Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Writes and Wrongs of a Matter

Ah, the trials and tribulations of social media.  A few weeks ago - a lifetime in the land of social media - Idris Elba, an internationally celebrated British actor, agreed to be part of a competition to raise money for an African girls’ charity. The sexualised premise of the competition was to win a date with him on Valentine's Day and featured the actor saying to the panting masses, 'I'll let you pound my yams.' 

In far away New Zealand, a white, married, middle class mother wrote a blog post in response to the advert, in the style of ‘a liberal feminist’s version of how a laddish bloke might write about a woman he fancies'  - and a load of folk started running around proclaiming the sky had fallen. 

I only came across Emily Writes' piece (which, it seems, no longer exists) because a gay man on Twitter made a caustic comment about the quality of the writing.  Emily fired back an equally insulting rejoinder and was then supported by some women who piled in and kicked the cyber-shit out of him.

I think it's fair to say that had liberal social media’s bête blanc -  a cis/het, white, middle class man - written about a black female actor in the way Emily Writes wrote about Idris Elba, he’d have been lucky to come away with his yams intact. But it’s become almost de rigeur these days for women to think that behaving like blokes is sexual liberating.  

The rationale is that it’s ok for women to behave towards men in the same ways that men have behaved towards women because women’s sexuality has been denied, suppressed and deformed within various forms of phallocratic rule for millennia and behaving as men have done is a way of reversing the power polarity and regaining female sexual agency. 

I get a tad annoyed with that, in the same way as I get annoyed with women who think that feminism is simply about ensuring they have legal and economic equality within a social system that is inherently oppressive and exploitative of vast swathes of people.   That was the mindset of the white, middle class British suffragists who, in 1914, stopped agitating for the vote for women in order to support an imperial war in which millions of disenfranchised working class men were sent off to die or be maimed.

I’m a different generation of social activist so I find the whole girls being laddish thing annoying.  Call me old fashioned, but the idea surely is for women to work together and form alliances to create a different and a better way to conduct all the many facets of the business of living - not to simply seek ‘equality’ with their male peers within viciously stratified and exploitative social arrangements that for the most part have been created by, and for men of wealth and power.

But then I’m a grumpy old socialist feminist so I would think that wouldn’t I? 

The first thing I thought when I read Emily’s post was what the hell makes women think that behaving like men behaving badly is making a stand for female equality; the second thing, which arrived hot on the heels of the first, was that she was completely oblivious to the race dimension. 

OK the ad which provoked Emily to write the post invited that sort of response but what Emily forgot is that, in the current hierarchy of oppression, white still trumps all – especially when it’s affluent and educated white women whose only competitors for most privileged creatures on the planet are white, affluent and educated men. So, when a white, educated and affluent woman objectifies and stereotypes a black man – the usual gender dynamic shifts a little on its axis.

It's stating the blindingly obvious that the mismanagement of the complex intersection of all the factors of identity can, and often does, cause all manner of damaging collisions.  Emily was so busy fantasising about having sex with Elba, she drove too fast into that intersection, failed to give way to the right of black people not to be sexually objectified by white people – and crash.

Emily had her bad driving pointed out to her in a post by Lana Lopesi and she publicly apologised for her ‘racism’.  Much self-congratulation ensued on social media  about the actual operation of intersectionality - as opposed to reading about the theory of it -and everyone learned a bit and moved on as better people, less likely to offend. Or so we hope.

Lana Lopesi’s post made some very good points - and some not so good ones. 

Lopesi suggests that it is good for women to publicly sexualise men as a way of regaining sexual agency (I assume she has accounted for factors of age, race, affluence etc) but, just as men cannot publicly sexualise women without reinforcing male privilege and power, white people cannot publicly sexualise black people without reinforcing white privilege and power.  By publicly sexualising Elba as a black man, Emily trapped him in her 'oppressive white gaze' and was therefore guilty of being racist.  

By that logic, had a black man publicly sexualised a white woman, that would be ok because his male privilege would be cancelled out by his lack of privilege as a black man. The knots in the logic tie themselves. 

In support of her argument, Lopesi referred to the twin stereotypes of the hyper-sexualised black woman and the black male rapist.  

Angela Davis writes compellingly about how those potent racist stereotypes were used as calculated instruments of terror, providing the fuel for acts of unspeakable horror perpetrated by white people against black people during the American Jim Crow era, and providing the ideological underpinnings of equally unspeakable acts of judicial murder.

Davis quotes a chilling statistic in her book Women, Race and Class – it is one I have quoted a number of times : of the 454 men executed on the basis of a rape conviction in the USA between 1930 and 1968, 405 were black, i.e.  10% of the population and 90% of the executions for rape for the simple and horrible fact that black men were more likely to be accused of rape, charged with and found guilty of it, and more likely to be sentenced to death for it.

