Monday 6 January 2014

Racism; Censorship; Disunity

On the Hounding of Adele Wilde-Blavatsky

There is a damaging idea fast gathering influence on the Left that - like a lot of contemporary postmodern Leftist thought - urgently needs dismantling. This idea holds that racism is only possible when prejudice is married with power.

The corollary of this premise is that racism may only travel in one direction - from the powerful to the powerless - and it is therefore nonsensical to discuss, still less condemn, racist attitudes expressed by ethnic minorities. In the West, racism is the preserve of the white majority who use it - often, it is claimed, unconsciously - to sustain their advantage and to oppress those they deem to be 'other'. In the geopolitical sphere, meanwhile, this racism is the preserve of the world's wealthy democracies and is expressed as Orientalism, Military and Cultural Imperialism, and Neoliberalism, all of which are used to dominate and subjugate the Global South.

Furthermore, racism exists independently of individual prejudice and cultural mores - like the power systems of which it is a part, it is abstract; metaphysical; unavoidable; unchanging. It is all-pervasive, 'structural', endemic, systemic, and internalised to such a degree that even (or especially) white liberal Westerners who perceive themselves to be broad-minded and non-prejudicial are not even aware of it. It is therefore incumbent on every white person, male or female, to 'check their white privilege' before venturing to comment on matters pertaining to minority cultures, lest they allow their unconscious ethnocentricity to reinforce oppressive power structures. Instead, moral judgement of minorities by universal standards should - no, must - be replaced by a willingness to indulge and uncritically accept difference.

In the view of this layman, this kind of thinking is wrong, both morally and in point of fact.

Postmodernism is notoriously unhappy with anything as concrete as a dictionary definition. However, the inconvenient fact is that racism remains clearly defined in the OED, and by the common usage its entries are intended to reflect, as follows:
Racism, n:
The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one's cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions. Also occas. in extended use, with reference to people of other nationalities.
That the effects of this prejudice and antagonism are aggravated, perpetuated and sometimes institutionalized by the effects of power is undeniable, but this is a separate issue. Many unpleasant aspects of human nature and behaviour (greed, for instance) are also exacerbated by power, but that doesn't change the ugly nature of the behaviour itself, nor allow us to infer that the powerless are incapable of making it manifest.

Efforts to effect an official change to this definition should be strongly resisted on grounds of egalitarianism (an idea the Left once cared about deeply). The difficulty with the power + prejudice formulation lies, not just in its dilution of what makes racism so toxic, but in a consequent moral relativism which holds people to different standards. It is manifestly unjust to hold some people to a higher standard of thought and behaviour based on their unalterable characteristics. However, it is far worse to hold others to a respectively lower standard based on those same characteristics, which insists on the indulgence of viewpoints and behaviour by some that would not be tolerated from others.

This separatist thinking has given rise to identity politics, moral equivalence, cultural relativism and what Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others have called "a racism of low expectations". As Hirsi Ali remarked in her memoir-cum-polemic Nomad (excerpted here):
This Western attitude is based on the idea that people of colour must be exempted from "normal" standards of behaviour. There are many good men and women in the West who try to resettle refugees and strive to eliminate discrimination. They lobby governments to exempt minorities from the standards of behaviour of western societies; they fight to help minorities preserve their cultures, and excuse their religion from critical scrutiny. These people mean well, but their activism is now a part of the very problem they seek to solve.
Identity politics reinforces the racist argument that people can and should be judged according to their skin colour. It rests on the same crude, illiberal determinism, and results in what the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has described as a "racism of the anti-racists". This, as we shall see, leaves those vulnerable to oppression within 'subaltern' groups without a voice and mutes criticism of chauvinism and out-group hatred when expressed by minorities.

The alternative to this, now routinely derided as 'Enlightenment Fundamentalism', is a principled commitment to egalitarianism and universalism - the notion that what separates us (culture) is taught and learned, but that what unites us is far more important and fundamental: that is, our common humanity. On this basis, the same rights and protections should be afforded to all people.

This is what underpinned the idealism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, two of the most noble documents produced by Enlightenment thought. It was the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted and adopted in the wake of the carnage of the Second World War. And it is the basis upon which civil rights groups and human rights organisations have sought to reform the laws of nations and and the actions of their peoples.

The answer to prejudice, and to the division and inequality it inevitably produces, is not exceptionalism based on a hierarchy of grievance, but to strive for greater equality on the basis that we belong to a common species, divided only by our ideas. As Martin Luther King declared on the steps of the Lincoln memorial:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

*    *    *

On 20 December, the feminist writer and activist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky published an article in the Huffington Post entitled Stop Bashing White Women in the Name of Beyonce: We Need Unity Not Division. Wilde-Blavatsky's post was a rebuke to those - on what she described as the post-colonial or intersectional feminist Left - who use identity politics and arguments from privilege to delegitimise the voices of white feminists speaking out about the abuse of women in the Global South and within minority communities in the West.

Wilde-Blavatsky's decision to use a paragraph in an otherwise banal review of Beyonce's latest album by Mikki Kendall as the starting point for her argument was, in my view, unfortunate. Not simply because there are better examples of the divisive effect that identity politics has on debate (the quarrel over gender segregation being only the most recent), but because the comparatively unimportant matter of the politics of Beyonce's music risked trivialising what followed. Nor did the provocative decision to announce a twitter hashtag #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity strike me as especially wise.

Nonetheless, such grumbles aside, Wilde-Blavatsky's substantive quarrel with the malignant effects of identity politics and the cultural relativists who espouse it is one with which regular readers of this blog will be familiar.

She argued, first of all, that Kendall's casual suggestion that "white feminism" is uniformly anti-male and hostile to the self-empowering feminism Beyonce's music represents was an unjustifiable extrapolation from the comments of only a few white feminists. This, she said, ignored the pluralism of experience and opinion amongst white feminists and "literally 'whitewash[es]' me and all other white women to a flesh colour." This was predictably interpreted as special pleading on Wilde-Blavatsky's part, who it was claimed wanted to muscle in on subaltern victimhood. But what she was objecting to here is in fact the straightforward logical fallacy I've addressed above.

More importantly, she argued that this pointed to a broader tendency to essentialise 'white feminism' as elitist, arrogant, out-of-touch and coddled by privilege, all of which was being used to disqualify white feminists of all stripes from commenting on vital issues of women's rights within minority groups:
The clear message [is] that if you're white you cannot criticise anything that is done or said by non-white people unless it follows a certain kind of left liberal 'post-colonial' strain of thought.
In support of this claim, she linked to an article by the feminist academic Swati Parashar entitled Where Are the Feminists to Defend Indian Women? in which Parashar wrote:
Those who are quick to condemn governments which kill women and children in drone attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or who are quick to point out that Western policies have endangered lives of civilians in many parts of the world, find no words to speak out against the violence women in the Global South face repeatedly and every day. Violence against women that is routinely normalised in certain cultures, in certain societies, in certain countries, and violence that cannot be traced to Western militarism or Western foreign policy does not find easy critics. That would not be politically correct nor would it reflect commitment to anti-racism, perhaps.
To which Wilde-Blavatsky added:
[T]o 'blacken' the name of the work and efforts of white women in the feminist movement and to portray them as the 'enemy' of women of colour is a great disservice not only to white women but also to women in general. In addition, it only serves to further divide women and empower patriarchy and misogyny [...] It is no accident that right-wing, religious, misogynist patriarchs are all too happy to recite post-colonial theory and cultural relativism to justify and perpetuate their power and cultural practices that restrict and oppress women of all colours races and cultures [...] Issues such as marriage, physical safety and autonomy, access to good family planning and health care, pregnancy, abortion, rape, domestic violence, slut shaming, denial of opportunities in work and education and so on still effect women across all cultures, races and nations (albeit in differing ways). If we allow race and 'culture' to divide rather than unite women then the patriarchs have won.
The response to this argument from the bien pensant Left ranged from the incredulous to the vitriolic.

In the comment thread below her article and in a storm which overwhelmed her twitter handle and her hashtag, Wilde-Blavatsky (who tweets as @lionfaceddakini) was derided with accusations of arrogance, ignorance, bigotry, racism and cultural supremacism. She was advised that she had not listened sufficiently closely to authentic voices of women of colour.  Others declared her to be beneath contempt and an object example of white feminism's irrelevance. She was accused of using a fraudulent call for unity as a way of advancing an argument from white victimhood. It was demanded that she immediately re-educate herself by reading various academic texts on the subject. Her "white woman's tears" were repeatedly mocked, as were her protestations that her own family is mixed-race. And, of course, there were the predictable demands for retraction, penitence and prostration.

The rhetoric of anti-racism has come a long way since Martin Luther King's passionate call for egalitarian unity, and I submit that it has not been traveling in the right direction. Wilde-Blavatsky retains a faith in King's idealism her critics appear to have lost. And, to their fury, she won't budge. But she knew what to expect. After all, as she points out in the piece itself, she's been here before.

*     *     *

On 21 March 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old married Iraqi mother of five living in El Cajon in Southern California, was murdered in her own home. Her skull had been smashed in four places (with a tyre-iron or similar) and she was discovered "drowning in her own blood" by her 17 year old daughter Fatima, who was in the house at the time but claimed not to have heard the assault. Alawadi was rushed to hospital in a coma but on 24 March her life support was switched off and she died. Pictures were circulated of her bereaved husband holding his dead wife's photograph (below, left) and the day after her death, it was reported that a note had been found by her unconscious body which read: "Go back to your own country. You're a terrorist." Speculation was rife that Alawadi was the victim of a racist or Islamophobic hate crime.

Barely a month earlier, on 21 February, in a case which received far more attention, a young black teenager, Trayvon Martin (above, right) was shot and killed in Sanford Florida by George Zimmerman a mixed-race Hispanic.

