I recently listened to ‘The Guilty Feminist’ podcast on the topic of Ireland’s Repeal the Eighth referendum. This episode had detailed the struggles Irish women face with healthcare due to a long-standing, detrimental relationship between the country and its abortion rights, and lamented the need to be protesting for change. At the end, however, the show’s host Deborah Frances-White read an email she had received from a frequent listener in an effort to instil some hope.
She explained: “There are people living in Ireland that are currently trying to persuade and sometimes it feels like persuading somebody else of their strongly entrenched view, especially if we think they’re wrong, or bigoted, or in some way oppressing or marginalising, you think ‘we’ll never change their mind, they’re set in their ways’…”
This is an extract from the email Deborah then went on to read, written by a self-identified ‘white, cisgender, straight male’ called Lawrence:
Since beginning to listen to the podcast, I have been awakened to the way in which my admittedly patriarchal mind was judging those who I saw as OTHER… I love hearing the viewpoints of those that I would never understand without the conversations that happen on the podcast… I would like to say that from now on, every time I have a derogatory thought about those who do not fit my narrow view of the world, I shall challenge myself. I can’t promise that I will not feel the way I feel; I can promise that I will assess these feelings using as much knowledge that I have gained… To reference the times that you have read emails from my gender, sexuality and ethnicity, you and others like you are the reason we are opposed to feminism, because you and others like you challenge our preconceptions and out and out privileges. Please continue to do this.
Deborah used this as a tool to implore that even the most seemingly lost causes can still be approached. “You are not necessarily just preaching to the choir,” she concludes, “feel free to be angry, and also know that anger is not the only tool in your box.”
I was moved; she had alluded to the ongoing conversation I have with myself about my tendency to locate a person’s prejudices before first internally scorning and then quickly disassociating from them. I understand this behaviour of mine. I don’t want to spend any more time than I might have to with anyone who discriminates against any kind of marginalised group and I’d never apologise for that decision. But, the problem this raises is that I start to move inside social circles wrapped in our protective layer of a shared forward and open outlook. We bubble together in quiet anger over the onslaught of ignorance and injustice, yet are unable to articulate the problems we see, so glaringly obnoxious, to the ones who don’t yet understand. Cutting these people out makes them the very lost cause that Lawrence might have been, so I’d like to find my other tools.
In the past year this back and forth in my brain has got much louder but it’s not really got any easier to put thought into action. After listening to the podcast, I went home to my student house-share in which I spend a lot of time in my own bedroom. My bedroom is at the back of the kitchen where my housemates tend to gather, their conversations seeping through the unusually big gap between the door and the floor. The subject of employment came up, as one of their girlfriends is busy preparing for job interviews. She mentioned that one company she is going for is pushing to hire more women and her boyfriend immediately exclaimed “sexist!”. Here we go, I thought. Another male housemate who was also present chimed in: “it is so sexist, mate” and thus, a live backlash on positive discrimination begun, inevitably spiralling from sexism to racism. Cries of “black guys just get hired now no matter how shit they are” and “I should’ve been born a *N*” reverberated through the walls, but all I could hear being said was ‘somebody please help, my white, male privilege is under threat’. Their agreed compromise was that ‘it’s fair if they’re the best person for the job’, falling back into that soft cushion illusion of meritocracy that I’m learning is so often used to cover up what is actually just institutionalised bias.
At the time of this particular conversation, I happened to be in the middle of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s chapter on ‘The System’ in her book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’. My eyes started to widen as I realised that these people were basically acting out a role-play example of what Reni writes on opposition to positive discrimination:
“Descriptions of the work addressing the over-representation of whiteness inevitably reduce it to tokenism, nothing more than an insult to the good hard-working people who get their high-ranking jobs on merit alone. Whenever I do the panel-event circuit, meritocracy and quotas tend to be an issue that rests heavily on audiences’ minds… Do quotas mean that women and people of colour are receiving special treatment, getting legs-up others can’t access?… as if whiteness isn’t its own leg-up, as if it doesn’t imply a familiarity that warms an interviewer to a candidate… if the current system worked correctly, and if hiring practises were successfully recruiting and promoting the right people for the job in all circumstances, I seriously doubt that so many leadership positions would be occupied by white middle-aged men. Those who insist on fairness fail to recognise that the current state of play is far from fair.”
I wanted to charge next door and throw this book at their heads before picking it back up and pulling out a chair to stand on and loudly recite the words to them, because if I left it there for them to peruse at their leisure, they would probably get as far as the title before deeming it ‘racist’ (at which point I would turn to page 89 and refer to Reni’s definition of racism as ‘prejudice plus power’, not as calling a white person white and acknowledging their privilege within that). I wanted to do that so badly. Instead, I sat in the safety of my bedroom and tried to imagine being that unfazed. Instead, I tweeted from a private account consisting of a tiny, like-minded audience, venting to the choir, changing nothing.
At this point I should lay my own cards out on the table. I am a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, middle-class woman. That’s a lot of free passes. I have sat counting to ten through an incredible amount of verbal shit storms under this roof, the vast majority of it being the casual reinforcement of the second-class citizenship of women. There has been slut-shaming, never-ending sexualisation, telling women to cover up, discussing the way a vagina should be presented to them, jokes about ‘crazy feminists’, eyes that scan me from the neck down, mid-conversation, if any part of my body is exposed, apologies for passing wind around ‘us girls’ (that one just made me laugh; I should note that they are all actually incapable of calling women ‘women’), and on the one occasion I had to speak up because I was sat with them literally having the word ‘whore’ spat in my face with far more obvious pleasure than warranted by the fact that ‘it’s just the game’, I suffered the consequences back in my room listening to two of them compare me to another ‘girl’ who had also been way too over-sensitive.
Having to live in this kind of environment, I think I’ve come to value my secret opinions of them as a kind of power in order to protect my mental well-being. However, when it comes to my silence concerning their sexism, it is at least only my own side that I am letting down. The homophobia and racism that regularly seeps into their discourse is another matter.
“Gaylationship” “If you don’t go and pop some pussy you’re a fag” “He’s a Beta male” “Someone get her a burqa!” “How many different ethnicities have you slept with?” “She was a F-asian” “Imagine living with two gay guys and having to hear them have sex in the shower” “Japs are racist” “What came first, Black Lives Matter or the crime?”
I have less privilege than the men who these words belong to, but I have a lot more than the victims of such Hate in ways that I am still being taught. I am partly grateful to have been exposed to people like this and reminded in real-time that they exist; I am even grateful to have been reminded that, amazingly, these people don’t think of themselves as sexist, racist, homophobic or anything else along those lines because, while on one hand that’s kind of horrifying, it also suggests that maybe there is room for some things to be explained. This largely depends on someone actually trying to explain, as well as how willing people like my house-mates are to listen.
This has been a pulsing realisation of how crucial being ‘anti-’ is to the way I and others like me practise their intersectionality and how, as Lawrence pointed out in his email to ‘The Guilty Feminist’, change in perceptions like his will only happen if we are able to challenge the privilege of others and also continue to challenge that of our own. I think for me to challenge the privilege of others is also to challenge my own – to ask myself: what can I, as a white woman, do about this? I will find a way to speak up outside of this page.