Yeah, I know. Tall order. No wonder it’s taken me five months to put this together.
Before I dive in, I want to clarify my audience here: I am talking to those who are members of Western culture and self-identify as progressive or liberal, who probably embrace feminism and think of themselves as advocates for or allies to various minorities (if not members of a minority themselves). If that’s not you, well, you’re certainly welcome to read along. But keep in mind that you’re not the audience I’m addressing, so assumptions that I make based on shared experiences and mutually agreed upon beliefs won’t really apply to you because we’re working from different starting points. Also keep in mind my comment policy.
As I try to do with all of my writing, I’m coming at this from a personal experiential level. What I write isn’t necessarily prescriptive — I’m not telling anyone that they have to come to the same conclusions that I do or that my actions are right for everyone. This blog exists for me to work out how I, Dani, can act within my sphere of influence with integrity, compassion, and purpose while also providing talking points for others who might share similar experiences.
Earlier this year, the Human Rights Campaign’s “Picture Equality” campaign took off. In a show of support for same sex marriage, social media users were encouraged to change their profile pictures to a red square with an equal sign in the middle (a variation of the HRC logo itself).
As a person who strongly supports equal rights, I followed suit and changed my Facebook profile picture to the red equal sign. While I realized that changing my profile picture wouldn’t affect public policy whatsoever, I did it to send the message that I am an ally, which was something that I had kept mostly private on Facebook for fear of backlash. I was shocked (and relieved) to get very little personal pushback from conservative friends and acquaintances.
What really surprised me was the public anger of some of my liberal friends. I was confused until a couple of them posted a link to this explanation.
Folks, the HRC is an organization run by rich white men. They have consistently chosen not to support trans rights. They have consistently silenced POC organizations and organizers. They have accepted donations from, and even honored, multi-billionaire corporations who have done more than their fair share to contribute to the unequal distribution of wealth and to systematic racialized and gendered oppression in the US. Their vision of “equality” — as obviously signaled by their logo — is not, and never has been, equality for all…
So when I see a cascade of HRC logos as far as I can see, and then a ton of self-congratulatory back-patting on the internet, likeway to go, internet America! You’ve seen the light! You’re finally making progress! I think about all the queer people of color, and the trans and genderqueer people, who are being told in no uncertain terms: your rights mean less than ours. Your alienation means less than our visibility. We’ll come back for you later. Wait your turn.
When I first read this article, it made me uncomfortable. Uneasy. A little bit angry, even. Didn’t this person understand that even if the HRC was a little questionable, at least this cause was good? And anyway, I’m not transphobic or racist, so I mean really, my participation in the campaign didn’t mean that I was okay with their discrimination. At least, that’s how I consoled myself after feeling soundly reprimanded for doing something I thought was right.
Then there was the Dove “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign, in which a forensic artist was hired to draw a handful of people based on their descriptions of themselves, then again based on the descriptions of others. The point was to show that we are all more beautiful than we think we are, and honestly, it made me cry. I even wrote a post half-based on the campaign. It spoke a truth to me — that I am always my harshest critic (which is quite true).
So when someone wrote about how the campaign made them uncomfortable and angry, I was taken aback.
Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds.
…I don’t know if anyone else is picking up on this, but it kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of “beauty”: young, light-skinned, thin. No real diversity celebrated in race, age, or body shape. So you’re beautiful…if you’re thin, don’t have noticeable wrinkles or scars, and have blue eyes. If you’re fat or old…uh, maybe other people don’t think you look as fat and old as you do yourself? Great? Oh, and by the way, there are real women who look like the women on the left. What are you saying about them, exactly?
…my primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are.
I didn’t understand why someone would want to so harshly critique a campaign that was clearly doing some good in the world. I mean, maybe I wasn’t a person of color, but it did good in my life, brought me a little bit of perspective and comfort. There was nothing really wrong with it, right?
This summer, Miley Cyrus was the topic of mainstream headlines and personal social media frenzy after her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Now, Miley Cyrus is not exactly my genre of choice. That, combined with my lack of cable television and the fact that I’ve never paid attention to MTV, means I missed the show. Frankly, I still haven’t watched it. But boy, have I ever heard about it.
Predictably, the more moderate and conservative writers in my life commented on her overtly sexual display, discussing the downfall of social morality. Some called for equality in criticism, saying we should be just as upset with Robin Thicke’s participation in the performance as we supposedly were with Miley. (Granted, some of Thicke’s music is problematic enough without Miley’s help.) Still others called the criticism of Miley slut-shaming and anti-feminist. Initially, I tended to agree with that assessment, not understanding why feminists were up in arms over a woman owning her sexuality publicly.
