Monday, 24 February 2014

From One White Salon Writer to Another: An Open Letter To Michelle Goldberg From Across the Pond

Dear Michelle Goldberg
With this piece, you've made a lot of white people feel vindicated. There are a lot of white media bigshots on Twitter, here in Britain as much as in America, with loyal coteries of friends and sycophants (mostly white, mostly in the media), and they are not happy that so many female, gay, black or transgender voices won't shut up and just accept that they -  the former -  are leftist, feminist and non-privileged no matter what anyone says to the contrary. (I've written about them here) They've got their own ideas about feminism - not tweeting for a single day as a stand against misogyny, getting Russell Brand onboard, getting more women on banknotes, banning page 3 but not the rest of The Sun, complaining about the misogyny on Celebrity Big Brother - and they're not happy that so many feminist tweeters and bloggers, many of them not white and not cis-gendered, simply won't shut up.

Several of your supporters are making absurd claims that your piece is "balanced" and "thoughtful". To you and them I simply ask how you can say that about a piece in which minority voices are reduced to figures in a "perpetual psychodrama" and demonised as guilty of "slashing righteousness" and a "Maoist hazing", which says that Mikki Kendall "sounds warm over the phone" but also "obsessed", and which uses a line as spectacularly clueless as "now, it's true white people need to make an effort not to be racist, but...". When you feel the need to remind yourself of something as vital as that halfway through the article as if it were an afterthought, and then move on to something you consider more pressing before you've even finished the sentence, then it might be time to consider your priorities. Here's another point at which you describe a problem vastly more important and destructive than the one you have chosen to dedicate an article to: "Clearly, there’s some truth here: privileged white people dominate feminism, just as they do most other sectors of American life." That actually sounds like a hell of a lot of truth to me, and a grim truth at that, but once again you can't let that stand, and quickly follow it with a caveat: "That doesn’t mean, though, that social media’s climate of perpetual outrage and hair-trigger offence is constructive." Perhaps the biggest lesson we can take from this is to make sure whatever occupies the sentence before the "but" "nevertheless" or "however" cuts in is not more important than your preferred subject. "I'm not racist but..." is very popular among racists.

As for your argument that radical feminist discourse can sometimes be ludicrous: that seems to be the same false equivalence so often used to denounce "political correctness" over the past few decades, here in Britain as much as in the USA. The latter worked by pointing to someone using a daft phrase like "dimensionally challenged" as proof that political correctness had gone mad, the former works by pointing to someone claiming that a phrase like "night of a thousand vaginas" is exclusive as proof that feminism has gone toxic. The latter movement, for all its mistakes, fails to qualify as bad enough to suggest a return to the days of (to take my country as an example) "NO COLOUREDS" signs in lodging-house windows, the mocking of black children by teachers  and slogans like the one the Conservative Party used for the 1964 Smethwick General Election campaign -  "if you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour" - to say nothing of the hideous days of segregation in your own country. Similarly, the catalogue you offer is hardly bad enough - let alone "toxic" - to suggest a return to the days when black, gay and transgender people were denied public voices would be preferable. You yourself point out "women of color, trans women and other people who feel silenced can amplify one another’s voices, talking back to people with power in an unparallelled way," but then of course we reach the "that doesn't mean" part, and you turn your back on that important point.

Those voices are still being shouted down by those with power -  those with with a fanbase, or a media career. Just look at what's happening around you. Your article appeared at the same time as this appalling tweet from Amanda Palmer:

As ever, this was then followed by Palmer describing critics of this tweet as "haters". Meanwhile, Cathy Brennan, a transphobic bigot who outs transgender people to their families, has been conducting a hate campaign against Sophia Banks, attacking her business with fake reviews, misgendering her and using sock puppet twitter, blog and Storify accounts such as  @NameTheProblem, @Name_Problem and @FeministRoar to post online abuse,  as a result of which she has been  facing the prospect of homelessness. Transphobia is not even recognised as a major concern by many prominent media-friendly white feminists, with virulent transphobes such as Julie Bindel, Suzanne Moore (who posted these tweets of filthy bigotry and still refuses to apologise for them) and Germaine Greer unchallenged and allowed prestige as cultural commentators in a way that would clearly not happen if they felt the same animosity towards other minorities.

The delusion they all seem to buy into is that these blasted feminists, blacks, and gays will shut up if they shout them down. What exactly is your article trying to say? That black people should be less "obsessed," as you describe Mikki Kendall? That they need to put more effort into creating a welcoming atmosphere for white people? Sometimes I wonder if Martin Luther King were alive today, would he face a generation eager to remind him he'd catch more flies with honey? Would James Baldwin face demands to be "more constructive"?

Also, if you don't want to come across as a bully, then for God's sake stop skulking in Mikki Kendall's Twitter timeline. If you must withdraw from debate and stay silent for days on end rather than face up to what you've written, then suddenly popping out of nowhere to post a tweet accusing Mikki Kendall of bullying complete with incriminating snapshot and vanishing into the fog again is not classy behaviour. Hit-and-run tweets suggest you don't have the courage of your convictions.

