Memo to white feminists re: Hugo Schwyzer

This post speaks to so much I’m feeling right now — my disenfranchisement with mainstream (white) feminist blogs (looking at you Jezebel), a sense of alienation from what I want to write about and what “gets clicks,” narratives like the fuckwit Hugo Schwyzer deal, and yes, even the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag … as chronicled best by this post on The Frisky:

The Internet exploded in feminist calamity yesterday over the racist, sexist, patriarchal, abuse-laden behavior of Hugo Schwyzer, an allegedly a self-described* mentally ill (former) professor of women’s studies at Pasadena City College. Schwyzer divulged information that is classically tucked away behind the buttressed walls of systemic white privilege. Anecdotally, it’s akin to the ENRON scandal, the ACORN scandal and the unprecedented shit show that was the financial collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Thematically each of these exposed, in an exceptional way, the clandestine systemic privileges that sustain long-term oppression: economic, racial, civic or otherwise.

Schwyzer, a self-identified male feminist made his claim to Internet fame by reworking and packaging up modern male feminism and selling it to online publications like The Atlantic and Jezebel, for whom he was a paid contributor, and Feministe, which featured an interview with him. Two of these three are notorious for their insensitivity and, on more than one occasion, outright disregard for the importance of intersectional feminism – that is the focal point where feminism and another powerful system meet, say for instance, race. These cyber tropes, which have staked claim as the premier source for all things feminist, prioritize clicks over everything else, as beautifully explained by blogger Flavia Dzodan. In matters of the heart, their feminist ideology dematerializes – often at the expense of women of color and other marginalized women.

The virtual cataclysm peaked when Feministe editor Jill Filipovic, who is white, was dismissive of one of Schwyzer’s victims, a woman of color named Mikki Kendall, and the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomenbegan to sprawl across the Twit-o-sphere. The hashtag, which in my opinion is not super succinct, called out the many reasons it is important for white women to stand in solidarity with women of color. There are light-years worth of socio-politico dialogue that resulted from this hashtag, including poignant arguments about inherent and realized privilege, but two things stood out for me: I was reminded that traditional feminism is not inherently intersectional – the liberation of women of color was an addendum to the narrowly constructed philosophy. And, that when there are “systems” involved, nobody is to blame for the continual abuse and oppression of people of color, specifically women of color. Therefore no action is necessary, no lessons are learned and we recycle this precarious vortex of shit over and over again.

I feel a sense of anger that somehow as a white feminist blogger I am guilty by association. Not because someone said I am but because my privilege allows me to completely filter out people like Hugo Schwyzer and the resulting feminist shitstorm.

As Red Light Politics writes:

I wanted the media that celebrated all the page clicks his filthy faux feminism brought in to publicly acknowledge their role in creating the toxicity that enabled his rise to fame. I wanted Jezebel’s Editor in Chief, Jessica Coen, to acknowledge how she contributed to this disaster every time she banned commenters protesting his presence. I wanted her and his editors at The Atlantic and Jane Pratt from xoJane to look at us in the metaphorical eye, and say “I am sorry”. I was expecting some sort of ethical acknowledgement of the role that the media they manage played in his systematic abuse of any dissenters. Women like Blackamazon, like brownfemipower and countless others he systematically belittled and demonized deserved the public apology. The women, and it is no coincidence he systematically picked on Women of Color, whose lives he insulted and put down deserved this apology. …

However, here’s where things get murky and difficult and not easy to express coherently (mostly because it is difficult to put into words the source of so much of my anger and disappointment): even more so than despising his ideology, I despise the culture that enabled him. I despise the TMZ of feminist media that “reports” our issues and sells us a lip gloss version of our politics and gives space to people like him so that he can shit on us and tell us how we should take it in the face while he puts Women of Color in “their (our) places”. This is how White Supremacy works and I am pointing all my fingers at Jezebel and xoJane and The Atlantic and every other publication that paid him to publish his repulsive opinions.

