On intersectional and white feminism: the dangers of grand theorising

I came to feminism as a young adult who had experienced domestic abuse, childhood abuse and rape. It was the only theoretical framework that helped me make sense of the world, the oppression I saw around me, and my own experiences. The aha moment of resolute clarity, when I was tutored by outstanding feminist scholars and began reading feminist legal scholars who did not blame or shame me, remains with me. That violence against women was a patriarchal act designed to reinforce male power, and not something invited, instigated or caused by the survivors, was a revolutionary idea, and ran counter to everything I had been taught to that point.

I was taught silence, and to protect the perpetrators, and to blame myself and the women around me for their experiences. The radicalism of not just not blaming women, but allowing them to speak of their experiences, and be believed and treated with compassion, remains for me the central tenet of feminism.

Feminism as a way of viewing and understanding the world is a broad church. It constantly re-examines the evidence, engaging in a process of reflection. Within my own discipline, it was necessary to establish the legitimacy of the feminist perspective as a way of approaching theory and an empirical understanding of the social world, particularly the world of welfare. I have been lucky enough to have been taught by feminist pioneers like Clare Ungerson, who taught us that ‘policy is personal’, particularly with regards to care policy. Fiona Williams was one of the first feminist scholars to teach us about intersectionality: in her case, race, gender and class. One of my own heroines Jenny Morris provided a robust counterpoint to Ungerson’s feminist critique of care, pointing out that disabled women who receive care are women too, and enabled me to think critically about the intersection between disability and feminism in my own research.

In popular culture, intersectional feminism has emerged as a critique of a feminism that does not recognise the impact of race, disability, class, age, sexuality and transphobia on women’s lives. 2018 was popularly held up at the centenary of British women’s right to vote: but that suffrage was only for *some* women, and did not extend to non property-holding women under 30 (ie on the same basis as men’s suffrage) until the Equal Franchise Act ten years later. Marie Stopes’ work on birth control revolutionised many women’s lives: but her passion and research were driven by eugenics and ensuring that certain women – particularly disabled and poorer women – did not have children. Her legacy can still be painfully felt in the enforced sterilisation of women with learning disabilities, for example.

The importance of feminism being a reflective inclusive movement is as significant now as it ever was. Mary Maynard warned explicitly against feminist ‘grand theorising’ – attempting to create a grand theory of everything that would explain the oppression that all women experience. She argued that context mattered, and that no one woman could be the ‘universal woman’ whose experiences could provide an objective rational discourse of feminism. It is with this in mind that I approach recent work on ‘white feminism‘ with caution. This is not feminism that is practised by white women: it is a specific type of feminism in which white women’s privileged racial position is explicitly ignored, or worse, used as a ‘universal feminism’ when it actually reinforcing white privilege and silences women of colour. ‘Unless it’s intersectional, fuck it’ as one angry, eloquent blogger put it.

The most recent example is Mary Beard’s defence of the Oxfam workers in Haiti who were revealed to be purchasing sex from prostitutes.

As she put it: “Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in and help out, where most of us would not tread.”

This is a shocking statement. It implies that NOT purchasing sex is the default of ‘civilised’ (ie white) men, and that women in disaster zones (ie black/ethnic minority and poor women) are not ‘civilised’ and as deserving of respect and bodily autonomy as white women. It’s a shockingly racist, privileged thing to say: it is not, by any stretch of the definition, a ‘feminist’ thing to say.

Beard was criticised for her statement, and posted pictures of herself online crying, which drew derision from vocal opponents to ‘white feminism’ who accused her of ‘weaponising the defense of innocence and insincere tears’.

It is this last statement that makes me pause carefully. It is the same accusation levied at other ‘white feminists’ such as Rose McGowan, who exposed Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse and who was attacked by a trans-activist at her book signing.

Telling white women their tears, their emotions, are an unacceptable way of expressing their sense of being upset and threatened, shows an astonishing lack of compassion. Women have routinely been silenced: abuse survivors like McGowan disbelieved, silenced, told to shut up and go away, that their pain is not real, by their abusers, by a systematically oppressive legal infrastructure, by men in positions of power. And this silencing has a worrying echo in this assertion: Being assaulted is horrible. But it’s not the same as experiencing daily, racist microaggressions (not to mention macroaggressions) or living life on the wrong side of white privilege.

A feminism that attempts to silence women who have experienced sexual assault is not a feminism I recognise. A feminism that attempts to assert that women who are relying on ‘white’ privilege – without unpacking ‘whiteness’ or being critical about the privilege of class, for example, that Beard was unquestioningly asserting, or the sexualised privilege that McGowan enjoys as a cis woman over trans women – seems to be attempting a ‘grand theorising’ that does not hold up under empirical or theoretical scrutiny. When women are accused of asserting their ‘white privilege’, and respond by saying but as a working class, Roma, disabled, Jewish etc woman I don’t HAVE ‘white privilege’ they are routinely silenced, and if they react emotionally, accused of weeping ‘white women’s tears’.

We have fought long and hard for our pain to be acknowledged, to be allowed to cry, to not be silenced. As Carol Gilligan points out, this silencing extends to academic enquiry and notions of justice and rationality. Women’s sexuality and emotions, their embodiedness, directly challenges male notions of the superiority of objectivity and rationality in academic enquiry. C Wright Mills attempts to ‘grand theorize’ – to create a meta-theory of social structures and oppression – implicitly and explicitly silenced women’s voices and experiences, by appealing to the rational, objective, justice oriented sociologist.

Women of colour are angry. They have every bloody right to be angry. Systematically oppressed, excluded, racialised, they grow up seeing racism where white folk never do. Just as most men need a sound dose of consciousness raising to see their own gendered privilege, most white, middle class, ablebodied women need some serious consciousness raising about racism, class, ableism and other intersectional divisions. Women of colour are right to be angry that their experiences are ignored, their voices silenced, right to challenge a feminism that isn’t intersectional.

But putting race at the exclusion of other social divisions at the heart, and doing it in a way that silences women’s emotions, bodies and experiences of violence and abuse, is a dangerous game. A blanket accusation of ‘white feminism’ has the effect of Godwin’s law (the idea that as a discussion on the internet grows longer, the likelihood of someone mentioning Hitler or calling someone a Nazi approaches 1: and once that has happened, the argument is over). Being a Nazi is absolutely and a priori an unethical and untenable position to hold, and being a ‘white feminist’ is now approaching that status. Race has become the new ‘grand theory’ that explains everything, and silences dissent and emotion: you are not allowed to cry ‘white tears’.

No-one listens when they are called a Nazi. And recaltrant non intersectional feminists don’t listen when they are called ‘white feminists’. It’s an oversimplified understanding of most situations. Being physically threatened at your own book signing is hardly a situation of privilege.  An accusation of ‘white feminism’ and ‘insincere tears’ leaves very little space for conciousness raising, for compassion, for the ongoing reflection and questioning that makes feminism the vibrant academic and social movement it is. Feminism absolutely should continue to question privilege and seek to become intersectional: but not at the cost of silencing abused women.

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