What white feminists like Caitlin Moran do not get*

I consider myself a feminist. It would be irrational for me not to. I will explain why further in. Allow me first to explain why feminist is not a label I wear flippantly, and this is it: I am not a woman. I have not had men leer at me or feel me up, or worse, without permission because they believe they own my body. I have not had society tell me that my choice of clothing grants men permission to have their way with me nor do I live in terror that embracing the full ambit of my sexuality will be interpreted as spurning men, an apparently unthinkable and unnatural act punishable by death. In short, my lived experience checks the boundless empathy I have for the cause. And for this reason I take my feminist cues from women.

When a woman says something is sexist and I do not immediately see it or understand why, I dig deeper for often it’s not that the claim is baseless. Being a man in a society that puts men atop the hierarchy allows me the privilege of not seeing or being affected by these things. I fight daily against this privilege blindness. To my chagrin I do not always get it right.

In June 2012 I was one of four panellist for a discussion on whether the Western Cape is positioned to attract and retain black professionals. The discussion was nearing its zenith when an audience member pointed out that all of the panellists were men. I was mortified. This isn’t a simple numbers game. A woman on the panel would have offered perspectives on the topic that we male-privilege-blind men might not have considered—and likely improved the quality of the discussion and the solutions offered. After all, South Africa may be on par with global standards with 28% of senior-management positions occupied by women, but this low number shows that women are still systematically excluded from the upper echelons of business. A woman, particularly a black woman, likely has unique perspectives on the topic the panel discussed that day.

I can only offer in weak mitigation that the keynote speaker was a woman—none other than Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape—and most of the organisers were women. It might actually have been the premier herself who pointed out the panel’s gender disparity, and I am thankful she did.

This incident was returned to my mind when reading New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis’s defence (on her personal blog) of writer and feminist activist Caitlin Moran. One by one Lewis recounted and gave context to the unfair, out-of-context labels that had been tacked onto Moran. The last one, that Moran doesn’t care about racism, caused my eyes to bulge and returned to memory my daily struggle against my blindness to male privilege.

Moran caused a well-analysed kerfuffle in October 2012 after an exchange on Twitter. A user, @lizziecoan, followed up an earlier sarcastic tweet she’d sent by asking Moran if, during her interview with Lena Dunham, creator of hit HBO show ‘Girls’, she addressed the show’s “complete utter lack of people of colour”. All the characters (main, supporting, bit) in the first season of the show are white. Well, not all of them. There was one black character. A bum.

“Nope,” Moran replied, “I literally couldn’t give a shit about it.” Then she deflected and became defensive.

Lewis’s argument was that Moran had been needled into the sarcastic reply by the earlier sarcastic tweet and said that she’d need more than this to conclude that Moran doesn’t care about racism. Lewis also points to a piece in Salon where Moran explained herself.

“I broke my own first rule: Be Polite. But I was frankly offended that this woman thought me and Lena Dunham were somehow conspiring in some undefined racist plot,” Moran said.

“If a woman of colour was allowed to make show as funny and honest and daring as Dunham’s – wandering around slightly overweight, naked, spreckled with acne, and talking about abortion, I’d be pitching a fucking massive feature on that to the Times, too. And I wouldn’t ask that writer why there were no white characters in it, just like I didn’t ask Dunham why there were no people of colour in Girls. I think it’s as dumb as asking ABBA, ‘Why aren’t one of you black?’”

Head, please report to the desk.

The first point is that it’s improbable that a woman of colour would be allowed (and I hope Moran’s use of the word was intentional) to write such a show, any show, in fact. She faces a double prejudice: being black and being a woman.

According to the 2011 Hollywood Writers Report, which provides statistics for 2009, “Women writers remain stuck at 28% of television employment, while their share of film employment actually declined a percentage point since the last report (in 2007) to 17%.”

The same report said that in 2009, only 10% of television writers and 5% of feature-film writers in Hollywood were “minorities”—a euphemism for everyone not white…I’ll play along—and the gap in pay between minorities and white writers had more than doubled between 2007 and 2009.

These statistics are representative of obstacles women and minority TV and screen writers face. Once allowed in, they face a further, much larger obstacle of convincing the Hollywood gatekeepers (read: white men) to allow them the freedom to create new, daring and real characters instead of being made to rehash the same single-layered characters that the gatekeepers’ privileged gaze has made a Hollywood staple.

The fact that there are no people of colour in ‘Girls’ is something Moran should want to investigate and no amount of needling ought to blind her to that given her feminist convictions. Calling the question dumb or feeling like she was being accused of being part of “some undefined racist plot”, dare I say, sounds exactly like how men often respond when asked: “Why are there no women here?”

This refrain should be familiar to Moran: “Oh, there go the shrill, man-hating feminists again, seeing sexism where it doesn’t exist.”

What Moran (and Lewis, in her defence of Moran) do not get* is intersectionality, which is puzzling for Lewis particularly because she linked to a superb piece by journalist and blogger Bim Adewunmi on the whole fiasco.

“I am a woman, a black woman born in London to Nigerian parents, a Muslim woman (who does not wear a hijab or veil). I am educated and self-employed but relatively low-earning. These things, as standalones or collectively, define how I see the world. One often bleeds into the other so comprehensively, they seem almost interchangeable,” Adewunmi wrote on intersectionality.

Not only do these markers of self and socially imposed identification intersect in a single person— meaning that person deals with them all when dealing with one—they also allow experiences to be relatable from one person to another, save for the truly privileged 1%. Mixed into all the things that I am are overlaps of at times conflicting privilege and oppression. I am a man. I am black. I was born in a Bantustan in apartheid South Africa but came of age in a democratic South Africa. I am queer and agnostic—both terms accepted for lack of better words. I am lower-middle class and university educated.

