Tag Archives: personal

Shifting privilege and stopping tanning

As I child, I was acutely aware of the colour of my skin.  I was the only non-white pupil at my school, and although I was only darker by a couple of shades, it was enough for children and adults alike to ask me where I was from or to make comments about my colour.

Growing older and moving into a more mixed area, my awareness of my difference became less acute, but solidified into part of my body-image: I was less beautiful because I was darker.  I began bleaching my facial hair and using make-up to slightly lighten certain areas of skin.  In the summers, I was super-careful about the sun, always wearing factor 60 and staying in the shade.  I even carried an umbrella as a parasol on my walks to and from school.

It was only last year that I realised what bullshit this was, and how I had internalised white beauty norms.  So for the first time I thought, fuck it, brown is beautiful, I’m going to revel in the sun.  Last summer and this summer I have been sitting out in the sun without sun-cream or parasol, enjoying its warmth and rays, and its darkening effect on my skin.

And then couple of days ago, I read about UKBA workers racially profiling, harassing and arresting commuters in London.  And I decided to stop tanning.

I am extremely privileged to have had few experiences of overt racism.  As the current government makes this country more racist, this privilege could be decreasing.  I’m very lucky that if a UKBA worker stopped me, I would probably be carrying ID that confirmed my right to live in this country, and even if I wasn’t, my RP accent would probably convince them to leave me alone.  (I wish I could say that I’d have the confidence to walk away, as is everybody’s legal right, but I’m not sure I would).

My current assessment is that, for me, no amount of brown-pride-self-love would make up for the stress of being stopped by the UKBA.  (And if they’re not afraid of showing overt racism, various police forces probably aren’t far behind). Privilege is not an insult, it is a gift.  It is not something inherent to you, something you’re born with and cannot change: as attitudes and practices change, so does your privilege.  Up or down.  So today is the day I started using sun-cream again.

To make me and any readers feel a bit better, here’s a video of the SBS protest, and a link to the Black Feminists’ petition.

 

What being a radical feminist means to me – intro

[Firstly, an anti-warning for any women who might be finding the title alienating: being a radical feminist means, for me, owning, exploring and doing what I can to mitigate my light-skinned privilege, class privilege, the privilege which comes from never having been disabled, and my cis privilege.  Among many other things.]

This series of posts, ‘What being a radical feminism means to me’, will be very personal musings on radical feminism in my life.  How moving more and more towards radical feminism has changed the way I think, speak and live.  It won’t be an attempt to define or redefine radical feminism, but rather describe how it works in my life.  These are some of my ideas for things I’m going to write about (I’ve no idea how much these may change as I write, so they’re not promises!)

Not judging women
Seeing power in everything
Not telling women what to do
Siding with women
Call things sexist etc. when they are
Refusing to hate women
Thinking in terms of the most powerless women and girls
Prioritising fighting rape, abuse and murder
Doing my best to set my own (feminist) house in order
Being more forgiving with myself
Solidarity with other feminists
Trying to dismantle my privilege and power over other women
Thinking about the effects of men in my life
Looking at the wood as well as the trees
Not assuming my foremothers were stupid
Getting radical about everything else
Trusting my body and feelings

So, my writing ambitions are high!  Not sure how frequently I’ll post, since life has got a little complicated recently.  Hopefully chopping this up into these bite-sized chunks will make it easier.

Ethical Alternatives to Being an Ally – Second Thoughts

[I don’t think this post needs any warnings, but let me know if I’ve missed something.]

Having seen some more conversations around ally behaviour, and done some more ally-ing and been allied-to some more, I’ve had a few more thoughts on how to navigate this area.  I’ve realised that my original thoughts missed and crucial dimension of what it means to act as an ally:

Power

Power is one of the pervading dynamics that we’re grappling with when we do anti-oppression work. We’re analysing which groups have power over other groups in society, and trying to reveal and counteract this. Power also plays out within all smaller groups, and this is deeply connected to the wider power politics. So a group that is fighting for their liberation is struggling against groups that hold societal power over them, and this will probably involve fighting against individuals or groups who wield that power on a more personal level.

What this means is that we need to recognise the power dynamics of the ally-oppressed person relationship. It is not neutral. The ally holds more power than the oppressed person, by very nature of the fact that they belong to the social group which is imbued with power. [Privilege is a term more often used in social justice circles, but I’m going to stick with power because of its focus on doing rather than being.]

Due to this unequal power relationship, a crucial part of the ally’s activism needs to be counteracting, and mitigating the effects of, the power they have over the people in the oppressed group.