  But your piece will continue to be adored by white people with media clout and their white supporters. Many of them are the same people that thought not tweeting for a single day would be a good way to take a stand against the online abuse of women, and were then outraged when a bunch of damned insolent feminists, women of colour, gays and transgender people thought this fatuous and self-serving and dared to say so.  "#Twittersilence" as it was called was devised by Caitlin Moran, also quick to retweet approval of your piece, who suggested that asking whether there should be women of colour in Lena Dunham's Girls was "as dumb as asking ABBA "why aren't one of you black?".  In that same interview she explained her responsibility towards representation of women of colour in TV shows thus:

 If a woman of color 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 color in ‘Girls.’

The kind of journalist who can refer to our occupying a world in which women of colour are not "allowed" to make high-quality TV shows (and who makes the classic racist's mistake of thinking white and black are interchangeable terms) without wondering  whether that is what she should be investigating or writing about rather than what Lena Dunham has achieved in the representation of "slightly overweight" naked white people with acne talking about abortion is the kind your piece has empowered. It is my fear that this will become the voice of a generation, and it our responsibility to prevent this (incidentally, no prizes for guessing what Caitlin Moran's TV comedy series Raised by Wolves - just commissioned following the broadcast of a pilot -  is about). This was her astonishing response to the George Zimmerman verdict. Is it so hard for you to imagine how it might feel to read that if you were black?

 Other people who have retweeted your piece include Moran's friend and ferocious defender, the lauded TV writer Graham Linehan -  who suggested those wanting to see women of colour in Girls should "make that show - let Lena write hers", speaking for many who consider themselves on the Left but don't want to go to any pains. Helen Lewis, formerly a subeditor and sometime features commissioner on the UK's right-wing Daily Mail and now deputy editor of UK's left-wing New Statesman, retweeted your piece, and has just reused your hideous term "toxic" as an umbrella word for feminists who won't play ball. Her own patronising attitude towards commissioning writers of colour can be seen in this selection of her tweets:

Thanks Sam, I read that yday. Horrific case. I've commissioned an Indian writer on it for the NS.

 Find me one male commissioning ed who commissions as diverse a range of feminist voices as me.

Reassured to know that if I fall under a bus, there are a dozen people on Twitter who seem sure they know how to do my job better than I do.

In fact, it's very selfish of me to keep it when if they had it, the whole world would be a perfectly equal wonderland of rainbows.

[after being asked why she can't "cover a broader range of topics with a broader range of writers" after publishing a piece by the contributing editor about her own hairstyle] Cool. Can you give me a million pounds to spend?

Suggest you point critics to our Wellcome Trust Scholarship, too - set up specifically to encourage emerging BME writers

 If any WOC wants to write about the politics of their choices re: hair, am on Helen @ newstatesman co uk

Are people criticising it? Argh. Was a genuinely meant offer. Want to do everything I can to increase media diversity.
Think some of my critics feel that I should be perfect. Clearly, I'm not & never going to be.
It's a lot easier to understand once you grasp that I am Satan himself.
It just keeps...getting...worse. Only thing that'd improve it is a mushroom cloud in the background at the end
One of those days where you think, "why do I even bother?". Please send gifs of animals and badly written poetry.

 I think this tweeter put it best:

Can Helen Lewis ever just once commission women of colour without sounding like Mrs Slaveowner? Don't answer that

Lewis is not averse to kicking down: a few months back she tweeted a link to an inoffensive blogpost while saying it "represents everything that is wrong with a certain strand of feminist blogging" and she's also twice Storified an argument with a woman of colour, which is tremendously useful in gathering other white media personalities to ridicule a  black blogger for her damned insolence.  She worries that people don't realise "what having 300k followers must be like." She falls hungrily on whatever insulting name for those uppity women of colour, feminists or trans-women anyone can think up. Which brings us to another retweeter of your blog who was just waiting for it to come along: Glosswitch, another New Statesman contributor, who delights in thinking up new names - smugsexualmisogofeminist - with which to label her critics (Gia Milinovitch is adept at this too - she prefers "pygmy"),  and has now reached the stage of siding with vicious trolls (here she is conversing with one of Cathy Brennan's sock puppets). Then there's Caroline Criado-Perez, a Guardian writer popular with many of the aforementioned  for her campaign to get more women on banknotes, who explains her views on why feminism can't quite stretch to transgender experience and activism thus:

Isn't it nice that she remembers to acknowledge "we should not deliberately hurt trans women", before getting to the "but" of the kind your piece relied on. She thought your piece was "nail on head."

