During the What is Feminist Poetry? Poetry Readings & Open Mic discussion that I led on Friday night at East Oxford Community Centre, I said some wrong things. I pointed to the women of colour in the room and said we needed to listen to them because their voices are silenced in wider society, similar to the way women's voices are silenced by men's.
I had good intentions. I wanted us all to remember that sexism is intimately tied to racism, and that we need to think about the many different privileges we bring to a space. But the way I said it was problematic for these reasons:
My words assumed a collective "We" that was implicitly white, and therefore excluded people of colour.
My words made those women of colour responsible for representing race and a racial perspective, rather than allowing everyone to express their experiences as individuals.
My words failed to acknowledge that whiteness represents race as well.
My words limited intersectionality to race and gender, rather than encompassing all different backgrounds, ages, sexualities, abilities, and experiences as individuals who form a collective.
And worse, my words silenced women of colour.
Instead of creating a positive, dynamic and intersectional listening experience for everyone, I encouraged a divided space, a hierarchy of oppressions where some people’s experiences were positioned as more or less valid than others. For that I am deeply sorry.
At the time, I knew as soon as the words were out of my mouth that I had said the wrong thing. But I couldn’t immediately understand why, and once I worked it out, I didn’t know how to fix it without making it worse. So I didn’t say anything else, and we still managed to have a great discussion that ended positively. But racism is a feminist issue and it needs to be acknowledged and called out.
My words were racist. Not horribly bigoted racism. But the quiet, insidious kind that reinforces difference and divides us from each other. And that is the opposite of what I intend to do with my workshops. So I’m saying sorry now to everyone who came. And I promise to do better.
By trying to speak up about racism, and failing to do it the way I hoped, I learned a lot. I realised that as a white woman feminist, I had started to feel responsible for “helping” women of colour, as if it was my job to empower "them" as an "other", separate from myself. But that was unhelpful and condescending. As a feminist facilitator, it is my responsibility to engage with everyone equally, to seek shared experiences and points of contact, to allow everyone’s various struggles to be heard, and to find ways to help everyone understand how those struggles relate in specific contexts.
I haven't got all the answers. I still have a lot to learn, and I want to keep discussing it. I’m happy to meet up and continue the conversation, so please do comment and send messages.
You can read more about how the night went here: https://www.threads.agency/single-post/2017/12/11/What-is-Feminist-Poetry
With love, hope, and self-conscious privilege