This might be in individual ways, or group ways, or more structural ways. Even ignoring the effects of wider structural power on the two individuals, allies still have various advantages which give them more power and benefit.  For example:

  • We don’t *need* the movement: we can leave at any time.  This means we are more free to piss people off etc
  • Outsiders to the movement will reward us more.  We’ll be seen as more generous, heroic etc for our efforts in the movement, and probably given more respect, airtime and resources as a result.  Sometimes this results in really tangible benefits like research grants, book deals, employment.
  • Insiders in the movement will reward and value us more, knowing that outsiders will value us, and that therefore we’re useful spokespeople and a legitimising presence.  This means that sometimes we can get our way by threatening to leave.  Even without threats, people will be eager to appease and placate us.
  • Because we’re usually still able to access the various kinds of support and resources open to us outside the groups we are allies to, that means we have two areas to draw on, whereas non-ally activists have only their own communities’ support and resources.

The ideas which social justice communities have come up with around ally-ship, how to respond to call-outs etc can be understood as a code of etiquette designed to shift some of this power back in the oppressed person’s favour.  Because of this, it can feel very weird, and sometimes bad, to be an ally on the receiving end of these rules – they are designed to shift power away from you, and that’s never fun.  It’s basically like a super-diluted and time-and-space limited version of structural oppression: the rules are designed not to be in your favour.  Without seeing the context of the power balance already being in the ally’s favour, it can be very easy to feel shat on by these rules.  In fact, I think probably the less experience we have of being shat on by structural disempowerment, the more shocking and hurtful we’ll find these rules.

First I’m going to show how some of the more common ‘how to be an ally’ advice fits this pattern of shifting power away from allies, and why that’s a good thing, and then I’m going to add some more suggestions.

[Disclaimer: because no power structure works in isolation, there will be lots of cases where, although the people are talking about a structural oppression which the ally doesn’t experience, that ally experiences other structural oppressions which the person they are being an ally for, in that space, doesn’t experience. This might mean that the overall balance power is not in the ally’s favour, in which case some of the suggestions should be adapted or ignored.  For example, a black straight woman has a gay white male boss, and they’re talking about gayness.  The power is almost certainly in his favour, so some of the rules and suggestions will need rejigging.]

Common social justice rules and how they’re meant to shift power

‘Foreground the voices of the oppressed, don’t speak for us’
This is often framed in terms of getting the best information – the people who experience the sharp end of oppression necessarily know the most about how it works (and can also see the viewpoint of the oppressor, because their views are normative and widely disseminated). However, this is also an issue of power: silencing is both an active tool and natural consequence of oppression, so amplifying people’s voices is a way of handing some of that power back.

‘Don’t expect us to educate you
Many – though not all – structural oppressions are deeply tied up with labour. The oppressed group are forced/expected to work for longer, for less pay, on more horrible and less respected work. This literally disempowers them – they are left with less time, money and energy. Letting activism be one place where they can freely chose their work avoids disempowering them further.

Bear in mind that these two rules are set in the context of us really wanting to keep and appease allies, to educate and explain and to let allies be the more acceptable spokespeople for our movements.  And that for those of us with experience of allies who leave if they don’t get their way, we may be going out of our way to avoid that.

‘Behave decently when called out on something
Many of the behaviours which are commonly bad ways to respond to a call out are attempts to hold on to power. Properly apologising for something is an act which shows vulnerability. Letting another person have control over deciding what you did wrong, and how wrong it was, gives them a kind of power over you, however brief and limited.

‘Go learn about your power and privilege
You can’t hand something back if you don’t believe you’ve got it.  You can’t put the safety lock on a weapon you don’t think you’re holding.  If you’re having difficulty believing that you wield power, or have to option of wielding power, or that either of those things matters to acting as an ally, then you especially need to go and read stuff.

More ideas for how allies can hand back power

Consider not getting involved
There will almost certainly be ways we can help the movement as a whole, but some spaces will be more effective and more powerful without our presence. Not just the spaces already labelled ‘X-only’. Consider refusing offers of power: leadership, publication etc. Or, for instance, turn up to the meetings, but rescind your voting rights.

Do the things which are considered menial
Sign up for tea-making, photocopying, washing up, data-entry. Compile lists of resources to make it easy for others to educate themselves.  Not as ways to make friends and get known within the community/group/event, but as an end in itself.

Do things which allow more of that group to access the movement
Sign up for childcare, giving lifts, translation and transcription, etc.

