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.

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?

[TW] This is rape culture

A college-aged woman goes to a party with friends. A guy who’s had his eye on her for a while sees his chance and starts plying her with alcohol, hoping to turn a long-standing “no” into a brief window of “yes”. Eventually, the young woman falls unconscious. The guy, figuring she won’t remember any of this tomorrow, has sex with her. The next day, nobody questions the motives of the guy who deliberately got a girl who didn’t want to sleep with him drunk so he could have sex with her, but everyone wants to know why the woman wasn’t more responsible. You have to be careful at parties, you know. Don’t you know what kinds of risks you’re opening yourself up to when you drink too much around the wrong people?

An older woman puts on a dress that makes her feel young again and heads into town for a night of drinking and dancing with friends. At a club, a man decides she’s irresistible in that dress and corners her, muffling her protests with one hand as he edges the hem of her dress up with the other. The woman leaves the club early, too ashamed to tell her friends what happened to her. Maybe she should have known better. Wasn’t she asking for attention, dressed up like that? Didn’t she get what she deserved for looking and acting so provocatively?

A teenage girl visits a close friend one afternoon to work on a homework project together. His parents aren’t home, so he seizes the opportunity, locking her in his room and doing what he’s always wanted to do to her. She’s too shocked to say no – she thought she could trust him. When she tells her friends, nobody believes her. He’s such a nice guy! He wouldn’t hurt a fly! When it turns out she’s pregnant, rumours start to spread about all the guys she’s been sleeping with, all the sex she’s been having with nice guys lured in by her flirting and teasing. When she takes her own life to escape the relentless bullying and harassment she now faces daily, people chalk it up as just another attention-seeking stunt.

A girl you know has a reputation for taking a different guy home every Saturday night. One Saturday, a guy she takes home decides that if she said “yes” to the first twenty, her “yes” to him is implied. When she goes to the police, they ask her how many sexual partners she’s had, how often she’s had sex in the past few months, whether or not she was on birth control. They tell her she brought it upon herself, what with that history of being a slut and all. She doesn’t press charges, knowing that if the case goes to court, her entire sexual history will be dragged out for public examination. She can’t bear the humiliation of having a jury judge her for having sex too often, too readily. The next time she sees her rapist – at a party, surrounded by his friends – he’s pointing at her and laughing. Someone high-fives him. She leaves in tears.

This is rape culture – an attitude to the crime of rape that has led to a society where one in four women will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. This is not dependent on what they wear, how much they drink or their number of sexual partners; it is dependent on a societal belief that women owe heterosexual men sex and that said men have no responsibility to obtain consent before taking what they want. It does not just happen to young, attractive women who dress in revealing clothing and drink a lot and enjoy casual sexual encounters. It happens to women everywhere, women from all walks of life.

An elderly woman has been placed in an aged care facility by a son who can no longer accommodate her in his home. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago and has trouble remembering recent events. One of her carers, responsible for making sure she takes her medication every day, rapes her, knowing that not only will she not remember him, but that even if she did, nobody would consider her memory of events reliable. Who would believe a demented old woman was raped by a nurse with an outstanding professional reputation and several years of aged care work under his belt? Alzheimer’s causes people to say the strangest things.

A teenage girl is at her uncle’s house for a holiday celebration. He corners her in the guest room one afternoon and tells her nobody will believe her if she says anything. The abuse continues for months, occurring at every single family get-together. Her uncle has three daughters of his own, all around her age. She doesn’t know if her parents will believe her if she tells them. She’s terrified that her cousins are being abused too but doesn’t want to ask them in case they turn on her for accusing their father. When she runs away from home in a last-ditch effort to escape, it’s her uncle who finds her and takes her back to her grateful parents, who berate her for worrying them. She breaks down and tells them everything. When, to her relief, they believe her and press charges, it’s ultimately revealed that her uncle’s daughters were being abused after all. All of them were too afraid to say something. None of them had any guarantee that anyone would listen.

A husband and wife have been married for twenty years. One night, he’s in the mood and she isn’t. He’s had a little to drink and doesn’t care that his wife is begging him between sobs to stop. He’ll take the kids, he tells her. He’ll take everything. She’ll be left with nothing if she doesn’t give him what he wants. This is what she owes him. They’ve been married twenty years, who will believe her? Her friends tell her to leave him, but she can’t. She may never see her children again. She’s scared of what will happen to them without her. She stays, and over time, she learns not to bother begging him to stop any more.

