Separatism and Intersectionality

One of the broadest areas of disagreement within the social justice community is the extent to which we should distance ourselves from individuals in the groups oppressing us. The argument often devolves into a fight between simpering pacifism of the “Let’s all just get along and be happy together!” flavour, and violent militarism of the “I spit in the face of group Z” flavour.

Now, on a personal level, both of these positions are completely valid. If that’s how you feel is appropriate for you personally to proceed, then that’s fine. But we have a problem when either of these positions is evangelised, and presented as though it is the only acceptable way to live with yourself as the member of an oppressed group. In particular, pushing separatism as the ideal mode of resistance from oppression is a tactic that erases intersectionality.

In the past, I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Let’s try to all live together because peace and love are better than fighting!” group. But I now realise there are some very deep problems with that position.

The first is that trying to always and everywhere get along and live together with individuals who are actively a threat to your mental and emotional well-being is not a sustainable position. There is often very real tension involved when individuals in oppressed groups befriend, become involved with, or interact with individuals from the groups oppressing them. Regardless of the intentions of the privileged individual, the social power dynamic between the groups creates additional risks for the person who is a member of the marginalised group. It’s important for us to recognise this, on two levels. As members of marginalised groups, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our emotional health, and manage these risks to the best of our abilities. That may mean limiting our interactions or choosing them carefully or many other options. As members of privileged groups, we owe it to everyone to make sure we never abuse the awful, misbegotten social power we have. (And if we fuck up on this point, we have to own it and say sorry.)

For example, in a society infused with sexism, androcentrism and rape culture, there are things that many women feel they must take into consideration when interacting with men, that they do not often feel they must consider when interacting with other women. Melissa McEwan’s excellent essay “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” explain this very well (McEwan and I often disagree, but that essay is phenomenal). I imagine that the situation is comparable – though with its own complexities, of course – for POC when they interact with white people. I know from experience as a queer woman with various mental health issues, the tensions can also arise when someone with a disability interacts with an able-bodied-and-minded person, and when queers interact with straight people.

The second issue is that marginalised people do not owe it to their oppressors to make nice with them. Sure, there may well be benefits to cultivating empathy and forgiveness towards those who hurt us (I find anger exhausting, so I try to do this). But people are not obligated to do this! There should never be any expectation that oppressed people should have a big Nelson Mandela moment and forgive everyone. The reason why Nelson Mandela is so famous is because what he did is fucking incredible. It is simply not right to ask all oppressed people to morph into a cross between Buddha and Jesus in order to live in this world. Often this request presents itself insidiously, in the form of fake concern, “I just think you’d feel better if you forgave Whitey…”. No. If people want to be angry, let them be angry. If they never want to forgive the people responsible for the harm done to CeCe McDonald or Jamie Hubley, that is their goddamn right. The fact that individuals in privileged groups feel entitled to preach the benefits of forgiveness and then brand all who do not forgive and forget as “part of the problem” is…well, part of the problem.

However, there are equally serious problems with the rallying cry for separatism as the only form of true activism. Well actually, I’m only going to talk about the one massive problem I see with separatism. Its name is intersectionality.

Aiming for separatism completely ignores intersectionality, and in so doing, recreates kyriarchical power structures within the social justice movement itself. I am going to demonstrate the issues using feminism and women, but the principles apply the same to other movements like fat acceptance, anti-racism, the queer movement, etc. I do not mean to imply that feminism is the only guilty party here. I do not mean to imply that, for example, asking queer women to choose womanhood over all other facets of their identity is any worse than asking them to choose queerness.

Also, when I talk about separatism I’m not only talking about the idea that we should be literally separated and not interact with individuals from privileged groups. I’m also talking broadly about the philosophy that declares that Group X and Group Not-X can never get along, that they are fundamentally too different to ever understand each other. The problem of course is that Group Y Separatists also feel that way about Group Y and Not-Y. So now what happens when you’re in group X and group Y? You probably have friends and allies who are X and Not-Y, or Y and Not-X. It’s not a fun time. Ask any woman who is not straight and/or white.

