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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If my words are worth nothing, why are you stealing them?

A few days ago, I noticed that people were sharing around my blog post “Muslim, queer, feminist: it’s as complicated as it sounds” without including my Twitter username. Not a huge deal – they were linking back to my blog, so I was still getting clicks and page views out of it – but it was a little disconcerting (not bad, just disconcerting) to realise that my work was being shared around by people who didn’t even know me and therefore couldn’t directly credit me as the creator.

People keep telling me this is a consequence of “fame” (I wasn’t even aware that I was famous!) – that people will share your work without letting you know about it. I suppose I can live with that, as long as people aren’t just copy-pasting words of mine without any kind of course or attribution…

…which is exactly what happened to me this morning.

I woke up to find that someone was quoting a tweet of mine on Facebook without any mention of me whatsoever, and that people were quoting that Facebook post on Twitter – again, without any mention of me whatsoever. When a follower of mine brought this to my attention (thank you!), I politely requested that the person quoting me attach my name to my words. I think this is a reasonable request. I have a reach on Twitter of about a million users per week. As a writer who doesn’t have a regular column in a broadsheet or on a large website, I rely on my reach to promote my work, so that reach is important. All I did was politely request that my name be attached to my words. I even provided a link to the source so that I could be directly retweeted rather than being quoted.

Five minutes later, my mentions were full of people telling me I was a rude, entitled bitch who didn’t know her place. Nice way to start one’s day.

In academia, quoting without attribution is called plagiarism, and doing it is against both the written and unwritten rules of any reputable institution. So why do people think that on the internet, those rules don’t apply? Writing, no matter how it may seem to non-writers, is work. I’ve been writing constantly since I was a child. I write online; I write in journals nobody else ever sees; I write for business and for pleasure. I write every single day. Writing, like any other skill, takes practice. Even when it comes naturally, polishing one’s work takes time, effort and dedication.

Even microblogging is work, as much as people love to deride “Twitter feminists” and their output. The reason I get retweeted so much to begin with is that I have worked on my ability to reduce thoughts to 140 characters or less, a skill that not everyone has. It’s not too much to ask that other people don’t profit, monetarily or otherwise, from my skills, my work and the contacts and networks I’ve spent time cultivating.

Quoting me without attribution when you’re just quoting someone else who plagiarised me is an honest mistake. I’m sure it happens to me several times a day and I just don’t see it. In this case, however, I did see it, and I politely requested that the person who did it give me credit for my own words. She responded by mocking me, telling me I needed to learn my place and asking her followers to attack me. Suddenly, her mistake didn’t seem quite so honest after all.

This happens to content creators fairly often, but it happens to women – particularly women of colour and other marginalised women – most of all. When we protest, we’re told that our words are worthless and that we should be grateful people care enough to steal them. But I have to ask – if our words are worthless, why steal them at all? If you don’t consider our words and our thoughts valuable, interesting or insightful, why are you taking them and reframing them as your own?

My friend and heroine @thetrudz has spoken at length on Twitter and at her blog, Gradient Lair, about people who mine the content of WoC for things they can use in order to promote themselves and their own brands at the expense of the women from whom they’re stealing. If these people ever bother to defend themselves, their excuse is, “Well, everyone does it. It’s the internet, why do you care so much?” (Indeed, several people I don’t know made sure to tell me exactly that after stealing from me this morning.) But again – why shouldn’t we care? People consider our work worthy enough to steal. Why shouldn’t we care that something of value is being taken from us?

The fact is that our work – our words – do have value. If they didn’t, nobody would steal them in the first place. If people didn’t value my tweets, they wouldn’t go to great lengths to quote those tweets whilst giving as little credit to me as possible (or not crediting me at all). For WoC without large platforms, our personal brands and the networks we cultivate are the only way we have of making our voices heard. When you steal from us, when you deliberately use us as tools to increase your own worth, you are robbing us of the only platforms we have. Theft isn’t innocent – it’s done deliberately and it shows a lack of consideration at best and malice at worst. It’s done either to silence us or to profit off us or both.

It’s not hard to credit authors. It’s not hard to ask permission to use our words. If you think our words are worthless, don’t use them. If you think they’re worth using, don’t steal. Simple as that.


Further reading: @pixiemania started a great discussion about crediting creators on Twitter here.

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?