Archive for Feminism

Racism and misogyny never take a day off. On Leslie Jones, and my friend.

Racism and misogyny never take a day off. A good friend of mine recently decided to treat herself to a holiday, and so she went to a beautiful and supposedly liberal city in a Western European country. She was the only black person in her group of friends, and racism and misogyny conspired to taint her visit. While her white friends took in the sights and enjoyed their time off, she found herself incessantly subjected to all manner of indignities – everything from snide glances, to vocal expressions of contempt. Her experience was so unpleasant that, on one particular day, she said that she pretended she was ill, just so that she could stay inside and not have to face it. I can’t lie – the thought of my proud, brilliant friend forced indoors by such a torrent of prejudice is heartbreaking.

Some people will tell you to rise above racism and misogyny, but in many cities – most cities? – that’s the same as telling someone to walk barefoot on crushed glass and not get cut. Some people will tell you ignore the racists and the misogynists, but that’s not much of a comfort if you’re a black woman trying to building a career in Hollywood and you get daily hatred just for being visible. Leslie Jones and my friend are the same. They are just black women making lives for themselves, and maybe even enjoying themselves as they go. My friend just wanted a nice break, and racism ruined it. Leslie Jones just wanted to put out a feel-good movie, and racism forced her away from the Internet, where she should have been celebrating with appreciative fans.

I have regularly written that I hate writing about racism, and that has never been more true. I write about it from a sense of duty. I hate writing about it because it reminds me that it exists. I hate writing about it because every time I do write about it someone tries to comfort me by telling me that it’s not as bad as it was in the old days and that things are improving. That is probably about as comforting as being told that the acid someone splashed in your face could have been even stronger. The people who tell me that are the people who can go on holidays to those Western European cities and remain blissfully oblivious to the racial hatred so firmly embedded there. They are the same kind of people who will listen to my friend first with incredulity, then sympathy, and then barely-masked irritation when she tells them what she experienced just for having the nerve to be a black woman in public. Because their primary concern is not to make my friend feel better, but to make themselves feel better that the world in which they walk freely is not capable of being so monstrous as this suddenly troublesome black woman is making out. Because, for them, racism and misogyny are as simple to deal with as watching an atrocity on the evening news; they merely have to change a channel, and they no longer see them. But for my friend, and for Leslie Jones, the grim truth is that even when you do stop thinking about racism and misogyny, they don’t stop thinking about you.

My response to Matt Haig on identity politics.

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This evening I came home from a discussion about race and identity in Europe to see that the above post by the author Matt Haig was being discussed vigorously on Twitter. Since I was in a reflective mood, and because I was struck by how many people were grateful that he had expressed these views, I thought that I would write a response. There’s a lot to unpack here, so it may be longer than I intended.

“1. Identity politics. It’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? Judging people on what they signify rather than their character.”

Like Mr. Haig, I don’t think that anyone who is the object of discrimination is particularly comfortable in being judged on what they signify rather than their character. In an ideal world, we would all just be people, celebrating our differences and ultimately cherishing our common humanity. In that world, Trayvon Martin would still be alive. Of course, and sadly, we don’t live in that world. Mr. Haig – and this may just be the imprecision of his language – refers to identity politics, such as he defines them, as if they are something that certain groups created from thin air. Instead, they arose from very distinct and sustained forms of oppression, and I think that it is important to acknowledge that.

The examples which Mr. Haig names are interesting, and I think that a main flaw in his argument here is that he deals in absolutes. It’s possible both to acknowledge Caitlin Jenner’s bravery in relation to her gender and to critique her politics – and many people do. It’s possible both to acknowledge Sadiq Khan’s qualities as a politician and the symbolic importance of his victory in this current climate – and many people do. The same was true of President Barack Obama when he first took office. If anything, in my view, it made President Obama’s triumph doubly compelling, and doubly remarkable. He was both the outstanding presidential candidate and he was the first black president in a country which only a hundred years before saw black men being lynched and fed their own genitals. In this context, to acknowledge his identity did not diminish his achievement: instead, it amplified it.

