I’ll start by saying I generally like your columns. I’m not an avid reader of them because I tend to buy yes- you guessed it- the Guardian and the Independent. I have a housemate who regularly buys the Times, and I read it when it’s around. Well, I read some of it. I always tend to read your stuff if I can.
That’s why I’m bothered enough to respond in an email- usually, despite our often opposing viewpoints on issues, you’re one of the few columnists who is politically different to me who doesn’t make me foam at the mouth.
I’m disappointed in your article on CYP because it makes a mockery of the principles behind it. The article may be arch, it may be wry, but let’s be honest- it’s for a Spectator audience, who will revel in the misinterpretation of both CYP and intersectionality (IS) (something I won’t pretend to be an expert on- and neither is spell-checker, such is the newness of the term in the common lexicon.)
It might be the case that you agree with the principles behind IS, and that you recognise the theories behind it have been subsumed by this new stupid buzz-phrase that you and others claim is being thrown around by everyone. It isn’t by the way- in much the same way that the media is the only entity to refer to mephedrone as ‘meow meow’, it’s also the only entity to have latched on to the phrase ‘check your privilege’. Be honest with yourself, and do a mental exercise noting all the times you heard the phrase uttered by someone other than a journalist.
The main problem with the phrase is the word ‘privilege’. A woman fighting against oppression, a gay or lesbian person fighting against homophobia, a black person fighting racism- these people do not feel ‘privileged’; they feel maligned. And so telling, say, Julie Bindel, who fights hard, every day, that she is privileged, misses the mark, and she doesn’t feel the term could possibly apply to her. ‘Privilege’ is a word most associated with someone like David Cameron. The term is almost a misnomer, and it isn’t helpful. I can see why when it is used, people get angry- ‘how dare they- do they know what I go through?’ would be a likely feeling.
Both detractors and proponents of the (bastardised) phrase are hashing it out, without really understanding the meaning behind it. I have been dismayed at the likes of Laurie Penny trying to explain ‘what it means’ and getting it wrong. A major, major problem is that the point is illustrated neatly by the Guardian ‘debate’ between Louise Mensch and Laurie Penny, with an analysis from Hadley Freeman. Three ‘privileged’ middle-class white women arguing over the meaning of the phrase, not really understanding the oomph behind it…with not a single minority voice in the mix.
The neatest example I can give is what happened with Laurie. Rod Liddle made a racist comment in the Spectator. People can argue about whether it was or not, but the bottom line is ‘black savages’ is easily perceived as racist, regardless of whether the men in question were indeed, savage human beings. The phrase is too loaded with history to be easily ignored by black people, even if we don’t defend the two people it was aimed at. When that phrase is uttered, it conjures a lot of history.
Laurie Penny said people should ignore it because Liddle is a troll. THAT is her privilege. The comment did not feel like a punch in the gut for her, because she is white. It felt like a punch in the gut to me, because I know my ancestors were thought of as savages, that I am thought of by some as savage. The two words together infer they go together like toast and butter. It felt like stepping back in time, reading those words.
Ava Vidal then says actually, black people shouldn’t ignore him, because we should fight and ‘call out’ racism when we see it, particularly at a time of racial tension (caused by the Woolwich murder, and more widely, the economy- extremism always rises in times of economic hardship, does it not?)
Laurie took the point graciously, and accepted that while it was easy for her to dismiss him as a troll, it wasn’t so easy for black people. That graciousness can be effectively described as Laurie checking her privilege. It was her recognising that different kinds of people will feel and react differently to things, and that though her advice might be wise, cogent, and sensible, it does not do the same job for everyone.
So when you mock the phrase, adding to a chorus of the likes of Louise Mensch, and make out that what the phrase means is ‘you can’t talk’, ‘I have more knowledge than you’, or merely ‘recognise that other people have different experiences’, you misrepresent, and ‘slap the face’ of people who know otherwise.
Even your later acknowledgement of what it might mean- that people should be ‘aware’ that people have differing degrees of oppression- misses the point. That is moot. It is obvious. It goes without saying. It is NOT what we are getting at. Yes, everyone should be, and IS, aware that some people are more oppressed than others.
That is merely the starting point. What multi- oppressed people want is a voice. A platform. I do not want someone like you to say ‘I am aware I am more privileged, therefore I will make sure to qualify every argument I make with a declaration of that privilege’. I do not want you to think that you must, every time you have a political point to make, use half of your 1000 words to ensure you got down everyone from a black guy to a disabled guy to a gay guy to a lesbian’s point of view, to cover your bases.
What I would like, is to at least feel spoken for. Of course, not every one of the three black people with big media platforms in this country speaks for me at all. I am not so stupid as to believe that just because someone is black, I will identify with them, or that they are my voice, my direct representation.
But when I see a debate on intersectionality, and it is conducted, in the Guardian, supposedly the paper that cares most about diversity and the voiceless, by three middle-class white women, I think ‘THAT is privilege’. These people then have to be made aware by others that whatever they say on the issue, they cannot know in the same way others might. People will ‘approach’ them on social media to remind them that they have more experience of what the arguers are saying.
And this is the concern- there is very little diversity in the media. People are generally cut from similar cloths. I, as a gay black guy, have to cross my fingers and hope, that when something that pertains to my life is being discussed by the media, that maybe, just maybe, someone will say something that is correct, or relevant. What I want is my voice, or a representative of my voice, giving a more in-tune analysis of things. Maybe a black woman will have something deeper, and more relevant to say on the matter of intersectionality, than Laurie Penny or Louise Mensch. NOT because Laurie or Louise aren’t allowed to talk about the issues- but because they aren’t directly affected by the issues.
The next problem is that the media self-congratulates when it hires the odd black person, or the odd woman, or the odd gay guy, who it deigns can speak for the rest of us. We are all very different. The job isn’t done by using a token, who often then has the weight of whole communities on his or her shoulders, and cannot bear that weight- because who could?
What people want is wider representation, a wider array of voices. Let me put it this way- NO ONE would have a need to say or think ‘check your privilege’ if it wasn’t for the fact that the vast majority of media discourse originates from a tiny set of voices- in the main, white, middle-class male ones. When people use the term, or when they ‘bang on’ about intersectionality, they are not asking you to be mindful of them…they are saying ‘We are here. We have a voice. Can we use it?’
If you believe that when someone says the phrase, they are saying: ‘But have you canvassed the views of Somalian refugees who are weekending female impersonators in Anglesea?’ then you have it woefully wrong.
If you don’t really believe that, but were just being humorous, then please, don’t continue to help the debasement and ridiculing of people who are really just saying they want to be considered, they want to be heard. WE want to be considered, we want to be heard. I don’t know any Somalian refugee transvestites ( I do know a Nigerian settled one though), but I do know plenty of people- including myself- who are getting tired of people in privileged positions- and in this case, I mean folk with big media platforms- taking the utter piss out of our desire to finally be involved in the conversation.
‘Can you tell him to pass me the salt?’, said even though the guy with the salt is right there- imagine what that feeling of being ignored is like, constantly. Twitter is a funny thing- it has, quite without meaning to I believe, morphed into a medium where journalists and their readers are put on a level field, and can interact with each other- and so people feel more able than ever to tell people like you what they feel. Please, be flattered that people feel you important enough to argue with, flattered we want you to understand where we are coming from. But don’t ridicule. Unless of course, the person deserves it because they are downright moronic. Then ridicule away.
Anthony Lewis- Binns.
( A very nearly NCTJ-qualified, KCL law-degreed, black gay guy, clearly with intersections coming out of my arse.)