Anti-racist campaigners and bloggers were quick to draw a connection - if not a direct equivalence - between the two crimes and to claim they exposed the lie of a supposedly 'post-racial' America under Barack Obama. What clearer evidence could there be of America's endemic racism and that people of colour there live in a state of siege? Martin had been killed for wearing his hoodie. Alawadi had been targeted for her hijab (headscarf). A 1m Hoodie March was organised in solidarity with Martin, and those campaigning on behalf of Alawadi responded by announcing a 1m Hijab March. Further protest marches were organised in cities and on campuses across America, uniting the two causes under one banner. Most were well-intended gestures of solidarity but others were promoted using language that was positively inflammatory:

At the time Adele Wilde-Blavatsky was a member of the editorial collective for a website called The Feminist Wire (TFW). She decided that the equivalence between hoodie and hijab was absurd and dangerous, and on April 13 2012, she published an article on TFW's site explaining why entitled To Be Anti-Racist Is To Be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab Are Not Equals (cross-posted at the Shiraz Socialist blog here).
What I take issue with here is the equating of the hoodie and the hijab as sources of ethnic identity and pride. The hijab, which is discriminatory and rooted in men's desire to control women's appearance and sexuality, is not a choice for the majority of women who wear it. The hoodie, on the other hand, is a choice for everyone who wears it. The history and origin of these two items of clothing and what they represent could not be more different; like comparing the crippling footbindings of Chinese women with a `Made in China' Nike trainer.
She accused those making the equivalence of cultural relativism and a misplaced respect for the sanctity of culture, a charge she also used to indict Germaine Greer's notorious claim that attempts to outlaw Female Genital Mutilation represent "an attack on cultural identity" because "one man's beautification was another man's mutilation" (Greer's use of the male pronoun is revealing here). 

Wilde-Blavatsky insisted that her instincts were libertarian, and that she would not recommend banning practices unless, as with FGM, they resulted in physical harm. But nor would she be compelled to suspend her moral judgement or forfeit the right to challenge the degree to which women's choices to conform with patriarchal religious dress codes were meaningfully free. And even if they were free, she reserved the right as a feminist to challenge regressive choices - whether they be to wear the hijab or to work in pornography - and what those choices represent.

She warned that respect for cultural difference and a fear of being accused of racism was preventing feminists from addressing issues of misogyny and patriarchal violence within minority communities and ended with an ominous reminder of the folly of seeing oppression and violence as something primarily across cultural divides:
[W]hy has there been centuries of caste discrimination and violence in countries like India? Why are Muslim women beaten and murdered by Muslim men for refusing to wear the hijab? How did both these deaths occur in a country that is led by a black male President? How does it explain the fact that about 150 black men are killed every week in the U.S. - and 94 percent of them by other black men?
What was needed, she argued, was a reframing of the whole conversation about the defence of women's rights and the need for a feminism that was, if not blind to cultural difference, then at least not subordinate to it.

TFW opened the article to unmoderated comments and the initial reaction was indistinguishable from that which greeted her HuffPo piece (which rather emphasises the reluctance of many of her critics to engage with the argument at hand). Wilde-Blavatsky later wrote that:
[My article] generated not only a huge amount of online debate but also abuse in terms of my skin colour (white), character (non-Muslim) and motivation (imperialism). I was called a "racist" and "white imperialist" and was even accused of using the 'ties' of my mixed-race family to "obfuscate my whiteness."
There was a brief confusion over the extent to which TFW endorsed the contents of the article when Wilde-Blavatsky posted it on their facebook page and then began to field responses using TFW's account rather than her own. But while invective was rained down on their colleague, TFW's official response remained a pusillanimous silence. Considering what came next, Wilde-Blavatsky might be forgiven for looking back on this brief interlude with something like nostalgia.

Two days later TFW published a scathing open letter (cross-posted here) in response to Wilde-Blavatsky's piece, organised by Dr. Dana Olwan and Sophia Azeb and co-signed by no less than 77 feminist activists and academics. The letter - a masterwork of condescension, pompous jargon and passive-aggressive bullying - was addressed to "Our friends and allies at The Feminist Wire". And it began:
It is with loving concern with which we, the undersigned feminist writers, activists and academics from diverse racial, religious, economic, and political backgrounds, write to this brilliant collective today.
It went on to accuse Wilde-Blavatsky of being "[o]blivious to the important cross-racial and cross-ethnic connections and solidarities made in light of the tragic murders of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi", of "revealing her own [white Western] biases" and "showcasing a lack of knowledge of the history and function of the hijab." She was ignorant. She was patronising. She was not cognizant of her own privilege. "In writing this [article]" the letter's 77 signatories averred...
...the author has all but stripped women of colour of an intersectional understanding of violence against women, one that is attuned to both patriarchal and racist violence. Instead, Muslim women and women of colour feminists are reduced to a piece of cloth and the experiences of people of colour and practioners of an increasingly racialized and demonized religion are repeatedly questioned and denied.
Having dealt with Wilde-Blavatsky, the letter then moved onto shaming TFW, the collective of which she was a member and which had agreed to publish her work:
As feminists deeply committed to challenging racism and Islamophobia and how it differentially impacts black and Muslim (and black Muslim) communities, we wish to open up a dialogue about how to build solidarities across complex histories of subjugation and survival. This space is precisely what is shut down in this article. In writing this letter, we emphasize that our concern is not solely with Adele Wilde-Blavatsky's article but with the broader systemic issues revealed in the publication of a work that prevents us from challenging hierarchies of privilege and building solidarity. We hope The Feminist Wire will take our concerns to heart and initiate an honest conversation about privilege, racism, and Islamophobia within feminist collectives and movements.
Watching this unfold, the veteran free speech campaigner and US Director for the think tank The Centre for Secular Space, Meredith Tax, decided that she was witnessing a campaign to intimidate and censor.
Why should a group of—count them—77 “feminist writers, activists, and academics” have thought it necessary to write a blistering critique of a blog by a young writer of whom they had probably never heard? Was their purpose to make sure this young woman never wrote anything again? Or to prevent the Feminist Wire from publishing anything in future that might contravene the orthodoxy of identity politics?
Quite. It is not as if the letter's signatories are simply concerned laypersons of the kind who might sign an online petition. Every one of the 77 names at the foot of the letter carries with it a title which testifies to the signatory's expertise in these matters, and which carries with it the implied weight  of their scholarship, experience and pedagogic authority. To describe its effect as merely intimidating is to do its authors a disservice. It was intended to destroy Wilde-Blavatsky and to disqualify her views from legitimate conversation. As Tax pointed out:
Say the seventy-seven:
“Adele Wilde-Blavatsky attempts to address the important question of what it means to be an anti-racist feminist in the 21st century. Her article, however, serves to assert white feminist privilege and power by producing a reductive understanding of racial and gendered violence and by denying Muslim women their agency.”
Clearly this is meant to end the discussion. Why discuss anything with someone who is racism incarnate—as is shown by her “questioning of women's choice to wear the niqab.[sic]”
She concluded:
Feminists should be encouraging discussion of such questions rather than trying to shut it down. Congratulations to the editors of the Feminist Wire for having had the guts to publish something controversial.
Alas, Meredith Tax and anyone else inclined to put any faith in TFW's courage were to be disappointed. Paralysed by the intensity of the initial response, the letter and the subsequent renewal of criticism finally galvanised TFW into releasing a public statement on behalf of the collective.