2. “Twitter is full of identity politics. Statements about how you will never understand what it is to be Mexican/black/a woman/depressed unless you have lived experience.”

I think those statements are fine in themselves – I mean, I think they are basically just true. You can’t truly understand how depression feels if you haven’t felt it. In Mr. Haig’s own words, “it’s hard to explain depression to people who haven’t suffered from it…[it’s] like experiencing life on earth to an alien.” I can’t truly understand what it feels like to be Mexican because, well, I’m not. I sense that this is Mr. Haig’s main frustration – that we are rigidly ascribing characteristics to ourselves of a particular minority group, that we should break free of these straitjackets. To some extent he’s right – not all Muslims have exactly the same experience of being Muslim, or Christians exactly the same experience of being Christian. But what he fails to acknowledge is that there are, broadly speaking, similar issues that people from particular groups will face in certain situations. That’s not so much identity politics as day-to-day life. What Mr. Haig also fails to acknowledge – or seems to – is the extent to which that lived experience is being ignored, and the terrible effects that this has in our society. If more politicians paid attention to the lived experience of women, then we wouldn’t have such oppressive abortion laws; if people were more attentive to the lived experience of those with depression, then there wouldn’t be such stigma about mental health. When Mr. Haig writes “I hate all this stuff”, he can also usefully consider how much people who suffer due to our society’s prejudice hate the fact that their suffering goes unacknowledged.

3. “The use of ‘old white man’ as an insult that automatically disqualifies someone from a debate.”

Looking at it from Mr. Haig’s point of view, I see his frustration – if you’re having a discussion about an issue, it can be disconcerting to be told that you’re wrong simply because of who you are. In intellectual terms, it’s also not much of an argument. Yet this is where Twitter can be pretty much the worst possible format for such debates, which can descend into slanging matches. In a debate, you get several minutes of speaking time to make your arguments. On Twitter, you get a split second; what’s more, you’re publishing your thoughts on a platform where many people who have never had the chance to speak their own minds with such freedom are fed up from hearing from and presumably being talked down to by the archetypal ‘old white man’. Therefore, whenever an ‘old white man’ tweets a supposedly patronising opinion, he may have a sensation similar to that of a lamb opening its front door to a wolf. The ‘old white man’ is unlikely to feel enriched by such an experience, but he can usefully reflect, in time, upon where the anger comes from.

4. “We are all the same, when you place us next to sea-horses, but identity politics wants to chip away at our sameness and reduce us to differences that don’t actually reflect who we are.”

I don’t think that identity politics, as Mr. Haig defines them, sow the seeds of division in our society: I think that they are the fruit of that division. I happen to agree with him that there is a real danger in assuming that everyone from a particular marginalised group thinks the same. They don’t: that’s the kind of intellectual laziness that allows “community leaders” to go on television and position themselves as the exclusive voice of Muslims and the white working class, skewing the public discourse in ways that can be dangerous. That being said, it is useful – no, necessary – to reflect on the similar ways in which people from a particular group may be oppressed by a certain set of laws or traditional practices.

5. “We are becoming a world where we are all judging the shell, and not the soul.”

If true, I would argue that this isn’t the fault of marginalised groups, but the fault of public figures and policymakers who should and do know better. There are countless people fighting daily to be seen as just as human as their fellow citizens – just look at refugees, or the Black Lives Matter movement. If those drowning refugees were judged by their souls and not their shells, they’d still be alive.

The most striking thing about this post is that it discusses the apparent defensiveness of marginalised groups – their retreat into “identity politics” – without providing any context for why those groups might have become defensive. It therefore gives the impression that these marginalised groups merely tumbled into despair and even self pity and victim-hood without so much as a nudge from racism, misogyny, homophobia, and/or transphobia. Mr. Haig criticises identity politics as the cause of society’s ills as opposed to its symptom: and, to that extent, I think that his analysis is intellectually incomplete.