It creates a cognitive dissonance for me to advocate for racial equity while dismissing or ignoring sexism, which is why I am a feminist. I can’t be for gay rights without being for the poor and working class in this country to be allowed their basic human rights, which is why I am pro-poor and pro-working class. I can’t relish my democratic rights and freedoms without supporting others’ struggles to gain theirs, which is why I support the people of Swaziland, Palestine, Mali, Syria, DR Congo and everywhere else seeking liberation from oppression.

Lewis wrote, “Incidentally, I feel this is an area in which Moran can’t win: she will either be accused of presuming to speak for minority groups of which she isn’t a member, or of ignoring them.”

No one is asking her to. I wouldn’t presume to speak on behalf of any of the things I am not. So I do as I’ve done with feminism. I get behind and support those who live the experience daily. And I try my damnedest to relate from the things I am and from my understanding of power, privilege and oppression to understand what they mean when they interrogate privilege or shout down their oppression.

This isn’t a matter of misplaced context. It’s about listening to what black feminists have been telling white feminists for years. I’m not speaking for them. I’m echoing what they’ve said here, here, here, here, here—everywhere, really. Some white feminists get it. If you don’t, check your privilege, please.


*Addendum: In the cool afterthought

It looks like I was not the only one who took issue with Lewis’s defence of Moran. That pesky feminist Tilly Jean, for example, wrote a really good reply. My main take-away from it was this:

“Moran, in her satire/sarcasm/joke, describes herself as a lover of, alongside women, “gays, disableds, mentals, the working class, transsexuals and all the ethnics – apart from the Chinese, obviously. It’s difficult to trust them. They’re a cruel race. Or is that supposed to be the Japanese?” And that’s the problem. Yes, I know it’s meant to be a parody. I knew from the moment I read it. But that doesn’t make it okay. Moran is not one of any of those minorities, no matter how great an ally she considers herself. And a lot of people of those minorities are the ones who are offended. That, for me, is where I would back off and say – “hold up, people whose experience of life is different to mine have a problem with something I’ve said that relates directly to them. I should think about why, and apologise”. It doesn’t matter that it was a joke. It doesn’t matter that her heart is in the right place with the message she’s trying to give. The people that she is talking about are treated like her parody and worse every day of their lives, except then it’s not a parody. Not surprisingly, they don’t find it funny when a straight, able, middle class, cis, white person makes a joke of it.

Three points to build on the above paragraph:

1. Moran satires using in-group identities not her own yet she turns around to say she would never presume to speak for all women. She steps into the in-group narrative not her own for her satire but when it’s too much responsibility (and work), she shrugs. Oh no, she says, without a hint of irony, I couldn’t possibly presume to speak for them. That’s problematic.

2. You are entitled to free speech, not consequence-free speech. People being offended at the things you say doesn’t infringe on your right to speak. You’ve spoken. They are offended. Everyone has exercised their rights. Cause for celebration, I reckon.

3. If people are constantly offended by what you say, either the deck is stacked against you, as Lewis suggests, or you’re off the mark. Maybe a bit of column A and maybe a bit of column B. Either way, it’s something to think about instead of dismissing glibly.

And, finally for my part, in the cool afterthought, I offer the following:

1. Lewis makes a really important point about context, albeit imperfectly. Not reading the full article before chiming in is rife (perhaps it always has been) and that’s how a lot of context, heck, meaning, is lost. One person read the first line of this post and that was all, apparently, he needed to know to conclude I was wrong. Another’s take-away, it seemed, was that I called Moran an activist. Focus, people. Both surprisingly seemed to agreed with Lewis on the importance of context. Face, please report to palm.

2. Feminists (as do others who publicly oppose prejudice and interrogate privilege) face open hostility on Twitter and elsewhere, and it’s patently unfair that this demands greater patience and the wherewithal to offer considered responses. And when we fail at meeting this unfair higher standard, it’s taken as evidence of how unbalanced, angry, sensitive or overwrought we are.

3. I regret saying that Moran and Lewis, and other feminists like them, “do not get” or “do not understand” intersectionality. My saying this teeters much too perilously close to mansplaining, which is a cousin of that fiend I know so well, whitesplaining. Nope. I’ll say it unqualified. It was mansplaining. I apologise unconditionally. They clearly understand it. My argument still stands though, because perhaps rather than a lack of understanding, it’s hubris or something else prevents understanding from precipitating a more thoughtful, empathetic response to the valid feminist criticism leveled at Moran. As there may be some posterity to be had in leaving a trail of how public conversations like this unfolded, I am leaving the original post as is and have appended this addendum-slash-erratum. I expect someone will be offended by this decision.

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5 thoughts on “What white feminists like Caitlin Moran do not get*

  1. Amy Donaldson says:

    Actually the most powerful woman in Hollywood is Oprah Winfrey whom I believe is a black woman. I think we need to realise that Caitlin Moran speaks for herself and not all women. I agree with a lot of what she says but not everything. It is a sad sign of how unequal women are that we feel anyone who says they are a feminist must all have exactly the same views on everything. You never get this kind of crazy over reaction when a man states an opinion on something.

    I have no objection to people disagreeing with her but the vitriol with which they do it seems to me very unreasonable and out of proportion.

  2. Stuart says:

    Excellent piece. Moran would do well to apply your own sensitivity about being an outsider-feminist to being an outsider anti-racist.

  3. Siya says:

    Very well articulated piece. Treated with the kind of sensitivity and tact one would require to make the point that you did and in the way that you did. I agree with Stuart wrt Moran and the lesson they could learn from you.

    Nice stuff!

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