A young man is sentenced to a year in a juvenile detention facility. His case worker is a woman in her twenties, just graduated and new to the job. He knows she’s the one who’ll tell the judge whether or not he should be released early, which is why he says nothing about the things she makes him do during their sessions together. He knows everyone else knows – the guards, the other social workers, even his fellow inmates. Nobody says anything. He got himself into this mess. He has to be prepared to weather the consequences.

This is rape culture. This is a world in which rape victims are dehumanised, degraded and violated are stripped not only of their humanity but of their right to speak out. It is a world in which we’d rather believe in good boys tempted by bad girls, because the alternative would be acknowledging that rape is a conscious choice a rapist makes without any provocation whatsoever. We turn a blind eye when trans* women, women of colour and sex workers are disproportionately targeted because as a society, we believe – even though we’d never admit it – that they must have done something to deserve it. In fact, all of those victims must have done something to deserve it – dressed the wrong way, had too much to drink, said the wrong thing at the wrong time, sent mixed signals. Rape, we figure, is a punishment for not acting right. It’s a way of keeping people, especially women, in line. It’s what you get for not obeying the rules. It’s what happens to you when you’re naughty.

And this belief is why one in four women – or three in five Native American women, and disproportionately high numbers of women in state facilities, sex workers, queer or trans* women and women of colour – will be raped in their lifetimes: because we live in a culture that says they must have done something to deserve it. We truly believe that female sexuality is something that needs to be regulated, forcibly if need be. We feed into the narrative that the girl must have done something – must have let her guard down, must have provoked her rapist somehow. We refuse to accept that rape is a choice a rapist makes and that he needs no reasons to make it.

Rape is not a punishment. Rape is a crime. Rapists are criminals. They are never justified in doing what they do. Their victims are always, always blameless, no matter what the circumstances. And there is nothing victims can do to prevent being raped. Don’t drink, cover yourself from head to toe, associate only with female friends – you are still at risk, because society hasn’t yet figured out that the only way to stop rape is to stop telling men they’re justified in raping. You can never take the subway home late at night, never find yourself in a lonely alleyway, never put yourself in a room alone with a man you thought you could trust, take every single precaution society has told you to take, and you still have an up to one in four chance of this happening to you. There is no way you can prevent it. There is nothing you can do to make yourself less of a target. If a rapist wants to rape you, he won’t need a reason (though he’ll probably come up with one later, and his fellows will accept it). Rape is a crime committed consciously by rapists. There is nothing you can do to stop them, because you never got them to start in the first place.

It is the year 2013, and women continue to be raped everywhere – not just at parties, not just at clubs, not just in dark alleys, but everywhere. They are raped in aged care, in prisons and in educational institutions. They are raped by partners, family and friends. And they are blameless. They are victims who did not do a single goddamn thing to warrant the heinous crime perpetrated upon them. And this will keep happening until we take steps towards the only rape prevention measure that actually works:

Telling rapists not to rape.

It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. It doesn’t matter how much she’s had to drink. It doesn’t matter how much you want her. It doesn’t matter if she can’t fight back and you know it. It doesn’t matter if you know she’ll never tell. It doesn’t matter if you took her “no” for a “yes”. If you make the choice to rape, it’s on you. There are no excuses, no justifications, no reasons what you’ve done is okay. What you’ve done is a crime, and you are a criminal. You were not goaded into it. You were not provoked. You made a choice to harm someone because you wanted to. If you make that choice, you’re a rapist, and it is all on you.

We need to stop propping up criminals. We need to stop the rape jokes, the victim-blaming, the public scrutiny of victims instead of their rapists. We need to stop making excuses. We need to stop accepting excuses. We need to stop buying into the idea that she must have done something to deserve it. We need to stop the bullying and harassment of victims, the messy public trials, the culture of shaming within law enforcement, the culture of silence within institutions. We need to stop the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour and trans* women that leads to disproportionate targeting. We need to stop blaming sex workers. We need to stop being enablers. We need to stop allowing rapists to operate with impunity, safe in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, will always believe they were justified in doing what they did.