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ADDITION:

After I had subsequently tweeted that an excessive focus upon identity politics could be used to further repressive agendas, I was sent the following private message on Twitter by someone whose views I respect very much. I think it is a useful addition to the conversation, so I have asked permission to reproduce it below.

“I think my essential problem is alluded to in your piece, about how it broadens out and flattens individualism and the worst end of it responds by a misuse of intersectionality, forming a hierarchy of suffering and indulging in the narcissism of petty differences. I tend to broadly agree with your piece but do worry about this aspect as well as the tendency to see every identity only through the lens of suffering rather than experience or culture. If that makes sense.”

 


FIFA and Loretta E. Lynch: a milestone for black women.

Several of FIFA’s senior officials have been arrested on charges of corruption, news which has been welcomed by very many people outside the organisation (and, I suspect, more than a few within). The person leading this effort is Loretta E. Lynch, the US Attorney-General, who has only been in her job a matter of weeks. Lynch is the first African-American woman to hold this post, and here she is, holding possibly the most powerful organisation in world sport to account. This is, I think, a milestone for black women. At times like these, I look back at the history of civil rights activism, and consider those who fought just so women just like them could one day have access to the same opportunities as their fellow citizens. Regardless of how these charges against FIFA go, I believe that the very fact that Lynch is here to make them is historically important.

It is probably important today, too. When speaking with several of my black female friends, I see how many of them – despite their considerable success in their various fields – still experience remarkable self-doubt, as if they do not feel worthy of even greater platforms for their talents. That self-doubt is often derived from a world which through the twin stings of racism and sexism frequently tries to hold them back. I doubt that Lynch herself will stop to reflect on this moment – for her, it is probably just one more day in an outstanding career – but many black women, those long gone and those yet to come, may thank her for showing that someone just like them can make it as far as she wants to. And, somewhere out there, I hope that countless ancestors – among them Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Rosa Parks – are raising a glass.

 

 

God bless Kanye West, and God bless Ida B. Wells.

Last week, Kanye West got on stage at the Grammys and, in his own words, acted like “an asshole”. This weekend, I was a guest on the BBC World Service, looking back at the week’s news. One of the items for discussion was the Equal Justice Initiative’s report on lynching in America’s Southern states. This made me think in turn of Ida B. Wells, whose pioneering and fearless research in this area cannot be praised enough; and finally, at one profoundly historical level, it made me thank God for the asshole that Kanye has become.

We will return to Kanye West very soon; but, for now, we should go back to the formidable Ida B. Wells. In 1892, following the murder of three of her friends, she began a vigorous investigation of their deaths and the social circumstances which enabled them. She interrogated a world where black boys and men were routinely taken out in the street, tortured and killed, very often in broad daylight. This happened under the pretext that they had raped white women: most commonly, though, it seems that their true offence was to have had consensual sexual relations with those women. On one occasion, in 1891, one black man – Will Lewis, of Tullahoma – was taken from jail by a mob and hung, for the apparent crime of drunken rudeness to his white superiors. Black girls and women were not remotely spared either, with one Mildrey Brown hung in 1892 “on the circumstantial evidence she had poisoned a white infant”. Well’s resulting publication, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases”, is a seminal work, and simultaneously a daunting read. Yet so audacious was Wells in her efforts that, at one point, I found myself smiling with glee.

I began to imagine the faces of those everyday white supremacists, so complacent and comfortable in their racial tyranny over the South, if they could have seen Kanye preparing to take the stage at the Grammys. Specifically, I imagined the faces of the editorial team of the Memphis Evening Scimitar. On June 4 1892, they wrote that:

“The chief cause of trouble between the races in the South is the Negro’s lack of manners. In the state of slavery he learned politeness from association with white people, who took pain to teach him. Since the emancipation came and the tie of mutual interest and regard between master and servant was broken, the Negro has drifted away into a state which is neither freedom nor bondage…he has taken up the idea that boorish insolence is independence, and the exercise of a decent degree of breeding toward white people is identical with servile submission….there are many Negroes who use every opportunity to make themselves offensive, particularly when they think it can be done with impunity.” (My italics.)

