‘We may be equal but some of us are more equal than others’: Unpacking privilege within organising and safe spaces
By Amanda Hodgeson
I was not able to attend the women’s march on 1 August 2018. I was, as my friend Sheena so aptly pointed out, preparing for a different kind of march, a march towards independence as I packed up my home of the last 2 years. I suffered a great deal of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) when I poured over the pictures of the marches across most of Southern Africa. Protests are a very spiritual space for me. They are a space where I feel loved, held and heard. They feed my soul in ways I am unable to put nicely into words. But these protest spaces, and women’s organizing spaces in general often do not hold this same ‘safe space’ quality for all of us who identify as women.
A few of my friends on Facebook and Instagram posted a picture of a placard at the Women’s march in Cape Town that read “Cervix announcement: Fuck you”. I read it and thought yaaaaas kweeen!! Fuck right on off with your violence. One of the people who posted this placard was Haji Mohammed Dawjee, overall cutie, journalist and author of the brilliant Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a Brown Woman in a White South Africa. Haji, like me, was pretty chuffed with this poster. Someone on her Facebook commented that the message on the placard was trans-exclusionary. I was taken aback by this comment because it never crossed my mind that this poster was/could be read as trans-exclusionary. But of course it wouldn’t, because I am not trans and that affords me the kind of privilege that means that unless something is blatantly transphobic ie. trans women are not real women, then I am not automatically going to think about the inclusiveness of a something at a women’s march or in women’s organizing. I have mulled over this comment for weeks now and the more I think about it, the more I am unable to find words that articulate how I feel about the statement ‘cervix announcement: fuck you’ being considered trans-exclusionary. Or maybe it is not that I cannot find the words, maybe it is that I am afraid to voice an opinion that might not have been able to shed itself of the privilege it carries as a woman who is not trans in a space that very often is not just trans exclusionary, but blatantly transphobic.
Haji has been braver than I have been and has written an article on this Facebook post and subsequent comment called Cis Sense and Sensibility where she says ‘talking about the differences between cis women and trans women – when done right – isn’t transphobic.
Her article, and ‘the comment’ (now it sounds like there is dread music playing in the background every time I say this) have stirred a lot in me, a lot of feelings and a lot of questions.
Firstly, this idea of talking, in the women’s and or feminist movement, about anything really, not just the differences between cis and trans experience. Who gets to talk? Who must listen? The assumption is that because men have been eliminated from the space, all women have an equal platform to speak. Speaking from experience, having been a part of both the women’s and the feminist movement, this is not true. This is far from true. We may all be women identifying but we are not all equal my friend. As someone once said ‘we may be equal but some of us are more equal than others’. There are those of us who consistently get/take up more space than others. We are afforded the opportunity to do this because of the way we articulate feminist politic, because of the number of book/papers we have published, because of our race, because of our shade of brown, because of who our freedom fighter parents are, because of how recognized we are by the media, because we are cis or because we are trans (mostly because we are cis), because of a host of reasons that are linked to a host of things related to race, gender and class privilege. So, this idea that ‘we must talk’…this needs interrogating.
We have identified and interrogated the privileges we have been afforded and not afforded by the general public, but we are less willing to speak about the privileges we are afforded (by the very structures hopefully work to dismantle) in the spaces we organize in.
Haji also speaks about the privilege afforded to trans women by a world that views, or has in the past viewed them, as male. She posits that its by virtue of this privilege, that has carried through, that trans women are able to very openly and publicly (more openly than trans men) criticize and demand entry into previously female only spaces. The way we understand privilege is also something that I have thought a lot about since the Facebook comment (forget not the dread music). It’s very easy, or perhaps its more accurate to say simplistic, to assume that trans women have been afforded (wanted or not) male privilege by the broader society. It’s more difficult to grapple with and interrogate the experiences of people perceived as male who do not perform a toxic masculinity, or whatever society deems as masculinity at all. We cannot call this privilege surely? Not when we know what machismo does to male perceived bodies that are seen to be ‘wasting’ their so-called ‘masculinity’.
But another thing about privilege is that it’s not fixed. Even when we are denied privilege by the ‘greater public’ there are other places that we can find it, there are other places we do find it. I go back here to my point about not all women being equal in the movement. The same is true for all movements mobilizing for the freedom and autonomy of key/marginalized populations. Heteronormative-capitalist-white supremacist-patriarchy is a sneaky fucking devil and it pops up even in the spaces that are actively fighting to dismantle it. Ask lesbians who have been silenced by heterosexual women in the women’s movement, ask black women who have been silenced by white women in the feminist movement, ask queer women who have been silenced by gay men (both black and white) in the LGBTIQ movement, ask trans women who have been silenced by cis women in the women’s movement. Ask poor black trans and cis women who have been silenced by black middle class trans and cis women. Ask bisexual women who have been silenced by lesbian women in the LGBTIQ movement.
Is ‘cervix announcement: fuck you’ trans-exclusionary? I think it can be. But it also doesn’t have to be. I think the context under which it was said helps determine which side of the coin this placard falls on.
We have identified and interrogated the privileges we have been afforded and not afforded by the general public, but we are less willing to speak about the privileges we are afforded (by the very structures hopefully work to dismantle) in the spaces we organize in. Even if we admit to having them there seems to be a very big disconnect in grappling with these privileges, by anyone, who identifies any which way. Maybe it’s because we don’t know what we mean by grappling. Maybe we think that grappling means having all the answers and behaving in ways that mean you are never again accused of being fucky/phobic. But I think grappling with privilege is the same as living a feminist life. It doesn’t mean being a perfect person, it means being intentional about your values and being introspective and aware when you veer off the beaten path and always making your way back.
So back to the comment! Is ‘cervix announcement: fuck you’ trans-exclusionary? I think it can be. But it also doesn’t have to be. I think the context under which it was said helps determine which side of the coin this placard falls on. If it’s being used as a qualifier of womanhood it is both exclusionary and transphobic. If it was written by a person with a cervix (because not all people who have a cervix identify as women) who is giving a big middle finger to the patriarchy for all its fuckiness (experienced by a myriad of bodies) then it need not be exclusionary.
Activist spaces can be brutal, they very often are, for very many a body. It is very hard for us to trust, let alone mobilize with people who are not in the exact same class, race, sexual orientation and gender identity boxes we are in because it means interrogating things in us that we are only comfortable interrogating in everyone else who is not us. Instead of grappling with, we defend and attack because, among a host of other reasons, if we are not seen as perfect activists then all our work is erased. We as people are erased.
We need to do better. If we are going to do the work of dismantling the systems that extinguish us as easily as a thumb putting out a flame on a candle, then we need to be willing to honestly interrogate how these very systems have reproduced themselves in our own bodies and spaces. Mommy says charity begins at home, and siblings, we have been neglecting to see and sweep heteronormative-capitalist-white supremist- patriarchy out of our own homes. And I mean the whole thing. We need to sweep out the whole thing, not just the pieces that afford you the least privilege.
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