Reni narration: Welcome to About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge.
I feel like feminism has consumed most of my adult years.
Nowadays we talk about in the context of social media, television debates, and even Hollywood. We’ve got Donald Trump as the catalyst for women’s marches. It’s not as hard as it once was to make the case for the movement.
I was most active in the feminist movement between the years of 2010 and 2015. Some of the campaigns I can remember getting lots of press coverage were Hollaback, a movement against catcalling and street harassment and No More Page 3 -- the campaign to remove the boobs from the pages of the Sun Newspaper. The paper cancelled the page in 2015. There was a campaign to get a woman on a British banknote -- Jane Austen started gracing the tenner in 2017. Then there was a movement to ban lads mags lead by the organisations UK Feminista and Object in 2013, it was the decline in print media that killed off those publications.
Now, I don’t want to do down the efficacy of any of these initiatives, but the common thread is that they were all lead by white women. This was the case for most high profile feminist activism at the time and these women were often called on to speak for all women.
The thing about feminism is that it is an active movement. Sometimes it’s full of heat. Sometimes light. When I was involved in feminist activism, it felt quite frenetic. And in my book, I dedicated an entire chapter to the British movement’s whitewashing and wilfully ignorant defensive denial about racism. In fact, it was the chapter that I wrote first.
Quick definition. In my book I describe intersectionality as the crossover of two distinct discriminations. So for people who are both black and women, that would be both racism and sexism. The word emerged from the work of academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was using it in a legal context in a legal system that recognised racism as separate to sexism.
This important to feminism because we know that structural discrimination doesn’t just start and end at sexism, and the movement needs to reflect that.
I took a step back from feminist activism due to book related duties. And now, I really want to know if since my time in it, the British feminist movement has improved -- on race in particular, and on intersectionality more generally.
Angelica: OK Sisters Uncut is a feminist Direct Action Group. We take action against cuts to domestic violence services. We argue that DV services are public services so we look at housing immigration policy and sisters was founded in 2014. I think a lot of the original sisters who are in the group were in this other Direct Action Group called UK Uncut which wasn't explicitly feminist in its orientation. And I think a lot of women and non-binary people felt a bit exhausted by organising with men. So sisters we’re not open to organising with men. It’s a woman and non-binary only organising space
Reni narration: Sisters Uncut. You might recognise the name because of their high profile actions. They protested the UK premier of the film Suffragette back in 2015, and they invaded the red carpet again at the 2018 BAFTAs.
I’m speaking to Kelsey and Angelica, who are both ‘sisters’-- not in the biological sense, but the activist sense. That’s Angelica you just heard.
If you’re not familiar with direct action, it’s a type of politics that uses public protest, like a demonstration, a strike, or the occupation of building, to get a message across. It’s often complementary to party politics, because it applies a very public pressure to our politicians.
I asked them both why the group is better than most at putting intersectionality at the heart of their activism.
Angelica: I'm wary of making a grand statement and saying that Sisters is like the most intersectional group or that sisters practices intersectionality perfectly I can talk about ways in which sisters tries to be intersectional. So we offer to pay your transport to come to the meetings. We tried to make sure that there is childcare available at all of our meetings so that anyone with dependents or older sisters can come.
Kelsey: We only have meetings in accessible spaces
Reni: so like physically accessible
Kelsey: Yeah so wheelchair accessible. But again all of these things aren't perfect.
Reni: Yeah because I mean accessibility means different things to…
Angelica: like it’s not a one size fits all thing and sometimes we’ve made some massive mistakes.
Kelsey: we have
Angelica: with we should talk about it
Reni: yeah go on.
Angelica: we reclaimed or occupied a building last summer and there was no disabled or there was a disabled toilet. But no one thought to get in unlocked so it was just locked the whole time and someone had to go home had to leave the building.
Kelsey: had to leave the space. Yeah and it was a case of everybody knew that that was a problem that was happening on the first day. But then no one took it upon themselves to deal with it because it didn't apply to them and they assumed someone else was. So we, yeah we mess up a lot, but we also we hold ourselves accountable and we try to learn from it. You know a big part of organising an intersectional way is about censoring the people who are facing a lot of marginalisation. So particularly trying to elevate the voices of disabled sisters, sisters of colour etc.. but sometimes that can cross over into like just tokenisation like sort of the oppression Olympics and the kind of almost crossing over to the point where a person of colour can't be challenged which in itself is dehumanising. You know what I mean because it's still you're only seeing them as a person of colour or you know oh we want to have we don't want to, kind of ever rant but like, the kind of obsession with…
Reni: Ranting is welcome.