As I read this I thought of Kanye mounting those steps, I thought of these racists watching him, and as I sat at my kitchen table I allowed myself a quietly maniacal chuckle.  After all, if these editors could have created an algorithm that would have produced their worst nightmare, then it is pretty safe to say that it would have produced someone like Kanye West. (In fact, in the quoted paragraph above, they virtually prophesied his emergence.) Kanye does not even have the good grace to be humble about his talents. He lacks manners; he is frequently impolite; he is rude, boorish, offensive, intemperate, obstreperous and vulgar. And, as I read these words from 1892, I absolutely loved him for it.  Kanye is critically acclaimed, he is independently wealthy, he has the ear of millions whenever he opens that mouth of his, that awful goddamn mouth – in short, he is everything that the slavers feared the day they reluctantly unlocked that final yoke.

Towards the end of her magnificent paper, Wells wrote that  “the more the Afro-American yields and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.” There is no chance of Kanye ever yielding and begging, and that is thanks in very large part to the extraordinary efforts of Wells, who made possible an America in which a black person could be so free, so bold, brash and unrestrained.

And so I find that there are two contexts in which I view what Kanye did at the Grammys, when he went onstage to tell Beck, the winner of the Best Album award, that Beyoncé would have been a more deserving recipient.  The first context was immediate, in which I rolled my eyes and thought “Kanye, for God’s sake, you’ve been an ass yet again: you’ve disrespected and possibly ruined someone’s big day, a moment which may be the culmination of their career as an artist, let it go.” The second context is historical: and here I watch as the editors of the Memphis Evening Scimitar look helplessly into the future, a world featuring the unapologetic arrogance of Kanye, an uppity Negro the type of which they would gladly have seen dragged out and butchered.  And, in that context, I howl with laughter: and I think, God bless you Kanye West, and God bless you Ida B. Wells.

 

To you men who joke about assaulting women.

Every time you make a remark about assaulting women, and then defend it by saying “it was just a joke”, I think I know what you mean.  It’s not just a joke, really.  It’s not just a joke to the women, or to those who care about them; and, what’s more, it’s not just a joke to you.  It’s really important to you.  You’re saying, under the mask of laughter, something that you genuinely mean.

Don’t get angry at this fact.  You’re angry enough already.  You’re angry that you even have to disguise your intentions.  Because you know there was once a time when you could openly boast absolutely anywhere about the women you assaulted or were about to, and it would go unpunished.  Now, though, you’ve got to be a bit more careful.  Now you have to use jokes, and you hate this.

It’s obvious that you hate this, because when someone says that you are being offensive, you become furious.  Not immediately – at first, you try to patronise them, or laugh them off.  But if they persist with their accusation just once more, you skip past irritation to rage.  You might even start threatening them.  And this is why you’re pissed off – because you’re fed up with the whole fucking pretence, aren’t you? Hate having to bite your fucking tongue.  You wish this fucking bitch would just shut up like the other fucking bitch who had that smack coming.  Fucking hell.  You can’t fucking talk about anything these days, can you?

This is how it feels, isn’t it.  Your blood is up.  Fuck.  What you really want to do is say what you think anywhere anytime.  But you can’t.  Your hatred is like your cock – you want to fuck the world with it, unprotected.  But you can’t: you have to clothe it, so the joke is your condom.

And you hate having to use that condom, but it’s the only way you’re going to get any action.  Because if you hang out with your mates, and tell them straight-faced about the woman you took home who was too drunk to stand, there won’t be so many of those mates any more.  This way, if you joke about it, you can all sit in that pub and you can laugh and the cowards can cower into their pints and you can carry on.  That’s why you hate it when we call you out on your jokes.  Because what you’re really saying is Bitch don’t fucking make me take this seriously.  Because deep down you know it’s not funny and you try to think about that truth as little as possible.