This is rape culture, and it is failing hundreds of thousands of women around the world every day. It is our responsibility to stop it.

Ally-ship for beginners, or: how not to be a dick

I do not think of myself as an ally. It’s not a label I apply to myself or ask people to apply to me. I am a person who tries to fix broken things. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you feel similarly – you don’t want a label or praise, you just want to get your hands dirty and make things better. This post is not for you, but this post might be for a few people in your life.

The word “ally” used to mean someone who supported a cause with which they did not directly identify. Unfortunately, as with many good things, it has been co-opted by people who think social justice is an opportunity to gain a little street cred. These days, plenty of serious discussions are derailed by (sometimes) well-meaning “allies” blundering in, trumpeting their own opinions over those of people trying to share their lived experiences. Thankfully, not all of those people are beyond redemption. It is for them that I present the following:

Ally-ship for beginners, or: how you’ll learn to stop interrupting and love thy neighbour

1. Sit down, shut up and listen.

If you only learn one thing about being an ally, let this be it – most of the time, what people need is for you to sit down, stop talking, and let them share their stories. A great amount of awareness is raised through the telling and re-telling of people’s lived experiences. There is literally nothing you can do to aid this except to listen, learn from what you hear and signal-boost so that the message gets out to as many people as possible. No, this is not the time for you to tell your trans* friend that what they experience daily is just like that time a guy didn’t give you a free drink because you wouldn’t flash your bra at him. This is not the time for you to interject that you’ve never seen an example of what someone is describing. (What, you think they make this stuff up? Why would they want to?) Sit down, get out a notepad and start taking notes. Here are some people taking the time to educate you about the way the world is. Show some goddamn respect.

2. Would you want someone asking you that? If not, don’t ask someone else.

It’s awesome that you want to learn more about the people you want to help. But there are some things it’s just not okay to ask unless someone gives you their express permission. If you’d be offended if someone asked you a question, chances are the person you’re about to ask is gonna be offended too. Remember – the people you’re helping here aren’t freakshows. They’re not novelties. They don’t exist for your entertainment or to satisfy your curiosity. They’re living, breathing people with thoughts and feelings, and they deserve humanity, dignity and respect. How would you feel if a stranger expected you to divulge your entire medical and surgical history to them? How would you feel if someone asked you probing questions about your sexual experiences? You’d be offended, right? So don’t do it to anyone else. Treat others as you’d like to be treated.

3. Your privileged existence does not trump their lived experience.

Sure, maybe you’ve never seen someone reach out and touch a black woman’s hair without asking. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Have you considered that maybe the reason you don’t see these things daily is that you don’t have to live them? Have you thought about how your privilege might insulate you from the bad behaviour of others?

I have seen this time and time again in online discussions – someone will share a story of something harrowing that’s happened to them, and an “ally” will pipe up with a comment like, “I know you have things hard, but that sounds like exaggeration to me.” Think through that for a second – you’re suggesting that the folks you supposedly support aren’t oppressed enough, so they have to make up stories to make their cases convincing. And you want a pat on the back for deigning to hang out with them? Please. They’re the ones doing YOU a favour.

The lived experience of oppressed people trumps pretty much anything in discussions about privilege and oppression. Learn it, live it, love it.

4. You are not owed entry into minority spaces.

You want to help out? Great! But please understand that dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people before you have said that as a way of gaining entry into safe spaces and proceeding to make them unsafe. But even disregarding the fact that oppressed people need to look out for their health and well-being, have you thought about the fact that you’re not actually owed anything? Nobody owes you entry into their spaces. As a privileged person, this might be hard for you to swallow, but it’s true. I could make a group for bisexual Muslim women and decide I don’t want anyone but my fellow Muslim bi gals there, and that would be my right. Safe spaces are important – they give people a place to seek shelter from the daily abuse they face, a place where their experiences and stories won’t be questioned. If there’s a chance that you’ll make a space unsafe – and to be frank, if you’re privileged, there’s always a chance – then no, you are not automatically owed entry. Work on proving yourself through your actions and people might trust you – might. But get used to the idea that you’re not entitled to barge into a space and make it your own just because you want to be there.