Kelsey: With looking intersectional as opposed necessarily being intersectional so I recently called out the group on sort of something to do with like there being a focus on having a lot of sisters of colour in a photo.
Angelica: In pictures yeah. This happens so much
Kelsey: so to the point where someone had requested, had like stated that we should cancel an action if there aren't 50 percent sisters of colour visibly sisters of colour as well like not everyone who identifies as a person of colour necessarily like would you be able to see in a photo
Reni: Exactly many pass as white.
Kelsey: Exactly right. And so if there weren't 50 percent sisters of colour in the photos and this action then we should cancel it altogether. But not once have I seen it stated that we should cancel a meeting or a decision making process because around 50 percent, do you know what I mean like that number came out of nowhere and it's just for the visuals not necessary for the organising which I found really really harmful. Yeah
Angelica: that's interesting they do it with race and not with like disability or with like class or migration status
Reni: those two, those three things are much less visible sometimes, you know.
Angelica: Of course, It's very performative and tokenistic
Reni narration: I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour. I recognise it as well meaning but I still think it misses the mark. I think this is a byproduct of the extreme fear that many white people have around this conversation. I asked sisters about this phenomenon of white deference to people of colour in anti-racist circles.
Angelica: if you think about the way like white activists in the West fetishised like, not that Martin Luther King and like Nelson Mandela Malcolm X aren't worth like appreciating because they're great but just, you see this fetishisation of a person of colour from the global south because they are a person of colour. I mean it comes from them not seeing us as fundamentally at our core people as well. They’re so scared of being called out and being accused of being racist rather than actually interrogating their racist behaviour which is just so frustrating because then they project all of them like oh my god like their fragility on to you
Kelsey: fragile white ego and their guilt. Because that's often the reaction as well. It's like I feel bad about being white and it's like that's not what I need from you.
Angelica: So self indulgent
Kelsey: That gives me fuck all you know what I mean.
Angelica: Get over yourself
Reni: Can I tell you about the first ever event I ever did for the book. Almost a year ago now a white woman burst into tears in the audience.
Angelica: No way
Reni: She burst into tears.
Angelica: White women crying is racist
Reni: Congratulations, you’ve made it about you.
Angelica: White women crying is racist.
Reni: You’ve made it about yourself
Angelica: It’s very racist
Reni narration: What Angelica and Kelsey are speaking about, the deference, the tears, is a really destructive byproduct of anti-racist conversation, in which white ears hear black voices talk about racism and interpret it as information designed to make them feel like they are a bad person. So, my self expression at the general state of play becomes a very individual and personal attack to whatever white person happens to be within earshot.
In circles where people consider themselves to be progressive, like feminism, that destructive individualisation doesn’t always come out in anger and defensiveness, but folds in on itself in the form of guilt. What this does is takes the conversation away from an analysis of structural power, and moves it to a place in which we all need to look after that white person’s hurt feelings, give them a tissue and a hug, and tell them they’re not a bad person. Somehow the conversation ends in the place anti-racists are trying to drag it away from, which is tiptoeing around white people’s feelings.
I think that’s what Angelica meant when she said white women crying is racist.
Reni: Are some of those things that we've discussed issues that you've seen and sisters in terms of people collapsing in on themselves in guilt, crying
Kelsey: There’s elements of people definitely backing down and being deferential. It's not inherently racist to ask someone to justify their opinion especially in a non-hierarchical organisation like it should be that everyone has a chance to speak and everyone has a chance to voice their concerns and so... But I think often like if it's a person of colour that is propose something they're much less likely to be challenged in any way which can be a problem.
Angelica: Yeah because sometimes we have bad ideas.
Reni: just like every other person in the World
Kelsey: It's having the right to be wrong.
Angelica: Something I've noticed in sisters is the tendency to treat people of colour as some kind of homogenous group who all think the same way which just is really unhelpful.
Reni: Well white people get to be individuals don’t they.
Reni narration: What I’d like to see is white feminists challenging their own unquestioned assumptions about racism, rather than just blithely nodding along with what I have to say because they’re scared of being wrong.
So I decided to ask an often challenged white woman about all of this stuff.
The feminist writer, journalist and activist Laurie Penny has been called ‘the voice for this generation’. It’s a position that bestows her the media mic so frequently on every issue affecting women ever, that it’s basically untenable -- making her the the object of many a call out.