On 19 April, 4 days after the publication of the letter and 6 days after the publication of the original article, TFW published an unsigned and positively craven article, of which its unnamed authors ought to be thoroughly ashamed. There was much agonising about the unintended offence that had been caused and the catastrophic damage that had been done to TFW's reputation. Noticeable in its absence was a single mention of Adele Wilde-Blavatsky by name or any words of explicit support at all. Instead, affecting a spurious balance, the article's authors declared:
Not all of us agreed with the argument expressed in the original article, nor did all of us agree with the statements expressed in the Collective Response on April 14th. We are diverse, and we absolutely support different viewpoints. But collectively, we all recognize that the author of the original article and especially her Facebook responses failed to advance TFW’s mission. And, more corrosively, the incident eroded trust among the Collective and among our readership, and we have taken, are taking steps to reinstitute that trust.
TFW's profession of an "absolute" support for different viewpoints could hardly have been made in worse faith. Earlier that day both Wilde-Blavatsky's article and the letter from the 77 had been removed from TFW's website and their respective comment threads deleted.

And, although their statement makes no mention of the fact, one of the steps taken by TFW had been to dismiss Wilde-Blavatsky from the editorial collective, a decision of which she was informed by email. Prior to the publication of the Letter from the 77, TFW's founder Tamura Lomax had assured Wilde-Blavatsky that space would be cleared for her to offer a "refereed response". Her detailed reply to the 77 which she submitted to TFW in her own defence was never published there.

Accounts of the events leading up to the removal of her article differ. Wilde-Blavatsky claims she was informed that should she repeat her claim that three members of the collective had read her article and cleared it for publication - and that two of them had described it as "excellent" - she would find herself on the end of a lawsuit. She says that it was her threat to counter-sue that led to the deletions.

TFW, meanwhile, dispute this account, improbably claiming that Wilde-Blavatsky's article had been seen and cleared by no-one prior to publication and insisting that it was she who had first threatened legal action.

Email correspondence between Lomax, editorial board member Darnell Moore, and Wilde-Blavatsky, in which Lomax thanked Wilde-Blavatsky warmly for her submission, does seem to bear out the latter's version of events. Certainly neither Lomax nor Moore expressed any reservations about the article's content during the exchange as they discussed possible publication dates.

In any event, what is not in dispute is that TFW had now tossed their colleague to the wolves. The only question that remained was whether or not they had been right to do so.

For many, TFW had done the right thing. They had committed a terrible error of judgement, but they had listened indulgently to the mob's demands and had cleaned house accordingly. Adele Wilde-Blavatsky had sinned and, unrepentant, been swiftly excommunicated. In a move of Stalinist absolution, TFW then purged their site of all her previous writing. It was a defeat for racism and a victory for intersectional tolerance and empathy.

But a small number of feminists dedicated to combatting regressive cultural traditionalism and the political influence of the Islamic far-right refused to see it that way. They were aghast at Wilde-Blavatsky's treatment and on 22 April they co-signed the following statement declaring their unequivocal support for the embattled writer. The full statement which was posted on the blog of the ex-Muslim and Iranian dissident Maryam Namazie, read:
We extend our full solidarity to Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for such a clear and rare analysis from feminists in Europe and North America, in which women’s resistance to the Muslim Right - including by resisting all forms of fundamentalist veiling - is made visible and honoured, rather than sacrificed on the altar of anti-racism and anti-imperialism. 
[Signed by]
  • Marieme Helie Lucas, sociologist, Algeria, founder and former international coordinator of the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), coordinator Secularism Is A Women’s Issue
  • Fatou Sow, Researcher, Senegal, international coordinator, Women Living Under Muslim Laws
  • Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All and Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, Iran/UK
  • Karima Bennoune, Professor of Law, Rutgers University, USA
  • Khawar Mumtaz, Shirkat Gah, Pakistan
The same day over at her Butterflies and Wheels blog, the feminist and secularist writer Ophelia Benson posted her own furious reply to the Letter from the 77 entitled You Know What You Can Do With Your Collective Response. And in a personal note, later made public, Fatou Sow reaffirmed her support to Wilde-Blavatsky as follows:
Dear Adele,
I again congratulate you on your wonderful courage. You are absolutely right: the hoodie is not the hijab. As an African Muslim woman, no one can convince me that the headscarf and the Islamic veil are signs of my female or Muslim identities. I am sorry that such brilliant women have taken up their pens to condemn your arguments as white supremacy. That is facile, when so many women in the world fight against these injustices. I urge you to continue writing to express your anger against all of these alienations that mark us in body and spirit. Please be assured of my support and my friendship.
This rather moving and dignified gesture of solidarity might have been the end of it.