5. You’d better not be doing it for the praise.

As an ally, you will go through a lot of thankless things. You’ll be abused, reviled and mocked for associating with people society oppresses and marginalises. It’s not easy. You might feel like you deserve some kind of pat on the back for your hard work and perseverance. I mean, you could just turn around and walk away at any time, right?

Well, guess what? You know the jeers and mockery you put up with? That’s just a fraction of what oppressed people get every single day of their lives. I’m serious. You’re trying to help people who live in fear of violence, harassment, abuse and worse, and you want a cookie because you didn’t run away the first time someone called you a pussy? Seriously?

Grow up. This isn’t a game, and you’re not going to get brownie points for grinding your mad ally skillz. This is real life. Put up or leave.

6. Be prepared to call your friends out.

As an ally, you’re busy trying your best to erase slurs from your vocabulary, support oppressed people and reblog posts that, like, totally moved you. Your friends? They’re probably the same ignorami they’ve always been. You’re gonna need to do something about that.

Yeah, it’s hard calling your friends out when they make nasty jokes around you. Nobody wants to be That Guy (or That Girl, or That Gender Non-Conforming Person). I get it. But if you don’t actively do what you can to combat oppression, then you, my friend, are part of the problem. No two ways about it. That means calling out rape jokes, saying something when a friend uses the t-word and throwing shade at your friend who spews old stereotypes about black people. It means sometimes being unpopular for the sake of sticking up for people who don’t have many other people to stick up for them.

Yes, it’s hard. If you expected it to be easy, you really have been living under a rock.

7. At the end of the day, This Is Not About You.

I can’t stress this enough. You’re an ally, all right? You’re someone helping out people who are seriously hurting in a number of really nasty, life-affecting ways. This is not about your feelings. This is not about your moment in the spotlight. This is about doing work that needs to be done because somebody needs to do it and you were a decent enough person to volunteer. That means sometimes sidelining your hurt feelings when you aren’t instantly welcomed into a community. That means holding your tongue when people who are so often rendered voiceless finally get the chance to speak. That means reminding yourself, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, that these people you’re trying to help are your equals, and you’d damn well better treat them as such. If you can’t commit to that philosophy – if you can’t live it in both word and action – then you might not be cut out for this activism lark. Them’s the breaks.

8. Even if you do all of this, you’ll still make mistakes.

I’ve been in the activism business, such as it is, for a long time now. I still get called on my mistakes near-daily. I’m not perfect, and neither are you. Nobody is, and nobody’s expecting you to be. You will make mistakes, and that’s fine. What people will care about is whether or not you learn from them. If you keep on making the same mistakes, issuing false apologies and refusing to learn, people will catch onto you pretty quick. Learn humility. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything. Be prepared to have things turn messy. It’s how you’ll learn. At the end of the day, what’s more important than your wounded pride is the struggle to make the world a better place for everyone. That’s the big picture; the rest is just filling in the details. Don’t lose sight of that goal, and you’ll probably do just fine.

Welcome to the fight. There’s a place in it for all of us. Time to find yours.

Male Feminists – a spotter’s guide

Ah, the Male Feminist. Once an elusive creature, this peculiar subspecies of H. sapiens sapiens has begun to proliferate at an alarming rate with the advent of the new atheist movement. Most often seen flashing their plumage (in the form of buzzwords such as “consent is sexy” and “I want to empower women!”) with the aim of attracting the attention of real feminists, the Male Feminist, or H. sapiens mansplainam feeds on a steady diet of female approval, ally cookies and pity fucks. 

As H. sapiens mansplainam is the natural predator of women, particularly trans* women, women of colour and sex workers, it is important to be able to quickly recognise the signs that differentiate him from the true feminists amongst whom he hides, almost cuckoo-like, consuming their resources and shunting aside anyone who threatens his position in the spotlight. H. sapiens mansplainam has evolved several forms of camouflage designed to help him blend in against a backdrop of actual feminists, but the cunning and discerning scholar of natural history may, with careful study, identify him among the morass.