She wrote a piece for the New Statesman in 2014, titled ‘Why patriarchy fears the scissors: for women, short hair is a political statement.’ It drew sharp criticism for universalising her white middle class perspective. A sharp criticism that I read was from Latina writer Flavia Dzodan, who wrote about how curly and textured her hair was, and how she’d been advised by white hairstylists to cut it short and straighten it so it would ‘behave’. ‘for women like me, short hair = docile hair’, she wrote.
In 2017, the 6000 word piece Laurie wrote about Milo Yiannopoulos and his followers split opinion. Yiannopoulos is the former Breitbart writer who insists he is not part of the alt-right but has since faced an expose from Buzzfeed that revealed his alleged links with Nazis and white nationalists. Some people accused Laurie of cosying up to him in order to get the story. Others said her work on him was entirely unsympathetic.
It's fair to say that a lot of her writing comes under scrutiny.
Reni: What have you learnt from being called out?
Laurie: Good things and bad things. I definitely pay more attention to it now. I think it's made me a better writer. I believe that it has it certainly made me a better thinker. And whenever everybody’s yelling at you in that way sort of you've got two options which is that you either just completely wall yourself off and you know shut down decide that everybody who has ever said anything nasty about you is completely wrong because you are the most amazing person and you're always right or you open yourself up and you try to stay in the room. And that's really difficult. But I also have to develop some more self confidence and integrity because the thing for me is you know legitimate genuine callouts will be arriving on the same forums and often at the same time as right wing harassment and you know really disgusting vicious nasty stuff. So it's often quite hard to tell what's what somebody will be saying. You're a terrible racist and somebody will be saying you are a bitch and you deserve to be raped to death. Those will kind of hit you in the same place because it’s going past so fast and it's very easy to get confused and to say well all of these people are just harassing trolls.
Reni narration: White, feminist women in the public eye are frequently called to account about their failures on race. I’ve definitely been a part of that. There is an expectation that white women talking about equality should get it on all other fronts, and a deep frustration when they choose not to. I believe that once you’ve been made aware of it, anti-racism is a choice, and there’s nothing more disappointing when your fave feminist doubles down on her ignorance. But, on reflection, I think these conflicts are sometimes asking too much of these women. For me, growing up in London was a very multiracial environment. I didn’t realise the sheer extent of the whiteness of Laurie’s early life.
Laurie: Quite a lot of the personal stories I read about people's experiences of race were on livejournal and on early blogs and everyone exaggerates a little bit right.
Reni: You say you read them on livejournal, that because you weren’t hearing them in real life?
Laurie: Oh yeah
Reni: or offline
Laurie: most people I knew until I moved to London when I was 20 were white. I grew up in Sussex and I went to University in Oxford. I had friends of colour I just didn't know them and I hadn't met them in person like you know it wasn't a face to face thing. So that was where my anti-racist education started because that's where I made friends who weren't from the area or I grew up in. But yeah I always assumed that people were exaggerating a little bit because everybody exaggerates a little bit when they're 14 and on the Internet. And then I got to the U.S. and I was like oh no holy shit this is all real and so much worse. I mean it's not that Britain is not a racist country it's a deeply racist country but in America it's so much more in your face.
Reni: What kind of things were you seeing?
Laurie: I think it was the first time I'd really been aware of myself as a white person, not because I hadn't thought about privilege and unpacked that backpack a little bit beforehand and been having those conversations. But you walk around New York and you're aware of your race constantly in a way that I think for white people isn’t normal. And yeah it was the first time I started regularly thinking of myself as a white person and this is something that impacts me on a daily basis you know that whiteness is a really big part of my everyday experience. It's not just a default invisible thing. And I really started thinking about it a lot more. The political experience of whiteness was different.
Reni: I'm interested in why it didn't occur to you in the same way while you're living in Britain.
Laurie: I've thought about this a lot. Maybe it's just the experience of being outside the culture you are familiar with. Maybe just the everyday experience of whiteness in Britain was so normal to me that you know I didn't notice it anymore. Being a white person is probably a little bit different in every country. It just I don't know.
Reni narration: Laurie has an international readership. She told me about the prejudices she sees in her readers overseas.
Laurie: I've genuinely had people ask me when they hear I'm from London. Like is it safe for you to walk around in London? Aren’t there areas where white girls can’t go. Like people really think this.
Reni: You should be well I’m here aren’t I, managed to get on the plane.