However, as 2012 drew to a close, long after TFW had consigned Wilde-Blavatsky's article to post-colonial feminism's dustbin, the investigation into the murder of Shaima Alawadi developed in a way that many of the more level-headed commentators, feminists and activists had always feared it might.

*    *    *

On November 9, 2012, police announced they had arrested Kassim Alhimidi, Alawadi's 48-year old husband, and charged him with her murder. His four youngest children had been taken into protective custody. The racist note, according to court reports seen by UT San Diego, turned out to be a copy not an original (although a copy of what exactly was not specified).

Muslim and feminist campaigners unencumbered by the politically correct demands of intersectional feminism and post colonial politics, and who had shared Wilde-Blavatsky's dismay at the hoodies and hijabs campaigns, were incensed. On learning of the arrest, Raquel Evita Saraswati, a practicing Muslim and a feminist campaigner of courage and integrity, tweeted the following:

Aside from Alawadi's divorce, it transpired that Fatima, the couple's eldest daughter who contacted police to report the crime, was distressed at an impending forced marriage to her cousin and had attempted suicide. Those able to count backwards had also figured out that Alawadi must have married her husband when she was only 11 years old and given birth to their first child when she was just 13. This was not, in short, a family environment in which women were afforded the luxury of choice and agency, still less what the 77 had called "an intersectional understanding of violence against women, one that is attuned to both patriarchal and racist violence."

By the time Kassim Alhimidi was arrested, no-one much cared about Adele Wilde-Blavatsky's arguments anymore. But the uncomfortable truth is that they had been vindicated. The Trayvon Martin shooting and the Alawadi murder were not remotely similar or equivalent, and while debate continues about whether or not the jury were right to acquit George Zimmerman of Martin's murder, there is no longer any question that Alawadi's killing has anything to say about racism or 'Islamophobia' in America.

But this points to an interesting blind spot in Wilde-Blavatsky's analysis of the crime. For while she understood that undue respect for culture was blinding Western feminists (of all skin colours) to the misogyny and violence against women, she did not apply her reasoning to the facts of the case at hand. Despite the plausible doubts already circulating about the hate crime theory at the time she wrote her article, it did not countenance that Alawadi might have been the victim of an 'honour' killing and instead affirmed that the assailant was a white male.

A clue as to why she did this might be found in her recent Huffington Post piece in which she writes:
The irony of [judging the opinions of feminists by the colour of their white skin] is the whole point of post-colonial theory was to expose such non-inclusiveness and encourage people to recognise and celebrate their differences not to suggest white feminism is a 'one size fits all' for white women either.
Wilde-Blavatsky is engaged in an attempt to rescue post-colonialism from the excesses of its misguided new prophets. It was this - I suspect - that enraged her critics more than anything else. But it may also be that in trying to reconcile her arguments with the post-colonial notion that the West is unavoidably racist and xenophobic, she derailed her own analysis. A case, perhaps, of privilege-checking clouding judgement. Or a brief relapse from a writer in post-colonial recovery.

I have to wonder if her struggle is worth the effort. The determinism of the identity politics to which post-colonial theory is wedded is not readily reconcilable with universalism. Nor do her intended audience strike me as an especially reflective or receptive bunch. They do not even bother to follow their own rules. They instruct others to listen to the experiences of people of colour, but that experience, it transpires, is only valuable if it confirms their pre-existing ideology. What is actually being sought here is conformity of thought.

Those people of colour who dissent are declared outcasts. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is dismissed as a bitter Islamophobe. Mona Eltahawy's essay for Foreign Policy on Arab misogyny was greeted with accusations that she is a 'native informant' reinforcing racist stereotypes. Ed Husain has been described the same way. The Iranian Wall Street Journal critic Sohrab Ahmari was recently described as an "Uncle Tom" by a compatriot. The counter-extremism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation are routinely derided as government stooges and sell-outs, as is Sara Khan, head of counter-extremism think-tank Inspire. The list goes on and on.

Just as post-colonial guilt is a cudgel used to shame and silence white men and women, so accusations of  'inauthenticity', 'Westernisation' and betrayal of their tribe are used to shame and silence people of colour who will not fall into line and accept their ascribed position as the wretched of the earth.

The Feminist Wire and their fellow travellers do not have a monopoly on women of colour’s experiences which, as they are happy to point out when it suits them, are not homogeneous. Adele Wilde-Blavatsky speaks for herself. But in upholding universal human rights, standards and values, she aligns herself with those progressive activists in the Global South and the West bravely striving for reform of their cultures. Identity politicians and cultural relativists, meanwhile, who insist on respect for cultural difference above all else find themselves aligned with reactionaries and cultural chauvinists in whose interest it is to preserve tradition. This is, to say the least, an odd position for any progressive to take, let alone one espoused in the name of fighting racism.