It’s OK, I’m done now.  Go back to your beer and your banter, which is where you feel better.  Just don’t think that we don’t know, and that we don’t see you.  Because we see you just as clearly, when the beer clears and there’s nothing left but the bathroom mirror, as you see yourself.

 

Richard Scudamore’s sexist emails: the triumph of low expectations.

Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, has apologised for the content of a series of his leaked emails, in which he refers to women in derogatory terms.  Scudamore’s former personal assistant, who leaked his emails, stated that “he has no respect for women. I don’t think anyone should have to be exposed to such language and opinions at work.”

A Premier League source, speaking to the Daily Mirror, said that “Richard realises that his comments were inappropriate and wrong but they were not intended for a wider audience. It was meant in a Frankie Howerd style way. His commitment to the equality agenda and anti-discrimination is writ large.” (My italics.)

Whoever the Premier League source was, they have made things worse, since they suggest that Scudamore’s attitude towards women is a pervasive one.  It is worrying if the above statement was carefully crafted by a press team, as it is very revealing for two reasons.  First, to open with a line that Scudamore’s sexism was “not intended for a wider audience” implies that this sexism would somehow be less damaging if no-one knew about it.  Yet this sexism, unseen till now, may already be working to corrosive effect: this sexism may prejudice, for example, every job interview that a woman sits for a senior Premier League position. It may prejudice the budgets allocated to the women’s game, which may come under renewed scrutiny as a result of Scudamore’s comments.  After all, if his commitment to equality and anti-discrimination is indeed “writ large”, we should expect to see robust investment in the women’s game.  All of a sudden, the sums pledged aren’t looking all that substantial.

Secondly, there is the explanation of Scudamore’s comments: that they were meant in a light, comic vein, in the style of Frankie Howerd.  When accused of sexism, there is often an effort among men in football to infantilise themselves: what you might call the “boys will be boys” defence.  “We’re just kidding”, so the argument goes, “chill out”.  However, it’s strange to see these men rely on a defence of youthful irresponsibility, and in the same breath expect to be trusted with billion-pound budgets.

Will Scudamore be disciplined by the Premier League for his comments?  Few seem to think so. Unfortunately, the institution of British football has achieved what you might call “the triumph of low expectation”.  People expect so little in the way of progressive attitudes within the sport that emails such as Scudamore’s are met with a frustrated shrug.  Yet this helplessness is something that women cannot afford.  As Anna Kessel, the Guardian/Observer journalist and co-founder of Women in Football, noted this morning on Twitter, “the impetus lies with everyone else to force [the Premier League] into action”.

Gloria de Piero, the Shadow Equalities Minister, has observed in the Mirror that “Richard Scudamore has let down women supporters, players, referees and coaches.”  I agree with that, and I would go further: he has let down men supporters, players, referees and coaches too, since his emails do not reflect the attitudes of those many men who support the women’s game and the advance of female professionals within the sport as a whole.  The Premier League should make all of this clear in whatever action it now takes.

GitHub: sexism, bullying, harassment, and a curiously clean sweep.

[NOTE: This article was prompted by the tweets of the developer Julie Ann Horvath (@nrrdcore) and Shanley Kane (@Shanley), the technology writer.]

Last night I read about the departure from GitHub, the popular social coding side, of its co-founder Tom Preston-Werner. Preston-Werner’s company had been accused of a culture of bullying, sexism and harassment by one of the company’s then developers, Julie Ann Horvath. In an official announcement on its website, GitHub outlined the steps that it had taken to clean house. However, many of these steps seem to have been spent treading carefully around the elephant in the room. When GitHub’s findings are compared with the comments of two of their most vocal critics, the developer Julie Ann Horvath and the technology writer Shanley Kane,  it seems that much of the picture is still missing.

“Last month,” wrote Chris Wanstrath, the CEO and co-founder of GitHub, “a number of allegations were made against GitHub and some of its employees, including one of its co-founders, Tom Preston-Werner. We took these claims seriously and launched a full, independent, third-party investigation.”

