I have a favourite childhood anecdote that I use a lot in conversations either about how little I enjoy the work of J. R. R. Tolkien (*ducks*) or about how long I have identified as a feminist. It goes a little as follows:
When I was a kid, my parents would read to me every night before bed. Our reading material was wide and varied – classic (age-appropriate) literature like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, Andy Griffiths gross-out “Just!” series, Possum Magic by Mem Fox, old and new poetry (T.S. Elliot was always my favourite), Harry Potter, Plato and Homer… the list goes on.
When I was 5 or 6, my Mum decided we would start reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Snuggled up under my dolphin doona, we began to follow Bilbo’s journey to find Smaug or whatever… By night #3 we were about half way through and I sat up in bed and asked my mother: “Where are all the girls?”
If you are at all familiar with Tolkien, you know the answer.
With that my mum put down the book and picked up her favorite volume of Australian feminist poetry.
This is my earliest feminist memory – although my mum tells a few great stories of taking me along to pro-choice rallies as a baby – and it started me on the path I continue to travel today.
This path is paved with passionate debates with teachers about religion, feminism and ethics (one of which resulted in a very-christian classmate defacing my year 9 locker with the word “murderer” after a particularly intense pro-choice rant in Christian Studies), a sense of confusion about why books like Female Chauvinist Pigs didn’t quite sit well with me, a suspicious degree of enthusiasm for queer rights for a “straight” girl, crippling conflict around how hot I got reading The Taming of Sleeping Beauty, an iPod filled with too many episodes of Sunday Night Safran and an ardent sense of “understanding feminism“.
My notion of “understanding feminism” has been repeatedly torn down and rebuilt over the years and every time it happens I am grateful.
It first happened when I discovered the world of sex positivity at 15 and feminist porn at 17. I learned that sex, sexuality and feminism were not mutually exclusive and I felt liberated by that knowledge.
It happened again at 18 when I took Introduction to Gender Studies and learned that the binary was a lie; and at 19 when I finally stopped identifying as an “ally” and admitted I was pansexual (one of many words I learned in GEND1001). I was also 19 when I entered the public kink scene and met some of the most empowered feminist women I have ever encountered.
At 20, I engaged with the world of Queer activism for the first time and my feminism was expanded once more. I struggled. My understanding of activism was challenged, both in methods and purpose; and I was introduced to the complex world of trigger warnings, safe spaces, privilege-checking, gaytriarchy, preferred pronouns, TERFs and SWERFs and the speed that the community changes and develops new terminology. I was overwhelmed and even now I hold a degree of compassion for those beginning to engage with our spaces and protocols.
21 found me working in fashion retail. I sold women’s clothing and saw first-hand how much women of all sizes and shapes hated their bodies and how our dialogue around how we dress reinforced that negativity. Talk of so-called “problem areas” and “flaws” filled me with rage and it made me unapologetic. I threw out my shapewear and still wore tight clothes, I stopped giving a shit about my upper arms and thighs and I told my boss to get lost when she told me I should fake tan for work. I stopped following the “rules” and encourage my clients to do the same- it felt great and my customers responded amazingly. I also became very passionate about the gender non-conforming/trans retail experience and had some really rewarding experiences creating safe spaces for trans women in my stores.
By 22, I had had a lot of conversations; many of which had helped grow and reshape my feminism and I started to reflect on them as a whole. One of the things I identified were my own feelings of defensiveness and frustration at what I felt was ‘ineffective’ activism. This came to a head when I shared a video on Facebook called We Need To Talk About White Feminism – it was the first time I had encountered the terms ‘white feminism’ and ‘intersectional’ – and I included a comment to the effect of:
This seems like a really important issue but maybe it would be more effective if they didn’t call it ‘white feminism’. It risks isolating the people who most need to hear the message.
Don’t worry, I just cringed typing it.
What happened next was one of the biggest shakedowns my feminism had ever had. Some of the most amazing women on my friends list – including a bunch of Women of Colour – called me out. I was told I was promoting “respectability politics” when I thought I was “just being an effective activist”. It was deservedly brutal and to be honest, I felt attacked and embarrassed. I was used to being the person who “understood feminism” and they just “weren’t getting my point”. I walked away from the conversation feeling confused and angry – but I couldn’t quite work out why.
