Since June, when I last posted here – a response to the Black Lives Matter protests – I have hesitated to write anything publicly. Each time I’ve considered writing something, I’ve wondered if all I’m doing is simply adding my voice to a sea of woke white people and white-led organisations offering statements of solidarity with little substance.
But what I have come to realise is that regardless of when and how we make public statements via our social media channels, one vital factor remains: we have to continue doing the inner work on anti-racism. This is not stuff that we need to shout out from the rooftops or boast about, and nor is it a one-off event. It is continuous, and daily. It doesn’t stop because we have attended a protest, or a training, or read a book on anti-racism.
Part of this inner work requires conscious awareness, and leaning into, the everyday problems and discomforts of white supremacy and patriarchy and the myriad of ways they show up in all our lives. These two interconnected systems of power are not just things that happen out there, to other people. In many ways, we are all victims of them.
The primacy of whiteness, and of male knowledge, preferences and presence in public life for hundreds of years affects us all: it shapes and constrains what is expected of us as men and women, the messages we are given from our parents and our teachers about which behaviours are acceptable and which are not, what and whose knowledge counts, and the degree to which our lived realities are heard and respected. The more we become aware of this within our own day-to-day experiences, the more we may understand how systems of patriarchy and white supremacy affect the lives of others around us.
This is not easy work, as sooner or later it does require us moving beyond introspection and out into the world, as we attempt to challenge the structures and systems that have hitherto kept everyone in their place.
On becoming a feminist killjoy
I can speak from my experiences as a white, cis-gendered woman. Over the years, I have become what feminist thinker and writer Sara Ahmed calls the ‘feminist killjoy’. The one who notices power dynamics at the family dinner table, or in a romantic relationship, or in a friendship. Where previously I may not have drawn attention to it, preferring to remain silent, I now begin to voice the dynamic; and in doing so I am often made the problem, the one who has disrupted the peace or is being ‘emotional.’ As our inner awareness of power and privilege increases, so does the risk of dismissal from others as we dare to speak up.
Here are some examples of how systems of power show up in everyday life, taken from my own back catalogue. These are not incidents of physical abuse, or of obvious harassment and discrimination. Indeed, these moments I relate here could happen to anybody.
- A male family member who claims that young women are a financial burden on business as all they do is eventually get pregnant and go on maternity leave.
- A disagreement I had with an ex-boyfriend where I was told ‘not to get my knickers in a twist’.
- A suggestion by a family member that the reason more black people get arrested than white is because they commit more crimes.
- A male family member suggesting that the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights was mere political correctness gone awry and a lot of fuss over nothing.
When these seemingly innocuous situations arise, what do we do? Do we remain silent or do we dare to speak up?
On taking accountability
The inner work also includes making ourselves accountable: as part of a fully embodied commitment to ending oppression in all its forms, we have to acknowledge how, in our life choices, we have benefited from the systems that keep inequalities in tact.
Looking at my own life right now, here are some things I’ve been considering that may be of use to others.
- As someone who has worked in the aid sector for many years, how has my social positioning brought certain privileges – for example, access to education at an elite, globally respected university and a passport that enables travel to anywhere I want. How has this social positioning allowed me to progress up the career ladder in ways that are less attainable for people who do not share my background? How does this privilege continue to show up, in who controls and decides upon aid programmes or the language used in advocacy campaigns, and in how we treat the ‘victims’ and ‘beneficiaries’ we support?
- As a writer and facilitator on wellbeing in the aid sector, am I centralising white narratives and assumptions about what wellbeing is, whilst dismissing alternative interpretations? Do I follow western approaches that emphasise mind and body (usually as separate, autonomous units) whilst overlooking the wisdom of other traditions that value mind, body and spirit together, and wellbeing as a collective, relational process? Am I using Eurocentric diagnostic tools and methods to define mental health and wellbeing, which often ignore the social context and systemic causes of stress or trauma?
- As a yoga teacher, am I marketing and delivering my offerings in a way that favours some bodies and abilities over others? Do I reflect on, question, and hold myself accountable for why some people (mainly white women) come to classes whilst many others do not? Is my understanding of ‘oneness’ and ‘unity’ denying difference and diversity in human experience and thus silencing people on the margins?
- As a feminist, how much are my experiences of gender discrimination and oppression applicable to other women who are not white, able-bodied, cis-gendered and middle-class? Is my voice regarding gender justice being privileged over other women’s? Is my language on these issues being favoured over the language of others?
Our emotional work on difference and dispute
I’d like to finish with one final point. In writing this, I will probably be accused by some of being ‘woke’, of being morally superior, and even of being racist. In speaking up on these issues I risk dismissal from men who wish to deny my truth, from people of colour who may see this as another example of the centring of white experience, and from others – some of whom may be friends or family members – who will accuse me of trying too hard or of not noticing my own blind spots.
This is part of the work of anti-racism, and of intersectional feminism – a feminism that believes justice and equality are only possible through addressing intersecting aspects of oppression such as sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, classism and homophobia. When I do speak up as a white cis-gendered woman, I know that not everyone will agree with me, and also I will continue to get things wrong and possibly offend the very people I wish to align myself with. I will feel righteous indignation in some moments, and guilt and shame in others.
Part of my ongoing inner work is to pause in the midst of such tensions and consider what responsibility I may take for the emotions arising within me, and how I may heal. In that pause I can also reflect on the intentions behind my response: is it coming from a place of hurt, fear and separation or of love, connection and accountability?
I have made many mistakes in this endeavour, and will continue to do so. But I will keep trying, remaining open to exploring my flaws and blind spots and maintaining a belief in and commitment to a more compassionate and inclusive future.