When, towards the end of her HuffPo piece, Wilde-Blavatsky states that "It is not acceptable anymore to ignore white privilege and intersectionality in feminist discourse" I think she concedes too much to her enemies. For how is one to quantify the awareness of this privilege? And who will judge that a sufficient level of awareness has been attained before an opinion is offered?

To accept that one's unalterable characteristics can play any part in the validity of an opinion is to submit to the tyranny of identity politics and endorse an affront to reason. Arguments about rights and ethics must be advanced and defended on their merits, irrespective of who is making them. There is no other way.

Following the deletion of The Feminist Wire article and the subsequent Letter from the 77, WLUML archived the whole saga here, including Meredith Tax's full comment. 

Adele Wilde-Blavatsky's reply to the Letter from the 77, which The Feminist Wire refused to publish, was posted at Ophelia Benson's Butterflies and Wheels blog here on May 1.

The Feminist Wire responded to an approach for comment with this public statement.


  1. When liberals and commie eat their own, I REJOICE!!

  2. well down article and links, thanks

    maybe the white privileged can atone by visiting the coloured ghetto, a walk on the wild side

  3. Another excellent and extremely valuable article, complete with invaluable research and source. material. Your point that the main victims of this kind of cultural-relativist identity politics are "those vulnerable to oppression within 'subletern' groups" is especially important, and needs to be repeated at every opportunity.

  4. sackcloth and ashes7 January 2014 at 03:24

    Apologies for cutting and pasting from a remark made on HP, but I thought this piece worthy of extended comment.

    Yet again, this is an excellent (if depressing) post from the Unrepentant Jacobin. It cuts to the chase of what is wrong with the left on the other side of the Atlantic, but it applies to the UK as well.

    Notice how the brutal murder of Shaima Alawadi was treated by so-called 'feminists' in the USA. Her killing was the source of outrage, protest, and furious invective for as long as it appeared that a white male - motivated by racism and/or anti-Islamic bigotry - was culpable. Once it was clear that her own husband murdered her, Shaima Alawadi's death suddenly ceased to matter, and all the fine noble souls who keened over her fate suddenly went quiet.

    The murder ceased to be important. It was as if it had never happened. The act of killing did not matter to the mob who Adele Wilde-Blavatsky crossed. It was only important if a white man was to blame. Once it became clear that a Muslim male was the perpetrator, the reality of a woman being beaten to death with a tire-iron suddenly became something to forget.

    Likewise, the furore surrounding Trayvon Martin was whipped up by people who said nothing about the horrific murder rate amongst young male African-Americans - who, statistically, were 9 out 10 times more likely to be killed by a fellow African-American. The Zimmerman case is not an easy one to pass judgement on, and there were intemperate polemics on both sides, but the harsh fact is that if Trayvon Martin had been shot dead by another young black man, none of the bien pensants involved in protesting this case would have cared.

    Dealing with the loathsome Priyamvada Gopal and the mutilation of Bibi Ayisha, we can see that this is not just an American problem. At it reveals a rather sick reality at the heart of the 'post-modernist'/'post-colonialist' dogma which poisons the intellectual left. Because for all their posturing about the 'subaltern', or 'epistemic violence', or about the silenced and forgotten masses crushed by Eurocentric hegemony, it is these people who will ignore and indeed
    facilitate and connive in the oppression and silencing of weak, the powerless, the oppressed, and the murdered, if their persecutors and killers do not happen to fit the Western imperialist paradigm.

    The Taliban's victims, or those of AQI or Boko Haram. The victims of spousal abuse or FGM. Sectarian or ethnic minorities in the Middle East or South Asia. Homosexuals in Third World countries who face lynching or the vile crime of 'corrective rape' (if they are lesbians). Unless they can convincingly demonstrate that they are the victims of US imperialism or its lieutenants, they are to be forgotten about, and indeed their existence is to be expunged from discussion (indeed, to even talk about them is to betray yourself as a closet neo-con).

    It truly is a despicable and morally corrupt mindset, and its existence in our campuses and our press should be a source of shame.

    1. No need to apologise. Harry's Place comments are deleted after a week so nice to have this thoughtful contribution archived here.

  5. Heard Karima Bennoune interviewed on CBC Radio a number of months back, by Michael Enright on the weekly Sunday Morning public affairs programming "Untold stories of the fight against Muslim Fundamentalism". Nov. 29/13 podcast can be found here:

    1. She's terrific. I saw her speak in London a few months back on the same subject. She has written a book on the subject called "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here". Available here

  6. What we are seeing here is part of a larger phenomenon--with no name or label that I am aware of--involving the current flurry of permutations and ramifications of formerly (seemingly) discrete and neatly bounded identities, identity associations, and related sorts of political alliances.

    The whole "intersectionality" enterprise is one such attempt--it delineates fine points of identity and affiliation (and comparative victimhood)--while--the reaction against intersectionality and its contradictions "(anti-intersectionality"?) is yet another attempt to (re-claim) the associations and rights inherent in the field of "identity-reckoning". All these are "internal"--that is--they deal with how to rationalize internal differences within formerly perceived discrete groups.

    But there are permutations in the external world of identity and political associations as well--as in the alliances forged between the seemingly strange bed-fellows of Christian Zionists and Pro-Israeli Jews--or--between the (Further) Left and Islam.

    Regarding the latter, see:

    "Red/Green/Brown Alliance"


    "The Prophet and the Proletariat"

    (Essay displaying some awareness of the contradictions of this alliance)


    « Le regard des Français sur la religion musulmane »

    A Harris Interactive investigation (in French) showing (among other factors) those in France polled with left-wing orientations, while not entirely well-disposed to Islam--nevertheless--sees Islam as the only religion viewed more postively than any other


    Unfortunately, the issue of "legitimacy" (what is a legitimate group? -- what groups or individuals have the "right" to speak?) becomes a heavy-handed feature of these debates. Many of these doings involve accusations of illegitimacy and attempts at delegitimization against opponents. What we need now is to come to terms with all the complexities of identities and associations--and try to deal with them soberly and with respect for that complexity--and here:

    "Who is Responsible"

    1. Thanks for all the links, Aloevera. Will take a look tomorrow.

  7. Another excellent piece.

    The "R" word has increasingly lost it's meaning. The behaviors that will get one branded as a racist today have lost all relation to the dictionary definition and dare I say logic.

    Criticizing the religion of Islam, opposing unlimited mass immigration, caring about the violence afflicting the black community or oppression of gays and women in minority groups area all considered the mark of racism by these ideologues and even quite a large slice of the liberal centre.

    In fact the whole idea of intersectionality, systemic racism and privilege makes racists of us all. Even fully paid up post colonialist, cultural relativistic, third world fetishistic, anti Western far leftist radical activist is a racist because original sin is subconscious don't you see!

    The only people truly free of the taint of racism are the infallible "people of colour" but as Jacobin rightly points out their voices are only important if they confirm the pre civil rights narrative of the intersectional ideologues. People like Ayan Hirsi Ali or Thomas Sowell are Uncle Toms and self hating Neocons.

    As a society we consider racism to be one of the worst things a person can be. The rhetoric of these holier than thou identity politicians has a chilling effect. Whilst I will gladly air my opinions on crime in the black community or misogyny in Islam from the anonymity of the comment section I wouldn't dare attach an honest dialogue on these subjects to my personal Facebook account or air them in the real world.

    Anyway if we are all racists does it really matter?

    Perhaps it's time for white people across the globe to relinquish their lands and wealth and be barred from public office and institutional power because they cannot be trusted not to subconsciously commit thought crimes.

  8. PS: Recently I have been interrogating the idea of structural racism and had some heated to & fros on Twitter. Whilst I don't reject the notion outright (cases like Stephen Lawrence and studies showing people with black or Muslim sounding names not receiving replies to job applications seem to be clear examples) I reject the notion that it defines Western society and I vehemently oppose the idea that it causes the internecine violence in black communities.

    For that to be true we would have to be living in a more institutionally racist time now than even pre civil rights America as the black murder rate has skyrocketed since segregation was ended. It just doesn't square with the evidence to blame the crime, murder and incarceration rates in the black community on racism -systemic, subconscious or otherwise- and we have been doing so for decades and it is only getting worse.

    If the intersectional left truly want to see an end to cases like Trayvon Martin they would be looking to tackle the phenomenal crime rates in the black community which has led to the quite rational profiling of young black men.

    Statistically you are far more likely to be the victim interracial violence where the aggressor is black than the other way around. Not to mention the near genocidal rates of black on black murder.

    If we truly care about our black brothers and sisters we should not be making excuses for this behaviour as it is the behaviour which can be changed whereas subconscious racism -if it exists and when it exists- is almost as impossible to diagnose and tackle as nailing a fart to a plank of wood.

    If we truly want to end the fear factor surrounding young black men we should be doing everything in our power to help the black community fight the culture of violence and criminality currently thriving in black communities from London to LA.

    Currently the intersectional left are doing everything in their power to stop that.

  9. I love the idea that Hitler was only a bigot in the 1920s but "became a racist" on gaining power in 1933. Truly absurd.

    On the plus side whenever people complain now that my acts are women haters or racist I sagely observe that they are in fact just bigots because they are "powerless" and it takes the edge off.

  10. (with addendum)

  11. You have to forgive American intersectional feminists. Having to sign up for the military draft by law at 18 and then sweat out the next decade hoping they won't get sent to some tropical island to get stabbed in the guts with a bayonet of male privilege makes them cranky. And all those protests for diversity at the Selective Service Administration and Vets Hospitals doesn't help. I mean, after all, 2.3% of the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan is a pretty heavy burden of privilege.

  12. Okay a less glib answer to “intersectionalism”…
    “This idea holds that racism is only possible when prejudice is married with power.”
    The thing is it’s so provably historically untrue. If there cant be minority racist how do these people explain the Nation of Islam (now so small it’s a political joke) and its schism with Malcolm X – surely that proves that minority racism does or can exist? Possibly the NofI was part of the necessary political cycle and natural polarisation that followed the end of segregation. But it is silly to pretend it’s agenda wasn’t racist. Well, “The Blackman is the original man. From him came all brown, yellow, red, and white people. By using a special method of birth control law, the Blackman was able to produce the white race. …blah blah blah” sounds racist to me but maybe I’ve just hilariously misunderstood it all.
    “racism may only travel in one direction - from the powerful to the powerless”
    This is dangerous indeed. If many of these people had read, for example, Burmese Days by George Orwell they would understand that the British Raj didn’t exist simply by maintaining a racist structure at the top – that kind of completely top down political control would never have worked – but by people in the middle such as the odious U Po Kyin fermenting racial prejudice at the bottom of society for their own political enhancement. Those such as the innocent Dr Veraswami who form innocent friendships with the white English are just as much a threat to his powerbase as they are to the English people’s power base. Everyone – not just those at the bottom – is trapped in a dehumanising system.
    Enoch Powell’s famous “Rivers of Blood” speech contains this section “That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect.” It was useful to ferment as an argument to further oppose civil rights.
    All forms and manifestations of racism are not the same. Mussolini, Hitler and Franco were all right wing European dictators of the 20th century so how come they didn’t behave the same way. All totalitarian regimes need scapegoats but while Hitler engaged in the systematic enslavement and murder of large subsections of his indigenous population right from the start – why didn’t this happen with Mussolini or Franco’s regimes? which were in power for a lot longer. Of course you could argue that Mussolini exported his racism by invading Abyssinia but this is a long way from a program of mass genocide. You could argue that it was because Germany couldn’t sustain and wasn’t allowed an empire that its racism turned inwards. But then you have to ask why weren’t Vallejo-Nájera’s racist ideas under Franco based purely on genetics like those of the Nazis?
    Of course the Nazis excuse for their genocide and continual territorial demands and invasions was precisely that they were an oppressed minority who had been artificially divided. "I am asking neither that Germany be allowed to oppress three and a half million Frenchmen, nor am I asking that three and a half million Englishmen be placed at our mercy. Rather I am simply demanding that the oppression of three and a half million Germans in Czechoslovakia cease and that the inalienable right to self-determination take its place." - Adolf Hitler 1938. Some people need to watch “Genesis of the Daleks” again…? Heaven forbit we should suggest that the holocaust was all just one man’s idea.
    “the many complexities involved in making "multidimensional conceptualizations"” waffles wikipedia.
    Sounds a lot like the idea that there are no concrete ideas to me. Of course it’s interesting how, for example, Roy Chubby Brown used to do lots of jokes against women and has now rebranded himself doing racial jokes but … the Matrix of Domination sounds to me a lot like a load of white feminists jumping on the bandwagon of black oppression for relational aggression… to me?

  13. Also, I have to say that the last time I looked at my girlfriend she was black
    When did she become a "woman of colour"? Just asking
    Only I was under the impression that the word "coloured" was racist
    because of its association with segregation
    "It's wrong," says Toyin Agbetu of Ligali, an African-British human rights organisation. "Because it strips me of my identity and reduces me to the most superficial physical identifier, as opposed to my African ethnicity."

    But of course if you separate out black from "people of colour" you create a smaller lobby group.
    And that's what I see here - a lobby group excluding everybody till it gets smaller and smaller and smaller and has no power...
    ...while attempting to glue together all other non-white ethnicities in a surreal way even if they dont have a common experience?
    Or perhaps the word black doesn't contain enough "white guilt"?

    I also love the idea of "peer reviewing" feminist (or any kind of political) thought?
    Then again feminism used to be about ideas and political theory.
    Today it is a label for everyone with a big gob
    "The last straw for me was a photo of 3 young Muslim men sitting around flowers holding a photo of the soldier who was killed in Woolwich."
    How awful. Imagine Muslim men feeling empathy for the death of a young white man?
    I mean if that woman aint a racist I dont know what is...? #whiteproverb
    At least Germaine Greer had a functioning brain

    In the mean time could someone please supply me with the correctly respectful racial term of the week for black?
    I do like to feel that I'm oppressing POC correctly. Otherwise I might call them BMEs or something awful.

  14. The thing is as well the whole "white guilt" thing just doesnt wash in Europe as clearly us white people have been here for over 1000 years although we're obviously supposed to forget this when letting in immigrants but remember our cultural identity when it is time to feel guilty. "You stole your land" doesnt work here. Neithet was everyone directly or indirectly connected to the slave trade or Empire. The best these puritans can do is suggest indirect benefits. Actually I do know what my ancestors did it wasnt slave trading. And let us not dare say there wasnt universal sufferage till 1946. It's like Basil Fawlty and the Germans. Of course most of the UK's new wave of immigrants arent "coloured" either. Hence BME not POC. Of course there is still racism and institutional racism but the stereotypes dont work here. A large section of the Windrush generation and decendants have merged with the whites creating lots of mixed race people too. The days when Brixton was all black are long gone. Even Mark Duggan's family seem to be half white... at leasr his aunt is. It's conplicated ...

  15. I did some further research on this - the Racism = Prejudice + Power slogan was coined by a woman called Pat Bidol ... and popularized by Judith H. Katz in her 1978 book White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training.

    You can sort of see how it came about. In a society like the US where there are no laws against incitement to racial hatred it made sense to some people to try and kid themselves that racial prejudice is not racism if there isn't a power dynamic to enfore it.

    However, it is unfortunately complete pastures.

  16. Hi - just to say that I always read your blog, 'cus it's great, but this post in particular had a bit of bearing on the one I recently I wrote on the whole Julie Burchill/intersectionality business. Not quite up to your standards but I didn't know whether you might be interested all the same:


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.