Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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Untangling Privilege

One of the reasons people seem to react badly to the idea of privilege (or being ascribed a position of privilege) is that it causes them to have to question their own beliefs and positions in society. Its all the words that come after the but; I accept what you are saying, but; I see how race, or class, or sexuality, or gender, might affect people but; I claim to care about oppression but…

It can be hard when your identity as a good person (whatever the hell that means) is built on holding the right attitudes, and the belief that your particular axis of oppression means you cannot also oppress. I remember twitter before the feminist trench wars, when people who now make openly transphobic, whorephobic, or racist statements, were friendly with trans women, sex workers and women of colour. They praised their work, claimed it “opened their eyes” or expanded their understanding, and generally nodded along. However the equivalent of the shot that rang out around the world was the suggestion that yes, you face an oppression on the axis of gender, but other people face multiple oppressions and perhaps we need to hear their voices first.

Intersectionality, the word which broke a thousand UK feminist projections of themselves as “good people”.

Not wanting to be that person, that person who speaks on after the but, who needs to silence others so their own oppression is heard, matters to me. Aware of my lack of knowledge on certain things, I deliberately tried to start following, and reading, people who did not share my privileges, or who shared some, but were oppressed on other axis. I don;t say this to win cookies, its pretty basic, and since an ally (a hugely problematic term, should be a set of behaviours, not a self declared identity) is shown by what you do. Its more of an introduction, so you understand a dilemma I found myself in.

I discovered, largely via sex workers I follow, a number of black feminists and womanists who were using twitter to educate and raise up some of the most marginalised voices, those of black women under capitalist patriarchy. One of the little discussed benefits of autism is you are used to looking for rules of behaviour whenever you encounter a new group. It seemed clear that these were people who were used to having their emotional labour demanded from them (unpaid) and so the rule of not being a dick seemed to be, follow, retweet, learn, but dont demand an education.So I generally, followed, read, retweeted but did not engage, these people did not need me demanding education when I have the entire internet at my fingertips.  After a while though I noticed something, I did not retweet critiques of the behaviour of black men by black women.

This troubled me, in the worst white liberal way, if I retweeted or shared these critiques, would people see me as racist? Would I be contributing to a racist view of black men, especially around the treatment of women?

Yes, I decided to not share what women of colour were saying, what black women were saying because it might make me look bad, or it might make men look bad. I placed my privilege and concerns about how people saw me above listening to those more marginalized in our society. I also positioned how black men were viewed as more important as how black women were heard.

We all, if we are white, have absorbed racism, its in the air around us, it has built our institutions, paid for the industrial revolution, even some of our oldest charities. Historically white women have used the fear of the sexuality of both black men and women, dehumanising, victimising and claiming to be threatened by them all at the same time. However in a more modern context the left, and particularly white feminism (which I use as a term denoting a particular brand of feminism rather than all white women who are feminist) has been far more comfortable with raising up black men, than black women. This raising up is of course tokenistic, but its a sign of how uncomfortable white women can be with listening to black women.

This tokenistic, look at us, we are good liberals, we care about black men, reminds me in a way of the fetishisation of black male bodies. Not in a consensual race play way but in the coffee and cream parties and BBC porn. Coffee and cream parties are sex parties limited to white women and black men. Having talked to some women who attend they claim its about aesthetics, as if that were not the core of any racist fetishisation. BBC (big black cock not the broadcaster) is even more obvious in its appeal to racist tropes, its linked to cuckolding, and I cannot help but wonder about the use of the term “bull” and the historical treatment of enslaved peoples as mere breeding stock for their (white) owners.

The sexualisation of male black bodies by white women allows us to say we care about race, whilst at the same time denying full humanity to black men. Black women within this are left either as too sexualised by their own volition (see Beyonce) or invisible, and all too often as white women we become complicit in their invisibility, preferring to pretend they do not exist, a voice we cannot hear, rather than a voice we refuse to hear.

Now this post may seem exceptionally naval gazey, and I am aware I may get undeserved praise for being honest, as if lying is the accepted norm, deception and self deception our default state. I do believe though it has two important purposes. Firstly to say, I was wrong, I was blinded by my own whiteness, and became complicit in the silencing of women of colour, and specifically black women. That I understand why this happened does not excuse it.

Secondly, and far more widely, looking at how our privileges affect our interactions with those more oppressed than us, is something we must do continually, it should be a process, not a list we make once and then put away at a back of a drawer. All too often we give lip service to intersectionality, but actually mean, we think everyone else needs to try harder, we have got it thank you very much. If we are to be better, if I am to be better, then being willing to ask, how am I being oppressive should not be a threat, it should be an opportunity for growth and for learning.


Note on language, I use black here very specifically because of how anti blackness is not often addressed, and is a huge issue.

Many thanks to @ztsamudzi for talking to me about this.


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This entry was posted on March 19, 2016 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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