“The investigation”, continued Wanstrath, “found no evidence to support the claims against Tom and his wife of sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment. However, while there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment. In light of these findings, Tom has submitted his resignation, which the company has accepted…As to the remaining allegations, the investigation found no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse.”

However, Horvath’s interview with Tim Murtaugh for the Stop Talk Show podcast  gives the impression that GitHub’s investigation has produced a curiously clean sweep. Horvath related the tale of a GitHub engineer who, following her rejection of his romantic advances, took a series of “passive-aggressive” measures to undermine her work. “He’s retaliating against me”, she said, “for not dating him or fucking him, excuse my language; it’s kind of crazy where you can’t work in an environment where, you know, men especially aren’t mature enough to deal with their own feelings.”

Horvath had kept a careful record of his behaviour. “There’s proof that this person went in and ripped out my code”, she told Murtaugh. “There are emails…I spent the last two years documenting all this stuff [so that] there was solid proof of all these things happening”. There is a sense, though, that certain uncomfortable questions were left unasked, perhaps for fear of what their answers might reveal. “They hired an outside firm to do an investigation”, observed Horvath at 24:47 of the podcast, “but…I haven’t gotten a phone call, so…I don’t know how exactly thorough that is.” (My italics.)

Horvath risked her career to make these allegations, and yet their strength has remained strangely untested. This investigation does not sound particularly rigorous: in any event, it is difficult to tell, since no copy of it has been made available to the public. “There was no investigation”, tweeted Horvath.  “There was a series of conversations with a “mediator” who sought to relieve GitHub of any legal responsibility.”  Meanwhile, Werner-Preston has gone on to another company, issuing a defiant statement on his own website to sue anyone making “any further false claims”. As for the engineer who allegedly bullied Horvath, he was not mentioned anywhere in the statement, even though it was his behaviour that lay at the very heart of this case. Instead, he was long ago promoted to a leadership position within GitHub, something which “terrified” Horvath to the extent that she had felt compelled to leave. The picture that she painted of the tech industry for Murtaugh and his listeners was one where women, particularly those at the beginning of the careers, are forced to suffer in silence.

“Why would younger women who are just entering this industry…speak out now?” asked Horvath. “We’re setting such a bad example for them because we’re saying “oh, if you don’t have, you know, [the right amount of] Twitter followers or if you don’t have a job already lined up, like, you’re completely fucked, and you have to deal with these situations and play with the boys’ club until you can create the circumstances by which you can leave.”

Many startups, by their very nature, are close-knit and homogenous – a phenomenon that Horvath refers to as “the tribe” – resulting in structures that are far too informal to deal with serious allegations of bullying and harassment, and situations which, in Horvath’s words, become “dangerous and toxic”.

Shanley Kane, the co-founder and co-CEO of Model View Culture, published a series of compelling tweets on the Github affair. “I need everyone to know that what happened at GitHub is NOT an exception. It is part of the script of Silicon Valley”, she wrote. “To keep Silicon Valley going – sexual harassment and abuse of women MUST happen. It MUST be covered up. The abusers MUST be promoted. The women MUST be punished and silenced. The men MUST NOT suffer consequences. THIS IS INTEGRAL TO THE MECHANISMS OF POWER AND WEALTH. In order for Silicon Valley to keep going as is, this is necessary. THIS IS NOT A BUG. THE SYSTEM IS WORKING AS DESIGNED.”

Taken together, the analyses of Horvath and Kane present a world where scrutiny of the excesses of male employees is routinely passed over in pursuit of profit. The question is how many women have either been inhibited in their careers or lost them altogether as a result of these brutally adverse working conditions; one which GitHub, and other companies like it, have so far been far too slow to address.

David Choe, Tom Meagher and “the non-rapist rapist”.

[Trigger warning: I have tried to minimise references to sexual assault here but there may still be phrases which are upsetting.]