So: Separatist feminism declares that no peace can ever be made between men and women, so women should at least limit or eliminate any emotional ties or interaction with men, and at most commit social or physical violence against them. But to demand this of all women is to ask women to deny other, equally important aspects of themselves besides their womanhood. It is asking them to deny the ways in which they may feel more comfortable and more at peace with some men than with some women. For example, some women of colour, who have been marginalised by white women in the feminist movement for centuries, may feel they actually have as much or more in common with men of colour than with white women. Of course, asking for racial separatism has the same problem: it asks women of colour to cast aside all commonalities white women in favour of men of colour. Asking women of colour to declare an unbridgeable gap either with white women or men of colour is ridiculous and harmful.

That is the essence of separatism. When you call for female separatism you are asking queer women to cut off their ties to non-women queers and declare undying allegiance to all women – including straight women, who may in the past have bullied them, who may today be passing laws that hurt them. You are asking fat women to declare they have more in common with thin women than with fat men – when thin women might well have been the primary enforcers of their marginalisation as fat people for years. What is more, you are erasing genderqueers and other nonbinary folk. And frankly given that some so-called feminists don’t consider transwomen women, you’re probably making all the transwomen very fucking nervous indeed.

Any form of separatism has these problems. Ask anyone with more than one area of marginalisation, and they have stories about how their “Group X” identity is marginalised within the much-vaunted “Group Y Safe Space”. This doesn’t just happen in big, populous movements like feminism. There are people who are marginalised in the trans community because of sizeism. There are people who are marginalised in the fat acceptance community, and in the movement against ableism, because of their race.

I don’t deny that cultivating an “us versus them” mentality is tempting, given the horrors of oppression. But it is actively bad for our communities. It erases the most vulnerable members of oppressed communities, that is, those who have more than one area in which they are marginalised. Even if you say “Well okay then, we’re going to have ‘queer women of colour’ separatism!” you’re still asking disabled and fat people to make allegiance choices… and you’re potentially ignoring the ways different ethnic groups are treated in the caucasian-centric racial heirarchy. It doesn’t end there either because virtually everyone is in a unique situation. We can’t escape the problem by implementing a finer granulation. It doesn’t work like that.

Thus, separatism inherently demands that some members of your group choose between their various “competing” and complex identities. That’s just not okay. This shit is hard enough to reconcile even without all the white feminists or male queers or thin or able-bodied people breathing down your neck and urging you to “pick a side”. There is no picking sides. Yes, we are different, and we have different experiences in this world because of the traits we have and the groups we belong to. But there is no unbridgeable gap between these groups – there are actual human beings where the gap is supposed to be.

On a societal level, we do all have to live together. Not out of some misplaced, wide-eyed, soppy utopianism, but because any attempt to balkanize humanity is an attempt to erase and deny intersectionality completely. Yes, any individual is free to arrange their life to preserve their mental and emotional well-being, and whatever level of interaction they choose for themselves is to be respected. Yes, it is abhorrent to expect members of marginalised groups to forgive and forget, and make nice all the time. But it is equally abhorrent to ask them to cut out a part of themselves and disavow it – to end their emotional investment in all communities except the one being championed right at that moment. That is not the way to end marginalisation. That is a recipe for re-creating it within our own communities.


The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

A while ago, tumblr user “iamateenagefeminist” compiled a list of non-oppressive insults, a public service that will never be forgotten. The people of tumblr wept with joy and appreciation (although it should be noted that the people of tumblr will literally weep over a drawing of an owl). The list is not perfect, and “ugly” should NOT be on there as it reinforces beauty hierarchies. Still, I was happy to find it, because I am always looking for more insults that don’t reinforce oppressive social structures.

But if you scroll through the reblogs you’ll see that not everyone was enamoured of the idea of creating this list at all. In particular, several people said that trying to find non-oppressive ways to insult other people is “missing the point” of social justice. Those people seem to think that being nice is a core part of social justice. But those people are wrong.

Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a “nicer” world. I am not suggesting niceness is bad or that we should not behave in a nice way towards others if we want to! I also do not equate niceness with cooperation or collaboration with others. Here’s all I am saying: the conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.

Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!). These people would hold a door for us if they saw us coming. Our enemies are not only the people holding “Fags Die God Laughs” signs, they are the nice people who just feel like marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense, it’s just how they feel! We once got a very nice comment on this site that we decided we could not publish because its content was “But how can I respect women when they dress like – sorry to say it, pardon my language – sluts?”. This is vile, disgusting misogyny and no amount of sugar coating and politeness can make it okay. Similarly, most of the people who run ex-gay therapy clinics are actually very nice and polite! They just want to save you! Nicely! Clearly, niceness means FUCK ALL.

On an even more serious note, nice people also DO horrible bad things on an individual level. In The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker, he explicitly says that people who intend to harm others often display niceness towards them in order to make them feel safe and let their guard down. This trick only works because we have been taught that niceness indicates goodness. What is more, according to De Becker, women have been socially conditioned to feel indebted to men who are “nice” to them, which is often exploited by abusers. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I suggest you pick up the book – it talks a lot about how socialisation of men and women makes it easier for men to abuse women.

How many more acts that reinforce kyriarchy have to be done nicely and politely before we stop giving people any credit for niceness? Does the niceness of these acts make them acceptable? It does not.

An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people. Being marginalised does not mean people are always nasty to you, it means you live in a world in which many aspects of the cultural, social and economic systems are stacked against people like you. Some very privileged people have had awful experiences in life, but it does not erase their privilege. That is because privilege is about groups of people being given different rights and opportunities by the law and by socio-cultural norms. Incidentally, that is why you can have some forms of privilege and not others, and it doesn’t make sense to try to “tally up” one’s privilege into a sum total and compare it against others’.

By the way, the first person who says “But then why are TV shows a social justice issue?” in the comments will have their head put on a pike as an example to others. Cultural narratives are part of what builds and reinforces social roles, and those determine what opportunities a person has – and the rights they can actually exercise, even if they have them in the law. If you don’t believe me and don’t want to accept this idea, you will now google “stereotype threat”, you will read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, you will watch this speech by Esther Duflo on women and development (which talks about stereotypes and outcomes), and THEN you may return to this blog.

The conflation of nice and good also creates an avenue of subtle control over marginalised people. After all, what is seen as “nice” is cultural and often even class-dependent, and therefore the “manners” that matter get to be defined by the dominant ethnic group and class. For example, the “tone” argument, the favourite derailing tactic of bigots everywhere, is quite clearly a demand that the oppressor be treated “nicely” at all times by the oppressed – and they get to define what “nice” treatment is. This works because the primacy of nice in our culture creates a useful tool – to control people and to delegitimise their anger. A stark example of this is the stereotype of the desirably meek and passive woman, which is often held over women’s heads if we step out of line. How much easier is it to hold on to social and cultural power when you make a rule that people who ask for an end to their own oppression have to ask for it nicely, never showing anger or any emotion at being systematically disenfranchised? (A lot easier.)

Furthermore, I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “tranny” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.

So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people. Calling a white person a racist fuckhead doesn’t do any of that. Yes, it’s not very nice. And how effective it is as a tactic is definitely up for debate (that’s a whole other blog post). But it’s not oppression.

Being good and being nice are totally unrelated. We need to get serious about debunking this myth, because the confusion between the two is obfuscating our message and handing our oppressors another tool with which to silence us. In some cases, this confusion is putting people (especially women) in real danger.

This social movement can’t achieve its goals if people think it’s essentially some kind of niceness revolution. And anyway, social justice is not about making the world a nicer place. It’s about taking back the rights and opportunities denied to us by law or by social and cultural norms – and breaking out of the toxic mindset that wants us to say please and thankyou when we do.


