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.
I want to introduce two concepts in this post that I think are missing from the social justice conversation. My labeling for them is a little tongue in cheek, but my suggestion that we adopt these concepts in the discourse is serious. First, let me define the somewhat clunky term “microproblematic”. If an action or attitude is “microproblematic”, it means that it is problematic for any individual to hold or to do regardless of the cultural context that this individual finds themselves in. For example, even if our culture were a paragon of gender equality and diversity in every single way, it would still be problematic for an individual heterosexual man to say that “No doesn’t always mean no” because it’s rapey. Pressuring anyone for sex, no matter how subtly you (mistakenly) think you are doing it, is microproblematic. Another example: even if our culture celebrated and respected all body sizes and shapes, it would still be problematic for an individual to suggest that another individual change their body shape or size. Most of the basic issues that any 101-level activist would call out are microproblematic (whether or not broader society thinks so).
By contrast, an attitude or action is “macroproblematic” if it is not problematic for an individual to choose to hold or to do, but on a broad, sociocultural level it is problematic or at least symptomatic of wider problems, especially if it is an enforced social norm.This second definition, the idea of something being problematic in the aggregate only, is I think the key concept missing from our discourse around social justice. Let me give you the examples that lead me to this concept: the conversation around the burqa, and the conversation around the bikini/skimpy clothing worn by women.
First, consider an individual woman’s choice to wear a burqa (of course this applies to the niqab, the hijab etc but I am using the burqa because I think it receives more scrutiny). Clearly, there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about this choice – it is a perfectly valid choice, whether it is based on religious, cultural or purely personal reasons. There is no coherent case against any individual woman’s free choice to wear one. It is her right to choose how she dresses, and frankly, the “security risk” argument is such total crap that I’m not even addressing it (come back when you want to ban masquerade balls for similar “security concerns”). No woman’s individual choice to don a burqa should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.
However, I think there is something macroproblematic about a sociocultural situation that demands women be totally covered up, but does not demand the same from men. Any norm that considers women’s clothing to be associated with moral rectitude is inherently misogynistic and masks an attempt to control women by dictating how they may present themselves. Also, some of the justifications for the burqa as a social norm reflect a fundamental lack of respect for both men and women, often reinforcing rape culture, painting men as base creatures with no self control, and calling on women to do everything they can to avoid exciting men and thus causing their own rapes. Clearly, to the extent that it remains a moralised sociocultural norm that applies only to women, the burqa is highly macroproblematic. However, it is not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to wear it.
Interestingly, the exact same situation arises when women appear in the public sphere wearing very revealing, highly “sexy” clothing and presenting themselves in an overtly sexual manner. It should be perfectly obvious that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any individual woman choosing to do this. It is every woman’s right to dress in the way she chooses, and if she wants to go out with her breasts or thighs or any other “socially-coded sexual” part of her body uncovered, that is a valid choice. It certainly does not reflect any personal issues or “deep seated insecurities” or any other armchair psychologist bullshit. Some women feel comfortable dressing up really sexily in public, and there is nothing microproblematic about this choice. No woman’s individual choice to wear a bikini or sexy lingerie out in public at any time of day in any location should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.
Yet again, on a sociocultural level, it clearly is problematic that women are consistently presented in all forms of media in an overtly heterosexy way, wearing very revealing clothing and posed in such a manner as to bring pleasure to heterosexual men. Men are almost never presented posing sexily to gratify heterosexual women (and when they are, panic and confusion ensue!). Consider this: there is no male equivalent of lingerie in mainstream culture. Furthermore, merely in observing the dearth of so-called “unattractive” or “unsexy” women in media, women are implicitly taught that their primary value is their capacity to provide a pleasing image and/or sexual gratification to heterosexual men whether they like it or not. They are of course also slutshamed if they provide sexual gratification to men and/or like it! (In misogynistic societies, women can never win.) The depiction of women as being heteromale lust objects before they are people is a symptom of deep misogyny in our culture. It is one reason why many American girls self-report that they would rather win ANTM than a Nobel Prize and nobody even asked American boys that question. It is highly macroproblematic. However, sexy women are not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to present sexily.
I think the fact that we don’t have terms for these two separate things is at the root of many confusing arguments – especially between second and third wave feminists, many of whom fail to grasp the difference. Many second wave feminists, noting that the dominant sociocultural representation of women in heterosexy poses and outfits for heteromale viewing is macroproblematic, then claim that NO WOMEN ANYWHERE should ever choose to behave or dress in this way, because even if it makes her happy, SHE’S A DELUDED TOOL OF THE PATRIARCHY. Meanwhile third wave feminists, noting that there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about women wearing sexy clothes and presenting in an overtly sexual manner, go on to claim that there is NO MACROPROBLEM AT ALL, EMBRACE IT LADIES, WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING PRIMARILY CONSIDERED A LUST OBJECT?
If we employ these concepts, it can be coherently argued that women presenting overtly sexually is not microproblematic in any way, but the broader social norms that treat women as sex objects for heteromale consumption is indeed macroproblematic. A lack of clarity around what it means for something to be “problematic” and the extent to which people’s personal decisions should be scrutinised causes real harm, especially to people who find themselves personally bearing the brunt of someone else’s genuine complaint about broader culture. We must attack macroproblematic practices on a sociocultural level without hurting individuals who may, intentionally or unintentionally, conform to these ideas and practices. When we seek to destroy the kyriarchy, we have to be careful we don’t create collateral damage. I think these concepts can help us achieve that.