I admit it. I consider Hugo Schwyzer an irrelevant footnote because he has absolutely nothing to do with or say about my experience. And that’s me missing the point. Because part of his so-called fame was built on the backs of women of color (and by shaming them and getting them blacklisted). So there it is again. And it pisses me off that he got away with it. And it pisses me off that I was complicit, by default of privilege.

And it calls into question how white people are failing as allies in the struggles of people of color. And it stings with the truth of how insular mainstream feminism is, something well-explored in this post on The Frisky.

Allyship (being an ally), a subjective concept that plays out differently for everyone, culminates with the act of “showing up.” Showing up means very different things in the contexts of various situations but the general idea is that if shit goes down you have my back. The devil’s is the details and in the feminist sphere we’ve long struggled with engaging privileged white feminists to show up for women of color – in policy, academia, leadership and often in the media. The operative word in yesterday’s hashtag was solidarity, which is the meat and potatoes of being an ally. While it isn’t my responsibility, nor the responsibility of women who look like me, to coach white feminists on how to show up for us, I’ll hint that negligently perpetuating the systems that oppress us and then opting to be silent about your complicities is the opposite of solidarity.

What makes this nebulous relationship even murkier is that women of color are inherently responsible for honoring the implicit sodality between women. In January of 2008, long-time feminist activist Gloria Steinem called for women of color to vote their gender and support Hillary’s bid for president because, according to her, “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” Melissa Harris-Perry consequently intellectually annihilated heron “Democracy Now,” but her assertion sets a piss poor example for feminists who admire her wisdom and replicate her behavior. Especially because time and again when it’s time for white women to return the love, women of color are left hanging. The insidious misunderstanding around feminist solidarity is perpetuated and sustained because of the tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done; this is otherwise known as self-justification bias. And then your justification is further confirmed by using a selective filter to see a reality that matches your interpretations – none of which forces you to own your shit.

Because traditional feminism is not inherently intersectional and its principles have been known to preserve implicit biases, it is the onus of white feminists to shrug the cloak of privilege and “lean into” discomfort. That is, speak the fuck up. Even if your platform doesn’t traditionally address issues of race (except perhaps in the instance that it incentivizes clicks or benefits you monetarily) you can name the issue, acknowledge it happened and make an editorialized statement that validates the dehumanizing experience that women of color are having – like Bitch Magazine did phenomenally here.

So now what? And, again, I admit that I am not exactly sure what the answer is. What I’m sure of is that ignoring situations like this because I feel no common ground with it –and by “it” I mean sanctimonious, celebri-male-feminist brands — is a big part of the problem. I saw the headlines and I shrugged. I sort of felt like it was a long time coming. But I did not know the extent of the backstory that meant his “bonafides” came at the expense of pushing out women of color and their voices. He didn’t build this system that allowed it, but he took full advantage. And my ignorance to that system, or rather blinders of privilege, enabled it.

And let’s just take a moment to examine at what that privilege looks like. Stories about the wage gap, birth control, opting-out, breast feeding, sexual harassment, rape culture, and even slut-shaming get coverage from an almost singular perspective: white cisgender women. Case in point: Seth MacFarlane hosting the Oscars. The privilege here is two-fold:

  1. It enables white cisgender women to see their narratives mirrored back at them, creating a sense that theirs is the dominant or normal experience.
  2. It enables white feminists to continue to talk about inequities from a gender-only framework, as if gender operates in complete isolation from one’s race, ethnicity, and sexuality. This is the same thing as saying, “I don’t see color.” The reason you don’t think you “see” color is because your whiteness has been essentially nullified by that endless media mirror. You have seen your story reflected so many times that you see the race aspect as irrelevant! But it is only irrelevant to you because you have the privilege of ignoring it.

The fact that feminism is still so often exclusively framed as a story about (white) gender inequities, is not just a serious problem. It’s a complete failure. And someone like Schwyzer is just the opportunist to capitalize on it. But the story here is not really about him. It’s about the failures we’ve built into the system that is supposed to be about dismantling all this racist, patriarchal bullshit.

And until we get mad about that — all of us — it’s not going to change.

5 thoughts on “Memo to white feminists re: Hugo Schwyzer

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