Set up systems of accountability
Create way in which people from that group can talk to you about your behaviour and have control over that interaction. For example, let it be known that you will always try to respond to call-outs in a particular way. Or that you will leave the group if people request it. Or set up an anonymous feedback system on your blog.

Take instruction
If at all in doubt about a course of action, check with some of the relevant group, preferably those who will be impacted by it.  Better still, let it be known that you’re up for instructions, and wait until people give you some.

If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your professional life, try to subvert those structures to hand power back
If you have an managerial power, for instance, use any influence you have on policy, training, recruitment, wages etc in the group’s interest. If you interact with the public in a way which gives you any power over them, set up feedback forms or patient advocates tailored for the group(s) in question, so that they can safely complain or otherwise institute change. Ideally, let people from that group set up the system.  If people from that group are contributing to your work, or you are otherwise benefiting from their existence or oppression (e.g. you’re doing research on them, writing a book about them, doing a programme on them etc) make sure that you share the material and non-material benefits you gain with them.  E.g. share the royalties, credit them, pay them upfront, etc.

If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your personal life, try to subvert those structures to undo the leverage it gives you
If you are in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with someone of that group, think really carefully about what kinds of power you do, or might wield over them, and try to counteract them. For instance, you could try giving them more control over decision-making, or make it absolutely clear that you never expect sex from them, or that you won’t leave them if they piss you off or disagree with you. If you are the parent or carer of someone of the relevant group, you probably have even more power over them – think really hard about what steps you could take to reduce this. Giving them practical resources, external sources of support and as much freedom as is safe are probably good places to start.

So…

So, all of this might sound pretty scary, and kind of extremist.  If you’re like me – i.e. involved in different movements, some where I’m an ally, some where I’m not –  part of you might be going, ‘hell yeah!’ and part of you might be going, ‘holy shit, I can’t t do that.’

For me, the more I’ve come to learn about societal power and privilege, the more adept I’ve become at noticing it in my interactions, and the more uncomfortable I’ve felt noticing when I have them, and when I use them.  So taking some of these steps has actually increased my ease and comfort  – it decreases the guilt and feeling of responsibility that comes with noticing my power.  [N.B. I’m not trying to say that you should take these steps because they’ll make you feel better about yourself.  There are much bigger and more important things at stake in my behaviour as an ally than my feelings.  I’m just trying to show how the loss of power and benefit can have some good byproducts too.]

I also want to acknowledge the role that my own tendency towards feelings of guilt and responsibility play in my taking these things seriously.  For me, those feelings have a lot to do with what society has taught me about being a woman.  It’s a pattern I’ve noticed, that activism women tend to be better at taking on criticisms, suggestions and ideas about their own power and privilege than activist men do.  So that doesn’t mean that women are pathological or masochistic or shouldn’t take these things on board.  Instead, the responsibility is on men, and anyone else who’s not taking these things on board as seriously, to pull their weight.  And if we spot them doing otherwise, then we can use what power and privilege we do have to hold them accountable.

Understanding that ally-etiquette is about transferring power can also make life easier for us, because it explains why those rules feel difficult and disempowering.  It’s a way to channel our energy into truly supporting and empowering those you work with, rather than in being confused or beating ourselves up because we don’t feel like a good happy ally.

Where are you from?

The relentless racist question.  Doesn’t it just do your head in?

Lots of people – most with greater experience of racism than me – have written adeptly on this already.  I’m not going to recover that ground.  If you’re not sure why it’s racist, or want a reminder, or think it might not be, have a google or check out this for starters.  Instead I’m going to cover a secondary aspect of its racism: the assumption that there is a single answer.  As a preamble, I’m going to describe some of the various forms of privilege which I wield, which make my experience of this question different, and much better, than folks without those privileges.

So: I’m mixed race.  In some environments, I’m read (or raced?) as white – the more urban, the more diverse and the younger the environment, the less likely it is that the white people will ask me where I’m from or otherwise comment on my race.  Growing up in the very-white countryside, however, meant being othered and facing racism on a much more regular basis.  People occasionally even assumed that I was ‘from’ Africa, that being the only or main place they knew non-white people ‘came from.’

Since then, interactions involving ‘where are you from?’ have generally pissed me off less.  People have been more respectful, are sometimes satisfied with my replying with the name of the town where I live, without asking ‘yes, but where are you *really* from?’ or other such racisms.  They often expect answers involving Mediterranean countries or South or Central America.  If I give the answer that they were really getting at  – my non-UK family heritage – they’re much less likely to follow up with a racist comment.  Generally I have felt safer and less othered.