Vagina Dialogues

OK, let’s get some comedy nerdery happening on this blog. Australian comedy nerdery, that’s right, niche. (Some of the things I’m nerdy about are stuff you literally probably haven’t heard about unless you’re Australian and like comedy).

This week Corinne Grant wrote an opinion piece  about gay male comedians making sexist comments about women. Her main contention was that:

Gay male comics can declare how disgusting they find women’s bodies, how ugly older women are, how women are hags, nags, sluts, bitches and whores and the audience will laugh.

It was quite a provocative piece and in the latter part she speaks with Tom Ballard, a gay male comedian who is kind of a big deal, used to date one of the other best known Aussie gay male comedians (it’s a small country OK) and now does the youth radio station breakfast here. Ballard later wrote his own response blog.

I think the politics of this issue (in the social justice sense) are murky and ripe for getting into a oppression-Olympics showdown so lets try and avoid that. I can see the political validity in gay male comedians challenging heteronormativity, of course. Masculinity is often defined as being intrinsically related to being attracted to women. So getting onstage and saying “I am a man and I find lady bits gross” can be seen as a radical move.

However, the paradox of the way women’s bodies are viewed in society is that while women’s bodies are constantly arranged and displayed in a way that is pleasing to men and stresses the desirability of “womanliness”, so too women’s bodies are constantly attacked for failing to reach those standards. An almost impossible criteria of attractiveness are expected for women. Not too fat but not too thin, curvy but not too curvy (because then you’re tacky), enough makeup to appear with perfect skin but not so much you look “cheap”; women’s bodies have to be just right and they are regularly judged to be lacking. And let’s be honest, constructions of female sexiness are usually not about how great vaginas are. Framed in this context, a man on stage talking shit about women’s bodies seems less than politically-pure.

Now let’s get real here, I think that we can all agree that jokes about how old women are gross and people with penises are the only ones worth talking to are not OK. We’re all humourless feminists here, right? But seriously, if that’s the point of your routine, you should really be trying harder. I spend enough time putting up with sexist bullshit in my life, and that stuff makes me want to cry not laugh. Constantly calling women by nasty names is just not cool. Here I am talking about a context where it’s on-stage and public, and the women in question aren’t OK with it. I mean if all your female friends love being referred to as sluts face-to-face I would first triple check and then go for it (because there IS a difference to what you say when performing for the public and what you say to our friends, and there should be). Tom Ballard’s response blog is actually pretty on board with this, and I really admire how both he and Grant have managed to have an actually civil and respectful conversation. I’m also glad that both of them are coming from a standpoint that “political correctness” is worth considering and if you are going to comment on this post this will also be expected as a baseline.

So the real issue here is vagina (and isn’t it always, amirite? Urgh. I don’t even know what that means).  That’s right, we’re going to have an in-depth conversation about what is OK to say about vaginas, PC police/Social Justice League, suit up! I suppose the question is “can you hate vaginas and love women?” There are plenty of women (I have even met some of them!) who would say yes, because that is them. It is really problematic to tell a group of people how their experience of being part of being a member of that group can be, especially if that group is marginalised. (I say “can be” because as is sadly, but not surprisingly, missing from this debate is that not all women have vaginas and not all men don’t, but urgh, society).

I think an interesting corollary to this is that my friends and I went to see Josh Thomas (Tom Ballard’s ex, as mentioned above) a couple of years ago, after he had just recently come out. He talked about how terrifying gay sex was and how you should really avoid it if at all possible. (He also made a particular comment about how great and useful vaginas were.) One of my (straight, female) friends thought that this was a homophobic attitude for Thomas to hold. I vehemently disagreed and then attempted to get into a discussion about the mechanics of anal sex (something it should be pointed out, that is not reserved to gay men), in a quiet cafe, you guys should all be very jealous we aren’t friends IRL. (Sadly my friend was not keen to discuss lubrication right then.)

