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Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)

When you’re single, broke, busy and have a toddler to run after, it’s hard to write Op-Eds. Op-Eds, unlike kids, vanish after a couple of days of furor where people either want to clamber into your womb and stay there forever, or denounce you indignantly as sexist / racist / homophobic / transphobic / fattest / ageist and – inevitably – fascist. The overwhelming emotions that you stir up by virtue of having a big gob and strong opinions is exhausting and stressful. I don’t write for the right: the right are never going to be swayed by me. They’re too far gone. Fuck those people. But increasingly I feel like I don’t write for the left either. The left doesn’t want my opinion or anyone else’s. They want a bunch of politically correct charlatans to hop on the bandwagon of cultural relevance and pop out some tired old shit which refers to their own race / culture / gender / sexuality / size / experience / oppression as a reason why they’re right and some privileged elderly Harvard educated white person at The NYT is wrong – even if they share the same damn opinion. Absolutes are too exhausting to manufacture when the world you thought you knew is upended and destroyed. The gray, shifting nuance left behind doesn’t provoke debate. People want to feel absolutely right or whipped into a seething fury of indignation by an Op-Ed. They don’t want to come away with an existential, nihilistic sense of what-the-fuck-is-the-point. And that’s basically what I feel when I read another article about Beyonce. Another article about Trump. Another article about Black Lives Matter. It’s like flies circling around shit. Where are the real writers and thinkers? They’re writing and thinking, not churning out 750 words which will change the face of feminism for at least fifteen minutes on Jezebel for fuck’s sake.

Don’t get me wrong: I think identity politics would be a good thing if people knew how to handle it. Instead of shutting debate down, it should open up discussion. Instead of promoting absolutes, it should encourage us to think about nuances and where our experiences overlap and where they don’t, not why we are all radically different because of race and why you’re always going to be wrong because you’re white, and he might be a little bit better because he has 1/16th cherokee in him.

Ashleigh Shackelford does precisely this – encourages us to think, I mean, not hands out absolutes – when she writes about Beyoncé’s tendency to promote a certain image of positive black womanhood (basically: thin and hot) which excludes fat black femmes, and asks us:

Instead of assuming that my perspective and opinion on Beyoncé’s current work and her role in creating this powerful art is based in vitriol, can we make room for other Black femmes to talk about representation in something that should inherently include them? Is it possible that Black femmes and women who value Beyonce can also give necessary thought to her work and platform?

Shackelford is writing for a site which is called “Wear Your Voice: Intersectional Feminist Media”, which is probably why she displays an acute understanding of the complex interplay of intersectional forces. This means while the majority of black Americans can find Beyoncé radical and inspiring, she’s able to point out that there are still black women who have very valid reasons for finding Beyonce’s work in some ways actually complicit in oppressing women by perpetuating negative stereotypes and excluding large women from her dramatic narrative – unless they’re portrayed as objects of pity and disgust.

I haven’t seen Lemonade. I’m more interested in reading the dialogues and opinions it’s generated. Not the mainstream bullshit spewed out by the liberal press and its lackeys, exemplified by this truly awful piece of emotive bullshit by Ijeoma Olua which is the very opposite of the thoughtful, nuanced piece by Shackelford:

We are the women left behind. We are the women who have cared for other women’s children while ours were taken away. We are the women who work two jobs when companies won’t hire our men. We are the women caring for grandchildren as our sons are taken by the prison industrial complex. We are the women who march in the streets and are never marched for. We are the women expected to never air our grievances in public. We are the women expected to stay loyal to our men by staying silent through abuse and infidelity. We are the women who clean the blood of our men and boys from the streets. We are the women who gather their belongings from the police station.

