White Victims And Black Monsters: Why I Have No Time For Becky Feminism
"Our men are routinely positioned as monsters and our instinct to defend them makes it hard to speak about issues black women face."
Most of the fights I nearly got into were for my younger brother. There are about 18 months that separate us and when he was in year nine, a girl threw a frozen apple popper at him. I had a few quiet words with her. In the same year another girl called him an “abo” or said all Aboriginals were some random negative trait. I went and had a chat with this girl too. But when I confronted her at lunchtime to let her know that racism wasn’t cool, she lost it.
The girl started yelling and sobbing. She started talking about all her woes. At this point I just wanted her to shut up because we were so close to the school office and it wasn’t long before the vice principal came out. By the time he got to where we were, the scene looked like a crying white girl and a staunch albeit perplexed black girl.
I was reminded of this earlier this month when I read about Lena Dunham’s latest fuck-up. In an interview with Amy Schumer for Lenny Letter, Dunham made some comments about Odell Beckham Jr, NY Giants wide receiver.
“I was sitting next to [him], and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards,” she said. “He was like, ‘That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.’ It wasn’t mean — he just seemed confused.
“The vibe was very much like, ‘Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a … yep, it’s wearing a tuxedo. I’m going to go back to my cell phone.’ It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie. I was like, ‘This should be called the Metropolitan Museum of Getting Rejected by Athletes.”
Dunham was rightfully called out by many people who thought her comments were peak white feminism. They argued that she unfairly positioned Beckham (a black man) as hypermasculine and hypersexualised — a racist trope that is often employed against black men.
Though she’s since issued an apology, her initial response was to position herself as the victim. “My story about him was clearly (to me) about my own insecurities as an average-bodied woman at a table of supermodels & athletes,” she said on Twitter. “It’s not an assumption about who he is or an expectation of sexual attention. It’s my sense of humour, which has kept me alive for 30 years.”
Glad the outrage machine roars on though, right @amyschumer?
— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) September 2, 2016
Like those girls I confronted for my brother, when her fuck up was confronted the narrative became all about her woes.
A Defence Of “Angry Black Men”
A few months ago Kanye West dropped the music video for ‘Famous’. The film clip featured various famous people laying naked in bed. The song included the lyrics “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex … I made that bitch famous”. Many people had problems with the clip due to the juxtaposition of particular people including Rihanna, Chris Brown and the inclusion of Bill Cosby. Personally I found it dull and problematic — naked people: so edgy! — but references to Taylor Swift were not the reason why.
The lyric which caused so much controversy is a reference to the 2009 VMAs where West famously interrupted Swift’s best female video award speech. Whether you think West helped boost Swift’s already established fame or not (he kinda did), the fact which is often forgotten, is that West’s initial commentary was centred upon race. He argued that Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ should have won the award. The man had a point; even today it remains iconic.
Regardless of that important point, the ideas of Kanye as the ‘crazy bully’ and Swift as the ‘innocent victim’ have defined so much of their public personas since. About a month ago, Kim Kardashian released a video of a conversation between West and Swift where Swift seemingly was okay with the lyrics, suggesting she was putting on a front for the media.
Like their first run-in, like Dunham’s response to being called out and all those white girls I had to talk to for my brother, Swift’s messaging was about her victimhood.
This is a familiar narrative — black men as aggressors with precious white female victims. During the 1840s, in the Gunai/Kurnai country I am from, a series of massacres were carried out by the white colonialist Angus Macmillan. The justification for the violence was that the Gunai/Kurnai people had kidnapped a white woman, but there is no evidence that this woman ever actually existed.
It’s an extreme example, but this same constructed narrative of white victimhood persists today. Earlier this year Aboriginal artist Murrandoo Yanner kicked Pauline Hanson out of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. He told her she wasn’t welcome due to her treatment of Muslims and the way she has spoken about black people in the past. Pauline responded with this video where she refers to the incident as “abuse”.
Rather than addressing the racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia she was being called out for she positioned herself as the victim.
This is the same narrative we saw in some media outlets when a white girl called Adam Goodes an ape and he didn’t cop it with a smile. The backlash this provoked is perhaps what fuelled Eddie Betts’ response to another white woman throwing a banana at him. Despite her obvious transgression, he called on fans to stop sending her messages and for the club to lift their ban.
This trope isn’t limited to white victims either. We saw it come up again with Bill Leak’s racist cartoon that turned the blame for abuse in juvenile detention on black men. The cartoon, which was response to the backlash the Northern Territory government faced after Four Corners aired their expose episode, somehow inferred the abuse of black children perpetrated by Northern Territory government was actually the fault of black fathers who don’t know their kids’ names.
The black internet responded to this with that brilliant piece by Dr Chelsea Bond and #IndigenousDads, but the fact it happened at all revealed a serious lack of nuance in public discourse over black issues. Our men are routinely positioned as monsters and our instinct to defend them makes it hard to speak about issues black women face.
The Problem With “Becky Feminism”
Black women are more likely to experience violence, we’re the fastest growing prison population in the country and leadership spaces in our communities are often dominated by men. But the persecution of our men makes it hard for us to be honest when there are gendered issues we want to raise. Many of us would rather have whispered conversations rather than publicly throw our lovers, brothers, uncles, cousins, fathers, uncles or grandfathers under the bus. We feel like we can only have these sort of conversations around other black non-men.
Now, I don’t hate white women. Some of my best friends are white women! But this persisting victim narrative is exhausting and damaging. It’s exhausting because it is often black women who do the labour of defending our men. I know we don’t have to, but often it feels like a responsibility.
Two weeks ago at the Feminist Writers Festival, extremely popular white feminist Clementine Ford said words to the effect of ‘feminism is hindered by identity politics’, and that feminism couldn’t possibly do everything well. She prefaced it with a statement along the lines of ‘I know this is problematic, but I’m going to say it anyway.’ *
I have no time for Becky feminism that finds my blackness inconvenient. White millennial feminists occasionally cry “kill all men”. Obviously, they don’t actually want to kill all men but the sentiment underpinning the statement fails to recognise the complexities of different oppressions and privileges, and how they interact with each other. What about our black men who have been dispossessed, suffer the effects of colonisation and inherit intergenerational trauma? What about trans men? What about queer men of colour?
I understand all this is ultimately a critique of patriarchy, which men including my brothers benefit from. But black or intersectional feminism (which we do need) isn’t as simple as standing as a united front against all men because there are many privileges white women have that black men and women don’t.
I wonder if they know that we hate white supremacy just as much as they hate patriarchy?
Nayuka is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman working in the youth sector. Nayuka writes about black politics and feminism. She tweets at @nayukagorrie.
* Update: There’s been some debate about the context of Clementine Ford’s comments at the Feminist Writers Festival from others who were at the session. We’ve been notified that the full recording is available online. You can listen to her exact statements here (from around 19.19). Here’s an abridged version:
“I think identity politics are important and necessary, but I think that sometimes in our current activist circles we can become a little obsessed with the identity part of things, and not necessarily the progression part of things. It’s a really problematic thing for me to say because my identity is favoured by most of the dominant structures. I do understand and recognise that…”
“I’m not suggesting that anyone abandon identity politics, but there is sometimes value in — if you’re in a situation about who is allowed to speak in [a] space, and it’s being really reduced to very specific kinds of identity markers and resulting in a lot of lateral violence amongst similarly oppressed people — […] accepting the limitations of that, and trying to move forward somehow.”