It was around the time that ‘#notallmen‘ became a thing. I won’t go into it too much because we all lived it, but it became a vital part of my feminist journey. I did my own share of eye-rolling as millions of men responded women speaking out about misogyny with the same frustrating mantra: “But I’m not like that!”. I was explaining why this mentality was an issue to a confused-but-well-meaning male friend when suddenly, the world slowed and in a matrix-like moment, it dawned on me…
I was doing the exact same thing to People of Colour and I had done the exact same thing to Trans and Gender Non-Conforming people before that.
I felt sick, I felt horrible… I considered myself an ally to these groups and would never consciously harm them, but my ignorance was doing just that. I was speaking over them, I wasn’t listening to them and I was being an asshole.
This is a position I think a lot of well-meaning allies find themselves in. When you are raised with privilege in any measure, even when you work hard to check it, occasionally you will find yourself doing some problematic things. When this happens there are three approaches I find we take: we get defensive, we get avoidant or we suck it up and get educated.
I know this was my default setting for far too long and it is the most harmful. I was a ‘Good Person™’ and could not possibly be problematic. This response is categorised by speaking over the people, getting upset or angry when you are called out, feeling attacked and a need to “justify” your position. It can also come with a sense of helplessness. When we get defensive, we back ourselves into a corner and sometimes it can be hard to find a way out of that. Being defensive is also an issue because it can make marginalised people do the intense emotional labour of trying to educate you. Which is not their job.
While seemingly less harmful because it can require less emotional labour from marginalised people, avoiding or walking away when someone tells you you’re being problematic is still incredibly damaging. Avoidance is dismissive and by ignoring someone’s efforts to call you out, you are telling them that their feelings and experiences do not matter to you.
This option can be particularly tempting for those of us with social anxiety or similar health issues because engagement can be exhausting or stressful, but it is still important to not invalidate people. If I happened to get called out on a low spoon day, I will still strive to respond in some way. I find a simple: “Thank you for letting me know, I did not mean to offend/I did not realise this was problematic, I will definitely educate myself further on this issue.” goes a really long way. Of course, be sure to actually take time educate yourself when you are well enough.
This is the correct response to being called out. If someone identifies your behaviour or language as problematic, I recommend using Lukayo’s “CAL(I)M” model:
It takes practice and it can be a challenging process, but if you can learn to change your reaction, you can significantly reduce the amount of harm you cause. Another important part of moving forward is taking time to listen to people and educate yourself on the area or topic in which you misstepped. If a marginalised person is happy to give you their insight, thank them and do not be greedy with their time or energy; but if they are not, then the onus is on you to take action to improve you knowledge.
It was this case of being called out that lead me to learn about Intersectionality, Black Feminism, the continuing influences of Colonialism, mircroaggressions, cultural appropriation and colourism and these things have expanded my feminism to a place I didn’t know it needed to go. It also lead me to understand the intersections of class, disability, socioeconomic status, religion, age and all the other facets of the Interlocking Matrix of Oppression. Being called out burned my feminism to the ground and I am so grateful because now I can rebuild it to be better and stronger and more inclusive than ever.
I rebuild in full knowledge that at anytime I could learn something new that forces me to return to the drawing board and start again – but I accept that and know that I am now more open and receptive than ever. This purpose of this piece is not to pat myself on the back, but rather to admit that I have messed up in the past. I have been problematic and caused harm when I did not intend to, but through education and letting go of my ego around being a ‘Good Person™’, I have been able to move forward and I am a better feminist/activist/human because of it.
One Final Note: The feminism that got us where we are is vital and understanding it is so important to the continuing fight against injustice, but it has major flaws. The world has changed, people have changed and we must allow feminism to grow and adapt to reflect that or we risk perpetuating the subjugation we resist so strongly. And I for one refuse to be complicit in my (or any other human’s) oppression.