Other people eager to circulate your piece include Ross Wolfe, who can be seen revelling in his ability to annoy women of colour here  , and it's only a matter of time before it's found by Gia Milinovitch, who similarly has been trying hard to lay down the law about the nature of sex and gender to transgender people, who to her rage won't shut up and agree with her, even though she's repeatedly pointed out it's indisputable scientific fact and, most hilariously, that it earned a Richard Dawkins retweet, so why dispute it?. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, who Lewis recently commissioned to write a piece on misogyny in Celebrity Big Brother as her New Statesman debut,  and whose idea of debate is to link to an intersectionalist-baiting  article by Wolfe and then post a request to be "unhooked" from any discussion, will probably love it too (other low points include this extraordinary, borderline transphobic conversation with Glosswitch, and this tweet which actually pays homage to this notorious moment of white blinkeredness. ) They'll love your piece. Hell, the thing was even retweeted by Hugo Schwyzer.

Oh. As I was finishing this letter, I just noticed you retweeted Glosswitch. Meanwhile another New Statesman contributor, Sarah Ditum, has with great enthusiasm (is it me or is there a real thrill-of-the-chase about all this? A desire to humiliate these cocky little bloggers in front of as many influential people with media platforms as possible?)  hosted this piece by Guardian writer Jane Clare Jones which argues that attacking an individual rather than a structure is never justified (the nadir comes when she quotes someone being rude to Piers Morgan with the expectation that we would sympathise with Morgan). This piece by Meghan Murphy - focusing its ire on a single blogpost in which the author had dared to lose her temper and say she hated a bunch of white people in the media - moves a step on from terms such as misogofeminists, smugsexuals, pygmies and toxic twitter feminists by branding women she finds rude "misogynists", and I fear this will catch on.  Both pieces use yours as a touchstone. The former Tory MP and all-round right -wing nightmare Louise Mensch has tweeted the following to Helen Lewis's critics:

you are not only misogynists, you are losers. @helenlewis is sixty times more feminist and woman than you

We are both white, but you don't seem to see that as something that carries a responsibility with it. I could never write one of those "racism is bad but" sentences you seem proficient in. You have broken a vital  rule not just of journalism, but of being a citizen in an world of injustice and inequality: you kicked down instead of up. For this you'll get much praise. Please consider whether it is worth it.

Richard Cooper

(Michelle Goldberg's only response:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. George Gissing, the next time you want to defecate, might I suggest you do it in a toilet bowl and NOT in the comment section of this blog post?

    2. George, your understanding of intersectionality is not accurate. The theory the black + woman = double oppressed is called the additive model and did not come from Black feminist epistemology (intersectionality). Real intersectionality does not treat categories of social identity as additive and parallel but as intersecting or interlocking.

  2. "Intersectionality cannot reveal any of this because it is based on a false premise. You cannot just add different oppressions together in this way. It is like trying to solve 2Y = 3X + 3. You cannot do it this way because you have two variables but one equation. You need at least two equations to solve a problem with two variables."

    I don't agree with your assertion of how intersectionality works, and I'd like to respond by bringing up this excellent Bim Adewunmi piece from around the time of the Girls fiasco:

    "How do you define yourself? The very essence of you? There are things that we all share: our body chemistry means we breathe air and drink water and produce waste. After what we have in common comes what is inescapably different: the things that come with the geography of the place we were born, the amenities we have access to, how much money is in our wallets, the colour of our skin. We are more than checklists, sure, but we are also the sum of our various "parts".

    Here are mine: 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. This is, in its most basic form, what we call intersectionality: the idea that we wear a lot of caps, and often in challenging one wrong, we are challenging many."

    Intersectionality should not be about adding oppression to oppression to make a victim, in order to fit a binary "oppressor-oppressed" political model. I would agree with Adewunmi that it is, instead, an acknowledgement of the complexity of identities and the levels of social oppression which minorities experience. It is a way to more fully describe and define the experience of belonging to overlapping minority groups.

    I should also add you left trans women of colour out of your argument; statistically, their experiences are an example of how belonging to overlapping, intersecting minorities can make life extremely dangerous. Not only do they have complex and rich identities, but these identities leave them vulnerable to unemployment, poverty, social isolation, imprisonment, institutionalisation, and violence (they are very likely to be murdered or killed, and are especially at risk in relationships). Sorry, but people's lives are not equations to be solved.

  3. also, this

  4. thank you for this wonderful piece, i had the great joy of beong told not only could i not be a feminist by CCP but am one of the people GW coined smugsexual about (the whorephobia of the term has generally been ignored, but it is glaring once you think about her objection to women who talk openly about sex and oppression)
    I didnt realize the Ditum guest blog was by a guardian writer (i am one of the co authors of Sometimes its just a cigar who gets quoted) Sadly I am not surprised, being a radical feminist who produces click bait seems to be the Guardian policy following in the illustrious footsteps of Littlejohn and Liz Jones.

  5. You have really helped several of individuals like me, who have been searching internet from past quite a long time to find detailed information on this particular topic. Thanks a ton. Salons in delhi