Yesterday I listened to a podcast co-hosted by celebrity graffiti artist David Choe and porn actress Asa Akira. Choe, who became a multimillionaire when he cashed in his Facebook stock, regaled Akira and the rest of the podcast crew with lurid stories from his love life. In the course of their two-hour conversation, Choe tells the story of a time he attended a session with a masseuse and – according to his account – sexually assaulted her. A fuller, harrowing description of these events can be read in Melissa Stetten’s article for XO Jane.

The responses of those in the studio veered between amused, and confused, and quietly horrified. Despite Akira’s chumminess as she drew out Choe’s full story, her shock seemed evident at various points. The other contributors to the podcast, all male, were less taken aback than her, but only marginally so. At several points, they confronted Choe with the reality that, in all likelihood, he had raped his masseuse. At first, Choe was more relaxed in relating that day’s events, recalling that what he did “[was] definitely crossing the line”. He even referred to himself as “a successful rapist” and remarked on his excitement being heightened by “the thrill of possibly going to jail”.

However, there was a moment when his mood began to turn, and he became more defensive, perhaps sensing that his mildly disturbed friends – or, at least, his colleagues – might not be so ready to chalk this one up as just another frat boy misdemeanour.  “You raped her”, said Akira, before adding swiftly, “allegedly”.  At that moment, he began to backtrack a little, whilst still remaining strangely light-hearted and defiant.  “I just want to make it clear that I admit that that’s rapey behavior, but I am not a rapist”, he said later. Choe has more recently denied that these events took place. “I never thought I’d wake up late one afternoon and hear myself called a rapist”, he wrote in a subsequent statement. “It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered. (My italics.) The more sceptical listeners will raise their eyebrows at his retraction, given that he fluently related his story over the course of forty minutes in the most graphic detail.  Whether or not Choe’s tale is true – and the suspicion will linger that he is now disavowing it to evade prosecution – he has again affirmed the existence of “the non-rapist rapist”.

The “non-rapist rapist” is the person that a self-styled Nice Guy could never possibly see in the mirror. That’s because a rapist is someone living far beyond the boundaries of society, someone of no worth (usually financial) to his fellow citizens, and whose sole purpose is the assault of women. A ruthless, malevolent loner driven solely by desire. The “non-rapist rapist”, on the other hand, takes solace in the fact that he could never be so monstrous as the attacker in the above paragraph. No – he is a decent person, fundamentally a good man, and he is therefore incapable of subjecting a woman to such a horrific ordeal. He’s just a regular guy, y’know?

Choe is so visceral in his contempt for rapists that, both ironically and bizarrely, he would like to see them raped in revenge, then murdered. But it’s probably easier to wish for these people to be butchered than to accept that, well, you just might be one of them. Earlier this week, the Guardian published an outstanding article by Tom Meagher, whose wife was assaulted and murdered in Australia two years ago. Meagher wrote movingly of the same denial that runs right through Choe’s podcast and his following statement:

“By insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding a more terrifying concept: that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything, from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.”

Rapists, as Meagher notes, aren’t just masked predators who suddenly emerge from the dark. Most, often, they are everyday men who feel an sense of entitlement to a woman’s body and any sexual gratification that they can derive from it, regardless of her consent.

The question is what happens now: whether media outlets such as VICE, with whom he currently works, stand by him or cut him loose, and whether the authorities take a very close look at this recording.  In the meantime, what is almost as disturbing as anything else was the comfort with which he told his tale, almost as if he expected to be congratulated for his alleged exploits.  The nature of the conversation, so casual that it was surreal, said everything about how sexual assault is trivialised every day, and was the very essence of rape culture: a culture of which, now that this video has gone viral, Choe is yet another poster child.