One may identify a wild H sapiens mansplainam as follows (please note that these are only a few of the telltale signs of the beast):

  • He may identify as a “freethinker” or “progressive” who demands that every woman he meets engage with him in debates about trifling issues that often derail larger conversations
  • The distinctive squawk, “MISANDRY! MISANDRY!”, which the Male Feminist uses in order to intimidate women into submission during his bizarre mating ritual
  • The belief that he is owed sexual favours, gratitude or praise for basic acts such as choosing not to rape a drunk woman at a party one time, or saying that a woman could totally be President
  • A peacock-like display of t-shirts bearing the logo of the HRC or other trans*-exclusionary “equal rights” groups, designed to attract prospective partners in a show of ostentatious philanthropy
  • The insistence that feminism should be renamed “humanism” or “equalism” to more accurately reflect the struggles faced by fellow Male Feminists
  • Frequent use of the tone argument when a woman is not charmed by his claims of “ally cred” or the fact that he once read a book by Virginia Woolf and responds with disdain or hostility
  • Use of coercion or insistence that “grey areas” exist which allow the Male Feminist to have sex with any woman he pleases, something he believes is owed to him due to the fact that he claims to be a feminist

These are merely some of the many signs by which one may identify the Male Feminist; however, as they are the most common, they should help the beginning scholar to avoid the most egregious Male Feminist infestations in their communities.

Unlike true feminists, H. sapiens mansplainam is impervious to reason, will ignore any statistics that do not support his worldview and is unable to be swayed from his predatory ways through engaging in rational debate. The Male Feminist will barge into and quickly claim entry of any feminist spaces he finds, and will respond to resistance or hostility with his other mating-call, “radfem! radfem!” It is not yet known whether this word has any meaning to the Male Feminist or whether it is just a random regurgitation of previously heard syllables, similar to the facsimile of speech that can be achieved by some species of parrot. It is inadvisable to engage the Male Feminist, as it is rare that one will be persuaded to discard his predatory, territorial ways and assimilate peacefully and successfully into civilised society.

If one encounters H. sapiens mansplainam in the wild, the following tactics – some defensive, some diversionary – may prove useful:

  • Barring the beast from entry into one’s community, thereby preventing him from terrorizing the residents
  • Providing the Male Feminist with male-authored treatises countering his spurious claims that misandry is a real issue threatening to undermine the feminist movement
  • Pointing and laughing from a safe distance
  • Openly and blatantly rejecting any and all sexual advances in public, which may cause the Male Feminist to reply with Male Tears and cries of, “frigid bitch!” or, “ugly whore!” – a small price to pay for escaping his predatory clutches

It is important to be on one’s guard against H. sapiens mansplainam at all times, as they will often attempt to convince their victims that they are true feminists using a technique known as “mansplaining”, whereby they assume that everything they have to say on any matter is correct because they are men. Beginning scholars are particularly advised to be wary of such an approach, as the Male Feminist can be a very vocal and persistent mansplainer, particularly when accidentally engaged in any kind of debate.

It is this writer’s hope that this introductory guide to the Male Feminist will be useful to spotters beginning their forays into the world of feminism, particularly intersectional feminism. Forewarned is forearmed, and with H. sapiens mansplainam populations increasing drastically in many communities, it is best for anyone seeking to take part in feminist discourse to be prepared against the possibility of a Male Feminist attack.

Labels on my soul: “feminist”

It’s funny that I’m writing this when years ago, one of the most-read and most popular posts on my (now sadly deleted) Facebook blog was about how I wasn’t a feminist. I guess a lot has changed since then – or rather, not enough has.

To be honest, I have a lot of problems with feminism. I have a problem with the silencing and marginalisation of women of colour. I have a problem with vindictive attacks on trans* women by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). I have a problem with the stigmatisation of sex workers. I have a problem with the rampant biphobia displayed by a certain corner of the radical feminist movement. I have a problem with “political lesbianism”. I have a problem with the silencing of women who aren’t academics, who don’t write papers and bestselling coffee table books, who don’t attend seminars or speak at conventions. Oh, yes, I have a whole lot of problems with feminism.

And in a way, that’s why I have to be a feminist – because if people like me who have problems with feminism keep walking away, the problems will never be fixed.

I believe in a feminism that is sex-positive, gender-inclusive, trans*-friendly, cross-cultural, intersectional and universal. I believe in a feminism that is for all women, not just wealthy white cishet columnists who write for ivory tower publications. This feminism does exist, although the mainstream tries its jolly hardest to silence it. But I, like many women and allies, refuse to be silenced.

