reform sentiment?

White people, I know this hurts to hear, but NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT YOU. We have discussions about white people’s problems all the goddamn time. We will have more discussions about them tomorrow. We will have even more discussions about them the day after that. For now, I’m trying to talk about something that disproportionately affects PoC and WoC in particular. You’ll get your turn in the spotlight. Why must you begrudge us ours?

3. “Why does it have to be a race thing?”

Short answer: because it is a race thing.

Long answer: because it is a race thing, and questions like this are why it’s become a race thing in the first place.

The other day, I tried to have a discussion about the exotification and fetishisation of non-white women, particularly their skin and hair. We’re often described in ways that specifically otherise and exoticise us, and this is both uncomfortable and dehumanising. It took about ten minutes for a white woman I have never so much as spoken a word to in my life to chime in with, “but all women are exoticised, why is this about race?”

Really? I mean, REALLY?

Yes, all women are objectified and subject to the male gaze. Women of colour are objectified in a particular way – by being treated as exotic objects, like museum exhibits you can fuck (before you go settle down with a white girl, because everyone knows we brown and black girls are just too wild and untameable, right?). That was the discussion I was having. Again, I talk about how women in general are objectified all the time. Why not join in on those conversations? Why do you feel the need to make this one about you?

(Bonus lulz points: when called on this, the woman in question claimed she’d been “branded a racist” and that we “all wanted her to die”. Well, no, but if you’re offering…)

The reason we “make things about race” is that they’re about race. It really is that simple. Maybe you don’t see that because it’s not something that affects you personally, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And when you challenge us on that – when you claim we’re “playing the race card” or “reading into it too much”, you’re invalidating our lived experiences and silencing us. End of.

4. “Why do you have to be so mean?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

This is just playing into cheap racial stereotypes. Angry Black Woman. Scary Brown Lady. Neurotic Asian. Sassy Latina. Backwards Muslim. By our powers combined, we’re the Intersectional Bully Squad!

This is one of the most down-low and dirty ways white women try to silence us, and it has to stop.

A woman of colour calling you on your shit is not being mean. She’s calling you out, the same way you call men out for slut-shaming or street harassment or rape jokes. We are trying to help you. We want feminism to be all-inclusive and welcoming and we’re doing our best to get you to play ball because the truth is, we know we work better together than we do when we’re at odds. But just because we understand the value of solidarity doesn’t mean we’re going to let you walk all over us. If you’re going to silence any criticism by calling it bullying, don’t expect to be respectfully engaged and coddled in return. We get enough people trying to silence us. We don’t need to deal with your shit too.

5. “You’re being so divisive.”

Let me take a few deep breaths before I tackle this one. Bear with me. Give me a moment…

…And I’m back. Still mad, but coherent. (I hope.) Let’s do this.

When a white woman talks about her experiences, that’s feminism. When a black woman talks about her differing experiences, that’s divisive. What’s wrong with this picture?

This continues to be white feminism’s go-to silencing technique when nothing else works. Tried calling them bullies? Tried making the conversation all about yourself? Tried sounding the klaxon? When all else fails, accuse them of being divisive and paint yourself as someone trying to save the movement from falling in on itself. That’ll do it.

Thing is, we’re not trying to divide. We’re trying to unite. We’re trying to make feminism bigger, better, broader and more open. We’re trying to make it about ALL women, not just the ones who can afford fancy suits for their TED talks and TV appearances and book signings. That solidarity y’all love talking about? We are trying to make that happen. We are bringing in women who are too poor for academia, too brash to be palatable to those upholding the status quo, too far away from support, too different to be noticed. We are taking the platforms we have – platforms we’ve fought for, by the way, because we sure as hell didn’t get given this space without having to fight tooth and nail for it – and sharing the mic with women who wouldn’t get a chance to say their piece otherwise. We are doing what feminism is meant to be doing. We are using our voices and helping other women use theirs.

That isn’t division. Look the damn word up in the dictionary. What we’re doing? That’s solidarity, the real thing. No lip-service, just putting our money where our mouths are.

What are you so scared of, white feminists? Are you honestly so addicted to power and control that it scares you when a woman who isn’t just like you has something to say and says it? Do you want us to have to beg your permission before speaking? Because that sure as hell ain’t going to happen, not any more. We do not need your permission. We have our own voices, our own platforms, and you’re damn right we’re going to use them, because this is as much our movement as it is yours, and we will keep reminding you of that until you finally take it to heart.

I do not want a feminism without white women. I want a feminism that has space for every woman, regardless of skin colour, sexuality, gender, profession, wealth, education or health status. I want a feminism where black women and native women and disabled women and trans women and sex workers and non-binary people and queer women and poor women are sharing centre stage with white, rich, cis, able-bodied, straight, educated women, because they all deserve a slice of the pie. I want a feminism where we all get our time in the spotlight. If you don’t want that, that’s divisive. Being inclusive and welcoming isn’t.

I am one brown girl with several mental illnesses and a hot temper. I don’t want this mic to myself. All I’m asking for – all any intersectional feminist is asking for – is the chance to share the mic around. Not just with us – with all women, no matter who or where they are, no matter what they do for a living, no matter whether or not they know the “right” words to express the way they feel. That’s all we want.

If you think that’s too much to ask, I have to ask you – what the fuck is the point of your feminism, anyway?