 

For Brown Girls: on Karyn Washington, and Sara Baartman

This weekend I was saddened to read of the death of Karyn Washington, the founder of the website “For Brown Girls”.  The reports that she had taken her own life at the age of just twenty-two, following her struggle with depression, were the first that I had heard of her excellent work. If I had known of it sooner, I would have forwarded it to my friends and relatives long ago. The aim of her website is a wonderful one: it was, in her own words, “created to celebrate the beauty of dark skin while combatting colorism and promoting self love! FBG was created to celebrate darker shades of brown- to encourage those struggling with accepting having a darker skin complexion to love and embrace the skin they are in. However, women of all shades may take away from FBG the universal and essential message of self love and acceptance.”

Washington’s mission was as beautiful as the skin of the girls whom she sought to celebrate. I have long wondered and worried about the difficulty that black girls and women face in everyday life, and through the lives of my family and friends I have seen this problem with uncomfortable clarity and frequency. As any one of them can tell you, it’s not that they merely experience racism and sexism separately: it’s that the two prejudices seem to have some sort of strange multiplier effect, intensifying the discrimination that they receive. There’s one person I know who was hounded out of a job because her colleagues couldn’t stand to take orders from her; another whose peers felt so threatened by her progress that she, too, was shown the door; and yet another, who was made to feel as unwanted as an old piece of office furniture before dispatched by her company of several years. The ample sums that they quietly received via their employment tribunals told its own story.

The objectification of black women for the amusement or revulsion of others has been going on for centuries, both before and after the most lurid example of Sara Bartmaan, the “Hottentot Venus”.  Baartman, for those who don’t know the story, was a black woman who was taken from South Africa in the early nineteenth century and paraded around Europe, often in a cage, for the entertainment of the public. Those who came to see her gawped at and mocked her dark skin and large buttocks, which were both supposedly signs of racial inferiority. After her death at the age of 26, her dehumanisation continued, her genitals being pickled and displayed in a French museum.

If Baartman’s suffering was the tale of a racist attempt to destroy the black woman, then Washington’s life can be seen as one more necessary and successful effort to reassert her worth. Indeed, the legacy of the “Hottentot Venus” affair is firmly with us: it can be still be seen in the pages of our fashion magazines and on our catwalks, with insidious effects elsewhere. In October 2009, the online dating site OKCupid revealed from an extensive analysis of its data that: “men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder.”

I asked a good friend about these findings and she nodded wryly in recognition: after all, what could you do? What can you do when people are conditioned to call you bossy or aggressive or intimidating?  What can you do, as the writer Bridget Minamore has noted, when people have so often been told that you are strong or “fierce” that they have forgotten or never realised that you can be tender?

Well, if you can, you find strength in yourself, in solidarity and the love of those who truly value you, and if you’re truly lucky you’ll stumble across lives like that of Karyn Washington.  Judging by the experiences of several people whom I know well, I think that being a black woman can at times be emotionally exhausting, given the assaults that are frequently launched on their self-esteem. I am therefore grateful to Karyn Washington for making the lives of countless girls and women of all colours so much happier.  I also hope that her legacy is a world where black girls don’t have to be brave, or tough, or any of the rest of it; a world where, quite simply, they can just live.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Happy International Women´s Day; though, in truth, I am not happy at the way that things are. In fact, I am angry. This is not good enough – we should not still be here. The stream of actual and structual violence against women worldwide in our society seems endless. Each new article I see about the state of how things are fills me with a fury I can barely contain, and which leaves me, as now, shivering with rage. It is not difficult for we men to be better people. It is not difficult to set far better standards for ourselves. And those of us who are afraid of starting to improve for fear of falling short of perfection need to get off our backsides, and now. Even now, as I type this, I fear the accusation of self-righteousness. But, at some level, fuck that. There is not nearly enough self-righteousness out there. There are not nearly enough men giving this issue proper thought, or asking proper questions, or doing careful reading, or doing careful thinking. There are a thousand things that do not even occur to us about sexism and misogyny even though these two freely infect the air around us like they were bacteria. This might seem like handwringing, and maybe it is. But there is not nearly enough of that either. There is so much more room for respect and understanding and support and compassion, and I hope that we either begin or continue to see this.