Here’s your chance to be viciously critical!!

November 14, 2008

So at the last Feminist Fightback meeting, we were having a debate about where capitalism and racism fit in our analysis of women’s oppression.  One woman, B, was arguing that women’s oppression had it’s origins in class exploitation.  As is obvious if you’ve read this blog, I strongly disagree with that.  What really disturbed me about some of what she’d said, however, is that she outright denied the existence of white privilege – all working-class people, in her opinion, are equally oppressed.

I was arguing for the intersection of all oppressions, but because of what she’d said about race, I spent a fair amount of time on white privilege.  I figured someone in a feminist group might say that sexism is less important than class exploitation, but she’s here, right?  However, white privilege is clearly a huge issue in the British feminist movement, and one which I struggle with alot myself.

Somewhere, however, things went horribly, horribly wrong, insofar as I managed to alienate B’s friend C, who is one of the few Afro-Caribbean women to ever come to a Feminist Fightback meeting, who said she felt as if I was being condescending and that she generally felt alienated and erased.

Now, I think there are things on which C & I would disagree no matter what.  But clearly, I must have made several serious errors of communication if I ended up alienating C to that extent. 

My comments are below.  Where do you think I went wrong?  I’d really, really appreciate feedback.  There are very few people that I can talk to about trying to develop as an anti-racist feminist.  Feminism here is really segregated, and rarely goes beyond trying to get a woman of colour to speak at your event.  There’s no real commitment to fighting racism as a key structure of UK society.  So I really need your help & input.   And yeah, if you think I was completely out of line, please say so – there’s no need to try to soften the blow or anything.   Thanks!!!

NB for non-UK readers – BME means Black & Minority Ethnic and is the preferred term (I think) for people of colour in the UK, at least in non-academic circles.  I tend to use both terms.

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What I said 

When I went to get my visa in Liverpool, my partner and I were the only couple in the room where both parties were white.  Most of the other people in the room were people of colour.  At the time, we were worried because we technically did not have enough money to support ourselves – luckily, the immigration officer barely checked.  She literally flipped through my paycheck and said “what’s important is you have a steady job.  Come back in an hour.”  Meanwhile, we couldn’t help but notice that the immigration officers treated my partner & I way better than everybody else in the room.  When I came back to pick up my visa, the same woman was speaking rudely to an African couple.

This is what I mean by white privilege.  It’s not my fault that the immigration officers were polite to me and rude to the BME people.  I was unhappy that they were like this.  But I benefited from it nonetheless, regardless of whether I agreed with the immigration officers’ behaviour.

Class exploitation does not directly cause women’s oppression.  Yes, women’s oppression began in a class based society, but that does not mean it was caused by a class-based society – after all, women’s oppression also came about in a world where the atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, and women’s oppression is not caused by nitrogen.

Even if you do think that class exploitation causes women’s oppression, it should be clear that today sexism as an ideology exists independently of capitalism as does racism, as do numerous other oppressions, like transphobia, homophobia, ableism, ageism, etc.  In the interests of simplicity, I am going to focus on Capitalism, Sexism and Racism.

Basically, I would argue that Sexism, Racism and Capitalism are interconnected systems of oppression.  What that means is that they all feed into each other, and shape each other, and you can’t really consider them separately.  I tend to think of this as a tangled ball of yarn.  Sometimes, you can tug a small piece of yarn free – and women get the vote; a Black man is elected President; a minimum wage is achieved.  But you will never untangle the yarn completely unless you are working at all the oppressions at once.

So, women’s oppression won’t be ended while capitalism exists, but ending capitalism won’t automatically end women’s oppression.  And as a white woman, I think it’s important for me to fight against racism, not out of a sense of charity, but because I will never be liberated while racism still exists.

I think we realised this when we were campaigning in solidarity with the tube cleaners.  We didn’t say that they were working-class people who happened to be immigrant women from Africa & Asia.  Rather, we recognised that their gender and their race and their immigration status were also key to their oppression.  That they were underpaid because their work was viewed as “women’s work”, but that the type of work they were doing is often assigned to BME women.  For example, the Windrush generation of women often found themselves employed in the heavy care industry, because it fulfilled the gender stereotype of women doing care work, and the racial stereotype of black people doing the heavy lifting. 

And in the tubecleaners campaign, we were able to use the privilege that some of us have of being white and holding British passports (not me, obviously) in a subversive way in service of the tubecleaners campaign, by risking arrest.

So, white privilege exists and that has to be recognised.  You can’t change the world unless you recognise how the world works.  And once you recognise your white privilege, you can then try to figure out who to use it subversively.

We’ve been quite properly critical of the Fawcett Society’s sexism in the city campaign because they treat the sexism experienced by the CEO and the sexism experienced by the cleaner the same.  Of course, the sexism experienced by the cleaner is very different from the sexism experienced by the CEO.  If we don’t recognise white privilege, I think we risk becoming the class-based version of the Fawcett Society.  Women experience sexism differently because of their race and class, and our campaigns have to recognise this.  We have to fight all oppressions simultaneously, not out of a sense of charity, but because while racism exists none of us will be free.

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