Tag Archives: intersectionality

Why do so many progressives always fall short on mental health?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

So many of us walk the tightrope day by day.

One day soon it might just all go wrong – a friend too many dies, or we lose a job we liked, or the credit card maxxes out on us. Depression – if you have it – is always there a bit, but sometimes it kicks in when bad things happen.

That’s the way it’s been with me. There was a patch a few years ago when I found myself getting off buses in the middle of a journey to go sit on steps in the city and cry, but after a while that stopped.

Or it might just be the weather in our head – today is shiny, but tomorrow who knows?

A lot of people live with varying degrees of clinical depression, and about two thirds of those are women. Many people live with OCD, or are bipolar, or have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. There’s nothing to stop anyone having more than one mental illness. Entirely separate from all of that, there are all the people who are not neurotypical, whose wiring is a bit different; there’s nothing to stop any of them being depressed or whatever as well.

So many of us have bad days, or weeks, or months. And they’re not made better by people being clueless about it who ought to know better. The only reason why I don’t complain more about the failings of the Left, the women’s movement, and the LGBT community on mental health is that mainstream society is amazingly even worse.

Most of us lie about our state of mind all the time because we don’t want people to know. Less than perfect mental health is still a stigma, even if we are less liable to be locked up for it and forced into treatment. It means that anything we say or create will be treated as less valuable, less likely to be true.

We try to pass, we use the language that hurts us, and we try not to let people see us wince when we say someone else is ‘crazy’. It’s very hard not to do it, partly because we are trying to pass and partly because the language we grew up with has so many value judgements implicit in it; sanity is one of the things it assumes to be good, and less than perfect sanity to be bad.

No one has to tell other people that they have a problem and in fact, the way society is constructed, it’s probably sensible only to admit to depression when it gets so bad that you can’t function, or when the drugs you are already taking for it stop working and you have to find something else that works. Still, there’s something quite liberating about owning up to the identity.

Part of being depressed is a sense of never being good enough; it’s like impostor syndrome except that you’re faking it every day about everything, not just having nightmares about exams or making deadlines. At least if you tell other people, if you tell yourself, that that’s just the depression speaking and not the truth, you can start to accept that actually you’re not as bad as all that.

It’s like all the other identities that it’s sensible to hide in a society that quite likes us to lie; to not raise issues that make it harder for the majority to think well of themselves. If we can function, some people say, why can’t we just not mention private issues like mental health? Just like they used to say about sexuality, or like they still say about gender identity issues.

Do we have to flaunt our depression or our OCD, wear it like a badge of honour? They say. And sometimes it’s the sane being irritable and sometimes it’s other people worrying that if they are too sympathetic, the sane people might notice them. Most of the time it is not conscious bullying; it’s just people coasting along with the way things are, and not noticing the privilege that gives them, for the time being.

Most of the time I personally function pretty well – I write books and I write poems and I write articles. I don’t think that ‘coping privilege’ is actually a thing but I can understand how some people think it might be, and even use it as a stick with which to beat people who acknowledge poor mental health but somehow manage to get things done in spite of it.

They’re not inside my head, and they don’t know how hard it is for me, a lot of the time – but then, maybe it is harder for them, and I have no idea just how much harder. Worrying that I have coping privilege is just something else for my anxieties to focus on.

But what is common, and unforgivable, is for people in progressive communities to bully people over their mental health, in a way they never would about race, class, sexuality, gender identity or visible disability (though actually progressives can be pretty shit about that when you point out that their shiny new office has terrible mobility access – even in 2014…) I’ve seen a progressive organisation decide someone was guilty of an expellable offence because he had declared his mental health status and suddenly his guilt could be assumed without motive or opportunity – because his alleged crimes no longer had to make sense.

I’ve also seen it happen online to a number of women who have spoken publicly about their struggles with various mental health conditions. I’ve avoided giving specific examples here because they’d either be uselessly vague or else instantly recognisable to an extent that would be abusively intrusive.

If you know someone has depression, or whatever else, it might not be a good idea to tell them that their ideas are rubbish, that their behaviour is contemptible. Particularly if you are exaggerating, or angry, or just disagreeing with them – because the trouble is, their illness will probably go along with whatever you say.

Telling someone who has depression that they are worthless is an exploitation of the advantage better mental health gives you. It’s an exercise of privilege and it is potentially an act of violence. You are risking precipitating a spiral of self-hatred and self-harm.