Let’s face it: if you’re going to start speaking in the present plural, you’re setting yourself up for someone to piss on your bonfire in a big way. Yes, I understand it’s a literary technique designed to demonstrate to the largely white upper middle class readership of The Guardian that racism is alive and kicking and the biggest victims – in America at least – are black women, but neither Beyonce nor Ijeoma are ever going to know what it’s like to have their children taken by social services. Neither of them are likely to be taken into police custody, to lose their home, to have their children shot in the street. These things happen, yes. They
fowlerhappen to predominantly poor black women in extremely impoverished areas who are victims – even more than Ijeoma or Beyoncé – of systemic racism. But conflating or ignoring social, economic and class constructs in this dramatic reimagining of American society where race exists in a vacuum and the ‘I’ becomes a we, is just purile liberal bullshit. It’s the height of patronizing idiocy for Ijeoma to use this “we” and to include herself in the learned experience of black women who have suffered way more, have endured way more, than herself. Didn’t we just go through this shit back in 2011 with Occupy? Learning all about not speaking for other people? When you write an Op-Ed, you’re writing your own damn opinion. Quit being the voice for black women, because every individual black woman has her own voice. Use your fucking privilege to get them a platform and get off your damn soapbox. They don’t need you, just like white women don’t need me.

Dogs, on the other hand, are pretty good at co-dependency. I heartily recommend them.

Another reason I stopped writing Op-Eds is because the left polices thought, and possibly my vehement dislike of Ijeoma is because I’ve been policed by her, by her sister in law Lindy West, by pretty much every left-of-center-identity-politics-espousing-oppression-olympics-contender- feminist I’ve ever encountered, engaged and argued with who fails to adequately engage with the concept of intersectionality. That’s basically 99% of the social media assholes screaming “(insert identity)IST!” and throwing the W-bomb around over twitter.

Being a white liberal Op-Ed writer (and a skinny one to boot) sucks. You’re not exactly sure what to do. You’ve written enough fucking articles about how white people need to step back, so you step back. And then you find you don’t have a fucking career, because you’re tip toeing around being a good white person and not having any opinions and blah de blah blah. You could go the Rachel Dolezal or Yi-Fen Chou route, but you’re not a lunatic and you’re pragmatic about the possibilities of reducing your whiteness in this lifetime sans a bad perm: it ain’t fucking happening. So instead you continue to be a good white person and STFU even when faced with complete bullshit which you think is absolutely fucking insane. To critique the thoughts, art, words or opinion of a person of color in any way would be racist. So this bizarre, nervous, white-liberal dance plays out again and again, while your Ivy-league educated friends-of-color with various family properties all over the East coast post radical shit from ‘Soledad Brother’ all over facebook, utterly oblivious to the fact the nearest they got to George Jackson’s experience was that time they got ticketed for having their cockapoo crap on the sidewalk. Yes, yes, I would way rather be a white person in this environment than a slave in the South, but we’re not talking about Afro-Futurist literature here, we’re talking about reality. In the world of Op-Eds, dealing with the kinds of topics I write about for the kinds of audience who read this shit (perhaps 0.05% of the English reading population of the western world?) – race, culture, police brutality, social issues, politics – I would rather be an educated middle class black woman than an educated middle class white woman. I’m not an overwhelming fan of systemic oppression in general, so I’ll take a pass on that, but I would have more legitimacy as a black female writer than I do as a white Welsh woman from Cambridge University, even if I do have my single mother welfare superpowers backing me up.

I’m not a good white person, I’m a cunt with a big mouth, so the reason I stopped writing Op-Eds was more to do with chronic depression, abject poverty, a shitty divorce and custody battle than any underlying adherence to the unwritten rules of identity politics. I emerged from this a couple weeks ago to realize that I didn’t have any desire to write poof-pieces that would dissipate up my own ass and make me feel good for all of ten seconds before releasing a shit storm of internet hatred. And yet here I am, doing exactly this, spurred on, bizarrely, by a terrible short film I watched on my phone this morning while urging my two year old to shit on the potty. It was a short about a Muslim-American teenager seen through the eyes of a white audience, or regurgitated for the eyes of a white audience. There was a scene, a few seconds in, where the teenager masturbates in bed and misses suhur. She’s interrupted by her mom and we see her staring into the mirror while carelessly throwing her hijab around her face a la Claire Danes in Homeland. I stopped watching at that point. I knew that this movie – a masterclass in whitewashing – wasn’t for me. Sure, it’s entirely possible it is the filmmakers unique experience, but there’s no denying it’s also a tired and worn out trope: oppressed muslim female, yearning for free America. Remember the snore stop billboard designed to shock? It’s that in short film form. Who the hell masturbates at 5am in the fucking morning when they’ve been fasting for a week? Fasting is not sexy. Take this from a former anorexic. Secondly, who the fuck misses the only food they’re allowed when they’ve been fasting for a week? An anorexic. The movie goes on, Islamic-porn for the average American who want to believe that all Muslims, particularly women, are oppressed by their religion and traditional Muslim values and just need the love of a strong jawed blonde blue eyed American skateboarder to free them into the infinite possibility of AMERICA and all its greatness.