Laurie: Absolutely, There's a lot of really pernicious, racist and particularly Islamophobic narrative pumping around the alt-right about Europe and in particular about the UK. I do a lot of feminist work in Germany and Islamophobia is something that comes up a lot. And I often have even young women, always young white women obviously, ask me about it it's often about the hijab you know is it OK for women to wear a hijab you know how should I feel about this as a white woman other white lady why don't you tell me how to feel about this, because it’s all about us obviously.
Reni narration: A lot of well-meaning white women ask me what they should be doing to help the anti-racist cause. But I’m primarily interested in expressing myself rather than teaching white people how to be. So here’s some advice from a well-meaning white woman.
Laurie: I mean it starts by educating yourself and it starts by trying to integrate anti-racism into everything you do. I think my first major book was Unspeakable Things and that book did suffer from not wanting to get things wrong so not really paying enough attention to race out of fear of getting stuff wrong which is a legitimate fear. You know people aren't terribly forgiving when you do mess up. It's about being brave enough and taking the risk to do the work anyway. And being brave enough to get things wrong trying and getting things wrong and then trying again is better than just sort of opting out. And I think that's where a lot of white feminists are. It's not that they're so they want to ignore race.
It's that they think they can get away with not talking about it because it's easier. It's more it's a combination of cowardice and laziness rather than active malice. And yeah for me personally it's just been about being braver and taking more risks and sometimes passing the mic and handing on opportunities that you get. Like if you are asked to write something or to speak in an event which genuinely a woman of colour would be a far more appropriate person to do that kind of work then hand the mic over like this is probably the longest conversation in any sort of official capacity I've had about me and anti-racism.
Reni narration: I asked Sisters Uncut if anything is getting better
Kelsey: It’s a constant struggle
Angelica: Constantly, but then I just look at the for example like the face the #MeToo movement Right. Which is what people are taking as like the face of the feminist movement in 2018. It's just so white it's very liberal very Eurocentric. The BBC paid these like women on like six figure salaries arguing about. I mean obviously everyone should be paid equally as well but I'm like C'mon man, you’re making 400k and you’re arguing, you’re making 400k
Kelsey: and we’re supposed to be so upset.
Angelica: This is like at the forefront of their agenda, this woman was like really ripping into this guy. She was so angry about it, I mean rightly so.
Reni narration: It’s not hard to sympathise with the concerns of women at the top -- if anything, their struggles show us that no amount of money can shield you from sexism. But there’s a difference between sympathy and empathy. Our empathy, the driving force behind our feminism, needs to lie with the women at the margins of society.
Angelica: because I have gone on to organise in other groups that aren't sisters and there have been similar issues not naming any names but there was one group. It was a group that was organising around prisons and incarceration and there was a series of videos that we were working on and the person doing the videos didn't address race in any of the videos and someone, a woman of colour called them out and they said Oh yeah don't worry like I'm planning on looking at race as well as Class and like migration as if these were like separate isolated things and not integral to the way you know power and incarceration
Reni: and gender
Angelica: and gender. We’re looking at prisons...
Reni: Like isn’t there a horrifying stat…
Angelica: like we’re talking about race.
Reni: There’s a horrible, horrifying stat about like the vast majority of women in prison have experienced some kind of abuse
Angelica: Yeah something like
Kelsey: Something like
Angelica and Kelsey: 53 percent
Kelsey: have experienced domestic violence
Reni: Where’s that from seeing as you both reeled it off?
Kelsey: It's was the latest
Angelica: women in prisons
Kelsey: Women in prison stat that they just, because it was, the last one was 46 percent and then yeah just a couple months ago a new stat came out so it's over half.
Reni: So it's clearly not a single issue struggle
Angelica: Definitely not
Kelsey: No it’s not
Angelica: and there’s links between women in prison and being in foster care as well.
Reni narration: This is one example of what it means to think in an intersectional way. It's not about add-ons, or guilt, or oppression Olympics. It's simply a means to analyse inequality in the world.
I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that I know lots of women in prison -- I don't. But understanding the societal factors that contributed to them being there definitely informs my feminism, and tells me that any work I do against sexual violence has to take these things into account.
If anything, once I shifted my feminism from discussions about page 3, magazines and bank notes to discussions about care work, prisons and immigration detention, my understanding of how gender inequality affects women's lives broadened exponentially. I'm not saying that media representation of middle class white women doesn't matter, but it's truly the thin end of the wedge.
We’re still a long way from a feminism that works for everyone.