Mental health is an area of intersectional oppression, like many others; don’t knowingly harm people. You’re probably doing it anyway but you can at least try not to – it’s just a matter of thinking about it. I used not to but, since my own really bad time, I have at least made the effort.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist. 

For more information and support on depression, or any other mental health condition please visit the Mental Health Foundation or Mind. For advice on staying mentally healthy online, see our article Eight ways to keep yourself sane on Twitter, by psychiatrist Anna Fryer.

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The ‘Model Minority’, like the ‘Virgin/Whore’ dichotomy, is man-made

Most East Asian people living in the West are aware that we are considered a “model minority”. Asian children study hard, we are told. They do well in exams. They shine in Maths and Science classes. They go on to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers, excelling in their chosen field and enjoying high levels of success. Racial discrimination? Nonsense — everyone knows that if you work hard enough, there’s nothing stopping you from achieving just as much as white people do.

Right?

Well, no. In study after study, the idea that East Asians have somehow managed to rise above racial oppression through hard work and a positive attitude has been debunked. The media may squawk about the achievements of East Asian students yet, when entering the workforce, Asian American women will make 40-50% less than their similarly qualified white classmates. In the UK, East Asians are rendered nearly invisible, with TV and theatre providing extremely limited opportunities for actors, other than painfully stereotyped, minor characters.

Among the Asian American community the poverty rate is 12.1 per cent, compared to the white community’s 9.9 per cent, and rising to 27.4% among specific South-East Asian groups – a fact that is conveniently ignored by those seeking to uphold Asian people as a shining example of success and sprinkle us with empty praise.

So where does the model minority myth come from? As it turns out, it was deliberately and carefully created by politicians in the 1960s, as a direct response to the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which was taking large strides towards combatting racial discrimination and segregation. The message was unambiguous: “As a person of colour, you have only yourself to blame if you do not succeed. The Asian community succeeds through hard work, not by demanding political change. Why don’t you be more like them?”

Sadly, this campaign proved extremely effective and many in the Asian community actually believed in it, leading to the growth of offensive, anti-black sentiments, as in the infamous book The Triple Package by Amy Chua, where she argues that inherent characteristics determine the success of different races, while ignoring structural inequalities.

Being a woman of colour, this tactic of ‘divide and rule’ to uphold oppression is strikingly familiar to me, and is a perfect example of white supremacy taking lessons from the patriarchy. The concept of ‘good minorities’ and ‘bad minorities’ echoes the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy, where ‘good girls’ are distinguished from ‘bad girls’, and taught to fear and despise them.

‘Good girls’ do not wear revealing clothing. ‘Good girls’ do not get drunk. ‘Good girls’ do not sleep around. ‘Good girls’ are self-sacrificing and self-effacing. In return, ‘good girls’ are promised the approval of men. Men will respect you, they say. Men won’t hit you, or rape you, or kill you. No, that only happens to ‘bad girls’. ‘Bad girls’ who sleep around, who get drunk, who lead men on. ‘Bad girls’ were asking for it. What did they expect? They have no one to blame but themselves.

When it comes to female success in the workplace, the same tactic rears its ugly head. The figure of the ‘strong, independent woman’ is held up as an example to all women, a promise of what women could achieve, if only we could be more like them. Observe Sheryl Sandberg, witness Marissa Mayer. These women negotiate, they take opportunities, they demand a seat at the table. Countless books have been written about how female leaders can succeed; too many ignore the need to demolish discrimination and barriers that hold back all women, and focus instead on what the individual woman should do to circumvent these obstacles while leaving them perfectly in place for the next woman to navigate.

Needless to say, the concepts of the ‘good girl’ and the ‘strong, independent woman’ are just as flawed as the construct of the model minority. You may be wildly successful in your career, even become the highest paid woman in your field, but what you earn will still be a mere fraction of what your male counterpart does. Similarly, the most certain predictor of rape or male violence occurring lies with the attitudes and decisions of the perpetrator, and is not determined by what the victim is wearing, or how she is behaving.

