Thursday 28 August 2014

Uncomfortable truths

I love learning new stuff. There are few things more exciting than adding a new topic to my (probably relatively limited!) repertoire of Things I Know About The Universe. Sometimes though, I learn a thing I don't like; something that makes me reevaluate my place in the world and how I contribute to it. This month has shown me one such occasion. 

At the beginning of August, I attended a training day with the Green Party's "Young Greens", including a workshop on "Intersectionality". It was a new word to me and I regret to admit that I spent the first few minutes fidgeting in my seat, feeling like I was back in an A level sociology lecture. In brief, intersectionality relates to different systems of oppression and the way they overlap to form complex compounds of prejudice. We have a tendency to treat sexism, racism, homophobia, disablism etc. as distinct and isolated streams of intolerance and neglect to consider the individuals whose lives are impacted by one or more of these. You can find support systems for gay people, disabled people, ethnic minorities - but where is the inclusive, all-encompassing support for the gay, black, disabled person?
A seriously over-simplified diagram
of interlocking systems of oppression.

It sounds so straightforward, that it's almost ridiculous to have to point out that someone can be a victim of multiple systems of oppression and that we should all endeavour to see the overlaps and not separate them out into neat compartments that we know how to handle.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. Last year I wrote a blog post about Miley Cyrus and that VMA performance. It was the first time I'd really had to consider that traditional feminism sidelines non-white women, and so I wrote about the insidiously racist undertones contained within the aforementioned dance routine. Reading it back now, I could kick myself for falling into the trap of separating out sexism and racism. The two, in this case, are tightly interconnected. And I missed that.

Why did I miss that? Why did I fail to see the gap in traditional feminism that applies to women of colour? Because "white privilege".

Those two words made me squirm in my seat during the workshop and frequently since. In very basic terms, being white gives you an immediate advantage in every single area of life whilst simultaneously conditioning you to not see the privilege. Does that make sense? I'm a white British female. I've been in situations where I've felt self-conscious about my gender, some where I've been hyper-aware of my nationality. Never once have I felt that the colour of my skin might be an issue to someone or might affect my chance of getting a job, renting a house, being looked at strangely on public transport, called names in the street. I can look at newspapers, television programmes and movies and see my culture represented without giving it a second thought. THAT is the essence of white privilege. The fact that someone else had to explain that it even exists is itself indicative of the widespread normalisation of white privilege.

We don't tend to think of racism in these terms. It's easier to frame it as negative actions towards someone else based on their ethnicity, when in actual fact white privilege is the foundation upon which racism is built. 

So I've been trying to get my head around this for a few weeks, and I'm still not sure I understand it. Too many times, I've felt very defensive and upset, wanted to shut down the computer, dismiss white privilege and carry on feeling that I work far too hard to promote tolerance and social harmony to ever justify being called a tool of oppression. Do you know why it would be easy for me to do that? WHITE PRIVILEGE. Because I am white, I can - if I choose - look away from the problem and pretend it doesn't exist. I have that power because my life is not negatively impacted by the colour of my skin; I don't even have to give it a second thought. 

Something happened this week that reinforced my determination to educate myself properly on issues of race and racism. I saw a post on Facebook which had prompted a debate that eventually turned nasty and saw one person call the other "mayo face" and later "mayo brigade". I've never heard that insult before, so I googled it and learned that it is a slur used against white people. I felt an instant hollow in my chest and could have cried. Here was someone dismissing one person's entire opinion with a nasty jibe about skin colour. I felt angry, sad, humiliated - and it hadn't even been directed at me. Just a couple of words on a screen, but they ate away at me for days. It dawned on me quickly that this can't be far from what people from ethnic minorities feel All The Time

At what stage in their childhood did they learn that people will give them grief for no reason other than their skin is darker? What must it be like to go into a shop, browse the newspapers and see nobody who looks like you? How do you manage the frustration at being sidelined for jobs because of the colour of your skin? Even more - how do you refrain from shouting and screaming at everyone who tries to say that racism isn't an issue these days?? Because oh, god. IT IS. It so is. And this is an every day reality for people who aren't white. 

How I felt after that one isolated incident doesn't even begin to compare to prejudice experienced by non-white people, but it gave me a fleeting insight. So the next time I want to write something about feminism, I am determined to not imagine that whatever I experience as a white female could be the same as that of a black woman. I don't know nearly enough about intersectionality and how to apply it to my life, so educating myself is my goal. 

If you've read this and feel as I initially did -  defensive, annoyed and like I'm talking out of my backside - I invite you to consider that it is your position of privilege which allows you to feel this way. We cannot begin to unravel the labyrinth of prejudice until we all accept that being white and/or male and/or straight and/or able-bodied, etc. affords us certain perks that we teach ourselves to see as an automatic right.

Further reading:

Explaining privilege to a broke white person:

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins:


  1. Intersectionality is a concept that most ideological Anarchists embrace instinctively, even if they are not aware of the term. The system in which we live is built on oppression, so it is unsurprising that oppression has proliferated and morphed into so many forms. Oppression is an intrinsic aspect of that system. The first time I encountered the actual term "intersectionality" was when I first read the excellent 'Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person' article, which I'm delighted to see linked here.

    While it is important to understand the concept and the complex interactions between systems of prejudice and discrimination, it is also necessary to understand that some members of some oppressed groups can react with hostility to discussion of intersectionality. In some ways, recognition of intersectionality is predominantly of interest to two categories of people: those who suffer from multiple systems of oppression, and the privileged who can afford the luxury of detached objectivity. Sadly, except for dedicated ideologues and recreational/hobby liberals, few in the privileged camp give a flying fuck.

    People who self-identify primarily as targets of one specific oppressive system - be it racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever - can be fairly hostile to discussion of complex interactions and overlap between oppressive systems. I have personally seen this hostility displayed by POC and by feminists. It would be easy to dismiss it as a lack of empathy or selfish disregard for others in different but comparable situations. In truth it is a far more reasonable and understandable reaction. When, for example, POC see members of their community being, apparently, regularly and casually killed by police officers, oppression takes on an immediacy that cannot be put aside in order to allow consideration of someone else's problem. When one's own struggle has been ongoing for generations, being told that it is part of a wider pattern is sometimes seen as hijacking one's cause in support of another.

    Not really an example, but a similar and related thing... When internet artist Jamie Kapp created her famous white-privilege comic (, she got all kinds of threats and abuse. When news of the abuse got out she received messages that infuriated her because, as she put it, they took her comic about institutionalised discrimination and turned it into a rallying cry against online bullying. It was hijacked.

    As I say, this isn't quite the same thing that I was describing above, but it illustrates the frustration people can feel when their problems and their cause are (in their perception) linked to another which, to them, may seem less pressing.

    Expecting oppressed people to have empathy with members of other oppressed groups is a privileged attitude. Some of them may well do, but we have no right to expect it. And we should be prepared for hostility to intellectualised models of oppression and discrimination.

  2. Thanks for posting this and especially providing the further reading materials. I'm preparing a lecture related to this topic, and this was very handy.