Toxicity: The True Story of Mainstream Feminism’s Violent Gatekeepers

by Aaminah Khan

The author would like to thank Mikki Kendall, Flavia Dzodan, Beth Lambier Ryan, and Danielle Miller for contributing their perspectives to this piece.

Internet culture has become increasingly meme-heavy, and the mainstream (white) feminist meme du jour is “toxicity.” Twitter, they claim, has become hostile to them. When Louise Mensch wrote an article last year about why she didn’t need to check her privilege, there were few feminists rushing to her side. This year, however, daring to call a white woman out on her privilege – even when done in one’s own space in an entirely non-confrontational manner – is met with cries of bullying and worse.

Why the sudden change? In a word, says Mikki Kendall, who tweets as @Karnythia and curates the site Hood Feminism: fear. Kendall was recently the target of what could only be described as a hit piece by Michelle Goldberg of The Nation, one that called her “feared” and “obsessed.”

When Laurie Penny wrote an article proclaiming that “short hair is a political statement,” which several feminists pointed out was not universal at all, her reaction was to accuse those levelling fair and balanced criticism at her of being bullies. Women on Twitter who pointed out that long hair is non-gendered in some cultures, or that the politics of non-white women’s hair are quite different from those of white women’s hair, allegedly made Penny experience a panic attack. We were, according to her and her editor, Helen Lewis, being unfair. We were – and here’s that word again – contributing to a culture of toxicity, allegedly so rampant that poor, underrepresented white feminists with columns in widely-read publications felt silenced by the criticisms of a few WOC on Twitter.

The prevailing theme underlying critiques of mainstream white-centric feminism is that it fails too many women. Danielle Miller, a Native American woman and scholar who tweets as @xodanix3 and started the #NotYourMascot hashtag, explains, “the more I got involved with social justice discourse, I saw how feminists were not addressing PoC issues. I’ve seen the absence of support when it comes to all the violence perpetuated against Indigenous women.”

A damning assertion indeed, particularly in the light of attempts by feminist heavyweights such as Eve Ensler to paint themselves as champions of Native women, despite Native opposition.

“If you want to help those people, you need to do it in a respectful way, which means allowing them to tell their own stories…without derailing and making the story about whatever cause you are pushing,” Miller said.

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Miller has not yet been accused of bullying, but she considers many of those recently targeted by white feminists as allies, including Kendall, @thetrudz of Gradient Lair, and #NotYourAsianSidekick creator Suey Park, as well as white activists like @GrimalkinRN. Solidarity clearly exists within the intersectional community. So why are these women accused of bullying?

“Race is absolutely a factor, and class is a factor too,” Kendall said. “I grew up in the kind of neighbourhood where shooting happens, and my responses reflect that reality. So when respectability politics comes into play? I’m almost always on the wrong side.”

The respectability politics of which Kendall speaks are a common feature of mainstream feminism: the idea that a feminist must be educated, well-paid, endorsed by major media syndicates, or have a book deal or conference appearances to her name in order to be taken seriously. Women who don’t have these things, or lack the opportunities to access them, are trivialised, dismissed, silenced, and intentionally left behind.

It’s worth pointing out that detractors of women like Kendall publish their “critiques” in online publications with huge readerships, leaving their targets left to defend themselves on Twitter or in personal blogs. Even more telling is the fact that these attempts at self-defence, at bringing personal perspectives to the conversation, are painted as “divisive” or dissenting, whilst women of colour who are willing to toe the mainstream party line are spared from such aspersions.

Flavia Dzodan, who writes the blog Red Light Politics and tweets as @redlightvoices, says the tactics used by mainstream feminists to silence their critics aren’t used by all white feminists.

“I think it’s a specific subset of women who are using this strategy to get themselves in the spotlight at the expense of women of colour,” Dzodan said. “At the bottom of this strategy is a historical use by white women to portray women of colour as ‘menacing’ or ‘scary’ or ‘threatening.’ This is nothing new. It’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

It’s true that painting non-white people as menacing, scary, and even savage is not a new tactic. The “angry black woman” narrative, in particular, has been around a very long time and continues to be used routinely, including in characterizations of First Lady Michelle Obama.

“What is new is that they have migrated the same mechanisms towards social media. In turn, these claims generate page clicks and outrage, amplifying their already important platforms. You can see this result in The New Statesman: this exact strategy took them out of the cycle of financial losses they were in for years. And it was all at the expense of women of colour, trans women, sex workers, queer women, poor and disadvantaged women, etc. It’s a rehash of historical stereotypes on women of colour combined with tabloid tactics,” Dzodan said.

As Dzodan points out, not all mainstream feminists have been so quick to embrace these tabloid tactics. Beth Lambier Ryan, an IT professional who tweets as @Auragasmic, found herself on the receiving end of harsh criticism from her fellow white women when she created the hashtag #WhiteWomanPrivilege to discuss the ways in which white women are privileged within society.

“I was rather disappointed to see that people were a bit hostile to the concept,” Ryan said. “This shouldn’t be a contentious issue within the feminist community. White women are privileged and what I really wanted to examine with the hashtag were the microaggressions we don’t encounter on a daily basis that are a reality for so many WoC.”

The question still remains: is Twitter “toxic” to mainstream feminists? Kendall doesn’t think so.

“If anything, I’d say the toxicity is more likely to come from exclusionary politics in feminism – anti-trans, anti-sex worker, that kind of thing – than from marginalized groups pushing back,” she says. And she should know: with articles, Tumblr posts, and Twitter dogpiles devoted to criticising everything from her politics to her methods of speech, Kendall is one of many intersectional feminists who have found themselves branded bullies by the very women seeking to silence them.

The “toxicity” meme is not the first attempt by white feminists to silence women with different lived experiences. In January, Liz Kelly – another white feminist – rallied behind her friend Caroline Criado-Perez when Criado-Perez was criticised for her narrowly-focused approach to feminist issues. She created the controversial hashtag #reclaimintersectionalityin2014, something of a blunder, given that intersectionality was first formally defined by a Black woman named Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper Mapping the Margins. White feminist attempts to “reclaim” such a term from black woman is tantamount to theft.

“For white cisgender women, intersectionality might be something they aspire to ‘practice.’ For me, it is a toolkit that allows me to put words into my lived experience,” Dzodan said. “It’s a shame that the written word cannot properly convey the roaring laughter that I had when I saw it; the only place for that hashtag is parody.”

Intersectionality has been the subject of many criticisms by mainstream feminists: that it’s too intellectual, that it’s not intellectual enough, that the tone makes people afraid, that feminists of colour and black women in particular are “angry” and “scary” and “mean.” The toxicity meme is just another in a long line of attempts by white women with large platforms, and a desire for control, to silence women who might undermine their absolute authority. The targets they choose are convenient: women of colour, queer and trans women, women without the platforms and ability to defend themselves. Their tactics mirror those of anyone trying to reify structural inequalities: systemic marginalisation, dismissing criticism, even silencing dissent by reframing it as aggression.

You can take the “toxicity” mob at their word, but if you want to get to the meat of what intersectionality is all about, I would recommend reading the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw herself:

Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so […] they relegate the identity of women of colour to a location that resists telling.

Alternatively, one could simply adopt, both in theory and practice, the slogan Dzodan coined years ago, which many intersectional feminists have sworn by ever since:

My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.

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Aaminah KhanAaminah Khan is a writer and activist who works in refugee support. She writes about intersectional feminism on her blog and can be found on Twitter @jaythenerdkid.





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