Why?  I gained some age privilege, and being asked by people who raced me as white or whiter certainly improves things.  People assess me as really not *that* other, so they probably feel less of a need to interrogate my otherness, put me in my place, exoticise me, etc.  But I think my class and education privilege has a huge amount to do with it.  In those aspects, I occupy a position which people are trained to respect, so their racism is less likely to be overt and aggressive.  Privilege along other lines, which prevents people from categorising me as ‘other’ ‘less than’ or downright ‘freak’ can’t hurt either.

So, personal evidence of the political (#1): disprivilege can be mitigated by privilege along other axes.

Side note: So far, I’ve been talking about white people asking this question, when of course it is asked by non-white people too.  Sometimes this comes from a place of race privilege or colour privilege, in which case similar ideas probably apply, but when it doesn’t, but I see this as a significantly different phenomenon.  I attribute those causes and effects not to racism, but to seeking solidarity, the desire to categorise, and perhaps internalised racism.

With this privilege, I have been able to conduct an interesting mini-experiment.  When I am feeling particularly kindly towards whichever wazzock is asking me where I’m from, I ask them to guess.  I have compiled the following list: (* indicates particularly common guesses)

Eastern European
Greek
Indian* (and various Indian subgroups)
Iranian/Persian
Italian
Jewish
Mediterranean
Mexican*
Moroccan
South/Latin American*

No-one has ever guessed any of the three ethnicities actually involved in my heritage.  Personal evidence of the political (#2): the idea that you can tell where someone “comes from” by looking is bullshit.

More tellingly, and more hurtfully (for me), no-one has ever guessed any kind of mixed heritage.  It’s possible that this is because mixed=bad and therefore people avoid suggesting it out of fear of causing offence, but I think it’s probably more due to the fact that mixed-ness is just totally off most white people’s radars.  It also erases histories of multiple migrations.  Even the very phrasing of the ubiquitous question, ‘where are you from?’ assumes that ethnic identity can be pinned to one discrete location.

An additional explanation shows one reason why mixed-ness is so often off the radar: one-drop ideologies.  This is the idea (and law) that any amount of racially ‘other’ lineage trumps the person’s white lineage: that you’re either wholly white or wholly other.  In this way, mixed-ness is acknowledged in ideas and laws, only in order to redefine and erase it, to maintain the fiction of discrete racial categories.

Personal evidence of the political (#3): mixed-ness, though statistically quite ‘normal’, is not normative.

So there you have it.  My experiences of ‘where are you from?’ have revealed the question’s racist assumptions and effects on people raced as non-white, although beyond my childhood, this has been largely mitigated by my other privileges.  But it has continued to revealed the racism of assuming single ‘origins’ and ethnic identification.  So: two interdependent kinds of racism, one privileging certain groups over others, the other maintaining the fiction of the rigidness and thereby appropriateness of those boundaries.

Stealing from Serano’s distinction between ‘traditional sexism’ (men are superior to women) and ‘oppositional sexism’ (male and female are “rigid, mutually exclusive, ‘opposite’ sexes”), I was thinking of calling the latter kind of racism ‘purity racism’.   This would refer to the subsection of racist ideologies which uphold the fiction of discrete races and the normativity of non-mixedness, which is crucial to upholding the major racist ideologies privileging whites over non-whites and other racist hierarchies within that.

So for example, when I’m asked this question by someone with darker skin than me, this is not an example of racism, but, when phrased to assume a single origin, probably is an example of purity racism (or internalised purity racism).

But I’m not sure.  Readers with experience: what do you think?

Ooh-er… a blog

Hello!

I’m going to be (attempting to) write on all kinds of subjects, hopefully mostly with a tangible connection to my life.  Using my voice to testify to wider political truths.  Or some such pretentious nonsense.

I have a shit-ton of privilege.  Please call me on stuff, if you have the time/energy – I will try to respond well.

I’ve tried to make the scheme as accessible as possible, but if there’s anything else I can do, yell.  I will be providing trigger and other warnings, which I’d also appreciate if people could feedback on – more on that story later.

Because of the inclusion of personal stuff here, I’m blogging anonymously. Close friends who know it’s me – don’t out me, I know where you live – and please don’t link to me in non-anonymous fora like facebook or real life, where mutual friends might put two and two together.  Anyone who thinks they’ve worked out who I am – please don’t be a wazzock and out me.

Anyway, happy reading.  I don’t often see things through – wish me luck!