These lies are an insidious tactic wielded by the white supremacist patriarchy, in an attempt to focus our attention away from structural inequality and towards individual responsibility. It strives to tear asunder the unity of the oppressed classes, encouraging us to blame one another for our own oppression. It fosters antagonism between people of colour, dangles the promise of white acceptance over the heads of East Asians in exchange for their complicity in maintaining anti-black oppression, teaches girls to view their sisters with contempt, and tells successful women that women who do not rise to their level are simply not good enough. And while our attention and blame is focused within, the white supremacist patriarchy continues to thrive without.

The parallels between these tactics are stark and for me show why we cannot compartmentalise sexism and racism, fighting one and then the other as if they were separate and distinct issues. White supremacy and patriarchy are embroiled in a nefarious alliance, feeding off and nourishing each other to uphold oppression. They are unified and, if we wish to combat racial and gender oppression, our efforts and solutions must be too.

Joy Goh-Mah is a feminist writer based in London. She blogs on issues related to feminism and race at Crates and Ribbons, and is a part of Media Diversified. Follow @CratesNRibbons.

Picture source.

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#GenderWeek: Class is to gender what a tube map is to London

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Is there anyone who lives in the world as a woman and a feminist who does not accept that there is such a thing as gendered oppression? That men, considered as a class, are involved or complicit in the doing down of women, considered as a class?

One of the things most self-defined radical feminists often seem to assume is that if they do not say this forcefully and often, no one else will notice this important truth. Indeed, they are so concerned to make the point that they end up ignoring, or treating as side issues, many other sorts of oppression, which many other women who are both radical and feminist take just as seriously as part of their feminist analysis and their feminist praxis. What is stigmatised as ‘liberal’ or ‘fun’ feminism is often nothing of the sort; it is a feminism committed to radical thought and action, which recognises multiple sources of the oppression of women, and tries to opt for a complexity and nuance that make effective action more, rather than less, possible.

The trouble with a statement like “men oppress women” is not that it is untrue. It is that it is a schematic and not a map; certainly not a detailed description of the territory or a universally reliable portrayal of how you get to your destination.

Often, a good schematic is all you need; the London tube map is a case in point. Yet, if you rely on it, you will rapidly find that some stations represented as closely adjacent are anything but and vice versa, or involve using lifts and tunnels for interchanges that take more time than expected. You need the schematic for some purposes and a reliable map for others; sometimes you need to just know the territory in order to find a hack, to find the actual quickest way.

We live in a society where oppression based on sex and gender is only one of an intersecting set of oppressions and discriminations. Class, race, sexuality, disability (both obvious and invisible), nationality, immigration status, and whether the sex you are assigned at birth correctly models your identity – these affect people in a variety of ways, and the policies and strategies we adopt have to reflect those complexities.

It is often destructive for, say, educated white middle class women to create policies on sex work without considering how they impact the lives of working class women of colour dealing with mental health issues or possible deportation. Ironically, protecting other women from exploitation by pimps and johns is not much help if it puts them in harm’s way from the equally male-dominated police, justice and immigration systems. A woman working in the financial services industry may unwittingly do vast harm to the interests of poorer women who need loans or mortgages – harm that has in part to do with the gender biases of banking, but also has to do with predatory late capitalism.

Almost all institutions, businesses and organs of the state are run by men, and to that extent are part of gender oppression – but those men are also mostly members of the locally dominant ethnic and religious group, are economically upper class, pass as straight and are able-bodied. Their gender is always relevant, but a struggle based on gender alone is not useful. There is a ‘liberal feminism’ worth fighting, and it is the one which regards gender and sex as so central that quite cosmetic changes will solve all our problems – you do not, for example, reform late capitalism by putting more women in boardrooms or the Cabinet, to be “the new boss, same as the old boss“.

Indeed, one of the things that has enabled capitalism to survive so many of the crises Marx, Lenin, Luxembourg and Goldman described and predicted is that it is endlessly self regenerating and adaptive; the ruling class has maintained a degree of identities through revolution and technological and demographic change by recruiting and co-opting.

A lot of the ‘radical feminist’ problem with trans women like me is based on a simplistic biological determinism – as if gender were purely socially constructed and yet, at the same time, a desire to oppress were written in our genes. Apart from the fact that this makes no logical sense, it ignores the fact that gender is a word with many overlapping meanings across a spectrum of usage, and that the biology of sex is by no means as simplistically binary as some people find it convenient to claim.