Similar negative stereotypes have existed in other cultures – but the sheer power and spread of American culture has meant that the USA’s vicious dehumanising stereotypes of black people are especially potent.

So – when a woman having a little keyboard fantasy about an attractive black man – in which she breathlessly writes about his 'big hands' (and we all know what that means), claims he’d ‘fuck like a champ’ and ‘throw down like he’s seconds away from a gold medal’, that he’s a ‘grindsman’ and ‘a stud’ –(if she’d bothered to look up the meaning of the former she’d have realised that was a tautology) -  she’s come perilously close to creating the racist stereotype of a black man as a penis with legs.

It is a stereotype that some men play up to and Elba chose to go along with the fundraising idea and chose to overtly sexualise himself. He is also a mature, rich and successful actor, supported, advised and protected by a small army of agents and PR people - so to argue that when a white woman responded to him sexually, he became the hapless black prisoner of an oppressive white gaze, is over-egging the theoretical and political omelette.

However, the truth is that many black men have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of those and other negative stereotypes and that is a fact white people need to always have at the forefront of their political consciousness.

Was Emily being racist?  I knew there’d be people who would think she was and she should have been alert to that possibility but she was on a wee high from indulging in a fantasy that she thought appropriate to share with the world  - not because it was great writing or it was striking a blow for the liberation of women – but because it was fun and it would attract readers. She may be accused of being thoughtless, self-absorbed and enjoying doing what blokes have been allowed to do since time immemorial– but I don't think she was being racist.  

Racism - as a term to denote the operation of an ideology that has been a key underpinning of a viciously destructive and cruelly exploitative social system – is far too important a concept to be used lightly. Applying it indiscriminately risks emptying of political meaning and content. If you call the likes of Emily a racist for publicly lusting after a black man who put his celebrity and his sexuality on a plate and invited the women of the world to partake of it - how do you distinguish between her behaviour and that of a vicious white supremacist? 

Lopesi made the claim that black people have been oppressed for thousands of years which is not true, nor is the oppression of black people or more widely, people of colour, absolute or the same for all of them across the whole of recorded history.  Nor can the experiences of black Americans be extrapolated to all peoples of African extraction and especially not to all people of colour.

Peoples of colour built great civilisations, made great discoveries and they conquered and enslaved other peoples.  Uncomfortable though it might be for those who want to paint a monochrome picture of a white oppression of all people of colour since time immemorial, the history of imperial expansion and colonisation and the oppression and subjugation of conquered peoples and use of them as slaves is not exclusive to Europeans.  The Arabs had a thriving slave trade which was both precursor to and provided expertise for the European trade. The Ottoman empire was based on slavery, a great many of them provided by the Crimean Khanate which enslaved an untold number of people from Russian and the Ukraine and further afield in Europe over the course of centuries. The capacity to be rapacious, oppressive and cruel towards other human beings is not confined to white men however convenient it might be to use them as the scapegoat for the world's ills.

Lopesi also argues there is no such thing as reverse racism ie people of colour cannot be racist although they might be prejudiced – which is different.  It is a fact that in the current world order, the ability to harness racial prejudice to power and use it to disadvantage others lies mostly with peoples of European extraction, and so it has been for several centuries.  However, that will change and the new order will be just as unfairly discriminatory, exploitative and oppressive - unless the structural bases that allow people to harness unfair prejudices to power are changed. 

Prejudice in favour of paler complexions existed in various cultures long before Europeans dreamt up the idea of a hierarchy of races, with them at the top, to justify their enslavement and exploitation of peoples of colour.  A weathered complexion was the mark of a person who laboured in some way or other - only those who had others to labour for them could keep the paler, softer skins they were born with. The seeds of European classificatory racism fell on the fertile soil of ancient class divisions.

Finally, there is another element to this - one which underpins rape culture - and that is the notion that men have uncontrollable sexual urges, that they cannot look at a woman without wanting to have sex with her.

What was Emily doing but indulging in just that notion, that good sex is the ‘throw down’ - which has become the staple of modern entertainment - people so much in the grip of an uncontrollable sexual urge they frantically rip each other's clothes off, stumbling and fumbling their hormonally driven way to the nearest table, wall, bed or floor.  It accompanies other modern entertainment sexual staples which, more often than not, involve women on their knees or bent over with their buttocks raised. 

Women thinking that two can play that game – that they can recapture their sexual agency and control by being blokeish – is just so wrong-headed. Men created that ideological arena – they created the ‘battle of the sexes’ – they created the phallocracy and they have reaped the bulk of the benefits that have flowed from it. So why enter the phallocracy’s sexual arena? Why not break it down and build an entirely new one?

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