A lot has happened since Digital Women UK took two months off for a refresh, not least the debate sparked by an article in The Nation called Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars, which asked if feminists “calling one another out for ideological offenses” is good for the movement.
The fact that the author of the piece Michelle Goldberg seemed to suggest that the likes of Mikki Kendall, creator of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag, were responsible for poisoning the atmosphere of Online Feminism understandably caused anger.
Some saw the piece as an ongoing backlash against the wide-ranging discussions that Kendall’s hashtag had generated between feminists about racism and the white feminist establishment. It also inspired some new ones, including #whitefeministrants #whitewomanprivilege and #lesstoxicfeminism.
The tone of the piece brought to mind a supporters group I attended for a marginalised black community in the UK. I won’t to go into too much detail but the supporters, who were mostly white and upper middle class, got to sit at the big table. Among them were one or two people regarded as representatives of the community. The rest sat around the room with other supporters.
There were a few speeches – quite lengthy ones – from the white committee members. So when the chair asked a community member to finish off what they had to say, and quickly, there was a great deal of frustration expressed by those who felt it was always them who were told to be quiet, to wind up, to not make a fuss.
In the following weeks I got to know one of the women who had been justifiably angry at the way the meeting had gone. She’s someone I have come to respect and admire, and have seen behave with grace and generosity in a number of other contexts, when she’s not driven to distraction by people telling her to shut up.
In essence, The Nation article suggests a white feminist elite sitting at the top table, expecting everyone else to conform, to put their trust in them and believe they are working for their benefit. Any frustration or anger they express is then judged as bad behaviour; a failure to play by the rules.
The desire to avoid conflict and nastiness is understandable. But the attitudes I witnessed around that table – one of the men rolled his eyes when things kicked off – can be detected in this debate: if ‘those’ people could just play by the rules, be quiet and let us get on, it will all be OK.
We’ve written before on this site, and on Words of Colour online, about the media’s blind spot when it comes to gender, race, ethnicity and class. But it’s not only about the Blind Spot anymore, but about how white feminists in the media respond to those who not only refuse to accept the norm, but are using social media to challenge it.
Rather than bemoaning the fact that it’s impossible to have a conversation, and demand that people pipe down, perhaps it’s time to look at why women of colour, among others, are so exasperated.
To use the committee meeting analogy one last time, it’s not good enough to simply just have everyone on the top table say their piece and expect those sitting around to politely nod. In the end there will always be a backlash.
Julie Tomlin is the co-founder of Digital Women UK
Image credit: freedigitalphotos.net/Conflict Resolution Buttons Show Dispute Or Negotiating, by Stuart Miles