A real radicalism, to which feminism is central but which does not ignore the struggle for liberation from other oppressions, has to be suspicious of simple sloganistic formulae. The kyriarchy have proved endlessly supple and adaptive – able not only to survive but to continue to dominate; the struggle to overthrow it has to be at least as smart and perceptive.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

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A year in Black Feminism

It’s been an interesting year for black feminism, with a very current spotlight shone on black feminism as a political identity, and eagerness to openly discuss what this means. The sudden popularity of intersectionality has resulted in very public discussions of day to day manifestations of white supremacy, and honesty about structural racism and exclusion.

However, we have not come to this point without a great personal cost to the black women who have stuck their necks on the line to challenge the status quo. As the year draws to a close, I’d like to pay homage to some pivotal moments for black feminism in 2013.

Featured Image: Leyla Hussein on the Cruel Cut.

1. FGM hit the headlines

Daughters of Eve (Leyla Hussein, Nimko Ali and Sainab Abdi) is dedicated to end the practice of female genital mutilation, a practice that disproportionality affects women and girls from the African, Asian and Middle Eastern diaspora. In June of this year, Daughters of Eve teamed up with the NSPCC to launch a helpline to protect girls at risk from the abuse. In November, Leyla Hussein broadcast a powerful documentary about the abuse with Channel 4, entitled The Cruel Cut, taking FGM to the front of public consciousness. A Daughters of Eve’s petition, aimed at decision makers in the Home Office, is rapidly nearing the 100,000 signatures required to see the topic discussed in parliament.

2. Intersectionality went mainstream

Just a year ago, you’d be hard pressed to find an article discussing the personal impact of structural racism in the mainstream media. Now, an increasing number of women are redefining themselves as intersectional, as the broad church of feminism recognises a need to embrace a critical analysis that includes, but is not limited to, gendered oppression. 2013 saw high profile cases involving white female pop stars such as Lily Allen preaching feminism but using black women’s bodies to make a political point.

Earlier in the year, Mikki Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen trended on twitter, inadvertently serving as a tool for black women to air out some of the issues from years of putting up with racism and whiteness in feminist spaces. There is still a long way to go and much self-reflection to be had before all our feminisms are truly inclusive, but this year saw a tidal wave of change.

3. Muslim women said no to FEMEN

Topless Ukrainian group FEMEN bared their breasts in a number of protests this year, but their activism has been consistently marred by Islamophobic themes in their messaging. In May, FEMEN organised International Topless Jihad Day- a protest against what they called Islam’s mistreatment of women. But Muslim women swiftly bit back, culminating in a popular Facebook page called ‘Muslim Women Against FEMEN’. On the page, they said ‘We have had enough of western feminists imposing their values on us. We are taking a stand to make our voices heard and reclaim our agency.’ Then, in August, Tunisian FEMEN activist Amina Sbou left the group, telling the Huffington Post: “I do not want my name to be associated with an Islamophobic organisation.”

Muslim Women Against Femen

Image courtesy of Muslim Women Against Femen

4. Southall Black Sisters took on the UK Border Agency

For decades, Southall Black Sisters have worked with immigrant women escaping for abusive relationships, and their work recognises the impact political attitudes to immigration have on the lives of these women. This year state approved racial profiling resulted in document checks at tube stations. White men in uniforms yielded their power to stop and search anyone who looked vaguely ‘illegal’ – a physical act of othering that stoked racial tensions in a context where the likes of the EDL’s Tommy Robinson and UKIP’s Nigel Farage already get disproportionate airtime on our television screens. When a UKBA van parked up outside their office this year, Southall Black Sisters fought back with direct action, and when the Home Office launched its anti-immigrant ‘Go Home’ campaign, SBS organised a mass protest.

Feminist Times visits Southall Balck Sisters protest against current immigration policy. from Feminist Times on Vimeo.

5. Dark Girls premiered in the UK

Dark Girls, a US-based film about the impact of white supremacist beauty ideals on black and brown women and girls across the globe, was released. In September, Dr Jude Smith Rachele, CEO of Abundant Sun brought the film to the UK. The film’s premiere ignited conversations about the consequences of beauty ideals, even bringing a short discussion of the topic to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. For black women, Dark Girls stirred memories of shadeism in our own communities and the importance of principled resistance to toxic beauty ideals that were never meant for us in the first place.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is a black feminist writer and campaigner based in London. She blogs at http://renieddolodge.co.uk/ and tweets @renireni

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