But the comments about the racism implicit in Miley’s appropriation of twerking, along with her background singers and dancers, started coming to my attention. I wasn’t sure I followed, feeling out of my depth. This article began making its rounds in my Twitter feed:
Fat non-normative black female bodies are kith and kin with historical caricatures of black women as work sites, production units, subjects of victimless sexual crimes, and embodied deviance. As I said in my analysis of hip-hop and country music cross-overs, playing the desirability of black female bodies as a “wink-wink” joke is a way of lifting up our deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women. Cyrus did not just have black women gyrating behind her. She had particularly rotund black women. She gleefully slaps the ass of one dancer like she intends to eat it on a cracker. She is playing a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact. It’s a dance between performing sexual freedom and maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.
…Cyrus’ choice of the kind of black bodies to foreground her white female sexuality was remarkable for how consistent it is with these historical patterns. We could consider that a coincidence just as we could consider my innumerable experiences with white men and women after a few drinks an anomaly. But, I believe there is something common to the bodies that are made invisible that Cyrus might be the most visible to our cultural denigration of bodies like mine as inferior, non-threatening spaces where white women can play at being “dirty” without risking her sexual appeal.
I felt uneasy. Was she maybe taking this too far, being a little too sensitive about the whole thing?
Social justice campaigns like the HRC certainly have good intentions. They’re created to highlight systems of oppression based on sex, gender, race, sexuality, age, mental & physical ability, and class, to bring awareness to inequalities and help change the world on a personal and political level. Dove has been long lauded for their dedication to “real beauty” and challenging how women are portrayed in media. Another big part of being progressive is allowing people the freedom to express themselves without fear of discrimination, much like Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs.
There seems to be this thought among us progressives that if a campaign or an ally of any kind has good intentions and is working towards a higher purpose, people shouldn’t criticize them or else they’re causing division and harm. The thought seems particularly hard to shake when we apply it to ourselves — at least, it is for me. It goes like this: I’m a liberal. I’m a feminist. I have worked for the past couple of years to become more aware of the realities of systemic discrimination in our Western society. An enlightened person like me can’t possibly support systems of oppression, right? Surely no one can possibly have reason to question my sincerity or accuse me of being part of an oppressive system.
If you’re at all involved in social justice, or even just friends with people who are, you’re probably aware of the concept of privilege. As Dianna Anderson put it in the first of her three-part series on privilege, “Privilege is an advantage I have but am not always aware of.” Many of us are great at recognizing privilege in situations where we feel personally slighted. But where I think a lot of us have problems is acknowledging and checking our own privilege, allowing people who aren’t like us to lead discussions about topics that we honestly aren’t really involved in or affected by.
In each of the situations I described here, I had a choice in my responses. I could listen to what people were telling me about their observations and experiences, believing them that there was a continued theme of institutionalized discrimination, or I could decide that their observations and experiences were irrelevant. I mean, I’m a white, middle-class cisgender woman. I’m not personally negatively affected by transphobia or racism. So my initial reaction unwittingly served to continue to side with the position of power despite compelling evidence that there was something wrong. I identified with the privileged group, not the minorities they were supposedly representing or using.
And that was a problem.
I wasn’t malicious. I didn’t have hateful feelings or wishes about anyone. My problem was that my privilege blinded me to the realities of people around me and gave more weight to the views of whiteness, heteronormativity, and money represented by the HRC, Dove, and Miley Cyrus alike. I did this almost unconsciously, without any initial introspection about my own privileges reflected in those views, without any realization that I was dismissing the experiences of people that I claim to love and support. I wanted to be perceived as working for equality without taking the time to verify what I was actually supporting.
In the piece about the HRC, agnesgalore said: “Listen, either you know nothing about the HRC and you posted the photo without bothering to ask any questions about what actual cause you were supporting: disturbing. Or you actually do know about the HRC, and its policies, and you posted the photo anyway: more disturbing.” Those words have helped me open my eyes to my own privilege — to check my blind spot as it were.
Just because I’m a good person, just because I’m progressive, just because I’m involved in working towards a better world, doesn’t mean that I am unaffected by privilege, exempt from critique, incapable of bearing responsibility for abusive behavior…or even incapable of being an asshat.
Supporting equality, supporting people, means that most of the time? My job is to sit down, shut up, and listen, while pointing to the voices of those who are directly affected by the various forms of oppression they’re facing, whether they’re being silenced, erased, or attacked.
It’s not my job to speak for others. It’s not my job to speak over them. That only perpetuates the problem in which I and people like me are constantly the center of my social justice universe, where equality for all really only means equality for me.
Some related reading for your curiosity:
- Good People Do Terrible Things
- The Distress of the Privileged
- On privilege and taking the stairs
- Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
- Why There’s No Such Thing As Reverse Racism
- A Chat with Mikki Kendall and Flavia Dzodan About #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen
- What does (generic non brand person) Flavia want?
- I Don’t Care if You Call Yourself A Feminist: Part 1 and Part 2
- Things I Need From Allies
And a few things to keep in mind when writing about intersectionality, privilege, and activism: