How can we feel less innocent?

Let’s start with a story.

Back in the early 1990s, at a conference about law and feminism in the U.S., there was a discussion about prostitution/sex work. A woman who identified as a survivor of prostitution felt that other feminists in the room were dismissing the violence she had experienced, by framing prostitution as work like any other. She ended up leaving the conference.

The next day, there was another discussion, about racism and feminist publishing. A woman of colour argued that everyone needs to challenge their own privileges. At that moment, a white woman said that everyone had failed to challenge themselves the previous day when the woman had felt it necessary to leave. This diverted the discussion away from racism and led to “a fracture” between the white woman and the woman of colour.

Sound like a familiar story? Anyone who’s moved within feminist movements long enough will have their own variations of this story to tell (or quite a few of them!). Conflicts arising from our different perspectives and social positions are pretty endemic.

Going back to the story, the woman of colour was Sherene Razack and the white woman was Mary Lou Fellows, both co-organisers of the conference. In order to reflect on what had happened and to consider how feminists can more productively move beyond this common impasse, they wrote an article together, called “The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations among Women” (Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, vol 1, 1998).

Fellows and Razack note that during feminist discussions of emotive issues, it is a common move for participants to make claims to their own perceived marginality, in order to ensure their own innocent position. This initiates a process of “competing marginalities” which they call “the race to innocence”.

Drawing on the work of McClintock (1995) and Stoler (1995), they link this desire among western feminists to perceive of ourselves as innocent to historical constructions of respectable womanhood within western society, and the way in which women have historically seen their variously marginal positions as unconnected to each other. The emergence of the middle-class in European society relied upon gendered processes (in addition to imperialism and other social hierarchies), where the middle class ‘lady’ achieved her respectability through her association with the cleanliness of the middle-class home. This could only be achieved through the disavowal and othering of the domestic worker who cleaned the middle class home (and thus knew its dirtiness), and the ‘prostitute’ who was constructed as intimately connected with the ‘degenerate slum’. This illustrates how the middle class lady, in Fellows and Razack’s words:

… achieved and maintained her toehold on respectability through the economic and sexual exploitation of other women, and that exploitation was itself the product of class, gender, and racial hierarchies. (348)

In other words, the middle-class woman was able to secure her (relative) safety from economic and sexual exploitation through complicity in other women’s exploitation. The domestic worker in turn could (although more tenuously) claim her respectability by “demonstrating devotion to duty, restraint of passions, and hard work”, and crucially “a disavowing of prostituted women” (349).

Fellows and Razack suggest that looking at this historical context allows us not only to see clearly how some hierarchical relationships between women have developed, but also how much (some) women’s identities are invested in not feeling connected to or complicit in other women’s oppression (of course, their example is specific to the European context). They argue that this sustains a logic of respectability as dominance:

… each woman fails to see how her own subordination depends on the subordination of another woman. She is thus unable to challenge the structure of domination that is supported by multiple women in various subordinate roles. If, as women, our liberation leaves intact the subordination of other women, then we have not achieved liberation, but only a toehold on respectability. (350)

Concluding their article, Fellows and Razack argue that we have to remind ourselves constantly of the interlocking structures of oppression, and consider always the ways in which we are privileged as well as oppressed. They end with some pertinent questions feminists need to ask themselves in their organising and theorising:

Where have we positioned other women within our strategies for achieving social justice? What do we gain from this positioning? How are we implicated in structures of dominance?

These questions, they argue, may help us learn to distinguish what is an attempt at gaining our “toehold on respectability” versus what is a genuine liberation strategy. Being able to make that distinction requires us to learn how to feel less innocent.

I re-read this article over the weekend, as the latest blow-up in (and beyond) feminist online communities raged – initially over transphobic comments by Suzanne Moore, followed by more transphobic hate speech by Julie Burchill in The Observer. There’s been so much written about this already – much better than I can – so I won’t go into the details, but if you want to find out more, you could always start here, here and here.

What I do want to think about were some of the ways in which the debate played out. Moore’s refusal to take on board criticism was based on a claim to marginality on the basis of being a working-class raised woman, and a disavowal of trans women’s claim to justice. She failed to see, in her original insensitive comment, how her choice of language was part of a transphobic discourse, and how she was therefore complicit within a system which disavows trans women as the ‘other’ of ‘real’ women. Additionally, she claimed herself as the innocent victim in the debate because she received abusive and bullying tweets (I don’t doubt this, by the way – Twitter can be scary when things go viral), and a lot of the subsequent mainstream media coverage positioned her as the innocent victim of a ‘Twitter mob’.

Thinking more widely about how feminists engage in these kinds of arguments online, I do think the description of the process as a “race to innocence” is useful. Even among those of us who argue for the importance of an intersectional feminism, and who aim to be aware of our privilege, there seems to be a correct way to act and to respond to situations such as this, which seems at least partly connected to a desire to be the ‘right kind’ of feminist, on the ‘right side’ of the debate. And this process involves defining ourselves against the ‘wrong kind’ of feminist.

One critique I do want to make of the Fellows and Razack piece is that as much as they talk about hierarchies between women, they seem to flatten these out somewhat in their discussion of contemporary feminist communities – as if we all have equal amounts of privilege and dis-privilege in our competing claims to marginality. I don’t think this is what they mean, but I guess that is something that I would like to spell out a bit more explicitly: some people are more privileged than others within feminist communities (and sometimes this is context-dependent), and so saying that “we all need to acknowledge our privileges” can be another way of silencing those who are most marginalised. So in this particular debate, where trans women specifically, and trans people more generally, were under attack, to tell trans women to consider the ways in which they are privileged, is an oppressive tactic. But what about those who were privileged within this discussion – i.e. cis people – whatever their stance in the debate?

There is, I think, a common tenet among feminists who take an intersectional approach that those of us who are privileged in a particular situation should not remain silent, because to do so is to be complicit. So to witness a cis feminist say something transphobic and to not call them up on it, is to be complicit in transphobia. I don’t disagree with this at all. However, what happens online is that you get a couple of people speaking up, and then suddenly it goes on Twitter and 500 people are piling on (if not more, in this case). How many of the people who tweeted Moore in an aggressive way were cis people who participated in this collective calling out because they felt that to remain silent was a non-innocent position? How much is this action about retaining an identity as the ‘right kind’ of feminist? What other ways might there have been to act?

I am not saying that problematic and oppressive actions should not be taken to task – I believe they should. But when this is done in a way which is geared towards ‘ex-communicating’ another feminist – the ‘disavowal’ which Fellows and Razack write about – we are making a claim to our own innocence which is dependent on the othering of the ‘bad feminist’.

And, you know, to be honest, I’m perfectly happy to ex-communicate some people from feminism (if I believed that feminism is some kind of club, that is, which it isn’t). But I guess the questions I’m trying to reach towards here are: How much are contemporary feminist communities in Britain invested in notions of innocence? And what effects do these have on our abilities to organise towards social justice for everyone? How can we learn to feel less innocent? What might be possible if we did?