I suppose my point here is that just because you’re gay you don’t have to be overjoyed about every aspect of the experience of being a gay man, and if you have a vagina you don’t have to be delighted by all its functions. I mean, let’s talk about periods here. There are women for whom menstruating is a beautiful and natural cycle of life (apparently). I mostly find that it hurts, makes me cranky and is kind of gory (yeah that’s right, so much for the fairer sex, blood GUSHES out of my body once a month). I feel pretty silenced by the whole ‘it’s all beautiful and natural’ approach.

On Twitter I saw someone (actually another one of Josh Thomas’ exes, lolz Australia) suggest that unless Grant loved everything about vaginas she was being a hypocrite (see Grant’s pretty hilarious response). I don’t really think women expressing negative opinions about their genitalia and not being happy to hear this as a punchline from men is “hypocritical”. Just like there are words which are acceptable if used by African Americans and not if used by white people, this is not a level playing field situation. You know why? Because it was NEVER a level playing field to begin with. See: privilege. Of course there is overlap here, and maybe gay male comedians would argue that being grossed out by lady parts is an intrinsic part of being gay and by telling them not to I am silencing them.

Tom Ballard in his response to Grant talks about the special relationship that women and gay men share. I certainly think there is merit to this argument, often there is a different dynamic to this kind of a relationship, although obviously its not a get out of jail free card. I thought it was particularly interesting that he referenced the relationship that female comedians have with their gay fanbases. He mentions Kathy Griffen and I was reminded of this clip from her (seriously great, omg I love her) show where she objects to being called “fish” by members of her gay male fanbase. So the relationship is clearly far from perfect.

In the end, I have failed to come up with some kind of grand unified theory for comedians talking about vaginas on stage. I think there probably isn’t one to be found, because there are a lot subtleties, statements like “I think vaginas are gross” “We all know vaginas are gross” and “Every time I hear the word vagina I want to gag” are different levels of problematic to me, and I think there is an argument that the first one is acceptable but you can argue with me in the comments (respectfully! And I don’t promise to answer. I have important things to Tumblr work on, OK).


Some Things Are Not Meant to Be Understood By the Gender Essentialists

Oh XOJane, advise me on how to be selfish and how to stop feeling like I have to please others!

A wise woman I know once told me that there are two types of women: those who dress for men, and those who dress for other women.

How you dress and present to the world is definitely not a personal, creative expression of yourself. It’s a lot healthier to dress to win the approval and acceptance of your peers. In fact, women should feel like their appearance is being constantly scrutinised and judged by everyone and then dress accordingly. But the difficulty is that men and women don’t like the same things! You can’t please both genders at once! Because men and women are so different.

I actually think I do both depending on the day, but I will admit that there are two very different kinds of outfits. The below, which I imagineered up while working from home this morning, was never meant to be understood by the penised of the species.

Penises have magical powers that will dictate your sense of style and aesthetics, didn’tchaknow? Penises also have magical powers that will dictate your gender identity! (Hint: this is sarcasm, your gender identity is completely independent of your genitalia.)

 To test my theory, I emailed my boyfriend a picture of this concoction,

A sample size of ONE is highly scientific PROOF. PROOF I TELL YOU.

Then my (male) therapist said he thought it was very “creative,” which may have been code for “time to catatonically make some rainbow lanyards down at the mental hospey.”

Further proof of how men and women are Different (TM) because even your therapist hates it! (That’s a sample size of TWO for those of you still playing.) Whenever I describe something as “creative” I definitely mean it to have negative and ableist connotations. I definitely wouldn’t say what I actually meant.

But maybe some commenters will have picked up the errors in her post? The gender essentialism, the trans erasure, the dressing-for-validation…

You could amend those categories slightly.

Wait, a commenter with some sense? A lone voice of reason?

I think the two camps are actually MEN, and THOSE WHO LIKE PENIS (which includes us males of the homosexual persuasion, who also understand that sometimes a hairdo is just begging for the addition of an oversized butterfly, feather, or some such fabricated flora or fauna to make it complete).

Oh, my mistake, it’s just someone making broad generalisations and stereotypes about sexual orientations.

Carry on then, XOJane.