What interests me are movies with strong protagonists who aren’t running away from their culture towards chisel-jawed blonde skateboarders. I like stories which embrace their reality and give us an unapologetic glimpse into a world which hasn’t been diluted for western sensibilities and audiences and doesn’t have a narrative drive towards ‘west is best’. The 2012 Iranian movie ‘A Separation’ is one very obvious and brilliant example of this. My cultural knowledge stops here because after this I had a child and thus stopped watching movies and reading the news, but I digress. Good on the filmmaker for either staying true to her own experience, or creating an experience which is palatable to white Americans. At the time I didn’t think any of this. I just thought, “How funny, the filmmaker has made her protagonist wear hijab like a white girl,” and I commented with this thought, naively thinking that because all of my muslim friends would think this was funny, this filmmaker would also think it was funny. Of course, I’m forgetting that if I didn’t like this movie that much, the filmmaker and I probably didn’t share the same sense of humor. She deleted my comment, called me racist, said I was bringing negativity to her page, and then denounced me on twitter. Pretty par for the course in the internet world of crossed wires and absolutes, but it’s probably the first time I’ve ever been called racist for pointing out that a fictional muslim teenager wears her hijab like a fictional white character in a fictional American TV show.

I’ve written before about the film industry and how its vigilant whitewashing of experience demands that black and brown filmmakers ‘mimic’ white filmmakers: how even a slave narrative can be whitewashed to make it digestible for American commercial audiences. The rules are simple: savage cultures can be displayed only as oppressive. Our brown heroes, denouncing both their heritage and their oppressors, want to be white and mimic “good, liberal” whiteness. Their successful white behavior earns them our approval, but they cannot save themselves because of their inherent unworthiness. Their saviors are white.

Before writing this, I checked in informally with a couple of my Muslim friends: one an outspoken, radical journalist married to a Jew. Another a filmmaker working on a Spielberg-inspired feature about a teenage muslim super-hero. After watching the movie, they agreed with me and my take. This doesn’t make me right and the filmmaker wrong, it simply proves we choose friends with similar sensibilities to our own, and that my friends, like me, found this movie tasteless, trite and over simplistic. There is no wrong muslim and no right muslim. Nor does my opinion mean more because it’s bolstered by someone who is a muslim. At the same time, how can I, a white woman, a radical leftist, dare to have an opinion, particularly a negative opinion, about a muslim woman’s work?

To return to Shackelford again,

Instead of assuming that my perspective and opinion on ANY WOMAN’S current work and her role in creating this powerful art is based in vitriol, can we make room for other **** femmes to talk about representation in something that should inherently include them? Is it possible that women who value women can also give necessary thought to their work and platform?

Or has identity politics created a situation in which we are only given permission to think what we are: we can only notice the absence of fat black femmes if we are a fat black femme. We can only note the omission of real, lived muslim experience if we are, ourselves, muslim. Hasn’t this rigid delineation of identity politics, identity politics which puts everyone into a box which excludes the nuances, the overlapping circles, of intersectionality, forced us all to stop speaking honestly, and instead to think and to voice only what is approved by the seething social media masses?

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Ruth Fowler is a single mom of one small dog and a large twenty month old living in Venice Beach. She is currently raising funds to eliminate her legal debt and direct a short film about custody visitation at gig.me/at/IRMO – please give her lots of money. She promises not to hug you or believe in you in return.

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