The thing is, the world does still need feminism. We live in a society where female bodies are considered public property, where female sexuality is a marketable commodity, where female bodily autonomy is virtually non-existent (yes, even in the developed world). We exist in a world where one in four women in Western countries will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, where access to safe and effective forms of birth control is too scarce and regulated by mostly male gatekeepers, where women are hyper-sexualised and treated as objects created for male pleasure whether or not they consent. Casting our eyes abroad, we are party to the perpetuation of female genital mutilation, to the rape of virgins in South Africa due to a folk belief that it will cure men of HIV, to the infanticide of female babies born to families who can’t afford their dowries. These things happen not because they are inevitable, nor because they are part of the natural order, but because we as a society allow them to continue to happen.

Feminism is necessary. I do not wish to bring a daughter into a world where she will be sexualised and objectified before she even reaches her teens, where she will be told that it is her responsibility to prevent men from raping her, not a man’s responsibility to choose not to rape. I do not want to raise my sons in a culture that tells them that they may claim ownership of women’s bodies and sexualities to do with as they please. I do not want my children to learn that women are worthless unless a man deems them worthy and that men exist as the arbiters of female worth and importance.

Equally importantly, I do not want to be a party to the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour. I do not wish to be associated with a culture that turns a blind eye to the rape of Native women by white men. I have no desire to claim ownership of trans* bodies, viewing them as objects of morbid fascination and not the individual property of individual human beings. I do not want to look on, unmoving and unmoved, as society condones the erasure of GSM identities, the restriction of reproductive rights, the stigmatisation of sex workers, the fetishisation of disabled people’s sexualities. Because these, too, are feminist issues – ones we ignore at our peril.

My feminism, as the popular rallying cry goes, will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Women of colour are raped disproportionately more often than white women, and their rapists are overwhelmingly white men. Trans* women are beaten, raped and murdered in shocking numbers as society stands by and does nothing – yea, even implicitly condones a kind of targeted violence reminiscent of genocide. We keep out our tired, our poor, our huddled masses, designating them not worthy of inclusiveness in feminism if they work in the wrong profession, or if they haven’t written essays and spoken at seminars and read all the right books. We turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of women in the developing world, chalking it down to non-white savagery rather than ingrained misogyny. This is not good enough. This is not feminist enough.

Feminism fails millions of women every day. It fails them in big ways and in small ways – by dismissing their lived experiences, by denying them entry into women’s spaces, by treating them as objects of curiosity rather than autonomous beings with their own needs and desires. Feminism fails women of colour, trans* women, women from gender and sexual minorities, disabled women, poor women, sex workers and women in countries that aren’t predominantly white constantly. Feminism fails every time a woman’s story is not heard because she is not rich enough or white enough or literate enough to be given space to tell it. And it will keep failing and failing and failing until we step up and do something to change it.

Yes, I have problems with feminism. But I am still a feminist. I am not a feminist because I want to be – I am a feminist because I need to be, because no woman will ever achieve true freedom or equality until all women achieve it. I am a feminist for my trans* friends and my sex worker friends and my fellow women of colour and my disabled friends and my friends who aren’t wealthy or literate enough to be given a platform from which they can tell their stories. I am a feminist for Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head for believing that all women deserve the right to an education. I am a feminist for women in sub-Saharan Africa who will pass on HIV to their children because they were infected by men who were taught that contraception is sinful. I am a feminist for my mother, who raised six children and then went on to complete a university degree despite society telling her she was past her prime and no longer worthy nor deserving of success. I am a feminist for women who, upon being raped, were dismissed because they were wearing a short skirt or were a little drunk when it happened. I am a feminist for women who are too femme or not femme enough or too sexy or not sexy enough or too smart or not smart enough to be accepted by a society that has appointed itself the arbiter of their worth. I am a feminist for all women. I am a feminist for myself.

I am Jay, and I will be a feminist until the world no longer needs feminism. This label has been imprinted on my soul by a society that still sees women, particularly non-white, non-straight, non-cis, uneducated or disabled women, as inferior. I may not like it; I don’t like it. Feminism needs fixing, and far too few people are willing to listen to those who’ve identified its problems. But I refuse to stand by, unmoving and unmoved, as the world punishes women simply for being. I am Jay – woman, worthy. I will be a feminist until I no longer have to fight to prove it.